Creative Writing in Elementary Education

Next week is the last week of the semester. After four months of studying, I’ve got quite a few essay deadlines sneaking up on me. I’ve learned something about college essays: it’s not enough to regurgitate the words of your professor or a textbook. As a college student, we are expected to develop our own ideas. There are many intelligent and capable students who struggle with the transition to college-level writing because they spent the first twelve years of their education repeating memorized information. This is why I believe that creative writing should play a stronger role in elementary school curricula in order to encourage independent and critical thinking.

Neuroscience research has revealed a heavy impact of various forms of arts instruction, such as creative writing, on students’ cognitive, social, and emotional development. Children reaching adolescence become more flexible in their thinking and are able to think about the world more abstractly. A more informal, but still prioritized, approach to writing, would allow a more psychologically beneficial syllabus for the learning experience and retention of younger children.

A solution to this problem is the Young Writer’s Program, an educational program geared toward elementary school children. The Young Writer’s Program provides educators with a detailed writing curriculum program designed specifically for students in grades 3-5. Unlike many language arts programs in public schools, it focuses primarily on fiction, featuring innovative lesson plans such as “The Elements of a Story,” “Creating Villains,” and “Writing with all Your Senses.” Classroom kits, student workbooks, and Common Core-adapted curricula are also available for registered educators.

Participant Julia Fox said she learned how to really write instead of just answering multiple-choice questions on how to write. She said, “Tests are important, but are not the only way to find out what kids can do. I know I am not the best test taker, so multiple choice tests aren’t always the best way to show my abilities. And I wouldn’t want to just learn how to score better on them.”

While creative writing can be used for recreational purposes, it is of much more value than a mere pastime; it requires organization, planning, discovery of thoughts, and rejection of restrained thinking. These skills impact students for their whole lives, which is why it is so crucial to implement early on in their education.

NaNoWriMo

The best month of my life began when my state was swept by Hurricane Sandy. On a crisp Friday afternoon in October of 2012, I walked home from school expecting to return the next week. The storm lasted longer than we expected; a week came and went with no sign of school.

The boredom grew with each day. I attempted to entertain myself by surfing the web. One of the few non-hurricane related Twitter trends was #NaNoWriMo. At first I thought nothing of it, but my interest piqued when one of my favorite writers, Lois Lowry, author of The Giver wrote a blog post promoting it.

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Notional Novel Writing Month begins today! Click on the picture to learn more about the challenge.
After a bit of research, I learned that NaNoWriMo stood for National Novel Writing Month. For the duration of November, thousands of ordinary people, including me, dedicated a part of their day to write 1,667 words. By the end of the month, these ordinary people would have each written a 50,000 word novel (approximately the size of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby). I created an account to try my hand at the challenge.

At the beginning, I had my doubts. Novels were written by adults with experience, not teenagers trying to kill time. Despite the odds racked against me, I fell in love with the challenge and began writing every second of my spare time. I was going through a rough time, and writing was my therapy. I was writing nearly 2000 words each day; I struggled with juggling schoolwork and novel time. My social life went on hiatus. A lifetime supply coffee and quite a few lessons in time management later, I learned that gratification wouldn’t come quickly. Once I accepted this, it became easier to take the month day-by-day. I was astonished to realize that I wrote an entire novel—two days early.

A story that began as a way to pass time developed into the greatest accomplishment of my life. Thirty days and 50,025 words after Sandy struck, I joined thousands of NaNoWriMo novelists (including Sarah Gruen, author of the bestselling Water for Elephants) in the process of editing my novel.

I am home in November, in sleep deprivation, and in hurricanes. I am home in novels.

World Impact Ministry in Newark, NJ

This week I was incredibly blessed to volunteer at World Impact in Newark, NJ.

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World Impact has maintained a presence in Newark since 1976. Early emphasis was on Bible clubs for neighborhood children. The ministry expanded over the years and currently includes four active church plants, a Christian mission school, theological training for local leaders through The Urban Ministry Institute, a job-training program for teens and a community thrift store.

