Empowering Young Writers

Empowering Young Writers

     It was “Writer’s Prism” week in my Adventures in Creative Writing Club, a virtual club where young writers gather to create and share.  I got the idea for this lesson by watching David Baldacci’s Masterclass.  He talks about the writer’s way of looking at the world, and it’s so much fun.  A writer can look at any situation and spin it into a scenario for a story.  While he was explaining this concept to a journalist, they were walking in front of the White House.  She looked across the street, and said something along the lines of, “Okay, show me what you got.”  

     He looked at the scene, saw a gardener digging a hole to plant a tree and a nearby tourist with a camera around her neck. In less than a second, he replied that the gardener wasn’t really a gardener.  He was a spy, digging a hole to use as a dead drop.  He was planning on dropping a flash drive into the hole.  And, of course, the tourist with a camera wasn’t really a tourist.  She was also a spy, and they were working together.  They would communicate through the placement of the camera.  If it was up at her eyes, she was sending one message, if it was hanging around her neck, she was sending another.  

     With that introduction, I put up a slide that showed four different scenes.  Writers could choose from any of the images on the slides, or they could come up with their own situation to put through the writer’s prism. A few minutes into our writing time, a learner sent me a message asking if his idea was good.  I don’t usually interrupt during our writing time, but my answer contained a message that I wanted to make sure the entire class heard.  And now, I’m sharing it here, hoping that it reaches even more writers.

     The first part of my answer was that yes, it was a good idea.  I said that first to put my student at ease, but the real answer was that it didn’t matter what I thought.   I don’t want my students to give me, or anyone else that power.  If you think it’s a good idea, then it’s a good idea.  Full stop.   

Let your imagination soar, and don’t judge yourself while you are creating.  There’s plenty of time for that in the editing process.  If you would like more information about my creative writing clubs, use this link to find me on Outschool.

Online Creative Writing Club

Online Creative Writing Club

   Sometimes in teaching you have these moments that are pure bliss.  They come out of the blue and make me feel like a winning contestant on a game show.  Teachers aren’t supposed to stop everything and start jumping up and down and waving their arms, so I make do with popping eyeballs and an enormous grin. I had one of these moments in my online creative writing club this week, thanks to an 8 year old author.

     My online creative writing club authors had so much fun with anthropomorphism last week that they asked for a deeper dive this week.  I put up some slides of a sloth, two baboons, and a snow owl, and I asked them to give the animals names, personalities and thought bubbles.

     Next, they got to pick any animal or object they wanted and build their own stories.  I put a basic plot map on the screen and suggested that they spend extra time thinking about what kinds of problems they wanted to give their anthropomorphized characters.

     That’s when an 8 year old author made the observation that’s been confounding me for my entire life.

     He looked up and said, “If you want to write a good story, you have to be cruel to your hero.”  To make it even better, he said it in his British accent. That’s an astonishing level of emotional awareness for an 8 year old.  It’s also a really important concept for anyone who wants to write a story that won’t put their readers to sleep.

     Coincidentally, I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic, and really struggling.  A few days ago, I was hiking and thinking about my heroine. I knew what had to happen in the scene that I was working on, but the mom in me just wanted to fix everything for her.

     When my little 8 year old author found a way to articulate the inner battle I’d been having, it was a eureka moment.  I wanted to jump up and down and shout “that’s it, that’s it! Sometimes you have to be cruel to your own characters.

There are many creative writing classes and clubs on Outschool. Use this link to get to my creative writing club, and have fun browsing from there.

If you want to know more about me, click here!

Is Spelling a Creative Activity Now?

Is Spelling a Creative Activity Now?

Creative spelling?  Inventive spelling? Seriously?


I get a lot of questions about this topic, so I figured that the beginning of a new school year is a good time to explain what’s going on.


