Learning First Alliance

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Every Child a Writer: An Interview with Best-Selling Author Dave Eggers

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Dave Eggers found sudden and early fame when his 2000 Memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, quite nearly won the Pulitzer Prize. Since then, he has produced a prodigious body of work in both fiction and non-fiction, cementing his position as one of the nation's best young writers.

Eggers has also made a name for himself among public educators by founding and promoting 826 National, aeggers.jpg network of 8 urban writing programs that offer tutoring to thousands of American students.

Recently, while fighting off a nasty infection, Eggers generously made time to tell me about the program, his strategy for motivating reluctant writers, and his plan to advocate for public school teachers.

Over the next week, Public School Insights will publish the interview in several installments. In today's installment, Eggers describes 826 National, its use of community resources, and its collaboration with public schools in the San Francisco Bay area.

One notable feature of the 826 Valencia tutoring center in San Francisco's mission district pretty well encapsulates some of the program's most creative and successful strategies: Program staff run a pirate supply store out of the same storefront where they've installed the tutoring center. At the store, they sell peg legs, eye patches, replacement eyeballs and Quarterly.jpganything else a self-respecting urban buccaneer cannot do without. The unconventional storefront serves as a valuable link to the community, drawing in passers by who often sign up as tutors. It also sends a message to participating students that the process of writing can be fun and liberating rather than dreary and deadening.

As you'll learn from the interview, it's the strong connections with community and frequently off-beat strategies for motivating reluctant writers that distinguish 826 National from many other tutoring programs.

Hear a recording of highlights from the interview [5 minutes]:

Or check out the transcript below:

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  Describe 826 National.

EGGERS:  It is a network of eight writing and tutoring centers in seven cities that really started back in 2002 with just after‑school tutoring and writing, and the strength of the volunteer corps just kept growing.  The programs grew from there, and then the idea was adapted in all these other cities.  It has just been a very loosely connected network where all of the cities served their neighborhoods, but we share ideas and certain practices and an overall commitment to the written word and helping students get better with their writing.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  Now, in the Mission District, it is connected with your publishing house, McSweeney's.  Could you describe how that works?

EGGERS:  In San Francisco, when we moved the publishing company back, we used to have this space where it was the tutoring up front and then the publishing company in the back.  So all of us could work there until about 3:00 when school let out, and then tutoring would take over the afternoon, as all of our editors and interns would go from their usual day. We would just split up accordingly and take turns working with any students who walked in.

Now McSweeney's is across the street from 826 here in San Francisco, because things kept growing, and they needed more space for the kids.  But it still has that connection with the publishing company where we share staff, volunteers, and interns and such.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  Do you think you are reaching a lot of students in the Bay Area?

EGGERS:  Yeah.  I think that they calculated the average is about 7,000 a year.  There are about 65 students who come in every day from 2:30 to 5:30, and we work with their teachers on what they need to concentrate on and what they need to work harder on...try to gear our efforts toward helping the teachers' existing lesson plans and what they are working on and when a student needs improvement.

And then this space is used throughout the day.  There's a field trip every day in the morning where kids come in and make a book-tell a story collectively.  It's created in sort of a book format.  It's bound, illustrated, and everything within two hours.  Then every evening, there's workshops from 6:00 to 8:00 which are all taught by volunteers and cover topics ranging from the very traditional, like poetry, haiku and such, to digital film making, writing for your pet, use of criticism-that class is called "This Class Sucks."

And because we've grown from a couple hundred tutors early on to 1,400 on our roster now, we just thought, "well, why don't we put this vast army to work in the schools?"  And so now I think the majority of the students we work with are in the schools themselves where the teacher will say that they are working on a certain project, and we send tutors in there at the teacher's behest to work with them under their guidance, and give more one‑on‑one attention to the students.  So, on any given day, there are a hundred tutors all over the city. 

The extraordinary thing about this program is that you are sending 1,400 tutors in the city.  So then it becomes very real.  I wanted everyone to sort of see things firsthand and see how many extraordinary things are happening in the classrooms and go beyond all of the judgments made by the media in general. They actually have a lot to counter that because the students are extraordinary, and they're bursting with inspiration, their energy, and they want to learn.  At every one of these schools that we work with, there's incredible things happening.

Most of our tutors can walk to the centers.  Most of the students that are coming in after school are walking to our centers, and parents clearly live in the neighborhood too.  So there is a tightening of the fabric-the lattice work of that neighborhood-when the kids see the tutors on the street, "Oh, yeah.  That's right.  That's that guy that helped me last week," and then might introduce them to their mom or dad who they are walking with or they run into each other at the park, and these tutors become really invested in the futures of all these kids that they pass by on the street.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  The fact that you're in a storefront doesn't hurt either.  You're not in a very anonymous big‑block building somewhere.

EGGERS:  We had to dedicate the first 400 feet of our space to a retail shop, and we decided on pirate supplies.  It's open to the public.  Thousands of people come in, any given week, most of them having no idea what we are or why we're there, why there's a Buccaneer wholesaler on Valencia Street.  And then they come in and then they look around, and then they see the student work, and right over one of the shelves, they can see all the students working.  So then they're more likely to buy a peg leg or some millet for their parrot or some lard or a replacement eyeball or one of the things that we sell.

It's become this gateway where I'd say a big chunk of our volunteers come that way.  Every time you walk in, you will find somebody filling out a volunteer application because they just heard about it.  It's really important to be there right in the neighborhood, on the street.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  And you reach out to the Buccaneer community.

EGGERS:  And the Buccaneer community, they're an important demographic.