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Dear Martha,

If you ever have a chance to go to a whoop-de-doo, don’t miss it. It was so much fun!

Yesterday, as soon as we found out we were going to have a whoop-de-doo with the other train, folks  went around to the other wagons to meet each other and find out where they were headed. This train came from Kentucky, and they’re headed to a place just 100 miles from here. Their journey is almost over. They had a drought in Kentucky, and the crops failed, so most of them want to try their hand at farming in the Florida wilderness.

Pap and the rest of the pushers from both trains called games for the children. We had sack races, a three-legged race (Minnie and I were together), a wheelbarrow race, drop the handkerchief, and a spelling bee, which was won by a Kentucky girl. Her word was CONSTERNATION. I had just gotten out with the word JOSTLING. Vexation! The Kentucky girl won a silver dollar.

The men played horseshoes, and the competition was fierce. The onlookers clapped and shouted with every toss. It was finally between Martin Carter and a man from the other train. Martin won!

The women cooked supper while the men fashioned tables out of whatever they could find in the wagons: sawhorses, lumber, doors, and a big store sign that said, “Farrier.” We piled the pots of food on the tables, and every family brought their own plates and spoons from their wagons.

Guess what? We met another family of Bodains! Pap and the other Mr. Bodain talked about their kin and tried to see if we are related by blood. Pap asked about his cousin, Daniel Bodain, who lives down near Micanopy, Florida, but they did not know of him. We decided that we must be related somehow, way far back in the Bodain family line. It was fun because the rest of the time we called each other “Cousin.”

After supper, folks hung their lanterns all around. The place was lit up as bright as day. The men cleared the tables, and Captain Walsh called for a fiddler. We ended up with three fiddlers, three mandolin players, two guitar players, two harmonica players, and two banjo players! There were even more musicians, but the women complained that there wouldn’t be anybody left to dance with. Everybody danced: children, women, men, and even the old folks. You didn’t even need a partner. You just got out in the circle and danced and danced. Pap and Mama danced with their cheeks together and their eyes closed. Miss Melman danced with Captain Walsh.

When the night was over, folks took the lanterns down and headed off for their wagons.

Today, we gathered again for a preaching service. Captain Walsh had one of the hired drivers drive the piano wagon out toward the middle of the circle. Folks from both trains gathered around the end of it and brought chairs, kegs, barrels, boxes, or whatever they had to sit on. They opened the canvas so the sound could come out, and Miss Melman played hymns. Mr. Carter led the singing. One of the men from the other train did the preaching. He preached the shortest sermon I’ve ever heard. I said, “Thank goodness!” a little too loud, and Mama pinched me, but I didn’t care. I bet she was glad it was short, too.

For the rest of the day, folks visited and helped each other. Kids played everywhere. Women spread quilts out for all the babies. The farrier from the other train looked at our horses and checked to see if they needed shoes. A barber cut folks’ hair. Mrs. Carter gave out her liniments and tinctures. Miss Melman wrote letters for folks. Pap and some other farmers talked about which crops would grow in Florida and which crops wouldn’t. Mama swapped recipes and looked at pattern books.

I showed some girls from the other train how to make a cat’s cradle. They showed me how to make a “button on a string” so that it spins. Travis and the boys played marbles and capture the flag.

We were all going twelve-ways-to-Sunday. What a day!





Validating children with positive, uplifting responses is an incredible skill for everyone who works with kids. Some teachers are good at this, and some get in a rut of saying the same few phrases over and over. The responses we give might possibly be ones that are remembered for a lifetime. I can remember a variety of teachers who said things to me through my grade school, middle school, and high school, positive comments that live in my memory to this day.


Positive Things to Say to Kids

That’s the way!

You amaze me.

Isn’t this fun? Learning new things is awesome!

Where have you been all my life?

Move over, (popular star or hero): there’s a new superstar in town!

You light up my world.

You used to struggle, and look at you now.

You are headed for greatness.

I never knew that. You’ve taught me something new.

Teaching you is such a pleasure!

Attitudes like that fill up this classroom with sunshine.

You are an example to us all.

I can see success in your future.

You’ve got it! Would you help me teach the others?

Your smile lights up this room.

I can hardly wait to get here every morning to teach you.

