Martians and Pirates: a gateway to creative learning

Author David Eggers grew up around teachers. In 2000, he became aware that his teacher friends were struggling with large class sizes and little time to offer one-to-one attention to their students. When he asked them how they could solve the problem, they said more bodies were required to give these children the attention they needed. David knew a lot of writers who had the time and interest, but he had no way of bringing the two communities together.
While setting up his publishing house in San Francisco, David saw an opportunity. There was enough space at his new location, 826 Valencia Street, to create a writing centre in the front of the premises where students could receive free after school help with their homework.
The new lease also required a retail function, so his team decided to install a shopfront that sold pirate supplies. As you do. This happy accident ended up promoting the writing centre in a fun and irreverent way.
In 2002, 826 Valencia opened its doors with 12 volunteer tutors eagerly awaiting their first rush of students. After a few false starts (they needed to build relationships with teachers and schools to get students and parents through the door) the centre began to thrive.
David and his team discovered that something psychological had shifted. In opening the centre on neutral ground with a pirate shop at the entrance, there was no stigma around the ‘special needs’ of these students. More so, a cross-pollination has started to occur. Publishing house interns were sitting side by side with the young students and their tutors. High school students were writing their first novels, ‘real’ writers were coming and going and the younger students were learning by following the example of those around them.
The program soon grew to offer in-school projects, book publishing opportunities and workshops in cartooning, bookmaking, zines and playwrighting.
There are now eight 826 Valencia’s across America. In 2013 they connected with over 31,000 students.
Over those first years David saw that children who received one-to-one attention at the centre began to excel at school.

Great leaps in learning can be made with one-to-one attention.

David Eggers author and co-founder 826 Valencia.

“Shining a light on their work, their thoughts and their self-expression is absolutely transformative. Some students had never experienced this kind of attention before,” says David. “They don’t know how good they are, how smart and how much they have to say. We can show them.”
826 Valencia has inspired off shoots in Dublin (Fighting Words) and London (Ministry of Stories) and other variations have sprung up in Italy, Spain, Finland and now in Sydney, Australia.
Sydney Morning Herald journalists Catherine Keenan and Tim Dick watched David Egger’s seminal 826 Valencia TED talk and were inspired.
So much so, they decided to leave journalism and co-found a centre in Sydney.
They wanted to support students from Indigenous and non-English speaking backgrounds so they chose inner-Sydney Redfern as a base. A survey of the local area revealed that many groups already offered after school homework help.
So they turned to local teachers for advice. At the time, the focus on NAPLAN, which prioritised spelling, grammar, literacy and numeracy as opposed to creative writing, was dominating the curriculum. Teachers were finding it hard to give time to creative learning in the classroom. So Catherine and Tim decided to create a space that would spark inspiration and facilitate learning through creative writing.
In 2012, The Sydney Story Factory’s Martian Embassy and Gift Shop was opened. To date, over 600 volunteer tutors have engaged one-on-one with over 2,600 children to encourage self-expression through writing while developing a love of words in a fun and engaging way. Many cans of emergency space food have also been purchased.
To learn more about David Egger’s groundbreaking work watch his 2008 TED prize winning talk: