Coldwater Middle School Coach Erica Oh knows that young authors thrive when readers appreciate their work. Erica has made it her mission to give thoughtful attention to every writer’s efforts, whether it’s a student on her own team or a contestant from another school at a Power of the Pen tournament.
As a 10-year Power of the Pen coach, Erica serves as a judge at Power of the Pen competitions in the Northwest Region. Erica has learned from her own students that they crave specific guidance on their writing at tournaments. While judges do not evaluate the work of their own students in competition, Erica takes her responsibilities to young writers from other schools seriously, knowing how much the judges’ comments mean to them.
“I make it my goal to give encouraging, quality, helpful feedback to each student,” Erica says. “I try to point out to the writers the specific skills they demonstrated well and specific areas that need more work … I want them to go away with a clear plan for improvement in future writings.”
Erica applies the same careful attention to her own writers as they meet to support and encourage one another in developing their creative writing talents. As a Power of the Pen alum herself, Erica understands the importance of making connections with readers.
“I'll never forget once making my coach cry in practice with one of my stories,” Erica says. “It's something special being able to evoke emotion within your reader; coaching allows me to encourage a new generation in that art.”
Erica strives to make practices a supportive environment where writers can take creative risks while talking over new ways of thinking about writing. “I love seeing my students' excitement about their stories and their creativity in coming up with unique approaches to the prompts,” she says. “We have lively conversations surrounding their ideas and writings.”
The Thrill of Competition
Tournaments provide an extra incentive for students to keep exploring techniques to polish their writing. “I loved to write stories as a kid and loved having an authentic outlet to do so through Power of the Pen,” Erica says. “I still remember the excitement of awaiting the results at competitions and the sense of accomplishment coming home with stories for my family to read.”
In everything she does as a coach, Erica inspires a new generation to share their own unique stories with readers.
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When Kelly Hurt participated in her middle school Power of the Pen team in 1998, she won a Best of Round award as an 8th grader at the district level.
“It was the first time I was acknowledged as an above-average writer by someone I didn't think was ‘supposed to’ tell me I was good at writing,” Kelly says. “It wouldn't be until years later I would actually believe I was a good writer, but it planted a seed for me.”
Understanding Stories, Understanding Each Other
Kelly’s mother is Western Region Director Paula McWilliams. Kelly helps Paula read practice pieces written by 7th and 8th graders on the St. Matthew, Gahanna, team. “The impact of Power of the Pen on my life has been really focusing on what makes a great story,” Kelly says. “This has given me a critical eye when consuming media or just relating things to others in my day-to-day life. How a story is told really is half of the magic of the tale.”
The ability to tell a good story has helped Kelly with customers in the hardship department of the financial services firm where she works. “I spend my days listening to people explaining the issues they are facing … this can be a matter of sharing humanity through storytelling,” she says. “The most important thing Power of the Pen taught me in this regard is that our struggles make us stronger, and overcoming hardships makes us the heroes of our own stories.”
Giving Back to Power of the Pen
Kelly serves as the computer scorer for the Western Region, which means she is responsible for accurately entering judges’ ballot scores into Power of the Pen’s scoring system at district and regional tournaments to determine individual student and team rankings.
“I enjoy the energy and excitement of a tournament day, and even when it's remote, there are a lot of people working together for the love of storytelling,” Kelly says. “That’s something I really love being a part of.”
Kelly spends several weekends each season assisting in this critical role because she wants today’s middle school students to have the same opportunity she had to experience the power of storytelling.
“I would encourage alumni to be involved in Power of the Pen as a way of ‘paying forward’ the things they gained from their experience,” Kelly says. “There aren't many venues that encourage writers, so it is important to support the ones that exist. Volunteering for Power of the Pen is a unique way to nurture the love of stories in the youth of our communities.”
Being on the Mentor Memorial Middle School Power of the Pen team is just one way that Ayesha Faruki uses her talents to create content for others to enjoy. Ayesha has combined her interests in coding, reading, writing, science, and math into creative endeavors that extend from a website to game apps to a self-published book.
Visitors to her website, https://www.afaruki.com/, will find a number of games to try, plus a preview of her self-published novel, Whisper. Ayesha, who finished third in the 7th grade at the 2021 Power of the Pen state tournament, has been writing for as long as she can remember.
“My mom always used to read books to me, and it wasn’t long before I started creating my own stories,” she says. “I would dictate them word for word for my parents to write – and I would illustrate them myself.”
