Blog: Amanda Uhle

Amanda Uhle is Executive Director of 826michigan, a nonprofit writing center dedicated to supporting local young people with their creative and expository writing skills.

826michigan is one of seven 826 writing centers in the country. The organization was founded by writer Dave Eggers in 2002 at 826 Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District.  All programs are offered at no charge and are based on the understanding that great leaps in learning can happen with one-on-one attention and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success. 826michigan offers tutoring, writing workshops at their site and in local classrooms, and opportunities for students, ages 6-18, to publish their original writing.

Selected as one of Crain’s Detroit Business’ 20 in their Twenties for 2008, she has worked behind the scenes at arts organizations in Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan and believes strongly in finding ways to support imaginative cultural opportunities in the Midwest.  Amanda is especially interested in uniting creative people and projects with the resources to make them possible.

Amanda serves on the UMS Advisory Committee, loves to cook, reads a lot of fiction and builds little robots when she has a free afternoon.

Amanda has lived in Ann Arbor since 2002. She and her husband Frank live just behind Morgan & York and visit it often.
Amanda Uhle - Most Recent Posts:

Post No. 5: 826Michigan The Movie

Post No 4: The Many Faces Of 826

Have you ever been to a Pirate Supply Store? The pirate lifestyle requires an array of products: peg legs, glass eyes, spyglasses, eye patches. And in San Francisco, pirates visit 826 Valencia Street. The storefront has messages in bottles, a barrel of lard. But walk behind the skull and crossbones flag and on any given day you'll find a room full of kids writing and learning.

When you visit 826michigan at 115 E. Liberty Street, a red velvet curtain separates the robot supplies from the kids. Enter the front door, and you're in Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair, Southeast Michigan's premiere robot showroom and service center. Offering a full range of products and services, including robot refits, rehauls, reboots, reformats, reprogramming, RAM upgrades, and reading comprehension classes. We're also the exclusive Midwest dealer for Better-Bot Brand Robot Parts. Keep walking and you'll find students at work on homework assignments, their own memoirs, storytelling though comics, or putting together the latest issue of the middle school student-written 826 Gazette. 

On May 17, more than 300 people turned out for the Grand Opening demonstrating that even humans like to shop here.

Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair is one of just seven such unique retail stores in the country. Other than San Francisco's pirates and Ann Arbor's robots, 826 writing centers also feature:

826 Seattle: Space Travel!

Greenwood Space Travel Supply

826 NYC: Superheroes!

Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co.

826 LA: Time Travel!

Echo Park Time Travel Mart

826 CHI: Espionage!

The Boring Store

826 Boston: Cryptozoology!

Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute

All 826 writing centers use their retail storefronts in ways beyond the obvious. Of course, we earn money from product sales. Even though many people questioned our sanity when they considered our plan to open a retail store in this economy, sales are steady. It's an incredible asset as a nonprofit to have a means to earn money to offset contributed funds, and I think it's a good business model for us moving forward. We've also seen a tremendous spike in the public's interest in us—which we know translates into more volunteers and donors. Now that our retail front is established, people frequently pop in to figure out what's in a robot store. It's a great opportunity to tell them what happens "behind the red curtain".

Finally, Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair exists to help 826michigan students in an important way. Many of our students come to our programs specifically because they are not succeeding in school. The classroom experience is challenging or negative for certain students, especially those who feel confused by their assignments. To help them, 826michigan's programs and our physical space are all designed to be fun, engaging and dynamic. Since struggling students might feel reluctant to receive homework help or feel a stigma about going to a tutoring center, we can transcend that entirely. Visiting a robot store on your way to get homework help is pretty fun, and sometimes that little spark is all a student needs to focus.

Post No 3: Tall Tales & True Stories (continued)

Tall Tale: Rally Ann Sally & McGladdin
By Alex Maranville

There once lived a three-year-old boy who lived in the darkened woods. The boy's name was Rally Ann Sally and he loved heights. There were no skyscrapers in the area though, so Rally Ann Sally climbed trees. His favorite tree was a tree called McGladdin, which was 100,000 feet tall and touched the stars with its branches. Rally Ann Sally climbed McGladdin every day and also stood on the moon on the way up.

He lived in a small cabin with his only friends, Cat the Rat and Rat the Cat. Cat taught Rally Ann Sally to steal food from the bear's den. Rat taught Rally Ann Sally the most important skill of all: to climb trees! They also taught him how to get water by licking in the pond.

