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Girls Write Now Q&A

We make writing fun! Join us this summer for a creative, enriching writing experience that allows children to explore their imaginations while building confidence and literacy skills.

We spoke with Jennifer Shields, who is co-teaching our “Girls Write Now” summer workshop (July 22 – 26, 1 to 4 p.m.; ages 12-14) to find out more about why this is a great program for teen writers.

Register for Girls Write Now here.

PWN: Why do you think this camp is important, especially now?

JEN: There are so many layers to the recent phenomena of women speaking out (for example, #metoo). Girls learn at an early age about the inherent dangers of being female in our society. They learn to distrust their environment and guard their feelings. This is the indelible guideline for coming of age. In Girls Write Now, we talk about our intuitive strengths and pick apart the perceived weaknesses our culture has bestowed upon us. Through writing exercises and lively discussions, we examine the big influencers, such as peers, social media (Snapchat, Instagram), school, Netflix, parents, siblings, etc. We gather knowledge and strength through sharing our writing in a positive and encouraging environment.

PWN: What do you love about having grown up as a girl?

JEN: What I loved most about growing up as a girl was the intensity and closeness of my friendships with other girls. Liza, Sarah, and Lori—my besties. At that time, girls were allowed much more freedom to love in our friendships. With Girls Write Now, we acknowledge and foster this closeness but also explore ways to support and encourage boys to form similar relationships. I am thankful for the bonds I’ve shared during those difficult years of middle school and high school. I have never laughed as hard as I did with Liza, Sarah, and Lori. Sisterhood—that is what I love about being a girl!

PWN: What moment in the classroom (in this camp) gets you excited as an instructor?

JEN: Seeing a bond of friendship quickly form among a group of strangers. To watch girls come in on the first day and apprehensively choose their seat at the table—shy smiles and a pulling inward of their bodies as they await instruction. Lisa and I jump right in with the invitation to write freely, speak freely. We commend them for coming and appreciate the bravery in showing up to a room full of strangers. Every word is confidential and stays within our circle. We give them permission to be seen and heard. By the end of the week, they are talking over one another because they are so excited to share their stories. Their shy smiles have transformed into magnificent grins and their bodies now shake with belly laughs.

PWN: Why do you write?

JEN: As an introvert, I am inexplicably compelled to write. So much of my experience of the world takes place internally. Writing—whether journaling, working on my memoir, or putting line fragments together to make a poem—is a major component of my mental health. The process of reflection and a slowing down of the world brings me to a place of calm and understanding. Writing allows me to be a better therapist, wife, friend, and mom. I would be lost without this practice.

Register for Girls Write Now here.

Jennifer Shields is a Writing Instructor & Counselor for Project Write Now.

Storybook Studio Q&A

We make writing fun! Join us this summer for a creative, enriching writing experience that allows children to explore their imaginations while building confidence and literacy skills.

We spoke with Leah Mermelstein, who is teaching our Storybook Studio summer camp (July 22 – 26, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.; ages 7-10) to find out more about what she loves about storybooks and teaching writing.

Register for Storybook Studio here.

PWN: What was your favorite storybook growing up?

LEAH: I loved Where The Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. This storybook made the ordinary “getting in trouble and getting sent to your room” extraordinary. I can recall my first grade teacher reading this book to our class and telling us to listen up because there was more to this book than meets the eye. I love the idea that your dreams can bring you to new places and help you acquire new roles, but in the end nothing is sweeter than the familiar smells and sights of your home. Now, years later, I have the privilege of watching my six-year-old daughter fall in love with this same storybook. As she reads, she imagines a world where she is “the king of all things” and in charge of starting a “wild rumpus.” But she also, like me, finds solace in the ending when the boy returns to the familiar sights and smells of his own bedroom.

PWN: What storybook characters would you like to meet?

LEAH: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about balancing being kind to others with being kind to yourself. How I would love to visit with the beautiful children from The Other Side, by Jacqueline Woodson, and hear their perspectives on friendship and diversity! I would ask them how they figured out a way to listen to the adults but have their own minds at the same time. And what about speaking to the little boy in the storybook How To Heal a Broken Wing, by Bob Graham? I’m sure after speaking to him I would be far wiser in knowing when to help others and when to let them soar and discover the bigger world. It would be a dream come true to march right into the storybook Dear Girl, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, with my daughter by my side. I know “the girl” would teach both of us a thing or two about how to be strong and true to ourselves. Whenever my daughter feels different from the crowd, I lean down and whisper what I believe are the three most inspirational words in that storybook: “You be you!”

PWN: What moment in the classroom gets you excited as an instructor?

LEAH: Some students come into my classroom excited to write, while others are more apprehensive. Every child, no matter how they feel about writing, is welcome in my classroom! My absolute favorite moment as an instructor is when the apprehensive student discovers the power and joy of the written word. One of my writing mentors once said to me, “It’s not always fun to write, but it’s fun to have written.” I love bearing witness to a student uncovering the joy and satisfaction of “having written.” Last summer during my Storybook Studio class, many students had these types of moments and continued with their writing projects long after camp was over.

PWN: Why do you write?

LEAH: I write for many reasons and these reasons are constantly evolving. Sometimes I write for the sheer fun of it. My daughter and I write funny notes back and forth to each other when we have mouthwash in our mouths and we can’t speak. I’ve been known to spit my mouthwash out and cause a mess–her notes are that funny! I sometimes write to figure things out, or to think things through. There is nothing dreamier to me than starting my day alone, sipping my coffee, pen and notebook in hand. And my daughter just taught me a new purpose today. She has always had an intense fear of the jets in pools, which is getting in the way of her having fun with her friends. Lately, she has been asking this doozy of a question: How do you get over a fear you truly feel you can’t get over? Today on the way to school, my daughter said she made up a poem she thought might help her with her fear: “Jets are little spurts of water sending you love and blowing you kisses.” Oh, how I love this girl–using writing to get over fears that feel insurmountable.

Register for Storybook Studio here.

Leah Mermelstein is a Writing Instructor at Project Write Now.

A Q&A with our Teen Intern

Strengthen your leadership and communication skills with an inspiring summer teen internship. We offer two tracks: Teaching Assistant & The Interview Project. After the three-day training, you create your own schedule. We also offer community service hours! And it’s FUN!

We sat down with Sophia W. G., 16, to ask about her experience as a Teaching Assistant last summer and why she would recommend that teens sign up.

PWN: Why did you pick the Teaching Assistant internship?

SOPHIA: I picked the Teaching Assistant Internship because I’ve had a few admirable writing instructors who truly inspired me and helped me evolve as a writer. I would not be the same without their encouragement. My hope in teaching was to inspire children to be passionate writers and overall kind people the way my teachers inspired me.

PWN: What was your favorite moment within the internship?

SOPHIA: There were so many magical moments in this internship. I assisted in the Girls Write Now and Ink It Up camps. Girls Write Now was the most empowering writing group I have ever been a part of. All of the girls in the group were so supportive and strong; simply being in their presence morphed me into a more emotional writer and confident woman. Ink It Up was a rather unique group of writers. In this camp we combined art and writing into a masterpiece of words and paintings. These writers had such an abstract way of thinking; their words inspired me to go outside of my comfort zone when it came to finding my poetic voice. Hearing people pour out their hearts on paper is what moved me the most.

PWN: Did anything surprise you?

SOPHIA: What surprised me the most was how open and vulnerable everyone was. By the end of the internship, everyone seemed to have a special bond. Our words brought us together. The days we spent spilling our hearts and souls into our writing transformed me. It was just simply hearing others’ stories and finding connection in them that altered my perspective on life. The power of words brings people together. I think the experience of being surrounded by an abundance of fellow writers with my same passion gave me a feeling of belonging like no other.

PWN: Would you recommend this internship? Why?

SOPHIA: I absolutely recommend this internship because it is a fabulous way to learn how to encourage others to fall in love with writing, discover more about your craft, and meet people who share the same passion. This internship is perfect for people who want to create magic out of their words and be in the presence of magic from other people’s words.

Sophia W. G. is a Project Write Now teen intern and current teen leader of Teen Writing Group.

Ink It Up! Q&A

We make writing fun! Join us this summer for a creative, enriching writing experience that allows children to explore their imaginations while building confidence and literacy skills.

We spoke with Lisa Hartsgrove, who is teaching our Ink It Up! summer workshop (July 15 – 19, 1 to 4 p.m.; ages 11-14) to find out more about what she loves about writing and drawing together.

Read more and register here.

PWN: What do you love about filling up journal pages with ink?

LISA: There’s something deeply satisfying about filling a page and triple-so about filling a notebook. It feels gratifying, like a job-well-done. Have you ever gone grocery shopping and crossed off each item as you found it? It’s kind of like that, but bigger and more meaningful. You’re not just putting things in a cart to feed your body, but you’re putting words and art on a page to feed your brain, your imagination, your creativity. It’s grocery shopping but for soul food.