Here’s an overview of my week…

ncs4Thursday: After a three hour drive from Pennsylvania, we finally arrived in Newark and helped add sand to the playground in order for the children to be able to play safely during recess.

Friday: I spent the day in third grade at Newark Christian School. I loved spending time with the kids, listening to their stories, and reading their papers, but my favorite part was getting to know the ncs2teacher. She is a missionary, which means that she raises her own support to be a teacher and doesn’t get paid a regular salary. She does far more than the average teacher for less, which reminded me of why I chose this profession in the first place.

Saturday: We spent the morning volunteering with World Impact’s children’s ministry for kids ages 5-12. We prepared lunch for them, and I received some lovely artwork pictured on the left. In the afternoon, we helped a retired second grade teacher move into ncs3her new apartment before exploring the city of Newark, pictured on the right.

Sunday: After a breathtaking sunrise from the roof of the school, we visited World Impact Community Church. Worshiping with the teachers, missionaries, and volunteers who mentored us gave so much meaning to the work we did this week.

Angels & Inspiration

Yesterday I had the privilege of meeting some truly inspiring women at Angels and Inspiration, a fundraiser for YoungLives. Special guests included two writers, an illustrator, a singer, and a blogger. I was ecstatic to see a blogger among the midst of this array of talents. Blogging is the final frontier of journalism, as well as an emerging field of creativity. While social media satisfies the craving for asynchronous networking, blogging allows for a more personal form of self-expression. Despite the benefits of writing a blog, it’s rare to see one formally recognized offline—hence, why I was so excited about Barbara Ruglio.

I met Barbara at Angels and Inspiration, an afternoon tea fundraiser for Central Jersey YoungLives. Click on the photo to learn more about YoungLives.

Barbara is one of those bloggers whose talent shines through her website. She lives a busy life as an administrative business writer, mother, grandmother, and wife. She and her husband of thirty-four years mentor engaged couples. She leads and writes discussion questions for a women’s Bible study group. In addition to this busy life, she lives another as a blogger sharing her faith with the world. Her blogging career began in 2006, but the journey started at age seventeen when she began spiritual journaling:

I have been journaling since I was sixteen. That is a good long time ago now. Then I wrote on spiral notebooks, pasting in cut-up pictures from magazines, doodling in the margins. It was something I did because I had to, like I would explode if the words did not come out of my hands and onto the page. Rantings and questions and prayers rolled out onto the pages.

—Barbara Ruglio

She says that her blog is an extension of her journal. I, too, began with a journal. When I was fifteen, I wrote a page in my journal every day for a year. This enhanced my enthusiasm for writing and is one of the reasons why I took three years of journalism class in high school. My senior year in high school, I started a blog for my school newspaper. I already loved writing, but I discovered a newfound passion for web design and HTML coding. Even though I’ve moved on to college and left my high school blog behind, I still check the Hi’s Eye updates and am proud of the progress they are making. Here’s an excerpt from my favorite article of the year so far, by Westfield High School student Bronte Healey on motherhood and blogging:

I wanted to get my story out because there is so much negative stigma about being a teen mom and I’m doing very well. I am excelling in school and motherhood. My family and I could have felt sorry for ourselves and given up, but instead we decided to make it a positive thing. I’m so proud of the way my family carried themselves throughout this adventure. They never ever made me feel like I should be embarrassed; they embraced my pregnancy and me.

—Bronte Healey

As an English student and aspiring writer, I would love to call myself many things: a novelist, a poet, a journalist, a teacher, an author…the list goes on. For now, I am just a dreamer and a blogger. For now, that’s enough.

Anxiety, False Hope, and Sensucht

Everyone experiences anxiety to a certain extent. As a college student, it’s a part of my daily life. In the midst of homework and midterms, not to mention the overwhelming social climate, I began to seek “cures” for my anxiety. I found hope to be the most obvious solution. When I first realized that I needed hope in order to overcome my anxiety, I found myself falling into a pit of what I now call false hope.

