Big class writing project joins national 826 network the latest gasco abu dhabi contact


New Orleans’ program is the first 826 chapter established since 2010, and the first in the South, says Keller, formerly the executive director of Big Class. "We’re scheduled to serve about 2,000 students next year," he says. "We served about 1,500 last year (as Big Class). Eventually our goal with this space is to get to 3,000 students a year."

As Big Class, Keller and his team rented space on St. Claude Avenue in the 7th Ward, where they held workshops, and took their programs to local schools around the city. "Sometimes we work right in the classroom with a teacher, sometimes we’re more in an enrichment space in the schools or going in and doing a workshop in place of the teachers. … We’re supporting curriculum that’s already happening, we’re helping (writing) teachers improve their practices. …. It’s about improving the process of writing across the city for young people, both directly with students and also through serving teachers."

The impetus for starting the program and expanding it is the fact that about 40 percent of adults in New Orleans read below the fourth-grade level, Keller says. "We’re seeing that pattern replicating," he says. "When we talk in youth service about improving upon that, we’re still often only talking about reading. Our organization believes that reading is crucial, of course, but it’s the access point, whereas writing is where you have authority."

There are a number of programs tailored to children’s needs and experience, starting with first-graders who work in groups as large as 30. Volunteer writers and poets help the group develop a story with a plot and characters. An illustrator works in real time to draw pictures for the story, and each child leaves the two-and-a-half-hour session with a printed and bound book.

"I feel like a lot of students are writing in schools and then they’re submitting it to their teacher and there’s not that tangible feedback; it gets lost in the ether," Morrow says. "So for them to receive a tangible product, they see the impact of their words."

In that program, which is for first- through fourth-graders, students first discuss what makes a great story: characters, dialogue, a beginning, middle and end, structure and description, Keller says. They brainstorm those components then start telling the story collaboratively. A typist takes down the words and an illustrator draws pictures.

"This is all happening in real time … and they’re watching their story come to life in front of them," Keller says. "Then they get to the climax of the story and then the book gets printed and each gets to write their own ending (with one-on-one support from volunteers). They get to make their own bio page."

There’s a window in the writing lab similar to a food-service window where students pick up their finished books. "They get to get back on the bus, all becoming published authors," he says. "We have follow-up lessons teachers can use the book in."

"Generally speaking, it starts with brainstorming in some way, that visioning process," Keller says. "And then it’s the first draft. I tell them the first thing we’re going to do is a ‘vomit’ draft. The same way your stomach gets full, your brain gets full, and we’re going to get it all down on paper — no judgement, nothing. And then we look at it and say, ‘How can we communicate better? How can we get that idea more clear because it is going to be shared?’ As often as possible we’re doing multiple drafts … although our short-term work in schools is just about that brainstorm and first draft. A lot of our work is (about) reluctant writers and demystifying the process. …. If we’re at a school for six months, we’re writing 10 drafts, we’re doing some really rigorous work."

When those students complete their stories, they share them onstage in front of an audience. "They have to think about how this is going to be read, how the piece is going to connect (with an audience)," Keller says. "Whether it’s for publication or just for sharing, we’re constantly programming the idea of audience and communication.

"When we publish a book, we do a big publication party and they have to read their stories in front of people. … The students we’ve worked with year after year and have been published in multiple books, you see them improve onstage over time."

Another program has students writing poetry that is shared with the public on pizza boxes during National Poetry Month. The public is asked to share a picture on Instagram of the poetry they received on their pizza box. Poems collected from the Pizza Poetry Project since 2014 have been published in the book Is It Tasty, Does It Go To Your Soul?, which will be sold in the New Orleans Haunting Supply Co. That store also will carry the anthology by Big Class writers and editors, There Is No School Without Us, published in February.

Some of Big Class’ books also can be found in local bookstores and libraries. In the past, Big Class students produced a few podcasts, which were published on the group’s website. Keller says he hopes to increase podcasts of student essays at the new building’s digital studio, made possible by a donation from author and Tulane professor Walter Isaacson and his wife Cathy. The studio also provides a space for coding animation.

"Historically we’ve done a few podcasts with students that have ended up on various websites," Keller says. "We’ve also done video. We’ve done coding and writing where they do stories on paper the old-fashioned way and code animation to go with it. We try to do 21st-century storytelling and stuff too. There’s a lot of different ways we try to integrate it."

He looks forward to learning how to publish podcasts on iTunes, something with which other 826 chapters across the country can help. "That’s exactly why we are joining the network," Keller says, "so we can call them up and say, ‘How do you do this? Walk us through it."

Another program has high school students bring in vocabulary words for the SAT and write stories about them, then publish a shared vocabulary book to help students study for the SAT. The group also produced a food encyclopedia with the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, wrote stories based on food prepared by chef Stephen Stryjewski, whose Link Stryjewski Foundation supports the nonprofit, and did other projects with community partners Whole Foods Markets and WWNO radio.