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SaturdayAugust 2015

Welcome to 826michigan’s tenth anniversary! In 2015, we’re celebrating ten years of 826michigan by highlighting ten people who have significantly shaped our organization since 826michigan opened its doors in 2005.  Follow along with former 826michigan Communications Coordinator Amy Wilson this year as she explores how the contributions of many individuals have contributed to 826michigan’s evolution: from a tiny operation to a full-fledged nonprofit organization serving over 3,000 young people in Detroit, Ypsilanti, and Ann Arbor.

Fran Lazette and her son, Mason

Frances Lazette with her son Mason

“Working in the educational system, you have so many students that aren’t truly engaged. They are just there. Success in school and after school comes from having a sense of pride in what you’re doing. 826michigan helped my students find their voice and find that pride. It ends up being a holistic program. It’s a big picture thing. It makes tutoring not a negative thing, asking for help, needing help. It removes the stigma. 826michigan is an organization I can trust.”

In 2012 I was working as 826michigan’s Communications Coordinator. It was my responsibility to check the general “info@826michigan.org” account and to reply in a friendly and helpful way to the–-always eclectic, sometimes surprising–emails we would receive there.

I have a very vivid memory of receiving one of those info@826michigan emails that fall. We had just announced the very-long-brewing development that 826michigan (thanks to a generous grant from the DTE Energy Foundation) would begin holding regular programs in Detroit with the goal of eventually establishing a full-service, volunteer-driven writing and tutoring center in the city.

The writer, Fran Lazette, introduced herself as a former director at the Green Baxter Court community center in Ann Arbor, one of our partner organizations through the Community Action Network. Fran was now working as a classroom teacher at Earhart Elementary-Middle School in Detroit and wondered, “Would we be interested in working with her again?”

For me this was one of those moments that just felt, well, fated. Summer 2010 I had worked as an intern in 826michigan’s programs at Green Baxter and so I personally knew and remembered Fran as a wonderfully energetic, vibrant, and caring educator-—someone we should definitely work with again. It’s possible that, when I received that email, I gasped out loud at my desk. (That would be in character for me.) I passed Fran’s email along to Executive Director Amanda Uhle and Program Director Amy Sumerton and, as you’ll read, they all together with Program Manager Courtney Randolph took the first steps to creating what became 826michigan’s first long-term In-School Residency in Detroit.

It’s only right and fair that one of the individuals spotlighted here in 826michigan’s tenth anniversary celebration should be a classroom teacher. They are, in so many ways, the heart and soul of 826michigan’s mission and the reason why we do what we do. 826 founder Dave Eggers has said that his initial investment in education came from his many friends and family members who were teachers and his desire to do something concrete to support them in their work. I think many of those involved with 826michigan feel the same way. I’m so pleased to share Fran Lazette’s perspective as one of 826michigan’s partnering teachers with you, and I also hope you know that she is one of many, many teachers in Southeastern Michigan to whom we send our greatest thanks and regards for helping us, over the last ten years, to reach students where they may most need help—-right in their public and charter school classrooms.

Let’s hear more from Fran!

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“I grew up in Redford, Michigan right outside of Detroit. When I went to college I was going to do pre-law. I was interested in educational reform, and I thought that it might be better for me to have experience in the field of education. But, when I started doing all of the pre-teaching activities, I realized that I was passionate about the actual teaching itself. Teaching as a career came as a surprise, but I ended up loving it.

I heard that 826michigan was going to start working in Detroit, so I thought, let me get in touch and see if I can work with them. My primary contact was Courtney Randolph. We sat down and established that the best way to use the volunteers that 826michigan had at that time was to take a couple students that they would work with on a weekly basis. I would choose students that had specific reading or writing areas that they needed to improve on. That way they would establish a relationship with a tutor and have a personal connection. It was like tutoring and also mentoring at the same time.

It worked out great. The volunteers were always really enthusiastic, really helpful, really open to the lessons we were doing. They would help reinforce what that student needed–which is what we were working on in the classroom. A couple times I would send my advanced students down there too, to do a college/career counseling type of thing; these were my students who were really interested in reading and writing. It was great to have college-aged students in the 826michigan volunteers to talk to middle-school-aged students about college and what life is like outside of their neighborhood. That was a byproduct of having the same people come in to volunteer all the time. My students would see responsible and successful older people from the same background as them.

My students looked forward to it each week. They would come and check with me to see if everyone is still coming today!

I started talking with Amy Sumerton in the fall of 2012 and Courtney led programs which began in winter 2013 and ran through the 2013-2014 school year. As the program evolved I felt like the volunteers started to take on more of a leadership role. They would reinforce a skill or concept that we had done in weeks past. They could tailor what they were doing based on their knowledge of working with the student. They weren’t just coming in and doing what I asked, they were truly invested in the student and in the student making progress. That was huge for me. As a teacher, that individual attention was great. In that classroom, in the 2013-14 school year, I had Pre-K through 11th grade reading levels in my classes. The varying range of student readiness was insane.

That’s the biggest challenge for me as a classroom teacher, the huge variety of students and the variety in where they’re coming from. The average reading level was around 4th grade. But I also had students who were highly proficient and advanced. 826michigan allowed me to better instruct, despite what level a student may be at. The tutors were able to give individualized instruction and practice at that student’s level. A lot of times students, particularly in middle school, can be resentful of tutoring. They say, ‘I don’t need help’. But with 826michigan it was a weekly thing, they would see the same person, they built a relationship, and so the students weren’t resentful of it. The way this program was set up, students were excited about participating. They were excited to report about what they had done and their successes. That’s hard to do with middle-schoolers! These guys would come back from tutoring and be excited to show me what they did on their own. They had a sense of accomplishment and a pride in what they were doing during those tutoring hours.

