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Teaching Children the Book of Nehemiah: Part Four

At last, the walls of Jerusalem were complete.  It was now a safe, secure place for the people to live.  Governor Nehemiah had plans for guarding the gates and for moving the people into the almost empty city.  He chose two men to be in charge of the city:  his brother Hanani and another man named Hananiah.  He chose Hananiah because this good man feared God more than most men do.  Why was this important to Nehemiah?  What does it mean to fear God?  Deuteronomy 10:12 tells us that, of all the things God wants us to do, to fear Hi is first on the list, even above loving Him.  Proverbs 9:10 says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and Prov. 1:7 says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.  Proverbs 8:13 says that to fear the Lord is to hate evil.  I think these verses are telling us that fearing the Lord means trying to always please Him in everything we do.  If we do this, we can truly get to know Him as He is, and only then can we truly love Him.  That’s why the fear of the Lord must come first:  we might love God for selfish reasons, for what He can do for us or give to us.  But if we really get to know Him, by truly trying to please Him, we can love Him because of Who He is.

The walls were finished in time for the festivals of the seventh month of the Jewish calendar.  This would have been the end of September and beginning of October on our calendar.  The first day of that month was the Feast of Trumpets.  The priest Ezra had come to Jerusalem to teach the Law to the people.  Ezra would have been very old by this time, but he stood before the people on the Feast of Trumpets and read the Law to them.  The people stood out of respect for the Law and listened from dawn until noon!  They listened carefully to every word, and if someone did not understand a part of it, the Levites would explain it to him.  The people grieved when they heard God’s Laws, because they realized how much of His precious Word they had forgotten.  They wept and mourned, which showed that they not only understood and believed God’s Word, but they were applying it to their lives.  Nehemiah reassured them: “Do not grieve.  The joy of the Lord is your strength.”  The people then went on to plan a wonderful celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, which came two weeks later.   They had the biggest, most joyful celebration of this holiday since Joshua’s time.  God’s Word made them grieve because of their sins, and then God’s Word gave them great joy because it showed them how to live.

Do you reverence God’s Word as His people should?  How many of you have Bibles of your own?  Do you know how incredibly lucky you are to be able to own a copy of God’s Word?  In Nehemiah’s day, no one had a Bible of their own.  Few people were even able to read at all, and books were so expensive and took so long to make, there were very few of them.  That is why Ezra had to read the Law out loud to everyone.  Perhaps this was the first time some of them had heard God’s Word!  The priests were supposed to read it every seven years, but if you missed that reading you might not hear God’s Word for years.

Do you have to wait seven years to hear God’s Word?  You can read it or listen to your Mom or Dad read it to you any time you want.  Do you take advantage of this incredible blessing?  Do you respect God’s Word by listening carefully and asking questions if you don’t understand?  Do you apply His Words to your life, being sorry for your sins and feeling joy because of His many blessings to you?

There are about 440 million people in the world today who have no Bible.  I have missionary friends whose only job is to get Bibles to people in their own language.  How their eyes light up when they get a Bible of their very own in their language.  They know what an incredible gift God’s Word is and they treasure it above all things.  I am afraid that God’s Word is not valued as much here in America because almost everyone has one.  We should treasure His precious Word as much as those who can’t have it.  We should want to read it or listen to it every day, and hide it in our hearts.

It was not an accident that Ezra chose to read God’s Word by the Water Gate.  Many times in the Bible, God’s Word is compared to water.  Water quenches our thirst and makes us clean.  God’s Word also quenches our thirst for knowledge of Him, and it makes us aware of sin so that we can be clean inside.  Remember how it feels to be very thirsty and then to get a nice, cold glass of water?  It makes you happy, doesn’t it?  God’s Word should make you that happy.  Next time you pick up your Bible, think about how blessed you are to have it!

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Teaching Children the Book of Nehemiah: Part Three

Here is the next installment for teaching this wonderful little book to children.  This is, in fact, my favorite part!

Last time, we learned that Nehemiah was a careful planner and that he began the work to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem in an orderly way.  But the enemies of the Jews, led by Sanballat and Tobiah, tried to stop them from finishing their work.

First, they tried ridicule.  What does it mean to ridicule someone?  It means to make fun of them.  Did anyone ever make fun of you or something you were trying to do?  It can make you want to quit, can’t it?  Tobiah said that the wall they were building was so weak that if a little fox jumped on it, it would fall right down!  Tobiah might have thought that was a funny joke, but I’ll bet Nehemiah wasn’t laughing.  It hurts when people make fun of us, doesn’t it?  We must be careful never to hurt anyone else’s feelings by saying mean things, even if we think we’re being funny.  You might think it’s a great joke, but the people you hurt won’t be laughing.

Instead of being discouraged and quitting, Nehemiah and the people just worked that much harder to finish the wall.  I can just hear them saying to each other, “We’ll show them!  We’ll show that old Tobiah!”  Before they knew it, the walls were half done!

Now Israel’s enemies knew that ridicule would not stop the Jews.  So they tried making threats.  What does that mean?  Has anyone ever threatened to hurt you?  Have you ever threatened to hurt someone, maybe a younger brother or sister who was bothering you?  Do you think God approves of a person who threatens to harm another person?  I don’t think so!

