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.


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.


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.


My Child Didn’t Like to Read

A few years ago, I was talking to my then 6-year-old son.  He was in the midst of first grade and learning how to read.  I was beyond excited for this stage in his life.  I had dreamt of having him sit on my lap to read one of our favorite books to me in that sweet innocent voice.  But in fact, this was not our reality at all.  My child did not enjoy reading.  He only practiced when forced, and complained about reading every single time.  It wasn’t only a struggle at home, but at school as well.  Even though he was learning and making progress, the love and curiosity of reading was sadly missing.


My entire job as an adult was teaching children.  Not only did I love teaching, but I felt it was my duty as a teacher to instill the love of learning and reading.  I was so passionate about teaching kids to read.  I loved showing them strategies to be successful and confident readers.  To enable them to independently escape into a book while learning new vocabulary and reading skills.  And in my very own home, I was struggling to help my own child.


Needless to say, I pulled out all the stops, and after some trials and failures, I was able to figure out how to have more successes than failures. Below are some of the reading strategies that helped my son slowly gain that love of reading.


Shared reading

Many kids look at a page of text and crumble.  They get overwhelmed with the amount of words and often give up or feel frustrated before they start.  I have found that taking the pressure off my child from reading all the words can be very encouraging.  We take turns reading, which not only motivates the kids to read longer, but the other reader is able to model fluency, syntax, and pronunciation of vocabulary.


Image heavy texts

From my own experience, my son starting getting excited about choosing his own texts when he started reading graphic novels.  These types of books, as well as books with a lot of great illustrations, lure the kids into the story.  The illustrations are also a great tool to help students who may struggle with reading, and gives them imagery for story context.


Choose texts based on their interests

This seems like an obvious one…but it makes a difference.  Kids will want to read about what they like.  If they love animals, try reading animal books.  If they love soccer, find some books about famous soccer players or a storyline that revolves around the sport.  The more they are intrigued about the subject matter, the better chance they will try to find out by reading it.


Use various forms of text

Sometimes, all kids need is a different format to read from.  I love eBooks to change things up.  I take advantage – when my son really wants to use the iPad, I have him read an eBook before he plays a game.  I love the eBooks and content on Genius Plaza, because there are so many different types of books that intrigue him.


We must remember that reading is a lifelong process.  All it takes is one book, one topic, one person to change the course of our child’s love for reading.  Being supportive and continuously providing engaging material are the most important things we can do to make our child’s reading career a successful one.


Summer Learning Loss? Bring on Summer Victory!

Rafael Rothkegel can’t wait for the school year to be over so he can enjoy his summer vacation playing basketball, soccer, and computer games. The 11 year old, who is about to finish 5th grade at Hoboken Charter School in New Jersey, thinks reading is boring, so his parents face the challenge of promoting academic activities between school years, without risking turning him off books for life.

“Usually schools send reading, science, and math homework about a month before school starts to get kids up to speed,” says his father, Iván Rothkegel. But that might not be enough. According to studies and some evidence, on average, students lose about 2.6 months worth of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills during their summer break. The setbacks have also been seen in reading and spelling abilities. Some have called the summer learning loss “devastating.”

The digital age, with all its distractions – video games, streaming TV, and mobile applications – seems to exacerbate the problem, keeping kids glued to screens and away from any academic or physical activity.

But it is also true that the ubiquity of tablets, smartphones, and computers offers a great opportunity to use multimedia learning programs. Genius Plaza is one of them. The digital educational platform, already used in schools in North, Central, and South America, is launching Learning Summer Victory Challenge, a program to help students from PreK through 12th grade retain and refresh what they learned during the school year. It does so through fun videos, eBooks, and math and language arts games.

Any parent can access Genius Plaza at www.geniusplaza.com and create accounts for their kids for free.  Each week, Genius Plaza will announce winners from those students participating in the Summer Victory Challenge on the Genius Plaza platform. Eligible students will be entered to win VR sets and tablets.