One day, Rally Ann Sally headed to the pond and was shocked to see that it looked like lungs in the summer heat. There was not a drop of water in sight. So Rally Ann Sally walked away.

The next day, Rally Ann Sally came with a shovel and dug fifty feet into the pond, but still could find no water. "Curses," yodeled Rally Ann Sally, and he walked away.

The day after that he came with a magnifying glass. He searched left and right for drops of water, but there was none to be found. "Oh, hilly billy!" cried Rally Ann Sally, and he walked away.

The next day, Rally Ann Sally came with his tongue because he had forgotten it at home the last three days. He licked everywhere but could find no moisture, so he walked away.

The whole experience left him speechless, and by the fifth day, Rally Ann Sally was sure this was a drought. Hints of a drought were all around, especially in the dead deer and other animals around. He knew he had to do something.

"Think, think," he said.

Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he saw McGladdin stretching high above him. He had an idea. It was probably the boldest idea Rally Ann Sally had ever had.

Rally started climbing McGladdin all the way to the clouds. Then, McGladdin started to shrivel and the gigantic tree started to fall. The huge trunk started to plummet toward the earth. Before Rally Ann Sally had time to think, he grabbed the clouds and climbed them to the top and started shaking them like crazy.

Rain started to fall. There was so much rain that all of the dead animals who had faded away of dehydration came back to life. Even McGladdin came back to life and its trunk towered over the forest again.

In the years since, many stories have been told about Rally Ann Sally and how he saved the forest from drought with the biggest rain shower that ever fell. Many say they've seen him waving from atop the clouds.

True Story: Old Pops
by Jake Langeman

My great grandpa liked peanut butter with apples. He also played tackle football when he was a kid. He loved NFL football. When his wife went into the hospital and he started growing a beard, people say he just got lazy.

He lived with my grandparents for a couple of years. He always called me by a nickname, something like "Captain." We used to call him "Old Pops" because it was shorter.

He used to play with me and my cousins. We would run up to him and yell, "Come and get me!" We'd run back downstairs and he would stand up and say, "I'm gonna get you!" with his arms stretched out to the sides like a big bear.

We lived with my grandparents for a year and during that time, while we lived in the basement, "Old Pops" lived in my grandparents' room, and my grandparents stayed upstairs.

"Old Pops" died in 2004 the day before Halloween. That's why I don't like Halloween. Now when it is my birthday and it rains people say he is crying.

TRUE STORY: The Baseball Game
by Ashley Blackburn

One day I was on my way to Tiger Stadium with my family. They were playing against the Royals. When we got to the stadium we got some drinks and some hot dogs before we got to our seats.

When we got to our seats the game was about to begin. At the third inning, it was half time. We were still sitting in our seats, and I heard a man call: "Peanuts! Get your fresh peanuts here!" As I got to the peanut man, I gave him the money for two peanut bags.

We went back to our seats and I spilled peanuts everywhere. I remember stepping on the peanuts and hearing them crunch, and then I looked down and saw crushed peanuts everywhere. They reminded me of the ocean.

I wanted to keep crushing peanuts, but my dad said, "No." So I started crushing them on my forehead which felt like hail hitting me in the face, but I got used to the feeling and started to like it. Soon my forehead was as red as the devil's face. I stopped and tried to find something else to do.

In the sixth inning, big thunderclouds came and it started to sprinkle. We had to take cover.

By the time we got to the stadium it started raining so hard that it was like hammers hitting the floor. They covered the field with a tarp that looked like the American flag.

My dad bought us all raincoats to keep us dry. My dad had a yellow one, my mom had a black one, and my sister and I had blue ones.

After it stopped storming, the Tigers took the field again and we sat in someone else's seats with our coats on. The final score was Tigers 12, Royals 9. We won! I was so happy and so was my dad. That was the best baseball game I ever went to.

Post No. 2: Tall Tales & True Stories

The ability to write is invaluable to me. It may be because I love to read, or because I had a great AP English teacher in high school, or because I write a lot of grants and news releases. I think it’s also because, as a professional person, I see the sharp contrast between the opportunities available to adults comfortable and adept at writing and those who are not.

As Bob Guenzel’s blog from a few weeks ago pointed out, Washtenaw County’s illiteracy rate is 12%, which translates to about 27,000 people. In April the New York Times reported that only "about a third of the nation’s eighth-grade students, and roughly a quarter of its high school seniors, are proficient writers." It seems obvious, but to alleviate illiteracy, we must address the issue with young people—to help them improve not only their ability to write, but their attitudes toward writing.