I can see college in your future.

You, my friend, are a good citizen.

School can be a challenge, but you meet that challenge head on each day.

I am so lucky to be your teacher.

How did you get so smart?

Did your mother teach you that? Please give her a big thank you tonight.

If you keep this up, you’ll be in the Hall of Fame.

That’s a home run if I ever saw one!

I wish they gave black belts in excellence because you would surely win one.

Today is a brand new day. Let’s start fresh.

I have no choice but to tell our principal what incredible work you’re doing.

You are brave, hard working, and intelligent. What more could I ask for?

You are the dream team!

Do you know how special you are to me?

I am never going to forget what you just did. This is now one of my favorite memories.


Who ARE you? How did you get so smart?

I saw what you did for ________________. That was a terrific thing to do.

You are an example for us all.

Do you know how many people look up to you? Well, I’m one of them, too.

Thank goodness I’m not the only one who asks a lot of questions. That’s how you learn!

I will be happy to answer that for you.

I agree. It is hard. Let’s see if we can figure it out together.

Happy dance! Happy dance! Happy dance!

Brilliant! Simply brilliant.

If you can’t figure it out, let me know. I’m happy to help you.

You have a great work ethic. I know grown men who don’t work as hard as you do.

I count on your great attitude every day.

If I could pick any kids in the world to teach I’d pick you.

Wow! I don’t know if there are enough words in the English language to describe how good that was.


You are little professionals, that’s what you are!


If you want to see perfection, look at this!

(cheering) We want another one just like the other one!

(singing) I like it. I love it. I want some more of it!

I was hoping you would work hard, and  you did not let me down!

Look how far you’ve come. It’s astonishing, that’s what it is!

I wish I had a real crown to put on your head right now.

Spectacular! You better get used to hearing that word!

I wouldn’t trade places with any other teacher on the planet!

Get ready for success. That’s all I have to say. Get ready for success!

Would you teach that to me? I would like to understand how that works.

Remind me to write a note to your parents telling them what an amazing kid they have!

I can’t wait to tell the other teachers about this.

When I see that look on your face—the look that says you got it—it makes my day!

It’s not just about me teaching. When I see you working hard, I know I’m in the right job.

You are one curious kid. And most of the world’s geniuses were also curious kids.

Thank you for making the right choice. I was holding my breath, but you made the right choice!

If students were paid for learning, you would get a big raise!

Let me take a picture of you. I don’t ever want to forget this moment!

A person who works this hard could own her own business one day.

If this gets any better, I don’t know if I’ll be able to stand it!

You should feel very proud of yourself.

Diligent. If you look up the word diligent in the dictionary, your picture should be there!

I am so proud of you I might start dancing!

There is no stopping you! Get ready, world!

Phenomenal. Simply phenomenal.

They need to name a new flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream after you!

I can always count on you to have a positive attitude. That is a valuable asset.

You work hard…and then you play hard. That’s what winners do.

You are a spectacular listener. That is a huge life skill.

I will do whatever it takes to help you be a success. You’re worth it!



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Dear Martha,

Today, we left at the crack of dawn. It was my first day to drive Jeb and January all by myself. Pap sat with me for a while, just to be sure I’d be alright, but I did fine.

He said, “Some folks are having trouble with their wagons with all the extra weight and supplies.” After he was sure I could handle the team, he rode off on Gabriel to keep an eye on the wagons and help folks shift their supplies if they needed it.

When I drive the wagon by myself, I feel proud that I know how to handle Jeb and January and follow the wagon ahead. I have to watch for ruts in the road or big rocks that might cause our oxen to stumble and fall.

This morning, Miss Emily invited Dylan over to play with Lucy, so Mama went to practice the piano. Miss Melman said Mama has real talent and encouraged her to practice whenever she can. I asked Mama if I could go back there and hear her play, but she said, “Not yet.” I begged her, but she said, “Don’t meddle.”

At first, I was kind of hurt because she wouldn’t let me come hear her play, but something exciting happened in the meantime, and I would have been sorry if I hadn’t been driving the wagon. Around noon, we met up with another wagon train.