To see them be so excited about reading and writing, to get that sort of interest and ownership over what they were doing–that was huge for me. 826michigan helped me give them the tools. It’s the difference between learning to read and write–the mechanics of it–versus knowing what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and wanting to do well on it for yourself.

The thing I like most about 826michigan is the consistency of the program. A lot of programs are a one-time thing, or are just around for a year or one cycle. Likewise, 826michigan has different opportunities all the time, but there’s a greater sense of investment and commitment. It’s a stable organization and they offer a stable opportunity that’s going to be there. I’m impressed with the quality of the volunteers as well. Tutors want to be there, they’re interested in talking and hanging out with the students, they take on a mentorship role which is really important. If the students don’t think the tutors are interested in them, it’s not going to have the same impact. 826michigan’s volunteers were able to create a safe place for my students to be. They would always be excited and proud of what they had done with the volunteers, even in an hour. Just to see that positive influence, that positive experience with reading and writing, is always a great thing and something you don’t get to witness that often. Reading and writing is often used as a punishment — it’s nice to see children establishing a positive association with reading and writing and expressing themselves that way.

A lot of young people can have a hard time seeing reading and writing as other than boring. They don’t find it as a way to express themselves. They say, “I have to read this story for school and then write about it.” They don’t have the opportunity to write about things that interest them or that they are passionate about. I have a lot of students who are interested in poetry, which is just one unit in a curriculum. As a society, our instruction is moving toward informational and expository texts. When kids aren’t exposed to fiction and non-fiction, it’s gone. Having the opportunity to work on creative stories and more imaginative things brings back the interest in writing.

When Dave Eggers came to town, he came to the school, and that was amazing. My students responded so well to him. He talked to them and let them talk to him. I had kids who ran to their lockers to get their journals so they could read to him and show their work to him. It was a really positive experience. He ended up sending them all a copy of his book, signed, with a note from him. It was great to see eighth graders so excited about getting a book! They were truly excited and happy. They talked about it for days afterward. It got them thinking about careers with writing. It’s something they kind of brush off, but to meet somebody who had found success in that medium made them re-think.

I think it’s really important for 826michigan to be in Detroit because the organization does a great job bringing in mentors and helping to create a passion for reading and writing through leading by example. What better place is there for 826michigan than Detroit–a community that’s trying to rebuild? They always say, you have to do it through the schools.

As a teacher and from a teacher’s perspective, 826michigan’s work is so simple, but it can be so effective. The stronger the relationships 826michigan has in the city and in the schools, the better– because reading and writing is such an important thing that most of us take for granted. A lot of people just think about literacy as an ability that you have or you don’t have, but 826michigan helps form a more positive relationship to it. 826michigan doesn’t just help students in English class, it helps them in all of their classes, in all of their activities. Once they’ve found a way to enjoy reading and writing, they get more enthusiastic overall. They want to be successful, they want to take pride in education and ownership over what they’re doing.

Working in the educational system, you have so many students that aren’t truly engaged. They are just there. Success in school and after school comes from having a sense of pride in what you’re doing. 826michigan helped my students find their voice and find that pride. It ends up being a holistic program. It’s a big picture thing. It makes tutoring, asking for help and needing help not a negative thing, It removes the stigma.

826michigan is an organization I can trust. I feel comfortable referring students, parents, and other teachers to it. I saw an 826michigan poster at a coffee shop near where I live and I was excited!  I thought, I’m glad they’re reaching out to people in my neighborhood. I’d like my own kids to participate when they get older. I truly respect the program and what 826michigan is doing. I’m a busy person, but 826michigan is somewhere I want to invest my time.  It’s worthwhile and I want to continue to be involved. I’ve worked with 826michigan in two different settings now, and both have been extremely positive for me and for what I was looking for from the experience. 826michigan is a no-brainer for me. When parents ask me about resources for reading or writing, or where their students can get involved with something positive over the summer, 826michigan is my go-to.”

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We knew 826michigan’s work in Detroit would start in the schools. To the best of my knowledge that was always part of the plan. But like I said, the way Fran Lazette and her classroom at Earhart came to 826michigan had–to me–that little tingle of fatedness. Of course it was not actually fated. But it was luck, good timing, and hard work–which can feel a lot like fate sometimes.

There are many stories I wish I could find and tell about 826michigan’s first months in Detroit. I watched Amanda Uhle and Amy Sumerton travel to many meetings down I-96, and engage in even more long phone calls. Then came the entrance of the wonderfully talented Courtney Randolph into our organization as our first Detroit-based staff member,  and the feelings of excitement and nervousness and dauntedness and hope that accompany such a long-yearned-and-worked-for move. More than anything else though, just as when we first started in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, 826michigan’s introduction to Detroit was marked by those who, like Fran Lazette, were engaged in the community and wanting to take a chance with us. That’s always been how we’ve gotten this important work done.

Next month: We’ll feature one of our longest-serving, high-impact volunteers ever.

Amy Wilson is a writer living in New York City. From 2010-2014, she was a member of 826michigan’s staff.

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