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Zach Clark

Photo: Zachary Clark

Q+A: Zachary Clark, Ed.M.’12

A D.C. nonprofit shares the magic of writing with young learners

Behind a secret door in the back of D.C.’s only magic shop, a team of wizards turns everyday kids into published authors. Except these aren’t wizards — they’re volunteers and staff members passionate about literacy. And this isn’t just a magic shop — it’s 826DC, a literacy nonprofit offering free writing programs and homework help to young learners ages six to 18. Zachary Clark, Ed.M.’12, executive director of 826DC, talked to Ed. about running a nonprofit in times of trouble, overcoming the terror of the blank page, and channeling your inner weirdness into passionate writing (hint: it doesn’t require magic, just practice!).

What is 826DC, and why does it look like a magic shop?
We are youth writing center and publishing house, and we’re based here in the District of Columbia. We’re the local chapter of a national network of youth writing centers that are designed to help young people develop lasting relationships with writing and amplify the stories they have to tell.

One thing that’s unique about our organization is that each of the chapters has a spectacular storefront. Initially, the space being used for our original writing lab was zoned for commercial retail. Instead of leaving that space, our founders thought, well, we’ll just open a store! So they opened a pirate supply store in front and had the actual tutoring center and writing lab in back. Our chapter’s storefront is Tivoli’s Astounding Magic Supply Company, D.C.’s only magic shop. And behind the shop is our writing lab and tutoring center. This allows students to walk in and see the learning space as a secret place that’s not quite home, not quite school, but inherently their own.

What brought you to this work?
Right after college, I worked in an organization in Providence called New Urban Arts. There, I saw what it looked like when dynamic, youth-centric learning was made possible. I’ve always been interested in these youth-centric spaces that support learning outside of the classroom. 826 is a space like this, where young people can take ownership of their own ideas in a really imaginative way. Stepping into this practice and power felt like important work to be doing.

Why is publishing student work so important?
It is always powerful, no matter how old you are, to see your name in print. It says, I have something to say, and people are going to learn from it. This, helping young people develop meaningful relationships with writing, is the most important thing we do. Yes, writing is fundamental to academic achievement, and that matters to us. But beyond that, we want young people to see how their stories can impact the world positively and how their perspectives can shape a path forward for them. That requires developing a relationship with the written word so you see it as your own tool. I think that’s where young people see the benefit of 826DC. They see their name in print and consider themselves published writers, and they take that relationship with writing beyond the classroom.  

How do you inspire reluctant writers?
Writing is hard. As adults we forget that — but it’s hard to write a thoughtful email, or a persuasive cover letter, or even a kind note. So what we are asking young people to do as they engage in the writing process with us, it takes a lot of bravery. Really honoring the challenge is a key part of the equation.

Especially the blank page.
When I studied painting as an undergraduate, my painting professor used to encourage us to start by destroying the white canvas. Stain it, make a mark on it, do whatever you can to take away the intimidation of a blank space, and from there you’ll feel more free to start your work. A blank page or an empty Word doc is extremely intimidating, so when we’re encouraging young people to write with us or to write for themselves, we take that same approach. We tell learners, do what you can to get something on the paper. Maybe start with a list, or a stream-of-conscious journal entry, or the best way to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Or maybe you don’t even start with words — you can start by drawing the story you want to tell. The key is to dive in and get yourself warmed up. We really aim to lower the stakes for young people to get them writing.

How have you handled the challenges of remote learning in these crazy times?  
This moment of distance learning has provided us with an opportunity to interrogate how we are showing up for young people. We’ve had to ask, what does it mean to help students grow their writing proficiency? To amplify their voices? To connect with other people through writing? The answers to these questions are certainly different than they were a year ago. For us at 826DC, this means we must have radical flexibility and humility about what we do. We are dedicated to finding new ways to show young people that they belong and that their voices are important, especially in this moment.

Being silly sometimes helps?
I have never met anyone who isn’t a little bit of a weirdo — even if that weirdness is buried. One of the great things about working with young people is that their weirdness is always much closer to the surface. I cannot tell you how many stories I’ve heard in the writing lab about motorcycles made of cheeseburgers or dog presidents or things like that. These electric ideas only come from young people because they’re so tapped into their weirdness.

If you can indulge the neon, billowing expansiveness of your own imagination, you realize that there are stories within you that haven’t been heard before. And once you realize that, once you’re willing to shake the story loose onto the page, you develop the confidence necessary to write. I think of silliness as an opportunity to shake loose your imagination onto the page. Success, to us, is when our students find the confidence to become their own biggest fans, and find fulfillment in the words they have written.

Gianna Cacciatore, Ed.M.’18, is a former teacher and Harvard Teacher Fellows member currently working on her master’s degree at the Harvard Divinity School. Recently, she wrote stories about Malika Ali, Ed.M.’19 and the After Hours Learning podcast.