I heard folks up ahead hollering, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I saw Pap and the rest of the pushers riding hard, up toward the front of the train, where Captain Walsh usually rides. Travis came flying back this way toward the wagons, shouting the news, “Wagon train! Captain says we’ll be stopping!” I pulled gently on the reins and called out, “Whoa, there, Jeb. Whoa, there, January.”

Another wagon train! We’ve passed folks in wagons, on horses, and on foot but never another whole caravan. We stopped for a while, so Captain Walsh could talk to their captain. They talked a long time. Then, Pap came galloping back on Gabriel, telling folks, “Move ahead slowly, follow to circle.”

By this time, Mama had come back from the piano wagon, but she was up ahead at Miss Emily’s wagon getting Dylan. As the other train passed us, folks waved, and we waved back. And there I was, Teddy Bodain, ten-year-old adventure girl, sitting on our high seat, driving a team of oxen to beat the band!

We made a big half-circle with our wagons, and the other train made a big half-circle with their wagons, so when we were finally stopped, there was a huge circle of wagons. Folks got down from their wagons and off their horses to stretch their legs.

Captain Walsh rode back to speak to us.

“Folks, I know their captain, Marcus Yoner. Good man. They’d like to camp near us for tonight and tomorrow. If you folks are of a mind, we’ll have a whoopde-doo tonight and a preaching service tomorrow. I was planning to stop for a day, anyway, so our teams can rest. We’ll leave Monday morning, sharp.”

Our mamas immediately began to discuss what dishes to make and what ingredients they would need. Mama and Mrs. Carter and Miss Melman and Miss Emily were talking up a storm.

Mrs. Carter said, “Grace, it won’t be a party if you don’t make your macaroni and cheese.”

Mama said, “Well, Cassie will have to help me. Emily, I hope you bring out a jar of your pickles.”

A whoop-de-doo! Goodness gracious and Ethelbert Nevin. We NEED a party!





Give Me Wings

            Have you ever longed to fly, to have wings that would allow you to glide over the treetops? To soar across the sky with giddy abandon? To chase the horizon against the setting sun? I grew up where there were mountains, and I thought having wings would be the greatest thing ever.

            When I was a girl growing up in the jungles of the country of Panama, I would climb high into the mimosa or mango trees and sit as still as a statue so I could watch the birds. The rain forest was full of them: flocks of toucans, harpy eagles, macaws, and parrots. The canopy was filled with a patchwork of colors: scarlet, emerald, cobalt blue. When the birds fed, they screeched back and forth, bragging on their berries and cashew apples. If suddenly a branch cracked or some animal scurried by, the entire jungle of birds rose up as one colorful ceiling and took flight. Breathtaking. I wanted to fly off with them.

            I dreamed of wings. I prayed for wings. I schemed about wings. I used canvas and umbrellas, sticks and netting. I jumped from trees, high rocks, and the roof of the shed, all with spectacularly disastrous results. My longest flight came from holding on to a huge nylon parachute. The wind caught it and lifted me up over traffic on the main highway. It was 30 seconds of glory followed by public shame and minor injury.

            When I realized I could not fly, I wanted a bird. I was in luck. My sister asked for a parrot for her graduation present. The Kuna Indians hunted birds by night and shined powerful lights into the nests of parrots to temporarily disorient them. They scooped up the baby birds in nets and sold them in the market for $20. This is how a young parrot we called Popeye came to live with us in the summer of 1967. We found him at the market, chose him from a cage full of frightened young parrots, and cupped him in our hands. We soothed him and imitated his baby-bird talk, trying to communicate that the life we planned for him would be far superior to living in the jungle.        

We gave Popeye good things to eat and bought him a large parrot cage. We tamed him to come like a puppy and let him out of his cage so he could explore the house. Our feathered plaything learned to say many words with crystal clarity and sing, “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man! Toot toot.” He was a constant source of amusement. My sister went off to college, and Popeye sort of naturally came to me. I took him riding in the car and on picnics with friends. Parrots have roughly the same lifespan as humans, 70–80 years. We were going to be together for decades.

            We clipped his wings so that he could fly short distances but could not fly away. Once, when his flight feathers had grown out more quickly than we had anticipated, he flew away from the backyard, over the short meadow, and into a large tree at the elementary school. My father and uncle spent a frantic hour trying to rescue him, finally climbing down from the enormous tree with Popeye cradled in a beach towel.  It never occurred to me at the time that Popeye could have longed to join the other parrots that flew free, to fly high, as high as the sun.

