Just My Imagination

Crosstown Arts fosters literacy through creativity with its new Story Booth program.

photographs COURTESY crosstown arts / Justin Thompson

Catfish on the table. Creativity in the air. That was the atmosphere of the “Rocket Writers” of Gordon Science & Arts Academy’s launch party for their second book, Make Believe: unReal Stories, published by Crosstown Arts. The theme of the event stemmed from one of the stories in the book, “The Dude and His Wifey,” which, according to the description, is “a collaborative retelling of The Fisherman and His Wife.” As a few of the Rocket Writers got up to read their contributions to the progressive tale before the book’s big unveiling, it was easy to see that Crosstown Arts’ Story Booth program has given a whole new meaning to the idea of creative writing.

The Story Booth after-school program headed by Nat Akin, director of education and outreach for Crosstown Arts, is “dedicated to helping students in Memphis (ages 10 to 18) cultivate their creative and expository writing and other art-making skills.” This non-traditional form of after-school care provides homework help and apprenticeship opportunities by housing the tutoring area in the same space as a working artist studio.

Story Booth is modeled after the “826 Valencia” after-school program in San Francisco developed under the leadership of Dave Eggers as a way to cross-collaborate working artists and students. Eggers’ original idea ran into an issue when his building turned out to be zoned for retail. Since Eggers was told he had to sell something and the space resembled an old ship hull, he opened a mock pirate supply company selling merchandise like custom peg legs and eye patches. The store, tutor center,  and literary journal studio were all in the same building.

“[Eggers] housed his literary journal somewhere where kids could come in and see how everything works, and now the store has become a tourist site,” says Akin. “These ‘fake’ products generate a ton of money for the after-school program, and the kids come in and there’s a whimsical, fun feel — not like they’re going to be tutored — which is genius.”

Akin was introduced to the idea by his friend Todd Richardson, co-founder of Crosstown Arts. “Todd forwarded me the [TED talks] video of Eggers and what he was doing out in San Francisco with 826 Valencia, and I thought it was amazing. I knew Memphis needed something like this.”

Thinking it rather cruel of Richardson to tease him with such a great idea, Akin’s wheels started turning and he researched everything he could about the 826 program and its followers. “There are about 10 826’s now — one in Michigan is a robot supply store, one in Seattle is a Big Foot research center, and one in Brooklyn is a superhero supply store. It’s really taken off in the last 10 years,” says Akin. Shortly thereafter, Memphis’ very own Story Booth program was born under the same model.

As part of the Crosstown family, Story Booth will one day be housed in the remodeled Sears Crosstown building still in development. But they didn’t want to wait to start forming relationships with the surrounding community. They reached out to Gordon Science & Arts Academy for their first special project, a sci-fi book titled Tales of Modern Rocketry. With the school’s mascot being the Rockets, it seemed like a nice fit.

Instead of a pirate or superhero store, Story Booth uses the Flea Market on Cleveland as its whimsical fantasy land. “The program allows me to put together fiction, teaching, and publishing in an urban setting, which is where my heart is, so I’m really excited to be a part of it,” says Akin.

Growing up in the suburbs of Germantown, Akin says he didn’t discover or really appreciate Memphis fully until after going away to college then moving back. “I moved off to Nashville, then, like what always happens, I became the reluctant defender of Memphis. Memphis has this depth and grittiness that’s not the same [as other cities]. I’ve always said Nashville is a city thats easy to like and Memphis is a city to love, because it’s just like a relationship — there are things you have to get used to but then there are things that are amazing.”

Akin’s passion for the city comes out in his love of working with kids in an urban setting. After working with Streets Ministries while getting his master’s in literature at Ole Miss, he began freelance book editing before teaching freshman composition at LeMoyne-Owen College. After a hiring freeze, Akin found himself at Memphis University School teaching high school English and keeping things as creative as possible. “MUS is a great place to teach, especially the English Department. They let me teach the first fiction workshop to seniors that they’d had in 25 years,” says Akin.

But once Richardson sent him the video of Eggers’ idea it became Akin’s passion to find a way to make it local. “That’s where Memphis seemed to fit, in because the arts seem to be the first thing to get cut [from schools], and 826 is first and foremost a teacher support set-up. We’re trying to be one of those places where kids can come. I’m still an English teacher, so literacy is what’s behind it, but I’m shameless about how that happens. The more fun the better. The more creative the better. Whether it’s a film script, a play, or graphic novel. Being Crosstown Arts we also have not just the writing thing but music and visual components to connect all of those pieces.”