Ayesha wrote Whisper when she was 11 years old. A blend of adventure and fantasy, Whisper follows six girls who discover a new world while on a field trip. As the Chosen, they must navigate both the new reality and the world from which they came, all while working to fix flaws that inhabitants of the new world have become oblivious to.
Ayesha has been coding since she was 6 years old. She develops games on an MIT platform called Scratch. The games are released within the Scratch community for 8- to 16-year-olds, as well as on her website. Ayesha published her website to inspire other kids to publish their own works. “I remember that amazed feeling when I was younger and saw stories about kids and teens who did something great – especially those young authors who developed their bestselling novels as teens,” she says. “I hope to start a blog of my own soon to write about my own interests.”
Whether writing, coding games, adding to her website, or drawing illustrations to accompany her writing, Ayesha loves the freedom in pursuing creative endeavors. “All of these give me the power to be able to create something by myself, and something that I’m proud of,” Ayesha says. “I also enjoy sketching and drawing, and both this and writing help me visualize different worlds and people. I illustrated and designed my front cover of Whisper, and also drew all of the pictures in the book.”
Ayesha is involved in many activities at Memorial Middle School, including Science Olympiad, Math Club, Junior Model United Nations, the National Junior Honor Society, the school newspaper club, book club, and Student Council. Game On was her favorite event in Science Olympiad, as it involves the knowledge of both coding and science.
Winning third place in her grade level at the Power of the Pen State Tournament and being published in the 2021 Book of Winners inspired Ayesha to self-publish Whisper, the first in a planned series called The Cities of the Lost. Power of the Pen also helped Ayesha focus her stories. “I think the best thing about Power of the Pen for me as a writer were the time constraints,” she says. “They allowed me not to put too many unnecessary scenes in my writing.”
Ayesha recently finished writing another novel, The Legends of Atruviia, and plans to publish it, as well.
As Melissa Stickney watched her daughter’s love for reading and writing blossom during the pandemic, she had an idea: Why not ask the school if she, as a parent, could form and coach its first-ever Power of the Pen team? The school’s answer was a resounding “Yes.”
Though not a teacher at Rocky River, Melissa worked with the district to secure the technology to connect online with writers and recruit interested students for the team. Meetings began in fall 2020.
A Place to Connect
Melissa’s first online meeting with the team started with an object lesson. Everyone picked an object and wrote for fifteen minutes. Writers described the object in detail using all five senses and explained its significance.
“One wrote about a rock. Another, a pen. Another, her cell phone,” Melissa says. “And yet all these pieces had something in common. They were all about connection. Pandemic isolation highlighted that storytelling was essential.”
Team members bonded over their love of writing, encouraging and inspiring one another. “On their own, the writers formed a texting group for support and laughter,” Melissa says.
Dedicated Time to Develop Writing Skills
Melissa used the resources provided by Power of the Pen to plan learning activities for meetings. These included the Book of Winners, which provides models of exemplary 7th and 8th grade writing, and the coaches’ materials on the website. She also pulled ideas from creative writing books and online resources.
Weekly meetings settled into a pattern. Melissa opened each week with a minilesson on a specific aspect of writing, supported with examples from student writing and popular YA books. Students then practiced a 40-minute response to a Power of the Pen prompt, and a few writers read their piece aloud.
“It was heart-warming to read the positive feedback being typed into the sidebar,” Melissa says. “I provided written feedback to all writers each week and used the subsequent lessons to critique indirectly.” The final 15 minutes of each meeting was social time, with lively conversations about favorite books or writing topics.
The Rocky River Middle School team was highly successful, placing second in the 8th grade in the Columbia Middle School District Tournament and third overall in the Baldwin Wallace Regional Tournament. Five Rocky River writers qualified for the state tournament. At the end of the season, students voted on individual recognition, with each writer receiving a unique award reflecting their own area of storytelling strength.
Melissa cherished the opportunity to be a part of the students’ growth as writers. The topics they wrote about evolved as they became more confident in their own voices. “I was privileged to witness the remarkable growth in each writer’s narrative voice first-hand,” she says. “Some of my writers started with fan fiction and fantasy stories, moved to fiction about teens vaguely similar to themselves and ended the season writing vulnerable, authentic personal narratives.”
In addition, Melissa discovered that she delighted in unleashing middle school students’ creativity. “As a parent coach, I rejoiced in spending time with a bunch of compassionate, funny, and smart human beings,” Melissa says. “If you step up to coach a team, prepare to be wowed, transformed and inspired.”