“Traditionally, what happens is the students finish the school year and then go on vacation, and really don’t spend the time reading or practicing the math skills (they acquired), so our program is offering a platform where they are going to be able to reinforce the concepts they learned throughout the year,” says Michelle Emirzian, Genius Plaza’s Chief Academic Officer.

Parent coordinators at schools where Genius Plaza is available are being informed about the availability of the platform for home use during the summer so they can share the news with other parents. What is unique about the program is its accessibility: a student can be in the United States or the Dominican Republic, or in any other country visiting family, and be able to access the platform as long as he or she has an account set up.

Genius Plaza is paying special attention to underachieving and low-income students, who suffer the most learning loss during summer. It is estimated that as much as two-thirds of the achievement gap is the result of summer learning loss. As such, low-income youth are less likely to graduate from high school or enter college.

“Many times they struggle with relocation and the language barrier (in the case of newly arrived immigrant students),” adds Ms. Emirzian. “They already have difficulty with being at grade level, so if you take some weeks off, that could have a greater negative effect.”

The most disturbing aspect, according to the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank based in Santa Monica, CA, is that summer learning loss is cumulative. In its 2011 report “How Summer Programs Can Boost Children’s Learning,” RAND concluded that over time, the difference between the summer learning rates of low-income and higher-income students contributes substantially to the achievement gap.

The problem has become so acute, some have suggested more radical solutions, like changing the school year calendar or getting rid off summer vacations altogether. The truth is the almost three month vacation period between school years is unique to the American school system. Most Latin American countries, for example, have two months of recess, at most, between school years.

The RAND report also found that summer learning programs like Genius Plaza’s work. “Combined evidence from studies suggests that all these types of summer learning programs (either voluntary or mandatory) can mitigate summer learning losses and even lead to achievement gains,” says RAND in its report.

Parents play a key role in helping reduce the gap, too. Communication, a reward system, or just a few minutes a day dedicated to fun academic activities with the kids will make a big difference.

According to Barbara Dianis, author of Don’t Count Me Out! A Guide to Better Grades & Test Scores PreK-12, half an hour to an hour set aside daily can help students close learning gaps and perform at higher levels during the upcoming school year.

“Even if the kid is self-motivated, the parents should be involved,” adds Ms. Emirzian, who points out it is very important to present the activity to kids as something fun done together and not something to nag them about.

Any student suffers for not exercising the brain muscle, as anyone suffers when they stop exercising, says Ms. Emirzian. “You need to enjoy the summer, but also need to have some refresher of a few minutes every day.”


Making Summer Count

How Summer Programs Can Boost Children’s Learning

Culturally Relevant, Personalized Learning Matters

Culturally Relevant, Personalized Learning Matters:                         

  If you have been following us, you know that we are a group of social entrepreneurs who believe that education is the only sustainable equalizer. Three years ago we began a journey to ignite the genius of every learner by creating an education platform dedicated to democratizing education.  

Genius Plaza, formerly called PreK12 Plaza, provides teachers, parents, and students with engaging, practical, and research-based curricula. Our results-driven team is committed to providing access to quality education for all students as a gateway to opportunity, especially for the most underserved. Our platform brings parents back in the picture by empowering families to help their children learn.

Genius Plaza’s didactic method puts the student as the central figure of their learning:

  • Learn: students learn in class or at home using the Genius Plaza personalized learning approach and resources.
  • Reflect: every learning experience has an opportunity for reflection and review.
  • Re-teach: students become the protagonists of their learning journey when they are able to re-teach what they have learned using our co-creation tools.
  • Peer review: each student takes ownership
  • of the lesson by reviewing, improving, and enhancing each other’s work.

I am extremely proud that Genius Plaza is the first multicultural education platform created to serve all communities and built by a diverse group of educators, programmers, designers, and leaders with a shared mission.


We invite you to join us and give the gift of learning. Please share your feedback and create content as we continue to build a learning, global community by igniting the genius in every child.

Ana Roca Castro