As Mittenfest is right around the corner, and since we haven’t heard from our friends at the kids’ literacy and creative writing non-profit 826 Michigan in a while, I thought that I’d reach out to Executive Director Amanda Uhle, and ask what’s new. Here’s our exchange.
MARK: It’s been a while since we’ve had anything about 826 on the site, and I was wondering if you could give us an update on how things are going.
AMANDA: Even we are surprised at our growth recently. After struggling to get on our feet for a few years—complicated years in Michigan’s economy– we now have some stability. There are three full time staff and two part time staff, thanks in large part to a few key grants we’ve received and to the astounding number of local people who make modest gifts. We’re now serving more than 2,300 school aged students in need each school year and rallying 450 or so volunteers to tutor, teach writing workshops and assist in classrooms in need. It’s been a wonderful time for us. We’ll never fully meet the needs of the many struggling young people in our community, but we’re doing a better job lately at meeting the intense demand.
MARK: I’m particularly interested to know how things are going in Ypsi. How many schools are you in now, and what kind of work are you doing?
AMANDA: We have in-class residencies at Adams, Erickson, Perry and Ypsilanti High School that total almost 20 hours per week. In residencies, we make a commitment to spend the entire school year supporting a teacher in whatever ways are most helpful, though our emphasis is on writing and literacy. At the high school, volunteers are leading small group discussions on fiction assignments. At the elementary school, volunteers are working one-on-one with students who struggle to write. Here’s a note we just received today from one of our tutors at Adams Elementary School, which gives you a sense of the program:
“Every week I work with a 2nd grade boy who really needs help with reading and writing and adapting to living with his dad after his mom lost custody for being abusive (he’s quite open about these things, maybe from talking to police and social workers). The teacher is trying to get him some time with the school social worker. In the meantime, he seems to appreciate my paying him close attention and being calm. Actually, today was the first day the boy didn’t talk about his home life so maybe that’s a good sign. Anyway, points to 826 for making it possible for this kid to get extra support.”
We also have six field trips scheduled at our Ann Arbor writing lab for second grade classrooms in the Ypsilanti District and several more from Lincoln Consolidated.
Our biggest initiative in Ypsilanti is our daily tutoring program at Ypsilanti Middle School. Our part time staff member, Savannah Charles, is dedicated to that site and program. She’s there four afternoons per week, coordinating students and tutors for our after-school program aimed at Title I students. Students in that program will be the contributing writers for this year’s major publication project, in the spirit of 2020, How To Rise, and Don’t Stay Up So Late.
MARK: Given the obvious need in Ypsi, I suspect there’s more that could be done, if you had the volunteers to make it happen. What does your dream scenario look like in Ypsi, and how many people would you need to pull it off?
AMANDA: As always, we need help! Our dream scenario is to help all the Ypsilanti Middle School students who want and need our help. Now we’re really only able to serve a fraction of them because we don’t have enough tutors to make that happen. We serve 20 or 25 students daily now, and there is demand for us to provide after-school tutoring to four or five times that number. We’d need to grow our tutor base to have commitments from 30 or people each day to serve each of those students. Our average now hovers between five and ten per day.
MARK: What kind of commitment do you typically look from for your volunteers?
AMANDA: We ask tutors to commit to one afternoon per week (Monday through Thursday) and stick with it. Of course we understand when something comes up, but it’s much better for our skeleton crew’s planning and for our students’ learning if we can rely on people on certain days. Most people commit to one semester, but some are around the entire school year.
MARK: Just so I’m clear, all of middle school tutoring engagements are after school, with students who have specifically requested help… so these are kids who are motivated and eager to be better writers, is that correct?
AMANDA: That’s right. Students have to want to be there. Last year, when we did a signup system at lunchtime with 25 spaces on it, we would routinely arrive to see 30 or more names scrawled in the margins. Students very quickly realize how incredible it is to have that one-on-one encouragement, and it shows.
MARK: Have you made any inroads at EMU? I’d think, given the number of students studying to become teachers there, you’d have some luck attracting volunteers looking for hands-on experience with kids.
AMANDA: We have indeed made inroads. Savannah is a student in the education program there. She’s getting some amazing roll-up-your-sleeves classroom experience and also helping us recruit more EMU students, especially from her program, to tutor with us. We also enjoy a great partnership with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project.
MARK: If people want to volunteer to be a part of 826, what should they do?
AMANDA: Visit our website for our online application. Once we do an initial review, prospective volunteers are invited to a short orientation, then a training. We do most trainings at our site on Liberty Street (in Ann Arbor), but some happen in Ypsilanti, too.
MARK: Mittenfest is coming up, right? Do you have anything special planned this time around? I know, in the past, we’ve discussed the possibility of trying to somehow integrate the writing of the kids working with 826. Might something like that happen this year? Might we see a band or two performing something written by one of our local young people?
AMANDA: This is the sixth Mittenfest! Almost all of our specific plans for the five-night fest are still under wraps (as in, we’re still figuring out how to mash all of the amazingness into Woodruff’s in that limited amount of time). We’re tremendously excited about our sponsors, Detroit Red Wings/Open Skate, Chelsea Milling Company/Jiffy Mix, Awesome Mitten, Social Michigan, High Five Threads, Beezy’s, Woodruff’s, and Mostly Midwest. We just announced the full lineup of 60 bands. This year, more than 200 applied, and we had to make really difficult choices. It’s kind of overwhelming to imagine all that energy, all that passion for our work. In a way, we are sorry not to have Mittenfest run the whole month so every single musician could take part. I wind up feeling that wonderful mix of awe and gratitude a lot in my job. Our volunteers, our donors, all of our supporters contribute so meaningfully to our community by helping students who benefit from our model of one-on-one attention.
MARK: And, if I’m not mistaken, 826 raised about $15,000 thought Mittenfest last year, right?
AMANDA: We sure did. And our goal this year is to hit $20,000, which will cover the entire cost of our in-classroom work in Ypsilanti.
MARK: Is there anything else that we should know about 826, your plans for the future, or Mittenfest?
AMANDA: Among many other ways you can support our work, we’re encouraging people to buy local this holiday season. Any local economic activity helps organizations like ours more than shopping at big box stores. But, for the first time ever, we’re publishing our own holiday catalog of Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair wares—everything from robot measuring cups for your kitchen to robot Matryoshka dolls for your toddler to our best-selling fridge rover robot. We’re launching the the catalog and new website Monday, November 21.
So, if you’re a person who values the written word, who wants to make your community a better place, and needs some time away from the TV, surrounded by real people, consider joining 826, OK?