Tips for Teaching Creative Writing to Students with Dyslexia: Featuring “The Chronicles of Nova Black” by Clara Thorsen

A published author reached out to me on Twitter this week wanting to learn more about how to teach creative writing to kids with dyslexia. (Love that!) My daughter, Clara, is 13 and wants to be an author when she grows up, so I knew that she would have lots of great advice to share with the author. This afternoon, we sat on the porch and together we brainstormed ideas about how to encourage kids with dyslexia to be creative writers. I was so impressed by the candor and depth of what Clara shared. Below is what we come up with. We start with tips for teachers and below we share tips for parents for students who want to write at home.

Tips for Writing Teachers:

  • Take time to learn about what dyslexia is, and what it isn’t. Even those teachers who think the know all about dyslexia, might be surprised to learn that some of what they “know” are actually outdated myths. (No, colored overlays are not helpful and no, we can’t magically read backwards.) Educate yourself about the signs and strengths of dyslexia. Also, read up on the myths of dyslexia. Lastly, look at this dyslexia mind map to see all the ways that dyslexia impacts life and learning. Not only do we struggle with reading, writing and spelling, but we often can’t tell our right from our left and we may not be able to read a clock. The struggle is real.
  • Let them write unbound. Make sure students with dyslexia know that the creative part is the most important part of the process and tell them that your class is a safe space for their creativity to go wild. While it is very appropriate to discuss the structural elements of a good writing like character development, setting, rising action, climax, etc., make it clear that they do not have to spell well, punctuate correctly or use perfect grammar in the first step of writing. If students with dyslexia feel that they have to spell well or write quickly, they may easily feel overwhelmed.
  • Let them explore their skills. It is okay to encourage them to use dialogue, bigger vocabulary words and to push themselves, but it is important to reiterate frequently that they are in a safe place to explore, risk take and stretch without perfection or judgement. Understand that students with dyslexia may want to write a great sentence like “The book magically reappeared on her desk, and the librarian said ‘how can this possibly be?'” but, since a students with dyslexia may not know how to spell any of those words, they may just write “The book came back and the man said ‘wow’.” If they feel free to write without fear or shame, you might just be surprised by what they can produce.
  • Don’t be surprised if they write well one week and poorly the next. Dyslexia can be unexpected and frustrating to teachers who don’t understand it. What do you do if you have a student who wrote and amazing story about dinosaurs last week, but then this week she totally freezes up when you ask her to write a Halloween story? It can feel confusing, but people with dyslexia often have an area or two that they feel much more comfortable writing and reading in. Usually it is an area that holds a lot of interest from them. In the dinosaur example, a student may have always loved dinosaurs and may have a lot of background knowledge and have listened to a lot of stories in that genre, so she may feel very confident writing and spelling even very complicated words. When she writes outside her comfort area, the difference might be stark.
  • Provide easy-to-read lists of helpful words for the type of story you are writing this week. If you are writing, say, a Halloween story this week, students with dyslexia might feel intimidated if they can’t spell infrequently used words like “ghost,” “vampire” or “werewolf.” If you have a writing subject that you know you will use in a class, provide students with a list of words that might go along with that type of story. Using pictures next to the word can be helpful, especially for younger writers. This will give them confidence to incorporate some of those bigger vocabulary words in their story that they might not have been able to spell on their own.
  • Don’t get frustrated if you have to give the same reminders day after day. People with dyslexia have a really hard time retaining information about written language from one day to the next. I am a bright 45 year old woman, but I cannot for the life of me remember how to spell the vegetable word “brocli.” You can tell me today, but tomorrow I will go back to having no idea how to spell it. The same thing can hold true for grammar, punctuation and spelling rules. If you notice this in a student with dyslexia, validate it, because it is part of their disability. Be patient with them. Saying, “I just told you this yesterday!” is not helpful and actually makes them feel shame for their disability which is counter productive.
  • Give feedback on the storyline as they write, not on spelling, punctuation and/or grammar. Feel free to give constructive criticism about plot, characterization and setting as students are writing. Things like “you need describe that witch more” or “the dialogue is flat, how would the boy talk to his puppy?” are great constructive criticism that will help build them as writers. Avoid criticizing or correcting spelling, punctuation and/or grammar in the middle of the writing process because most students have built up a lot of shame around those things. They will often feel daunted and paralyzed if they are asked to keep up with these details during the often-enjoyable exercise of being creative. Save spelling, punctuation and grammar at the end of the writing process. When it is time for the red pen, follow them next tips.
  • Provide students with a editing checklist and let them try self-editing first, one item at a time. We have already established that students with dyslexia can really struggle with writing creatively while also working on spelling, punctuation and grammar. For many, that will be impossible. So, once a student has finished his story, let him practice self-editing. Students with dyslexia will not be able to tackle editing spelling, grammar and punctuation all at once. They will need to edit in steps – one type of edit at a time. The best way to do this might be to give them a checklist. For younger students, include some visual cues. Make sure this is easily accessible at all times. Ask them to print out the checklist and keep it my their computer as they write. When you let them self-edit, give them plenty of time and let them know that you can help them edit if there is a deadline and they get fatigued or feel overwhelmed.
