826DC, addressing a critical issue: writing help for Washington students

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 5, 2010; C01

The drinks are flowing and so are the moustaches.

Michael Phelan's 'stache is formidable (neat, discreet), but so is Oliver Tuesday's (scraggly, scrappy), whose real name is Oliver Uberti, but there's also an Oliver Munday, and when you get 18 or 20 writerly types in the same Dupont Circle bar, someone is going to make a nerdy play on words.

Everyone is playing Moustache Family Feud on this Monday night; Tom Selleck edges out Burt Reynolds for handsomest moustache, and no one can believe that Martin Luther King Jr. was absent from the "wise moustache" category.

"He has," someone shouts, less than soberly, "the wisest moustache I have ever knoooown!"

Later, good news: The fast 'n' furious hair-growing of the Moustache-a-thon fundraiser participants, who took weekly pledges for their hirsute efforts, has resulted in nearly $8,000.

You hear "fundraiser," you don't think "facial hair," just like when you hear "writing center," you don't think "unbridled zaniness!" (Or maybe you do. Congrats!) But things have been known to happen when the beneficiary in question is 826, a national organization dedicated to providing students with free writing help.

There will be whimsy. There will be, later this summer, a "Museum of Unnatural History" store exhibiting, potentially, Hopeless Diamonds and Apathetic Wood -- the distant cousin of Petrified Wood, natch. There will be sightings of the blessed Dave Eggers, the 826 founder, the writer better known for his 2000 memoir "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," a smooth blend of sentiment and sarcasm that made hundreds of thousands of creative writing students go, "Marry me, Dave Eggers!" and then "No one deserves to be that talented! Dave Eggers, I hate you."

826 is coming to Washington.

'It had to feel not like school'

Once upon a time in 2002, Eggers was about to publish his second book, and he was living in San Francisco, and he had a lot of friends who were teachers. "They would talk," he says, "about how keeping up with the writing of 170 students was getting unmanageable -- about how if they could clone themselves, they could meet student needs."

Eggers had already founded the ragtag publishing house McSweeney's, as well as its oddball humor-site counterpart, McSweeney's Internet Tendency. Together with Nínive Calegari, a 10-year veteran public school teacher, he decided to also found 826 Valencia -- named for its location in the Mission District -- a drop-in tutoring center initially staffed with Eggers's creative-type friends. The landlord informed them that in order to comply with the address's commercial designation, Eggers needed to also sell something.

He opened (but of course) a pirate supply store. Last year it took in $240,000, which is respectable when you consider the stock: designer glass eyes, Scurvy Begone, mermaid repellent.

"The concept had to be absurd and unexpected," Eggers says. "It had to feel not like school: weird and fun and offbeat, and unhinge their minds a little bit."

Eggers grew up painstakingly diagramming sentences in his grade school English classes; he wanted his organization to speak to the kids "who might think that writing is a chore" but could be persuaded otherwise by the presence of neon eye patches and a giant vat of lard.

Behind the store was the tutoring center and, in the next several years, the 826 franchise expanded to seven locations, each with their own, quirky storefront, across the country. Last academic year, more than 4,000 tutors worked with more than 22,000 students in various workshops and in-school projects. In a national survey of 826's students, 79 percent reported that attending a single workshop at an 826 center had made them find writing more interesting.

"There's such a complex history with the teaching of writing," says Kathleen Yancey, the director of Florida State University's graduate program in rhetoric and composition, and a writing instruction expert who is familiar with 826's work. "It's usually been paired with reading -- they're two sides of the same literary coin -- but reading has always gotten more attention."

In classrooms, there's an impulse to teach writing as if it were rigid and rule-based, says Carol Jago, the president of the National Council of Teachers of English. But "it's not about meeting all of the things that appear on a scoring guide," Jago says. "It's about creating things that someone wants to read."

Fundamentally, she says, "what 826 has done right is treated students like writers."

Capitol Letters

While the 826 model was expanding, scooping up innovation nods along the way -- Time named Eggers one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2004; in 2008 he was awarded the TED Prize -- across the country, in 2008, three young Washingtonians were lamenting the District's performance in an analysis by Education Week. The 2008 survey ranked the city as having the lowest national reading levels (though, to be fair, it only compared Washington with other states and not with other urban areas).

