Making Pint-Sized Authors in Los Angeles with 826

826LA's Executive Director Joel Arquillos gives some perspective on how to teach Latino students and dishes some project-based learning tips.

Former Bay Area high school social studies teacher Joel Arquillos dedicated his life to writing, but unlike so many others who moved to Los Angeles, he's not pitching screenplays. The 38 year-old Executive Director of writing and tutoring nonprofit 826LA wants to equip the next generation of L.A. kids with the writing chops they need to hit it big in Hollywood, or bring in the As at Harvard.

Arquillos manages two 826 offices in Los Angeles—one in Echo Park and one in Venice—and oversees the organization's savvy push toward running programs on school campuses. Last year 826LA taught writing to over 6,000 students, many of whom come from low-income, Latino backgrounds.

"One of the best teachers in San Francisco." That's how author and 826 co-founder Dave Eggers describes Arquillos who gave us his two cents on what teachers need to do to educate our nation’s growing Latino population. He also breaks down why project-based learning is so successful with 826's students.

GOOD: What do educators need to be doing to reach Latino students?

JOEL ARQUILLOS: I’m a big advocate of Paulo Freire, and in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he talks about how traditional teaching is this top-down approach. But when you build community in the classroom you allow students to bring what they have to the fold and then you work with that to get them where they need to be.

We can certainly throw all kinds of curriculum at kids, and design really scientific reading programs, and I’m not saying those things don’t work, but what we also need to understand is that many students coming from Latin America are arriving with an understanding of Spanish and can read and write in Spanish. Making the transition to English is what they need help with.

The misconception is that they don’t know anything and that’s completely wrong. We need to create tools to build confidence and help them practice their new language, or their ability to express their ideas in writing, in a variety of ways.

GOOD: Some parts of the country, for example, some areas of the Deep South, are just beginning to see larger Latino student populations. What advice do you have for teachers working with these students for the first time?

JA: For teachers in areas with shifting populations, there shouldn’t be a, “this is the way I used to do it,” approach. You have to stop and re-evaluate who you have in your classroom and figure out what’s the best way to work with that student population based on what they’re already bringing to you.

Having at least the understanding that there’s a community that comes to you that can be built upon can help. That’s something we do at 826—we don’t come at kids with one way you have to do things or one approach to writing, reading, or even mathematics when we’re tutoring in those areas.

One way we do that is we train our volunteers to work with the Socratic approach—where it’s pencils down and engaging the students with questions and getting them to figure things out by themselves and getting them to reason and think. It doesn’t always work out perfectly but it’s about how we can help inspire them and gain real buy-in to what they’re learning.

GOOD: 826 really embraces project based-learning. Do you think it’s more effective than a traditional write-a-paper-and-turn-it-in approach to writing?

JA: We don’t have to throw the traditional approach to writing out the door but the project-based approach is great for students who don’t have the same drive or academic support at home. At 826 we put a lot of energy into our book project. We work with students up to three months in a school and get them published at the end of that time.

A group of students are also pulled out to work on the editorial board alongside professional editors and designers. They get to make decisions about how the book will be laid out and the chapter sections, so they really see what it takes to create a book. In the end they have a product that’s not just for them. It’s sold nationally and it’s in bookstores all of the country and it’s on Amazon. Best of all, they have something they can show mom and dad, and it’s going to live on forever.

GOOD: Can individual teachers replicate your book project as the way to teach writing?

JA: What really makes it work for 826 is our volunteer force. If you don’t have at least 10 individuals who can come into a classroom and support the writing process, then you just have the teacher having to give feedback, and individual one-on-one feedback on a student’s writing is critical.

There are volunteer organizations out there that could provide the bodies needed to break the class down into manageable parts. But that’s a lot of work for a teacher, which is why we’re working on teaming up with classrooms and coming in to give that one-to-one support to children.

But if a teacher wants to do a book project, you can certainly do it, and there are schools that have done it. It just takes some creativity and it can happen.

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