Monticello Middle School English teacher Joan Oen wishes everyone would set aside a little time in their schedule for reading books and writing.

“Getting lost in a good book, reading a story that inspires you and connects you to others, writing down your anxieties, making lists of things to be grateful for – these are acts that can provide healing and comfort. And who doesn’t need a little extra healing and comfort right now?”Oen said.

Oen grew up in Monticello loving to read and write. It was something that came naturally to her. She always knew she wanted to be a writer, but she never thought she’d be writing for the famous book series Chicken Soup for the Soul.

“Growing up, I would make little books of poems for my family, and I was an avid reader,” Oen said. “My passion for writing and reading are big part of why I became a teacher; I wanted to share that passion with my students.”

In fact, instead of a traditional paper, Oen’s Masters project was a young adult novella. 

Oen said she believes in the power of writing to heal, teach, and inspire. 

While earning her Masters in Human Development at St. Mary’s University, she took some writing classes at The Loft, those teachers helped her understand the process of how to submit her writing to publishers.  

“When my story “That’s What Moms Are For” was accepted by Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Magic of Mothers and Daughters, I realized my reflective writing style was a good fit for the creation of the heartfelt, true stories that appeal to the Chicken Soup for the Soul readers,” Oen said.

She’s been published in four Chicken Soup for the Soul books so far. “That’s What Moms Are For” in CSS: The Magic of Mothers and Daughters in 2012, “What Would I Do Without You” in CSS: Devotional Stories for Wives in 2013, “Comrade in Arms” in CSS: The Dog Did What? in 2014, and her most recent, “Absolutely Worth It” in CSS: The Magic of Dogs, written just this year.

Her relationship with her own dog, Ole the Golden Doodle, is what inspired her to write another story.

“Before COVID-19 put a stop to in-person therapy dog work, I was taking Ole on regular visits to senior care facilities,” Oen said. “I was really touched by how much the residents appreciated seeing my dog Ole. When I found out Chicken Soup for the Soul was looking for stories about dogs, I knew right away that I wanted to write about Ole in order to share what therapy dog work has been like for us.”

The story is already relatable because there are so many dog lovers in this world, but what played even more into the story was the pandemic forcing everyone to stay home. Dogs everywhere were thrilled.

“With so many of us staying home because of the pandemic, we appreciate the entertainment, support, and love our dogs give us now more than ever,” Oen said.

Oen said that the feedback that she’s received from her stories has been the most encouraging thing about being a writer.

“There have been times when strangers have reached out to me on social media to tell me they liked one of my stories,” Oen said. “For example, my story, “Comrade in Arms” is about how my dog Sammy supported my husband during my deployment to Iraq. After that story was published, a stranger wrote me a long letter on Facebook about how my story made her cry and was one of the best stories she’s read, and she wanted to know how Sammy and I was doing after my deployment. There have been other times when I watch a friend or family member read one of my stories and I see them tear up at a sad part or laugh out loud at a humorous part, and I think, “Yes! Mission accomplished!” As a writer, you want the reader to understand and respond to the experience you’re writing about, and when I get feedback that my story was well-received, it is the best feeling.”

Oen considers herself a teacher first and a writer on the side. But when she gets to combine the two – magic happens.

Her most recent scribbling was a short essay called “Living a Good Teacher Life” that she’s shared with many of her coworkers.

“I wrote it when a podcast I was listening to included a message that really inspired me and applied to what I needed to hear as a teacher facing the many unknowns and challenges of school during a pandemic,” Oen said.

“One of my friends I shared the story with texted me. My favorite line is, “No matter what the school year looks like due to the pandemic, I am making the choice to continue to serve my colleagues and students with the passion, humor, and creativity that I always have.” 

She’s been teaching at Monticello for six years now and has never experienced anything quite like distance learning. Oen said she’s ready to get back in the classroom with her students.

Her most fond memory, oddly enough, is her students moaning and groaning at one of her teaching quirks. She can’t wait to her those groans again soon.

“One of my favorite things to do in class is to play music that relates to the day’s lesson as students come into class,” Oen said. “That includes playing corny grammar jingles. Yes, the students will sometimes groan or even roll their eyes, but they’re also smiling as they try to figure out how the song will connect to what we’re doing in class that day. Wow, I never thought I’d miss middle schoolers rolling their eyes at my teaching antics, but I guess the pandemic really makes you appreciate all those little in-person interactions we used to take for granted.”

In her off time Oen has been binging inspirational podcasts, reading, and lots of family time. She’s now feeling rejuvenated and ready to get back into teacher mode.

“I needed to let myself step away for work for two months and focus on filling up my bucket and being my best self in order to have the stamina, energy, and enthusiasm needed for school in the Fall,” Oen said. “Now I am ready to put my all into the upcoming school year with optimism and courage.”

Reach Jessie Meyen at jessie.meyen@apgecm.com

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