MOUNT VERNON — Esther Sadoff sat on a stool in the center of her classroom, reading a short story to a group of seventh-grade students. When she finished, she looked up and asked her pupils “What did the writer do well in this story?”
The students are quick to reply, offering comments on the plot, setting and the emotions the story invoked.
This is Power of the Pen, a creative writing team that’s making a comeback at Mount Vernon Middle School.
A case full of trophies is evidence of a once-thriving program, but the club vanished for nearly a decade due to budget cuts and waning student interest. Eighth-grade advisor Becky Cronk isn’t sure when the last time Mount Vernon Middle School competed was, but said it’s probably been 10 years. Before this year, the school’s most recent Power of the Pen trophy was from 2009.
The school had a team last year, but the Power of the Pen organization canceled the season due to the unexpected death of its co-founder, Frank Merrill. Competition resumed for the 2018-19 school year, and Cronk said the program is stronger than ever.
The team’s recent resurgence has already yielded impressive results. The seventh and eighth grade teams contested against eight other schools at the district level in January, garnering team trophies for both grade levels and numerous individual accolades. Eighth graders Julie King and Nick Grega were first and second, respectively, while Hannah Hofferberth and Adelyn Steinmetz topped the seventh-grade ranks. Grega and Hofferberth also won Best of Round Awards along with eighth-grader Sophia Zoldak.
Competition is intense, with three rounds of writing and just 10-minute breaks in between. Students are given a fresh prompt each round and 40 minutes to write a story based on that prompt.
“The prompt gives you a challenge so you can’t just go to a default story,” said Zoldak, whose best of round tale followed the antics of mischievous three-year-old.
“Everyone is creative in their own way and so even with the same prompt you get so many different stories,” said her classmate Tiffany Marchio.
Students said they enjoy the chance to delve into fiction writing, something they don’t get to do very often in school.
“I like writing stories and we don’t get to do that a lot in class, so I like doing it here with all my friends,” said seventh-grader Rachel Ruth.
Getting creative isn’t hard for the students, but completing a narrative in 40 minutes takes practice.“It’s like getting into shape when you get into track,” said Zoldak.
“You’ve got to build the muscles,” teammate Emily Hammond added.
A complete narrative is just part of a winning composition. Students are encouraged to incorporate advanced writing techniques like sensory and figurative language, as well as humor and emotion.
“Having some kind of emotional crescendo at the end, something that packs a punch, that touches the reader … I think that’s what makes a good piece,” said Sadoff. “It’s something you can relate to.”“We talk a lot about ‘show me the story, don’t tell me the story’,” said Janet DeRoo, who directs the Power of the Pen program at St. Vincent de Paul Middle School. “Show me how he felt, what the room looked like, how did he respond.”
Students who participate are sure to see gains in their reading and writing skills, but Sadoff believes there are social and emotional benefits as well.
“I think writing is cathartic. It helps them process their daily lives and reflect on all the things that are happening,” she said. “When they’re writing creatively, they’re the ones in control.”
Power of the Pen members meet twice a week after school to write and share their stories. At the beginning of the season, many students were reluctant to share their work, but most are now eager to read it out loud. Sadoff said that the students are incredibly supportive of their peers, but also offer valuable critiques for improving their writing.
“They give each other pretty spot-on feedback,” she said. “There are times where I don’t have to say much. They’ve really picked up on the strengths and weaknesses of a story.”
King and Grega will represent the Yellow Jackets at regionals alongside fellow eighth-graders Sophia Zoldak, Heather Barnhart, Emily Hammond and Tiffany Marchio. The seventh-grade delegation includes Hofferberth, Steinmetz, Rachel Ruth, Sarah Misarti and Ian Hawthorne. The regional competition between 30 schools will be held March 9 at Granville Middle School. With 11 out of the 12 students qualifying for regionals, Cronk believes her team stands a good chance of bringing home the school trophy.
St. Vincent de Paul students competed in the Northeast District this year due to a school scheduling conflict. The eighth-grade team won second overall at districts; eighth-grader Matthew Salvucci placed third overall and Courtney Mays received a Best of Round for one of her writings. The school sent eighth-grade students Alex Buehrer, Hannah Fernandez, Alayna Ferrell, Mays and Salvucci to the regionals. The seventh-grade regionals team included Olivia Stein, Sage Szucs and Mladen Tague. The eighth-grade team earned third overall in the regional competition, with Salvucci claiming ninth overall and Mays receiving a Best of Round and Best of the Best for one of her pieces. The Northeast District has not released the names of the state qualifiers.