826 National

I was writing a review of The Brixton Brothers and the Case of the Case of the Mistaken Identity written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Adam Rex when I found myself writing this hideously long run-on sentence about 826LA, a non-profit writing and tutoring center that Mac Barnett is on the board of and vlounteers at. 826LA is part of the larger 826 National which now has centers in seven cities in the United States and deserves a review of its own for all of the amazing things that it does and is doing to fill some holes in the ever widening gaps in our public education system.

In 2002, along with veteran teacher Ninive Calegeri, founder of the Teacher Salary Project, an organization dedicated to honoring teachers and to demonstrating that they’re critical to the viability of our democracy, Dave Eggers, Pulitzer Prize Finalist for his 2000 book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and most recently making headlines for co-writing (with director Spike Jonez) the screenplay adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are as well as the novelized version of the movie, founded 826 Valencia, named for the address of the tutoring center.

As the about page on the site notes:

"After the founding of 826 Valencia, the flagship center in San Francisco, educators around the U.S. joined in to pursue the same goals in their local communities. Now 826 Valencia also serves as the headquarters of 826 National, an umbrella organization that coordinates the adaptation of 826’s tutoring and mentorship model in other cities. Already, 826 has sister centers in New York, Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Seattle, and Boston. Through volunteer support, each of the seven 826 chapters provides drop-in tutoring, class field trips, writing workshops, and in-schools programs—all free of charge. 826 chapters are especially committed to supporting teachers, publishing student work, and offering services for English language learners. Our goal is to assist students ages six to eighteen with their writing skills, and to help teachers get their classes excited about writing. Our work is based on the understanding that great leaps in learning can happen with one-on-one attention, and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success."

Besides tutoring, the centers offer student publishing, field trips, in school visits, workshops on everything from cartooning and bookmaking to SAT prep and college entrance essay writing as well as awarding three college scholarships in the amount of $10,000 dollars each every year. In 2007 Dave Eggers was awarded a $250,000 Heinz Award, which is given in recognition of extraordinary achievements by individuals. Eggers then gave the award money to 826 Valencia. Eggers was also awarded the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Prize in 2008 which, in addition to a $100,000 prize, grants recipients of this prize "One Wish to Change the World." Eggers' wish and the hilarious talk he gave when he announced it can be viewed here. As you might expect, Eggers's wish was that "you personally and every creative individual and organization you know — will find a way to directly engage with a public school in your area, and that you’ll then tell the story of how you got involved, so that within a year we have 1,000 examples of innovative public-private partnerships.”

Besides being a group of dedicated individuals working to better the academic lives of children, the people involved directly with 826, whether on the Board of Directors or Advisory Boards make up an impressive array of academics and educators as well as artists from all genres including Judd Apatow, Fiona Apple, Spike Jonez, Catherine Keener, Sarah Vowell, Vendela Vida, Jon Scieszka, Ira Glass and Sherman Alexie. Being a group of insanely creative (and sometimes just insane) people who got this off the ground, each writing center is housed in a space behind a storefront. The San Francisco center functions behind a Pirate Supply Store, which, as David Byrne says is, "Definitely one of the top five pirate stores I have been to recently." The NYC chapter functions in the back of the Super Hero Supply Store, which sells capes, masks, muscles, anitmatter, secret identity kits and suction cups. There is also a Robot Repair Store in Michigan, a Bigfoot Research Institute in Boston, a Boring Store (which has a super cool website that, if you are allowed to enter is REALLY fun) in Chicago, the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Store in Seattle and, my favorite, the Echo Park Time Travel Mart which boasts the tagline, "Whenever you are, we're already then." Author Mac Barnett, previous Executive Director of the 826LA location is now on the Advisory Board and presumably dedicating more time to his career as a children's book author in addition to being one of the Guys With Books, a touring group of authors Jon Scieszka, current Children's Book Ambassador and Mac Barnett and artists David Shannon and Adam Rex. These fellas recently spent a few weeks touring the country, visiting schools and bookstores and thoroughly entertaining the kids, and adults, based on video clips on the site, in attendance.

I realize that few of you may live near enough to one of the seven 826 locations to volunteer or benefit from their services, but, I hope that you will take time to peruse the website and learn more about what these amazing people are doing for kids and what they are passionate about. And, above all else, maybe you will find a few extra bucks in the pocket of the jeans you were about to wash and consider making a donation to this incredible organization that is actually going out in the world and doing something about education instead of sitting around talking and thinking about it...

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