Help the imagination take wing

Cheryl Rao

‘Literature speaks the language of the imagination, and the study of literature is supposed to train and improve the imagination.’ – Northrop Frye, author and literary critic, 1912-1991

That is what we would like, isn’t it? To help the imagination of the children in our care take wing. And to achieve this we cannot overestimate the value of literature because literature is unparalleled as a medium for enlightenment and instruction.

The magic of words and the love for them can begin very early in life. Most of us are introduced to literature at an early age at the feet of a parent or grandparent who has a flair for telling stories. This introduction is usually in the form of fables, fairy tales, myths, and legends. These tales, from wherever they are in the world, of whichever time or culture, are similar in their aim: illustrating the eternal struggle between good and evil, and greed and satisfaction; demonstrating the difference between cleverness and cunning, extolling mental and emotional strength, wisdom and honour, and in general, trying to set a child on an ethical path in life.

Literature opens doors and gives a child the freedom and licence to open a few more on her own. The aim is that the child will be motivated to seek ‘more’, and thus their journey into unknown realms begins because a child exposed to literature gets inspired to take a thought or idea forward.

The pre-primary level
How we love picture books when we are very young! This is literally the time when a picture is worth a thousand words. Picture books allow stories to unfold graphically with few or no words. Attractive illustrations accompanied by simple words give a fillip to a child’s imagination and set them on that path to ‘MORE’.

Even at this stage, the participation and involvement of the listener makes a big difference. Rather than merely reading out the story, the narrator can draw the child into the story by referring to similar situations, bringing out other possibilities, asking what they would do if faced with a similar choice, before going on to read what the protagonist does – and of course, well-modulated voices, expressive eyes, hand gestures, role play, all these draw listeners in and add to the impact of a story.

It is not only simple concepts and simple words that can be introduced at this level. Some young listeners have more advanced vocabulary and will be able to process more complicated stories and ideas.

Primary school
In primary school, the real journey of our imagination begins – at least, it did for me.

Apart from the stories my parents and older siblings narrated, the magic of literature began for me with the first story in my English textbook in class 3. In a little over 170 words, I was dragged onto a seaside, where a dog named Sultan saved a young girl from drowning. Not only was my imagination captured immediately, but so was my heart! Dogs became my favourite pets; Sultan became one of my favourite names for a pet; and probably most significantly, I never ventured beyond mid-calf into waters anywhere!

There were fairy tales, fables, nature stories, tall tales, legends, poems in that book and all of them remain fresh in my mind despite the passage of more decades than I would like to count!

In primary school, to make stories memorable, if a child has read, for example, a short excerpt from a book, it would be wonderful to tell the child something more about that story. Perhaps another incident from the story, or an overview, or the gist of the story. Along with that, the child can be encouraged to express what they would have done in a similar situation or whether anything similar has happened to them or to someone they know. This will help them connect with the stories, experience them ‘up close’ and enjoy them more thoroughly.

If the story is set in a place unfamiliar to the child, a little bit of its geography and culture can be discussed. The setting can be brought alive, so can the time in which the story took place, the lifestyle and habits of the people, etc.

In primary school, introducing children to the lives of great people from all spheres of life also triggers young minds into looking at the infinite possibilities the future presents and all the potential they have within them.

Stories of explorers, scientists, and sportspersons are what will make a little girl insist on scrambling up the ‘mighty’ slope in a park because she imagines she is a young Junko Tabei or Bachendri Pal, or make a little experimenter in a shed believe she can be another Madame Curie, or lead the ‘fossil hunter’ in the garden to persist because of what she knows of palaeontologist Jack Horner.

And later in life, when they read more about these and other achievers, they will recall the influence they had on them and will be more than ready to expand the range of information, maybe going into scientific principles or training schedules, happily receptive to the details because of that earlier connection.

Middle school
In middle school, creativity can really take wing. This is the age when a child is most receptive to ideas. These are the ‘wonder years’, the time when young people can take their first steps towards doing ‘wonders’ themselves.

Teachers and mentors can experiment in many ways. Each month could be dedicated to one genre – with fiction as the flavour of one month, then poetry, then science stories, tales from other lands, and so on. The teacher’s role at this stage is to ignite the fires of curiosity and encourage middle-schoolers to come up with their own suggestions of how they would like to “discover literature” so that their voyage becomes a lifelong adventure.

Ask students what happens when they start to read. Do they begin to paint pictures in their minds as they visualize the events that unfold?

The next step is connecting with what they visualize. Does something in that story strike a chord? Imagine a 10-year-old with an obsession for dinosaurs. If she starts reading a story about an explorer who discovers a live dinosaur in an unknown land, she connects immediately with the character and the situation and is eager to read on. (This ‘connection’ makes a huge difference in this wonderful journey into the unknown, where some may like to read about the familiar, others may prefer stories of galaxies far, far away.)

Then, as the story continues, the reader or the listener questions some aspects, perhaps wonders about the motives of a character, clarifies doubts, and then begins to predict what will happen. How will the problem, the conflict that is the basis of the story, resolve? Will the story end happily? Will the characters overcome the trials they are going through?

When, finally, the end of the story has been read, that is the time to think about it, evaluate it, and decide on many things: Did I like the story? Why did I like it? Which character and which part of the story did I like best? Why? Did the theme of the story and the language and style of the writer appeal to me? What did it make me feel? Would I recommend the story to someone else? Would I read the story again? Why or why not?

