Patrick Shaffner of 826CHI Shows How to Do IT Write

By Megan Driscoll

826CHI patrick shaffner 826 valencia dave eggers How did 826CHI get started?

Patrick Shaffner: 826CHI is based on a model started in San Francisco by Dave Eggers, the author extraordinaire, and Nínive Calegari, a great educator in the San Francisco community. They'd opened 826 Valencia in order to provide one-on-one writing assistance as well as writing classes and tutoring for students in their community.

A woman out here in Chicago, Leah Guenther, heard about their program and thought - 'we want to do that here.' So she gathered some people together and we opened our doors in 2005, loosely modeling 826CHI after the successful program in San Francisco and other branches of 826 National. What's your background and how did you become the outreach director at 826CHI?

PS: I studied anthropology and literary and cultural studies at the College of William and Mary. When 826 Valencia was opening up in California, I looked into interning out there with them, but instead I chose to study abroad in Russia.

After returning to the U.S. and graduating from college, I moved out here to Chicago and learned that people were opening a local 826 branch. I got involved with the 826CHI people from the beginning - when we opened we had two full-time staff members and two wonderful interns, of which I was one.

We've just been chugging away ever since, and as the organization has grown and morphed I got pegged with the title of Outreach Director. However, it's still only a staff of five, so we each have many, many duties and sometimes the official names seem arbitrary at best. In addition to performing outreach, you work at the 826CHI Boring Store. Can you tell our readers more about what the store is and how it relates to the organization?

PS: The Boring Store is Chicago's one and only undercover secret agent supply store. We sell supplies to all types of secret agents for a number of different reasons. Clearly we need to keep the world at large safe, but more importantly, all the proceeds from the sales in the store go to support our program in the back. All of our programs at 826 Chicago are free for students, so we use the store's revenues to do things like keep the lights on.

The store is also a wonderful outreach tool because we're at street level. There are many awesome non-profits doing amazing work, but they're often not very accessible or visible to the community at large. The Boring Store is situated right in front of our writing lab where all the magic happens, and so passersby on the street and strangers can come in and see this amazing stuff happening right in front of their eyes. And whether or not they get involved with us, they hopefully leave feeling empowered by the idea that some tangible good work is being done in their own community.

Finally, the last reason we have our spy store is that students are sometimes a little wary of going to another school type of place to get help with something that they don't have confidence in already. So we try to use the store as a gateway to de-stigmatize the idea of going to a writing center and spark the students' imaginations. It gets them excited about being in a whole new space, and hopefully puts their mind in a whole new space as well. Why is it called the Boring Store and what types of secret agent supplies does it sell?

PS: We call it the Boring Store clearly - and, really, this is so clear - because we want to protect our customers. If we called ourselves the Secret Agent Store or the Spy Store, we would essentially be outing our customers' identities. You'd see them walk into the store and go, 'Ah, that must be a spy!' So we call it the Boring Store so it arouses absolutely no suspicion whatsoever.

We sell novelties like envelope x-ray spray, rearview sunglass and grappling hooks, but we also try to outfit the spy for what he might need for his home life. Since secret agents are masters of disguise, they want to be surrounded by disguised objects, so their notepad shouldn't look like notepads, they should look like apples, and their pens should actually look like pencils. So we sell a bunch of things that are not as they seem to make our spy customers feel comfortable with their shopping experience. The Boring Store sounds like a fun place to work! What's your favorite anecdote from your years at 826CHI?

PS: My favorite anecdote is yet to come - we always look forward to the next day. But one of the more emotionally awesome moments for me from the last five years came from this student who has Hispanic parents and doesn't speak English at home. She started with us a few years ago when she was in first grade, coming to our afterschool homework help program. One of her assignments was to just read a book, as simple as that might sound, and one of the volunteers said, 'Oh, well, why don't you go read the book to Patrick out loud.' So she came over to me and just struggled so hard to read this book that was assigned to her. I thought to myself - how can we help? What will happen? What does the future hold for you, child?

And then not two or three years later, we held a student book reading where the students read their own work, books that they themselves have written. The same student stood up in front of a whole room full of people proudly reading a piece that she herself had written. Seeing that transformation was just astounding.