If someone said to you, “Stop what you’re doing or I’ll kill you,” would you stop?  I think I would!  It would be scary, wouldn’t it?  But instead of being afraid, Nehemiah and the Jews just prayed to God for safety and posted watchmen to keep a lookout for trouble while the others worked.

Then Israel’s enemies formed a wicked plot.  They would sneak up on the Jews when they were busy working on the wall and kill the all!  When Nehemiah heard this, do you think he was afraid?  I’ll bet he was!  But he didn’t let his fear stop him from doing God’s work.  He posted guards with swords and spears and bows and arrows to “watch the backs” of those who were working.  “Our God will fight for us,” he reminded them.  And so the work continued.

Israels’ enemies were quite willing to kill people by sneaking up on them and taking them by surprise, but they did not want to actually fight! So Sanballat and Tobiah tried to stop the work a different way.  They thought that if they could just get rid of Nehemiah, the people would stop working.   They tried to get Nehemiah to meet with them alone, to “talk things over”.  Do you think Nehemiah was silly enough to fall for this?  No!  He knew they could not be trusted.  “I’m too busy to leave the city right now,” he said. “Should I stop working just to meet with you?”

Then Sanballat and Tobiah tried spreading lies about Nehemiah.  They thought that if they could make the people stop trusting Nehemiah, they would stop working.  Maybe they even thought their lies would reach the ears of the King of Persia and then the king would get rid of Nehemiah for them!  So they said that Nehemiah was trying to set himself up as King of Israel and was rebelling against King Artaxerxes.  Nehemiah was too smart to get into an argument with such people.  “Nothing like this is happening, and you know it!  You are just making all this up!” he said, and ignored them.  It’s hard to ignore people who are telling lies about you, isn’t it?  But sometimes that is the best way to handle people who like that.

Then Sanballat hired a false prophet to go try to frighten Nehemiah into hiding in the temple.  “Men are coming to kill you!” the false prophet said to Nehemiah.  “God says to run away and hide in the temple.  Lock yourself in!  You’ll be safe there!”

“Should a man like me run away from danger?” Nehemiah said bravely.  It was obvious to him that this prophet was not from God. “I will not run away and hide like a coward!  If someone wants to kill me, bring it on!”  And he just kept on working.

After 52 days of hard work, the walls around Jerusalem were finished!  It was finished so quickly that all of Israel’s enemies were terrified.  They knew it was only because the God of Israel was helping them that they could do such an impossible job!  If we become discouraged in doing God’s work, we can know that He is helping us, too.

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Teaching Children the Book of Nehemiah: Part Two

Here is the second lesson in my Nehemiah series.  What I neglected to mention in Part One is Nehemiah’s conversation with King Artaxerxes.  He had a way with words, did Nehemiah, which is one of the things I like about him.  The king said, “Why are you sad when you are clearly not ill.  This is surely the sadness of the heart.”  A very sensitive guy, this king.  And Nehemiah replied, “Why shouldn’t I be sad, when my city lies in ruins, with its walls destroyed and its gates burnt to ashes.”  Fortunately for everyone concerned, King Artaxerxes could appreciate snarkiness as much as I do.  “What can I do for you?” he said kindly, and proceeded to give Nehemiah everything he asked for.  But perhaps this isn’t the best example for a the Sunday School classroom!  So, on to part two:

Last week, we learned that Nehemiah was sent by the king  to Jerusalem to rebuild the city gates and walls.  The king of Persia had provided everything that would be needed for this great work.

Now Nehemiah is in Jerusalem, but he does not start building right away.  He does not even tell anyone why he has come.  Instead, he goes out at night with just a few friends to look at the ruins of the old walls and find out just exactly what needed to be done to rebuild them.    Close your eyes and picture Nehemiah on his trusty horse, riding carefully in the dark around the city, picking his way through the rubble of the broken walls in the moonlight.  Sometimes the piles of stones from the fallen walls were so big, he had to ride far out of his way to go around.  Perhaps the moon cast eerie shadows from the ruined bits of stonework.  Nehemiah took note of all the damage done.  He knew how important it was to make a plan.

Here is what the word PLAN stands for:  Pray, Learn, Ask, and kNow what you’re doing.  What comes first when you make a new plan?  PRAY! Prayer always comes first, doesn’t it?  Nehemiah prayed before talking to the king, and kept right on praying every step of the way to Jerusalem.  If we don’t do a job the way God wants us to, we may as well not do it at all!  So we must always begin by asking God what He wants us to do.

We must also be sure to LEARN all there is to know about a job before we begin.  Nehemiah wisely looked at the walls and gates, so that he knew exactly what work needed to be done.  But he didn’t learn how to build a city wall in one night, did he?  He must have been studying about how to build walls for months, while he was waiting to go to Jerusalem.  We can begin preparing ourselves for whatever work God has planned for us to do by studying now and learning as much as we can from God’s Word and from our schoolwork.  If we learn all we can now, we can be ready to do God’s work when the time comes.

ASKING for help and advice is also important.  Nehemiah took his friends with him to look at the walls because he knew they could give him good advice and might spot things that he might miss.  No matter how much you learn, you just can’t know everything, can you?  There’s always something that someone knows that you don’t know.  Your parents, teachers, and even your friends can help you in whatever task you have at hand.  God never means for us to work alone.  He puts other people into our lives to work with us–but we must ask!

