826DC Writing Workshops

826DC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. 826DC provides drop-in tutoring, field trips, after-school workshops, in-schools tutoring, help for English language learners, and assistance with student publications. See examples of student work in our Youth Voices section.

826DC's programs are modeled after 826 Valencia, the inspiration for the founding of 826 National, which now counts with eight affiliates, including Washington, D.C., throughout the United States. 826 National was co-founded by author Dave Eggers and by veteran educator Ninive Calegari, whose experience as a teacher shaped the 826 model.

Don’t Forget to Write

Don’t Forget to Write: 50 Enthralling and Effective Writing Lessons for the Secondary Grades, created by 826 National, is designed for students 11 and up. Lesson plans include topics such as crafting a young-adult novel, songwriting, and writing from experience — contributed by some of our best writers, including best-selling authors Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife). Each lesson has been developed in conjunction with 826 programs and workshops to unlock the art and fun of writing for even the most resistant of students. You can purchase the complete book here.

826 National has generously allowed American Graduate DC to publish three lesson plans from Don’t Forget to Write:

Details (Golden), Character (Immortal), and Setting (Rural India)

By Dave Eggers (1 session, 2 hours)

This is the lesson I usually give on the first meeting of my high school writing class. I’m trying to do the following things:

Step 1: The Power of Observation (12 minutes)

Start with the head of a stuffed crocodile. Or something like that. 826 Valencia is next to a store that sells taxidermied animals, so 1 usually go over and borrow one of there crocodile heads. Whatever you choose to use, this object should be something fairly unusual, but it should also be something that the students have seen before. Now, without showing the students the object — pass our blank pieces of paper, and ask the students to draw the object. For example, if I have the stuffed crocodile head hidden in my desk, I would tell the students, "You have 5 minutes to draw a perfectly accurate rendering of a Peruvian caiman (a type of small crocodile)." The students will laugh, but you will be serious. They have to get down to business, and draw that crocodile.

After 5 minutes, most students will have a pretty sorry-looking crocodile. They will have drawn the animal from memory trying to recall if the crocodile 's eyes are on the top of the head, or the side, and if the teeth are inside its mouth or protrude out the sides. Collect the drawings and show them to the class. Guffaws will follow.

Now take the actual crocodile head out, and place it where the students can easily see it. Now ask them to draw the Peruvian caiman again, using the actual animal as a model. After 5 minutes, you'll see a tremendous difference. Where there was guessing and vagueness and error in the first drawings, there will be detail, specificity and accuracy, now that the students can refer to the genuine article. 'They'll see that the eyes are actually on top of its head. They'll see that the eyes are like a cat’s — eerie and many-layered. They'll see that the snout is very long, very narrow, and very brittle-seeming.

Step 2: Apply the Lesson of the Peruvian Caiman to Any and All Writing (5 minutes)

The lesson is pretty clear: if you draw from life, from observation, your writing will be more convincing. It doesn't matter if you're writing science fiction, fantasy, or contemporary realism — whatever it is, it will benefit from real-life observation. Is there a street performer in the novel you're writing? Go watch one in action. Is there a short-hair terrier in the story you're writing? Go observe one. Is there a meat-eating Venus flytrap plant in your poem? See how they really do it. Nothing can substitute for the level of specificity you get when you actually observe.

Step 3: Knowing the Difference in Details (25 minutes)

My students and I talk about the three types of details. With different classes, we've given these three types different names, but here we'll call them:

Now let's try to define them, in reverse order so we have some drama:

Not-so-good: This is a very nice way of referring to clichés or clunky descriptions or analogies. First, clichés: if there's one service we can give to these students, it's to wean them off the use of clichés. Clichés just destroy everything in their path, and they prevent the student's writing from being personal or original. He was as strong as an ox. She ate like a bird. His hands were clammy. She looked like she'd seen a ghost. There's just no point, really, in writing these words down. When students can tell a cliché when they see one, they become better critical thinkers, better readers, smarter people. When they learn to stay away from clichés in their own writing, they’re on their way to becoming far stronger writers. The other type of not-so-good detail is the clunky one. His legs looked like square-cut carrots. Her dog was like a blancmange crossed with a high-plains cowboy. This is, in a way preferable to a cliché but it's so strange and hard to picture that it disrupts the flow of the story.

Useful: These are descriptions that are plain but needed. His hair was orange. Her face was long and oval. These pedestrian details are necessary, of course. Nor every description can be golden. Speaking of which …

Golden: This is a detail/description/analogy that is singular, is completely original, and makes one's subject unforgettable. She tapped her fingernail rhythmically on her large teeth as she watched her husband count the change in his man-purse. In one sentence, we’ve learned so much about these two people. He has a man-purse. He's fastidious. She's tired of him. She's exasperated by him. She has large teeth. Golden details can come about even while using plain words: Their young daughter's eyes were grey and cold, exhausted. Those words, individually bland, are very specific and unsettling when applied to a young girl. In one key sentence, a writer can nail down a character. This is a sample from one of my students, describing a man she saw in the park near 826 Valencia: He wore a beret, though he'd never been to Paris, and he walked like a dancer, as if hoping someone would notice that he walked like a dancer.

