At a tiny roundtable in the corner of 826NYC’s basement, three young writers from the organization’s Summer Filmmakers Workshop huddled around a laptop, brainstorming a satisfying ending for the film noir they were making.
“She could have coffee with the killer,” Josh, the youngest of the three students, said.
“And then they take a selfie!” Monica, another student, replied.
Cutter Wood, 826NYC’s volunteer and programs coordinator, helped facilitate the discussion with Josh, Monica and Dayanara, another student in the workshop. Saeeda, an intern for 826NYC, furiously typed, striving to keep up with the children’s ideas.
The scene would be the film’s climactic confrontation, when detective Kim Valentine learns that her partner is the infamous “Selfie Murderer.” The group decided to role-play the scene; Dayanara took the role of Valentine, while Monica played the part of the partner with a secret. After some discussion of whether or not he would play a coffee mug, Josh decided to be Valentine’s office assistant.
“I have killed three people!” Monica exclaimed. Dayanara, playing Valentine, laughed and asked her why.
“Because I’m evil!” Monica replied.
“Why are you evil?” Dayanara asked.
“Oh my gosh,” Monica said, laughing. Valentine, it seemed, had stumped the killer.
826NYC hosts 30 students each summer for the Filmmakers Workshop, where kids collaborate in groups to write and direct their own films. The workshops offer an experiential approach to learning, and 826 educators say the benefits extend beyond the focus on film.
“When you go for a job, you need to tell a story about who you are. You are constantly telling a story about who you are,” said Mariama Lockington, the organization’s director of education. “Students don’t notice they tell stories every single day.”
The workshops also present students with the means to investigate subject matter that can go unexplored during the regular school year, uncovering alternative methods to retain learned knowledge and skills during the summer break.
“There’s more room for these kinds of programs in the summer,” Sarah Pitcock, the National Summer Learning Association’s chief executive officer, said. “There’s more room for kids to go deep.”
Author Dave Eggers and educator Nínive Clements Calegari co-founded 826 National in 2002, with a Park Slope location opening two years later. It can be found behind a “secret door” in the rear of the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Store, where children and parents can stock up on capes, secret identity kits and other essentials for battling super villains.
The store’s proceeds support 826NYC’s programs, and all the workshops are free. Wood said that the demand for the Filmmakers Workshop drastically exceeded space availability, with 60 applications for the 30 available slots.
“There’s so much need,” Wood said. “There’s a huge wait list.”
At times, it can be difficult for summer arts programs to expand to accommodate greater numbers of applicants because of the need for specialized staff and resources, according to Pitcock. Also, public funding often flows towards broader-based programs.
“Public funding tends to fund the more generalized kinds of programs,” she said. “And public funding will be what tends to take programs to scale.”
According to Lockington, 826NYC aims for flexibility in its programming; the Filmmakers Workshop formed because one of 826NYC’s first students was a movie fan, and educators developed a workshop around his passion. Many children in the workshops attend school in the neighborhood. Chelsea, a rising seventh grader, goes to school at M.S. 51, across the street from the Superhero Store.
“In school, you don’t always get to do so much fun things,” she said, but at 826, “you learn how to work with others and take others’ ideas.”
Boone, who will be a high school junior in the fall, attended 826NYC programs for ten years and found that he loved making movies.
“I want to go to film schools. I realized I really enjoy it,” he said. As one of the program’s senior students, he liked offering advice to the younger attendees.
“In school, I’m being taught,” he said. “But here I’m able to teach.”
Lockington said that 826NYC supported public school curricula and standards in its school year tutoring, but the organization’s approach and focus on writing, film and the arts make its programs unconventional when compared to a student’s typical school-year classes.
“There are schools that are trying to incorporate the arts into their school system, but because of testing and standards, there isn’t a lot of room in the curriculum to connect students to the storytelling that may be happening in their own lives,” she said. “We’re interested in creating tangible products for students at the end of the workshop that they can see and hold.”
According to Pitcock, programs like the Filmmakers Workshop can particularly benefit students who struggle during the regular school year.
“A lot of kids are not successful using the traditional teaching methods and styles in the school year. Kids who are more active or kinesthetic learners, or struggle with reading or other core competencies may have a really hard time,” she said. “But when you put kids in a different type of teaching environment with a different subject matter, their confidence grows.”
Pitcock also noted that when a student has the opportunity to dive deep in a subject that interests them, that inquisitive drive can ripple through disciplines and classes they find more challenging.
“Interest-based and inquiry-based learning have been shown to be very important for longer-term retention,” she said. The boost in confidence can also offer students a more profound internal assistance for when classes begin again in the fall.
“School is really tough; kids can get really discouraged in the school year,” she said. “If you give kids a leadership role, if you let them work together, it might give them the grit and determination to persevere through another year.”
Wood echoed Pitcock’s enthusiasm about how important that confidence boost could be for students, especially come the autumn. He considered it to be one of the workshop’s most lasting benefits.
“Dayanara, when I first met her, did not speak. She didn’t talk to me or any of the tutors,” he said. “But you saw her. You stick her in a scene and suddenly she’s Kim Valentine.”