Giving Form to Lofty Ideas: Writing Prompts for Your Students
~ by Charissa Sethman ~
In the Writing & Rhetoric series and corresponding Scholé Academy classes, students move through a steady progression of preliminary exercises selected to prepare them to master the art of rhetoric. What is rhetoric? It is a liberal art intended to set one free to perceive truth through delivered words. It is the art of speaking well and writing persuasively, and also one of the three pieces (along with grammar and dialectic) of the trivium in classical education. Much more could be said about rhetoric; for now, suffice it to say that a goal for young students beginning their study of writing and rhetoric would be to use words to proclaim Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Summer provides the time—and often the perfect environment—for a number of restful and enjoyable writing exercises with such a goal in mind. Following are a few prompts to keep your students writing and discovering elements of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty during the summer.
Ideally, every young student has a heaping helping of wisdom literature in his or her life in the form of proverbs and fables. The fables of Aesop, in particular, are often a first selection for imitation exercises in writing instruction. Students delight in these stories for many reasons, one of which is the enviable quality of their magnanimous child’s outlook: that the humble beasts around us are very much members of the family, neighbors in our community, and actors in our world. Of course the pet dog feels one way or another about its family’s absence during the day. In the works of Howard R. Garis, we read about Uncle Wiggily’s prudence, and our children imagine taking comfort in his sensibility. They see Big Shot the rooster acting rude and mean in the works of Alice and Martin Provensen and feel vindicated when he gets his just deserts. Encourage your young student to write about these animal antics, perhaps focusing on the family pet, the barnyard nuisance, or the zoo favorite. Can he imitate Aesop and write a fable with characters, plot elements, and a moral? In doing so, he will tell the truth about nature, relationships, and consequences.
As our students mature, they begin to love longer stories. Encourage your student to look for great stories within her own community—the best kind, the ones that are true. Encourage her to engage with a grandparent, a church member, or a neighbor about the wonderful stories from their own lives. Provide a few good questions to help them begin a conversation. For example, your student might ask, “When was God faithful to you?” “How has the world changed?” or “What made you who you are?” Encourage your student to show honor to this revered person in the community. A great conversation may become a great story, one worth contemplating for years to come.
Many students will have the opportunity during the summer to hear a wise message or to spend time with a wise mentor, perhaps at a camp or conference. Encourage your young writer to tell you more about the experience, and to continue learning from it by crafting a chreia about it. A chreia is a short essay or remembrance praising the author of a wise saying or action; it is a ceremonial piece of writing and an exercise in gratitude and humility. Furthermore, many students have joined summer reading groups or are enrolled in summer courses. Such a student could keep a journal of her experiences with the texts, comparing certain parts to other readings she has encountered in her studies. She could refute or confirm parts, actions, or characters. She could summarize portions of particular interest or amplify sections that have captivated her imagination.
Summer is often a time for visits to significant cultural exhibitions, such as museums or galleries. Liberate your student as well as yourself to spend some time contemplating one or two favorite pieces of art. Sit with the work. Don’t rush off. Then, try to describe one of the pieces in writing, using rich sense words and creative descriptions. Could someone draw a similar picture after having read your description?
For a more familiar exercise, what if your student were to ask a grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin, or other family member to be a pen pal for the summer? He could use this opportunity to talk about lovely things, such as a favorite summer reading selection. Ask him to summarize the story for his pen pal, using much of the author’s particular verbiage. Have him encourage his pen pal to tell him about their own summer reading. Your student could compare his story’s characters to those in his pen pal’s book, or in his own life. He and his pen pal could even discuss that which is proper, noble, brave, or loving in a character’s life, or, conversely, what is regrettable, reprehensible, selfish, or even vile in the lives of the characters. Imagine a pen pal’s delight at receiving and reading such a rich letter, ideally handwritten on a choice piece of stationery. What a gift this would be!
Finally, you might encourage your student to explore beautiful writing by crafting a prayer. One lovely form to imitate is the collect, a short, five-part prayer often used in worship. The prayer begins with (1) an address to God, followed by (2) a statement about a part of God’s character that relates to (3) the petition, the single, short, and sweet request that follows. The collect concludes with (4) the expressed desired outcome—the hope of the prayer—and (5) a final closing statement ending in “amen.” Consider the Collect for Purity to see how these parts flow:
(1) Almighty God, (2) unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; (3) Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, (4) that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; (5) through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Such a piece of writing would be a fitting addition to both a commonplace journal and the treasury of your student’s mind.
When the school year commences, perhaps revisit some of these writing ideas on your day of rest each week. Those who learn to love the work of creating beauty may find leisurely writing to be a rest for their souls. Additionally, many students can offer some of their writings in the form of a presentation to their own learning communities: for example, by sharing an opening or lunchtime prayer, or by giving a lesson to a younger sibling.
All of these prompts are intended to encourage your student to participate fully in his or her community. Through proclaiming truth about the world, praising good and wise actions, or offering beautiful worship to God, among other things, our students see how the arts of writing and rhetoric give form to lofty ideas, challenging us to share our very minds and hearts with our family, our friends, and our Savior. A further aim of these arts is to create harmony in our communities, which often implies the ebb and flow of words, perhaps through conversation, correspondence, or prayer. May these practices aimed at proclaiming Truth, Goodness, and Beauty be unto a fuller understanding and delight in harmony in each student’s world.