Working this out with the class: Getting the students to understand the differences between these three kinds of description is possible with an exercise that’s always good fun. Create a chart, where you have three categories: not-so-good, useful, golden. Now give them a challenge: come up with examples of each. Tell them that they need to conjure examples for, say: The feeling of traveling at 100 miles an hour.

The students in one of my classes came up with these:

The exploration of these types of description can last a full class period, for sure. If you want to keep going, consider this game I use sometimes. This takes the concept to a new level of fun.

Optional Game (25 minutes)

Take 25 sheets of blank paper or one for every student in the class. At the top of each — leaving plenty of room below — write something that might need description: the smell of a grandparent; the sensation of a first kiss; the atmosphere of a funeral home; the taste of a perfect apple; the look in the eyes of someone who's just seen a car accident. Now, pass these out, one page per student. The task is to come up with the best (golden) description or analogy for each prompt. It works like this: Student A might start with the "smell of a grandparent" sheet. Student A then spends a few minutes trying to come up with the best description he can think of. When Student A has written something down, he passes the paper on to Student B, and Student A receives another one that's been passed by Student C. The next paper Student A gets might be "the taste of a perfect apple." Student A then spends a few minutes on that one. If he comes up with something, then great. If he doesn't, he can pass it on. Each student writes his or her own analogy below the rest of the descriptions. The final object is to come up with the best description for each prompt. I usually give the students 25 minutes, so those 25 minutes are pretty madcap, with the papers flying, the students searching for the prompts that inspire them. At the end of the 25 minutes, each prompt might have 10-15 descriptions written below it. The teacher then reads all the descriptions aloud, and the students vote on which one is best. Whichever student wins the most prompts is feted in some appropriate way.

Step 4: Interviewing Your Peers While Observing Them Shrewdly (15 minutes)

Start by telling the students that they’re going to interview each other for 15 minutes. The students will be paired up — try to pair up students who don't usually talk to each other much — and they’ll find a quiet place to talk. One will interview the other, and after 7-1/2 minutes, they'll switch. Before getting them started, talk about what sorts of details are useful in defining a character., making that character singular and intriguing. They'll be applying what they know from the caiman exercise, and also using good interviewing techniques, to immediately get beyond the "Where do you go to school?" sorts of questions. By asking good questions and observing closely the interviews should produce strong results very quickly now that the students know that they’re looking for golden details.

Step 5: Immortalizing Your Subject (30 minutes)

Once all the students have notes about their assigned peer, they can do one of two things:

The Simple but Essential Character Sketch

You can ask them to simply write one-page character sketches of their peers, which should be compelling, true, well observed, and (of course) beautifully written. This alone is a very worthwhile assignment. When these are read aloud, the interview subjects benefit from what in most cases is the first title they've ever been thus defined. It's strange but true: it’s pretty rare to have someone observe you closely, write about your gestures and freckles and manner of speech. In the process, the interviewers improve their powers of observation, while the interviewees blush and can't get the worlds off their brain. And these two students get to know each other far better than they would almost any other way. It's a good way to break though cliques, and create new bonds of understanding.

Find Your Subject in Rural India (for Example)

The lesson works pretty well either way, but something extraordinary happens with this second part, the curveball part. At this stage, after the first 15 minutes, hand out pictures to the students. These pictures, one per student, should depict some unusual, strange, foreign, bizarre, or historical setting. Usually I make copies from old LIFE books about various cultures of the world. Thus the student might end up with a picture of a Swedish farm, a royal Thai court, a Nairobi marketplace, or a scene from rural India. Then tell the class that they need to (a) use the details they've gathered about their classmate; and then (b) place that student in a foreign setting. The writers then need to concoct a reason why their character is in rural India, or in Barbados, or in Grenada, or in the drawing room of a Scottish duke. This requires the writers to imagine this new/strange world, and also solve the problem: What is their character doing there? Is their character stuck, is he or she trying to leave? How would this student react to being lost in a marketplace in Nairobi? Who or what is he or she looking for?

If you have some time, or want to expand the exercise, have the students research their location a bit. Even by using the picture alone, they are using their observational powers, but with the added benefit of some book-oriented or Internet research, they can conjure ever-more-convincing settings.

