Mom With Dyslexia Is a National Poetry Contest Winner

It’s not every poet who wins the first big poetry contest she enters. But Rebekah Willhite, a Salem, Oregon, mom who has , did just that. And now she’s pursuing a new writing project: a children’s book that gives tips for encouraging reading.

Willhite, 43, has a passion for writing. That’s why she entered the 2014–2015 national poetry contest held by the website RhymeZone. Competing against more than 3,000 other writers, she was one of 10 winners. Her poem, “Coffee Beans,” was written in a coffee shop after she visited her dying grandfather in the hospital.

According to Willhite, her dyslexia actually helps her write poetry. “There’s a freedom to poetry,” she says. “My brain can mix things up and, in the process of mixing things up, I see the things differently. I make different connections.”

Willhite learned she had dyslexia when she was tested in first grade. Despite the challenges of her reading issues, she always loved poetry. As a high-schooler, she once handed in a poem she wrote about geometry instead of her homework. She says her teacher gave her credit anyway.

In her Advanced Placement English class, Willhite was introduced to the works of great poets like Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and Walt Whitman. That made her even more interested in poetry.

“For me, it was the short phrases of poetry that got my attention,” she says. “It was easier for me to read, think about and then go back to it.”

Things got tougher when Willhite started at Oregon State University, though. Her grades fell. But she started to find ways to build on her strengths. 

“Once I figured out how my brain worked, I was better able to figure out ways to learn more easily, and my grades improved,” she says. She graduated with a degree in speech communication.

Willhite has dabbled in writing over the last few years. But now she’s writing regularly. “I always keep my three-ring notebook and No. 2 Ticonderoga pencil at the ready,” she says.

Willhite and her 9-year-old son, Levi, have even written a book called Payne Elementary School: Legend of the Pizza. It’s a collection of short stories about a third-grader named Alexander and his adventures at school. 

The end of each section includes tips on way to encourage kids to write. Here are a few methods Willhite recommends.

  • Find out what your kids are interested in and use that to help explain other concepts. “I wish my chemistry teacher in high school had explained chemistry in terms of baking,” says Willhite. “I get baking. I like baking. That would have helped me get chemistry.”

  • Suggest journaling so kids don’t have to worry about someone correcting their writing.

  • Encourage kids to draw pictures in and around their writing. Willhite always keeps a box of 64 crayons nearby. “With me, anxiety and dyslexia go hand-in-hand. To this day, I use drawing and doodling to relieve stress,” she says.

Willhite has another tip for struggling writers of all ages. She often uses the rhyme-finder on RhymeZone, which is how she learned of the poetry contest to begin with. 

“I think it would help individuals who struggle with words,” she says. “For example, if they look up happy and learn that nirvana means the same thing, it may help them to remember. For me, I need to build on ideas that I already understand—which is why I would have done better if chemistry was compared to baking!”

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