Writing about God

Jamie Faith Woods

In most subject areas we pose questions to challenge and stimulate. We ask questions to gain a better sense of what our students know and understand. What colors might we mix to make the right shade for this painting? How did the character change on her journey? Is it okay to do something wrong for the right reasons? We ask open-ended higher level thinking questions all the time, but how often do we ask them what they think about God? And when do we have our children write about God?

If we value the whole child the way our mission statements say that we do, then we need to find creative ways to nurture their spiritual selves, along with their social, emotional and intellectual sides, and to develop them. Writing about God, from my experience, is an untapped avenue toward helping students develop and grow understandings about their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.

Writing about God is the only ELA (English Language Arts) writing assignment I have implemented every single year that I have taught. As a graduate student, I had a writing assignment that made me wonder why, as a child, I had never been asked big questions about God, Torah and spirituality. I recalled doing a lot of asking and wondering, but I couldn’t remember being given time to work on framing my own thoughts and beliefs until a theology class in graduate school. Some of my grown-up thoughts felt naïve and childlike, as if they had not had time to fully develop because they had been left undisturbed, or abandoned. In fact, they had been.

What did my students think about God, I couldn’t help but wonder. What might they write about God, if asked? As a writer, I know the power of the written word. Profound thoughts aren’t easily put into effective prose. And often, the very act of writing reveals to the writer thoughts she wasn’t even previously aware of. When that happens, the writer grows as a thinker, as a writer, and as a person.

And so one day during my first teaching year, I introduced a writing assignment about God with absolutely no idea what the outcome might be. I knew I had to act on my curiosity and on my instincts, grounded in my teaching pedagogy. I believed in the Deweyan idea that children are innately drawn to learning and will thrive when given meaningful work. God was a particularly meaningful topic for my fifth-grade students. Since this was an unusual kind of writing assignment, it felt wrong to give them a rubric or even an assignment sheet. I didn’t want to limit or restrict them in any way. This assignment would require them to think and to write. I simply wrote God on the board, and I circled it. I told my students I was interested in their thoughts and feelings about God. On some level, it was that simple: I was curious, I asked, and they responded. I got ten- and eleven-year-old children to put their hearts on the paper, to care deeply about their writing, and I brought their Jewish selves into the general studies classroom.

In the decade since, I have observed that this is some of the richest writing my students craft and one of the assignments they are most invested in. They work tirelessly to ensure that every word conveys the meaning they intend and need for it to have. This is deeply meaningful work, and the absence of a rubric or a grade has never diminished the weight of this assignment. After many years of witnessing the passion my students have for this task, I am led to think that it is in fact not brilliant to ask children to write about what they believe. It is necessary.

When we ask children big important questions, we demonstrate that we value their thoughts and opinions. We show them that we are interested in what they think, that what they believe is important. In fact it is. And learning how to articulate one’s beliefs at an early stage can only lead to an increased ability to do so throughout one’s lifetime. How often do children say in school, “I know what that means, but it’s hard to explain”? The more practice one has at explaining, the deeper the understanding. The more one can articulate one’s thoughts, feelings and beliefs, the more clearly one understands and can support those beliefs.

The act of writing is an effective path towards that articulation and understanding. It’s one thing to think and quite another to attempt to compose one’s thoughts into prose. One year after explaining the assignment, a girl boldly asked, “Well, what if I don’t believe in God?” She savored her moment of perceived defiance and stood in disbelief when my response was, “So write about that.” A while later she showed me her opening paragraph, which began, “I don’t believe in God because God gave me allergies.” I smiled, then pointed out the inconsistency. I told her she could write about not believing in God, but that if she felt God had given her allergies, it was rather hard to disavow belief. She was genuinely shocked.

In the end, she created a very nuanced piece of writing with several tiers, describing times when she felt she was angry with God, times when she questioned God, and times when she didn’t want to believe. The writing process revealed to her the complexity of her feelings and relationship with God in a way she did not know before she had to make her written words make some sort of sense. She was a big talker, but it was the act of writing that led to deep introspection and allowed her to understand her thoughts in a new way.

Another year I had a serious student claim to have finished after only one writing block. I had given my students weeks to work on this; I asked him how he could possibly be finished so soon. “So soon? Mrs. Woods, this has been in my head for seven years; this is just the first time anyone’s ever asked me to write it down.” Each year I create a compilation of their work, and the pieces vary considerably both in their content and style, with similarities year to year. There’s a range from the concrete to the abstract; there’s poetry and prose; there have been song lyrics and even a scripted dialogue; usually there are a few short stories as well as an expository avalanche of questions.

Fifth graders wrestle with understanding, or to be more precise, reconciling the God they know from Torah with their personal feelings and their scientific questions. They’ll start with a few questions, only to realize, through writing, how many more questions they have. In some ways the questions are my favorite, mostly because as a teacher I aspire for my students to ask and to wonder. If we want our students to think deeply, then we want them to question. And we need to be there to support them as learners, even if their questions make us uncomfortable. Especially if they do.

This year I asked a group of fourth graders if they’d ever been asked to write about what they think about God. One child told me she didn’t think this was talked about “because it’s a serious question.” One of my fifth graders said, “I think the serious questions should be the questions that teachers ask more.” “More often than they do,” added another. A student went on to explain that it could help when they’re older to begin talking and writing about serious questions when they’re young. “If you at least get to think about it when you’re younger, you have more to think about when you’re older.” And don’t we want our children to have more to think about? Imagine if every year our children wrote seriously, in an age-appropriate way, about God. How fascinating it would be for older students to chart their own growth and change, to see how their thoughts evolved as they grew up and also as they engaged more with Judaism.

I began with an assignment because as a teacher I was curious to know what my students were thinking. It is only through knowing our students as learners and as children that we can know how to best engage them. My advice to teachers is to be curious. Genuinely curious. As educators we must encourage curiosity and questions in our students. We must celebrate the art of the question and focus on wonder. We must also model curiosity, not for the sake of doing so, but because we really ought to be curious about what our students think, feel and believe. The more we understand about our students, the better we’re able to plan inspiring and engaging curricula. Writing is a powerful tool to use to get to know our students and for our students to understand themselves in a new way.

Jamie Faith Woods teaches 5th graders and serves as the teacher leader for grades 2-5 at the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island. [email protected]

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HaYidion The God Issue Spring 2015
The God Issue
Spring 2015