“We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor for the soul” —Hebrews 6:19 (NRSV)

Many people who believe they are practicing hope are really just romanticizing the future. We exercise escapism and slap on the name-tag of hope. True hope is faith in the eternal and the infinite. Idealism, or “false hope,” for it is not truly hope at all, is wishful thinking for the future.

How can you differentiate between true hope and false hope? Look at your reaction. True hope looks at the present and says “thank you;” it is gratifying and holy. False hope looks at the future (or rather, a romanticized perception of the future) and says “please;” it is self-absorbing, distracting, selfish, unrealistic, and dissatisfying. Where does all this imperfection come from? Perfectionism. In our yearning for a better tomorrow, we destroys our todays.

If hope anchors us to the present and eternity, then false hope is looking ahead at the ocean of the future in anticipation. The future will never come because when the moment you looked forward to comes, you will already be waiting for what comes next. The self-absorption of romanticizing the future has an ironic influence on the present: it will prevent you from fulfilling your potential in the current moment.

Hope, as God intends is to be, is a lack of anxiety concerning eternity. However, our minds are often invaded by thoughts of what is yet to come. There are two potential outcomes of these worries. The first is anxiety, which diminishes any possibility of hope. The second outcome is false hope. Focusing on the future leads to the incorrect impression that one is experiencing hope. While the latter will be temporarily comforting, it is not a virtue, but rather a discrete form of idolatry. True hope is comparable to the German concept of sensucht, translated as  hoping not for the future, but for a deeper sensation of the present.

“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing—to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from—my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.” —C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

I’ve learned a lot in my first months of college, from computer programming to poetry and prosody. But the most valuable lesson was learning that the cure to anxiety is not looking toward something that might happen in the future, but being joyful because something wonderful is happening now.

Tolkien and Lewis in the Hallway of Christianity

The legendary friendship of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien revolved around two lifelong passions they shared: religion and literature. Without these key factors of their relationship, the worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth would not be the classic works available to readers today. While Tolkien played a pivotal role in Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, they differed in their denominations, which influenced their collaboration and writing.

Tolkien was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and went on to write books with discrete themes of Christian morals. He remained a devout Catholic his entire life. His mother joined the Roman Catholic Church against the will of her Baptist family. When she died, orphaned Tolkien and his brother were left in the care of Father Francis. Tolkien “was the real deal when it came to being a believer. He didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk” going to Mass weekly and sometimes daily. His wife, Edith, converted to Catholicism, and their son grew up to join the priesthood. Unlike Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia, Tolkien was not as overt with his faith in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings; his fantasy novels appear to be secular as they do not mention God or the church. Instead, he uses fictional characters to reflect his view of human nature. Lewis said in a review of The Hobbit, “There’s something about moving it into this Middle-earth that helps us see (human nature) more clearly.” Tolkien wrote about human nature in a Christian world, where there were clear decisions of right and wrong. His fantasy novels lacked the Narnian element of religion, but they were rich with morals.

On the other hand, Lewis converted to Christianity later in life, joined the Church of England, and wrote books with strong Biblical bases. While Tolkien’s spirituality was rooted in family loyalty in addition to personal belief, Lewis’s faith journey was an elongated process of intellectual and theological consideration. “His influences were, as always, books and a few close friends.” The two often debated philosophy. Lewis approached theism with caution, referring to Christianity as a fictional myth. One September night in 1931, the two friends discussed the reality of myth with fellow Inkling Hugo Dyson. Tolkien explained why the resurrection of Jesus qualified as a “true myth” rather than a pagan one, as Lewis formerly conceived it to be. Three days after this conversation, Lewis chose to believe in Jesus as the son of God during a motorcycle ride with his brother Warren, who was also considering Christianity. “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did” (Surprised by Joy 237). Lewis’s works are known for their explicit Christian themes. His first publication after his conversion was a novel titled Pilgrim’s Regress. While it is fictional, he told the true story of his faith journey through an allegory. Roman Catholic publishers Sheed and Ward interpreted the novel as a journey from Protestantism to Catholicism, but Lewis intended for it to be read as going from without Christ to with Christ. His apologetic books, such as Mere Christianity, focused on issues within Christianity in which various denominations could come to a common ground. Excerpts of Mere Christianity were sent to the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian denominations. Lewis was “adamant that it was basic or ‘mere’ Christianity that he was anxious to defend, arguing that he did not have the theological training that would allow him to discriminate between denominations.” He hoped that his apologetics would bring others to Jesus, but the church of their choice made little difference to him. He used a metaphor of Christianity as a hallway and sects within that broader category as rooms connected to the hallway.