  • Before providing teacher edits on the work of a student with dyslexia , make sure to tell them that ALL professional writers go through lots of edits to help them understand that they are not the only one who needs lots of edits. To help combat the shame that many students with dyslexia feel when getting their work edited, normalize making mistakes and tell them that all writers get severe edits and that sometimes it can hurt your feelings. Be vulnerable and be open about your mistakes and a time when you got lots of corrections and how it made you feel. Model resilience for them. Show students a mark up of your writing with lots of red marks to show them it is part of the process, not a mark on them of their stupidity.
  • If you are reading the written work of a student with dyslexia, and you legitimately cannot read it, don’t be shy – ask them what it says in a kind way. As you get used to reading the writing of a student with dyslexia (or a blogger with dyslexia, ahem), you will get pretty good at deciphering it to get to the great creative story beyond the crazy spelling and haphazard punctuation. However, sometimes you will come across a word that is so poorly spelled, you just cannot figure it out. Don’t be shy, it is okay to ask them to just tell you. They know they have dyslexia. It is not a secret and it is far worse if you don’t mention it. Be kind and acknowledge their dyslexia. Say something like “I was reading your story, and I am really impressed that at your use of foreshadowing in the second chapter – that really had me on edge. I do have a couple of questions. I know you have dyslexia, and I am really proud that you chose some great vocabulary, but can you help me read these two words? Spellcheck can be the worst sometimes.”
  • Teach students the editing symbols. This will get them familiar with common editing marks and help them understand that edits are so common, there are universal marks to help all people write better. Plus, these are really important tips to know as a writer and may help them edit their own work in the future.
  • Do not tell them to rewrite what they have written. Handwriting and typing are a very slow process for kids with dyslexia. Asking them to start over feels totally overwhelming. Ask them to edit or rewrite small bits at a time. Give them plenty of time and a clear reason they need to redo something. Clara told me recently that a teacher asked her to rewrite something and she thought to herself “Why, I will just make the same mistakes again!” If you ask for big rewrites too often, your students with dyslexia might very well check out.
  • Use Assistive Technology! I should have started with assistive technology. It is a crucial part of writing success for students with dyslexia. Extensions for Google Chrome like Co:Writer, Grammarly, Snap and Read and Natural Reader are all great tools to empower student writers with dyslexia. In my last blog post, Dyslexia in the Time of Virtual School, I share a video on how to install these on your student’s computer.
  • If students use Dyslexia as an excuse. Yes, dyslexia is absolutely real, but sometimes those of us with dyslexia (me included) can use it as an excuse. We have learned that if we say “I can’t because I have dyslexia,” there is a pretty good chance that a teacher is going to back off something we don’t want to do that feels hard. As a teacher, it is important to both embrace dyslexia as a real thing, but also to push kids in the right ways to help them grow. My advice if you have a student with dyslexia who is saying “I can’t” is likely because they are stuck in shame and feeling embarrassed. Learning when to tell a student “Thank you for reminding me” and letting it go versus learning when to push can take some figuring out. First, there are somethings that are usually off limits for students with dyslexia. These include asking them: to read a story aloud, to read their work aloud, to write on the board or in a public forum, or to share their unedited written work publicly, and to read or write in a short time. These really are things that are hard or shaming for a student to do. However, if you are asking a student to write a story on a certain subject and they say they can’t, you need to talk with them after class to learn more behind the “why.” By using some of the tips above, odds are that you will be equipped to help them verbalize what is feeling hard in what you have assigned.
  • Encourage students to self-advocate. Make your class a safe space for students to practice self-advocacy. I tell teachers to remind students frequently that their feedback is important and that they can do it in writing via email or in person via zoom or after-school meeting. Include things like “remember, when you email me, it does not have to be spelled or written perfectly, that is a safe space for you to just communicate with me.” If a student reaches out to you, help him to verbalize his struggle. Ask him: What task is hard? How does that task make you feel? Does that have to do with your dyslexia? How can we fix it to make you more comfortable? If you get a kid who just says “all of it!” Be ready to dig in. Read up on dyslexia (which you should have already done if you followed the first tip) and follow up with something like “I hear you saying it all feels hard, but two weeks ago you wrote an amazing story about dinosaurs, but this week you struggled with your Halloween story and got upset when you were trying to spell ‘ghost’. I just learned that offering a list of words for new subjects might be helpful, can we try that next week?” If you are kind and understanding, with time, kids can learn the skills to self-advocate.
  • Challenge young writers with dyslexia! Now that you have all the tips above, my last tip is to remember that students with dyslexia are bright and need to be challenged in the right ways. It is true they struggle with the technical issues around writing, but they are often highly creative and extremely bright. So while they do need to be understood and accommodated, the also need to be pushed and believed in. There is a world of success for writers with dyslexia if they have caring teachers to empower them along the way!