When it comes to spelling and writing, there are two well researched reasons for encouraging young writers to ignore spelling as they are writing.  The first reason has to do with brain development and the analytical process that occurs when a child learns how to read and write. The second has to do with allowing the words to flow without breaking the train of thought. 


Two Canadian researchers, Gene Ouellette and Monique Senechat, published an article in  the journal, Developmental Psychology, explaining that children’s attempts to sound words out is actually a “cognitively strenuous activity.”  They start with the first sound and the last sound, such as dg for dog, and then gradually include the middle sounds. Students use phonemic awareness and alphabetic knowledge to do this, which in turn improves their reading ability.  In this study, children who used more inventive spelling had stronger literacy skills by the end of the year.


This does not mean that we don’t care about spelling at all.  Rather, we want to see what the student is hearing phonetically before we gradually introduce proper spelling.  


The second reason that inventive spelling is useful is that editing while writing makes it impossible to achieve a rhythm or flow when writing.  When you are typing at the computer and see the read squiggle under a word, do you go back and fix your mistake or do you continue on, planning to fix it later?  Imagine that instead of a red squiggle, it’s a teacher standing over you telling you to stop writing and fix the spelling mistake. This is definitely going to interrupt the writing process!


Peter Elbow is an Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  He spent his entire career studying writing and the way we teach writing. In a nutshell, his theory is that when it comes to teaching writing, we should get out of the way and let our students write.  When it comes to our own writing, we should get out of the way and free ourselves to make a mess. One of his most often quoted lines is, “It’s an unnecessary burden to try to think of words and also worry at the same time whether they’re the right words.”  We want to allow students to focus on expression while they are writing, and then will introduce the concept of editing.


None of this means that spelling is irrelevant.  There is a time to be concerned with spelling and a time to simply write.


If your child comes home with a worksheet with inventive spelling, you will now understand that the teacher isn’t simply deciding that spelling doesn’t matter.  


Write on!



What Your Child’s Kindergarten Teacher Wants You To Know Before School Starts

What Your Child’s Kindergarten Teacher Wants You To Know Before School Starts

Can you smell the crayons?  That waxy, unique smell carries a whiff of excitement combined with nervous energy. For kindergarteners, it isn’t “back to school,” it’s “to school.” Everything is new. Kindergarten marks the first step on the road to formalized education.

It’s natural for both parents and children to be nervous before kindergarten starts.  Afterall, we know it’s a long, and sometimes winding road. There will be twists and turns, struggles and successes along the way.  So take a deep breath and read on to find out what teachers want you and your child to know.

The first thing they want you to know is that at this stage, life skills are more important than academic skills. Being ready to learn, and ready to function in a classroom is more important than any academic skill.  Learning to learn takes a lot of work, but that’s the skill that will last a lifetime.  

Life Skills

Does your child know how to wait for a turn or how to share?  Honestly, most grown-ups I know (including myself) still struggle with these life skills.  How infuriating is it when you’ve been patiently waiting in your lane and another driver cuts in front of you?  Imagine now that you’re a kindergarten teacher and every single student is that driver cutting in line! For the classroom to function, each child has to have the ability to wait, or no one will learn anything.Teachers are realistic and don’t expect that this skill will be mastered, but students should at least be familiar with the concept.  The same can be said for the ability to share.

Next, students should be able to tie their shoes, and go to the bathroom unassisted.  Yes, you can buy shoes with velcro instead of laces, but it’s a good skill for them to start to learn.  Learning how to tie shoelaces involves frustration and concentration, and ultimately, a sense of accomplishment.  This is great practice for being a kindergarten student. There are many, many Youtube videos with detailed shoelace tying instructions.  If your child is struggling with this, try different methods, such as the bunny ear method, and enjoy the videos. There’s even a “Dr. Shoelace.” Sometimes, this can take until first or second grade, so don’t worry if your kindergartener doesn’t get it right away. 

Students should be able to hold a book, and to be able to sit and listen to a story.  Listening to a story involves a lot more brain activity than you would think. Children use their imaginations and make powerful connections.  Knowing how to listen to a story is the first step along the way to reading and writing. It’s isn’t just exposure to vocabulary words, it’s exposure to different worlds and possibilities. Time that you can spend reading to your child will pay off in multiple ways.  It’s a great way to spend time together before, during and after your child’s kindergarten years.

Academic Skills

     In terms of academic skills, there are a few academic skills that would be helpful for your students to have, but don’t panic if they are not there, yet.  Remember that kindergarten teachers are teachers after all, and one of their many superpowers is teaching. Being ready and excited to learn is much more important than what they actually know.

Having said that, here are the academic skills that are recommended for your child to have before kindergarten starts.  They should be able to identify their first and last name, as well as being able to write their first name. They should be able to recognize some letters and the sounds they make.  They should recognize numbers up to 10. They should also know how to hold a book. Generally, if they know how to listen to a story, they will know how to hold a book. When you read to them, make sure to let them spend some time holding the book and even turning the pages.  There’s something very satisfying about the tactile experience of turning the page.

 By the end of the year, kindergartners will know all of the letter names and sounds.  They will know how to put sounds together to read cvc (consonant, vowel, consonant) words.  Examples are “hat,” “car,” and “dog.” They will be able to write numbers to 30, and add and subtract within 20.  These are big academic leaps and your child will have fun along the way.

Playing Is Hard Work

Remember that kindergartners learn best through play.  One teacher told me that she would rather have her students play Monopoly at home than fill out worksheets.  Children learn best by doing and playing. Games aren’t all fun and games! Games have rules, structure and procedures that need to be learned and followed. For a kindergartener, playing a game is hard work.

 The main job of a kindergartner is to have fun, and to learn.  They will turn in to readers, writers, and mathematicians. They will make friends, and gain valuable life and social skills.

The last, and probably most important thing that teachers want you to know is that they love your children and truly do have their best interests at heart.  If you have any concerns or questions, they want you to talk to them. They also want you to talk with your children about how their day went. They want you to ask your children about what they are feeling and learning.  Keep communicating with your child and your child’s teacher.

Remember that as an adult, it might be difficult to understand why your children are upset because they didn’t get the color crayon they wanted.  However, if you are 5 and you want the blue crayon, but have to start with the green crayon, that’s a lot to process.

Kindergarten Teachers Are Superheroes

Kindergarten teachers are professionals and they know what they are doing.  Through the Cal State Northridge Writing Project, I’ve met many kindergarten teachers and they are all incredibly impressive.  These are teachers who spend significant amounts of their free time researching how to be even more effective teachers. They are true professionals and will take great care of your children.

Best wishes for a great school year.  If you have any questions or comments, go ahead and drop them below.  I’d love to hear from you.


PS: My journals provide a fun, creative and low-pressure way to encourage young children to write.  You can find them on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Magic-Journal-Jennifer-Woolf/dp/1731529465



    We live in a world that is increasingly seeking to sort and organize children at younger and younger ages.  I’m always surprised to hear parents tell me that their child is “more of a math kid” or “more of a “reading” kid. They look at me a little suspiciously when I tell them that “math kids” make great writers or that “reading kids” are great at problem solving.  The biggest problem with this way of thinking is that it deprives kids of the opportunity to develop into well rounded thinkers. The future engineer is going to need to express himself or herself, and is also going to need the ability to come up with creative and innovative solutions.  The future artist is going to need to run a business, complete with Excel spreadsheets. Kids need to be exposed to activities that demand they use every part of their developing brains.

    In our complicated world, the most important skill might just be the ability of the left brain and the right brain to work together.  There are many benefits to creative writing, but the biggest one might be that it demands synchronicity between the left brain and the right brain.  It encourages children to use their imaginations, but it also demands that they use logic and reasoning.

Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist describes the real differences between the left and right halves of the human brain. It’s not simply “emotion on the right, reason on the left,” but something far more complex and interesting. If you’re interested, here’s a link to his Ted Talk.   https://www.ted.com/talks/iain_mcgilchrist_the_divided_brain

    I’m not exactly sure how they determined that birds also have left and right hemispheres, but the illustrations are a great way to visualize the coordination that takes place even while doing relatively simple things like eating seeds.  This might make a fun anthropomorphism writing prompt!

    The writer, Daniel Pink, talks about the transformation from the  Information Age to the Conceptual Age. In A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, Pink says, ““Engineers and programmers will have to master different aptitudes, relying more on creativity than competence, more on trait knowledge than technical manuals, and more on fashioning the big picture than sweating the details.”   

    We can teach a computer to write code, but we can’t teach it to decide what the code should do.  We can’t teach it what problems it needs to solve. That takes human involvement, creativity and ingenuity.  

When you craft a story, you use your imagination to dream up characters, setting and plot, but then you use your logic, or executive planning functions, to craft a storyline that makes sense.  Writing involves far more analytical thinking and logic than most people realize. It also involves empathy and expression, two skills that are absolutely imperative to function in the world.

    The word “playwright” perfectly blends the left brain and right brain.  We start with “play” which is really just having fun with our imaginations.  We end with the “wright,” not “write.” The word “wright” means craft. We have cartwrights, boatwrights, and yes, playwrights.  It’s actually just a coincidence that wright and write are homophones. (homophones are word that sound alike but have different meanings.

Creative writing is like crossfit for the brain.  It’s the perfect combination between craft and creativity, freedom and structure, instinct and logic.  Of course I’m biased, but I can’t think of a more empowering activity.

    The modern elementary school teacher never has enough time.  There is way too much too teach and way too little time in which to teach it.  Most of the elementary school teachers I know try to get in as much writing as possible, but it’s difficult. Some of them even set aside time for writer’s workshops, and if your child is in one of those classes, consider yourself lucky.

    The good news is that encouraging kids to write can be as simple as buying them a journal, with the only instruction being to have fun.  For a little more structure and instruction, there are many online creative writing classes. You can choose one that’s flexible or one that requires your child to be online at a specific time.  Click here to join my creative writing class on Outschool!



5 Easy Thing You Can Do To Get Your Kids To Love Writing (hint: you’ll be surprised how many of these don’t involve a pencil or a keyboard.)

5 Easy Thing You Can Do To Get Your Kids To Love Writing (hint: you’ll be surprised how many of these don’t involve a pencil or a keyboard.)

With a little bit of thought, we can encourage kids to enjoy writing and even have a few giggles along the way.

  1. Buy a journal: Journaling is so important because it gives kids (and adults) a safe place to express themselves.  They can experiment with language, or even just doodle, without anyone judging or grading.
  2. Let them see you write: When your kids see you journal, or even write a thank you note, it becomes a normal part of everyday life.  Give yourselves the same writing prompt and see what happens.
  3. Play with your words:  Make language a game. If you are out to dinner and something tastes particularly good (or bad) challenge each other to come up with similes to describe it.  I’m pretty sure you can all come up with something more creative than, “this pasta tastes like cr@&.
  4. Create a new ending:  The next time you go to the movies or watch a tv show together, ask your child to come up with a different ending.  This reinforces the notion that real people have written the movie, show or video game, and they can write their own stories, too.  This stuff doesn’t just magically appear.
  5. Take a spelling vacation:  Encourage your kids not to think about spelling or grammar while they write.  Obviously, spelling and grammar are very important, but the brain is not designed to write and edit simultaneously.  This advice goes for adults, too. If you stop to wonder about a comma placement or look up how a word is spelled, you are stopping your train of thought.  

A lot of what holds kids back from writing is that same as what holds their parents back.  Follow these steps along with your kids, and you might just find yourself enjoying writing, too.