Heavenly Light From a Stack of English Papers

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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I had taught regular and honors English in Texas Public schools for several years. My regular English students were smart kids, but my honors English students were motivated. Most of the honors students really worked hard in my class.

Many of my regular English students worked hard too. But rarely in my class.

In retrospect, I can't really blame them.

Consider the time I made them write an essay listing the ten most important virtues in their life. As inspiration, we read a drab excerpt from Benjamin Franklin's biography. One student was so inspired, he listed Coca-Cola as the top virtue in his life. I don't think he was serious.

They weren't inspired by their audience either. Every assignment had the same audience. Me. And they didn't seem to care about the elaborate comments I wrote in the margin or the errors in grammar and rhetoric that I circled.

When I returned the papers, most students checked their grade and filed the paper away without reading my comments. More than a few filed it into the trash.

"Why don't they care?" I wondered. So I asked them. And they listed a hundred things in their lives that were more important than my petty assignments. I'm not talking about video games or cell phones or the latest teen fashions, either.

One student was working part time to save for college. Another was working part time to help her family pay the bills. Another student spent the evenings taking care of his mentally retarded brother. Another student had a father in the late stages of cancer. Another student had a toddler.

A reflection on Benjamin Franklin's boring 200-year-old diary just wasn't relevant to these students. It didn't motivate them. My silly little margin comments didn't motivate them. The grades barely motivated them.

I realized with a kind of horror that my grades weren't even an accurate gauge of each student's potential—unless I were trying to measure his or her potential to be a professional English student.

I knew if I could motivate these students to take an assignment seriously, they would reveal their full capabilities to me, their peers, and themselves.

So I asked myself. What motivates me to write? And I remembered the joy of gift writing.

For several years, I had been writing birthday stories and poems for my family. I carefully tailored each story to each person, but the real gift was the act of creation itself. I hadn't just rushed off to buy a gift. I had spent time creating one.

My students could choose their own audience, a reader each of them loved. That love would give purpose to their writing. I called the assignment "Gift Art."

You wouldn't believe what they created. One student created a box of poetry. Another built a web page honoring her mother. Another recorded a CD of music and messages for his girlfriend. Another wrote stories on postcards and mailed them over the course of a month.

I found the right motivation for my students—love. And I stumbled onto the economy of love—gifts.

Without ever opening a Bible, I taught my students a bit of wisdom from James: "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights" (James 1:17a).

We shouldn't be surprised when a stack of English assignments contains heavenly light. Every good gift does. Every bit of hard work completed in love glorifies our God.