Tips for Parents and Caregivers

  • Writing at home can be less formal. While the teacher tips above can certainly be helpful for parents and caregivers encouraging a young writer at home, I recommend to keep the process less formal at home. Let home be a space for kids to create and write stories without the burden of having to have it be perfect.
  • Audiobook your kids like crazy! If kids only ever read books on their own reading level, they are going to miss out on lots of the things they need to be successful writers. They need to read books above their level to be exposed to great stories, rich dialog and vocabulary and complex sentence structure. While some parents enjoy reading aloud to their children, the fact is that a lot of us don’t. We may be poor reader ourselves, or we are so stressed out that reading time is not a positive experience for us to do together as a family. While I always encourage reading and modeling reading, it is okay to be honest that it is too much for your household. In that case, to help even very low readers access great books, I recommend giving your children unfettered access to audiobooks. Reading audiobooks (or listening to books you read to them) is NOT cheating, so let them do it as much as they can. Let them read and explore any books they want. If they want to only read books about astronauts, let them do it. Often, once children with dyslexia realize they have a way to access the joy and escape of a story, they will get hooked on books. Don’t worry, they will not only read “Captain Underpants” forever, so don’t force them to try to read things you liked as a kid. Keep the Where the Red Fern Grows to yourself. Audiobooks are available in a lot of formats at a lot of different price points. Explore Audible, Overdrive, Play-a-ways, Learning Ally and apps that read story books out loud to younger students like Reading Rainbow.
  • Listen to the stories your child tells you. Great ideas often don’t come first on paper. If your child likes to tell stories, listen. Ask leading questions like “what does the dragon look like?” “What does the voice of the talking cake sound like?” “How does the super hero feel when he is flying?” Once they seem to really be talking a lot about one story, encourage them to write it down. If this feels daunting for them, especially for younger kids, maybe ask if you can scribe some of the ideas for them so they can remember the story to tell again. They can also just write some bullet points of the most important scenes. Starting small and letting them feel safe in their creativity will empower them to try more. Don’t push.
  • Start with a picture. Clara often starts a story by drawing pictures of the main characters. She writes down what they look like and what their characteristics are. Oftentimes, incorporating pictures as a first step can be really engaging to children with dyslexia and can help them build the idea of their story and give them the excitement and courage to continue.
  • Give your child assistive technology if they want it. Once your child decides they want to try writing, ask them how they want to write. Clara usually will hand write in a journal for a while and then will switch to her Grammarly on her computer once her story is more advanced. Let your child write how and when they want. The goal is to let your child write however seems easiest to your child, not to you. If they show you the story and you really cannot read it, that is okay. Have them help you with words you can’t read. Don’t pretend to read it if you don’t understand it. They will learn not to trust you. If they want to start using assistive technology, as I mention in the teacher tips above, I always recommend the affordable apps and Chrome extensions Co:writer and Grammarly.
  • Put down the red pen, Dad! For some parents, it is really hard not to edit. Stop. There is nothing that will kill your child’s love of writing more than a parent who makes unwelcome corrections and makes their child feel shame. Only correct for-fun creative writing if your child asks for it. Who cares if they have multiple stories laying around the house that are poorly capitalized and have awful spelling? Taking a red pen to it will not help them, or your relationship with them. Take it easy and say things like “I would love to share this with grandma, but we might need to spellcheck it before we give it to her? Can I spellcheck it for you or can we go through it together?” If your child says, “no.” Respect it. Children are often on their own journey with their dyslexia, and they want to feel safe with you. Remember, they will learn to improve spelling and grammar through school and intervention. Your job is to help them learn to live and succeed with dyslexia. Be an ally, not a critic.
  • What to do when your child asks you to edit their writing for spelling, grammar and punctuation. It is okay to edit when your child asks you to. While I recommend for teachers to encourage kids to self-edit, after Clara writes a story, I just ask her which edits she wants me to do and I make them without her. Yes, we want our children to learn the skill of editing, and they will, but at home, I am much more concerned with her learning to love to write, so I do the edits to save her hours and hours of really hard work. After she wrote an early draft of her short book The Chronicles of Nova Black, she checked it on Grammarly and laughed as she announced “I have 187 misspelled words and it doesn’t recognize most of them!” I was able to zip through and fix it much more quickly than she could. That said, I also have dyslexia, so when Clara entered her book into a recent contest, my husband had to follow up my edits with his….and he might have caught a whole lot I missed. (The struggle is real, y’all.)
  • How to edit your child’s work for content. While in my own house, spelling and grammar edits are an easy sell, making edits to other aspects of my daughter’s writing can be a challenge. As a young author and a strong personality, she knows what she wants to write and does not like me to change substantive things without her approval. What we have learned to do is that once she has seen the grammar and spelling edits, she reads back over it for a couple of days. Then we sit down and go over it together. If I find something that needs to change, we talk about. Sometimes she agrees to change it. Sometimes she does not. I try to let her be the boss, but sometimes it can be hard since I can also be bossy and we do butt heads. That is bound to happen, so have grace with yourself and your child. Apologize if (okay, when) you get in a huff, but keep your eye on the prize: a child with dyslexia who loves to write stories!
  • Make it a family affair. If you and your child don’t work well together, engage family members to provide feedback on the book if your child is open to it. First make sure to ask your child what kind of feedback she wants from a certain family member. She might not want a younger sister fixing her spelling or a grumpy grandpa refuse to read it and hurt her feelings. Try something like “Lets ask your sister to read it to see if there is anything in the plot she thinks we missed since we have read it so many times.” Then, give the family member clear parameters on the feedback your young author is looking for. If your child just wants grandma to read it to say she loves it, make sure grandma is on the same page.
  • When the story is done. While most of our children’s stories won’t get published or submitted into contests, I still like to print them out like they are a complete book. Clara draws cover art, we make an “About the Author” page and then we print it on nice paper and put it in a folder so she can keep it on her shelf so she can feel proud of it. Sometime she choses to email it to teachers or friends, (or sometimes mom will include it in her blog) and that is fun, but I don’t like when a story she worked so hard on just gets lost in the computer. Celebrate your child’s work. Who knows – your child may be a famous author someday!
  • Find a writing class for your child. As they progress with their writing, it may be worth exploring a creative writing class for your child. We are at the beginning of this process in our house, and have found a couple online and a couple of local possibilities. SLANT, in Nashville, is for young writers and meets at the public library usually, but has been having meeting online during Covid. Clara has taken one class there and has liked it. We are just looking into online forums, like Wattpad, but I am wary and in the process of educating myself. The book website Brightly.com has a page focused on “6 Great Websites for Teen Writers” that you might like to explore. Make sure to research the place you choose to make sure that it will be a safe space for your young writer with dyslexia.
  • Encourage their dreams. If they say they want to be an author when they grow up – say YES! They can do anything with dyslexia, even be an author. Your job is to help them dream and to know that dyslexia need not limit their potential.

I hope this was helpful information for you. Below is Clara’s most recent story. She wrote it feverishly during quarantine from March through July. When a book contest suddenly came open on August 1, she raced like crazy to finish it and it was a team effort to get it edited. But she did it and I am so proud and impressed with what she created. She may read at the 12th percentile and be a very poor speller, but she wants to be an author and I know she can do it. Some of us can struggle and thrive at the same time. I hope you enjoy her creative writing. If you do, please comment below or follow her on Instagram at @chroniclesofnovablack. Thank you.

