Archives For Teaching Writing

father christmasWhen did you first learn how to express yourself creatively? Some of us were blessed with parents who recognized the importance of things like music, art and literature. Others, alas, were not.

Most readers of Mere Inkling like to dabble in writing themselves. Many are quite skilled, and disciplined enough to persist with the demanding task of regularly composing interesting pieces for their own online columns. Some, in fact, are quite accomplished and successful in their personal literary efforts.

Becoming a good, truly good, writer requires experience. One may be born with the innate ability to become a Shakespeare or a Hemingway, but the skills need to be sharpened through effort. Study often helps, but it can never replace the necessity of practice in honing our writing.

It seems to me that the sooner we begin the process of unbridling our imaginations, translating our visions into words, and writing it all down in a way that engages the imaginings of others, the better we can become.

Many of you, especially Europeans, will be familiar with a gaming product that arose in the United Kingdom. They are called Top Trumps, and the cards come in a wide variety of themes. One set that I own is Narnia, from which the image at the top of this page comes.

Tolkien fans will be delighted to learn they just reissued a Lord of the Rings set that comes in an amazing Eye of Sauron tin. You can learn more about that unique item here.

It was while thinking about my Narnia cards when I got the idea to see if there was an online mechanism for making one’s own playing cards. I was toying with the idea of fashioning a C.S. Lewis card to illustrate one of my posts.

I was actually searching online for a site where I could “create” such a card. I found several. Only later did I consider the irony of using that particular word.

For theologians, the word create bears profound significance. When it comes to the human activity of bringing together in some novel shape pre-existing images or ideas, it is not truly accurate. Lewis wrote about that in a 1943 letter to Sister Penelope.

‘Creation’ as applied to human authorship . . . seems to me an entirely misleading term. We . . . re-arrange elements He has provided. There is not a vestige of real creativity de novo in us. Try to imagine a new primary colour, a third sex, a fourth dimension, or even a monster which does not consist of bits of existing animals stuck together! Nothing happens.

And that surely is why our works (as you said) never mean to others quite what we intended: because we are re-combining elements made by Him and already containing His meanings. Because of those divine meanings in our materials it is impossible we should ever know the whole meaning of our own works, and the meaning we never intended may be the best and truest one.

Writing a book is much less like creation than it is like planting a garden or begetting a child: in all three cases we are only entering as one cause into a causal stream which works, so to speak, in its own way. I would not wish it to be otherwise.

Still, even though we are not true “creators,” it is enjoyable to rearrange the mundane elements (or words) of this life in fresh ways.

That’s one reason I was pleased to discover a website devoted to offering a “Trading Card Creator” hosted by the International Reading Association. It “gives students an alternative way to demonstrate their literacy knowledge and skill when writing about popular culture texts or real world examples.”
Why didn’t they have cool stuff like this when I was growing up? (If they did, I might be able to express myself better than by having to rely on phrases like “cool stuff.”)

Below you will find their website, along with a second option. I was thinking that my grandchildren might find it interesting to create a set of cards about our family tree. Their own sketches could be used for ancestors for whom we have no photograph. The comprehensive trading card creator maker offers a variety of templates, including for people, places, events and objects.

The template offered by the second site is generic enough that the cards can be produced in similar categories.

Unleash your imagination. And, after you’ve had some fun, consider sharing these links with a child you may know.

ReadWriteThink Trading Cards

Big Huge Labs Trading Cards

C.S. Lewis Card 3C.S. Lewis Card 2C.S. Lewis Card 1C.S. Lewis Card 4

Hip-Hop Literary Lessons

April 27, 2013 — 8 Comments

flocabDo you ever have trouble remembering the key elements of a story? Well, you may not now, since you’ve become an accomplished writer. However, there was once a time when you were just learning about such matters. And that learning might have been far easier than it was if some of today’s teaching resources existed then.

This week I stumbled across a very unusual approach to teaching the fundamental building blocks of stories. You might want to bookmark the page, in case you ever experience difficulty remembering those five pesky elements required for your short fiction, or want to teach a young learner. You need look no further than Flocabulary’s innovative lesson “Five Things.”

