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I am in the middle of teaching short stories to my grade 9-12 Creative Writing class, and I found a startling trend in one of their assignments. I asked my students to create characters, giving them a list of personality, appearance, and background to develop as they made compelling, 3-D characters. When I received the characters to grade and give feedback on, I grew increasingly puzzled about the fact that almost all of my 32 students created characters who had no parents. It did not matter the age of the character, but the common thread was that the parents had died or abandoned the character. Even the students who included living parents for their characters explicitly stated that the parents were workaholics, abusive, not around, or single parents. Only 1 or 2 had a normally functioning family.

I asked my students why they thought so many of them made their characters without parents, and I got a variety of responses.

One student said that she thought that her character wasn’t going to be interesting if there were parents, and another agreed by saying that she thought the parents would keep her character from having an interesting life. A couple said that not having parents seems like the worst tragedy they could think of, and wanted to show that their character could overcome odds. Others said they didn’t have the expereince of 2 parents to write about, while others thought life would be better if they lived with a friend or friend’s family.

Overall, the consensus was that having parents and those dynamics would hold them back from having an interesting story, but we all left thinking.

I welcome any thoughts or reactions to this.

In Old School, by Tobais Wolff, there was a quote that struck me. I know it’s kind of cheesy, but hey, I need some inspiration as I prepare to go back to teaching English in 2.5 weeks. I hope I can live up to this ideal someday.

“How did they command such deference – English teachers? Compared to the men who taught physics or biology, what did they really know of the world? It seemed to me, and not only to me, that they knew exactly what was most worth knowing. Unlike our math and science teachers, who modestly stuck to their subjects, they tended to be polymaths. Adept as they were at dissection, they would never leave a poem or a novel strewn about in pieces like some butchered frog reeking of formaldehyde. They’d stitch it back together with history and psychology, philosophy, religion, and even, on occasion, science. Without pandering to your presumed desire to identify with the hero of a story, they made you feel that what mattered to the writer had consequence for you, too.”

The news shocks me from time to time. Usually, it shocks me because of the mundane sorts of stories that make the front page or the racial inequality of stories that are reported. But today, I was shocked because something really good and gospel driven made the headlines.

http://www.cnn.com/2008/SHOWBIZ/Music/08/07/chapman.orphans/index.html

Steven Curtis Chapman wrote an article about adoption. But, it was all his words…no reporter looping a quote here and there in his summary. The article was up front about how we, as Christians, are adopted into God’s family because of the work of Jesus Christ, and Christians should model that example. He said that all it would take is for 7% of Christians to adopt one child to take care of all of the orphans in the world. He has an adoption foundation that helps give grants to families who want to adopt and need help subsidizing the cost, and it encourages people to support each other within the church to adopt children vis adoption funds.

Clayton and I are convinced that adoption is a way we can mirror God’s family and make an impact on the larger issues of poverty and abortion. While reading Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution this week, I was struck by his reference of an early church father, St. John Chrysostom. St. John Chrysostom is noted for his writings and services to the poor, as says that those of us who are rich steal from the poor every time we pursue material comfort and possessions over a life of generosity and service. How can I buy yet another coat when the homeless man under the bridge of the train station across the street sleeps in the cold?

This idea has been on my mind a lot lately, and when I think about the possibility of adoption vs. having 4-5 kids of my own, I wonder if I would be stealing life away from the poor by bringing more kids into the world. There is nothing wrong with having kids from our own flesh, but I think when we examine our motives, we realize that the reason that adoption is peripheral is because we want our children to be and look like us. We want to know that we gave them life and that they will function as smaller versions of ourselves. And…the common misconception…we know their medical history.

But who cares? Rich smart people have higher occurrances of mental and emotional disorders and cancer than the poor. Would it be selfish of me to birth several children when I have students in my own high school that I teach in who will get pregnant next year and give up their children for adoption? When there are girls being dropped off in dumpsters China? The early church was known for having huge families because they rescued the orphans and abandoned children in the Roman Empire. Why are wealthy American Christians known for their homogeneous 2 child homes?

