Once Upon a School: Using Storytelling to Connect Volunteers With Students

A website created as part of Dave Eggers’ TED Prize helps students in need by publishing stories, images and videos about positive volunteer experiences.

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In 2008, Dave Eggers, author, publisher, and founder of the nationwide after-school tutoring centers 826, won the TED Prize. As part of their award of $100,000, TED Prize winners are asked to make a wish, and with his signature self-deprecating enthusiasm, Eggers requested that all who heard his message would personally engage with their chronically underfunded, understaffed public schools. Six months prior to the announcement, Hot Studio had been contacted to develop a Web site that would help Eggers increase volunteerism in schools.

Eggers’ message resonated with Hot Studio CEO and founder Maria Giudice, who was not only the mother of two children, but volunteered regularly in her local schools as well. However, she also knew the difficulties of working within a volunteer-based organization: “How do you create something that’s big enough to move the conversation forward a little bit, but won’t overwhelm them to manage?” Her team worked closely with Eggers to explore the viability of his many ideas, from a volunteer-matching service to a locator that would direct users to a neighborhood school. Since the project needed to be monitored through the existing administration of the 826 non-profit, the designers knew the concept had to be appropriately-sized for existing conditions, but scalable if more resources were found.

With Eggers, Hot Studio’s designers decided on a solution: A highly-visual Web site that would be a powerful way to share volunteers’ stories of working one-on-one in schools. So for the first few months, Once Upon a School was in beta mode, a blog-like site built to solicit and easily submit stories, photos and video that users had created about volunteering in schools. A few months later, the site relaunched at TED’s 2009 event as a simple but engaging way for anyone to browse the stories, and connect them directly with the volunteer opportunity. “The goal of the site is simply to inspire people,” says Giudice. “But the work has to be done offline.”

once upon a school

Interacting with the Once Upon a School site had to be engaging but easy. “The goal was to have a low barrier of entry and have a mass appeal” says Giudice, noting that many people who might come to the site may not be technically-savvy. This also allowed for simple photos, drawings or videos to be submitted, allowing stories to be told in richer, multimedia ways that could connect to people on different levels, and attract an even larger audience. This would build momentum with every story added that Giudice calls the “good deed cycle.”


Visually, the storytelling also had to be completely focused on schools and kids, and to keep them top of mind, the designers used
student-contributed artwork as a background (with credits on the top
right corner). To keep the visitor’s mind on the school experience, stories can be found using the student-focused search terms of grade level and subject. And finally, once inspired to make a difference, users can locate an opportunity to help teachers using the Volunteer Match widget, where they can explore opportunities that are happening in local schools by searching with their zip code.

once upon a school

In developing the site, Hot Studio had the benefit of working with a previous TED Prize winner, Cameron Sinclair, to create the Open Architecture Network, an open-source way for architects working all over the world to share
information about building sustainable, affordable structures. Using that massive nine month-process as a learning experience when embarking on Once Upon a School was key for the designers to translate some of the lessons learned while working with similar issues of user-submitted content and how to create maximum impact with minimal resources.

Then there was the impact on Hot Studio’s own business, since they worked on the Once Upon a School project pro bono, working closely with development partners Carbon Five, and hosting service Engine Yard, who all donated their time. “It’s a big challenge for firms who want to get involved in these causes because how can they when they have to pay the bills?” says Giudice. But Hot Studio has projects like this built into their ethos. “We’re a triple bottom line company and we need to make sure we’re using our talent and time to make an impact in people’s lives.”

once upon a school

A year after its launch, over 250 stories have been contributed, and projects that range from classes in energy-efficient living to pop music education have been reported as a result of collaborations by volunteers, corporations and teachers. And while there is now a place on the site for people to donate money to the cause, Once Upon a School remains focused on the importance person-to-person connection, which, according to a study by the County of Los Angeles Public Library Literacy office, can make a drastic impact: With 35 to 45 hours of one-on-one tutoring, a student can improve his or her reading skills by a grade level. In a sense, Once Upon a School is an experiment in acting locally, building a system where members of the community will donate time to educational centers, which will in turn make their communities better places to live.


Giudice also sees their work as an act of social justice. “If you look at schools that are thriving, it’s often the schools that have that adult involvement, which then becomes about that economic divide because it’s only those people who have money and have time,” says Giudice. “What about those schools where parents are struggling and have two or three jobs so they don’t have time?” Once Upon a School can connect those institutions with their most powerful local resources–the people who live right in their own neighborhood. Especially now that, thanks to the recent economic upheaval, they might have some extra time on their hands. “Big donations from foundations are down,” says Giudice, “but physical people volunteering is at a record high.”

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About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato