Members of the McKinney School Power of the Pen
group, front row, from left: Danielle Doubt, Marina Owen, Marissa
Lite, Lara Donnelly, Ken Yamashita, Maddy Welsh and India Scarver;
second row: Allison Gulick, Lasena Badger, Niquelle Orr, teacher
Aurelia Blake and Erin Silvert-Noftle.
Schools Power of the Pen team
students a world of words
Its 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon and most McKinney School students
have long since beat a retreat from the classroom. But in Aurelia Blakes
language arts room, 11 seventh and eighth graders sit hunched over tables,
furiously scribbling in their notebooks.
After the allotted time ends, everyone stops writing and hands wave in
the air as kids volunteer to read their stories. One girl reads about
a mother who lost her child in a custody battle, another reads about a
female werewolf. Both stories are strong, assured and vivid.
That was really good but Id like more description, one
student says after the werewolf story was read.
No, there was good description, says another.
What do werewolves smell like? Blake says to the writer. What
do they sound like walking across a marble floor? Show me. Let me be right
Its a sight that makes Blake smile. When kids show up twice
a week after school, asking to write, saying, give me a prompt,
she said in a recent interview, its the highlight of
What happens on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons from December through
May is Power of the Pen, a group of middle school students who practice
for the state Power of the Pen writing contests. Blake, who began sponsoring
the McKinney School group three years ago, has helped her team do well
each year. This year is no exception.
At the first level of competition, held in January, the Yellow Springs
eighth-grade team placed 2nd out of about 15 teams, and the seventh-grade
team placed 4th. Seventh grader Lara Donnelly won two best-of-round
awards, meaning her story was judged best of her 88 competitors, and ranked
third overall in her grade level. Eighth grader Erin Silvert-Noftle won
one best-of-round, and eighth grader Lasena Badger placed
fourth overall in her grade level.
Eighth-grade team members who will participate in the next level of competition
are Erin Silvert-Noftle, Sarah Evans, Lasena Badger and Allison Gulick.
Seventh graders are Lara Donnelly, Rose Pelzl, Emile Fleming and Danielle
Blake wasnt a bit surprised about her teams good showing.
In fact, she expected both teams to place first in their grade levels.
What they write here, she said, is amazing.
And while the success helps motivate the group to keep practicing for
the next level of competition the regional takes place in April,
the state in May most of the kids said they show up twice a week
because they have fun.
I usually have writers block and cant write, except
when I come here, said Danielle Doubt. Then I get a prompt
and it helps.
In school, writing is homework, said Niquelle Orr. Here,
its our choice.
Power of the Pen gives young people who love to write an audience and
a group to share with, Blake said. While other creative people, such as
musicians and actors, share their creativity in a group, writers traditionally
work by themselves.
Writing is usually a solo activity, and its lonely,
Blake said. This is like a club for kids who want to write.
Part of the clubs fun aside from the snacks Blake and the
students bring in seems to be the young peoples affectionate
teasing of their teacher.
After school shes not the Grammar Woman anymore, like she
is in school, one student said of Blake. Shes nice.
But nice doesnt fully convey how Blake relates to the group. When
group members read their stories out loud, Blake is animated, enthusiastic,
supportive of each persons best efforts and honest with the parts
that need work.
What comes through is Blakes caring for both young people and the
written word. The students, in their feedback to each other, also express
both appreciative support and honest criticism.
They learn quickly how to listen to others, Blake said. If
they hear something thats good, they know its good, even it
theyre not quite there yet themselves. But they learn from it.
Blake said that shes amazed at the students creativity, at
the varied and original responses to the prompts, or an idea students
must write about. In response to the prompt the velvet ribbon,
she said, one student wrote about a ribbon on someone who died, while
another wrote of a baby and a third wrote about a first kiss.
They transcend the topic, Blake said. They go someplace
else. That someplace else is a place where students address, in
a creative way, the issues in their lives, or the events they see around
them, Blake believes.
Writing is like a door, she said. You have all these
hallways in your mind, all these thoughts and feelings you cant
communicate. I think writing helps kids realize that the way to make sense
of whats in their mind is to let it out the door and to share it.
It gives them a chance to express what theyre grappling with.
Students must want that chance, because each year the Power of the Pen
team grows. When Blake first sponsored the activity three years ago, the
year she was hired as the McKinney School language arts teacher, about
six students showed up. On the first day this year, 18 showed up, she
said. Students worried that there were too many writers, but the group
has dwindled as young people got caught up in winter sports activities.
But a lively and enthusiastic group, the hard-core writers,
keep coming, she said.
Blake is one of those hard-core writers, and at least once a week, she
joins in and writes a story, offering it to her students for suggestions.
She has so much fun, she said, that for the first two years she volunteered
her time, although this year she receives a small stipend as Power of
the Pen sponsor. But, she makes clear, if she didnt get paid, shed
do it anyway.
Blake never had such a group, when she was a young person growing up in
Philadelphia, so she wrote by herself. Although she can always remember
writing, Blake recalled a pivotal moment when she was singled out
by a high school teacher who honored her work and helped her see herself
as a writer. She helped me to respect the part of myself that wanted
to write, she said.
Just as Aurelia Blake is doing now, with her young writers.