Now, I know that KNOW doesn’t begin with “n”!  But I had to make it fit with the word PLAN!  Always try hard to KNOW what you are going to do before you begin.  An artist sketches out a picture in pencil before starting to paint, so that he will know how the picture will all fit together.  A writer always makes an outline before he begins writing a story, so he knows how all the details will fit together.  A builder makes a blueprint copy of his plans so he knows how the building will fit together.  Nehemiah made a plan of how the wall was going to fit together before he started building.  God expects us to use the brains He gave us to plan our work so that we can do our best for Him.

Remember that Nehemiah had not told anyone but his few special friends why he had come to Jerusalem.  Only after Nehemiah made his plans,  did he then reveal the plans to the people.  Everyone was excited and ready to begin work at once.  Do you think they would have been so excited if Nehemiah had said, “Let’s rebuild the walls.  I don’t know how to do it, but we’ll figure it out somehow.”  I don’t think so!  Nehemiah had planned very carefully, and was able to give each family a job to do so that they were able to begin working right away.  Every family in Jerusalem had specific job; not just professional builders, but also the priests, the store-keepers, the blacksmiths, the farmers–even the jewelry makers and the perfume makers!  Men, women, and children worked side by side, following the plans that Nehemiah gave them.

But the enemies of the Jews were not happy about this building project! Two men named Sanballat and Tobiah  began to mock the people and try to discourage them.  What does it mean to mock?  It means to make fun of someone.  It hurts when people make fun of the work you are doing, doesn’t it?  But Nehemiah just said, “The God of heaven will give us success.”  We can say this, too, if anyone tries to discourage us from doing God’s work.  Then Nehemiah said to Sanballat and Tobiah: “We have every right under heaven and by the king’s command to be here and to do this work.  But you have no right to be here at all.  So go away!”  And they went away.  But only for a while!  Next time, we’ll learn more about the evil schemes of Sanballat and Tobiah, and how Nehemiah outsmarted them!

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Teaching Children the Book of Nehemiah: Part One

Nehemiah is one of my favorite people.  He was a man who threw himself wholeheartedly into whatever task God handed to him.  He was faithful and hard-working; he was passionate; he was capable; and he could get mighty snarky!  Sarcasm is my love-language, and I think Nehemiah and I would have gotten along famously.  So, here’s my take on this enjoyable little book.

Because God’s people would not stop worshiping idols, God had to punish them by allowing them all to be taken away to the pagan empire of Babylon for 70 years.  Now the 70 years was over, and the people of Israel were slowly moving back to Jerusalem.  But it was a long process, and many Jews remained in Babylon.  One of these Jewish men who still lived in a foreign land was  Nehemiah.  Nehemiah had become a trusted servant to King Artaxerxes, the ruler of Persia.  He was the cup-bearer to the king, so it was his job to make sure no one put poison into the king’s food or drink.  King Artaxerxes must have trusted Nehemiah a great deal, don’t you think?  It was a big responsibility to keep the king safe, and it meant that Nehemiah would see the king many times a day, every day.  God put Nehemiah into this special job for a reason, but Nehemiah didn’t know what that reason was.  He just did his best, knowing that by doing his job well, he was also serving God.

Nehemiah had a brother named Hanani, who had already moved to Jerusalem.  One day,  Hanani, came back to Persia from Jerusalem for a visit.  Nehemiah asked how things were going, and Hanani had bad news to tell.   “They are in great trouble and disgrace,” Hanani said.  Back in Nehemiah’s time, cities always had walls to protect them from enemies and wild animals.  Jerusalem’s walls had been broken down and the gates burned when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city so long ago.  The people living in Jerusalem were in trouble because they had no walls to protect them.  They were in disgrace because having broken-down walls would be like you and me living in a broken-down, burnt-out house!  It is possible that the people had tried to repair the walls, but without official permission from the king it would have been impossible for them to get the materials they needed.  And there would have been no protection for the Jews from Jerusalem’s enemies, who did not want the walls rebuilt.

When Nehemiah heard this news, he began to weep.  Even though he had never seen Jerusalem himself, as a Jew it was his true home.  He felt as you might feel if you heard that your house had burned down.

Nehemiah was a man of action, though.  When he heard about the problem, he didn’t just sit around crying about it.  He did something about it.  He did the only really helpful thing anyone can do.  Do you know what that is?  He prayed!

And now Nehemiah knew why God had put him into the job of cup-bearer to the king.  He asked God to give him a chance to talk to the king.  Although he was with King Artaxerxes every day, Nehemiah was not allowed to speak to him without permission.  No one was!  Also, no one was allowed to look sad in the king’s presence or they would be punished!  The Persians had some strange laws, didn’t they?  So Nehemiah had to try to keep his feelings hidden and wait for the king to speak to him

Four months went by, and Nehemiah kept praying faithfully.  At last, God answered his prayer.  One day, the king noticed that Nehemiah looked sad, and instead of being angry and punishing Nehemiah for breaking that rule, he kindly asked what was wrong.  Nehemiah breathed a quick prayer to God to ask for the right words to say.  Then he boldly told the king what was on his heart.  The king must have liked Nehemiah a lot, probably because Nehemiah had been a good and faithful servant to him.  He was willing to do whatever Nehemiah asked of him, and Nehemiah was not afraid to ask the king for everything he would need to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

Isn’t it wonderful that Nehemiah was such a faithful man?  What if he had not been a good worker?  The king would never have listened to him, or even cared that he was sad.  In fact, he would never have gotten the job of cup-bearer in the first place, so he would never even have seen the king.  Then God would not have been able to use Nehemiah for such an important job.  Are you faithful in the jobs your parents or teachers give to you?  If you are, then you are also being faithful to God, and He can use you to do even bigger, more important jobs.

