The adage says, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” As conservative Anabaptists, we have traditionally avoided using the sword. But unfortunately, we have often avoided using the pen as well.
The following observations are very likely not a true representation of all Anabaptist schools and painting in broad strokes is sure to lead to unfair stereotypes at times. However, it seems to me that in many schools, writing is limited either to very functional uses, or to a brief, extra subject called Creative Writing that we squeeze into our schedules once a week. We give only a fraction of time to learning to write creative, original work compared to the time we spend on things like math, science, history, or the mechanics of grammar.
But these priorities of time matter, because where we choose to spend our time has an impact. When we spend so little time honing the craft of writing, we are not raising a generation of children who have the skills to impact their world by invigorating and inspiring their readers.
This is a shame, because as Christian schools, we should care about writing.
“In the beginning, God created.” God is a creator. We know this from the first five words of the Bible. And within the first chapter, we are told that we as humans are made in His image. The fact that humans can create is a core aspect of what it means to be image-bearers. And arguably, writing is one of the closest ways we have of creating ex nihilo (out of nothing) as God does.
When we teach children how to write well, we give them a gift. It is the gift of imagination—of allowing their creativity to take flight instead of becoming mired in the world of facts, concrete ideas, and entertainment.
Teaching writing is the gift of articulation—of taking the seeds of thought developing in their minds and letting them come to fruition on paper.
Teaching writing is the gift of self-reflection—of grasping at the vapors of who they truly are inside and bringing them outside to be understood more fully.
Teaching writing is the gift of beauty—of using twenty-six letters to weave tapestries of delight.
When children have been given these gifts of imagination, articulation, self-reflection, and beauty, they have more tools to serve God and build His kingdom. This broken world needs Christian writers to rise up and speak a message of hope. Students from Christian schools ought to be graduating with the tools they need to be able to write well.
Further, communication—and therefore writing—is an act of worship. God is a communicator, and He gives us the ability to communicate with others. In fact, communication is part of the believer’s calling, and it is an essential part of sharing the gospel.
Engaging students in the process of writing is a core part of helping them learn to develop ideas and think well. Therefore, it is not an activity reserved for the few Christians who are “born writers.” When our students are better writers, they will be better communicators, whether written or verbal. Therefore, it is a worthwhile process for all believers and an important skill to teach our children.
Writing enables three important things for our students: processing, persuasion, and pleasure.
We all have problems. We all struggle with conflicting ideas, looming worries, and niggling doubts. Our students are no different. It’s complicated to be a child. It’s especially complicated to be a teenager.
Writing is a way of processing problems to come to conclusions. It’s a valuable skill our students need in order to make sense of life, both what’s going on around them and what’s going on inside of them.
Another reason writing is important is because writing about their thoughts helps our children learn how to develop their thoughts. This ability to think and think deeply cultivates emotional growth. We don’t just teach to our student’s heads; we teach to their hearts, too. Writing is a way to do that by giving them the ability to reflect on their thoughts and emotions.
Of course, this doesn’t happen easily or all at once. But over time, as they hone their writing skills, children will be able to develop their thoughts in helpful, healthy ways. They will be able to clarify those thoughts and sharpen them towards truth. That is a gift that we should be giving our students.
Processing can be an end in itself, and that is a valid use for writing. But writing can also be the means to persuasion—the ability to articulate truth in a compelling way.
As Christians, we are called to defend and proclaim truth. Part of the Christian school’s role in serving the church is to help shape children who are able to do that.
Writing is a powerful method of communication. It is so important that our children can articulate their beliefs, especially in a world that is continually throwing Christian values away. Equipping them with the skills they need to be able to write well is a vital step in that process.
The first thing writing does is force our students to wrestle with ideas themselves, which strengthens their own beliefs. But it also prepares them to share their beliefs with others. Our world desperately needs skilled writers to speak into the brokenness with a message of hope.
As Anabaptists we have much to offer, but often, we aren’t extending hope in quality literature. In order for us as an Anabaptist people to become talented writers who can share life and light through our words, we need to spend significant time building writing skills in our children.
Now, as important as this purposeful writing is, I strongly believe that writing doesn’t have to be functional to be valuable. We should also allow students to write just for the pure pleasure of it.
Do you remember what it was like to be a child, and your imagination was so alive it could take you anywhere? Perhaps your bike was a horse that galloped with thundering hooves or a race car that sped around corners with devilish speed. You could be a cowboy, a pioneer, and a major league baseball player all between lunch and supper.
Walt Disney once said, “Every child is born blessed with a vivid imagination. But just as a muscle grows flabby with disuse, so the bright imagination of a child pales in later years if he ceases to exercise it.”[i]
This is especially true in an age of technology when all the imagining is being done for children already. For example, it takes much less imagination to watch a movie than it does to read a book. In many homes, hours of screen time inside replaces time in imaginative play outside. It is difficult to objectively compare children today to children twenty years ago, but it seems that students with vibrant imaginations are becoming increasingly rare. The idea that technology may be robbing our children of their imaginations alarms me.
And of course, as teachers, we are considerably limited in how much control we have over our students’ technology usage. However, we can give them opportunities to exercise their imaginations at school. One of the best ways to do that is through writing.
Now, writing is not always fun. But writing should be fun sometimes. Students should have the opportunity to create new worlds that they wish existed, experience the delight of combining just the right words in just the right way, and revel in creativity and wonder and enjoyment. We need to add this type of writing to our students’ experience of writing paragraphs, essays, and other academic-style assignments.
As Anabaptists, we are a very practical people, and there are strengths to that. We like things to function well in tangible ways. But we forget that we can’t always measure the value of something simply by how useful it is. Sometimes, the purpose of writing can just be writing.
I want to clarify that there is definitely a place for structured writing—of teaching students how to craft specific formats like essays. But not all the writing we ask them to do should be formulaic, informational-style assignments.
Ruth Culham talks about formulaic writing assignments and points out, “If writing is thinking, this approach doesn’t move students toward that goal.” She also says, “I believe the person holding the pen is the one doing the learning.”[ii]
We need to teach our students how to hold the pen themselves, and at times that involves giving them freedom in what they write and how they write.
In short, writing is about shaping our student’s minds to think differently. Pam Allyn says, “Living a writing life is living with our eyes wide open.”[iii] When we turn our children into strong writers, we are teaching them to see well and to speak well. And that is a gift that our students desperately need.
[i] Smith, Dave. The Quotable Walt Disney. United States: Disney Book Group, 2015.
[ii] Culham, Ruth. Teach Writing Well: How to Assess Writing, Invigorate Instruction, and Rethink Revision. Stenhouse Publishers, 2018.
[iii] Pam Allyn. Your Child’s Writing Life: How to Inspire Confidence, Creativity, and Skill at Every Age. Penguin, 2011.
CONTRIBUTOR: Meghan Brubaker