Quivers and Quills: Using Halloween to Launch Creative Writing Exercises

A dim spectre in the distance. A ghostly woman in white waiting forlornly on a bridge. A mysterious voice in the dark of the night. A statue that watches…and waits.

Scary stories are powerful. Every community, rural or urban, has its share of tales that have the power to chill you to the bone. Both original stories and those rooted in folk legends invoke strong reactions from their audience. Some people avoid scary tales. Others cannot get enough of them. These are the people for which Halloween was made.

Scary

The book that hooked me up

While I don’t enjoy all aspects of Halloween, (I’m took impatient to put together an impressive costume, and I’m allergic to half the candy out there – Boo!) I am a fright fan. I have been ever since elementary school, when my second-grade teacher gave me a booked titled The Doll in the Garden. It was a ghost story about a girl who found an antique doll buried in her neighbor’s garden. Throughout the story she learns about the doll’s history by traveling back in time to speak with the doll’s former owner – a ghost girl named Louisa.

I enjoyed the book enough to mention it to my aunt, who was a fourth grade teacher. My aunt gave me a book her students enjoyed by the same author. It was called Wait Till Helen Comes. It was about a girl whose stepsister was communicating with a ghost who wanted to lure her into a pond, to drown, so she could join her in the afterworld.  I loved it, and read it again and again. There were sentences that made my heartbeat quicken. Something about the way the words scared me pressed me to keep on reading them, and as my interest grew, I swear I could feel my imagination expanding. I liked to be scared, and I liked how my fright made me wonder about the world and my place in it.

I found myself studying the way the author used words to paint scary scenes and invoke a sense of danger. I became keenly aware that my reaction to the story was the result of artistic choices. Her characters, the plot, the setting, the tone, the pacing, the symbolism, the foreshadowing, the structure – all of these elements worked in harmony to create a story powerful enough that I remember it to this day.

Teachers, without a doubt, have kids in their class who love a good fright, and Halloween is a perfect time to reach them with an unforgettable creative writing exercise. There is plenty of opportunity to co-opt Halloween to help students stretch their creative muscles with some writing exercises.

horror book

Option One: Writing prompts. Teachers can provide students with a choice of three or four “story starters” from which they can build their own scary story. Students who chose the same prompt can compare their stories after they are written and discuss how the stories differ. Students can explain the choices they made and discuss their favorite parts of each other’s stories.

scary prompt

Option Two: Word webs. Teachers can ask students for “scary” nouns. Then, scary adjectives, verbs, and so on. Using the collected words, students can compose a series of frightening sentences – or a full-fledged scary story.

witch

Option Three: Take a break from scary. Not all students enjoy being scared. That’s perfectly fine! Instead, perhaps they would benefit from a writing exercise that focuses on costumes. What was their favorite Halloween costume, ever? What do the costumes in the costume store do at night, when all of the customers and employees are gone? What if the costumes came to life?

I have found that giving children the chance to perform their written pieces for an audience is very beneficial for driving home the idea that writing is meant to be experienced. It is easy for young writers to forget about the reader as they get excited – or intimidated – by the act of putting words on a page. It is harder to forget about the audience when the writer realizes that their piece will be performed rather than read.

Not all students will be comfortable with performing a monologue or acting in a play, and that’s okay. Children in the audience can sit back and enjoy the show, and perhaps even give feedback on what works and what doesn’t in a performed narrative. They might even like to see their own piece performed by others!

Children working together to create a story will not only hone their writing and language skills – they will also exercise teamwork and have an opportunity to form lasting memories in the classroom. Halloween comes once a year. If you have only one chance to fully indulge your students’ creativity this year, this is the time to take it. This is the holiday that lets imaginations soar.

 


The Reluctant Writer – Tips on Inspiring Students to Write

 

 

Writing

Many are familiar with “math anxiety,” a term used to describe students who freeze when confronted with numbers. Countless individuals suffer similarly in regard to writing, although the affliction lacks a catchy name (Don’t-Wanna-Writis, perhaps?). For those who suffer from this affliction, the idea of composing a paragraph – let alone a complete essay or story – induces bottomless panic. I’ve seen it happen many times. Friends, classmates, and even my own mother have expressed a deep-seated lack of confidence when tasked to string sentences together. Their minds go blank. They fear sounding contrived or pedantic. They think to themselves, “I wasn’t born to do this. I don’t know how to do this. This is not for me.”

What would make you a better writer?

An August 23rd blog post on edweek.org written by California high school humanities teacher Britt Shirk includes a pie chart that details students’ responses when asked what would make them better writers. I wasn’t surprised to see that 40% of students reported a need to feel more confident and honest on the page.

