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Springfield Middle School Coach Amy Merrill-Wyatt, author of Ernestine, Catastrophe Queen, describes what mentoring young writers:
Watching my students grow over the course of each tournament year is one of the biggest rewards of coaching Power of the Pen.
Students always begin each year tentatively - you can practically see the doubts hovering over their heads. "Am I a good writer?" "What if I'm not a good writer?" "What if I can't ever learn to be a good writer?" "Should I just give up now?"
They turn their notebooks in shyly, afraid to meet my eye as they hand their stories to me. As they do, I know they might as well be handing me their self-confidence because no artist can ever truly, completely untangle themselves from the art they create. And so, I take those notebooks knowing that I have a sacred responsibility to those students; to help them find what they're doing well and give them a plan for how to get even better.
Coaches Are Students’ Lights in the Darkness
As coaches, we are students' lights in the darkness. It's our duty to guide them towards the best writing they are capable of doing. Encouraging them to take that next step by helping them to see how far they've already come. We can neither be too hard on our writers nor fill them with false praise.
"You've identified a thrilling idea for a story, and I wanted to find out what happened next!" is a frequent comment of mine early on in the year, followed up by, "In your next story, I'd love to see more details and descriptive language so I can feel like I'm really in the story." Reading story after story, watching my writers do just that, I glow with pride as I see them grow, becoming stronger, more confident writers with each prompt.
Power of the Pen Nurtures Empathy
Not all Power of the Pen writers will go on to write professionally someday, but all learn how to wield the power of words. How to engage in an experience and express it to someone else. To help the reader experience what it's like to be someone else, if only for a little while. In this way, Power of the Pen helps to create more empathetic adults, people who know how to reach out to another person and say, "I can imagine what you're going through."
All of those doubts my students have early on are ultimately about wondering if they are 'good enough' in every way. Power of the Pen helps young writers understand, "Yes, I am - and you are too. And together, we will continue to grow and get stronger."
Annie Morino describes the impact of Power of the Pen on her life:
Power of the Pen is an important part of who I am as a professional today and who I was as a student from 7th grade on. I had always loved writing growing up, but I didn’t know I was talented until I was picked for the Power of the Pen team in 7th grade. Middle school is a tough place to be for any kid, but when that prompt would go up, all of my other worries would fall away. Writing a story made me feel smart and creative, and our practices just made me feel like I was where I belonged.
Not knowing how I would do in a tournament, before we started, I promised myself that I would always go to the Power of the Pen practices for as long as I could, even if I wasn’t successful in the actual competitions. I was dedicated to the writing. In my first competition, I wrote a totally fictional story to the prompt, “In the middle,” about a student whose parents were going through a divorce. I left the competition without ribbons and without particularly outstanding scores.
A Mysterious Summons From the Counselor’s Office
About a week later, I was mysteriously called to the counselor’s office, who also happened to be my Power of the Pen coach. I panicked walking down the halls thinking I had invited some kind of intervention. There was nothing wrong at home at all. My coaches were all in the room when I arrived and they laughed as I tried to explain myself. They weren’t concerned at all. It turned out I had won a Best of Round! That story went on to win a Best of Best award, giving me an opportunity to compete at States. It was an all-around incredible experience. I didn’t place at States, but I was determined to go back the next year.
After a difficult start in 8th grade, I made it onto the team for districts, but did not make it to the Regional Power of the Pen competition. It was devastating, but I remembered the promise I had made from the start. As painful as it was to know I wouldn’t be attending any more competitions, I continued to attend practices even as others dropped off. I just loved writing, and Power of the Pen gave me the confidence to keep my head held high, even as school drama raged around me.
A Communications Career
I continued to pursue writing and communication through high school and college, securing a job as a communication strategist at a political consulting firm for five years. Now I am the Business Development Manager for a construction company, and I happily write our pitches and proposals for new projects. I also lead our marketing and research efforts.
Power of the Pen was the foundation for all of it. Better grammar and communication theory, political strategy and research layered on top of the confidence I had built. I could write a complete story from scratch, out of the blue, in 40 minutes, no matter how difficult the prompt. No essay or assignment was insurmountable after that. While I always wished I could have continued to compete in the eighth grade, not making the cut and pursuing writing anyway was so important to my development. I would encourage any student today to do the same. Power of the Pen is a totally unique experience you’ll never get the chance to repeat. My advice is to soak up as much of that world as you can. You won’t regret it.