Middle schoolers who understand the processes they go through as they read also learn to be good writers and communicators because they understand the processes that readers of their work will go through. This will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives, in whatever they choose to do.

High school
By high school, the problem of what they will do in their future begins to weigh youngsters down. The burden of the curriculum is also significant, but reading can help them relax.

Here is where the teacher can be a campaigner for literature, dropping hints about what she is reading at present; what helped her at this stage of her life; sparing a few moments to talk about a new book, an old book, a popular book, a controversial book… because literature can unlock the doors of minds and send us on journeys to faraway lands and a distant time (or next door and right now), where we can meet people who achieve the impossible, do great things – or just do things differently. And at this difficult stage in a young person’s life, they need to be reminded that they are not alone.

Somewhere, sometime, someone else has faced similar situations and problems and reading about them helps immensely!

Right from our earliest interaction with stories, when something clicks with us and we identify with a character or a situation, whichever way a reader is inveigled into this world of imagination, there is no holding back, no stopping: for the journey is a lifelong one. And thanks to all that we read we are better equipped to manoeuvre the unfamiliar at every step of our journey. Also, this world will be a more tolerant and tolerable place with more discerning and imaginative readers, will it not?

Use Your Imagination

Classes 3-5
Action in your pencil box
Have you ever wondered what happens to your pencils when you are asleep? Do they lie quietly in your pencil box – or do they wake up and have a party with the ruler and the eraser? Or do they quarrel with the ruler and the eraser? Write in five sentences what you think your pencils do at night.
 
Character sketch
There is someone in your class or near your home with whom you like to spend time. You play together, you study together, sometimes you go camping together or you go on holidays/sleepovers with his/her family.
 
Describe this boy or girl. Write what is special about this person. How does he/she dress? How does he/she talk? How does he/she behave? What are the special things he/she likes to do? Are there interesting things about the person? What makes him/her stand out? What makes you like this person?
 
Description of a place
Do you have a room of your own or do you share your room with a brother or sister? Can you describe your room? What makes it special for you? Don’t forget to say why you like (or don’t like) your room.
 
Dialogue writing
Imagine that you are a new student. What do you think your teacher will say to you on your first day in class? What do you think your new desk mate in your class will say? Try and make your dialogue interesting and enjoyable (not merely, Hello / How are you? / Welcome). When you write dialogue, use short forms like ‘can’t’, ‘won’t’, and ‘haven’t’ instead of ‘cannot’ and ‘will not’ and ‘have not’ because when we talk we are not formal in our language.
 
Now imagine your new desk mate is not friendly. How do you think the conversation would go?
 
Writing an anecdote
An anecdote is an account of an incident that happens in someone’s life. It could be funny, or frightening, or strange, or it could teach a lesson. Most of all, it is something that happens that is worth remembering.
 
When you write an anecdote, remember to bring in something about the place where the incident happened, who else was with you, how it happened, and why it is worth remembering.
 
Writing a fable
A fable is a story that has animal characters. A fable teaches a moral lesson.
 
Think of some of the fables you have read or heard, like the story of the hare and the tortoise, the fox and the crow, the monkey and the crocodile, the ant and the grasshopper, etc.
 
Write a fable of your own (not something you have heard or read, but something totally original).
 
Choose your combination of animals, say a lion and mouse. List the qualities of the animals you have chosen. (For example, a squirrel is quick and also careful to collect food for winter, a lion is strong and proud of its position as king of the jungle, an owl is wise and a good hunter, a mouse is quick and able to hide well to protect itself, etc.) Which qualities do you want to use in your fable?
 
Choose the moral you would like to illustrate in your fable, something like ‘one good turn deserves another’. Think of how you will show this, imagine the incidents that take place, and then start writing.
 
Classes 6-8
 
1.     Dialogue writing
Write a dialogue between
i) You and your big brother (if you don’t have a big brother, imagine having one) when he finds you have broken the cycle/tennis racquet he got as a present for his birthday. OR
ii) You and your pet dog (who can talk) when both of you get lost during a trek or a camping trip.
 
2.     Writing a myth
A myth is a folktale that tells you about the actions of heroes from the past, or of gods and goddesses. A myth can also tell you interesting tales of how some truths of nature came to be. These tales are not based on actual truth, or science, or history, but are imaginative stories that explain the facts of nature. Like for instance, can you write a myth on how rabbits came to have long years?
 
3.     Story writing
Before you write a story, decide on:
who takes part in your story (have two or three characters and give them names and think about how each one looks, dresses, talks, behaves)
what happens in your story
how it happens
where the story takes place (you should give some details of the setting of your story so that your reader can imagine the place where things are happening)
when the story takes place (a long time ago, recently, two nights ago…)
Bring some dialogue into your story to hold the interest of the reader
Give your story an interesting title to make the reader want to read what you have written.
 
4.     Short Story writing
Write a short story that ends with the following line:
He banged on the door and pleaded for another chance but he knew no one was listening.

The author writes for children of all ages. Her series Fun with Creative Writing and Fun with Phonics (stories) have been reviewed in Teacher Plus. She can be reached at cherbrag@yahoo.com.

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