While we clearly can't claim all the credit for such improvements, it's just great to be in an environment where we can witness students overcoming all sorts of challenges. It's awesome in the true sense of the word. 826CHI's core mission is to help children ages 6-18 develop their writing skills. What types of programs do you offer to support this goal?

PS: We have a full day's worth of programs when we're firing on all cylinders. In the morning we have our field trip program, where busses of students are dropped off at our space - we are their field trip destination. When we have groups of younger students, they're charged with writing one new, original story within a two hour time span. To make things more exciting, we tell them we're a publishing house and our publisher, Admiral Moody, is in desperate need of this story by noon or everyone in the publishing house is fired. We ask if the students will be able to help us, and they say, 'Sure, why not?'

So with the help of all of our amazing volunteers, these students start writing one new, original story. Our volunteer storyteller will be up there in front of the kids grabbing their ideas from them, getting things like character names and settings and building up a good story from all the great details coming from the students while at the time same teaching them the subtleties of creating a narrative. We also have a cartoonist who's drawing the pictures that go along with the story and, just to make things even more amazing, we have a typist who is typing the story, bringing it to life up on a big projected screen so the kids can see their words coming into being.

Then just as everything is going great, right when they're coming to the climax of the story, Admiral Moody chimes in and says, 'Where are my 27 original stories?' Panic ensues, because the students have been working so diligently on their one story, and they're like, 'What do we do?' So each student ends up writing their own unique ending to this collaborative story that had already been created. We then bind up their stories, make sure their author photo is on the back and submit them to the 'publisher,' who is still communicating through the curtain.

Then our volunteer - or, I should say, Admiral Moody - reads all their individual endings very quickly, calls each student up to our curtain by name and says one thing that he really loved about their own ending, then hands them their book back with a seal on it saying that it is approved for publication. Then the students have this book that they can share with their friends and family and their teachers can put it up in their libraries at school.

For older field trip students, when an unseen publisher won't hold as much sway on their imaginations, we'll do fun writing exercises like cutting up magazines, taking three different pictures from the magazines and writing a story that links these three different images. Or we'll do memoir writing where students walk through some big moments in their lives and try to express them through writing.

During the days we go into classrooms to support teachers. We know that resources are being cut right and left, so we try to provide extra assistance with programs that teachers are already running. For example, if one teacher's doing a poetry unit but doesn't have the time to sit down one on one with every student to go over his or her work, our volunteers will go in and help give their writing the attention it deserves. We also sometimes get invited to come into classrooms with our own projects, aiming to get students engaged with writing in a fun way.

In the afternoons we offer free after school homework help. We're located within a one mile radius of 15 different schools, so many students can just walk here after school or take a quick bus. The whole goal of the afternoon is for students to finish their homework and finish it well, so they get to sit down one on one with our volunteers and work through their homework until it's done.

We sneak in more writing practice during homework help time as well. We'd like to help our students develop the habit of writing daily, so we have them sit at a table with a volunteer and do a daily writing prompt. At the end of each month we compile all of their writings and ask students to revise them, then publish them in small chap books. We have a chap book reading for students and their families and then sell the books in the Boring Store. This way students can see their work being sold in a store and it's another way for us to get it out into the community at large.

Finally, in the evenings and on weekends we offer writing workshops. Local writers will come in and teach a workshop to about 15 kids based on whatever the instructor is passionate about. We've had great graphic novelists come in and teach students to compile their own comic book stories. We've also had chocolatiers come teach the students about where chocolate comes from, and the students wrote a story as if they were in that country searching for chocolate.

One of my favorite workshops is our Lego and setting workshops. Students come in and build a great Lego building, then write a story that takes place in that building. They already love Legos so they come in invested on a different level and see how writing can support all of the other things they like in life. Writing can be hard for both children and adults, so we look for any way we can help them see that it can also be worthwhile.

826CHI patrick shaffner 826 valencia dave eggers Is there a particular age or demographic group that you serve the most? How do different types of students find your programs?