Key elements of Story Booth are that it’s project-based, free for kids 10 to 18, and that some creative-minded person or artist works with the kids to create an original idea that’s developed into a finished project. “The cornerstone of everything,” says Akin, “is getting to see the creative process from start to finish and then having it publicly acknowledged. Most artists don’t get to do that until a graduate program. Regardless of if Story Booth students go on to become writers or artists, it gives them confidence and encourages their own ideas and forms of expression. I’m not sure how you quantify that, but I’m pretty convicted that it has an effect.”

The program provides a creative outlet with educational emphasis for students which is beneficial for the kids as well as the local teachers with packed, hectic schedules. “These charter schools are very busy and trying to figure out where to put art during the day while bringing kids up to speed in other areas. We see ourselves, especially with literacy, being a resource for schools and teachers. It’s no fault of the schools, which I realize as a teacher. It’s not that teachers aren’t trying; it’s an issue of capacity and resources,” says Akin.

The program is volunteer-based, and helps kids in homework while also allowing them the chance to work alongside working artists and learn the process of art as trade. “We want kids to know that if they come by the flea market after school that there will be someone with competency in any subject. My horror story is a teacher saying ‘Yeah, he’s having fun at Crosstown, but he’s failing English.’ The homework aspect is extremely important.”

As far as the volunteers go, they must be at least college-aged and have a willingness to help. That said, Akin isn’t interested in those who simply volunteer out of guilt. But he’s adamant that every skill set can be used, from accounting to painting. Forcing people to volunteer doesn’t foster participation; passion does. “We’re trying to lower the expectation of art to where those [who might volunteer] aren’t as intimidated. We will take you as you are if you have a heart for this kind of thing. We will take whatever time you have whenever you have it.”

For those who might be interested, Akin offers additional incentive. Besides helping kids with homework or a special project, Akin says Crosstown will work with volunteers to make sure they’re taken care of. Whether it be reduced rates for artist workshops or access to a studio, Crosstown is committed to collaboration for adults and students alike; so even if you think your creative ship has sailed, Akin says there’s still a way to jump on board.

Likewise, the greater community is benefitted from the passion for creativity ignited during the Story Booth program. “I think creative ideas of kids are helpful to the broader culture. It tends to get relegated to school, and I think of the way I felt as a teenager — nobody listens to me, my ideas don’t have value, and you gotta wait ’til you’re an adult to express them. It’s not true; that’s just when you have the power to access things.

We’re trying to create pathways of access for the community to see what these kids are capable of and truly collaborate. It’s not about publishing ‘cute kid’ work.”

With two published books under their belt, the Rocket Writers of Gordon are setting the creative bar pretty high. With each project, they take their writing a step farther and imagine more intricate stories. Akin says the ultimate goal would be to expand to elementary-age kids and maybe even acquire a mobile story booth. “Our first mission is to kids in the Crosstown area, but we’d love to expand outward. I’d love to see it going all over the place and having different story projects at different schools, and maybe a mobile story booth to do projects at schools.”

Another wish for the program would be for kids not only to experience the creative process from start to finish but also the production process to truly understand every aspect of the craft.  “I would love for kids to have apprenticeship programs similar to what they did back in the Middle Ages, where you grew up knowing all of the elements of [a trade],” says Akin. In this particular case, it would be the publication of the book itself — shopping printers, choosing cover art, etc. “I would love to see kids who are in middle school and high school getting that practical experience and weighing in on creative ideas. Then, there’s no real distinction between the visiting artists who are over in the building showing their work and the young artists who are doing work here; there would be a sense of being involved in the same endeavor. You’re younger than me, but that just means that I can share practical experience with you — not that your [work is] less than.”

Understanding the importance of fostering self-confidence and self-worth in the kids during this stage of life is just as important as making sure they pass each grade. It provides one-on-one attention that isn’t always readily available in the home or school and ensures that the kids take ownership of both their ideas and actions.

Building confidence and validity of creativity are key ingredients in the Story Booth program. Akin notes that for him it’s personal. “As an English teacher and someone who loves the stories, to get to help give the kids confidence in their own voice, particularly written voice, is important. As a fiction writer I’m fascinated by the stories they have. I could have never made up the stories they tell. With youth there is this freedom; their lack of inhibition is really helpful to the creative process.”

The stakes are high but the rewards are great, and he remembers the first publication launch party when the sci-fi book was unveiled. “I invited them to the party and I had this model in mind but hadn’t explained it fully to them. When the doors of a space capsule opened and the book was unveiled, I got to experience the payoff of the whole program in one moment, and see their enjoyment and see them honored by it, and to celebrate their work with them publicly. The best thing was, after that they knew the space was theirs.”


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