We’re currently accepting new students, ages 6-14, to our free After-School Writing Lab! Questions? Ask Tyler.

826DC and Schools In Need—How Do We Help?

By Olive Sherman , 826DC Intern, January 2017

The only time I’ve ever read a first-hand account of a black high schooler getting tailed in a Bloomingdales was at the SEED School through 826DC, and that seems like a problem. I read all the time about Prom in high school and applying to college, and first kisses, but never about things like the dangers of the foster care system or experience in homelessness. I worry it’s because we say the kids with those experiences can’t write well.

In school we learn that good writing is complex sentence structure and correct spelling and verb/noun agreement, but in a lot of ways I think history tells us otherwise. The students I’ve been working with this month through 826DC think they’re bad writers because these technicalities are challenging for them, but good writing really only needs intention and meaning, and they all do that. I want my students to read Hemingway who doesn’t use conjunctions, or Eileen Myles who “misuses” the comma, or Lydia Davis whose structure is short and sweet and to the point. I think they’ll see they have a lot more in common with the canon than they realize.

It’s hard to believe your writing is good and to believe in your own voice when everything you’re writing is for a grade that will (seemingly) impact your whole future. The purpose of 826DC is different from a teacher’s purpose because 826DC wants students to enjoy writing and take pride in it. To students from challenging backgrounds, who have gone through English programs that are not helpful, who don’t consider English their first language, or who speak English at home that sounds different, we say write down your stories and we’ll publish them in a real book. 826DC conveys a different message, one that listens to and validates students’ life experiences. We assure them that they are smart and they are important and should continue to speak up, that the message is more important than the medium.

We do not, however, pretend that writing is easy. It’s not. Over the course of this internship I’ve watched students in grades 1-12 struggle with focus—though given the circumstances (time of day, insufficient amount of time, noisiness), it might not be a testament to their own ability so much as to their environment. Many students at in-schools will not write in the time allotted because the challenge of writing seems insurmountable. The process of coming up with words in your head, then switching to better words, then structuring and restructuring sentences so the words say exactly what you want them to is so unbelievably challenging and slow and painful, and it’s too bad no one ever acknowledges it as such. Feeling like something is difficult for only you can be incredibly discouraging. 826DC doesn’t let students think they’re alone in the pain of writing; it only reminds them of the pay off, of the prospect of being a published author at ten-years-old!

Because we go to schools where writing and life is challenging and publish the students’ work, 826DC amplifies marginalized and undervalued voices. We encourage mistakes, and we don’t give up on writers who are afraid of writing. We are supportive. If you have something to say, SAY IT! We want to hear it. We’re going to help.

Olive Sherman is in her first year of school at Oberlin College in the Buckeye state of Ohio. She is a prospective English major, and in high school she was The Editor of her student newspaper. She is from Santa Monica, CA and sometimes she doesn’t know her Left from her Right.

The 826DC Way

By Olive Sherman, 826DC Intern, January 2017

The first time I set foot in the Venice location of 826LA, I immediately felt cool. It was in an old police station, and what might have been bullet holes decorated the door that led to the room where my workshop would be held. I was twelve-years-old, and I marveled at what was written on the chalkboards and how clever that was—this was before blackboards started appearing everywhere, I think. They made their own giant calendar on the wall. I saw pictures of kids holding up books they were published in, and I was so surprised.

When we left, my dad and I couldn’t stop talking about that space, how we couldn’t classify it and how that made us love it even more. The room itself, with its many sunny windows and its bygone schoolhouse décor, was all my father, an architect, needed to know that 826LA was a special place. “But Miss O, can’t you tell that cool stuff happens there?” he persists.

A few years down the line, we learned that 826LA belonged to 826 National. We visited the 826 Valencia’s Pirate Store and learned about its history and the author-trickster Dave Eggers. At 826 Valencia, my mom, the other architect, fell in love, and she told all her LA friends visiting San Francisco about the writing tutoring center-turned-tourist attraction.

In our nation’s capital, 826DC Tivoli’s Astounding Magic Supply Company, which resides in the old Tivoli Theatre, is no exception to 826 National’s rule of surprising excitement. The Tivoli, an Italian Renaissance Revival structure built in 1924, was considered the most elegant movie house in the DC area in its day. Its detailing—the two illuminated TIVOLI signs, an ornate overhang for the ticket booth, classical murals and detailing on the interior ceiling—remain intact for 826DC students and volunteers today. It makes being at 826DC feel like a secret treat, to be in a beautiful old space where you humbly work on writing that could be revolutionary because look at where you’re writing at it.