Next time, we’ll learn what Nehemiah did when he arrived in Jerusalem.

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Right-Brained Thinking

I am left-brained; there’s no two ways about it.  I think with words.  I think linearly.  I can only concentrate on one activity at a time if I am to do it justice.  I’m mathematically challenged.  I can’t hold a map in my head, and judging distances and sizes is an impossible task for me.  But I’m incredibly fortunate, because most Americans are also left-brained, and therefore our educational system is geared towards those who think like I do.  I had no trouble in school, because American schools were designed exactly for people like me.

My husband is right-brained.  He thinks in symbols, and must translate his thoughts into words before he can communicate them to others; but since he is not limited to thinking in words, he can think of things for which there are no words. He is not limited to thinking chronologically; he has no sense of the passage of time.  He can do twenty things at once and do them all well.  He’s not great at math, but he’s a lot better at it than I am.  He has an uncanny sense of direction and can measure objects and spaces at a glance.  He has a genius IQ.  But he struggled in school.  American schools are not equipped to teach right-brained kids.  Because they are unconventional thinkers and learn in ways other than rote memorization and reading, right-brained kids, no matter their superior mental abilities, are very likely to be labeled “learning-disabled”.   Although he never had trouble reading, my husband would be called “dyslexic” if he were in the school-system today.  He was fortunate–he grew up before the country’s educators invented this “disability”, and so never had to deal with this label.

I home-schooled my children.  The first three were left-brainers, like me.  It was easy to teach them, because they learned best the same ways I learn best.  We had loads of fun together.  By the time my fourth child was ready for school, I was a veteran home-school mom.  I had it down!  I could teach standing on my head with one hand tied behind my back.  My fourth child did not know this.  She is right-brained, like my husband.  She struggled with reading, and all the teaching techniques that I had learned in the past, all the things that had worked so well with my other children, did her no good.  Was this because there was something “wrong” with her?  Of course not!  I just had to let go of my entrenched teaching methods and re-learn how to teach in ways that would benefit her.

I spent months researching, and then I was ready to try again.  I’m not saying it was not difficult.  I was very often teaching in ways that seemed foreign to me, and it was hard to make myself think in such a different way.  My kid was unhappy, also.  She hated reading. She hated spelling. But we muddled through, learning together, and today as she finishes her second year of high school, I doubt anyone would ever guess that she is dyslexic.  She reads better than most kids her age, she has an intuitive grasp of math, and absorbs science like a pro.

Here’s the secret:  I never told her she had a learning disability.  Because honestly, she really doesn’t.  She thinks differently than the majority of Americans, but it is a strength and a gift, not a disability.  The fact is, most “dyslexics” are highly intelligent–most of the world’s true geniuses were right-brained and would have been called dyslexic if they had been subject to today’s educational system.  The disability is in the schools and the teachers, not in the children.  Just as I had to re-learn how to teach, schools should re-learn how to present material to students in a way that will benefit all of them, not just the left-brainers.

I guess what I would like to see is an acknowledgement of the facts by our educational system.  Right-brained thinkers are not problems–they are assets to our society.  Most of the creative and inventive  advances in our modern world are due to right-brainers, who can think outside of the box more quickly and creatively than we plodding left-brained folks can.  Rather than ostracizing these kids by negatively labeling them and separating them from the rest of the school body, we should be encouraging them and helping them learn to use their gifts, for their own sakes and for ours.  We should be teaching all of our kids to respect and understand differences in thought processes; not only to accept these differences, but to value them and embrace them.  Think what the world would be like today if the likes of Leonardo DaVinci, Alexander Graham Bell, Winston Churchill, or Thomas Edison had been told that they had an “incurable neurological disability” as one website puts it?  This site describes these famous people, among others, as “sufferers of dyslexia”.  Did they truly “suffer”?  I’m pretty sure they would take issue with such terms.  I do know for certain that my husband suffered from the lack of understanding of his teachers in the 1960’s; and if my daughter suffered from anything, it was from her mother’s lack of knowledge, not from her own mind’s make-up.

How about if we just stop labeling people altogether?  Maybe we could just all be individuals.  My linear, word-oriented left brain thinks this would work for the best.  So does my kid’s creative, symbol-oriented right one.


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These are our stories. . . .

I should hope that my readers are aware by now that I am a hopeless geek.  So it should come as no surprise that I should begin this blog entry with a Star Trek reference, especially in light of the newest Trek movie coming out.

