sisters reading on rocking chair together

Babies and Butterflies: An Study Of Adolescent Development

I have this vivid childhood memory…though I am not sure if it really happened or if I dreamt it.  I had to have been around four-and-a-half, not much more, because my mother was pregnant with my younger sister.

In this memory, my mother and I are curled up in my bed, leaning against the big-girl pillows, my woven blue blanket tucked tight around our bare toes. We are reading a picture book, and I point to a green stubby worm in the center of the left-most picture.

“Look, Mommy! It’s a baby!”

She reaches over me and places her finger underneath the picture, below the word ‘caterpillar’ and makes each sound, ‘caaa – trrr – pill – rrr.’

“Sound it out with me,” she says. We say it slowly together: “Ca-ter-pill-ar.”

“What is a caterpillar?” she asks.

“A baby butterfly.”

“That’s right! And where do caterpillars live?”

My mother looks at my bedroom wall and smiles, giving me a not-so-sneaky hint. My room is decorated with a flower-print wall, a blue wall, and two white walls with a fancy blue fence. The fence is painted along the room’s bottom edges, almost as if it grew from the floor. My mother stenciled the posts herself.  They look real, except for the blue color. But the blue matches my blue pillows. And my blue blanket. And this fence transforms the room into a garden.

“Garden!” I squeal. “Caterpillars live in gardens!”

“Yes,” she says, “Good job, sweetie.”

I nestle in the crook of my mother’s arm, the little bun at the top of my head fitting right under her armpit. She turns the page of the book. There is a momma lion and her cub. I place my little hand on my mother’s stomach. It is large and swollen.

“The caterpillar is a baby,” I say, “A baby, like this one.”

 

I have always been fascinated by human development—the way we shift from tiny seeds in our mother’s stomachs to people that jump double-dutch, drink root beer floats, develop whooping cough, fall in love.

I am still not sure whether that memory with my mother actually happened, but as a four-and-a-half-year-old, I do remember touching my mother’s swollen stomach, feeling the tiny movements of feet and life beneath my fingertips. I remember my new sister’s nursery and its lavender and light green colors. I remember the obnoxious pink stork in the center of our lawn. And I remember the quiet bundle my father carried like a glass figurine in his arms. The whole process was fascinating.

In my senior year of high school, an exhibit called Body Worlds & The Cycle of Life came to the Chicago Science and Industry Museum. I went for a fieldtrip with my anatomy class and stood in the back, walking a hundred or so feet behind everyone, taking it all in. One of the first sections of the exhibit featured actual preserved embryos and babies at different weeks. There was a zygote from one week after conception, then a seven-week-old embryo, no bigger than a blueberry. One of the most powerful glass cases held the body of a twenty-eight week old fetus, fragile and small enough to hold in my hands, unborn, each finger and toe defined.

I remember standing in front of that glass case, blinking back tears as I admired the soft folds of plaster skin that formed the eyelids, the waxy arms and legs. A sign underneath the case said something about third trimester abortions, how this twenty-eight week old baby would classify as a third trimester fetus.

The baby looked so real, so alive. I could almost see the thin arms moving in the amniotic sac; I could imagine the strong kicks against the mother’s belly.

I have always been in awe of the complexity of human life, our changes and growths, how a fetus can develop different senses in the womb, responding to stimuli before birth, or acquiring sensitivities to different tastes in the amniotic sac: sweet, bitter, salty, sour.[1] It has always amazed me that even a sense of hearing is developed prenatally; I remember talking to my baby sister, leaning against my mother’s stomach, hoping in a kindergartner sort of way that I would hear something back. My mother talked to the baby too. She believed, like most mothers, that her unborn child would recognize the tone and inflections of her voice. When I held my sister just hours after birth, and she smiled at me when I spoke, I felt that smile was a recognition. She had remembered me.

Standing in front of that glass case at the Body Worlds exhibit brought me back to my four-and-a-half-year-old hand on my mother’s stomach, feeling each kick. It brought me to hours after my sister’s birth, holding her like a sleeping puppy in my arms. It brought me to months later, watching as she underwent rapid changes—learning to hold her head upright, move her arms and legs, scoot herself across the floor, babble and coo. I watched this growth intently. It was her arms and legs first, extremities sprouting to lengths disproportionate to the rest of her body. Then it was crying and laughing melting into words, and floor-shuffling becoming crawling, then walking—and everything happening simultaneously—a structured sort of chaos.

