Students at the Living School, a public high school in New Orleans East, were excited as they gathered on a mild Friday evening for the school’s annual festival. 

The event was also a celebration of the ninth-grade students’ new book called, “A View Inside.” The book was published by 826 New Orleans, an organization that “offers free writing programs and publishing opportunities to over 1,500 students annually.” The organization’s staff and volunteers “help students improve their literacy skills, become published authors, and understand the power of their voices on and off the page.”

When literacy is the topic in New Orleans, most educators are talking about reading, said Rai Bolden, the program director for 826 New Orleans. But the power of writing is the key to elevating the voices of young people once they’re able to read, Bolden said. 

“I think at the center of that is making sure that young people in the city have a place to get out very important things that they’re thinking and express themselves,” Bolden said.

826 New Orleans is part of the 826 National Network, which supports the writing and literacy programs of its nine chapters including programs in Boston, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago.

The New Orleans chapter began as a writing project called “Big Class” for 43 first-graders at Lincoln Elementary School in Marrero, using the 826 National model. In 2013, the Big Class expanded, offering a year-round after-school writing program at the Big Class Studio. Five years later, the Big Class joined the national network, the first 826 chapter in the South.

Rai Bolden, the program director for 826 New Orleans, acknowledges the hard work students at Living School put into becoming published authors. Credit: Nigell Moses, Verite News

The roots of the national program began in 2002, when noted author Dave Eggers and award-winning educator Nínive Calegari opened a writing and tutoring center to support overburdened teachers by connecting community members with students who could use their help the most. The space they chose was 826 Valencia Street in the Mission District of San Francisco, eventually leading to the 826 brand.

Since 2010, 826 New Orleans has served more than 4,000 students and created more than 100 publications of student work. Through their partnerships with schools and low to no-cost programs, they help students improve their “literacy skills, become published authors, and understand the power of their voices on and off the page.”

Today the organization has a 4400-square-foot writing center on St. Bernard Avenue in the Seventh Ward. The center offers year-round school-day, after-school, weekend, and summer literacy programming. 

826 New Orleans is launching its first early-learner program, called “Wee Write,” publishing authors ages 3 to 5 years old. 

Working with schools and teachers is crucial to providing the resources and creative projects the organization does with students in the city, Bolden said. 

“All we need is a space — a classroom — and a teacher who’s interested in doing some kind of creative project or an administrator that wants to center writing in their school,” Bolden said.

Lisa O’Neill, manager of the writers’ room for 826 New Orleans at the Living School, shares her excitement working with ninth-graders to tell their own narratives. Credit: Nigell Moses/Verite

At the Living School in New Orleans East, the student editorial board made all the decisions about their book, said Lisa O’Neill, the writer’s room manager for 826 New Orleans at Living School. Students learned photography skills as well as practical craft skills for how to do nonfiction writing. Students were involved in the process every step of the way. 

“I think the thing that I appreciate the most about it is that students have a real sense of ownership,” O’Neill said. “So it’s really important, I think, that young people not only be able to utilize their voices but also that they are able to make decisions about projects from start to finish.”

At the festival, freshman Jamarrie Gordon, 15, read a piece about social distancing and the impact the pandemic had on her family. 

“I wanted people to understand that there’s always different ways to communicate with your loved ones from far away,” Gordon said.

Gordon was excited to be part of the book and put her ideas on the page.

“I like that we are able to write our own stories,” Gordon said of the ninth-grade book project. “I just felt like it was an opportunity to express myself through writing.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified 826 New Orleans writer’s room manager at Living School Lisa O’Neill as Lisa O’Neal. The story has been updated.

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New Orleans native Nigell Moses graduated summa cum laude from Xavier University of Louisiana with a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication. She is a published contributing writer, with stories in The...