826 Boston Creative Writing Workshop
Storytelling Innovator Series

“Writing Is Power”: An Interview with 826 Boston’s Jessica Drench

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Last week, the Content Standard had the opportunity to sit down with Jessica Drench, executive director of local youth writing and publishing nonprofit 826 Boston. We spoke ahead of their upcoming corporate fundraiser, Books for Breakfast, with guest speaker Walter Isaacson.

The Content Standard has written extensively about the power of storytelling, but we rarely examine the impact of story on content creators. 826 Boston shows just how powerful that impact can be in their work with local students.

Our conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

A Conversation with 826 Boston’s Jessica Drench

Out of all the things that a nonprofit could possibly do to help students, why is writing stories what you choose to focus on? How does that make an impact in their lives?

What we see is that writing is power. Each of our students has a powerful story to tell, but they don’t always know just how powerful it is until it is reflected back to them. By sitting down one-on-one with 826 Boston tutors, our students are in a position where they are being heard, and where adults are asking them questions and are interested in their lives. We see this transformative process start to unfold where students gain confidence that their voices really do matter. And that process is really reinforced when they see their story published in a beautifully designed book—a book that looks like any other gorgeous book in a bookstore, because we bring in professional designers and printers to really honor the stories that are inside.

What does that process of finding a story look like? You said that they don’t know that they have stories to tell. How do they discover them?

For our Young Authors’ Book Project, we start by sitting down with teachers and discussing with them what theme or topic would best meet their students’ needs. So, for example, we partnered with Boston International High School in Dorchester, a school that is 100 percent English language learners, and 100 percent immigrant students. We worked with two teachers, and all of their students had immigrated to this country within the past five years and spoke English as a second, third, or even fourth language.

We decided that it would be a book of memoirs focused on objects of significance to the students. The objects could be things that students brought with them from their home countries, things that they had to leave behind as part of their passage, or objects that they found here in the United States that had meaning to them. And now we have a creative topic that can engage students, because it’s not the same old thing, it’s a spin on the familiar topic of memoir writing. And then the students sat down one-on-one with our tutors and began sharing their ideas.

I Want You to Have This 826 Boston

That’s something that 826 does across our network; we train volunteers who are interested in spending time with our students and hearing their stories. And through a process of brainstorming and conversations, of tutors asking questions, trust and connection is built between the students and the tutors, and the stories start to pour out. And that’s just the beginning, because it’s a several-month process, so students also learn about revision. So whether they’re second graders writing a story or they’re seniors working on their college essays, they learn that writing is a craft and a process, and what you first get down on paper is not what you’re going to see published in the book. It’s not what you’re going to submit to the admissions office.

So there’s a clear impact in terms of their schoolwork in learning these writing skills. Do you see impacts that go beyond their academic lives?

Yes. We actually find that a lot of the impact, in addition to completing their homework at higher rates and feeling more confident in their writing skills, is that they also feel more confident in general. Because the process of seeing yourself reflected back to you in a published book is a really special and unique experience. It is a process of affirmation for our kids, and so we have really looked at the social–emotional impact on our students as well.

We are engaged right now in a longitudinal academic study with Northeastern University to track the impact of our Writers’ Room program, to explore what our Writers’ Rooms do for students and for teachers, and really for the whole school culture. How does a full-time dedicated 826 Boston Writers’ Room change how teachers and students feel about writing? And through that process, how students feel about themselves? We had one instance where we pulled together some alumni, and one of our former students who was published in some of our literary magazine publications shared how she felt now as a freshman at Emerson. She said that because of the 826 Boston Writers’ Room at her school, she felt that she could ask for help. And we asked her, “Do you mean in your writing assignments?” And she said, “No, I feel like I can ask for help in anything.”

Building in this component of mentor relationships develops those critical skills of asking for help and asking questions. We facilitate student editorial boards, for example, where 10 or 12 students review all of their peers’ writing and give feedback. The process of giving and receiving feedback from your peers—these are skills that take you through college. They take you through the workplace.

I’d love to hear more about the Writers’ Rooms.

Sure. In 2013, we opened our first writers’ room at the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science in Roxbury. The program is inspired by a university writing center. We partnered with Northeastern University to launch the initiative, which is currently in three schools in the Boston Public Schools, and we partner with additional universities to bring in tutors, including UMass Boston. It is our goal to open at least one Writers’ Room per year in a BPS school over a five-year period.

We provide a built-in structure for one-on-one writing support during the day, and so teachers can bring whole classes to the room. When a teacher has a hundred students, the reality is they’re not going to be able to spend that kind of extended time with each student on their writing. The Writers’ Rooms are customized to meet school needs throughout the year. For example, right now we are offering college essay boot camps in the high school Writers’ Rooms, as well as in events around the city.