 

There was a small period in my elementary school life when I wanted to be a doctor, one that took care of mothers and small babies. I think this was a result of the spinach spoon-feeding I assisted my mother with, and at age five, being too young to change diapers and thus not experiencing the true horror of it all. Though profound, the career path was short-lived, as I realized I was terrified of needles and all too sensitive to be able to hold back tears when seeing someone in pain.

My sister grew to be a lot tougher than me. When she was six or seven, I held her tiny hand in mine as the doctor inserted a numbing agent into her ripped-open chin; she had slipped on the edge of an indoor swimming pool. While she sat stone-faced in the doctor’s chair, I, eleven or twelve years old, cried enough tears for the both of us.

My sister is both beautiful and tough. She has always reminded me of a butterfly, delicate-winged but resilient. As a baby, she was the perfect caterpillar. Each scuttling movement across the kitchen floor was worm-like; she would inch forward with determination, every day one scoot closer to crawling. And like the newly-hatched caterpillar larva with its disproportionately large head and few bristles of hair, she looked like most babies, half-bald and big-headed.[2]

A caterpillar develops a unique set of color patterns, hair, spine, and fleshy filaments, becoming unique and differing from its appearance at birth. This was my sister with her tiny upturned nose, oval brown eyes, and little high-pitched giggle. Where I had inherited my mother’s curly, dark brown mess of hair, my sister’s was straight and golden. Where I had been given my father’s strong, short legs, my sister’s were feminine and long.

As humans grow, we undergo rapid changes, physically, mentally, linguistically, and emotionally. We become different and unique. We develop tiny toe nails and crescent-moon smiles. At eight weeks we are the size of a raspberry. At week twenty-eight, like the Body Worlds baby, we are the size of an eggplant—very much alive.[3]

A human develops immensely, yet even in this, we are so dependent on the world. Like caterpillars, we rely on our surroundings. We need security, stability as if to counterbalance to the turbulent growth inside of us. But this inner chaos is both beautiful and makes us into beautiful beings.

 

Sometimes I want to ask my mother about this memory of us reading. If I close my eyes, I can feel the stiff linen of the pillow, the warmth of my mother’s body next to mine. I remember reading about caterpillars, how they grow from the thick shell of an egg, like my sister inside my mother, only a faint idea to me at the time.

I want to ask my mother if she remembers this book, if I really did point to the caterpillar and then at my future sister, as if to give her wings to grow into. As if to command her into existence. As if to predict who she would become—beautiful, resilient.

 

 

 

 

To read the pdf version and see a complete list of sources, click here.

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sisters laying down on the floor together

Pupa and Puberty: Understanding the Chrysalis Stage

Growing up sucks. There’s really no lighter way to put it. Take a typical girl for instance: as she moves into young adulthood, or the ‘pre-teen/teenage’ years, she not only deals with the development of breasts and hips, but also a suddenly-increased sexual drive (aka. noticing hot guys for the first time), a rush of emotions (bawling her eyes out over an 8/10 on a homework assignment), height and weight fluctuations (suddenly gaining excessive amounts of weight and not fitting into favorite jeans and/or sprouting ten-foot-long legs), pimples (don’t get me started with those)… and the list continues.

What’s fascinating about this stage of development, however, is that even with all the internal and external chaos, this girl will somehow become beautiful (or beautifully awkward in my case). She’ll be like a butterfly, for example. In the pupa stage, the insect is housed by a protected chrysalis that from the outside appears unmoving, but inside, is crazy with changes. There are shifts and growths that make the once-caterpillar into a completely different creature. And this isn’t an easy process by any means. But when the insect finally emerges, it’s fascinating. This is how us humans are—drastic hormonal, biological, physical, sexual, and emotional changes under the protected, yet vulnerable stage of adolescence that eventually leads to us becoming fascinating, individual adults.