PROLOGUE

“Daddy, Daddy, what’s your favorite animal?” The little girl went up to her father and held up a small piece of paper and a blue crayon.

“Well, I have always loved wolves,” the father said as he sat down. The girl climbed on to his lap and started to ask him more questions. A knock on the door startled them both. 

“I’ll get it!” The mother sang as she walked to the front of the house and opened the door, expecting a neighbor.

A tall stranger barged in and walked straight to the father and grabbed his shirt. “Where is the money?” the stranger demanded in a raspy tone.

“I will not give you that information!” answered the father, lifting the girl off his lap. 

The tall stranger looked deviously at the little girl. He strolled over to her and smiled eerily, “Mark, I had no idea you had a daughter.” He knelt, forcefully grabbed the little girl, and pulled out a large knife. The mother screamed and begged him to leave her daughter alone as he slowly dragged the blade down the side of the little girl’s face, making a deep cut. His daughter’s cries, mixed with the shrieks of his wife, made the father flinch. 

“I don’t know where it is, I swear!” the father shouted desperately. 

The tall stranger pulled his knife off the girl’s face, letting the girl fall limp to the ground. He slowly made his way to the father. “Well, if you don’t know, then I should just get rid of you so you never find out.” The stranger quickly took the knife and sliced upwards; the thud of the father’s head made the stranger smile. 

The mother held up a gun steadily. She had done this many times before, and said in a firm voice, “Move, or I will shoot.” The stranger smiled again.

“Oh, you wouldn’t dare.” He ran to the door and slammed it with a bang. 

“Oh my god! What did he do to you?” The mother dropped the gun and ran to her daughter, who laid on the floor motionless.

CHAPTER 1

Nova – 10 Years Later

“Ambassador Lana has officially given up her seat,” the news reporter stated as she stood in the blue silk of the hologram, which cast blue shadows on her face. I turned the projection up so Mom could hear it from the kitchen. The news reporter continued, “the new Ambassador’s name is Thomas. B. Hersire.” 

I looked at Mom and shook my head, confused. “Mom, why is our Ambassador stepping down?” 

Mom checked her watch. She loved avoiding my questions every chance she got. “I have to go to work,” she said dismissively, pulling her purse from its place on the shelf in the foyer. She was out the door before I knew it, leaving me standing there to look at my reflection in the entryway mirror. My hair, red and frizzy, was up in a ponytail. My face had a birthmark running down one side; the large scar made the red of my birthmark appear even redder. The other side of my face was one you might see on a supermodel. The smooth, tan skin, and red lips made the other side of my face look garish. My sad, hazel eyes made me seem forty, not seventeen. I got up and went to the shelf where Mom’s purse once sat, pulled a book bag off the hook that was just below it, and grabbed my water bottle off the entryway stand. My book bag in hand, I walked out of my house and down the steps.

At the bottom, I closed my eyes and took a breath. As I exhaled, the wind brushed my face making the loose curls of my hair dance gracefully. I could smell rain in the air. I opened my eyes and walked down onto the sidewalks that crisscrossed my neighborhood. I remembered it was going to rain, and I needed to hurry to get to my tutor’s house so I turned to cut through the dirt path between the houses that had been worn away by my footstep 

As I walked and thought about how our cluster had banned cars a century ago and the fact that people from before the Outbreak did such awful things to our environment, a boy about my age, brought me back to the present. He jumped over a low metal fence. I glanced back, careful not to let him see my scar. He turned his head, looked in my direction, and smiled. Usually, when boys look at my left side, they want something they can’t have. Then, when I turn towards them, and they see my birthmark and angry scar, they turn away. It is satisfying to capture a cute boy’s attention, even if only for a few seconds. 

I heard footsteps, and before I knew it, the boy was walking next to me. His bronze skin glinted in the morning sun. The wind played with his hair, making a black halo around his face. He was beautiful, that was certain.

“What’s your name?” I asked him, keeping my eyes on the path so he wouldn’t see my birthmark. After my dad died, my mom’s temper got explosive. In one of her outbursts, around the time I was ten years old, she commanded me never to show my face in public. I rarely followed her advice, but its always in the back of my mind. 

He looked at me with his soft eyes. “Will. My name is Will.” 

I kept walking, determined not to be late. I had never been late, and this boy was not going to make this a first. “I really should get going,” I said as I began to walk a little faster. 

“Wait!” he exclaimed in a desperate tone. I instinctively turned to face him, and before I could even realize my mistake, Will took a step back, his face unreadable. This Will is just another guy who will walk away from me. But then, he smiled. “You dropped your water bottle….” he said as he handed it to me, our hands brushed.

“What is your name? You never said,” he asked. 

I found myself smiling. I have barely smiled since my dad died, all those years ago. “Nova. The name’s Nova.” I turned my back on him and walked up to my tutor’s house. 

As he kept walking down the path, he shouted, a laugh in his voice, “Nice to meet you, Nova!” I felt a rush of happiness. I was not expecting to feel that way.

When I got to my tutor’s house, a group of my classmates was already gathered, looking at something on the door. I maneuvered my way to the middle of the circle and saw what they were all staring at. Hung on the door were the words. “Get Well Soon!” in bright bubble letters. I gasped! This was an old code from the time of the Outbreak that everyone in my cluster knew, a distress signal passed down in hushed tones for generations. We’re not allowed to put it up except in emergencies. I had never actually heard of it being used in my lifetime. As the panic rose in the other students, I left the scene, knowing there was no class and that I needed my mom to finally answer all of my questions. 

Night had fallen by the time I heard Mom’s key in the door. I sat at the kitchen table, piles of papers from her desk scattered in front of me. I heard her quickly lock the door, her breath fast as she hurried into the kitchen. She didn’t even notice the papers or my angry face. She looked ten times older than she was; her blue eyes looked scared. “Honey, whatever happens, just know that I love you and that I’m…” A loud bang at the back door cut her off. My mom shrieked. 