The Writers’ Room then turns into a creative writing hub after school. We can offer opportunities that might be getting squeezed out by the pressures of standardized curriculum and testing. We support student poetry slam teams, literary magazines, and National Novel Writing Month clubs. These are all clubs that students want. They come to us and they ask for them. There’s a lot of excitement around it. Our slam poetry team at the O’Bryant is now in its fifth year, and one of the students on that team has won the Massachusetts Louder Than a Bomb Championship. She went to Washington, D.C. to represent the state. One of her poems has been published in the Boston Globe. She’s been commissioned by a local company to write a poem and perform it at their gala. These are examples of how students’ sense of confidence in what they can achieve can build as they see that their unique stories are something that people want to pay attention to.

We’ve talked about the impact of having published work on the students who are writing it. But what about the reception that it’s getting from its audience? Who’s reading it, and what’s the impact there?

Primarily we want students to feel like they’re writing for other students. So, for example, we had our first foray into STEM writing last year. We partnered with a second-grade class and their teacher, Mr. Erik Berg at the Philbrick School in Roslindale, doing a unit where they studied ocean animals. They paired up and became experts on giant squid, or octupuses, or seals. And we decided to turn that into a book. It was our first piece of narrative non-fiction, and it was science-based. Students applied their research to the different characters in the book, and they weaved this narrative together. The book, And Lester Swam On, is beautifully illustrated by one of our former volunteers, Cody Van Winkle. Now this book can be taught in other classrooms, and other second graders can open it up and learn about ocean life and conservation from their peers.

And Lester Swam On book cover

Another aspect of thinking about how 826 Boston students are writing for students, beyond the books that we publish being used in classrooms, is that there’s a real crisis right now in the availability of books written by diverse authors. When students of color open up 826 Boston publications, they see authors who look like them. A feature of our books are author photos, frequently taken by a wonderful local photographer, Jennifer Waddell. When you open the books, not only do you find students’ stories, but you also see their professional portraits, and that’s really empowering too.

We feel as a network of 826 chapters that we’re making some headway in increasing the diversity of books that are available to young people nationwide. As a former teacher, it can be really hard to find pieces of writing that your kids want to read, that sing to them and inspire them to write themselves. So it’s become this beautiful cycle. I mentioned the book that our kids wrote about objects from their home country, I Want You to Have This. We started getting phone calls from other schools after it was published: “Hey, we would love to get our hands on that book so we could use it in our classrooms.” And Facing History and Ourselves, which is a nonprofit international educational and professional development organization, included some writing by our students for a district-wide history unit this year in the Boston Public Schools. All ninth-grade history teachers can include pieces written by 826 Boston students in their curriculum, which is very special.

826 Boston has a unique relationship with well-known authors, in part because of Dave Eggers, who co-founded the 826 chapter in San Francisco. That means that we can bring in professional authors to write the forewords to our books. In the book 85 Cents Might Not Sound Like a Lot, which we published last year, two Writers’ Rooms published their vision for the future of transportation. The Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation, Stephanie Pollack, wrote the forward. The students quickly saw equity issues in their city’s public transportation system. To know that at the end of it, the Department of Transportation’s leadership is actually reading their recommendations is incredibly empowering.

Boston Transportation 826 Boston

You partner with local universities and with authors, but you also work with other organizations, like businesses. What does that partnership look like?

Our biggest step in partnering with local companies was through our College Essay Boot Camp On The Road program. One of our board members wisely observed that there was an untapped resource in our city of people who would love to participate but really couldn’t get to Roxbury during work hours. Last year was our pilot year of the program, and we reached out to companies that we already have relationships with, like Houghton Mifflin and Morgan Stanley and HubSpot. They loved the idea of us bringing the students to them. We did a morning training session, and then students and employees were matched up one-on-one for two hours of tutoring. Then the company treated the students to lunch, and kids would either get a tour of the offices or a Q&A with employees. That experience in and of itself is significant exposure for students who never stepped foot into an office like Morgan Stanley. Now their worlds have opened up a little bit more.

We are developing a corporate volunteer menu to showcase the range of opportunities available at our center and in the Writers’ Rooms. For example, we also offer Storytelling and Bookmaking Field Trips at our center twice a week, and again, they’re compact: two hours long. Historically, different companies such as Liberty Mutual and Pearson have brought groups of employees to come and be part of this whimsical, fun, collaborative storytelling project with a classroom from the Boston Public Schools and our staff of volunteers. It’s a team-building exercise as well as a really meaningful way to spend the morning connecting with and mentoring Boston Public School children.

How to Support 826 Boston

826 Boston’s Books for Breakfast fundraiser takes place on November 16 at 8:00 a.m. at the offices of WilmerHale. The breakfast will feature student writers alongside guest speaker Walter Isaacson, a celebrated biographer and professor of history at Tulane University who has also been CEO of the Aspen Institute, chairman of CNN, and editor of Time magazine.

To learn more about volunteering opportunities, contact 826 Boston’s volunteer manager, Jennifer “J.J.” Javier, at volunteer@826boston.org. 826 Boston also accepts monetary and in-kind donations.

Executive director Jessica Drench can be reached at jessica@826boston.org.

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Featured image attribution: Gretjen Helene Photography

Rachel Haberman is a consummate word nerd with a lifelong fascination with all things language. She holds a BA in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Wellesley College. Before joining Skyword, Rachel managed content marketing for an international development and strategy consulting firm. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and two cats named after physicists.

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