The word ‘puberty,’ for me, is one of those turn-off words. When I read it on a page, it makes me squeamish. But that’s just because I know it has to do with the horrible time in my life—middle school and early high school. Yes, from sixth grade until ninth grade, I was a whopping 4’11”, one of the shortest girls in my class. I was at least a head or two underneath everyone else, and if that wasn’t bad enough, my height-challenged awkwardness, accompanied with my newly-budding curves and breasts, made me into a stout, lumpy, square-shaped box. In not-so-nice-words: fat. It wasn’t until my freshman year that I actually grew (or at least saw the positive results of a growth spurt). I gained a few inches to get to my adult height of an impressive 5’5” and my body sort of molded itself into something a little less rectangular. This was my puberty experience—obviously loads of fun.

The first thing to understand about human development is that there’s a difference between puberty and adolescence. Puberty is the age of sexual maturity, whereas adolescence defines the time period—often years long—between puberty and adulthood.[1] The stage of adolescence is often referred to as the ‘chaotic stage’ of human development just because there’s so much going on in the body at once. Puberty, then, is the first phase of the chaos. It deals with the sexual development of the teenager—organs, hormones, and other rapid changes.

One of the first changes for females is the menarche, or a girl’s first period. Then there are physical changes, like the growing and widening of the forehead, mouth, hips, and lips. There is also the influx of hormones and opening of sweat glands on a girl’s face—thus causing the dreaded acne. And if all this wasn’t bad enough, there’s the lengthening and expansion of the stomach…which explains why teenagers eat so much and tend to put on some extra pounds. It also explains my chubby waistline—a totally unfair addition of hormones to an already short thirteen-year-old.

There are also changes in energy, heart rate, and glands. Energy increases, sweat glands get excessive (explaining nerves and sweaty movie-theater-date hands), and the heart grows rapidly, to the point where it is bigger than the blood vessels that pump blood in and out.[2] The increase in energy and the enlarged heart supposedly work to counterbalance the increase in puberal fat and the enlarged appetite—too bad that didn’t work in my favor. But all in all, one of the craziest and most noticeable changes of puberty, (and for me, the change that took forever) is the growth spurt. A teenager gains height through bones growing and hardening—a process called ossification. During ossification, or mineralization as it is also called, “mineral salts…are deposited in the cartilage” which causes the bones to harden and increase in size and shape, forming into mature, adult bones.2  It’s ossification that allows a teenager to grow out of weaker childhood bones and have an increase in mobility and strength; its ossification in my early high school years that finally allowed me to be a decent athlete.

Though this growth spurt occurs over a longer period of time and doesn’t appear to be as ‘chaotic,’ it is the most altering change, and strangely, happens almost invisibly. It isn’t apparent to the human eye; it is noticed only after, not during. In this way, the adolescent stage of development is similar to the butterfly pupa, or chrysalis stage of a butterfly in how the changes occur within the protected cocoon—unable to be directly observed.

During the chrysalis stage, a butterfly pupa appears to be unmoving. The insect will enter into what seems to be a safe area and will fasten itself to the branch, leaf, etc. for support. Then, once attached to a branch, wrapped up all mummy-like to restrict physical movement, it begins its internal growth process, which starts with the larval skin. A new larval skin replaces the old, along with an entirely new arrangement of cells.  The larval structures will also break down and disappear, creating new adult-like organs in their place.  Butterfly sex organs will grow, thoracic tissue buds form into wings, and in place of leaf-nibbling jaws, adult mouthparts form.3 The pupa will also develop unique characteristics. Some pupae are plain or dull-colored while others “have elaborately sculptured shapes or long spiny or knobby projections.”[3]  This is much like a human in adolescence—a human develops sexual organs, hormones, unique facial features, limbs of an adult, etc.  And, just like a human, despite the fact that the insect doesn’t appear to be growing to the naked eye, internally, it is drastically changing.

The word ‘pupa’ is a Latin word that means ‘doll’, which, when I think of the word ‘doll,’ I think of vulnerability. 3 In the chrysalis stage, a butterfly is protected by its cocoon, yet it is still subject to the weather, the environment, and predators. In this same way, an adolescent is vulnerable. Because of the influx of hormones, physical changes, social changes, and emotional changes, the teenager is more susceptible to peer conflict, self-image issues, peer influence, and risky behavior, just to name a few. However, in the way that a butterfly is protected by the chrysalis, a teenager is protected by parents, school systems, or justice systems.

