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Washtenaw United: 826michigan helping Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor students write better futures

Megan Shuchman, executive director of 826michigan.
Megan Shuchman, executive director of 826michigan.


Megan Shuchman spent 15 years at Steppenwolf Theatre Company (Chicago, IL) most recently in the role of Director of Education, wherein she managed programming to serve 15,000 teens, teachers and community members each year. This included oversight of in-school residency, teacher training and teen programs as well as creation of an initiative called City Connections, focused on generating equitable partnerships with community-based organizations that use the arts to empower young people. Shuchman and her team inaugurated programming for the theater’s first-ever dedicated education space, The Loft, which opened its doors in Fall 2021.

Shuchman also taught high school students and adults for over fifteen years as a professional theatre practitioner in Chicago, including through a course with the University of Illinois at Chicago on teaching artistry and arts education and served on Ingenuity Incorporated’s Advocacy and Community Engagement Panel, dedicated to ensuring quality arts education for every student in every neighborhood in every Chicago Public School. Alongside a decade of work as a freelance theater director, Shuchman is a member of 2nd Story, a collective of artists working to build community through the power of storytelling.

Before moving to Chicago in 2006, Shuchman was a lead volunteer for the Michigan Women’s Justice Clemency Project and an executive member of the Prison Creative Arts Project housed in the University of Michigan, through which she produced plays in prisons and juvenile detention centers around the state.

Shuchman is an alumna of the University of Michigan, proud mama to Avery and Jonah, and grateful wife to Kelly Mitchell.



826michigan Programs

826michigan Student Writing Gallery


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And welcome to this week's edition of Washtenaw United. I'm David Fair, and I just got done reading a collection of stories written by some of our community's youngsters. Now I'm talking about third, fourth and fifth graders. And I have to tell you. I was touched. Self-expression through creative writing--it's a skill and an underrated one at that. The stories were written by kids who were benefiting from writing programs provided by 826michigan.org. It serves students in Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and Detroit. It is primarily been focused on providing guidance to students in all elementary school grades and is now offering a middle school writing program. It has an after-school club at the Superior branch of the Ypsilanti District Library and is helping, as the organization says, write a better future one story at a time. I wanted to learn more about it, and I thought you might, too. Our guest today is Megan Shuchman, who serves as 826Michigan.org's executive director. And thank you for carving out time today. I appreciate it.

Megan Shuchman: Thank you so much, David. Excited to speak with you. Appreciate the opportunity.

David Fair: Now, do you feel as lucky as, I think you might say, to constantly get to read what the children of this community are writing?

Megan Shuchman: I really appreciate your introduction because it made me smile. I have to say, I have the best job in the world because, as you said, not only reading our students' stories, but getting to really see how the power of self-expression, the power of knowing that you can tell your story. It's really transformative. And I get to see that every day.

David Fair: Well, 826michigan is almost 20 years strong now, but it's part of a national organization that began in San Francisco. And I believe the name comes from the first street address of the organization. I know you like to say, as I mentioned in the introduction, writing a better future, one story at a time. Why is the way you go about fostering that critical to child development?

Megan Shuchman: Well, we know that if students believe that they can tell their own story, if they feel empowered to do so, there is so much that comes from that. So, our programs, of course, promote and improve academic skills related to writing and literacy, but they also do a lot more. They promote self-expression, self-esteem, self-confidence. And we know that when our students come to us, they often will say at the beginning, "You know, I'm bad at writing. That's not something I can do." And we say, "Well, give us a chance. We might be able to change that." We know that when students feel that sense of empowerment, it allows them to tap into their creativity and their imagination. It really lets them believe and build a world that doesn't yet exist. So, when we say we're building a better world one story at a time, we really mean that. Our students, once they possess that self-confidence--who knows what will come from it? Who knows what will come next?

David Fair: And how are the writing programs implemented with children and teachers? Is it a volunteer-based organization?

Megan Shuchman: We have a staff of wonderful, brilliant staff, who write our curriculum and lead our programs. But we are nothing without our team of volunteers. So, our programs are aimed at students predominantly from Title One schools, so students with primarily low income student populations, students who have diverse learning needs related to writing and literacy, and students for whom English is not their first language. So, you can imagine thinking about those student populations when it comes to writing skills, as much one-on-one or small group support as possible, is really, really helpful to them to make big strides and improvements in their writing and literacy. So, that's where a team of volunteers comes in. These are committed adults. Some of them are students at our wonderful local universities and colleges, and some of them are community volunteers. But they come in, and they work in a really hands-on way with our students, so that they get individualized attention. And that happens when we go and visit schools in our Washtenaw County community and when we run our afterschool out-of-school time programs.

David Fair: WEMU's Washtenaw United conversation with Megan Shuchman continues. Megan is executive director of 826michigan.org. Did you find through your work with both children and teachers and your staff that the concerns raised by how far the pandemic set kids back is valid and worth ringing the alarm bell for years to come?

Megan Shuchman: Yeah, it's so unfortunate. I mean, we knew, of course, pre-pandemic, that there were learning gaps between those vulnerable student populations that I mentioned earlier that we are committed to serving and students from other schools that are more resourced. And the pandemic set us back and widened that gap in really, I think to us, alarming ways. So, we have heard that there's an estimate students lost up to one third of an academic year of learning. That is a really, really, really large loss that we should all be concerned.