            Years went by. High school. College. Moving to the U.S. I took Popeye with me wherever I went. He was the hit of the dorm, the talk of my friends, and the resident comedian everywhere. But life, children, and responsibilities encroached. I was no longer free to be a bird’s companion. Popeye was passed to different family members who each took care of him for several years at a time. He lived in his cage, loved and protected, for 25 years, until the end of his life. He died of pneumonia.

            I have made some mistakes in life, but this one causes particular regret. Yes, Popeye was a beloved pet and was well taken care of and adored. But we humans are so misguided. We cage up the only creatures God gave wings to and deny them the right to live free with their mates out in the beauty of nature. I still wish for wings, but not for me. Now I wish them for all the creatures that should be soaring across the sky.


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Dear Martha,

Today, we had school again, and we finally shared our sketchbooks. It was so much fun looking at everyone’s drawings. Kids had drawn all sorts of things: Captain Walsh with his big hat, palm trees, new flowers we hadn’t seen before, and every kind of animal you can imagine. Everyone liked my picture of the scarlet king snake.

Jasper Lowe said, “You sure are a good artist. That snake gives me the willies.” We had to laugh.

That led to a discussion of snakes. Of course, we were all thinking of the snake that bit Miss Emily Carter two days before. The thought of it still gives me the creeps.

Miss Melman said, “I have some rattlesnake fangs. Would you like to see them?” Of course we all did, so she showed us an envelope that looked like it had something bumpy inside. She asked, “Who would like to be the one to open the envelope and show us what’s inside?”

We all raised our hands and said, “Me! Me!” but Jasper pushed right up to the front of all of us.

Miss Melman said, “Alright, Jasper. You may be the one.” She handed him the envelope. “But be very careful. Rattlesnake fangs can be dangerous.”

We crowded in real close so we could see. Jasper lifted the flap and opened the envelope, which was not glued shut.

The envelope let out a loud, “Z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z!!!”

Jasper screamed at the top of his lungs and threw the envelope up in the air. We ALL screamed and jumped back. We were looking around at each other when we noticed Miss Melman had her hand over her mouth and was laughing so hard tears were coming down her cheeks.

“April fools!” she finally shouted. We stood there with our mouths open.

We had forgotten that today is April 1. Miss Melman got us good! We all started laughing.

Jasper asked, “How did you do that? What made that noise?”

Miss Melman said, “Jasper, I’m glad you’re such a good sport. My daddy used to play this trick on us when we were children. Here, let me show you how it works.” She showed us how she had used a paperclip and hooked it to a rubber band. Then, she had twisted the paperclip over and over until the rubber band was tight.

“The trick is to hold the paperclip, so it doesn’t untwist. Slip it down into a paper envelope. Then, hand the envelope to your unsuspecting victim—” We all turned to look at Jasper. He grinned.

“And the rest—is history,” she said. The best part is that she gave us each a paperclip, a rubber band, and an envelope, so we could play the same trick on our folks. I played it on Pap, and he laughed, but I know better than to try something like that with Mama. You do not want to get into playing practical jokes with my mama. One time, she swapped the sugar in the sugar bowl with salt. Yikes! And once, she sewed up the bottoms of all my bloomers. And last fall, she put on scarecrow clothes and scared the daylights out of Pap out in the field.

Mama always says, “He who laughs last, laughs best.” If I played the rattlesnake fangs joke on her, I might slip into bed some night and find a live frog!



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Dear Martha,

I am getting better with my slingshot. I’ve been practicing with Travis and Minnie every chance I get. If we have time in the morning before roll-out, Travis sets up targets for us to shoot at. We see who can knock over the can or who can “hit the troll.”

Travis filled a burlap sack with some of the gray moss that grows in the trees here, and he painted a troll’s head on it. He props it up or hangs it from a tree branch. We take turns shooting, and before we shoot, we call, “Ear!” or “Chin!” or “Nose!” Then, we see who hits the target they said they were aiming for.

Pap was greasing our axles with axle grease, and I guess he was kind of watching us because later he said, “Teddy Girl, you’re getting pretty good with that slingshot.”