Kira Wisniewski, a former journalism major who now works for the National Women's Studies Association, had previously volunteered with 826 Chicago and dreamed of something similar happening locally. But 826 wasn't currently expanding, and so instead Wisniewski and crew decided to call their group Capitol Letters.

A lawyer friend helped them draft bylaws, they acquired a $30,000 grant from the Mayor's Office on Latino Affairs, and then they flew by the seat of their pants. They reached out to D.C. public school teachers, held dozens of writing seminars and worked with students from Cardozo High School to produce a student-written book about life in Washington. Lacking office space, they mostly camped out at the Shaw library and other neighborhood centers, and they kept needling 826 National about the possibility of joining up.

"I would say we were dating," says Wisniewski, "but the other person didn't want to make it formal."

"They had pulled off an incredible amount of student programming on a shred of a budget," says Calegari, now chief executive of 826 National. "They were going to succeed with or without us." The group finally accepted Capitol Letters as an official branch, 826DC, in November 2009.

What 826 provides is the fairy dust of name recognition.

"Our orientations have gotten so much bigger" since the involvement became official, Wisniewski says. "I have to shut down the sign-ups and cap off attendance to 70."

Naomi Ayala, 826DC's executive director, reports that individual donations have drastically increased since the announcement. She has been able to hire two additional staff members and plans to expand the group's services.

Recently, 826DC held a public reading for its second volume of student-produced work in a nearly full auditorium on U Street NW. "Get Used to the Seats: A Complete Survival Guide for Freshmen," had a forward by Spike Jonze and pieces by more than 50 students from Cardozo and Woodrow Wilson high schools.

"Writing was not what I would do a lot; I was basically athletic," says Ivan Ango, who spoke no English when his family emigrated from Cameroon during his freshman year and whose piece outlines those struggles. "But this has made me feel good, like I'm finally mastering the language." He'll attend James Madison University this fall.

"My grammar and vocabulary have increased on a multitude of levels," says Sean Collins, who received a scholarship to Norfolk State University and credits 826DC with his successful application essays. "See?" he wiggles his eyebrows. "I never would have used 'multitude' before."

What's in store?

But what about the store?

Though 826DC has been part of the national group for nearly six months, it has still lacked the office space to implement many of the programs it would like to. Ayala conducts business out of her apartment or a nearby coffee shop.

The hallmark of the 826 brand is the storefront that every visitor must walk through before reaching the tutoring center beyond.

San Francisco's pirate store was followed by the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. (photon shooters, antimatter), Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair in Ann Arbor, Mich. (emoticon upgrades, "Is Your Little Sister a Robot" test kits), and the Echo Park Time Travel Mart in Los Angeles (motto: "Whenever you are, we're already then.").

After jettisoning the lumberjack theme that Eggers suggested -- "I've had the same idea for eight years," he says, disappointed -- 826DC settled on a theme that was appropriately Washington: a Museum of Unnatural History. It will open in August or September in a Columbia Heights space and will celebrate, according to the concept narrative, "the collective knowledge of plants and animals that has yet to be verified by scientific research, but is substantiated by haphazard observation, unchecked speculation, and creative inquiry."

The transformation of the space has been accomplished mostly through donation of time and skills. The design team is spearheaded by volunteers Minh Le, who works in education policy, and Oliver Uberti, a design editor for National Geographic magazine. "We're thinking of doing something about precious stones," says Uberti, who spent several afternoons wandering around the National Museum of Natural History with Minh as research for the store. "Instead of 'precious stones,' we might have 'worthless stones' or maybe 'stones that are precious only to Frank -- like the things he collected on a vacation.' "

Other potential hits: Evolutionary vitamins ("Take two a day for seven hundred epochs as directed by divinity or in order to evolve") and cans of Primordial Soup.

The storefront -- along with being an income generator -- is a way to draw in students by suggesting that this writing experience will not involve diagramming sentences.

"I want them to come away with a feeling of wonder," Le says. But more than that, "I like the idea of tying the idea of history to the science of creative writing. Archaeologists finds little bits of evidence -- a bone here, a fragment there -- and then try to build a narrative off of it. That's what the act of creating looks like."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company