Pedagogy and Power of the Pen, Part I

I was very fortunate during the past Power of the Pen season to judge every single possible round at the district, local, and state level. I was even tapped to judge the seventh-grade state finals (the prompt was a tough one; I don’t remember specifically what it was but they had to write in the style of Dr. Seuss). That’s a lot of reading, and there were definitely challenges with assigning scores and sussing out favorites, but it’s something I enjoy so much that it’s worth sacrificing a few Saturdays during the school year.

But, actually, let’s back up a little bit here. What is Power of the Pen in the first place? The Power of the Pen website describes it as “Ohio’s award-winning educational enhancement program devoted to excellence in creative writing at the middle school level.” I normally call it an alla prima creative writing competition for seventh and eighth graders.

However, neither of these definitions accurately describe what happens at a tournament, which can be chaotic and stressful and tons of fun.

Middle schools assemble teams of interested writers, and those writers come to the tournament bright and early and ready to write. The format is like a high school speech and debate competition, for those that are familiar – students are split into different classrooms in groups of five or six. One judge facilitates the tournament for that classroom during that round. This includes passing out the papers to write on (gotta get those carbon copies!), writing the prompt on the board, and keeping time. When time is up, the judge collects the stories and reads them all. The judge has to rank and score them and turn them into the tournament’s tab room, where they calculate students’ running scores throughout the day, and also the teams’ scores. Rinse and repeat for at least two more rounds, have lunch, and stay for awards, and there is your basic Power of the Pen tournament recipe!

I never competed when I was a kid (my middle school only developed a team in the past few years) but whenever I judge it is fascinating seeing how many different kids are involved, and how they operate during a round. Some seem laser-focused, jumping into the prompt immediately, sometimes generating pages and pages of material. Others take their time; they’re allowed some resources, like dictionaries and scrap paper, and they work more slowly and deliberately. Some clearly come in prepared with a story idea that they then have to adjust to fit to the prompt; others wait for new inspiration to strike each time. It’s obvious as a judge that many students change up their strategies from one tournament or even one round to the next, which I find fascinating. It’s getting to watch their writing process develop in real time! How cool is that?

That brings me back to the whole point of this post – what is the point of Power of the Pen? Sure, it’s fun, and yes, it’s always nice to get recognition as a kid, but does this sort of lightning-fast creative writing serve a pedagogical purpose?

I think it does. Having to write a lot in a short amount of time is certainly a skill that comes up a lot, especially in high school and college. There are definitely benefits to practicing creativity. But what, specifically, does Power of the Pen accomplish? Let me know what you think – I’ll be chewing on this question a bit for another post!


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