826 National
826 National:

Empowering individual and collective creativity to drive social change

We believe written words have power. Writers, poets and academics have been cultivating the practice for centuries. The written word has enabled humanity to record history, preserve traditions and act as a catalyst for imagination and future world-building.

We believe that creativity is a potent strategy for social change. We are very excited to partner with 826 National and together encourage the exploration and endless possibilities of creativity. This activity is part of the Creative Tools for social change program we developed jointly with the Moleskine Foundation. A project aiming to provide the equipment individuals need to embolden their imagination and drive social change. Together we believe empowering individual and collective creativity is critical for a society to survive and thrive.

Few organizations have dedicated themselves to unleashing the power of writing like 826 National. As the largest youth writing network in the United States, it serves more than 110,000 students domestically with chapters in 9 cities as well as partnering with over 50 organizations around the world. Through meaningful collaborations with students, teachers and communities, their work is a living testament for writing as a vital tool for young people to harness their creativity, explore identity, advocate for themselves and their community, and achieve academic and professional success. Their mission is to ensure the joy of writing is accessible to every student in every classroom. Today, we speak with 826 National’s CEO Laura Brief about inspiring the next generation of writers.

826 National
826 National

In your latest research paper, The Truth About Writing Education in America, you reflect upon the United States' longstanding challenge around equal access to quality writing education. How did we get here? Who is being most affected? And what challenges do we need to overcome?

We interviewed 19 writing education experts for the research paper, including authors, researchers, and educators, about the current state of writing education in the United States. We asked our experts to choose three words that best described the state of contemporary writing education, and the responses were bleak, with the most frequent choice: “unequal.” As is the case in the rest of the American education system, the inequities in writing education are often split across racial and socioeconomic lines. Students of colour and students from low-income communities often have less access to quality writing education and little to no representation in literacy curriculum. As a result, the voices and literacies of these students have long been underheard, underrepresented, and undervalued in traditional education spaces.

This is the result of a legacy of 20 years of education policies and standards that prioritized reading and math—alongside a focus on preparing students for standardized testing—that resulted in less time in the school day being devoted to writing. Schools in low socioeconomic areas often underperformed on standardized tests, which left teachers in those schools with less independence, and fewer resources to push back against prescriptive writing practices and teaching styles in their classrooms. In 2011, The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that 3 out of 4 12th graders are not writing at grade level proficiency, with broad disparities by race/ethnicity, gender, and school location (urban vs rural). To date, there is still no standardized way to assess student writing. And, unfortunately, what is not tested is not taught or funded. Education standards have been unfairly tied to standardized testing, and the assessment of student writing needs to be rethought.

Although the past two decades of school reforms have sought to level the playing field in classrooms around the country, inequities across race, income, ability, and school location persist, both within the subject of writing and the education system as a whole. This is perhaps what separates writing from other disciplines in education: we know its worth, we know how to improve writing instruction, and yet, it continues to be neglected in traditional education spaces and denied to the students who need it the most.

At Moleskine, we share your ethos that reading is access, but writing is power - Why is writing such a transformational endeavour?

Writing is not only an academic practice but a way to express oneself, engage with the world at large and employ imagination to dismantle restrictive, commonly-held narratives.

Publishing student work is a core part of our approach. We publish approximately 1,000 titles of student writing in the form of books, newspapers, and podcasts each year. Imagine being 8, 12, or 17 and seeing a book you are published in for sale on a shelf next to those of your favourite authors. The sense of agency that creates in a young person is tremendous and carries through to so many aspects of life.

What social and individual impact have you seen through the program so far?

826 students are writing blueprints of their visions for better schools, better monuments, and better transportation systems. They are writing tales of taco monsters, letters to loved ones across borders, college application essays, and poems about coming out to their parents. Their words are a reminder that the voice of our youth voice is powerful and that movements create change. 826 is a movement that celebrates the power of youth voice, promotes effective and equitable writing education, and emphasizes the importance of writing in the cultivation of the next generation. It is a movement that lives in the hearts and minds of tens of thousands of teachers and volunteers, and young people around the world.

You have been long time collaborators with the talented poet and activist Amanda Gorman. How has she inspired the community?

It has been truly incredible to see the world embrace and celebrate Amanda and the power of poetry to unite, heal, and inspire. We first collaborated with Amanda on a project called "We the Future" to amplify the cause of writing education nationally. Amanda joined 826 National's board of directors in 2019 while an undergraduate at Harvard. Since then, she has contributed her expertise and perspective in myriad ways. She created a virtual writing lesson for 826 National last spring when the pandemic forced school closures and a shift to virtual programming. She also wrote the foreword to Poets in Revolt!, a collection of student writing submitted to 826 National from around the country in response to a writing lesson of the same name. Gorman shares, "First and foremost, I'm the daughter of a sixth grade English teacher, which means every day my single mother demonstrated for me what can be accomplished if students are encouraged to read, write, imagine, and speak up. 826 authors are courageously and unapologetically filling in the literary gaps of yesterday and demanding that we explore new topics and voices in this sociocultural moment. They are writing the poems that they want to read, and what's more, writing poems we all should be reading.

If there is one message, 826 National could share with the world, what would it be?

In celebrating Amanda's brilliance, we also recognize that her story is not the exception; she is representative of millions of young people across this country who put pencil to paper every single day—and who deserve access to high quality writing education, regardless of the classroom or living room they sit in. Writing and creativity are powerful tools for paving your own path forward and for creating a brighter, more compassionate future for us all.

In the words of 826 New Orleans alumni and poet Akilah Toney: "I was lucky enough to receive the support I needed in my writing education, but so many students who look like me don't. Having access to equitable writing resources should not be given by the luck of the draw; it should be a right for all young writers. Equity and proper representation in writing education prepares students for the diverse world they're entering. Young writers know where they want to travel with their stories, but are we ready to give them the itineraries they need to enrich their literary expeditions?