Pupa and puberty. It is easy to see how they are interrelated. The pupa is the sheltered state of the butterfly in which rapid internal growth occurs. Puberty is the beginning of adolescence, a protected stage of human development that involves many drastic hormonal, physical, biological, sexual, and emotional changes. In these developmental stages, both the insect and the human are obtaining the organs for reproduction and appendages for mobility and survival as adults—limbs and wings. The butterfly gains beautifully colored patterns; the human gets birthmarks, curly hair, curves. I might have been more of a late-bloomer, but I survived. I went through my adolescence, my chrysalis stage. I was protected. I was vulnerable. But I grew into the mold of an adult, ready for the end of adolescence, where I could finally (don’t mind the cliché) shed my preteen skin for new wings.

 

 

To read the pdf version and see a complete list of sources, click here.

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books on a library shelf

Queuing Creativity: The Effect of Creative Writing in Secondary Classrooms

English and Reading are two of the most essential content areas of education, simply because they are prevalent in almost every college major and occupation. As a future teacher, I am interested in the way that these two disciplines would intersect, whether through strategies, practices, or classroom activities/assignments. What I realized through my Teaching Reading 5-12 textbook, The Reading/Writing Connection: Strategies for Teaching and Learning in the Secondary Classroom, and other resources, is that there is much connection between the two; in fact, I would say that intersecting the two disciplines is essential for any successful classroom curriculum.

In my future, I plan to teach both Secondary English and Secondary Reading. Both of these content areas involve literacy—one of the biggest issues in today’s education world because students are steadily falling behind on literacy rates and struggling with their reading levels. Something that I’ve learned through my research for this class is that strategies that intermix both reading and English—particularly creative writing strategies—are what will merge any gaps between reading and English, help with falling literacy rates, and enhance my classroom, whether a secondary English classroom, or more relevantly, a secondary reading classroom.

Being a Creative Writing major, I’m always interested in ways that I can bring this subject area into the classroom, whether through strategies, activities, homework assignments, projects, ways to approach reading and writing material, etc. With my fall clinical placement in Mason City High School, I encouraged creative writing, bringing activities such as a ‘Tuesdays with Morrie Teacher/Influential Poem Project’ into the curriculum. I wanted to use creative writing as a means of reaching the students both directly and indirectly. By having them write a personal poem they were not only proving their understanding of the text Tuesdays with Morrie (a direct/explicit connection to the text), but they were also engaging with the content in a way that connected to their personal lives (indirect connection). It was the strategy of the creative writing—self/narrative writing specifically—that allowed the students to have that deeper, more personal connection.

In every aspect of a secondary reading/English classroom, creative writing is relevant. In preparing for my clinicals, one of the biggest resources I referenced was the National Writing Project website, which in its ‘Who We Are’ section states that it is a network of websites “anchored at colleges and universities and serving teachers across disciplines and at all levels, early childhood through university” (NWP, 2014). The National Writing Project focuses on the importance of writing in the classroom—writing, a necessary component of education within itself, but also necessary for literacy. As a part of their mission, the main page states:

Writing is essential to communication, learning, and citizenship. It is the currency of the new workplace and global economy. Writing helps us convey ideas, solve problems, and understand our changing world. Writing is a bridge to the future (NWP, 2014).

This paragraph perfectly explains the importance and relevance of writing. It is not only a major aspect of the secondary classroom, but also the workplace and outside world. Because of writing’s importance for literacy, communication, and problem-solving, I believe that strategies which encourage writing and develop writing in new ways are necessary to improve student writing and reading skills.

In an article under the ‘National Programs’ tab of the NWP website, teacher Andrea Heckner explains her implementation of creative writing strategies in her struggling classroom. She was a newly hired teacher at a large urban high school; upon entering the classroom, she was faced with ‘worn-out’ textbooks and ‘no books, curriculum or resources to use’ (Heckner, 2012). To start the article, she explains that early in the class she gave the students their first assignment: a persuasive paper. After explaining the guidelines and rubric twice, she was surprised to receive only blank stares. According to her students, they hadn’t been given any ‘real’ work in years—‘real’ work defined by a student as “homework of any kind, papers, and long assignments” (Heckner, 2012). In shock, Heckner decided to back the students up and get them to just explore writing and reading. The students “read autobiographies as well as excerpts from diaries, journals, and artful obituaries,” she then “talked about the need for the reader to hear the writer’s voice” (Heckner, 2012). For the students’ first assignment, she had them write creatively. Their first piece was entitled, ‘My Family’s Beginning’ and was written as a first-person, narrative, creative piece.

