Bringing students’ voices to life through technology
826 Valencia and Google team up to amplify imagination
The 826 Valencia Center in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District nearly always elicits a double take. There aren’t many corner stores where you can buy a message in a bottle, shop for a giant squid ink pen, or climb a two-story indoor treehouse. The corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Leavenworth is where students from across the city gather after school and, with a little help from volunteer tutors, tell their stories.
“The goal of 826 Valencia is to transform a young person’s relationship to writing,” says Lauren Hall, director of grants and evaluations for the writing nonprofit. By sparking creativity, the organization helps “young people see writing as a tool and a place of power.” And the surrounding whimsy and wonder of the space is no accident. In fact, it’s essential to the way the nonprofit approaches the power of literacy. The purpose isn’t just to get kids writing, it’s to get them excited about it. So it’s crucial that the environment stimulates students’ imaginations from the moment they walk in.
The Tenderloin location—and the unique atmosphere inspired by the globetrotting tales of a fish named King Carl—is a spinoff of the original in San Francisco’s Mission District. This new site was made possible through a $500,000 Impact Challenge grant from Google.org. A team of Google employees also got involved, volunteering with the staff to find ways for technology to bring the students' ideas to life.
The team decided that Google’s 3D drawing tool, Tilt Brush, could help. Tilt Brush, which lets you paint in 3D space and create life-size brush strokes with virtual reality, could turn the students’ words into an immersive 360-degree world. “We try to make writing fun and amplify their stories,” says Hall. “I can’t imagine a more real way for the students’ writing to come to life than to create an actual experience that you can be inside of.”
Each week, local second- and third-grade students gathered at the Tenderloin center. Together, they wrote a story, each contributing a few lines, about a planet ruled by love. Simultaneously, a local artist illustrated the world they were describing using Tilt Brush. The technology was, quite literally, bringing new dimensions to their writing.
At the book release party, the young authors and their parents got to experience the story. Using Google Cardboard, a simple virtual reality tool requiring only a smartphone, they got to feel what it’s like to visit this new planet in 360-degree VR. Instead of reading about the world they had created, they were surrounded by it.
On the planet ruled by love, houses are made of marshmallows, school goes up to grade 30 and people can always act like themselves. Flying taco trucks make regular appearances. Back on Earth, the students excitedly talked about seeing the details they had imagined come to life (“I wrote that!”), laughing at the story they’d written together, and then on occasion, reaching out — trying to touch the image in front of them, as if it, too, were as real as the sixteen-foot treehouse in the building on the corner of Golden Gate Avenue.