In one of my favorite “Next Generation” episodes, Worf, the Klingon officer, discovers a prisoner-of-war planet where dozens of young Klingons have been held since they were small children.  None of these young people had any memory of their home and they knew nothing of their own people.  Worf, of course, must rescue them physically; but even more importantly, he must rescue them emotionally.  These lost young people, with no sense of belonging or of who they are as a culture, ask Worf to teach them what it means to be Klingon.  I suppose they expect him to begin by describing what their home planet looks like;  or their history; or their political system; or their religious customs or rituals. Worf could easily have started with any of these areas:  anyone familiar with the  Trek universe knows that the Klingon people have a rich and complex history and culture.  But Worf began teaching his new students about what it means to be Klingon by telling them the ancient myth of Kahless the Great and his evil brother.

An impertinent boy dares to interrupt Worf’s narrative. He doesn’t want bedtime stories–he wants facts.  Worf is indignant. “These are our stories,” he rumbles in his impressive bass voice; “they tell us who we are.”

Indeed.  That sentence has stuck with me for years, and I use it constantly in my literature classes.  Our stories both shape us and explain us.  Any story that has survived for decades or for centuries has stayed with us for a reason.  Good or bad, our stories, our myths, our legends, our novels, and our poetry tell us something about ourselves that we want to pass down to our progeny.

All ancient cultures told stories, but the ones which first shaped and spoke to Western Civilization are the Greek myths.  The Romans, whose own mythology was violent and fairly stark, were delighted to conquer Greece and assimilate the beautiful stories of their enemies.  That’s what we have inherited–beauty and violence; soaring ideals wed to pragmatism.  The gods of the Greeks and Romans were gods of nature, and therefore capricious, unpredictable, and self-absorbed.  It’s hard sometimes to tell the gods from the monsters; in fact, most of the monsters were children of gods and therefore under their protection. The heroes in these stories were men who could overcome, or at least survive, the intervention of the gods.  You can easily see the influence of such stories in our culture even today–our admiration of the solitary hero overcoming the odds to survive or of the impudent mortal flouting fate.  Our worship of individualism grew from these roots.  I’m not saying that individualism is a bad thing; but it can lead to bad things, including a resentment of authority and an unhealthy desire for independence from both God and each other.

What would Western culture be like if it were the myths of other people-groups that had been set down and studied, passed down as the wisdom of the ages?  The Norsemen, for example, for all their love of a good fight and their dubious regard for personal property, had gods who felt responsible for the good of mankind.  With the exception of Loki, they worked together for the common good and never exploited the weak.  They fought constantly, but with giants and monsters which threatened both themselves and mankind.  In the end, they are all doomed to die; but their moral compass points more truly north than the Greeks’.

But we are what we are; history has so arranged that we as Westerners be essentially Greco/Roman in our cultural outlook.  You can see it in our laws, in our belief systems, in our behavioral patterns, and in all of our stories.  It is impossible to read a book in the English language, for example, without finding numerous references to Greek and Roman mythology.  Our language is rife with it.  You need not have read any Homer whatsoever to know what I mean when I say I have an “Achilles’ heel” or that I am stuck “between a rock and a hard place.”  You may not know who Achilles is, or that the “rock”and the “hard place” are the monsters Scylla and Charybdis; but you certainly know how it feels to experience these things for yourself.

Down through the years, more and more stories have been added to those original myths; a people talking to themselves about themselves in order to explain themselves to themselves–if you follow me!  There are hundreds of individual stories, rich in meaning, that have entered our cultural consciousness and cut themselves a groove there.  Now our thoughts automatically run along those grooves–for better or worse.  The wisdom of Aesop; the chivalry of Malory and Tennyson; the eloquence of Shakespeare and Milton; the social conscience of Dickens and Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe; the elegance of Austen and the Brontes; the humor of Wilde and Wodehouse–you need not have actually read these works to have benefited from them or to recognize quotations from them.  For example, many of the social reforms that we enjoy in our modern civilization, policies that separate us as “first world” rather than “third world”, can trace their beginnings to stories that helped steer the minds of the people into those directions.  Our attitudes towards slavery, our work ethics, our treatment of laborers, children, and women, were all shaped by the stories men and women told and that the readers responded to and passed down to their children and to their children’s children in order to better their society.

This is why the study of literature is so important.  To know and understand our stories is to know and understand ourselves.  To learn the stories of our past is to benefit from the wisdom of the ages; or to realize where our erroneous beliefs have come from and why.  We can pick through our cultural mainstays and keep the good and discard the bad, if we realize that they ARE cultural, not Gospel.

In the end, since the only story that was truly inspired is Scripture, we must always compare our cultural stories to the Bible.  And then, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy. . . .” as Paul says in Philippians 4–read it!

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Literature as it Translates to Film

As I prepare for my literature classes for next year, searching out just the right novels, plays, and poems to present to each class, I find myself feeling more and more strongly that I should not limit myself to teaching the written word.  For the last one hundred years or so, the visual media have become more and more prominent in our society.  There are a great many people in America today who will never crack open a book, but will watch hours of television every day and see several movies each month.  While occasionally an original story is well-told on film, for the most part movies are remakes of popular or classical works of literature.  Many people in today’s society are exposed to the great stories of our culture exclusively through film rather than the written work. But sometimes,  the film intrigues its fans into actually reading the original work.

