Thanks to the Kiwanis Club of Dayton for supporting Power of the Pen! Coach Mindy Hoffer and student writer Sage Spirk of Oakwood Junior High spoke on August 18 to the Kiwanis about the impact of Power of the Pen. Sage was invited to read one of her favorite pieces from the season.
At first glance, data analytics might not seem like a career where story writing skills are critical. But for Power of the Pen alum Erin Blackburn-Smith, analytics manager with Tropical Smoothie Café in Atlanta, Georgia, her ability to weave a strong narrative is integral to success in her career.
Data analytics professionals are tasked with spotting trends to guide decisions, and data sometimes reveals surprises that decision-makers might resist. That’s where the ability to tell stories comes in.
“When I was younger, I thought I wanted to turn my love of writing into a career in journalism,” Erin says. “However, as I got older, I found myself very drawn to research and data analytics, and ended up making my career in Marketing Analytics in the restaurant industry …
“A huge part of my job is storytelling. When I am doing analysis, I am using the data to craft a narrative, and then I must communicate the narrative clearly and convincingly. The most effective analytics presentations lead the audience to come to your conclusion on their own, before you reveal what your conclusion is. There is no way I would be able to do that without a strong background in storytelling.”
Erin was a member of the team at Arts Impact Middle School (AIMS) in Columbus City Schools. She credits Power of the Pen with nurturing her love for writing. The extemporaneous nature of Power of the Pen tournaments, with their 40-minute writing rounds, helped Erin overcome a perfectionist streak that was holding her back.
“When I was in competition, I didn't have time to meticulously plan and revise,” she says. “I also couldn't scrap something and give up halfway through if I ran into any obstacles. This was really instrumental for me in order to feel free creatively and to welcome feedback from others - not just in writing, but in any creative or intellectual pursuit.”
Belonging to a Community of Writers
Also crucial in middle school was the sense of community and belonging. “I've always been terrible at sports, so it was great to have an opportunity to actually compete and be on a team,” Erin says. “I made friends with kids that I wouldn't have been friends with otherwise.”
Victoria Kerr participated in Power of the Pen as a student at the former Taft Middle School in Stark County and now coaches at Jackson Memorial Middle School.
Jackson's 8th graders placed first in the 2020 Power of the Pen Eastern Region tournament, and the 7th and 8th grades together placed third overall. Eighth grader Zoe Brewster earned district Best of the Best for a story entitled "Lonely."
Victoria says she loves working with her team, pictured below: "I get so much satisfaction of seeing the progress that my students make from the beginning of the year through the tournament season. It is always fun to see where their creativity leads them."
The 2019 Book of Winners is now available for purchase on the Power of the Pen website.
Featuring Best of the Best winners from the 2018-2019 season, the book showcases more than 100 models of exemplary student writing. With themes exploring relationships, loss, and moments of joy, it is also a compelling read!
Power of the Pen sends one free copy of the 2019 Book of Winners to each team who registers for the 2020-2021 season, beginning September 1, after we receive payment for their registration.
Power of the Pen Best of the Best winners were invited to read aloud their creative writing for YouTube. Students created their own videos and chose their own unique style of presenting their work. Visit Power of the Pen's YouTube channel to hear these award-winning stories in the authors' voices.
Jasmine Warga, an alum of the Power of the Pen team at Wyoming Middle School, received a 2020 Newbery Honor for her third book, Other Words for Home. A novel in verse, Other Words for Home tells the story of a young girl who must move from her home in Syria to Cincinnati, Ohio. In the author's note for the novel, Jasmine says that one of the reasons she wrote this book is to help readers understand that children fleeing from war zones "want the same things all of us do - love, understanding, safety, a chance at happiness."
Jessica P. Wick, who reviewed the book for NPR, highly recommends it as a relatable and vital read for middle grade students: “There are so many reasons to read this novel. It’s a book about kindness, for one; it sings, for another, as any good verse novel should . . . It feels true. It feels like middle school and wanting things the way you do in middle school. It feels like being in the middle of so many things and not quite knowing how to navigate that uncertainty.”
Jasmine is also the author of My Heart and Other Black Holes and Here We Are Now. Her fourth book, The Shape of Thunder, is coming out in spring 2021.
Author Margaret Peterson Haddix, poet George Bilgere, and Power of the Pen alum and television writer Sage Boggs honored Power of the Pen writers for our annual state awards ceremony, held virtually due to the pandemic.
Of the thousands of middle school students who write with Power of the Pen each year, the winners of the state awards have achieved an extraordinary level of excellence. Power of the Pen annually awards State honors to young authors whose writing stands out for its powerful connection with readers.
Read the creative works of these 2020 state winners by clicking the links:
Paige Galperin, Kimpton Middle School, Promising Young Talent Award
Sun-Hee Smith, St. Bernadette School, Humor Award
Annie Johnson, John Sells Middle School, and Marie Kanzinger, Chagrin Falls Middle School, Powerful Pen Award
Poetry Award Winners are:
Anna Blasinski, Dr. Henry Karrer Middle School, First Place
Zoe Stiefel, Shaker Heights Middle School, Second Place
Allison Krzywicki, North Royalton Middle School, Honorable Mention
Audra Lozina, Hudson Middle School, Honorable Mention
Best friends since their days on the Power of the Pen team at Wyoming Middle School, Cambray Smith and Erin Engelhardt moved far apart after high school - Cambray to college in North Carolina, Erin to Minnesota.
But they didn’t let distance disrupt their relationship. “Writing has been such a huge part of our friendship,” Cambray says. “We used to journal together, still regularly write each other notes and letters, and encourage each other to read and reflect all the time.”
After her 2018 college graduation, Cambray accepted an offer for a biomedical ethics research position in Minnesota, allowing the friends to reunite. For two years, they have explored their adopted state and celebrated being a part of each others’ lives again.
Erin is a first-grade teacher in Saint Paul, where 90 percent of her students are new to the English language. “I love teaching the foundational grades because it is when reading and writing come to life in young minds,” she says.
Cambray has been conducting research that explores ethical questions related to medicine and science. “My current job consists of reading, asking questions, thinking, and writing, which is a perfect match for a Power of the Pen alum,” Cambray notes.
In summer 2020, Cambray moved away again to join an M.D.-Ph.D. program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is focused on public health. Cambray and Erin plan to remain close, and both look back fondly on their Power of the Pen experiences.
Erin credits Power of the Pen with giving her a place to belong. “Finding a community that affirmed who I was and cultivated something I loved was a gamechanger for me,” she says. Cambray will take the lessons learned in Power of the Pen into the medical field. “By learning how to find my voice and communicate with others through narrative and fiction, I emerged with the ability to more empathetically engage with others,” Cambray says. “Over time, I’ve realized that each person’s story is as powerful to them as my own lived experiences ... This perspective will be especially important for me to remember when interacting with my future patients, who I aim to always treat with dignity, compassion, and respect.”
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