David Fair: And falling behind tends to snowball.

Megan Shuchman: Exactly. And when you mentioned earlier that you were doing a reading of students in our third through fifth grade levels, that's core grade levels for literacy, where we want to see our students working at or above grade level. So, when we see our students predominantly in that group falling behind, it makes us really worried for their ability to catch up, which is why we're working with our wonderful school districts and so many other youth development partners to try to be really aggressive in our approach to interfere with that widening gap.

David Fair: Now, this might be a function of my advancing age, but I'm also concerned that the shorthand our society has developed for social media and how it may impact the overall writing development of our K-through-12 and even higher education communities is serious. Is it something that teachers are expressing to you?

Megan Shuchman: I think a lot of teachers express all the time that there isn't a ton of writing support that they feel like they have that gets their students to really be engaged in a way that feels personal and gets them clued into what we know students need, which is really that basic skill of fostering the creativity and imagination. The spark of a story grows into so much more, and that the more imaginative, the more whimsical, the more silly, the better, because it will really get students to think outside of a box that they might be putting writing into, in our mind, an unfortunate way. And so, it kind of goes back to that idea that students come with, "I'm not a writer. I'm not good at this." We say, "Well, let's think about where writing already exists in your life and where you may not be aware that you already are successful and help them develop from there."

David Fair: You know, as kids, we were all afraid of being bullied and kind of letting people know how we really feel and thought that might leave us feeling emotionally vulnerable. How does the 826 process help break through those barriers, particularly with kids that may be experiencing some degree of life trauma?

Megan Shuchman: So glad you asked that, because we hear all the time from parents and then from our students directly, particularly in our out-of-school time programs, they say this is a place my student wanted to come back to again and again. And I think there's two really important things happening in our program. First of all, especially for our students who may not have identified their thing yet, so maybe they're not a sports kid or maybe they don't feel like being a part of the band, that school is their forte. We want them to feel like writing and having a community of writers is something that they can not only experience at 826, but take with them afterward. And I think being able to have commonality with your peers is a huge way that we find students able to overcome trauma, as you just said. And the other thing that happens, students will find themselves successful. No matter what student comes in and at what level they're writing, our students get published at the end of the experience. And we have students who do not believe that will happen. They're like, "My writing will never get to a place that it can be published." And we say, "That's okay. Just wait and see." And by the end of a program with us, they have gotten a piece of writing for publication. And there's something about being able to see yourself in print, being able to hold up your words, show it to others, maybe read it aloud that, I think, is very affirming for them.

David Fair: Do you have a favorite success story?

Megan Shuchman: Do I have a favorite success story? Oh gosh! So many! We had a student recently who was talking to me about having remembered being published when they were about ten years old. And she came back actually. She's 20 now. And she came and visited our storefront at 115 East Liberty in Ann Arbor. And she said, "You know, I still have a copy of the book that I was published in when I was ten years old." And I said, "What do you remember about it?" And she said that she remembered that she wanted to keep working on her story. And she's like, "I have this memory of knowing that the deadline was coming." And because she had learned the editing process, she's, like, trying to rewrite her story 3 or 4 more times before it gets turned down. And she said, "You know, I had never experienced that before where I wanted so desperately to be able to put so much into something." And I think that feeling of accomplishment that comes at the end of it, we all want that pride in something that we have created from scratch. And when she reflected on the experience of not wanting to send it off to print, I thought, "That's that magical feeling of you have so much pride in something you created that you almost can't let it go." She wanted it to be so perfect. And knowing that she still has it on her bookshelf ten years later, I think it proves it.

David Fair: Megan, I really appreciate you taking time to share the stories of 826 today. I'm so glad we had the opportunity to talk. And I know winter enrollment is about to get underway.

Megan Shuchman: Winter enrollment is about to get underway. We're going to have programs not only at the Superior branch of the Ypsilanti District Library, but also the Whittaker branch. We will have programs for students, as I said, four years old and up through high school and in our Ann Arbor spaces. And information will be live December 15th. So, parents and teachers should check it out please at 826michigan.org.

David Fair: Well, I look forward to connecting with you again in the future and hearing more stories about the kids as the programs expand. Thank you so much, Megan.

Megan Shuchman:Thank you.

David Fair: That is Megan Shuchman, executive director of 826michigan.org and our guest on Washtenaw United. Now, for more information and links to some of the kids' story collections and information about the work that's taking place in our community, visit our website at wemu.org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with United Way for Southeastern Michigan, and we bring it to you every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.


Recently, 826michigan has received a $20,000 award from the 2024 cycle of United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s Opportunity Fund—a resource for local organizations and groups whose efforts address poverty, racism and trauma: root causes of systemic oppression that hold opportunity at bay for all people in Washtenaw County.

With this investment, 826michigan executed the plan Strategizing for the Future: 826michigan 3.0. Through this plan, local underserved children will continue to receive free programing and events facilitated by 826michigan partners from schools, libraries, and other community organizations.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support.  Make your donation to WEMU today to keep your community NPR station thriving.

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Contact WEMU News at 734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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