I will not say whether I feel this is a good or a bad thing.  It simply is.  Rather than wish the world were otherwise, it is time to face reality and deal with the visual media as an entity that is not only not going away but is taking over as our main source of cultural storytelling. As such, it demands scrutiny:  how well do movies and television translate the written word?

I believe that discerning the difference between a well-made film and a poorly-made one is a skill that must be taught.  It is, in fact, lamentable that it has not been made a priority in schools before now.  Americans are unfortunately content with the substandard fare offered to them and will even enthuse about the most banal and contemptible drivel, not knowing that there are truly sublime films available for them to enjoy if they would only look.  Many Americans, jaded by the constant bombardment of adreneline-producing violence and overly-excited sex, strobing through scene after scene at breakneck speed, can’t appreciate a truly well-made movie when they see one.  They simply don’t know how to process film intellectually, expecting a purely emotional experience.  Often, their attention-spans have been so severely compromised, people simply cannot sit through an entire film without explosions or other emotionally exploitive events to keep their minds from wandering.  I feel that this shows a serious lack in our educational system.

I believe that a natural start to teaching children how to appreciate visual media is to have them read books that have been made into film and help them compare the two media.  Showing them the same elements of story through both methods of storytelling can help them learn to be discerning in their viewing habits.  And fortunately, there have actually been some quite well-done films of many literary classics.

A part of this learning process, however, must include a basic understanding of how these two media necessarily differ.  I am not one of those “purists” who feel a film must be an exact copy of the book from which it is taken.  I am not even one of those people who insist that the book is always better than the movie.  Most of the time, the book IS better than the movie:  but in the interest of truth, it must be admitted that there are exceptions to this rule.  “The Princess Bride” is the one that springs immediately to mind.  While I enjoyed the book, with its facetious but interminably long introduction explaining “the  good parts” version, the movie incorporates the same sort of facetiousness without the initial tedium.

But, I digress!  The fact is, books can do things that film cannot; and film can do things that books cannot.  Taking advantage of the strengths of each medium is the job of the author and the filmmaker.  Understanding that some of the coolest parts of a book simply cannot translate well to the screen is part of the process of learning to appreciate film for its own strengths.  To give the most obvious example:  a film cannot get inside a character’s mind as intimately as a book can.  Other means must be found to allow the viewer access to the thought processes of the characters.  Another translation challenge is a lack of information.  At times in a written work, the author can state a complicated process quite simply and leave the details to the imagination.  “He quickly explained to his friends all that had happened to him in the previous few days.”  “A short scuffle ensued, ending with Mr. Smith head-down in the well.”  The film maker must make a decision as to how to convey these simple sentences visually.  Obviously the conversation must be shown to take place–but what do the characters say?  Or should the conversation simply be alluded to in a later scene so that the viewer knows that all the characters are now up to speed on the happenings of the story?  How should this “short scuffle” be choreographed?  How do we send Mr. Smith head-down into a well without killing the actor portraying him?  What can be a throw-off sentence to the author can become a major head-ache to a filmmaker.

Another problem is length.  A novel can be as long as the author wishes it to be.  A film usually cannot be longer than two or three hours at most.  A novel does not cost the author more the longer it gets.  A film’s costs multiply with each day it takes to shoot.  Therefore, it becomes necessary sometimes to condense a novel into a more manageable size.  Some scenes must be combined; some must be cut out altogether or perhaps only alluded to.  Some characters may even be combined to make the cast a more manageable size.

Here is a more complex example of changes in translation:  The Ghost of Christmas Past in “A Christmas Carol” is a highly symbolic creation, depicted masterfully by Charles Dickens as being perceived as “receding into the distance” and as made up of parts of all the people Ebenezer Scrooge had ever known.  As many times as this book has been made into a movie, no one has ever attempted to depict this character as it is described in the book.  Until recently, it would have been simply impossible to do; but even now, with CGI making so many wonderful things possible, I think it would be a mistake to translate this Ghost literally onto the screen.  Its appearance would simply be too distracting for meaningful dialogue to take place.  In the book, the reader is allowed to forget during conversation that the Ghost is strobing in and out of many different bodies.  On film, the viewer would be overwhelmed by the constant changes.

On the other hand, sometimes filmmakers make decisions in translation that are not defendable and are even deplorable.  Giving a character more lines because one is paying the actor an exorbitant  salary is using poor reasoning skills.  Changing the very meaning of the work by altering the ending (as in, for example, “Beowulf”–don’t get me started!)  is just plain evil.  Being able to tell the difference between good and bad choices would be an important part of the educative process.  Simply accepting any changes a filmmaker makes without questions would be as bad as automatically condemning the changes out-of-hand.  Teaching a student to think about the film and how it was made and giving the student tools to help him discern good filmmaking from poor filmmaking would be the goal.

Next year, I plan to incorporate some films into my literature curriculum and hold class discussions in hopes of helping my students gain viewing skills that will help them navigate through our cultural morass of visual media.  Wish me luck!

