A Different Breed of Tutor

People often say that there are no seasons in Los Angeles, but the end of summer is felt almost as deeply in L.A. as it is anywhere else -- particularly in beach communities like Venice, where the number of tourists and casual surfers begins to shrink as the slightly colder temperatures set in. For children, of course, the seasonal shift presents the same bad news for everyone: time to go back to school.

For the handful of kids enrolled in 826LA's English Language Learner summer camp, it also means putting aside their temporary day jobs as comic book designers and music critics. Fortunately, 826 will still be waiting for them during the school year, offering free drop-in tutoring for students aged 8-18. In a city where the numbers in the education system are overwhelming, 826 is the rare sanctuary where a student can find one-on-one assistance, whether with a tricky poem or with the multiplication table.

"We'll do any subject, although parents tend to come here because they know we work on writing," said Mac Barnett, the programs director for 826LA. "We really focus on one-on-one attention. That doesn't mean we always have a one-to-one ratio in drop-in, but the numbers are small, and we make sure there's an individual focus on the student's work and the student's needs. That one-on-one attention is so crucial -- and so hard to get. I think that sets us apart from a lot of tutoring centers."

The six weeks of the summer's English Language Learner program culminated in a performance by the class, who had been writing and revising monologues -- the tutors consistently stress the importance of revision -- in which each student took on his/her own character, such as a solider who eases his mind by building towers of plastic cups. But even if these flights of fancy are often replaced by the pragmatic demands of homework once the school year begins, the tutors at 826 are determined to show students that there isn't such a gulf between the two areas.

"Even cell division and fractions involve some element of comprehension, writing and story-building," said Joan Kim, director of education at 826NYC.

Another approach to the 'business' of tutoring

Tutoring has become big business -- the Los Angeles Times reported last month that the tutoring "industry" is worth $2.2 billion -- and that's particularly the case as colleges become more competitive and as schools scramble to keep up with the No Child Left Behind act. Children are given benchmark tests at an increasingly early age, even as classroom sizes have continued to expand. There are over 725,000 K-12 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and while efforts have been made to improve the teacher-student ratio and to support after-school programs via the Beyond the Bell program, many students are still being lost in the shuffle.

Set on the second floor of a converted police station several blocks from Venice Beach, the sparse but inviting headquarters of 826LA present a refreshing change of pace to tutoring-as-commerce. McSweeney's founder and "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" author Dave Eggers started 826 in San Francisco in 2002 (the flagship center is called 826 Valencia, after its street address), and its effects were so immediate that is has already spawned offspring in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Seattle and Ann Arbor, Mich.

As befits a center founded by a professional writer, the programs and activities at 826 unusually present creative expression as a viable vocation. At 826LA, Barnett and his colleagues have a bottomless pool of working professionals to interact with the students by giving readings and leading hands-on workshops.

"Professional writers and creative professionals talk about doing things a little differently than teachers do," said Barnett. "Teachers do a great job, but they're so busy with all their state standards that I think it's hard for them to design a curriculum that juggles all these demands. How can they read four drafts apiece for all these kids? So we've sent volunteers into schools so they can assign multidraft pieces. You need the chalkboard stuff, too, but to actually talk to a writer about writing, there's something different about that. Kids get really excited and have 10 million questions about what it's like to work as a journalist."

In workshops this fall at 826LA, students can prepare for their college application essays, put on a fashion show under the guidance of Movies.com editor Lien Ta, or try their hand at designing spaceships. The eclecticism reflects the tutor base, which is largely made up of entertainment types -- screenwriters between projects, freelancers with flexible schedules -- but also includes a barber and, yes, a rocket scientist.

826 LA tutoring group
A writing class at 826LA. All photos courtesy of 826LA.

"It's mobilized a completely different group of people," said Barnett. "There's something that hooked people, and there's something that's very exciting about this place. A lot of our volunteers are first-timers, so I don't think we really even poach from other volunteer organizations."