I have two secrets to tell them. The first is this: no one is born a writer. No one. Not Stephen King. Not Shakespeare. Not J.K. Rowling. Babies aren’t born knowing how to write a good story or compose a compelling speech, just as babies aren’t born knowing how to properly paint with oils. It is a skill that has to be learned and consistently honed to achieve some measure of success. We all start at the same baseline of zero when it comes to writing ability.

The second secret is: you and your doubts are in good company. Even professional writers – perhaps especially professional writers – feel this way sometimes. We fear a mark is being missed. We fear our characters are not sympathetic, relatable, or interesting. We fear that our style or point of view choices will be questioned. Grammar, clarity, imagery, punctuation, tone –  there are many variables that work together to create a whole piece, and wrangling them all at once does not come easy. Writing is a vast sea, containing endless permutations and possibilities.

…And students are, too. There is no set “way” to write, just as there is no default way to be a person. Students are nuanced individuals who will respond more excitedly to assignments that pique their interest than to ones seemingly generated from thin air. A student who is interested in martial arts, for example, will find it easier to compare and contrast Kung Fu and Judo than she will with two other topics. While clearly the end goal is for students to be strong writers on any subject, that’s not the place to start when trying to encourage a comfort in the medium. A novice writer needs to start on a subject in which they feel a measure of knowledge and control. Only after they are comfortable writing in this arena can they branch out into new territory.

The Value of Small Assignments

Of course, teachers don’t have the time to let students move at a snail’s pace as they grow comfortable with writing. This is why small assignments meant to encourage confidence in writing should be given in tandem with regular classwork. These can entail 100-word daily journal entries on a selection of prompts, or on the subject of a student’s choosing. Students can write responses to films or books they enjoy, or react to current events. They can also play writing games in which each person adds a sentence to a story to show the possibilities inherent in the written word.

The Writing Workshop

While in pursuit of my writing degree, the most useful tool, by far, was the writing workshop. During a workshop, student work was distributed among other participants for focused, public critique. This method is useful because it can be brutal – no one is a harsher critic than an actual, unbiased audience. Students who fret about writing and are shy about their desire to improve may not benefit from this. Such an experience will only be beneficial if all participating students have an active interest in improving their writing and don’t mind hearing what their peers have to say. One choice may be to create a voluntary writing workshop participation to which students can sign up. The pieces can be of pre-set length and subject, or on varied subjects. Large-scale discussion of a piece of writing is a good way for students to understand the perception of an audience, and how words and ideas can transform as they travel from the brain, to the page, to another’s brain.

Improvement Doesn’t Happen Overnight

Many students’ improvement pace will be incremental at first – and that’s fine. Lasting improvement doesn’t happen overnight. It will happen as the student grows more comfortable using words to convey ideas. The result will be the interweaving of increased writing confidence with the predetermined class material. Vocabulary, structure, and other elements of writing will begin to improve organically so long as a student’s interests are combined with challenge and guidance.

 

 


Uncharted Territories

Anyone can look back on their early education and offer an opinion on how it went. When my husband Alan and I became parents, this look backward changed from casual reminiscence into a long, hard look at what went right and what went wrong for each of us. Interestingly, when Alan and I tallied up what, specifically, a good education meant to each of us, our vastly different answers shared from a common root – neither of us wanted our son’s experience to mirror our own. All we could see, in hindsight, were the shortcomings.

My Education Journey

My schooling began in the smallest school district in New York State. It comprised one room, one teacher, and three grades of about eight students each. After second grade, I was shipped to the nearest modern elementary school. It was crippled by budget issues and staff problems so obvious that even my oblivious eight-year-old self picked up on them. My weak math skills were never addressed, despite an obvious need for intervention. I entered high school not fully understanding how to write an essay. My reading and writing skills improved tremendously thanks to my own natural proclivities, but by that time, it was too late to enter any Advanced Placement classes. I made the best of it. I was at the top of any course on social science or language, but I strongly believe that my shaky math education during my early years led to a permanent dearth of ability.

My Husband’s Education Journey

Alan’s journey was a touch stranger than mine. After he was bullied at the bus stop near his home in rural central Oregon, his mother pulled him out of public school and enrolled him in what was, at the time, a fairly unknown organization – a Waldorf school. Without going into specifics on educational philosophy, suffice it to say that traditional classroom learning didn’t occur there. Only three other students attended the school with him. When I asked him what he learned there, his response was a touch puzzling. “I remember knitting,” he said. “Sometimes we sang songs.”