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Literacy as it Pertains to Popular Media

Since the beginning, education has consistently included certain elements which are considered imperative for the student to master in order to be functional in a civilized society:  the maths, science, history, literature, writing and rhetoric are the mainstays of a well-rounded education.  This has changed little over the centuries, although the teaching of rhetoric in public schools seems to have been curtailed considerably.  But I am coming to feel that literature, as an educational discipline, desperately needs to be expanded and modernized in order to equip the up-coming generation in discernment and understanding of the world around them.

The entire reason for the educative process is to transmit the knowledge and wisdom of all the previous generations of a society to the newest generation.  For thousands of years, this was done orally and then both orally and through the written word.  Why do we make our children study literature in school? Because novels are cool?  Well, yes, novels are totally cool.  But the stories from our past tell us where we came from, who we are as a people, and what our ancestors learned about themselves and the world that is worth knowing.  Rather than let each generation start from scratch and re-invent the wheel over and over again, why not just tell our children what we know so that they can build on our head start?  This is true in the sciences, in the maths, in our history (so that they aren’t doomed to repeat it!), and in our literature.  Our stories reveal the deepest truths about ourselves as humans in ways that science and history never can.  We are wired to learn through stories.  Our myths and legends, parables and analogies, mysteries and science fictions reach us on an emotional and spiritual level that, ironically, cannot be expressed in mere words.

For over one hundred years now, our story-telling has taken on a new dimension as movies and television have progressed and become more easily accessible and thus more and more popular.  I’m not writing this to express whether I believe this is a good thing or a bad thing–it simply is.  And since the visual media is not likely to go away, we should be dealing with it as a branch of “literature” and teaching our children how to appreciate it as an art form, just as we teach plays, short stories, novels, and poetry.  There are some quite amazingly well-made movie and television programs available, but unfortunately they are not generally the most popular.

I am not including documentaries in this discussion.  These programs are valuable and some of them are remarkably well-made.  As tools for teaching science and history, they are becoming increasingly important.  But they are not literature, any more than text books are literature. I am limiting my discussion to story-making.

When I teach literature, I naturally point out the elements of story, the character development, the symbology and meaning behind the story, and the importance of what it shows us about ourselves and the world around us. These elements are present in movies and television, as well;  or, at least, they should be.  It’s exciting to find a movie that not only weaves a ripping yarn but also teaches us something meaningful and shows us universal truths. It’s also exciting to find a television series that carries the story along from week to week and allows the characters to grow and change in a way that shows us something about the human condition.  If these stories are well told,  they can be as valuable to us as books and plays and poetry.

But there is more to great literature than story and character.  Literature is made up of words, and part of the joy of teaching about literature is pointing out the special use of the words to convey emotion and spiritual meaning.  The look of the words; they way they sound together; the flow of the narrative; the choice of active or passive voice; all these elements are as important to the story as the story itself.  Such tools as alliteration, anthropomorphism, metaphor, rhythm–these are important to prose as well as to poetry as the words paint pictures in the mind and spirit.  A good author can make you feel whatever he wants you to feel by choosing his words well.

With visual media, the methods are necessarily different, but the idea is the same.  By the careful use of lighting, sound effects, background music, camera angles, colors, and set dressing, the director can manipulate the emotions of the viewer however he pleases.  These things are subtle, but powerful, and can enhance the story or ruin it.  And, of course, there is the importance of the performance.  Even if all of the other elements are present and perfect, poor acting will destroy the entire work.  On the other hand, superb acting can lift an otherwise mediocre work into something enjoyable and meaningful.

These elements must be taught, though, in order to be appreciated.  Without this appreciation, people are all too often satisfied with banality and cliché.  If people will pay their hard-earned money to watch drivel, studios will continue to offer us drivel.  In the past, great literature has shaped the minds of the people and affected change for good in society.  Visual media has this potential as well, when it is used to good purpose rather than to merely titillate and amuse.  The BBC has been doing this well for years–I can only hope that America will catch up one day.

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American Attitudes

One day last year, I gave all of my tutorial students a grade of 100% for having marvelous attitudes. I had never graded for attitude before, but in this case I was pleased to do so. Here’s how it came about: I began the class by telling my students that I was giving them a pop-essay quiz to help prepare them for the essay section of the ACT. I explained why I felt this time of practice was important and proceeded to inform them as to the subject and form the essays were to take and how much time they had to complete them. I had fully expected frowns, sighs, even a groan or two. Instead, they were every one of them smiling at me with anticipation. “This is exciting!” one girl exclaimed. “Yeah, this’ll be fun!” another one agreed.

No, I promise, this really happened. I was not dreaming and I am not making this up.

Since that time, I’ve had the privilege of taking on several more tutorial classes, and I’ve run into the same positive attitudes time and time again. Last week I asked my Middle School Language Arts Class if they would like to diagram sentences on the board and had to jump back to avoid the stampede towards the front of the classroom. When I give them their reading assignments, they cry, “yay!” and can’t wait to get started. I can hardly get through all the material I prepare for my Literature classes because the kids don’t want to stop discussing their latest reading assignments. One of my College Prep Writing students greets me almost every week with an enthusiastic: “I love this class!”

When I was in school, it was considered the height of “uncool” to be enthusiastic about anything, least of all schoolwork. From what my kids tell me, this attitude has not changed much over the years. Learning is a chore, a drudgery, something to avoid if at all possible. Kids complain about their assignments, get them done late, try to get away with doing as little work as they can.

