If you live in Ann Arbor, you’ve probably seen the Robot Store. It’s a little shopfront on Liberty, just around the corner from Literati, and it’s got big windows full of silvery robots beckoning passersby inside, promising robot supplies, robot repair services, and tutoring, of all things. Come inside, and you see not only robots, but reading and writing humans, aged 6-18, as well as older humans, writing tutors, volunteers, and staff.
Welcome to 826michigan, a non-profit creative writing and tutoring center, part of a national network of seven community literacy centers located all over the country, under the umbrella of 826 National. (And yes, each center has its own unique storefront, pirate-themed in San Francisco, or superhero-themed in Brooklyn, which help to generate revenue for the educational programs offered by the chapters.)
I sat down with the wonderful Frances Martin of 826michigan and asked her about the work she does at 826michigan.
“My title is Program Manager and Volunteer Coordinator. In my Program Manager role I oversee our in-school programs in Washtenaw County and our publication projects, which include, typically, two big, professionally printed publications a year, as well as a couple dozen smaller books and zines. I also oversee about 500 active volunteers in Washtenaw County.”
Frances’s background is in social work. She came to 826 first as a volunteer, working primarily with 826michigan’s in-school program. Later on, Frances spent an AmeriCorps year diving more deeply into the work of 826. After earning her Masters in Social Work at the University of Michigan, Frances moved into her current role at 826michigan, her experiences as a literacy volunteer and her background in social work and child welfare finding a beautiful home in her role at 826michigan. She told me a little about the programs 826michigan offers.
“We host two weekly field trips, in which a classroom of students comes into our space for a two hour magical writing workshop and creates some final written product that they get to take back to school. We also do a lot of work in schools, some of which are one or two sessions, and some of which are much longer, and result in publication. Additionally, 826michigan works with local libraries, teachers, writers, and artists to offer creative writing workshops, after-school tutoring, school-based writing clubs, and weekly drop-in writing workshops, both in community centers and on-site. ”
826 publishes much of the writing that their students create in these programs. Frances explained how publishing fits in with 826’s philosophy of learning:
“We really believe it’s important for young people to see their work in print, and for them to know how seriously we take their writing and really celebrate their imaginations and what they have to say.”
Frances went on to tell me about 826michigan’s recent publications, and we discussed an upcoming collaboration with Literati.
“Last year we did a publication called Enjoy: Recipes for Building Community. We worked English Language Learning high school students from Ypsilanti. We were talking a lot about how food and culture are related to memory and identity. Students wrote memoirs and recipes that were meaningful to them and their families. We also got local chefs to contribute recipes that were meaningful to them. So it’s part cookbook, part story, with a lot of other fun elements in there as well.”
What a great way to be a social worker. 826michigan is lucky to have Frances Martin, and our community is so fortunate to have 826michigan. This fall, Literati Bookstore is collaborating with 826michigan to celebrate the release of their most recent publication: A Lantern of Fireflies.
A Lantern of Fireflies is a new 826michigan book of bedtime stories, featuring writing from talented and hard-working Huron High School students and some of the most brilliant professional illustrators in the game, like Oliver Uberti and Caldecott-Award winners Phil and Erin Stead, Job Klassen, Dan Santat, Carson Ellis, Amy Martin, J Otto Siebold, and others.
Here’s how it came together. 826michigan staff and volunteers worked with Huron High School students who had been identified as struggling in reading and writing, as well as with their teacher Sarah Andrew-Vaughn to develop a curriculum to support students’ writing skills across the curriculum, in all subject areas. 826michigan volunteers worked with students in the classroom every Thursday and Friday to write “a bedtime story they wished they had been read to them when they were younger.”
Frances told me, “We looked at published bedtime stories as primary sources, and asked what makes a good children’s story?” Students wrote drafts, which they read to the authentic target audience of 1st and 2nd graders at Mitchell Elementary. The younger students had the incredibly educational opportunity to provide feedback and critiques to the high school writers. Editing, revision, and re-writing followed. Students, who had each been paired with a different artist, wrote letters to their illustrators, communicating their visions for the artist’s work that would accompany the students’ stories. Illustrators donated their time and talents to read student stories and letters and generate original artwork in response for this book.
We invite you to join us, our 826michigan friends, Huron High School writers, illustrators Oliver Uberti, Phil and Erin Stead, and 826 National founder and award-winning author Dave Eggers, at Literati Bookstore, upstairs in our event space, at 6pm this Friday night, October 9th. We’re throwing a pajama party, and you’re invited to hear these great folks read from A Lantern of Fireflies. We hope to see you there.
Interested in volunteering for 826michigan after reading all about Frances Martin and the fantastic work being done at this organization? Here’s how.