 

When a shift in his family situation moved Alan to upstate New York to live with his aunt, who happened to be a sixth grade teacher, his new guardian was (quietly) horrified to discover the state of the 11-year-old’s math and reading skills. The child was in for a deluge of tutoring to catch him up to his peers, and a crash course in completing homework – something he had never had to do. Luckily, his natural skill with numbers helped him reach grade-level functionality, but other knowledge gaps remain to this day. He was once humiliated during a trivia board game when it was revealed that he had no idea when Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas. Not knowing the answer to a question during a party game is not the end of the world, of course, but it speaks of a greater loss. What else might he not know that could have opened his world up, had he had the same education as others? What ifs can be painful, especially when they are not the product of your own choices.

Our Approach as Parents

Every parent wants to avoid giving their children those anguishing what ifs. I hope to avoid, whenever possible, instilling them in my son, especially in regard to his education. Luckily, my son has been born at an opportune time for learning – the Age of the Internet. While Alan and I were in elementary school, computers were not classroom staples, and casual home internet use was still years away. Had we had access to online educational tools, perhaps the holes in our educational experiences could have been filled before they got too deep.

Education journeys into unchartered territories

 

Uncharted Territories

Education is, in many ways, like a journey into uncharted territory, and each child is a different vessel. My son’s needs are not my own, and they are not my husband’s. We should not project the frustration of our lost opportunities onto him, but rather, we should learn from the missteps we weathered in order to help him better navigate his journey. Tools like Genius Plaza just might be his compass. And in the journey of education, there is no such thing as being too prepared.


Rural Schooling and the Effects of Educational Technology in the Classroom

The population centers up in the Adirondack Mountains don’t feel like towns, at least not to me. It feels more like the houses had been shaken out of the mountains like crumbs off a tablecloth, landed haphazardly in the valleys, and were then inhabited by people with the fortitude to build homes amid the area’s beauty. Having lived in upstate New York for nearly my entire life, I am familiar with the Adirondack Mountains, and I love them dearly.

But only occasionally does it dawn on me how different daily reality is there versus where I grew up, in suburban Albany. Cell phone signals are hard to come by up in the Adirondacks. A trip to the grocery store could mean a 40 minute car trip – one way. School districts are spread over very wide distances, and although they comprise kids from numerous towns and villages, class sizes sometimes don’t reach above single digits. It’s a different way of life, certainly.

 

During a recent road trip through the Adirondacks, I happened to pass through a town where a friend teaches high school English. I had known he worked in a rural area, but I was nonetheless struck by the remoteness of the school location. My friend faced a rough, long commute each day – and so did his students. Many students lived a long ride away from the school, braving often-snowy conditions and questionable mountain road maintenance. It is a trek to get to school. To get anywhere, really. A student who has to drive one hour to reach a bookstore, theater, or library has limited options when it comes to resources with which to supplement their education. With few classmates, after school activities and other enriching extras enjoyed by peers in more populated areas may also be denied these students. It’s a beautiful area, but not one without problems, especially if you’re a young person in a town without much going on.

Schools in settings such as this could benefit considerably from the implementation of digital educational technologies such as those offered by Genius Plaza in their classroom or in an after-school setting. It is a way to access materials to supplement classroom activities and projects, and maybe delve into new subject matter in which the student has an interest. Additionally, for students who don’t have reliable internet service at home, the online resource available at school might be one of the only ways in which a student can gain valuable digital knowledge and experience. And of course, the more tools with which students can learn, and engage with technology, the better.

In addition to helping students better understand their official lessons and hone their core skills, digital educational technologies can also be a lifeline for students who crave additional stimulation and engagement, or those who simply feel more comfortable in front of a screen than engaging out loud in a classroom.

Many times, digital technology is written off as fluff – as something that is nice to have, but is not a vital educational resource. But students who lack resources in their communities, due to a rural location or an underfunded school, might not even know what they are missing. The happenstance of their location should never hinder a student’s ability to achieve their highest potential. The internet has the power to connect students to the world. We cannot choose where were are born in this world, but we can have a say in where we end up – and proper tools can help. All students deserve that chance.

 


Mother Tongue

Family and Language

Three years ago, my cousin Kevin came to upstate New York from northern Germany for a visit. My mother, a German immigrant who had arrived in the United States as a child, was initially embarrassed by how rusty her German skills had become after many years of disuse. Certain words escaped her, and she often needed to pause gather her thoughts. Spending time with her long-distance relative, however, awakened the German skills that had long lain dormant in her brain. Before long, her German vocabulary grew broader. Her exchanges with Kevin were peppered with fewer English words, and soon, she no longer had to pause to puzzle out Kevin’s German sentences or to muster a reply. Kevin’s English quickly became brawnier with use, as well. Their rapid increase in linguistic dexterity was, in the eyes of a monoglot such as myself, fascinating – and a little frustrating.