I have to admit that I came up with this exercise on the fly. I had no idea that it would work, but it did the first time I did it, and it always works. Here's why:

Literary Facebooks

By Kathryn Riddle (1 session, 2 hours)

Materials: Magazines to cut up, scissors, glue sticks (optional)

Curious what Elizabeth Bennet’s, Harry Potter's, Bella Swan's, or Percy Jackson's Facebook profile would look like? Wonder no more! In this lesson plan, students create a mock Facebook profile based on their very favorite literary character. There's lots of room for creativity. Use it as a fun wrap-up activity, or to assess student understanding of character traits.

When using the paper template, it works well to expand it onto a large piece of paper, leaving lots of room for writing and instant classroom decoration when the product is finished!

Start by having the class discuss what they have in their own Facebook profile and how it represents them. Students should then pick a book character to use for their Facebook and brainstorm what they want to include in it.

Pass out the templates and get ready to write! Students often like to have the text they are using at hand to check details. Encouragement to get creative is also important, as not all Facebook details will be found in the book. In this case, encourage students to make up details based on other character traits. Have magazines, scissors, and glue sticks on hand so students can paste in profile pictures and other images.

Now brace yourself and be ready to be amazed by your incredibly creative and talented students. Have your students share their creations with the class. This offers an opportunity to both show their skills and prove what they know about the text (and it's a great review for those students who may have missed a chapter or two!). Because sharing the entire profile would be very time-consuming, encourage your students to pick five parts that they want to share, or ask them what they put in various areas of the page.

This lesson does not have to stop with literature lessons. Students can create pages for acclaimed scientists, famous historical figures, or celebrated mathematicians.

Note: Neither Jossey-Bass Publishers nor the authors of this book encourage the creation of fictitious profiles on Facebook.com; the site is a hub for individuals' authentic identities and as such fictitious profiles violate the core values of Facebook.

See You Again Later: Playing with Time

By Audrey Niffenegger (1 session, 2+ hours)

Playing with time is a great exercise for a beginning writer. It relieves the pressure of having to begin at the beginning, which not everyone is suited to doing, certainly not me. My own work tends to start off with a phrase or an image, and I don’t necessarily know what it means. In the case of The Time Traveler’s Wife, I started out with that phrase, and then had an image of an elderly woman with her cup of tea, waiting. And from there, eventually, it became a novel.

Nontraditional time lines work in almost any genre of literature. It doesn't have to mean science fiction time machines. For me, the time travel was mimicking memory. Memory isn't all that tidy and doesn't come in strict chronological older so often a jumbled chronology can give a more naturalistic story.

Sometimes playing with time is done in an obvious way and some times it's subtle. The nice thing about an atypical approach to time is that it allows you to give and withhold information in ways that heighten the reader's experience of suspense. Often in mysteries and suspense novels the author starts with the end or the climax — he or she flash you a jolt — and then in chapter one you go back and see how you got to that point. It’s done so often it doesn't even sound like time travel.

In this lesson students practice playing with their own nontraditional time schemes.

Exercise 1: Scramble a Story

Have students write a story in which every sentence starts with “And then.” Then, have them put the sentences back in a different order for a different outcome. The fun thing is to write a bunch of unrelated sentences. Then it gets very surreal. It's great to have the students read these aloud.

Exercise 2: Write a Story Backwards

A harder and more interesting thing to do is to start a story at the end point and work backwards. It's sounds simple, but it’s not the way we're used to thinking.

Exercise 3: Write 100 Unrelated Sentences

One of the things that makes playing with time such a great exercise for a writer is the underlying principle of unfamiliarity. It jars you out of your habits and habitual way of looking at things, which is always good for creativity. So I do a lot of exercises that force people into peculiar juxtapositions. In this one, I have students write 100 unrelated sentences. After the first 20, it gets surprisingly hard. But when the students are done they have a grab bag of stuff they can use all semester.

Exercise 4: Begin and End with Two Random Sentences

Once the students have their 100 sentences, I'll have them write a story that begins with, say sentence #74 and ends with #22. The results are typically hilarious, but the work they're doing, getting from point A to B, is worth doing. Obviously you can connect any two points if you write long enough, but usually these are timed, in class. That's another thing: giving yourself finite time periods to write is REALLY helpful.

Bonus Exercise: Character Development

Managing character development when your character is going backward and forward in time can be tricky. It's hard to remember what your characters already know, what's going on in their lives at a given time, and especially all the little details that make them who they are. I like to give my students a questionnaire to help them keep track of all that. It’s a combination of basic facts and things you'd ask at a party plus much more intimate questions. Once it’s filled out you'll have a pretty good idea of who your characters are, where they’ve been, and where they’re going. What we do in class is share the characters, and then we have the characters interact, at which point students start to write dialogue. It’s a nuts-and-bolts way to get up and running. I’ve found it useful for myself for continuity.