Embracing Silliness

826NYC’s Transition to Online Learning

These new directions, born of a sudden plunge into uncertainty, are now something the organization plans to retain as the world slowly reopens. At the start of the pandemic, “we just didn’t know who was experiencing loss and who was experiencing stress,” says Joshua. “We just wanted to make sure that whatever they came to us with, we could meet them on an emotional and social level.” 

“The main character is still a soul-in-training,” says Liam Cheng, aged 12. He’s telling me about the story he is writing in one of 826NYC’s Write Away Workshops. Liam has been attending 826NYC’s after-school programs for two years, but this last year has been entirely virtual, as it has been for many children around the world.

826NYC is a nonprofit that aspires to ‘foster generations of creative writers and thinkers, who together will define a better future’. I first got involved as a volunteer in March of 2020, only a week or so before the coronavirus pandemic ground life in New York City to a disconcerting halt. I had elected to attend a volunteer orientation in the organization’s Williamsburg satellite location: a spacious room tucked into the back of the Williamsburg public library, bright and cheery and lined with bookshelves carrying, as I would learn, many of the organization’s own publications. At the time, the virus was a burgeoning concern—the other volunteers were apologetically foregoing handshakes and reaching for the hand sanitizer that the staff had provided—but I doubt that any of us realized then the magnitude of what was coming. Instead, we were excited to get started on what already seemed like a promising volunteering experience. After an overview of the organization’s programs and mission, we were handed boxes of crayons and brightly colored markers and asked to draw a picture of what we thought the ideal 826 volunteer would look like. My group’s volunteer drawing had bushy purple hair and giant ears—all the better to listen to students with.

All around us, student writing was immortalized in customized bookmarks, and tote bags, and, yes, books. My favorite bookmark featured a poem titled, hilariously, ‘Bears hate poems!’ I had been looking for a space that combined some of my interests—working with children, furthering writing education—without the sterile, joyless quality that characterizes many a classroom; on that rainy March morning, I felt that I had found exactly what I was looking for. Later I would learn that this is how 826NYC identifies: as a ‘third space’—not home and not school—where children are empowered to be creative and to decide for themselves what that creativity should look like. In fact, 826NYC’s main location in Park Slope has taken that idea and turned it into the embodiment of a childhood dream: the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. sells everything from superpowers (cans of ‘chutzpah’ and ‘gratitude’) to an instant muscle power vest, and also doubles as a ‘front’ for 826NYC’s after-school programming. One of the bookshelves is a secret entrance, springing open to reveal the space where children used to congregate for homework help and to write together about their next great adventure.

What has it been like, the loss of such a distinctively playful headquarters?  “It’s tough to create the whimsy of a secret door in a virtual space,” says Nico Garbaccio, 826NYC’s Volunteer & Programs Manager. “But I think a lot of what we do is in the content and structure of the programs, and the people that run them being the types of people that students are able to open up and be silly around.” Silliness is a word that comes up often in conversations with the 826NYC team about what makes the organization special, but it goes beyond mere acknowledgement that children are bound to occasionally be silly. Instead, there’s a recognition that each child is a complete individual with a distinct voice—embracing the full tenor of that voice, silliness and all, is what elevates 826NYC from an afterschool obligation to a space where children can look forward to spending their time.

And yet, the pandemic has fundamentally altered what that space looks like. First, there are the logistical challenges: some of the programs that made up a major portion of 826NYC’s programming, such as afterschool homework help, simply cannot be seamlessly migrated to an online environment. In the early days of the transition, the team tried to help students with their schoolwork in much the same way that they would in person, but found quickly that it was not working: students were being assigned homework on different online learning platforms, and troubleshooting technology alone ate up most of the allotted time; some tried to hold up their physical notebooks to the camera with little success. It was evident that the transition to virtual programming would involve a major reassessment.

But while uncertainty can be scary, it can also liberate you to take necessary risks. The team saw an opportunity to go back to the basics of 826NYC’s original mission: provide literacy support and give students the tools they would need to become stronger writers. They also noticed that children seemed to be craving the social interaction that the online programs were no longer able to provide in the same way—students could no longer chat with one another while waiting for a workshop to start, for example, or turn to the person next to them and comment on the weather that day. While reimagining the afterschool programming, the 826NYC team wanted to be cognizant of these small, important losses, and to see if perhaps those serendipitous encounters could be replicated in a more stilted online space.

The result is a drastically different afterschool program, one that’s evolved to have a little something for everyone. Students—divided into two grade bands—now meet twice a week. On the first day they move through ‘stations’: the Reading Circle, where they read and discuss short stories and poems, Super Sentences, a writing station with some literacy and grammar instruction, and finally, Chat Nook: a dedicated space for students to simply talk to each other, make friends, and address the social and emotional needs that can be neglected in traditional online learning. On the second day, students meet for a kind of democratic book club, where they vote on what book they will be reading together; when the book club meets, all the participants take turns reading from the book of choice and trying their hand at writing exercises based on what they’ve read. Recently the book club has been reading Matilda—and writing stories from the newt’s point of view.