Yes, frustrating. I felt I had, in a strange way, been robbed of the easiest path available to become bilingual – lifelong exposure and immersion. Although I had a German mother, she had been actively resistant to teaching me German during my childhood for reasons she has kept her own. It is possible that she simply didn’t have the time to indulge me. But the fact remains: she had an excited child on her hands who was eager to learn German. As time went on, my interest in learning new languages remained, but my ability to pick up the intricacies of a foreign tongue diminished by the year. I remain interested in languages, but I am far from fluent in anything but my native English. Hence, my jealousy while watching my relatives converse so easy between languages. That could have been me. 

Importance of Learning Multiple Languages

It is vital that we give students every opportunity to learn multiple languages, and that we do so as early as possible to take advantage of the time when their brain is most efficiently wired for the task. I’ve heard teachers lament about the United States’s tardy attempt to teach foreign language since my elementary school days, but only recently have I seen any real attempts to combat this problem.

As a mother myself, I desperately want to give my two-year-old son the opportunity to learn a different language, and by extension, to become familiar with a different culture. That is why, next year, I plan on enrolling him at Genius Plaza’s Bilingual Genius Academy, where he can receive instruction in both Spanish and English. As he ages, I also plan on introducing him to Genius Plaza’s other educational products, which will not only enhance his language skills, but also supplement instruction in other subjects. Other ways to encourage foreign language learning can be found here.

Teaching a New Generation the Mother Tongue

My mom didn’t mean to stifle my childhood curiosity and hunger for knowledge, of this I am sure. I suppose the best way to combat this lost opportunity is to not only continue to pursue fluency in a second language for myself, but seamlessly integrate bilingualism into my son’s childhood, so he may have it to tap into as he comes up in the world.


Summer shouldn’t just be a vacation

Summer vacation seems like an inextricable part of culture in the United States. Sleepaway camp, sports activities, and lazy days of relaxation seem synonymous with childhood. While the summertime offers many enriching opportunities for children, possible gains are often offset by proven educational losses.

Research shows that students lose literacy skills over the summer break when they are not engaging in supplemental educational activity. A meta-analysis of more than a dozen studies examining students from first to ninth grade found that upon their return to school in the fall, students performed an average of one month behind where they were in the spring. Our former first lady, Michelle Obama, once addressed this problem:

“Summer shouldn’t just be a vacation. Instead, it should be a time to get ahead, to branch out and learn new skills, to have new experiences, like acting in a play or doing some outdoor learning. And for anyone who’s fallen behind, it’s a time to catch up on lessons they missed…and of course, you’ve got to read, read, read!”

Student age and socioeconomic status has an influence over the amount of summer learning loss a child experiences. When first entering school, students from households in different income brackets didn’t differ much in terms of summer learning. However, the difference increased drastically as grade levels rose.

Low-income students became more likely to lose reading and math skills than their higher income peers, while higher income students were shown to be more likely to make gains. This has a domino effect. As the low-income child ages, the farther he or she falls behind as a result of repeated summer learning loss.

But why does socioeconomic status play such a starring role in disparate levels of summer learning loss? The answer may be the relative accessibility of technology and the educational opportunities it provides. Educational technologies equipped with the right strategies can help close the accumulated achievement gap between peers. It can also target students who need it the most, working to improve not only reading and math skills, but also qualities as school attachment, motivation, and their relationships with adults and peers.

Educational technology may be the key to making material fun and more relatable to children. This will help not only when playing summertime catch-up, but also in igniting a child’s thirst for learning. That’s Genius Plaza’s mission – to link recreation and learning.

We work to develop technology to make enjoyable learning accessible to all kids, so they can return to school in the fall refreshed from a summer break, but also ready to tackle the challenges of the school year using not only the skills that have honed, but also their freshly ignited hunger for learning.  We are proud to be a part of the effort to develop new technologies to democratize education for all children.

Parents often ask how they can help their children with summer learning. The most vital thing a parent can do is adapt a positive attitude for the children to mirror. The parents’ attitude toward summer learning will be transferred to the student. They must also help their children to not fall into the trap of complacency. A student may perform well in school during third grade, but this doesn’t ensure the absence of struggle later.

Coasting on current academic success without emphasizing improvement may discourage the student from working hard and developing healthy student habits. This type of student could benefit remarkably from a summertime education program, to not only continue to challenge themselves, but also reduce anxiety in regards to the upcoming school year.

Research shows that even a single summer spent using a quality educational program will show a significant improvement in a student’s skills in various areas including math, language arts, and others. It is recommended that the program last at least five weeks to allow the student the chance to reap all the benefits provided by the educational pioneers who are working hard to provide targeted educational materials in an effort to further the cause of educational equality.  

Vacation time should not be devalued, but it shouldn’t come at a detriment to learning. The games, exercises, and educational literature available through Genius Plaza are developed specifically to keep education engaging, enriching, and easily available to students. Summer should be time for fun–but fun and learning need not be mutually exclusive.