Creative writing, Nordic folklore and more with Jessika O'Sullivan

Jessika O'Sullivan has been teaching creative writing for Outschool since spring 2016. Since immigrating to the US from Sweden 12 years ago, she said she wanted to find a teaching position that fit her schedule and lifestyle.

"I hadn't been teaching for a long time, but I really love it," she said. "It's one of those things that I know I'm good at and I enjoy doing, so I thought, 'this is my chance to teach.'"

Jessika, who earned her Masters degree in education in Sweden, worked there as a high school teacher. "I taught religion, social and political science, and geography, but I've been writing since I was a kid," she said.

"It was always dream for me to be a writer," said Jessika, who's been published "in a few formats" and won two awards last year from Writer's Digest. "But, my biggest passion is writing, so I decided to do it."

In her six-session writing course, "Finding Your Voice," she leads students ages 9 to 14 in exercises that train students how to tap directly into their imagination.

"My classes are about getting creative, because I believe that anyone is a writer, if you just allow yourself to open up and write," said Jessika.

"This course is about finding your own writing style, your own voice and getting the creativity going," she said, "but also, to give kids the confidence that they actually can write." Many teachers use writing to build a student's spelling and grammar skills, but Jessika said helping students create an original narrative is her chief goal.

"Sometimes, students are a little self-conscious in the beginning and they don't really want to read their work," she said, "but after five or ten minutes, they can relax." Overall, Jessika spends as much time on writing as she does building students' self-confidence.

"Some kids will say, 'oh, well, I can't spell.' but it doesn't matter if you can't spell, you can be a great writer anyway," she said. "It's not the spelling that's important, it's what comes out of you."

As a former student who had "big difficulties with spelling, grammar, and bad handwriting," Jessika said her teachers steered her away from writing. "Somehow I knew that I could still write, even though my teachers discouraged me," she said.

"If someone had told me when I was ten, 'you're a great writer, do that,' then I would have pursued that more," said Jessika, who earned awards for poetry and a short story last year. "I want them to have joy in the writing and feel that they can write, even if they might not spell well, or maybe they mix up their grammar. You're a good writer because you're a storyteller," she said.

When she worked in a classroom, Jessika instructed up to 30 students at once, but in her Outschool classes, "I have between three and seven, and that makes a big difference for how much time you get to spend with each student," she said.

To jump-start imaginations, Jessika uses props in her classes. "I have a little silver box that's about three hundred years old. I'll show it to the students and then ask them to write about who made it." A simple object can be a launching pad for a writer's imagination, said Jessika. "If I had just said 'a silver box' to them, I don't think their imaginations would be going as well."

In a typical class, Jessika said she uses a timer for writing sprints. "I want them to write short things so we can keep going, but sometimes, if I see that they're all working, I'll turn off the timer and I wait until they are done."

Despite initial concerns that online classes would be impersonal, she said her fears were unfounded. "You spend the time looking directly at each other," she said. "I love the interaction, because it makes each class a little different, even if I'm teaching the same subject."

Jessika said she always makes efforts to involve parents; homeschoolers might not have regularly scheduled parent-teacher conferences, "but you can still establish relationships with the whole family," said Jessika, who checks in with past students to track their writing progress.

"We all just want our children to prosper and bloom, so if you can get the parents involved, it always helps," she said.

In addition to teaching Creative Writing: Finding Your Voice, O'Sullivan offers a range of courses including History Detectives: How to Ignite an Interest in History through Research, and Gnomes, trolls and fairies: Nordic folklore and tales.

Nick Grandy

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