“It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.” (Mere Christianity, 10)

It is confusing as to why Lewis, whose conversion to Christianity was heavily influenced by the Catholic Tolkien, chose to deviate from Catholicism. However, they did not allow their friendship to suffer due to differing opinions. If anything, this diversity opened up the door to further conversation. While Tolkien would have preferred Lewis to join the Catholic Church rather than the Church of England, he believed that denomination came second to commitment to Christ. Lewis never joined the Catholic Church, but he read a Catholic Missal and adopted several beliefs of Roman Catholicism, including the element of “magical,” or mysticism, in the Holy Eucharist and existence of purgatory. Some scholars consider him to be more Anglo-Catholic, a “High-Church Anglican who affirms to traditional Catholic doctrines” (The Pilgrim’s Regress: The Wade Annotated Edition 94). The Catholic elements of Lewis’s faith were credible to the influence of Tolkien. Lewis and Tolkien found their personal niches within different denominational rooms. However, it was in their common hallway that they discovered the truest fellowship with one another.

The cross-denominational friendship of Tolkien and Lewis demonstrated that the Inklings were more than a literary society. They were a group of friends who encouraged one another to write and learn more about God. Despite their doctrinal differences, their tolerance of one another and their ability to share and discuss theological ideas in a respectful and intellectual fashion is the reason why their works are so prevalent in the world of literature decades after publication.

Charity in Narnia

In his essay “Charity,” (chapter 9, book 3 of Mere Christianity) C.S. Lewis describes the act of charity as Christian love in action. He depicts this virtue in The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe through the characters of Mr. Tumnus, Lucy, and Aslan.

Mr. Tumnus is the first to demonstrate this kind of love by sacrificing his future for Lucy, whom he only meets that day. “She’ll turn me into stone and I shall be only a statue….I hadn’t known what Humans were like before I met you. Of course I can’t give you up to the Witch; not now that I know you. But we must be off at once” (20).  Had it not been for Mr. Tumnus, Lucy would not arrive back to her own realm in one piece.

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When Lucy returns to Narnia with her siblings, all four of them perform a similar act of charity. “We can’t just go home, not after this. It is all on my account that the poor Faun has got into this trouble. He hid me from the Witch and showed me the way back. That’s what it means by comforting the Queen’s enemies and fraternizing with Humans. We simply must try to rescue him” (59). Upon the discovery that Mr. Tumnus has been taken by the witch, they decide to stay in Narnia and do their best to rescue him rather than return home. This sacrifice of all four children, though three of the four didn’t know the faun they were putting themselves for, is a result of Mr. Tumnus’s sacrifice for themselves. It’s a fantasy spin on the classic proverb, “what goes around comes around;” the most efficient way to create a ripple effect of love is to spread love.

While these two acts begin the ripple effect of Narnian and Christian sacrifice, it is best depicted by the Christ-like death of Aslan. “When a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed on the traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward” (163). By dying a traitor’s death in place of Edmund, Aslan forgives him of his treachery and redeems his place on the throne in Cair Paravel.

None of these sacrifices would be feasible without the others. These acts work together to instill the great virtue of sacrifice in Mr. Tumnus and the four children, in addition to other characters, such as the mice who are so grateful for Aslan’s sacrifice that they nibble off the ropes confining their natural predator. The Lion, The Witch and, The Wardrobe confirms Lewis’s belief that unconditional love is not an emotion, but an action that gives without asking for return.