I climb a regal staircase to get to 826DC’s storefront and office space. There’s something about climbing, about obscurity, that makes spaces more fun and exciting. When I climb the 826DC steps, my imagination goes all over the place. All at once, I’m going to my seat at the opera or up to a tree house, or to the dressing room of a ballerina. I’m going to a magic store, but also I’m going somewhere else that makes me feel free and new and creative. On that staircase, I transition from the busy and grungy outside world to a wonderland.

At the top of the stairs is Tivoli’s Astounding Magic Supply Company, 826DC’s storefront that inspires creativity and introduces students and passersby to the undefined space that 826DC is. The store, DC’s “only illusionarium and de-lux haberdashery” sells everything a magician might need to hone their craft. From magic wands to juggling balls to an antidote for stage fright, there’s great stuff in stock for students and anyone else interested to peruse and purchase (and chuckle at). The magic store conveys 826DC’s whimsy and humor. It establishes 826DC as a place where people are interested in wacky ideas and alternate realities, because what is silliness if not just reality?

I pass through the store to get into 826DC’s office/recreational space. I can enter either by a small secret door that I open by tilting the head of a puppet, or through a door thinly-disguised as a fun-house mirror. Maybe it goes without saying that these doors act as a kind of portal, and their secrecy only adds to this magical quality, where knowing the key to the riddle gets you into a room of magenta and teal. It makes the space feel more precious because the greater public has not solved the puzzle, but you have.

The office space retains the Corinthian detailing from the original interior of the old Tivoli Theatre. Leafy cornices line parts of the ceiling and atop each dark wooden column are curly-decorated capitals painted white. The Italian Renaissance Revival contrasts with other more modern aspects of the room—the northern and southern walls are painted magenta, while the eastern and western walls are painted teal blue. A hallway that leads to more office space is the color of a dandelion or a yellow raincoat. Youthful color choices amplify the sentiments of 826DC’s commitment to a younger generation that might otherwise be drowned out in a space that holds antique architecture so dear.

I work with 826DC students at four big wood tables, and we sit in metal farmhouse chairs like those you would find at a fancy delicatessen in Brooklyn, NY. Books, of course, line the walls, and those most prominently displayed are the ones written by 826DC students themselves. One room gives way to a lounge-y space with a couch and plush green chairs. “Look at how comfortable our space is!” yells the furniture. “Look at how we are a visual symbol of a supportive environment. Let us cradle you, feel free to be comfortable and take your coat off,” it all says. This is a safe space.

When I leave 826DC, I know it is a place where we do a different kind of work than what we do for our classes or for our big bosses or for our editor. 826DC’s walls scream loud, “THIS WORK IS FOR YOU!” Here, there are no grades and there are no tests, but there is work, and it will be hard and fun and most of all warm. Here, everyone grows.

Olive Sherman is in her first year of school at Oberlin College in the Buckeye state of Ohio. She is a prospective English major, and in high school she was the editor of her student newspaper. She is from Santa Monica, CA and sometimes she doesn’t know her Left from her Right.

March Volunteer of the Month: Joel Goldberg

There’s no stopping Joel, he is a volunteering machine. He volunteers at both on-site programs like field trips and workshops and off-site programs like our In School Writing, Editing, and Publishing program. He’s active in our ongoing Teen Writing Lab workshop and the Tubman Newspaper Club. He ALSO volunteers in our magic shop! How he does it all, we’ll never know.

We asked Joel to tell us more about his experiences with 826DC.

1. How long have you volunteered with 826DC, and how did you get involved?
I started training in June 2016, then volunteered for the first time in July. My cousin works as a full-time teacher at an elementary school in D.C. I asked her if she knew of any organizations where I could volunteer as a tutor, and she suggested 826.

2. What will you take away from your time volunteering with 826DC? OR What has been your most memorable moment while volunteering with 826DC?
I can answer both questions at once. My most memorable moment was the time I led my own Saturday writing workshop. I worked hard with Neekta to put together a lesson plan that I thought would engage students. My take away from the experience was that young people are so inspiring. I thought, at best, the students would go through the motions, itching to get out of class. Instead, they were really involved and attentive.

 I couldn’t believe how excited and eager some of the students were to participate. One student, who showed up late for the workshop and seemed pretty bored, came up to me after class and told me he loved it. A dad who was in attendance asked how he could get his son more involved. That was an amazing experience all-around.

3. Considering you volunteer in so many different areas, which one is your favorite and why?
 It’s a tie between the Saturday workshops and Newspaper Club at Tubman Elementary. I like the workshops because they give everyone, both teachers and students, the chance to show off their creativity. The Newspaper Club is fun because it gives me a chance to visit a well-known school in my own neighborhood of Columbia Heights. It’s also sort of meditative to sit around in a circle and pick apart newspaper articles. The students’ personalities shine when they explain what interests them in the news. Some are funny, others are outspoken, some are thoughtful or insightful. It’s all good!