• Hayley McGrath

Jenna O’Connell: A triumph of determination over dyslexia

Jenna O’Connell loves books, which may seem surprising seeing she has dyslexia. People with the learning disability often find it difficult to process language accurately and fluently, which can make reading a daunting challenge.

Yet Jenna describes herself as ‘one of LitFest2444’s biggest groupies’. The Port Macquarie mother of one and teacher is again presenting a workshop entitled, The Storytelling Mystery Box at LitFest2444 2019 on June 6.

She hopes her presentation will help students unlock their creative potential and inspire them to see storytelling as more than putting words on a page.

Over two days, 31 expert presenters will deliver 25 creative workshops and practical sessions on topics ranging from writing novels, poetry and fantasy fiction, through to performance art and podcasting. This year’s program has attracted more than 500 students from local Independent and State high schools, as well as the Hunter region.

“My aim is to help someone who may not consider themselves a storyteller to see that we all have stories in us,” she said. “Sometimes it just takes a little creative experimentation to find our own unique voice and way of telling them.”

Releasing the storyteller within

While dyslexia is a lifelong learning difficulty, explicit and systematic interventions by specialists can significantly improve a child’s learning experience and academic performance. Jenna’s undiagnosed dyslexia made her early school years tough at times.

“The challenges of interpreting the letters on the page and trying to recreate them myself began to outweigh the joy I’d felt at holding a book,” she said, speaking publicly of her dyslexia for the first time.

“I began to learn the tricks of faking my way through reading lessons, hoping my difficulties would go unnoticed. Lucky for me, they didn’t.

“In my mid-primary years, my parents enlisted the help of an English tutor with a remarkable approach to helping kids like me who struggled to read and write. She saw my creativity as the key to unlocking the world of storytelling for me.

“She’d read stories to me, and I would channel my creative skills to retell the stories in my own way – through art, performance, dance, and music. These session rekindled a flame: Books came to life. Not only did I began to love books again, but she inspired me to learn to read and write properly, too.”

From tears to triumph

With determination and the right support, Jenna found ways to overcome the challenges by playing to her strengths – she even took 4-Unit English for her HSC.

“I’ve learnt to embrace my dyslexia as an empowering strength rather than a limiting disability,” she said.

“I’m now a qualified English and Drama teacher - a job role my 10 year-old self would never have believed possible.”

Jenna decided to share her story in the hope that it would inspire local teenagers to find the courage to tell their story in their own unique way.

Jenna presenting Blackout Poetry last year at #LitFest2444

The power of storytelling

“I’ve lost count of the reasons students have given me for their resistance – even hatred – towards reading or creative writing,” she said.

“For some it’s a learning difficulty that holds them back, others fear ‘being creative’ or ‘getting it wrong’, while some find the process ‘boring’. It’s such a shame because storytelling holds such power: it’s a key to human connection, and can give voice to big ideas that just might help solve some of the world’s wicked problems.

“My goal is to help kids uncover the unique pathways that allow them to discover the value of language and develop their storytelling skills, so that they can communicate their ideas in ways that will be heard.”

Jenna said Litfest2444 co-organisers, Karen Bale and Suzanne Penson, have created “an incredible opportunity for young people to gain exposure to so many powerful ways of storytelling”.

“The 2019 program is amazing,” she said. “I feel so privileged to once again be presenting and can’t wait to get amongst the creative burstiness of Litfest.”

- by Laurie Sullivan ©

Cre8ive Solutions

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