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TED2008: Dave Eggers wants you to go to school

The TED Prize is one of the most unique aspects of the conference. Each year, the conference honors three individuals who have the possibility to change the world. It gives each $100,000… but that’s not the interesting part. The cool bit is the cooperation of the TED community in trying to make a wish a reality.

We see a review of EO Wilson’s wish for an Encyclopedia of Life, and the work that’s been done to make it real. Wilson, the world’s leading authority on ants, has gone on to become one of the great voices on the importance of biodiversity. That biodiversity is now being celebrated on EOL.org, an amazing site intended to have a single page on each species on the planet. The cooperation that made the site possible included Avenue A/Razorfish, who designed the site, Photosynth, who designed amazing software to allow 3D views of species, and Adobe who designed an organizational system that allows navigation of 1.8 million pages. In a video, Wilson admits that “I never dreamed that my interests would be interesting to anyone other than a small group of scientists.” The existence of this site proves otherwise.

Dave Eggers is the first TED Prize winner this year. He’s nervous, almost performatively so, setting up his notes on the floor because he can’t find a podium. Wringing his hands, he talks about writing his first novel, living in Brooklyn. He wrote from midnight to 5am every day, and he and his writer friends “had a lot of scheduling flexibility.” Many of his friends were teachers, and they talked a great deal about their struggles. Teachers were struggling to keep students reading and writing at grade level.

Many of these kids don’t speak English in the home. Some have learning disabilities. They desperately need personal attention, but teachers might see 150 to 200 students a day – how do you give each student one on one attention? Eggers saw a supply and demand – kids in need of attention, and writers with flexibility and a love of the written word.

Eggers decided to move McSweeney’s – his “quarterly, published two or three times a year” – into a space that could also be used as a writing tutoring center. The idea was to have no barriers between the two. Howeverm the space was zoned for retail, so they needed to find something to sell. As the renovated the space from a weight room, they discovered it looked a bit like the hull of a ship. So they decided to sell “supplies for the working Buccaneer.” 826 Valencia now features peg legs, supplies to avoid scury, has a “fish theatre”, a trap door that drops mop heads onto you… it’s an amazing place.

However, it took weeks for people to come in. “People alerted us hat there might ‘a trust gap’ because we were operating behind a pirate suply store.” So Eggers brought in a friend who was teaching English in Mexico City, who understood something about community relations. Since then, the project has blossomed, with 1400 volunteers on staff, 60 kids a day coming into the center. The kids get the one on one attention from writers that they need to bring up their reading levels. Parents come and watch their children get tutored. And there’s no stigma – they’re not going to a study center, but to a pirate supply store and a working publishing house.

As the project has grown, volunteers now host classes in the center during the day. Some visit classes in schools, and there’s a series of books edited by prominent writers, like Isabelle Allende and Amy Tan. “If kids know it’s permanent, they will work harder than they ever have in their lives.”

Remarkably, the store started to make money and to pay the rent. People would come in, trying to figure out what was going on. They’d see the students studying in the back, “and they’d be more likely to by some lard or millet for their parrot. A hook, maybe or a hook protector for nightime.”

The idea is such a good one, it’s had to be replicated. A group in Brooklyn now runs the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company. The store features a villian containment unit – for parents – and all customers must recite the vow of heroism before buying anything. Through a secret door, there’s a tutoring center – it features
five clocks, showing the time in all five boroughs of New York City. He points out that all the work, design, and labor was local – he endorsed the idea, but isn’t the person who built it.

Now in Seattle, there’s the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company, “The Boring Store” in Chicago, which sells spy supplies, the “Echo Park Time Travel Mart” in LA – “Wherever You Are, We’re Already Then.” Each center brings adults into tutoring roles for public school students… and the movement is growing. (Eggers mentions Wordstream in Pittfield, MA, which I plan to check out as soon as I get home.) And kids involved are doing amazing work, improving their school performance, becoming published writers and appearing on stage in readings.

The slushy machine at the Echo Park Time Travel Mart

Eggers wish is simple – “that everyone will engage in a public school in their area”. He’s asking for a thousand examples of “transformative partnerships, great leaps forward”. You can be a part of this by working in your community and sharing your story at Once Upon a School.

1 thought on “TED2008: Dave Eggers wants you to go to school”

  1. ethan,
    i am so excited to finally browse through the ted archives. i cannot contain or express my sense of excitment.. i stumbled into this couldron of ideas not so long ago and haven’t stopped smiling AND thinking.. at the same time..yeah! innovations, ideas, passion, courage..wow.. im still excited.. thank you for posting this.
    peace and light.

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