Parents are encouraged to work with schools to form Power of the Pen teams, following all school rules and guidelines to ensure student safety. If you are interested, Power of the Pen can connect you with current coaches to learn more about what’s involved in coaching a team. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eighth grader Rylee Boyer of Miami Valley School in Dayton recently received the Randy Kramer Award for Writing Excellence from the Kiwanis Club of Dayton. Presented in memory of longtime Dayton Kiwanis member and Power of the Pen supporter Randy Kramer, the award recognizes Rylee’s outstanding performance at the 2021 West Carrollton District Tournament.
Riley was invited to the April 20 meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Dayton, held via Zoom, to read “I Won,” a story she wrote in response to the prompt Betrayed. The piece describes a battle of wills between a violinist and a pianist during a performance. Though Rylee is not a pianist, her writing was so convincing that one of the judges was sure Rylee’s story reflected personal experiences with performing on piano.
According to Rylee’s coach, Debbie Voetberg, realistic detail and the ability to evoke emotions are strengths of Rylee’s writing. “I coach the writers to think about what they know and how they can use it in their writing,” she said. “They do not have to write an entire story about an experience, but they can use a piece of it, including enough details that it is realistic to the reader.”
Rylee says that the lessons she has learned in Power of the Pen have improved her writing in academic settings, as well.
Outstanding Teacher Award
The Kiwanis Club of Dayton also presented the Outstanding Teacher Award to Carol Brown of Ankeney Middle School in Beavercreek. Ankeney won third place in the 7th grade and second place in the 8th grade at the West Carrollton tournament.
At the April Kiwanis Club of Dayton meeting, Carol shared how much Power of the Pen means to students. “Power of the Pen practices are a safe and calming place for them,” she said. “Power of the Pen provides them with a creative outlet, a chance to express themselves in a way that they cannot always do through class assignments.” As a result, Carol says, students’ confidence in their writing ability blossoms.
Carol also shared students’ comments about Power of the Pen with the Kiwanis Club of Dayton. In addition to the excitement and inspiration generated by the writing tournaments, students appreciate the one-on-one feedback they receive from judges. Students understand the time and careful thought that judges put into the comments on their writing, and they apply the judges’ advice as they hone their skills.
“Thank you for the impact you have on students and teachers,” Carol told the Kiwanis members at the close of the meeting. “Without you, Power of the Pen wouldn’t be here for our students.”
Under the guidance of Power of the Pen alum Sara Hardin and co-coach Shelley Regrut, the St. Brigid of Kildare team took first place in both the 7th and 8th grades at the Gahanna Middle School South District Tournament on February 20, 2021, a remarkable accomplishment. For Sara, coaching a Power of the Pen team provides an opportunity to inspire young writers, just as she was inspired by her Power of the Pen experiences in middle school.
“All writers need hope and self-confidence to not give up, but in middle school especially, there are so many writers who need the affirmation that they are good at this and should continue pursuing their dreams,” Sara says. “When I joined Power of the Pen in 2002 and started to do well at tournaments, I was given the strength to believe in myself and my work.”
A Tradition of Excellence
When Sara began teaching in 2011-2012 at St. Brigid of Kildare in Dublin, Ohio, she says she ran to the coach to help with the Power of the Pen team. Her co-coaches at St. Brigid offered invaluable insights into writing and coaching. One former co-coach, Jennifer Maschari, is now the author of The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price and Things That Surprise You. Sara’s work with Shelley, her current co-coach, began with a reunion of sorts – Shelley judged Sara’s 8th grade Power Round writing at the 2002 state tournament.
A smaller school, St. Brigid is driven to achieve excellence as they compete against teams from schools with higher enrollments. “In the past nine years, our school has gradually grown in the number of writers we've had qualify for regional and state tournaments, and we're proud of that improvement,” Sara says. “As a smaller school, we often feel like underdogs in the wider Power of the Pen community, and that mentality drives us to do the best we can.”
The Confidence to Be Unique
Because of the timed nature of the writing rounds, Power of the Pen helps improve students’ academic performance. “In the short term, being able to write under pressure is very helpful on standardized tests and contests,” Sara notes. “One time, I had to write a piece in 50 minutes for a college scholarship contest, and I remember calmly thinking, This is nothing compared to Power of the Pen!”