I said, “I want to help you put food on the table, Pap.”

Pap said, “You do?” He looked surprised.

I said, “Yes, sir.”

Pap said, “Teddy, are you prepared to shoot an animal? Watch him die?”

I hadn’t really thought about that part much.

I said, “Maybe.”

Pap nodded. “Well, we have to put meat on the table, that’s for sure. And I would welcome your company. But we don’t hunt for the fun of it. We hunt because we need to eat. That means something has to die.”

I said, “I know.”

But I didn’t know. I love animals. I didn’t know if I could kill one. I know we cook the squirrels and rabbits and deer Pap shoots. But now that I had shot my mouth off about putting food on the table, I didn’t know if I wanted to. That got me to thinking. I hope none of the boys shoot at animals just to wound or kill them for the fun of it. I hope they don’t shoot at songbirds. If they shoot a cardinal, it will break Mama’s heart. When she hears one sing, she closes her eyes and smiles.

Then, she says, “I hear a redbird. Teddy, it’s a cardinal. See how red he is? Look for his mate. She won’t be far behind.”

Pap said, “Why don’t you let me do the hunting for now, and you stick to the live animals.”

That’s one of the things I love about Pap. He’s always thinking of things like that. I’m glad he’s my pap because he’s easy to talk to, and he teaches me things about animals and about hunting.

That reminded me. I said, “What about a dog?”

Pap said, “What about a dog?”

I said, “I want one.”

Pap said, “I know.”

I said, “Do you think one will find me?”

Pap said, “I bet there’s one looking for a ten-year-old girl right this very minute.”

The thought of a dog filled me with happiness. Jumping jubilation! I hope Pap’s right.




You’ll love this darling story from Kathy Davis, a teacher from Dr. Phillips Elementary School in Orlando, who recently attended one of my writing workshops. We were discussing the importance of involving family members in the writing process and writing topics, and I asked teachers to share how they were already applying this in their classrooms.

Kathy shared, “I have a Dads and Doughnuts event every year in May where the children are able to host their fathers and share their writing. Of course, everyone also enjoys the selection of delicious doughnuts. All the dads were able to attend except one, who was stationed in Germany. We used Skype to reach this father, and during the event, Connor held up the computer screen and introduced him, saying, ‘Dad, this is my class. Class, this is my dad.’ Conner radiated pride that his dad was not left out. It was thrilling to see the two of them united by Skype and both of them able to verbalize and participate. Before he signed off, the father said, ‘The only thing that would have made this better is if I could have Skyped the taste of the doughnut!’ Maybe in the future that might be possible.” 

Kathy’s class also hosts a Mothers’ Tea each year during which children share their writing projects with their mothers. This teacher knows one of the best-kept secrets every classroom teacher should know: get parents involved. Kathy, you are a Teacher Spectacular for sure.

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Dear Martha,

We had a real scare today. Miss Emily Carter was gathering firewood and got bit by a coral snake! At least we thought it was a coral snake. It bit her on the hand when she reached into a pile of wood and dead leaves. She ran back to the wagons screaming, “Martin! Martin! I’ve been bit by a coral snake!”

Folks came running.

Emily’s mother, Mrs. Carter, immediately called out, “Fetch my tincture of purple coneflower, and be quick about it.” When she examined the puncture wounds on Emily’s hand, she asked, “Are you sure it was a coral snake?”

Emily said, “It was a small snake, black and red and yellow. Right over there in that pile of wood and leaves.”

While Mrs. Carter was applying the tincture of purple coneflower, Mr. Carter grabbed a shovel and started digging through the pile of leaves. He found the snake and scooped it up on the blade of the shovel.

“Is this the snake, Emily?”

Emily cried, “Yes!” I felt sorry for her, hearing her sobs.

Mrs. Carter took a good look. “You’ve been bit, alright, but not by a coral snake. Look carefully. This here is a scarlet king snake. See? The red and black stripes are right next to each other.”

Martin’s voice was shaky. “What are you talking about?”

Emily said, “Mama, am I going to die?”

Mrs. Carter said, “Not today, daughter!”

Martin asked, “She’ll be alright?”