After the assignment, Heckner reflects:

My students began to see themselves as writers. They actually began to ask each other about their writing. They started discussions about writing…The wrote to tell their stories…We discussed point of view and credibility, had long discussions on how others might tell different versions of the same story, and how this made the perspective neither right nor wrong (Heckner, 2012).

For Heckner’s students, their success in both writing (writing an autobiography/narrative piece) and reading (reading each other’s stories, autobiographies, diaries, journals, etc.) came from the integration of creative writing strategies into the curriculum. When the students were first faced with a writing assignment, a persuasive essay, they were confused and frustrated. They hadn’t been doing ‘real’ work and were definitely opposed to the idea of writing. When Heckner brought in writing and reading through a creative lens, she was able to bridge the gap between students’ personal lives and classroom material. She was able to connect the students to content in personal ways; the creative writing aspect opened an outlet for students to write freely about themselves, then study about autobiographical/narrative writing by reading other texts and connecting it back to their own.

In a struggling classroom, where students are clearly behind on literacy and the curriculum in general, I believe that they must be reached in some way. I think that creative writing, specifically creative writing strategies, are the most successful means of increasing student interest, literacy, and learning.

In an article entitled, “Where Are We Going Next? A Conversation about Creative Writing Pedagogy (Pt. 1)” by writers/professors Cathy Day, Anna Leahy, and Stephanie Vanderslice, Cathy Day writes that “there’s a distinct polarization between the critical and the creative, and this discipline—creative writing pedagogy—sits on that divide” (Day, C., Leahy, A., & Vanderslice, S., 2011). Her opinion is backed by fellow author Stephanie Vanderslice, who says, “I would advocate for a creative writing course in the general education curriculum…in this post-information age, the ability to convey information via a compelling sense of narrative and story will be a critical skill” (Day, C., Leahy, A., & Vanderslice, S., 2011). Both of these authors advocate for creative writing strategies because these strategies create a bridge between ‘critical and creative’—the classroom content and how it can be personally applied.

The authors continue to advocate for creative writing strategies in the classroom in the remainder of this article and into Part 2. In Part 2, Leahy discusses the positives of narrative writing and feedback: it can “open up conversation and potential” (Day, C., Leahy, A., & Vanderslice, S., Sept. 2011). For a classroom, using these creative strategies can allow students to connect more deeply with one another. They can be in communication with one another about texts, about their own writing, and thus be more engaged in reading as well. Creative writing strategies also open the door to many curriculum avenues. As Day explains, creative writing can include digital writing: ‘narrative via blog, podcast, video, and website[s]’ (Day, C., Leahy, A., & Vanderslice, S., 2011). The strategies are not always pen-and-paper, but can be opened up to integrate technology and other multi-media resources, allowing students to explore reading and writing in other, and even more contemporary, ways.

In regard to literacy, creative writing strategies make a huge and positive impact. Because of the stress on academic writing in the field of education, teachers have been working to include more reading and writing into their daily curriculum. According to the Mentoring Minds website, “One of the best ways for developing student literacy is through creative writing exercises. Creative writing allows students to write on their own terms, freeing them from the pressure of accurate content and proper form” (Avirett et al., 2014). Creative writing allows students to develop their own voices and means of communication; the authors of this article argue that these strategies help students “feel a deeper connection with the practice of writing, thus providing the motivation to develop higher-level literacy skills” (Avirett et al., 2014). In other words, creative writing/creative writing strategies develop literacy in two ways: through personal identification and through practice.

In regard to personal identification, the Mentoring Minds authors argue the following:

The ability to express one’s thoughts in writing, as well as interpret the ideas of others through reading, are directly related to more fundamental thinking patterns…The aim of literacy instruction is to develop the reading and writing skills of students and at the same time develop the underlying mental processes. Therefore, teaching literacy skills is not just about instructing students in how to read and write, but rather, how to think as well (Avirett et al., 2014).