The song is less than four minutes long, so go ahead and watch it now, before reading on. (Barring a small typo, it’s quite educational, and their website includes testimonials from teachers affirming how well it connects with young people.) Despite the fact that it’s got a hip-hop beat—not my favorite musical genre—it’s actually quite entertaining . . . and it’s easy to see how well it would connect with today’s younger students.

[Warning: If you watch the following video, you may well be singing along with the chorus before it ends.]

Plot, Character, Conflict, Theme,

Setting, yes these are the 5 things

That you’re going to be needing

When you’re reading or writing

A short story that’s mad exciting.

Music is a powerful medium, and when it is harnessed for educational purposes, it can accomplish wonderful things.

Music can be enjoyed for itself . . . its own inherent loveliness.

Music can also be used to communicate holy things. I believe this is the very reason it exists. Divine grace and our response to our Creator’s love are too majestic to be restricted to simple words.

The brilliant African Bishop Augustine of the city of Hippo is cited as saying “he who sings, prays twice.” Many have echoed these words. I have no doubt Augustine believed this, but the more accurate quotation is: “he who sings well prays twice” (bis orat qui bene cantat). Lest those of us with less than professional vocal chords be dismayed, I am confident the “well” here refers here to worshiping God in spirit and truth (John 4:23).

I have no doubt which of these two pleases God more. The most wondrous voice ever created (a gift itself from our Creator) flawlessly navigating three octaves and singing of the cares of this world—or the feeble, cracking, off-key strains of a tone deaf beggar who is praising the Lord for the gift of his daily bread.

C.S. Lewis famously expressed his disaffection for most church hymnody in a 1950 letter where he wrote:

I naturally loathe nearly all hymns; the face and life of the charwoman in the next pew who revels in them, teach me that good taste in poetry or music are not necessary to salvation.

We must forgive Lewis his condescending comment here, which was only meant for a private communication. And, if read in context it can be interpreted almost as a sort of confession. While he disliked the quality of contemporary Anglican hymns, he was acutely aware of how insignificant the matter was in light of the vital importance of  knowing Christ. (His description of the glorification of the modest Sarah Smith in The Great Divorce reveals how well he recognized that the charwoman beside him, despite her musical preferences, could easily dwarf him in holiness and religious courage.)

In a letter written in 1916, Lewis alluded to the wonder of music, and it’s relationship to particular words. “Isn’t it funny the way some combinations of words can give you—almost apart from their meaning—a thrill like music?”

Toward the end of his life, Lewis invested much time in a literary study of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. (It was actually published after his death, based upon his notes, as Spenser’s Images of Life. It includes a sparkling description of the book as a musical masterpiece.

A story of this kind is in a way more like a symphony than a novel. Corresponding to the themes of the musical form, the literary form has images, which may be delicious or threatening or cryptic or grotesque, but which are always richly expressive of mood.

The images are in every possible relation of contrast, mutual support, development, variation, half-echo, and the like, just as the musical themes are. But the ostensible connection between them all—what keeps the meddling intellect quiet—is here provided by the fact that they are all happening to someone.

They are all worked into the experience or the world of the characters “whose” story it is. That, no more and no less, is the raison d’étre of characters in the characterless story.

I have no doubt Lewis would have found the video above jarring. Yet, I suspect he would have approved of the fact that the music was creating a bridge to some for whom traditional learning is incomprehensible. He was a traditionalist. In many ways, a medievalist. But he was, above all, a redeemed child of God. And, because of that, he desired the best for his neighbor, his nation, and our world.

That said, I don’t want to hear that any readers of Mere Inkling got it into their heads to put any of C.S. Lewis’ words into hip-hop melodies. Ever!

_____

If you are interested in checking out the official website for Flocabulary, you can view their lesson “Wordplay” (on figurative language). I understand, however, that some of their lessons with political dimensions have been considered superficial.