By now, there was a whole group of us standing around watching. Mr. Carter said, “All is well, folks. Emily got bit by a snake, but it was a scarlet king snake. Painful, that’s all. Wasn’t a coral snake. A coral snake’s colored rings are red, yellow, and black. A scarlet king snake’s rings are red, black, and yellow. There’s a little poem every man, woman, and child should learn when it comes to coral snakes: Red on yellow, kill a fellow. Red on black, won’t harm Jack.”

Mrs. Carter poured more of the tincture of purple coneflower into the wound. “This will help with infection. You’ll be fine in a day or so.”

We kids asked Mr. Carter to show us the scarlet king snake up close. He held out the shovel. It was true! The red stripes were next to the black stripes.

I was itching to get to my sketchbook. I tried to memorize what a scarlet king snake looked like, so I could draw it later. Red, black, yellow, black. Small head, body about three feet long.

Travis Lark asked, “Are you going to kill it?”

Mr. Carter said, “Naw! He won’t hurt nothing. He mostly eats skinks.”

Travis said, “What is a skink?”

Mr. Carter said, “Son, that’s another lesson for another day.”

So you can see, Martha, if we have many other days like today, our trip through Florida won’t be boring.

Great buckets of butterbeans. A snakebite!



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Dear Martha,

Today, Pap had me and Mama each take a turn driving, so he could see how we handle Jeb and January. It’s really not any harder than driving Jester and Jingo.

When I want the team to start, I say, “Git!” or “Git-up-there you, Jeb” or “Git-up-there you, January.” When I want them to stop, I pull the reins and say, “Whoa!” If we need to go left, I say, “Haw!” and if we need to turn right, I say, “Gee!”

We had school again today. I was hoping we’d share our drawings, but some of the kids weren’t ready yet, so we’ll have to show them next time. Vexation!

Miss Melman said, “Students, I think it is important that we learn some facts about the state that will become our new home.” She showed us a map of Florida and let us study it for a while.

Florida is a big state. It’s curious because it’s part of the United States, but it juts down, all by itself, at the lower right-hand corner. That makes it look like the rest of the United States is a cartoon bubble, and Florida is the part that points to the character’s mouth to let you know he’s talking, like in a comic strip in the newspaper.

Miss Melman said, “You can see that Florida is a peninsula. Can anyone tell us what a peninsula is?”

Jasper Lowe, Travis’s best friend, said, “It’s a long piece of land, attached to the mainland but jutting out into the sea.”

I knew that, but he got his hand up first.

Miss Melman said, “That’s right. Now, who can tell us when Florida became a state?”

Minnie said, “I know. March 3, 1845.” I didn’t know that one.

Miss Melman said, “Who can tell us how many years Florida has been a state?”

Travis was the first to raise his hand. “47 years.”

I was beginning to feel self-conscious because I hadn’t answered a single question yet.

Miss Melman said, “Ah—and who knows the name of the oldest settlement in the United States of America?”

I wasn’t going to let anyone out-do me. I blurted out, “St. Augustine,” before any other kid could steal the answer. Miss Melman didn’t scold me for not raising my hand, but she gave me a look.

“So you all do know something about your new home state,” she said. “Good. Here’s one more interesting tidbit to add to your knowledge: Florida is the only state that has two rivers with exactly the same name. Does anyone know the name of these rivers?”

No one answered, not even Minnie. Miss Melman said, “There is a Withlacoochee River in north central Florida and a Withlacoochee River in central Florida.”

I am learning about this strange wilderness we are traveling through. We’ve heard that some parts of Florida have cities, but most of the state is still undeveloped. I know one thing: it sure is big.

We have passed a number of swampy areas. Pap says alligators live in some of those swamps, and sometimes they come out on the bank to sleep in the sun. I believe him, but I haven’t seen one yet. I’ve got my sketchbook ready, though. I want to be the first kid to draw an alligator.






Shirley Gehalo, who has been a teacher for 43 years, eases her students’ fears of spelling while they are creatively writing. She has them write SDM at a top corner of their papers. This reminds them that for now, SPELLING DOESN'T MATTER. This way, they can get their thoughts down without worrying about perfect spelling. Later, Shirley helps them find correct spelling as needed. Way to go, Shirley. During the creative process, it is far more important to write creatively, with original thoughts, with passion and depth of feeling, than it is to have perfect spelling.