So have I somehow found the only kids in America who enjoy learning? I must be the luckiest teacher in the country! Actually, all of my students are talented, intelligent, and special. But any student can be a good student if he or she wants to be. It’s all in the attitude.

I don’t know where this American disdain for education started. Perhaps it’s the fault of the media, portraying kids as perpetually lazy, whiny, and ill-mannered and labelling this behavior as “cool”. Are the movie and television industries simply reflecting American reality, or are the kids of America watching the media and buying into the message?

Perhaps it started with the kids themselves, bullying those who excel in the classroom to cover for their own inadequacies. I do know that I was persecuted by my peers in school because I enjoyed my classes, made good grades and always completed my assignments on time. I was not a particularly brilliant student, but I did well because I worked hard; as a consequence, I was disliked by almost everyone. It is my understanding that this situation has not changed at all over the years in both public and private schools; if anything, it may have become much worse.

Could it be the fault of the educators? I’m not sure. I know that I had some terrific teachers in high school who were caring, innovative, and encouraging. They made learning exciting for me, but most of my fellow students would have disagreed with me. No matter what the teacher did to try to engage the class, only a few of us responded positively.

My opinion is that it’s the parents that make the difference. The parents of my own students are excited about learning. They not only teach their own children, they continue educating themselves. They discuss what they’ve been learning with their children and with other adults in the hearing of their children, modelling the kind of attitudes that I appreciate so much in the classroom. We should never stop the education process. Americans in particular have no excuse for not taking the time to learn something new everyday. We have access to the knowledge of the world from throughout all ages of history; but do take advantage of that? Or do we waste our time and resources on pointless games and videos of cats? Do we read the great literary offerings of the masters, or do we content ourselves with equivalent of literary junk-food? Do we go to museums and concerts with enthusiasm? What are we teaching our kids when we don’t take the time to improve our minds? Yes, it can be hard after a long days’ work to sit down and read a good book or watch an informative documentary. But our kids have had a long, hard day, too–and we still expect them to finish their homework, while we relax and watch mindless trivia.

Our attitudes as parents are contagious. If we value education for ourselves, our children will value it as well. If we get excited about learning new things, they will view learning as exciting. And enthusiastic students sure make my job a lot more exciting!

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Run From Dick and Jane

Look, look. Look and see! See my blog. See my blog rant. Rant, blog, rant!

There was a lot of controversy in the 1960’s and 1970’s about the efficacy of the “Dick and Jane” readers. Johnny, who was “taught” to read with these textbooks, couldn’t. In the 70’s, more and more students were graduating from high school without the rudiments of literacy. Reading was no longer a pleasant pastime for most Americans by the end of the 70’s. Today, it’s rare to find an avid reader amongst the general public. Ask any adult on the street the title of the last book he read, and I’ll wager it was a book he was forced to read in high school and he can’t remember a thing about it. Was it the “whole word”, “look and say” method that failed them? Was it the lack of phonics?

I have not done an official study on this subject; I haven’t done a lot of interviews or administered a battery of tests. But I have done a lot of research on ways to teach children to read, and I have drawn my own conclusions. Why did “Dick and Jane” fail to teach American children to read? “Dick and Jane” is boring.

The first sentence of this blog entry is mildly amusing for the short line that it takes up. Imagine forcing yourself to read page after page of such drivel! The repetition, the constant tone of command, the entire lack of imaginative or interesting content is mind-numbing. I remember as a six-year-old being forced to wade through this stuff in school with only the knowledge of an exciting “Bobbsey Twins” mystery waiting for me at home to keep me going. How did anyone expect children to learn to enjoy reading when they were forced to endure such boring (I use this word in its broadest possible sense) “stories”?

Yes, the pictures are cute. I admit to a nostalgic draw towards the colorful pictures of white, middle-class American suburbia. They’re pretty. But pictures are not words. Words are the most important part of any book. (Do I really need to point that out?) Not, admittedly, the most marketable part, but the most important. I have in my home a number of readers from pre-Great War times, and these contain few or no color pictures, but are filled with interesting, educational, and imaginative narrative. Were our Victorian-era forefathers better readers than modern Americans? You bet they were! What made the difference? Were they smarter than we are? Did they have access to better schools? Did they have more well-funded government programs? No, the real difference is simpler than that. They WANTED to read!

I was a lucky kid. I had access to a houseful of good books to choose from, and parents who took me to the library every week. Books were considered the best presents to give and receive for Christmas and birthdays. My parents read to me when I was too young to read, and they spent their spare time reading in front of me, showing by example that reading is fun for everyone. But what about kids who aren’t so lucky? What about kids who grow up in homes with few or no books, and whose parents do not have time for frivolous trips to the library and do not have the money to purchase books as gifts? What about kids whose parents don’t read and whose only exposure to books is in school? Shouldn’t we offer them books that are at least as exciting as the TV programs they watch every day? What draw is there to reading when books are presented as bland and boring?

There’s a resurgence of nostalgic interest in the old “Dick and Jane” books lately. I’ve seen copies in book stores, and they are just as pretty as I remembered them. And the earnest message they send to me is: “Run, kids, run! Go fast! Run to Dr. Seuss! Read, kids, read!”

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