PS: We work with students ages six to 18, which runs the gamut of kindergarten through high school, and we consistently get students from all of those ages. As a result, there are no programs that are specifically tailored to one age group over the other. We do find that the second through eighth grade students tend to come the most for homework help, so we just started a Saturday high school tutoring program. Although our regular tutoring program is open to high school students, we know that when they walk into a room of third graders doing after school homework help they're not as inclined to stick around. So we've devoted one day just to them alone so they can get help with their bigger projects.

We also try to foster strong relationships with local teachers so they can let their students know about our resources. Then teachers talk to each other, and to parents, and almost entirely through word of mouth we've been able to cultivate these amazing programs. You mentioned previously that you put out chap books of student stories. Has 826CHI student work been published anywhere else?

PS: We publish the small chap books with our binding machine here in-house, but occasionally we'll also do bigger publishing projects where we hire a big printing house to professionally bind some of the students' work so their books look like any book on a bookshelf. They include them in the libraries here in Chicago, and we sell them at the Boring Store and a few other places. Our students' writing has also been featured in different blogs and newspapers, including The New York Times, but we try to focus on our in-house publishing and selling the books through the Boring Store and Amazon. Building creative writing skills can help students both inside and outside of the classroom, particularly when the learning happens in a supportive and fun environment. Can you describe the effect your programs have on kids' lives?

PS: Sometimes it's difficult to state our impact, because we only see these kids for a little bit of time every day, so it's hard to isolate how much we're effecting them versus their teachers or home lives or other extracurricular activities.

But we continue to do this with the support of teachers and the community at large because we're empowering them to discover new parts of themselves and gain more confidence and skills through these little writing exercises. And these skills will help them succeed in every other part of life.

We are trying to build some metrics to better gauge our impact in terms of numbers, but at the end of the day it's witnessing all this positivity, all these students overcoming their struggles, that keeps us going. Do you track any of your students after they leave the program and can you share any success stories from an 826CHI 'graduate'?

PS: We're currently in our sixth year and are just now seeing our students start to finish high school. We had one student who was the first in her family to graduate from high school, which was a big step, and she aced it even further by also being the first one to go to college. Now she's off in college and doing well.

As we develop our success metrics we're also looking for ways to measure our impact on kids five, ten years down the road. What are 826CHI's plans for the future? Are you developing any new projects or do you have any specific goals you're working toward?

PS: We're thinking about how the organization will grow, but we're also looking for ways to deepen our impact and strengthen the programs that we already have.

Right before we started this interview, I was editing a new publication that we'll be releasing in just a few months. It's the end result of this ambitious project where we went into over 20 different schools, sat down with students and had them all working on one big story. We started in one classroom and developed the characters, then went into another school, presented the characters and asked those students to develop a back story. Then we went into another class and asked them to set the scene, then went into yet another school and had them develop a whole story arch, and on it went until we had this collection of great stories. We're stitching everything together now and hope to have the as-yet-untitled book out by the end of May.

We're also currently gearing up for all of our fun summer programs. In the past few years we've done everything from photography workshops with a National Geographic contract photographer to taking a group of middle school students to a rock and roll music festival and having them interview the bands there. So right now we're sort of heavy into our short term future planning, while still keeping an eye on what we're hoping to attack in the longer term. Many of our Chicago area readers may be interested in volunteering for 826CHI or sending their children to you. How can they learn more about getting involved?

PS: The internet is the best place to go. Our website,, has tons of information as well as our online volunteer application. We pride ourselves on giving our volunteers a very flexible schedule - if they can only help out once a week, that's more than enough. If they only help out once a month, or even once a year, that's still great.

Prospective volunteers - and parents - can also just stop in to the Boring Store and talk to anyone there. Those spies are well trained in relaying information about the different opportunities to get involved. Finally, I'd like to offer you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about 826CHI.

PS: I think one of the really important things for families who are not in Chicago or another city that has an established writing center is to know that this program is really founded on the idea that one-on-one attention to these students can move mountains. Whether or not there's a place like 826CHI in their towns, there should be nothing standing in the way of people going out into their communities and doing just that.

When you come to our space you'll see a bunch of tables and loose-leaf paper and pencils, but the key ingredient is having those caring adults sitting with the students. That can take place here, or anywhere - a restaurant, your local library, etc. And the more that that can happen, the more that everyone ages old to young can communicate with one another and revel in the wonders of the world, and I think that is a great thing.

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