"What about Lady Gaga?" one of the boys offered, when asked for suggestions for the protagonist of the story the class was making.
"She would be a great character," said the funny and talented teacher, Josh, "But she already exists in real life. We are going to be original and creative today."
And so began the two hour writing workshop at 826 Valencia, the children's writing and tutoring center co-founded by Dave Eggers in 2002. While Eggers, a former Salon.com editor known for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and McSweeney's, is no longer involved in the daily operations of this fantastic and inspiring place, his spirit and creativity linger on.
The need for a place dedicated to fostering children's creativity and improving writing skills to help them succeed in all subjects at school is felt profoundly these days. There are drastic cuts to funding for public education and class sizes are rapidly expanding. In an effort to improve the quality of public education, our schools' curricula have been adapting to standards based education, as legislated by No Child Left Behind. While standardization is aimed at improving the quality of all the public schools nationally to a minimum standard, an irrefutably good intent, a potential downside is that there may not be much room for creativity. But if we can make writing fun, we may be able to breed a new generation of writers.
826 Valencia is definitely fun. You enter the space through the Pirate Supply Store, the best place for San Francisco's pirate community to outfit itself, with striped shirts and tights, eye patches, rope, and just about everything else a pirate needs. The store's retail sales, along with donations, help support the free programs offered by 826 Valencia. The main space feels like a pirate's rec room, if there were such a thing. Behind red velvet curtains and up a tall wooden ladder are the behind the scene workers who, in the amazingly brief turn around time of two hours, turn the ideas of twenty or so school children into a book, printed, illustrated (live), and bound with individual endings and About the Author pages for each child.
I helped chaperone my daughter's second grade class to one of the workshops at 826 Valencia this week, and it was the most fun I have had on a fieldtrip, ever. I couldn't stop laughing.
Before the trip, I did not know how engaged the kids would be in the workshop. What happens to children's imaginations in the age of technology, where television, DVDs and Nintendo DS supply so many images? I worried that kids might no longer be able to dream up their own stories, fantasies, or worlds.
I needn't have worried. In a democratic, supportive and collaborative way, the facilitator reviewed the structure of a story (beginning, middle, end, with a protagonist and his side kick, and a villain) before drawing out the kids' ideas. He introduced the kids to the word "nemesis."
Votes were taken with a show of hands for each character and the story line, and with great speed and accuracy, but also with creativity, two other teachers, both named Laura, turned the kids' ideas into a coherent story. One of the Lauras, a great illustrator, interpreted the kids' ideas and descriptions into drawings (something like criminal suspect sketching, I guess) to illustrate the story.
The story was titled, "Ch'chair and the Escape from the Squeesquack Desert." The nemesis, it was decided, was the leader of the Ice People, who prevented Peanut Man and his sidekick, Porange (a pomegranate with a orange peel skirt) from moving beyond the boundaries of Squeesquack,the desert in which they lived. The leader's name was Ch'chair, but he was often called Keith. (These kids and their free imaginations!) Ch'chair and his Ice People wanted to have all of the peanuts from the peanut trees that encircled the desert.
After the story was 75% complete, the kids split up into tables to work on their individual endings to the story. There was a great variety in how each child thought the story should play out:
"They got rid of the Ice People by melting them."
"They did their plan, and it worked. Porange went on her side and rolled away, plus Peanut Man did that too. The Ice People were sad and Squeesquack never had a problem again."
During the creation of the story, the workshop was punctuated by the disembodied voice of Mrs. Blue, the Editor. Her raucous voice periodically interrupted the workshop with incantations to hurry up, to meet the deadline. The students worked hard on their endings hoping to please the finicky editorial eye of Mrs. Blue. I hope you get to visit 826 to experience her cranky self in person.
The workshop we attended included volunteers from Slippery Rock college in Western Pennsylvania, helping out at the program on their Spring break. The place is staffed largely by volunteers, some of whom are professional writers. There is an afterschool homework help program for enrolled students and Sunday drop-in tutoring open to all students, aged 6-18. There is also a multitude of writing workshops, including some for adults. The workshops are project-based and run the gamut from cartooning, college entrance essay writing, journalism, SAT prep, and starting a ‘zine. Here is a link to a video clip which offers a glimpse into some of the 826 Valencia programs.
If I were a kid, I would be [Lady] Gaga over this place. 826 Valencia has expanded nationally, with chapters in NYC, Los Angeles, Michigan, Seattle, Chicago and Boston, so you may find another location in your neck of the woods. Programs like this will hopefully keep creativity alive, even in the face of standards based teaching. If my daughter's class was any indication, these programs will produce a new crop of writers who will pen stories about Ice People in the Desert and other incongruous ideas, and expand their imaginations beyond their television horizons of Sponge Bob and Harry Potter.
What types of programs do your communities have to promote a love of learning and creativity in school children?
© 2010 Linda Shiue