“It’s hard to overhaul a whole program if there’s no big disruption that causes you to have to reinvent it,” says Corey Ruzicano, 826NYC’s Program Coordinator. It would be tough to imagine a bigger disruption than a pandemic—but in a supremely uncertain moment, the team has found an opportunity to refocus and play to their strengths. For the Chat Nook portion of the programming, there’s a loose theme to guide the students’ interactions; last semester the theme was animals, and Ruzicano remotely took the students to her parents’ farm in California. There they got to meet the farm goat, the horse, and even giant tortoises, and later each student wrote a story about their animal of choice. Later in the same semester, they were visited by a zookeeper from the Bronx Zoo who took them around to meet the armadillos. Through such crowd-pleasing activities, 826NYC has created the kind of lightly-structured environment where children can find themselves invigorated and inspired, while also allowed to, for a little while, simply be children.

Last fall, I participated as a volunteer in two of 826NYC’s Write Away Workshops. These too have been redesigned to now be 5-week long programs that have a different thematic focus for each grade band. One of the workshops, which ran from October to November, was called Planetary Passport—over five sessions, students wrote stories set in their own imagined extraterrestrial words. Each session would begin with an ice breaker question—if you could travel anywhere inside the Solar System, where would you go and why?—and end with ‘share outs’, an opportunity for participants and volunteers alike to share something they learned that day or to simply give a supportive shout out to someone else. The ice breakers act as a kind of ritual that helps students enter a certain headspace, much in the same way that stepping into the Superhero Supply Store once did.

I left every ninety minute workshop session invigorated—the students were so very inventive, so unafraid of sharing even their wackiest ideas. I wondered what it was that made the workshop such a generative space, and realized it probably had something to do with the balance between structure and spontaneity. Thais Vitorelli, one of 826NYC’s Program Coordinators, led that workshop, and in the first session she asked each participant and volunteer to suggest the norms that the workshop should follow over the next five weeks. The final list was expansive and inspiring: together we resolved to ‘always take risks’ and ‘never be afraid of making mistakes’. It was a subtle, important way to let students know they were being taken seriously and not merely being told what to do, and I watched their confidence in themselves surge in response.

“I do think that the virtual programs, at least for me, have given me a different way to look at the relationship I have with the students,” said Thais. “I think that [in the virtual environment] the students are much more empowered, without me losing my authority as a teacher.” This has to do, she says, with the relative loss of control inherent in online learning — if a student refuses to do a task, or elects to get up and leave their Zoom box, Thais recognizes that they are using their agency to escape an environment that is newly challenging and still unfamiliar. This inspires her to design activities that students would not want to escape from — “I think the class works better now in some ways.”

Later I joined Thais for another workshop, this one modeled after the popular National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). In the first session every person in the workshop set themselves a writing goal—Thais added these goals up to create a target word count chart that we would happily track at the start of every subsequent session. We learned the importance of setting achievable targets, and that it’s alright to reassess and revise those targets if need be. Students were, as always, told that they could write with publication in mind: at the end of each workshop, workshop leaders work with students to ready their stories for one of 826NYC’s publications. “We had to talk to [a student] about her pen name, because she had different pen names for different stories,” Thais told me. “So we had to ask her, do you want to be published this way or that way?” It’s the kind of small thing that can do wonders for a child’s self esteem; suddenly they see that they are real writers, with agency and the ability to make important decisions about their creative work.

Many people bemoan these days the losses for students that have accompanied the transition to virtual learning, but Thais sees things differently. “I ran into a friend the other day,” she told me, “and she was saying how sad she was for the new generation, how they would grow up with a huge gap in their learning process. But I see only positive changes. We’re questioning how things are being done, and that’s how change is made.”

Some months ago I received 826NYC’s latest publication in the mail: a slim volume of stories and poems called ‘It’s Raining Gemstones Again!’ Inside I found some of the stories that I had seen come to life in the workshops; stories featuring sentient jelly blobs and turbo-powered horses and flying trolls. With the pandemic moving all operations online, there are new opportunities here too: the organization is now turning its focus to digital publishing, and aiming for higher reach through PDF versions of their publications. Suddenly, there is increased access to many resources that weren’t in reach when the organization’s programs were limited to a few physical locations: now, guest authors can drop in to sessions to speak directly to students about their writing projects. The newly developed ‘quaranTEEN voices’ program puts young writers in contact with some of these published authors, who give them prompts to work on every week. “It had always been a dream of mine to have more interactions between authors and our young people,” says Executive Director Joshua Mandelbaum. “And it was suddenly much easier to do, so we took advantage of that.”

These new directions, born of a sudden plunge into uncertainty, are now something the organization plans to retain as the world slowly reopens. At the start of the pandemic, “we just didn’t know who was experiencing loss and who was experiencing stress,” says Joshua. “We just wanted to make sure that whatever they came to us with, we could meet them on an emotional and social level.” Acting on that impulse has only made the spirit of 826NYC’s mission stronger: “As an organization, we don’t necessarily feel like our youth need to go on to become writers. It’s great if they do. But [we want them to know] that even if you go on to be a nurse, or a doctor, or a mechanic, with pencil and paper you still have this ability that you can harness whenever you want.”

Azka Anwar

Azka Anwar is a writer and editor from Karachi, Pakistan.