PWN: What’s your go-to doodle?

LISA: Although I love cats, the images I draw most often are not feline-related. I tend to doodle more floral designs—daisies, roses, lilies. I like drawing them because there’s so much freedom in the way they appear. For instance, daisies have a very different shape than roses. And tulips are often bright pinks and purples while hydrangeas are often pastel. There are so many variations of flowers, so it’s easy to put your own spin on what a flower could look like. I also love images that can be used to fill in gaps (I rarely leave room for white space) such as spiderwebs, eyes, bubbles. And lots of barren trees.

PWN: What moment in the classroom gets you excited as an instructor?

LISA: The AH-HA moment! When I notice a shift in a student. When I see the spark go off. For instance, I once had a student who on Day 1 of camp claimed she “was not a writer or an artist.” She took the camp at the (strong) suggestion of her parents and didn’t feel as though she belonged. But by Day 3, she was writing and sharing her work with the group. Somewhere in that three-day span, she developed a confidence in something she didn’t know she had. And I believe that had a lot to do with the group—she saw other students writing and drawing and sharing their work without judgment. She felt safe and welcome, which led to her ability to create and experiment without fear. Her first share (about her struggle to find her identity) was the spark I was looking for—that AH-HA moment. When she could see that we were all learning and experimenting together, she was able to push past her own expectations. I love when I see that bell go off in my student’s head that tells them, “I AM a writer.”

PWN: Why do you write and draw together?

LISA: It has always been my understanding that art feeds art. Especially in writing. As writers, we repeat “show don’t tell”—and what is a drawing but a visual representation of a story? I’ve been art journaling most of my life—long before I knew it was called “art journaling.” I still have pages and pages from my high school years where I would both draw and write together. (Sometimes I even bring in old notebooks to show my students.) The first stories I ever wrote were told through drawings, and still, later in life, drawings have helped me express what words can’t always nail down. So I encourage my students to explore their creativity much the same way. We spend time writing, yes, but we also spend time drawing, painting, cutting up magazines, and listening to and learning from one another. It’s incredible to see my students light up when they realize they’re allowed to draw instead of write, or to spend time coloring in the corners of their pages, or to use different mediums like chalk or pastel. Imagine how much you can express when you break down the barriers that box in your art.

Read more and register here.

Lisa Hartsgrove is the Program Coordinator & Writing Instructor for Project Write Now.

You’re the Expert! Q&A

We make writing fun! Join us this summer for a creative, enriching writing experience that allows children to explore their imaginations while building confidence and literacy skills.

We spoke with Colleen Doogan, who is teaching our You’re the Expert summer camp (July 15 – 19, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.; ages 7-10) to find out more about why this is a great camp for young writers.

Read more and register here.

PWN: What’s the story behind this camp? Why did you want to offer “You’re the Expert?”

COLLEEN: I’ve seen too many students become unenthusiastic or unsure of what to write when asked to write stories or personal narratives. Not everyone wants to write their story or capture memories on paper, But a lot of kids want to teach others about something they are an “expert” on. It makes kids feel in charge. Smart. Like they know something others don’t. I had a boy in my class this past winter who was reluctant to write a story. I suggested he make a heart map to help him find ideas. On his heart map were the words “airplanes” and “helicopters.” When I asked him what story he had about an airplane or a helicopter, he started telling me a million facts (of which I had no idea) about both airplanes and helicopters. I immediately thought, “Why am I forcing this little guy to write a story when he clearly knows a lot about his interest and could write an expert book on it?” Boom. He started making his chapters and he was off and running! Then I thought about how an experience like this could help other young writers who are obsessed with or experts on all kinds of topics: dinosaurs, baseball, fashion, cats. So we created this camp.

PWN: What topic are you an expert on?

COLLEEN: I am expert on carpooling tweens and teenagers to all different corners of Monmouth County! I must say, though, that I have been given rules by my kids on how to do this job to perfection. I find that having cool music on is key, and turning it up very loud so no one can hear one another singing is a must. I try to be polite and not talk too much because my kids tell me, “No one cares, mom!” I am also an expert in organization and multitasking. I can picture a chapter in this book being called, “How a datebook, agenda, or calendar can save your life.”

PWN: What moment in the classroom gets you excited as an instructor?

COLLEEN: I love when kids are engaged. I love when they work together and help one another. I love when we all work together as a team and kids don’t see me as someone who has all the answers, but rather they see me as someone who wants to co-author the class with my students.

PWN: Why do you write?