“Mom! What is going on?” I demanded, getting out of my chair. Mom bounded through the hallway to the back door, going out of sight. A shot rattled the house, making me jump. I ran down the hall, over to the door, and saw the tall stranger that had visited us ten years before. One more bang and everything went black. 

CHAPTER 2

WILL

Last week, former Ambassador Lana had Holoed me out of the blue late at night. The day prior, all of the tutors in our cluster had put up their “Get Well Soon” signs on small hooks on their doors, making everyone panic. I had been in the kitchen when her Holo came. Her blue mesh-like image appeared out of my disc. “Is this the house of Will Smith?” she had asked. 

I didn’t know what to say because I was instantly nervous, so all that came out was, “Wow, oh my gosh, hi! I mean, yes, your Ambassadorship…I mean former Ambassadorship, I mean yes. This is Will Smith.” 

Without wasting a moment, Ambassador Lana proceeded to tell me that a girl by the name of Nova Black had been shot, and since I was a cluster medic, she needed my help. 

She gave me directions to her house, “things aren’t safe right now, so I brought her here with me, please come immediately. Oh, and, Will, be careful out there.” 

Her hologram vanished. I was shocked, I had always thought that our cluster was a safe place, but now I was starting to wonder. Of course, I gathered my things and biked to the address as quickly as I could. When I arrived at the mansion, I realized that Nova was the girl I had met only the morning before. She was lying on a bed in a minimalistic room. Her face was pale and covered in blood. I cleaned her and placed a bandage on her eye. She was in a coma, and with a coma, there wasn’t anything else I could do as a medic, except wait. 

***One week later***

Nova was lying down in front of me; her legs barely hung off the edge of the small airplane bed. I analyzed her face, the one I had memorized when we met just a week before. One side was spotless, beautiful: full lips and a small nose. I remembered her sad, pale hazel eyes and the way the loose pieces of her hair had spilled in little curls around her face. I looked over at the other side of her face. Her eye was swollen and purple. It looked like she just had a black eye, not a gunshot wound. A large birthmark that crept down her neck like spilled wine disappeared into her hospital gown. A long scar barely visible against the red of her skin.

I grabbed a towelette from the first add kit I had brought with me the week before. I began to clean and re-bandage her eye with a big section of gauze. I had done this many times before, so my hands worked without my brain having to say anything. The damage wasn’t as bad as I had first believed. The bullet had only grazed her eye but thankfully didn’t kill her. 

As I was finishing, Nova’s good eye fluttered open. “Will?” she asked groggily as she sat up. I could tell she regretted her movement by the grimace on her face. 

“Ah, good you are awake, I need to talk to you,” Ambassador Lana jumped right in. “I am Ambassador Lana, and I need your help. Your mother was one of the best spies I have ever known, and I was wondering if you will be willing to help me defeat Thomas B. Hersire, that rascal who stole my power and made a fool of me in front of my entire cluster.” 

I looked at Nova, expecting her to do a double-take when Ambassador Lana mentioned ‘spy,’ but to my surprise, Nova nodded, simply considering her answer. Ambassador Lana moved closer to look Nova in her good eye and placed her hand on Nova’s shoulder, her tone softened. “Honey, I am sorry to say this, but your mother has died.” 

Nova stopped nodding, and all the color went out of her face. I glared at Ambassador Lana. 

I tuned to Nova. ”Nova, are you ok?” I asked. She nodded, but her face said otherwise. 

The former ambassador went on, “Thomas B. Hersire is trying to take over all the clusters. I need you to help me stop him, and to do that we have to gain allies.” Nova turned and looked out the small window, the lights of a town twinkling 30,000 feet below. “Nova, your mother was the one working on Hersire when she died. One of the last things she told me was she wanted you to save the Eight Clusters. Can you do that for me?” 

Nova lifted her face, determined, and nodded. 

“Great. Will, tell her everything.”

CHAPTER 3

NOVA

“A party? I have to go to a party!?” I yelled angrily. I’d only been awake for 10 minutes, and I felt like I had done a marathon through hell and back. I was on a plane to nowhere, and I was supposed to save the Clusters at a party? 

“I am guessing you don’t like parties?” Will asked. 

I glared, he smiled. There was a small gap in his teeth, but other than that, he was perfect. “I have never been to a party in my life,” I said, grabbing his shirt. “I can’t do this.”

Only then did I realize how close we were, my nose almost touched his. I pulled away, muttering an apology. 

“You’ve never been to a party. Why?” He looked down at me. He was at least a foot taller than me, which is not saying much because I am 5ft: no more, no less. 

“My mom was ashamed because she couldn’t have a normal life, I guess, I don’t know,” I said with a shrug.

“Do you have any people skills?” he questioned, leaning closer. 

I thought about it even though I knew the answer. “No,” I said bluntly. 

Will suddenly remembered something. “Oh, do you want some medicine for the pain?” 

I just looked at him, “And why didn’t you ask me this earlier?”

The former Ambassador strode in and snapped her fingers. A sliding door opened, and I was surprised to see another human -being on the plane. “Yes, ma’am!” The women looked about 24 with wild pink hair and long eyelashes. 

“I need you to get her fitted for a dress.” 

I looked at the former ambassador. “Can’t we do some pants and a shirt? Do we have to do a dress?” She gave me a hard glare, and I let the women lead me back through the sliding doors. I kept one hand on my forehead so the pain in my eye did not make me collapse.

The other half of the plane was a bedroom with clothes from all the eight different clusters strewn around the room, making it look like a tornado of clothes had swept through. She walked me to the bathroom door and said, “Girl, you need a shower!” I did as I was told. I took off my itchy hospital gown and stepped carefully into the small shower. I turned on the water, and it rained hot as the sun. I gave myself time to breathe. My mom is gone. Breathe in. Breathe out. I’m supposed to save the world. 

