Nínive Clements Calegari: Spreading the Word About the Power of Words

ninive clements calegari

Nínive Clements Calegari


Credit: Peter Hoey

The Daring Dozen Q&A

How do you use the Web in your work?

We use the Web for almost everything. We use it:

We wouldn't be able to function without the Web. We manage tutors using an internal Web site where they can learn about programs and sign themselves up to work with students; they can read a welcome letter from the teacher discussing their school, their students, and the project the class will be tackling. Volunteers can sign up on the spot and then get automatic reminders. Managing 1,200 people on different schedules would be impossible to do without the Web.

Since we're a national organization, we also use the Web to post our programming materials so that the staff members in all seven cities can have access to the latest tools to implement our activities.

Which resources have inspired you and informed your work?

Students are my main source of inspiration. Every time 826 hosts a student-focused event and I see young people who are proud of their work and of themselves, I am overwhelmed and energized -- often even moved to tears. Seeing young people dressed up, with their shoulders back, heads high, accompanied by their families, showing the community what they've accomplished and how far they've come -- this is what keeps me going.

I'm also inspired by the volunteers who spend their free time going into unfamiliar schools, working with students they've never met, devoting their undivided time and attention to the details of a student's essay.

Effective teachers who bring magic into classrooms every day are also endlessly inspirational to me. Teaching well is an almost impossible job that is shamefully underpaid, and yet those tireless educators do heroic work.

Who are your role models?

Sister Claire from Santa Catalina School and Professor Alison Stanger from Middlebury College have been my role models most of my life. Both of them have the perfect combination of grace and power. Sister Claire was in charge of my high school and Alison Stanger was my political science teacher for two years in college. It was clear that they cared deeply for their students by being demanding while being fair, enthusiastic, loving, and honest. They are both the kind of educators you hope that all students experience; I worked hard to please them because it would have killed me to let them down. I'd be honored to be even a little bit like either one of them.

Also, Dave Eggers is a great role model. Whether Dave is advocating for Sudanese refugees, writing an Op-Ed essay about exonerated prisoners, writing an epic novel, or advocating for higher teachers' salaries, he doesn't stop until he believes the job has been done perfectly. And he uses this same standard when he's working with students. He is quick to change obstacles into challenges and opportunities.

What advice would you give those who consider you a role model?

My advice would be simple: write thank you notes, don't assume that anything is beyond your grasp, and be quick to ask the smartest people you can find for help.

What fundamental beliefs have guided your work?

Students thrive with one-on-one attention. Students respond well when faced with challenges or problems that feel and look like real life, and these kinds of projects make students more motivated to perform well. Students deserve authentic audiences so that they know they are heard and their work is honored. Learning is a blast, and play and humor are good tools to use to engage students. Working hard can be addictive, and taking on enormous challenges is worth it. Students should be surrounded by gorgeous spaces that honor them and the work at hand. Building a community is always vital. There is something everyone -- literally everyone -- can do for our schools, students, and teachers.

What is your mantra in the face of adversity?

When we're struggling I always think back to a teacher workshop I attended ten years ago. The workshop leader said that the upside of being confused is that you'll learn something -- the reminder that we'll get to the other side a tiny bit wiser really does make me feel better. I also believe that there is a good answer for most things and, with time, it'll emerge.

More to Explore:

About 826 Valencia

Video: Book Event on Scribe Media
TEACHERS HAVE IT EASY: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers

Nínive Clements Calegari on Wikipedia

See Josh Kornbluth's Blog on KQED

As a public school teacher for nearly a decade, Nínive Clements Calegari learned firsthand, and often the hard way, that kids need one-on-one feedback to improve their writing -- a fact that large classes, constant lesson planning, and myriad administrative responsibilities get in the way of, no matter how determined the educator is.

Rather than give up her conviction, Calegari gave up her role as a teacher in what she calls "the intestines" of the classroom, helping create an organization to offer the kind of tutoring the practice of writing requires. These days, Calegari (a member of GLEF's National Advisory Board) facilitates one-to-one feedback for thousands of student writers and their teachers as head of San Francisco's 826 Valencia, the innovative writing center she helped friend and author Dave Eggers launch at that street address in April 2002. She also leads the 826 National network, with chapters in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Chicago; Los Angeles; New York City; and Seattle.

The nonprofit centers provide students ages 6-18 with assorted free services and programs: after school care, drop-in tutoring, English-language-learning resources (at selected locations), zine and book publishing, and workshops on writing student newspapers, plays, and college admissions essays. They recruit legions of skilled community volunteers -- 1,200 in San Francisco alone -- to supply much of the personal attention on which youngsters thrive.

"Dave understood there was a group of people who could be put to work," Calegari says, ticking off a lengthy list of 826 volunteers that includes writers, illustrators, business writers, and marketing people, among others. Actor Robin Williams wrote the foreword for a collection of San Francisco students' stories and myths; Ira Glass, creator of the Chicago Public Radio (and now Showtime cable-television) program "This American Life," serves on the Chicago chapter's board of directors.

The writing centers lure constituents with clever, head-turning storefronts unique to their locales: New York's Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co., Seattle's Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co., and San Francisco's Pirate Store, which sells peglegs and glass eyes. Retail sales generate revenue for the centers, which do their own fund raising and grant writing. (Calegari and 826 National supply the curriculum framework.) This year, 826 National will devote roughly $3 million to supporting students. Its programs reached more than 15,000 students last year, Calegari estimates, and the numbers likely will increase when a chapter opens in Boston this fall.

Beyond the storefronts, 826 staff and recruits take a light-hearted approach to the serious work of writing. For Storytelling and Bookmaking, a popular field trip, visiting classes write a book that's professionally illustrated right before their eyes -- all within two hours. "At 826, we use play as a tool to engage students," says Calegari, "but it's all rigorous -- completely academic."

She ensures it. Armed with a master's degree in teaching and curriculum from Harvard University, Calegari primarily taught in public high schools for eight years -- in Cambridge, in California's affluent Marin County, and at a fledgling charter school in her native San Francisco. She was teaching at a private school in Cuernavaca -- her Mexican mother's hometown -- when Eggers called with his idea for a writing center. "That was the unbelievable blessing," says Calegari, who adds that she had been looking to move into teacher support and training.

All the 826 centers will serve any students who come in, but they reach out to schools with high numbers of low-income students. At a teacher's request, the organization will deploy groups of volunteers to classrooms for special projects, such as student newspapers or oral histories. Calegari recently led a team that spent several days advising juniors and seniors in a high school lit class for a collection of children's stories 826 will publish.

"Getting someone to sit down with you and have a dialogue is much more beneficial than having a teacher just correct a paper -- and that could take two weeks," says that class's grateful instructor, Guilan Sheykhzadeh, a multigrade English teacher at San Francisco's Raoul Wallenberg Traditional High School. En masse, she adds, the volunteers "quickly home in on problems."

Under Calegari's direction, 826 Valencia also acted on one of Dave Eggers's ideas: a teacher-of-the-month award that comes with $1,500 -- and the stipulation that the money can't be spent on classroom supplies. "It's not enough money, but it's symbolic," says Calegari, who with Eggers and Daniel Moulthrop cowrote Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers. At 826, "we honor teachers' professionalism, their voice, their work," Calegari says. "It's the norm here."

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