COLLEEN: I write to reflect. I write to plan. I write to capture memories and record things that have happened. I write mostly about my kids, but wish I could write more about the loss of my parents and how much I miss them. I will. Someday. But for now, I will keep writing about this crazy life I am part of so I can look back and say, “Wow! You made it!”

Read more and register here.

Colleen Doogan is the Education Director & Writing Instructor for Project Write Now.

Teacher Feature: Mimi Cross


As summer camps are in session, we’re highlighting our last (but certainly not least!) fabulous instructor. The tenth and final is Mimi Cross, who teaches Songwriting Studio.

1. What music artist most inspires you and your writing?

This questions is nearly impossible for me to answer. When I’m working on a novel, I make at least one playlist that might have as many as 80 songs on it. If I had to narrow it down to a handful of artists, I would say Pete Yorn, The xx, U2, Carter Burwell, Nico Muhly, Lo-Fang, The Killers/Brandon Flowers, James Blake … ok maybe this is impossible!

I listened to this playlist while writing my most recent manuscript. From there you can also find other playlists I’ve posted.

2. What was your favorite book as a child?

As a child my favorite book was The Velveteen Rabbit. I was fascinated by the many-layered idea that love makes things “real,” and I can still imagine the feel of the bunny’s plush fur.

3. What are you most looking forward to about this year’s summer camp?

I’m really excited about this summer’s Songwriting Studio! I’m most looking forward to meeting the participants. The teens who sign up for this camp will be setting the tone. I’ll set the pace, introduce skills, etc., but my main job will be to support the participants in expressing themselves through music and lyrics both individually and as a group. They’ll lead the way. I’ll try to keep up! I really can’t wait.

Be sure to check out our camp list and register at www.projectwritenow.org/summer-camps.

Mimi Cross is a Writing Instructor for Project Write Now.

Teacher Feature: Jason Kady

As summer camps are in session, we’ve decided to highlight one of our fabulous instructors each week, giving you a glimpse into who they are and why they LOVE teaching writing. The ninth is Jason Kady, who teaches Sports Writing and just won Teacher of the Year at Von E. Mauger Middle School in Middlesex, NJ.

1. What is your favorite sport to play and to watch?

I love to watch and play both basketball and baseball. At an early age, my father introduced me to baseball and shared his love for the sport. As I grew and gained a passion for it, I developed into a very good player. There is nothing like strategizing through a baseball game, the crack of the bat, or the pleasure of a called “Strike 3.” I also discovered basketball at an early age, largely teaching myself how to play, and eventually developed into a very good player. I honed my skills at the playgrounds throughout Central Jersey and several of New York’s boroughs as well as on my high school basketball team. The thrill of a dunk, winning jump shot, or defensive break down all draw me to the sport. I continue to play to this day, although not quite as competitively! My passion runs deep for both sports, and I couldn’t imagine life without either one!

2. If money/time/etc. was no object, where would you most want to travel?

I would love to travel to Europe, where I have never been. In particular, London, Paris, and Rome. The rich history weaved throughout Europe is something that attracts me to each city, and the continent as a whole. I am also a huge fan of Southern California and Chicago (where I have family), so I love to travel there whenever I can.

3. What is the best part of teaching at Project Write Now?

The best part of teaching at Project Write Now is the allowance of creativity and discovery. The constraints of curriculum are lifted, and students are able to go wherever their creativity takes them. Writing can be very much like sports, where quick thinking and creativity often result in spectacular things!

Be sure to check out our camp list and register at www.projectwritenow.org/summer-camps.

Jason Kady is a Writing Instructor for Project Write Now.

Teacher Feature: Jim McConville

As summer camps are in session, we’ve decided to highlight one of our fabulous instructors each week, giving you a glimpse into who they are and why they LOVE teaching writing. The eighth is Jim McConville, who teaches Fantastic Voyage.

1. What led you to teach at PWN?

I came to PWN after attending a few teacher workshops and writing conferences at your location in Red Bank. (I’m an English teacher in Shrewsbury.) I spoke with Colleen and Jen and said that I would love to get more involved and teach a class at PWN if there was ever an opening, and a few months later they came to me with this awesome idea.

2. What is it about fantastic, alternate worlds that makes them so fun to write and read about?

Something about a different sense of possibilities, maybe. There is something so freeing about suspending belief and just going in the direction that an author or your imagination leads you. From the moment I read The Hobbit in middle school, I knew that I had always wanted to live in The Shire, where everything is green and seemingly uncomplicated. Day-to-day can be quite dull and bleak and limited at times. It’s lovely to venture somewhere else.