This section emphasizes the pathways between creative writing and literacy—that both the thinking process and the practice of writing creatively assist in developing literacy. Because students will be learning to write more freely and be reading more material, their literacy will develop and strengthen.

The article also discusses ways in which creative writing exercises can help students to develop writing and thinking skills. Encouraging students to free write or write from a selected prompt can help them make stronger connections between thoughts and language, which ultimately results in the strengthening of their literacy skills as well (Avirett et al., 2014). Creative writing can also be used as reflective writing, which relates to student literacy in the ways students will be both writing, then reading their own responses, others’ responses, and additional texts.

The idea of ‘creative writing’ and its strategies is broad; it encompasses a variety of ideas, from prompts to poetry, to reflections and narrative writing, and to even short-story. For a secondary reading classroom specifically, creative writing strategies can be implemented in working with any classroom textbook. For example, if the students are reading a novel for class, a creative writing activity could be having the students take on the persona of a character in the book and write several paragraphs from that character’s point of view. This is a strategy that encourages narrative/first-person writing, but through the lens of another, which also leans towards short-story writing as well.

Creativity is essential for the classroom; this is something author and high school teacher Hilve Firek writes in her article, “Creative Writing in the Social Studies Classroom: Promoting Literacy and Content Learning.” Though her article focuses on social studies as the main content area, the ideas still apply, as her classroom uses much literature and writing similar to that of a secondary reading classroom.

In her article, Firek states:

The desire to generate something new, something unique, is inherent in every human being. Most high-school students’ notebooks are filled with doodles, drawings, song lyrics, poetry, or random words that have meaning only for the writer…However, today’s test-centered curriculum tends to beat that urge to submission. As educators, we must encourage students’ creative energies and enable them to engage with content in new and stimulating ways (Firek, 2006).

She also explains that in her social studies classroom, one of the best ways to assist students in understanding the main concepts is to have them write, especially creatively. By integrating creative writing and creative writing strategies into the classroom, it helps students ‘develop important literacy skills…by see[ing] concepts in new and unique ways’ (Firek, 2006). She gives examples of creative writing strategies in her article, everything from soldier letters to their families, to song lyrics, screen plays, diary entries, poems/class poems, even political cartoons. In connecting this back to my clinical placement, I had my students create a cartoon/comic as a means of introducing them to a larger writing assignment. Getting them to make a unique and creative comic helped to bridge between their thoughts and their writing; they were also able to have a basis for their writing assignment that seemed to give them a better understanding of what was expected as well as more confidence heading into the actual writing portion.

Firek also states that writing can be both an end and a means to an end; as a ‘means to the end’ students can interact and work with their ideas and information gained from classroom/textbook content. Writing about these ideas/information, then, becomes a tool in creating something unique or gaining a deeper understanding. She quotes another teacher, Elizabeth Harris (an advanced placement high school history teacher) in her article, who says that having her students write creatively ‘necessitates thinking, reordering facts, reprocessing information, and results in retention’ (Firek, 2006).  In this way, literacy is strengthened through the students’ mental processes—reading, re-reading, organizing information, and writing creatively in a way that integrates all their learning together.

The article also talks about creative writing as a way of helping students with research. Through the lens of creativity, students can write something fun, but it can also incorporate factual information, giving their writing a historical, literal, or contextual base. With research, students will read a variety of materials and find ways to connect what they read to what they’re writing—another useful way to promote and strengthen student literacy.

In today’s educational world, students are too often bored, unengaged, or struggling with classroom content. It is important to find ways for students to connect material to their personal lives, but the means of doing this is often difficult. In my personal clinical experience this semester, and in the research I’ve studied and gathered for this paper, I’ve realized the importance of creative writing strategies as unique and useful ways to connect students to classroom content and promote literacy. I think that in a secondary English, and especially secondary reading classroom, these creative writing strategies can help students to reflect on classroom material, read one another’s work and outside texts, develop writing of their own, and make deeper connections between their thoughts and classroom novels/textbooks/resources. Through the integration of creative strategies, students can be encouraged to relate to the material personally; most importantly, their literacy will be strengthened, which is the ultimate goal of any secondary English and reading teacher.

 

 

For the pdf version of the paper and a list of complete sources, click here.

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Featured Image Credit: Jessica Ruscello