Attention Students: It's Okay to be Strange!

“It’s okay to be strange.” That’s the message that Gerald Richards wants students to get. Richards is the CEO of 826 National, a nonprofit network of tutoring centers that are absolutely nothing like a traditional classroom. Take the Museum of Unnatural History for instance. The animal skeleton in the window and the sign advertising “unicorn tears for sale” are the first clue that this isn’t your grandmother’s schoolhouse.

The Museum of Unnatural History does a lot more than hang coyotes from the ceiling, however. Volunteers and staff members run after-school programs and writing workshops. As Richards puts it: "I think the kids are tricked in and then, as they are talking to the person at the front desk, they are learning about what's going on in the tutoring center."

The Musuem of Unnatural History is based in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington. 826 National runs another seven tutoring centers across the nation. Each of the eight centers boasts a creative storefront that serves two purposes: encouraging students to get excited about education and helping the non-profit raise essential funding.

Fun is what makes the tutoring centers, well, fun! In Seattle, students can visit the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Co. – a writing lab that “sells” intergalactic peace treaties and travel cups. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, students buy robot emotion upgrades and robo-dentures at Liberty Robot Supply and Repair. Profits from the stores account for about 20 percent of the non-profit’s yearly income and help provide the tutoring and writing services that students seek.

Kathleen Yancy, past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, finds 826 National’s work to be encouraging: "If you want people to engage in activity, you find a way for them to have fun with it. 826 is a genius at that," she states. "If don't take any pleasure in it, they won't actually practice it. When they have fun, they won't quit on you."

Richards sums it up: "It's OK to be magical, it's OK to be whimsical." And it’s okay to learn too.

Photo Credit: Shana Stine