When I got out of the shower, my gown was gone, and a towel was in its place. When I walked back into the bedroom, the pink-haired woman was there working, laying out clothes on the bed. “We have picked out your dress for the party based on your personality.” 

“Why do I have to wear a dress?” I whined. 

The pink-haired woman looked at me, “You are wearing a dress because this is a fancy occasion, and we feel like you need an upgrade.”

I was hurt, but then I looked down at the towel and saw their point. “Fine.” 

She looked down at a cosmetic bag she was holding. “We have a lot to do in one hour, so let’s get started.”

When she finally let me look at my reflection, I gasped. “How did you do that?” I looked like a real supermodel. My hair was flipped to one side, mostly covering up the right side of my face. A black eye patch with a gold rim covered my bad eye. The left side of my face was glamorous with the gold eye shadow and red lipstick. I never thought I could look so beautiful.

CHAPTER 4

WILL 

I put on my suit and pulled my curly hair into a low ponytail. I walked out of the bathroom and stopped in my tracks. The sliding door opened and the pink-haired woman stepped out, followed closely by Nova. Nova looked like Aphrodite with her red hair flipped to one side and her red lips. I let my eyes stray to the dress. The dress reflected her personality perfectly. It was black with a gold neckline, a cutout of the dress showed her tan skin, another showed her leg, and her golden high heels. A black-and-gold bomber jacket was added to keep Cluster Two’s cold out. There was not a trace of the wires that had been attached to her for the last week. 

“Well, according to the male in the room, we did a good job,” the pink-haired woman said. I felt my face go red, and Nova smiled. 

“Please find a seat immediately. We are landing,” A robotic voice said, and we all found a spot to sit. I could tell Nova had gotten some etiquette instruction because she crossed her legs and put her hands in her lap. 

“So. Your goal at this party is to get Ambassador Cleo’s agreement to be our ally against the enemy. Stick to the plan,” Ambassador Lana said, looking at her Holo. 

I nodded, and Nova said, “Got it.” When Nova spoke, I felt my heart beat faster. I silently cursed my heart for feeling. I looked out the window and saw the ground getting closer. Before I knew it, we had touched down in a snowy wonderland.

I had been to Cluster Two only once before, but I still was not ready for cold that hit me as frigid air blew in my face. I looked around and saw twinkling lights everywhere and trees decorated with small ornaments. I realized they must have been celebrating Winterfest; I never knew people in the different clusters celebrated the same holiday. We walked up to a large snow-covered gate. The bronze metal glinted in the twilight. It opened as we approached, making me wonder what we would see on the other side. 

The driveway was made out of cobblestone, and I felt like I was stepping back in time. Nova reached out and took my gloved hand. Despite the cold and my nerves, I felt warm inside. I tried to tell myself that I am just going to a party. I like parties; my parents had parties every Sunday. This is just the same. But who am I kidding? I am going to a party that will determine the fate of the world!

The driveway curved, and I stopped. I was not expecting what I saw. The building was made entirely out of glass, it was just like one of the skyscrapers back home, but more like a modern castle with plants spilling over each balcony, even though it was below freezing outside. 

“Well, that is unexpected,” Nova said with a note of awe in her voice.

As we moved closer, I saw a tree lit up in each room for Winterfest. We walked to the door, and a man in a black suit stopped us. “State your name,” the man demanded. He was buff with black sunglasses covering his eyes; his blond hair was cut short, and his thin lips drew into a hard line. 

My hands began to sweat, “Will Smith and Nova Black.” 

“You may enter.”

CHAPTER 5

NOVA 

The lobby looked like the set of an old movie from 2019. A large white fireplace lit up the room. People sat in leather couches facing towering windows that looked out over Cluster Two’s snow-covered red roofs. Plants were everywhere – on the small coffee tables and hanging on the walls. I could not believe how many people there were. There were at least 1000 people there – my worst nightmare. “Will, I don’t like this,” I said, pressing closer to him. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him smiling. He seemed more relaxed that that we were inside.

“I am going to get some drinks. You are going to be fine. You know what to do, look around to see if you can see Ambassador Cleo. I will be right back.” I looked at him, shocked that he would leave me at a time like this. He walked away, weaving through people like he had done this a million times. 

I looked at my hands, which were covered in black leather gloves. I pulled one out and saw that it was still red from the cold. I felt vulnerable.

“What are you thinking?” a woman’s voice said sternly behind me, making me drop my glove. 

I looked up with my good eye and saw a tall, spindly woman with pale white skin and white-blond hair. “Oh, you scared me!” I squeaked. I had never felt small before, but under her gaze, I felt minuscule. 

“I know,” said the woman snidely, bending down and picking up my glove. Instead of handing it to me, she tucked it into a hidden pocket in her gown. “I know why you are here, and my answer is ‘no.'” 

I looked at her, annoyed. Where was Will? This was not a part of the plan, she was not supposed to just walk up to me! I tried to get back on track. I took a deep breath and stated, “So, I am guessing you are Ambassador Cleo.” She nodded, checking her nails like she had much better things to do. I continued, “Thomas B. Hersire overthrew Ambassador Lana in Cluster One and is making it sound like she stepped down, but he is trying to take over the world, and we need your help to stop him.”

She looked at me questioningly, something in her eyes I couldn’t read. “Cluster One’s issues are not my problem.  She turned to walk away, “Oh, and Nova, here’s your glove.” She threw it to the floor, leaving me to pick it up.

Right that second, Will came up to me looking happy. “Nova, check out these drinks! Look at this! There are… Nova, what’s wrong?” He looked at me with concern and set down the flaming drinks. 

I looked at him. “The Ambassador of Cluster Two has just visited me, and she refused to help.” 