Starting last September, 826michigan staff and volunteers worked together to do exactly that with the students at Childs Elementary School in Ypsilanti. Volunteers made regular visits to the school to lead writing workshops, both afterschool and during class time. First and second grade classrooms traveled to 826michigan’s downtown Ann Arbor site for field trips.

The 826 field trip model has been known to inspire even the most reluctant young writer. Last week, NPR’s All Things Considered profiled the field trips at 826 NYC.

On ten different Friday mornings this year, a school bus full of kids from Childs arrived at the writing lab on Liberty Street, full of questions and hesitation. They were usually pretty quiet and reserved at first. By noon, when the bus returned to pick them up, we needed a whole team of teachers, volunteers and chaperones to keep order because the kids were so excited---about writing.

That’s the exact outcome that we hope to achieve every time we help a student with their writing.  Ultimately, we hope that a student’s 826michigan experience helps them express ideas creatively, confidently, effectively and each in his or her own unique voice.

When we see students who begin to define themselves as writers, we know we have succeeded.

826michigan opened in 2005 with the knowledge that our program model had already proven successful. Backed by 826 Valencia’s then three years of program development, implementation and evaluation, we were able to start offering high-quality writing programs for students right away.

Our model is to provide project-based learning opportunities to students so that they engage in the process of creating a tangible product. By doing so, we involve them in real-life problem-solving activities and give students ownership over the learning process.  At 826michigan, publishing student work is a priority. Our students learn what the publishing process entails by working closely with their peers and professionals in the field to create a printed product they and others can enjoy for years to come.

Tall Tales & True Stories is just such a project.  It includes students’ personal narrative writing (true stories) and exaggerated yarns (tall tales), all organized into a professionally designed, illustrated and printed book. It’s not just a tangible and beautiful keepsake. It’s a step toward students feeling a sense that their ideas are valuable and that writing is part of a skill set within their comfort zone. At 826michigan, we believe that the ability to write is essential and invaluable for every young person.

Check out the blog tomorrow for an excerpt from the book, written by students from Childs Elementary.

Post No. 1: It's Really Free?

One of the core values that guides the work of 826michigan is that each and every opportunity we offer students to write, to learn to express themselves comes at absolutely no charge to them.  

In this complicated economic time in Michigan, sticking to that promise is not always easy. Parents who can afford to pay for activities for their kids--and do so elsewhere--ask us about this all the time. It’s usually a somewhat incredulous version of "It’s really free?"

And the reaction of the many parents who cannot afford to pay for afterschool tutoring or writing workshops is a pretty similar mixture of surprise and gratitude. The best part is that by keeping everything open to the public, 826michigan is able to unite creative, caring adult volunteers with students from literally all backgrounds to achieve the very important work of learning to write. My favorite thing to see each afternoon is a truly diverse group of students and tutors gathered around one of the donated kitchen tables (usually covered in homework assignments) in our writing lab. Each student has a different reason for sitting at that table, but every one belongs there and no one pays to participate.

But, it’s actually not free.

Last school year, more than 200 adults donated their time to work one-on-one with 826michigan students.  And more than 250 people, businesses and foundations contributed funds to 826michigan, in amounts ranging from $5 to $25,000.   

826michigan’s small staff coordinates all of these efforts in a way that leverages great ideas, local talent and a small amount of money to serve the immediate needs of area kids.

Nonprofits like 826michigan serve a vital need in Southeast Michigan, and we survive when generous people decide that the work we do is so important, so relevant to our community now and in the future, that they are moved to support it by donating their time or money.

One of the great parts of my job is that I get to meet amazing people (college students, lawyers, teachers, financial planners, parents, scientists, artists, editors, baristas, business owners and others) who spend some of their free time supporting studentsI also get to connect with local business people who agree that 826michigan helps make our area a better place to live, to work, to have kids and who contribute to us by way of business sponsorships or gifts.

We’re launching a new project this month that’s aimed at building that community of generous businesses so that they can benefit from our mutual affiliation. Members of our new Write Brain Partnership can show solidarity with 826michigan and our students by displaying a window sticker at their business, a web button on their site, joining our networking parties, displaying their promotional materials at 826michigan and working with me to figure out how we can best work effectively together. 
Fifth Third Bank, Quack Media and Ghostly International have already joined us in this effort. As more businesses join this summer, I continue to be awed by their generosity, eager to help them meet their own business goals, and so proud to be part of a community like this one.

And, when I think about that question "It’s really free?"  I’m ultimately kind of glad it’s not a simple answer.