April Bo Wang, Director of Education, 826 Boston
by Matthew Presser, Ed.L.D. candidate
July 12, 2017
One of the most important lessons April Bo Wang, Ed.L.D.’16, learned about education comes not from the schools, school district office, or state capitols where she worked in the past, but instead from her office at the Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute.
It may seem like an unlikely place to learn about education until you consider that inside that institute in Roxbury, past the zombie apocalypse survival kits for sale, is 826 Boston, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center and one of seven nationwide 826 chapters housed within unusual retail stores. Wang, the Boston organization’s education director, says the playful atmosphere inspires students to fall in love with writing and has taught her the importance of what she calls “the ridiculous.”
“I learned that we should take the education of kids seriously, but we shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously,” she says. “Having come from school districts, I know there’s nothing very ridiculous in school districts. There’s a lot of really good work, but they don’t do ‘the ridiculous’ well. And I think we at 826 do ‘the ridiculous’ really, really well.”
The result of all that wackiness is some serious impact. Wang oversees programming for more than 4,000 students annually at their center, in schools, and at staffed Writers’ Rooms in two city high schools. Students improve their writing skills -- participating youth write and edit professionally published books -- while also increasing their confidence and motivation.
Matt Presser: This year, 826 Boston published its first-ever picture book (by second graders), a literary magazine, a set of stories about magic, and a collection of proposals about the future transportation by students at two Boston high schools. What stands out from your first year helping advise these projects?
April Bo Wang: When I first thought about 826, I thought it would be creative writing programming for kids who are really excited about creative writing. And what I found remarkable is that we do a lot of work with kids who are not excited about writing at all. Throughout the entire writing process, there are moments of excitement, but then when they finish a book, there’s a sense of accomplishment and excitement for kids who never thought of themselves as writers and readers ever before.
MP: It sounds like it’s about more than just building writing skills then.
ABW: It’s about communication and empowerment. For our second graders, the most exciting thing was watching them learn how to compromise and make shared decisions. At the high school level, it was amazing to see how students from two very different communities were able to collaborate successfully on a book. It’s about building partnerships, learning that your voice is really important and that other people’s voices are too.
MP: As a teacher in the Mississippi Delta, you sought to help rural teens to use their voices. Here in Boston, you’re doing similar work for students in the city. What attracts you to that kind of work?
ABW: When I was working in the Delta, I found it really important to empower students to use their voices because I felt like the rural narrative was being ignored. People don’t tend to talk about rural challenges, rural stories, rural contexts. My students had really rich, amazing stories that no one seemed to know about. Here, students have stories that are told for them, and those stories are often wrong and often diminishing. This work involves empowering students to tell their stories so people don’t tell them for them in a wrong way.
MP: How would a program like 826 have been helpful for your students in the Delta?
ABW: It would have been phenomenal. I think it would have given them a stage. At 826 Boston, beyond taking kids through a rigorous editing and publishing process, we really try to give kids a stage. It’s not just telling them that their voice matters, because I think that’s something that teachers tell their kids a lot, but not many kids believe them. But when they see their voices honored on stage in public celebrations, in the community, on posters, online, in videos that accompany books, it is easier for them to finally believe that, “yeah, my voice does matter.”
MP: You have now had experience supporting students inside the system and outside of it. What are the pros and cons of both vantage points?
ABW: A pro of being outside the system is that things happen fast. You have a goal for what you want to accomplish, and it happens. In districts, it can take a long time for things to happen. It takes a long time for districts to make moves. At the same time, in the system, when there is impact being made, it affects every single student. 826 Boston is working with the Boston Public Schools to expand quickly to affect more students and more schools, but in the end, the district affects every one of the kids in a city.
MP: Beyond teaching in the Delta and working here in Boston, you worked on state policy in Colorado and Connecticut, you worked for a school district in New Mexico, and you grew up in Ohio. What stands out to you from having seen how education operates across the country?
ABW: Things are never as broken as other people say they are. I think organizations and communities are always ready to believe that they’re both the worst and the best. In New Mexico, people said we were the worst in the country on certain metrics, which is the same as what people said in Mississippi and in Arkansas. But at the same time, they’ll say we’re at the forefront somewhere else: on family or community engagement or on dual language instruction, for example. There’s a lot of pride and a lot of despair mixed in in all of these places. I think I have learned that none of these places are doing as badly as people sometimes think they are, and where they think they’re doing really well, there are always areas to do better.