– Annie Morino, Power of the Pen Class of 2003-2005
Power of the Pen coaches and K-12 teachers from throughout Ohio gathered virtually on Saturday morning, November 7, for the third annual Kernels of Wisdom narrative writing workshop presented by the National Writing Project at Kent State University (NWP-KSU) and Power of the Pen.
A core belief of the National Writing Project is that writing teachers should be writers themselves, learning alongside their students as they hone their craft together. Keynote speaker Jean Kanzinger of Chagrin Falls High School began the morning with a prompt for workshop participants to write their own key scene. Their responses to the prompt provided a foundation for Jean’s presentation on story structure and the ways we can think through story plots to create the most compelling prose. Jean used examples from Power of the Pen’s annual Book of Winners to show how 7th and 8th grade writers’ works can be used as mentor texts to teach the writing techniques she shared.
Jeff Harr of Kent Roosevelt High School described strategies for beginnings and endings. He demonstrated the strategies by writing various hooks and conclusions for a single story, illustrating how different techniques affect the story’s emotional impact.
Katie Kerns of Norwayne Middle School discussed how to help students expand important descriptions in their writing. Three ideas include collecting impactful sentences from other writers, using a toilet paper tube to describe only what students can see through the tube, and using Bitmojis to teach character description.
Power of the Pen Executive Director Barb Tschantz wrapped up the morning with a judge training session.
Coaches who attended the workshop said they can’t wait to bring these strategies to their students. Disa Banker of Ann Simpson Davis Middle School, who tweeted these photos of herself and her notes from the workshop, said, “Start with the conflict! Duh!!! Why didn’t I think of that... great ideas about hooks and conclusions for our POP writers. I’m so excited to share this with our team on Thursday!”
Nearly a decade into guiding Power of the Pen writers, Ms. Jennifer Wolf of Dr. Henry Karrer Middle School looks forward to every new season with her writers and her co-coach, Mrs. Melissa Eddington.
The Karrer team had a fabulous 2019-2020 season, taking 3rd place in the 7th grade and 2nd place in the 8th grade at the Circleville district tournament before capturing 2nd place overall at the Otterbein regional. The season was capped off by 8th grader Anna Blasinski’s first place finish in the statewide poetry competition for her wistful reflection on how life changes as we grow up.
Ms. Wolf says that students’ favorite part of Power of the Pen meetings is when writers have the opportunity to share their work and get feedback from other writers. “We all relish the unique talents of our teammates while we get inspired to take new risks in our own writing,” Ms. Wolf says. “Students are looking forward to getting back into the routine of honing their craft while building friendships and camaraderie that bloom throughout the writing season.”
Power of the Pen participants from throughout Ohio say that being a part of a creative writing club has inspired creativity, improved their writing skills, provided a place to belong, and built their confidence! Over the summer, students submitted videos about their experiences. Mike Fejes, Power of the Pen board member and coach from Hudson Middle School, compiled their remarks into a video that can be shared at schools. Watch the video to find out why Power of the Pen means so much to these students!
Power of the Pen alum Alexis Moore develops innovative solutions for sports medicine as a biomedical engineer with Stryker, a global medical technology company that provides products and services for orthopedics, medical and surgical settings, and neurotechnology.
Biomedical engineers design equipment and devices that improve medical care and patients’ health. Much of what you see in a doctor’s office, from the examination table to the stethoscope, was designed by a biomedical engineer. And if you’ve known anyone who has had a knee replacement or an artificial heart valve, these life-changing devices began with a biomedical engineer’s research and design project.
Developing Confidence and Communication Skills
Alexis credits her writing team at Hamilton Middle School for giving her a place to belong and explore what she could accomplish. In fact, Alexis sacrificed the annual class trip in favor of the Power of the Pen state tournament, which was taking place at the same time. “There was no hesitation on which to choose,” Alexis says. “The class trip was practically a rite of passage, but that’s how important Power of the Pen was to us!”
Power of the Pen helped Alexis build the confidence and communication abilities needed for a successful engineering career. “Power of the Pen taught me how to harness my own power to write my own life story. Cheesy, but true!” she says. “I am a stronger person, engineer, and advocate because of the program. The language skills and attention to detail learned throughout the program have stuck with me.”
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.
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Support has been provided by Ohio Humanities, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.