Far more important, however, is the role that Power of the Pen plays in helping middle school students form their identity. “The most valuable and intangible benefit of Power of the Pen is that it can add to your sense of self, as someone separate and unique and valuable in addition to the other writers in the room,” Sara says. “Even in the competition of a tournament, it's clear that all the writers and all the stories are different. It's useless to compare yourself to others, or get intimidated by the writer sitting in the desk next to you, or worry that another writer in the room has gotten up to get more paper for the third time. We each have a story, and they won't sound the same, and that's awesome.”
A Chance to Encourage Others
For Sara, the best part of coaching Power of the Pen is encouraging writers, just as she herself was once encouraged by the team advisors, Kim Williams and Libby Grubb, at Gahanna Middle School South. “Middle school is the best time for a student to decide that they DO like writing after all, that they ARE good at it after all, and that they COULD pursue it after all,” Sara explains. “The ability has been there within the student the whole time, but sometimes I get to help bring it out of them and show it to them, like pulling a mirror out of a forgotten drawer.”
The students of St. Brigid of Kildare certainly respond to Sara and Shelley’s leadership. In addition to winning both the 7th and 8th grade team awards at the district tournament, the team earned a number of individual honors. Under Shelley’s leadership, Paige Harper placed 8th and Maren Reville placed 9th in the 7th grade, with Maren also earning a Best of Round award for “Puppy Dreams.” In the 8th grade, Eve Worley placed 3rd, Madeline Tinkler placed 6th, and Elizabeth McLaughlin placed 11th. Elizabeth was also honored with a Best of Round award for “Trouble With Humans.”
As for Sara, she continues to work on her craft as an author and is in the querying process of finding an agent for her novel. Reflecting on her journey as a writer, Sara says, “I know that Power of the Pen was the right spark of hope at the right time.”
The September/October 2020 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction features a short story by Power of the Pen alum Angie Peng, an accomplishment she “100% attributes” to her experiences on a Power of the Pen team in middle school.
Exploring Technology's Effects on Humanity
Her story, “Do AIs Dream of Perfect Games?” features a science fiction twist on a hometown favorite, Cleveland Major League baseball. Angie’s debut piece caught the attention of SFRevu’s Sam Tomaino, who deems it worthy of an award. As an author published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Angie is in the company of great literary figures such as Daniel Keyes and Ray Bradbury, whose work was featured in the publication in the past.
Angie’s career on the Responsible AI Team at Google informs her writing.
“Fundamentally, I’m interested in the way that technology impacts societies,” she says. “In the same way that I think the best science fiction writers are writing less about the science and more about humanity’s reaction to science, I’m interested in the ways our lives might change due to new technologies and their adoption.”
Learning What It Takes to Be a Writer
When she was a member of the Hudson Middle School team, the idea that writers need to practice their craft was a revelation to Angie.
“It was only when I found out that we would have weekly writing ‘practices’ that it occurred to me that perhaps artists didn’t just sit around waiting for inspiration or a muse or lightning to strike all the time,” Angie says. “It changed how I saw myself. I never thought of myself as a writer, and I still don’t sometimes, but it reinforced in me that if I was disciplined and motivated enough to practice my writing on a regular basis, then I could indeed be a writer.”
Angie found the competitive nature and team spirit of Power of the Pen to be motivating, as well.
“It gave me a sense of competition and camaraderie that previously I had only experienced playing sports,” she says. “From team practices to a state-wide tournament, we rooted for our teammates just as much as we wanted to win as a team.”
Angie particularly thanks her Power of the Pen coach, Mike Fejes. She tells him, “I wanted to send a note of thanks for putting in all the time over the years with precocious tweens - it really was life changing for me!”
Read one of Angie's award-winning stories from her 8th grade year in our examples of excellent student writing.
Annie Johnson almost didn’t enter The New York Times second annual personal narrative contest when she learned about it in October. “I knew I wouldn’t win,” she says. “But one night around three days before the deadline I was in a good mood and thought, ‘Oh, what the heck, might as well! I’ve got nothing to lose.’ ”
She crafted a story entitled “The Bottom of a Swimming Pool,” a descriptive reflection on overcoming shyness. Three months later, Annie discovered that her piece had been selected as one of the top seven winning narratives out of 9,000 entries.
She was stunned. “After hitting the submit button, I distinctly remember reading back over my story and thinking, This is never going to win. I was crazy to submit this. Better luck next year,” Annie says. “When I checked The New York Times contest results, I scrolled down the list of stories and something caught my eye - ‘The Bottom of a Swimming Pool by Annie Johnson.’ I had to reread it three or four times to make sure it wasn't just my eyes playing tricks on me!”