The power of saying yes

Simply saying "Yes!" whenever possible, both Barnett and Kim agree, is one of the philosophies that has suited 826 best. If someone comes to them with an interesting idea for a workshop or event, they'll probably figure out how to make it happen. In Seattle, the children are writing songs and telling scary stories for Halloween. 826 Chicago hosted a gallery of photography and writing by homeless children in the city. 826 Valencia is offering a brief session in the fall devoted to the glory of Madlibs.

"Because of that [approach], we've made feature films and published books and created radio pieces and music videos from scratch -- and often times with six-year-olds," Kim said.

Their outreach program is what makes 826 a citywide factor instead of just staying confined to a neighborhood. In L.A., the drop-in students reside primarily in Venice and its surrounding communities; it's simply too far a journey for most of the students downtown or in the Valley, where some of the city's most notorious schools are located. Overworked teachers are happy for a helping hand, and many students respond well to the more intensive emphasis on their writing, especially when they know that their work has a chance to be seen by others.

In June 2005, the students of Ánimo Inglewood Charter High School published Rhythm of the Chain, a collection of poems, plays, essays and short stories that were partially inspired by the instructions of Los Angeles Lakers head coach Phil Jackson, who encouraged the students to think about teamwork and the thread that holds strangers in cities together.

826 LA performance

A year later, the students at Theodore Roosevelt High School published a similar anthology titled "Entering New Territory," this time devoted to imagining the future for their metropolis. The pieces may not always be brilliant, but they are almost always unflinching; if one sought to better understand the youth of L.A., there wouldn't be many better places to start.

Although the life situations are dire for some of 826's newly published authors, Barnett maintains that everything that he's seen during his tenure has encouraged optimism. In this regard, the students seem to be the ones doing the teaching. Despite recurring themes of alcoholism, poverty and gang violence, the conclusions in their work almost always offer up hope for a better tomorrow.

"I see beauty in this demanding city," writes Hector Rodriguez in "Los Angeles Through My Eyes."

"In my dream for Los Angeles, people slow down and just enjoy life without rushing anywhere, without wasting precious moments," offers Maria Sanchez in "My Violin Dream."

For the tutors at 826, these reflections are every bit as valid as anything that an adult would write. "It's crucial that we never condescend here," Barnett said, explaining the reasons for gathering up the material into proper publications. "It's fun to do this stuff, but not fun in that way of 'Aw, look at the little kids reading!' We want to give them real readings, and we want to produce books with their writing that honors their effort. When they think they're going to get published in these books, they work harder to have pieces that are worthy."

As for fund-raising, the Book Eaters tours -- the current one concludes on Oct. 29 in Ann Arbor -- have been the most ambitious. This year's roster included Eggers, board member Sarah Vowell, Jon Stewart, David Byrne, Stephen Malkmus, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Richman and a host of other icons and rising stars.

826LA class photo

"We're really thrilled with the tour and its results," said Kim, who admits that the big names sometimes associated with 826 -- along with how well the individual centers are maintained -- result in people sometimes erroneously thinking that additional resources and team members aren't needed. The truth, of course, is that more volunteers are always needed, especially as they continue to expand their outreach into the schools.

"I'm always looking for ways to get to more kids, get in more schools, even get more kids dropping in," said Barnett. "It's that on a micro-level, and it's that on a macro-level, which is why there are 826s sprouting up nationally. Let's get one in every city! You want to make sure that you can handle it, but you also want to get it everywhere, because you know it works."

"I think everyone tends to be amazed at how easy -- and rewarding -- working with the kids is, and how important and immediate their contributions can be," Kim added.

For all the positive memories and success stories, though, there are still mornings when the staffers are left wondering if they'll be able to pull it off again. In fact, according to Barnett, that's essentially every morning.

"There's almost this sense of daily panic," he said. "We set up this room and it looks really nice, but every day there's that little voice: Are kids going to show up? Are volunteers going to show up? And every day the people come. It's been a really nice surprise for me. My tendency would be to be a little more cynical. This job is really good for dispelling cynicism."

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