Being sneaky and getting kids to write: The Austin Bat Cave's Story Department
The monthly reading series The Story Department moves to a new location this Tuesday, taking over Home Slice Pizza on South Congress for a night of literary fun benefiting local tutoring center the Austin Bat Cave.
Hosted by ABC Executive Director Manuel Gonzales (whose latest collection of stories is forthcoming from Riverhead Books), the theme of this month’s Story Department is “Found.”
Guests this month are:
Ben Steinbauer, director of Winnebago Man (SXSW, Austin Film Festival, PBS, MTV), University of Texas alumni and founder of commercial production house The Bear.
Phil Korshak, kitchen manager at Home Slice Pizza, ex-New Yorker and expert dough-maker.
Nicole Beckley, editorial alum of San Francisco’s Onion AV Club, writer for Austin Monthly, Spin and 7x7, and a performer at ColdTowne and the Hideout Theater.
"That’s one of our main focuses, sneakily teaching kids writing skills by creating fun ways to do it.”
The Story Department readings don’t always feature writers; in fact, they usually don’t.
“We reach out to people who we think might be good storytellers,” explains Manuel Gonzales. The belief that everyone has a story to tell fuels ABC’s mission: to promote literacy and composition skills through innovative, creative educational programming.
And fun events like this help ABC raise awareness. “There’s a trio of purposes,” says Gonzales of the Story Department. “One, I like it because it’s fun. I like being there—it’s a nice, different part of the Austin Bat Cave. Two, it’s a fundraising arm. And then, third, it helps make people more aware, either as volunteers or as supporters, of what we do.”
There’s no better way to highlight the success of ABC’s workshops and in-school programming than to let the students speak for themselves. “Once the school year starts, we have the kids write to a version of the theme, little short free writes on the topic that the Story Department will be on, and we read some of those,” Gonzales explains. “We also read selections from our published journals, so people who are there who don’t know about Austin Bat Cave get a good idea of what we do. It’s surprising how affecting it can be, the kids’ work.”
The Bat Cave hosts workshops and in-school programs that change the way kids see writing, with the philosophy that making learning fun results in smarter, happier students.
The nonprofit holds classes on songwriting and comedy alongside staples like college prep and composition. They’ve taken cues from 826 National, an eight-city network of tutoring centers (co-founded by writer Dave Eggers) that’s as notorious for its themed storefronts and community-oriented events as for its award-winning educational programming.
The key to coming up with creative new ways to teach, according to Gonzales, is to encourage the story, not just the writing. “Writing can be applied to just about anything – the kids will love getting up and doing fun activities, and we can create a narrative around nearly anything. You could do drawings, and those become a narrative – storytelling of any kind is what we’re trying to make kids more comfortable with.”
ABC’s student base is rapidly growing; this fall, the program will be placing volunteers in more local schools than ever, and will expand their workshop offerings. “Last semester, we did maybe three writing workshops outside of the schools. This fall, we’re trying to do three or four a month, to give people more opportunities to get involved. We’re also going to open back up our after school tutoring and expand it so we’re on different campuses, for homework assistance and writing, primarily.”
For those who want to get involved, the options are endless. “We’re creating more opportunities for volunteers, doing more afterschool and weekend workshops that will be almost entirely volunteer-generated,” says Gonzales. “If there are people who want to teach a workshop with kids, volunteers who have worked with us who have great ideas, that’s what we want to keep building on.“
Do you think you have what it takes to get involved? You don’t need to be a writer, teacher or student, Gonzales explains. “You just have to have a lot of energy, you have to like kids, and you have to have some kind of creative bit to you; you don’t necessarily have to be a writer but you have to have some sort of creative yearning that you can't transfer into your enthusiasm while working for kids. All our volunteers always participate in everything we ask our kids to do, and so if you’re afraid to be creative or you’re afraid to share, that’s something you’d have to get over to work with us. That’s one of our main focuses, sneakily teaching kids writing skills by creating fun ways to do it.”
To learn more about ABC’s volunteer orientations, check to their site or stop by The Story Department (8 pm on Tuesday, August 16th at Home Slice Pizza) to chat with coordinators.