3. What book world would you want to live in?

In the previous question, I said that I would love to live in The Shire, so I’ll pick a different one for this question. This isn’t as much of a fantasy world, but I have always loved the way that John Steinbeck describes the Salinas Valley in California. The setting becomes a character in all of his novels that I have read, and I just love the sense of community that he describes. There’s something incredibly romantic about that type of land–rivers and valleys and green as far as the eye can see. Whether it’s the Shire or the Salinas Valley or somewhere else, it would have to be somewhere not overly developed with plenty of space to walk and think and soak in all the beautiful earth.

Be sure to check out our camp list and register at www.projectwritenow.org/summer-camps.

Jim McConville is a Writing Instructor for Project Write Now.

Teacher Feature: Jennifer Shields

As summer camps have begun, we’ve decided to highlight one of our fabulous instructors each week, giving you a glimpse into who they are and why they LOVE teaching writing. The seventh is Jennifer Shields, who co-teaches Girls Write Now.

1. What is your favorite underappreciated novel? How can writing help benefit your well being?

Your question reminded me of a book that speaks to girls and their quest for identity during the thorny adolescent years, written by the wild and willowy haired Margaret Atwood, called Cat’s Eye. Some of you may be familiar with her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which has become a television series. Atwood is masterful in her characterization of young adolescent girls struggling with friendship hierarchy–who is in, who is out. The girls are at times ruthless to the point of leaving one girl for dead, almost freezing to death in the bottom of an ice-laden ravine. The novel weaves past and present narratives of the protagonist, Elaine Risley, exploring the lasting impact tumultuous friendships can have on the formation of the adult self.

2. Why is it important to teach girls to find their voices through writing?

It is important because it enables them to reflect in a deeper and more grounded way. Verbal expression is not always accessible to a young person in the moment; it takes years of practice. But with writing, we can teach them to revisit situations that may have been painful or challenging or joyous and write about them through different lenses–taking on the perspective of the other, writing about a situation and changing the outcome, looking back 10 years from now. But the importance, the true growth from the writing, is in the sharing. Speaking one’s true voice is an exercise young girls can carry with them throughout life.

3. How can writing benefit your well being?

Writing can be the great equalizer, especially when the written word is shared and discussed in a safe, supportive environment–away from instagram, away from snapchat, away from the pings and concomitant trigger of anxious rush. Girls Write Now is like a sleepover party for the real self. The real self gets to hang out, stay up late, and share stories of fear and wonder, hopes and dreams, darkness and light, uncensored and maybe even told for the first time. But that story is so like yours, and yours, and yours … and mine.

Be sure to check out our camp list and register at www.projectwritenow.org/summer-camps.

Jennifer Shields is a Writing Instructor & Counselor for Project Write Now.

Teacher Feature: Sami Strauss

As summer camps are in session, we’ve decided to highlight one of our fabulous instructors each week, giving you a glimpse into who they are and why they LOVE teaching writing. The sixth is Sami Strauss, who teaches Animal Tales.

1. What do you most love about writing?

What I love about writing is that it consistently leaves me in awe. I’m in awe of my students at what they accomplish, no matter the age, no matter the student. I am honestly in awe of myself when I actually finish a writing task that felt so enormous I thought I would never complete it. Mostly, I am in awe of my favorite authors of novels because their work is so incredible to me it feels almost magical that it can be done!

2. What’s different about teaching at Project Write Now?

Teaching at Project Write Now is always surprising. I am put in a room with a mix of students who come from different schools, different towns, or even different grades within the same school. Everyone starts off feeling a little shy or uncomfortable, but by the end of the camp they are fast friends, congratulating each other on triumphs, empathizing with struggles, and sharing so much of who they are. That is the beauty of Project Write Now and writing–it can bring anyone together!

3. What is your favorite animal, and why?

My favorite animal is a penguin, and there is an interesting story why. When I was in 1st grade, I “chose” a giraffe as my favorite animal because everyone had one, and I needed to get on board. My family and I went to the Bronx Zoo one weekend, and since giraffes were apparently my jam, I needed to get a figurine from the gift shop. Much to my dismay, the gift shop was sold out of giraffes. They did, however, have a cute little penguin. Not wanting to go home empty handed, I decided on the penguin as my souvenir. In my seven-year-old mind, this meant that penguins had to be my new favorite animal, and they were from that day forward. (I now have a collection of over 50 penguins!)

Be sure to check out our camp list and register at www.projectwritenow.org/summer-camps.

Sami Strauss is a Writing Instructor for Project Write Now.