Also, Chapman pushes for churches to support families in their midst who want to adopt. Currently, Christians send out support letters for their short term mission trips, and it is rather successful way of obtaining funds to go on a trip that is only days or maybe weeks long. Why not do that for adopting? If a friend us a letter to help raise funds to adopt a child, I would be so excited to give. That has a life-long impact on many people and is a genuine response to fighting abortion and poverty.

So today I decided to walk to and from the gym, as it’s only a couple blocks from home. There is a conference on Wheaton College campus that is for Korean churches home and abroad. It feels crazy to be in my home town and not hear or see English when I am walking around. Anyway, when I was walking home today, I noticed ahead that there were three Korean children playing near a hose and sprinkler system. I was absorbed in thought, and I didn’t think anything off it. Before I knew it, I was completely soaked and there were a couple hundred people laughing at me and talking in Korean, as I happened to be soaked between the breakfast line and registration table. I was caught…and it gave me a good laugh.

Recently, I have had a number of conversations with my friends about issues pertaining to money, and I am realizing that many of them do not know how to view and make decisions about the money they earn. Since this is an area that that Clayton and I seem to do well in and do not stress about, I wanted to share our process of thinking through money. Feel free to steal, adapt, or reject it. It has seemed to help a number of my friends recently, so I thought it was worth posting. For readers who do not know me well, we live on my teaching and random odd job salary of about $40,000 a year (my salary is public info since I teach) while my husband is full time at Wheaton Graduate School.

The thing that has been key for us when we view our money is this: Be aware of how much money we make and then make as many of the decisions about where and how much can be spent in areas beforehand.

Let me explain. Clayton and I make a spread sheet (updated about every 6-12 months). First, we put in all of our fixed expenses (insurance, utilities, phone, gas, grad school, etc.), taxes, and tithes. We view the remaining amount as discretionary money, meaning that the amount is variable and requires decisions about how much we will spend on it. For us, food and clothing fall into this category, as we can decide to spend $25-40/week on groceries or over $100 depending on where we shop and what type of food we buy. Shopping at Aldi and Springbrook Market allows me to spend the former amount on food, and yes, this allows for the average two meals a week we cook for others when we invite people into our home and packing lunches for both of us during the week. I just decided that I would figure out how to cook as many meals I can with the food that is available at those stores, and I can 99% of the time find what I need. For those of you who still believe that Aldi has some stigma on it, try it. Seriously, I can buy fresh Tyson brand antibiotic/hormone free chicken there for less than the generic frozen stuff at Jewel, organic whole wheat pasta for less than a dollar, organic soy milk, Dole fruit and veggies, etc. And, Aldi and Trader Joe’s are the same company—they both keep their costs down by not advertising and avoiding middle man distributers that increase costs.

The other main areas in our discretionary spending are out-and-about spending, gifts, and our generosity fund. By deciding up front how much we are willing spend and give away each month, it eliminates the anxiety of spending and enjoying our money, and it allows us to give joyfully when we hear of someone in need. Because we have already decided to give away a certain amount (beyond tithing) each month, it forces us to keep an open ear to the needs around us and allows us to happily give the money away when the need arises. You can choose whether or not gifts and “treating people” falls into this category, or if it will be separate. We have 4-5 weddings coming up this next semester, so we talked about how much we will spend ahead of time so that when it’s time to write the checks out or buy the gifts, we can do it happily and not worry about how it will impact our budget.

By deciding how much we will spend for out-and-about spending, I have been able to enjoy spending money with my husband and friends, as we both know what is reasonable for us to spend and roughly how often we can go out to eat or do something that requires money. This category in particular has been particularly helpful for a number of my friends, as they get anxious or even in fights with their significant others when they go out to spend money. They just needed help deciding what a realistic boundary was for their spending (in relation to their salary) so that they could feel free to spend and enjoy it. Most stress from spending money seems to come from not being aware of where the money is going and how much is left. If you don’t decide way ahead of time, you can start to feel or anxious and then strip the joy out of whatever experience you were trying to have. We don’t track receipts or anything like that, as we know roughly how often we can go out each month with the amount we set aside.

In short, by knowing your fixed expenses and setting and keeping to realistic boundaries for discretionary spending, you’ll be surprised at how much you can save and how much you can spend your money and enjoy it. I know the numbers are different for everyone, but making the decisions ahead of time helps to follow God’s commands to live simply, generously, and without worry about money.

Putting it in Writing (Scholastic Guides Series, by Steve Otfinoski)

I recently found a book that my parents had given me in 5th grade to encourage me in writing. This book is accessible and extremely practical for teaching writing, and I recommend it for homeschool parents and teachers of grades 3-7. The layout and vocabulary make is extremely accessible for students to use the book themselves or to make photocopies. It is most useful for teaching practically any type of letter, formal and informal, and has a lot of good examples. While I teach writing to juniors and seniors in high school, I am going to adapt some of the sections in this book, as many of the topics are things that kids and teenagers are no longer taught to do by their families. For instance, Putting it in Writing goes through how to write to someone who has just had a family member die (another section for is for responding to the death of pets), how to write a thank you note to someone who has given you money, how to complain to a company, how to ask for information, how to write to someone who has moved away, etc. I plan to teach some of these so my students can both know how to do some of these formal types of writing and to help them know what types of things to say in more difficult situations. It is has reminded me that it is worth teaching these more practical forms of writing, as they give us words and structures for different things that happen in life.

So my summer reading has consisted of some planned literature, science fiction, adolescent lit, NY Times best sellers, and lately, just random books from off the shelf. It looks like a lot, but hey, it’s part of my job to read so I can help others find connect to books. Plus, I have the summer off from teaching and I read 1-2 pages a minute. Here’s what I’ve covered in the last 2 months and the gist of my opinion on each.

Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, XenocideChildren of the Mind,  and Ender’s Shadow  by Orson Scott Card (All part of the best science fiction series I have ever read. Card has won all of the major fiction and science fiction awards for his books. These books are addicting, as they are both accessible while saying quite a bit about war, religion, children and adults, education, social structure, racism, etc. These are a must read for anyone who can at least tolerate science fiction/fantasy.)

Enter Three Witches by Caroline B. Cooney (a version of Macbeth for junior highers, author of Face on the Milk Carton. I don’t recommend it for adults, as it’s low level writing, but it’s a good primer for students who will later read Shakespeare in high school)

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards (If you like an interesting premise that is reduced to mediocre by repeating itself over and over [think of something like “previously on Lost” happened every 40 pages] with too many cliche descriptions [up to 4 adjective noun pairs per line…she got into the powder blue car, her platinum hair and perched hat peering out the cracked window…], be my guest. The only reason I finished it was because I hoped it was going to get better and so many people I know have read it. Frankly, thinking about the premise from the back of the book would have been enough.)

Water for Elephantsby Sara Gruen. Not bad for a NY Times bestseller. The story was interesting and her style and characters kept me reading, but there were holes in her jumps from the past to the present. It seemed to struggle between seamlessly passing back and forth. Also, some of the implicit messages startled me. By implicit, I mean the things you say without saying them outrightly or meaning to say at all. Her conclusions with her main characters seemed to support an unhealthy, but unfortunately pervasive view of how our culture (does not) value/view the elderly and mentally disabled.)

The Bean Treesby Barbara Kingsolver (Perhaps the most surprisingly good read of the summer. Kingsolver is going to be read as literature for this era. Her writing and characters are significantly better that the bestsellers, and she’s not going to throw out the cheap thrills many current authors do for shock value and entertainment. She can paint characters in few lines, and you feel like you know all about them, nuances and all. She has one of the best writing styles I have come across among the current writers, and I use her in my creative writing class as a mentor author.)

Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway (This is a good starter if you’re interested in checking out the writing from the Lost Generation from WWI to WWII. Hemingway moved writing to an entirely new level with his iceberg writing style. His writing is very simple at the surface level–very few big words or long sentences–but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. He writes each detail so that it really says something, and then something more, and then something more. It just depends on how long you want to linger. This book is 80-120 pages long depending on the detail.)  

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (This book is a hoot. It’s a short, fast read. I don’t even know where to begin. It’s about the childrend of the man who made the atom bomb and a country whose life revolved around a religion that it made up, and everyone wholeheartedly believes it even though every one knows it’s completely fabricated, until ice-nine froze the entire continent. It’s a satire, spoof, comedy…whatever you want to call it.)