Will’s face darkened. “You can’t be serious!” Will raked a hand through his dark curly hair. 

“What are we gonna do now?” I said. I felt like I was about to throw up. I felt nervous. I have never really felt that way before. 

Will jumped like something hit him on the head. “Nova, I have an idea! Which way did she go?” I pointed, and Will walked smoothly over to her like he didn’t have a care in the world.

CHAPTER 6

WILL

Ambassador Cleo looked like an evil, tall elf who had accidentally walked out of a children’s book. “Excuse me, Madam Ambassador,” I said, trying to be polite. 

She turned her head over to me and smiled cooly. “What do you want?” 

I looked back and saw Nova staring at me from across the room with confusion on her face. I turned back. “We need your help defeating Hersire.  He is evil.  He is coming for all of the clusters, not just Cluster One. I know your cluster has been isolated since the Outbreak, and you have done nothing to change that, but if you help us, you will be considered a hero, and everyone will praise you. If you refuse to help us, your cluster will be destroyed, and you will go down in history as a narcissistic failure.” 

She looked at me, her eyes indecipherable, but almost apologetic. Ambassador Cleo snapped her fingers and hollered, “Guards!” 

Two women in black suits ran up and grabbed my arms and dragged me away. One reached for her gun, but it wasn’t there. I looked over my shoulder and saw Nova firing at one of the guards. She missed me by inches, and I shouted: “What the…!” wondering where the hell she had gotten such skills. In an instant, both guards holding me were in a heap on the floor. Nova grabbed my hand and pulled me through the set of double doors we had entered earlier. The cold air hit me, making my nose turn red as we ran.

CHAPTER 7

NOVA

“Gee, that plan worked great,” I said. 

Will, sitting in a plane seat, looked up at me confused “What do you mean? We failed.” 

“I know. I was being sarcastic.” I plopped down beside him, kicked off my heels, and flipped off my eye patch. I put my hands inside my bomber jacket and pulled out my gloves. One of the gloves made a crinkly noise. When I reached in, I pulled out a small note with hurried handwriting. It read: 

Sorry about the guards, I cannot afford to blow my cover yet. I was so glad to see you alive. I should explain. You see, your mother was one of my closest friends. We worked together in her final months on a critically important project. To eliminate the power of Thomas B. Hersire, my son. Obviously, we failed. Thomas is very powerful, but I cannot oppose him openly, so I tipped off the tutors in Cluster One to try to warn your mother that he was about to overthrow her cluster. I am so very sorry she died, and my effort was in vain. I want you to know that I will do everything in my power to help you.

You are in danger. My son is a very smart man. He knew of your father’s death ten years prior and hired the same man to kill your mother. Thomas began to suspect me, but he did not want to kill his own mother, so he killed yours instead. I don’t know why your dad died, but I think you might find that information in your travels. Sorry, there is no time to explain more. Our world needs you, Nova. Please use the training your mother gave you to save us. – Cleo

I got up and leaned against the back wall, reading and rereading the note. She had worked with Mom? 

“Everything ok?” Will asked 

“She’s in,” I said, smiling. “Will, we did it.” 

Will was smiling too, he got up and walked over to me, he smiled. “Remember the day you dropped your water bottle?” 

I looked at him, “Yea, what about it?” 

He leaned closer, “There is something I’ve wanted to do ever since that day…”

I smiled, “And what’s that?” 

He slid a hand to my face gently, carefully avoiding my bandaged eye. We were so close I could feel his heart beating as fast as mine. He placed his lips on mine and kissed me. His breath tasted like peppermint. I had never liked peppermint before, but now that was all I wanted to taste. I closed my eye and let go of my doubts. I am Nova, and I am on a journey to save the Clusters. With Will’s arms wrapped around my body, I felt like I could do anything.

TO BE CONTINUED… 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Clara Thorsen is a thirteen-year-old author and artist. Although she has severe dyslexia which makes it challenging for her to read quickly or spell well, she has loved books and stories her whole life. When she is not reading, writing or researching her next story, she spends time drawing portraits of women. Her other interests are women’s history and historic homes.  Clara lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her mom, dad, sister and dog, Odie. Visit her on Instagram @ChroniclesOfNovaBlack. 

Blog Disclaimer: I have dyslexia, so please forgive my spelling and writing errors. If I focused more on editing and perfection, I would never be able to write. I know this is a safe space.

Dyslexia in the Time of Virtual School

The beginning of a normal school year for a child with dyselixa is hard. In the viritual setting, it can feel impossible. I have an 8th grader with dyslexia who is in her 8th week of virtual learning and these are the challaneges and tips that I have compiled so far.

First, what aspects of virtual school are particularly difficult for students with dyslexia? There are a lot. Here are some of them we have encountered so far:

  1. Lots of reading with no built-in read aloud feature. Our district uses Florida Virtual School and upper grades have no read aloud, although the younger grades do have limited read aloud options.
  2. Lots of writing with no built in speech-to-text or word prediction built in. Some virtual programs do have a spellcheck option, but as those with dysleixa know, very often spelling is so far off that spellcheck simply cannot recognize the intended word. My daughter has an elaborate system where she downloads assignments into Co:wrtier, types her paragraph in Co:Writer, then cuts/pastes into Word & uploads it into Schoology. It is slow and multi-step process that is confusing and is not feasible for younger kids.
  3. Kids with dyslexia need tests and quizes read aloud. That is really hard in a virtual setting. If a parent or caregiver is not available to read, then oftentimes students will be left to struggle through on their own.
  4. Some online quizes pop up with a large ticking timer that shuts down the quiz if time is exceeded. This is stress inducing and unfair to kids with dyslexia who need extra time.
  5. Online worksheets that only accept correctly spelled answers. In many formats, if you type in “Pocahanas” instead of the correct spelling, you will get a zero on that item. Students with dyslexia should not be counted off for spelling.
  6. Many teachers ask students to post answers to discussion questions publically. This can cause a lot of shame in kids who spell or write poorly since errors are there for all to see.
  7. Some teachers say “I’ll give you two minutes to send me your response.” Students with dyslexia may take 5 minutes to write an answer and can miss class instruction while focused on typing or may be counted off for not turning items in.
  8. By the end of a long day of looking at the screen, all kids are tired. For students with dyslexia, fatigue can be severe and cause mood issues, acting out and more. Frustrated & stressed kids can affect the whole family.