The Impact of Power of the Pen
According to The New York Times, the winning pieces were selected for their superb storytelling, moving messages and artistic use of language. Writers were given a 600-word limit.
Annie wrote her winning narrative in about 30 minutes, and she credits Power of the Pen with teaching her how to make the strongest emotional impact in the fewest number of words. At Power of the Pen tournaments, writers are given a prompt at the beginning of each round, and they have just 40 minutes to create a compelling original story.
“Power of the Pen showed me that sometimes the smallest moments can make the greatest impact,” Annie says. “A feeling, a moment, an object, even a pool can tell a great story, especially when you're working within a word limit or time constraints.”
Annie participated in Power of the Pen as a student at John Sells Middle School in Dublin, Ohio, under the leadership of writing coaches Rachel Polacek and Melissa Voss. As a Power of the Pen writer, she was published in the 2019 Book of Winners and received the 2020 Powerful Pen Award. Currently a sophomore at Dublin Coffman High School, she plans to continue writing even as she pursues a career in psychiatry.
The Power of Observation
Her advice to Power of the Pen participants is to never stop writing – not necessarily literally on paper, but in their minds.
“If you're sitting on a bus or standing in line with nothing to do, think to yourself, How would I describe this setting in my writing?” she says. “If you're feeling a strong emotion, focus on how it makes you feel and how you could put those feelings into words. If you go somewhere different, or even somewhere familiar, pay attention to what you're seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, or tasting.
“Keep these words in the back of your head or in the margins of your notebook, and it will help out your writing so much more in the long run.”
No matter what you are writing, if it is high quality and makes an emotional connection, the work will find an audience, author and Power of the Pen alum Justin A. Reynolds told the Solon Middle School Power of the Pen team at its December 14, 2020, meeting. He says that the most effective authors explore questions about life’s meaning: “Why are we here? What are we doing? What is the best way to live?”
Justin stopped in for a Zoom chat at the invitation of Solon coach Emilie Macek, who is also a former Power of the Pen writer. Emilie and Justin connected after the virtual National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual conference in November 2020. In one of his panel discussions at the conference, Justin talked about the influence of Power of the Pen on his writing. Emilie reached out over Instagram, and Justin was thrilled to meet the Solon team.
Connecting With Other Writers
“Power of the Pen has a special place in my heart,” Justin said. As a member of the Elyria Westwood Middle School team, Justin loved the camaraderie, sense of fun, and serious competition in Power of the Pen. His two stints at the state tournament, which was then held at Denison University, were his first trips away from family and a chance to meet other young authors from throughout the state.
The lessons of Power of Pen have stayed with him, particularly the practice of writing a complete story in just 40 minutes. “Learning to write, problem solve, think critically – Power of the Pen exemplifies all of that,” he told the Solon team. “You have to process information quickly and dispense it on the page in a short time.” Such skills prove invaluable in any field.
Pursuing a Writing Career
Justin didn’t go straight from Power of the Pen into his writing career. He started out as an engineering undergraduate and NASA intern, but ultimately decided to follow his passion for writing. He changed majors and colleges and moved to New York City to “chase writers” that he wanted to learn from. A series of jobs from pest control operator to carpet flooring installer followed, as he continued to develop his craft.
A Twitter contest led to the publication of his first novel, Opposite of Always. He has since published a second novel, Early Departures, with new projects including a graphic novel, middle grade series, and screenplays on the way. Twelve- to thirteen-hour writing days are typical.
Trusting Your Own Voice
His best advice to young authors is to trust their own voice and not try to emulate someone else. “Your voice is unique, special, necessary, and urgent,” he said. “We will all write a different story even if we live the same circumstances at the same time. No one can tell a story like you do.”
Learn more about Justin and his writing at https://www.justinareynolds.com/.
It is with deep sadness that we announce that our founder, Lorraine B. Merrill, passed away November 22, 2020. When it came to writing, Lorraine possessed a natural talent propelled by a driving passion. It was this, coupled with her love of teaching, that led to the creation of Power of the Pen, a program that has impacted hundreds of thousands of young writers for over 30 years. We extend our condolences to the family and will miss Lorraine deeply.
An endowment fund has been established in memory of Frank and Lorraine Merrill to support young writers participating in Power of the Pen. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made to the Power of the Pen Founders’ Award at the Springfield Foundation at 333 N Limestone Street, Suite 201, Springfield, Ohio 45503.
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