The good news is that there are some solutions that can really help with most of these virtual school stressors. Here are some tips that can help:

Tip 1. Introduce and Educate.

At the beginning of the year, I always send teachers a quick snap shot of my child along with my favorite easy-to-read dyslexia info. Usually, I do this over coffee before school, but in the virtual setting, it can just be a well crafted email introducing yourself and your child.

I like to include a picture of my daughter with her likes and talents before diving into information about her dyslexia. In a virtual setting, this can be even more important since there is less opportunies for teachers to get to know the personalities of students. I also include subject-by-subject information of her struggles so that teachers can really hone in on how to support her.

In addition to providing teachers with information about my child, I also like to include information about dyslexia in general. I never assume that a teacher has an understanding about what dyslexia is or what it looks like. I avoid sending long articles, but rather send easy-to-read infographics that teachers can quicky glance at. Understood.org has some great ones, and in Tennessee, so does the MTSU Center for Dyslexia at https://www.mtsu.edu/dyslexia/.

Tip 2. Communicate.

It is harder to build relationships in a virtual setting, so thoughtful communication is key. Teachers, parents and kids are all stressed out in this year of Covid. It is important to grant other people grace while also being assertive to get your child what he needs. When you run into an issue that needs to be addressed, email teachers in a kind way to remind them what is feeling challenging and how to easily accommodate the need. In my experience, teachers don’t want children to be totally stressed out, crying and working until 10pm. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Saying, “Math is taking my son 3 hours, which I know is not your intent, so I am going to have him do 2 of each type of problem, and stop working after an hour.” usually is well reciveved by a teacher. Please remember to make sure to email your child’s teacher with things that are going well, too. The are human and need to hear they are doing a good job, too. Several examples of the types of emails that you and your student can send are below.

Remember that older children (usually 4th grade and above) should be learning to do some of the advocacy on their own. Encourage students to reach out to teachers via email, REMIND, text message, office hours Zoom or other teacher-approved method to share with the teacher what they need and what they are struggling with. My daughter was really hating posting in-class commets that could be seen by peers. When she told her science teacher, he gave her his cell number and now she just texts him the answers and she feels so much better about particpating in class. That said, even with older children, if things go unresolved, it is appropraite for you to send an email to the teaching team as well.

Tip 3. Accommodate at Home.

Virtual learning is hard & a lot of accommodations are hard to access, so parents and caregivers need to step in to fill that role. When possible, I set aside an hour each night when she is fatigued & working slowly to read quizzes, scribe worksheets/essays & to help keep organized. It can feel like a lot, but in this Covid environment, we all need to pitch in. This can feel less daunting after you have taken steps 1 and 2 above and teachers have helped to tailor a work load and time table that is manageable. For some famillies with multiple children and busy jobs, this simply is not feasible. That is okay. Communicate with the teacher. Do your best. This is really hard.

Tip 4. Find Assistive Technology!

So much reading and writing in a virtual setting can be next to impossible for student’s with dyslexia, as outlined above. Find assistive tech tools that work to help read, spell & write. Reach out to your child’s exceptional education teacher or district assistive techonology expert for tips on what tech is available in your area.

Here are some of my brand new assistive tech favorites for virtual school that my school and district shared with me. They are extensions for the Google Chrome browser that can be used on any computer. You may have others that you like better.

  1. Natural Reader. https://www.naturalreaders.com
  2. Snap and Read. https://snapandread.com
  3. Co:Writer. https://cowriter.com
  4. Grammarly. https://www.grammarly.com

First, open the Google Chrome search engine. (It can be downloaded on to any computer.) Then, in the search bar, search for “Natural Reader Chrome Extension.” It will take you to a page that shows that you can “Add Natural Reader.” Once you click that, go to the small puzzle piece at the top right of your screen. That will show all your extensions. Click the push-pin icon for Natural Reader and an “N” will show upon the tool bar! From there, you can access the read aloud tool. I prepared this video to show how to get the extension and how to use both Snap and Read and Natural Reader. I may do a video in the future on how to use Co:Writer and Grammarly. Stay tuned!

Tip 5. Give and Get Support.

This is HARD y’all. Talk to your child about her stress and your stress. Normalize it for them, but in a solution-oriented way. Say things like “Virtual school is hard for everyone but especially for kids like you with dyslexia. The best thing we can do is to keep communicating with your teachers to help them know what you need. We will figure this out together.” I avoid saying things are untrue like “this will get easier” or “you are going to do great.” I focus on the fact that my child is loved, safe and can talk about their fears and frustrations with me. When I lose my cool, as we all are doing more these days, I come back and do some repair with my child. I say things like “I am sorry I was short with you when I was trying to help with you english essay. This is really stressful and I got angry, but not at you. We all feel angry sometimes. Lets take 10 minutes to get a snack and come back to this, okay? I love you. We can do this!”

Find other parents with struggling learners and talk to them. The best place to find other parents like you is in your local Decoding Dyslexia chapter. Reach out to get tips and help. You can always feel free to reach out to me.

That is a wrap on this blog. Follow me on Twitter at @athorsen16 for more dyslexia related information. Take care.

Note: I have dyslexia and did not take too much time to spellcheck this blog because it is exhausting. I know this is a safe space.