Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

A Living Book on Writing

Dear Reader,

Writing seems to be one of the subjects which sends homeschoolers of all stripes into fits.  I’m not sure if it actually is tough to teach, but we all seem to think it is.  When I read through Charlotte Mason message boards, it seems like one area in which we are all tempted to abandon Charlotte’s principles and use some sort of prepackaged curriculum. So what if there were a living book that taught writing? How great would that be? I think I have found just such a book.

I obtained On the Writing of English by George Townsend Warner when it was the free book of the day on Forgotten Books. Though it may not be free today, you can still get the book on their website in various digital formats (I get nothing for promoting them, I promise; I’ve just fallen in love with the site).

Warner’s book was written in the early 1900s and is addressed to the student who is called upon to write essays. I found this book highly readable. It’s language is simple and conversational, its tips relevant, and its tone often humorous.   The goal of this book, as Warner states it, is to teach the student “to think, and to write down his thoughts in good English; that is all” (pp. 1-2). Along the way he covers “the way to gather and sort material . . .[and] the commonest pitfalls which lie in wait for the beginner” (p. 2).

This approach taken by Warner is not that of a highly structured 5-paragraph essay. That is a good thing in my opinion. He discusses sentences and paragraphs and always having a topic sentence, but he also encourages variety in the structure and wording of one’s essay. Frankly, I find it a refreshing alternative to a lot of the rigid curricula which are out there. He says, for example:

“Variety in the shape of sentence is needful; so is variety in words when you can get it. But never shrink from using the same word over and over again when it is the right word.” (p. 55)

And regarding adjectives, he says:

“Some beginners usher in every noun with an adjective clinging to it, like the men and women going down arm-in-arm to dinner.” (p. 72)

Warner instead urges caution with adjectives which I find a refreshing change from some of the curricula out there which require certain numbers of adjectives and the like.

On the Writing of English may not be for everyone. It is not a curriculum as such but a handbook on writing. I happen to think that a child who has been reared on living books could go through this volume a time or two and end up quite a good writer. I plan to test this theory on my own kids so I can let you know how it goes. Though so far I have only read it myself and not handed it over to them, this is definitely on my “highly recommended” list.



Some Thoughts on Memorywork and Grammar

Dear Reader,

I return once again to Anthony Esolen’s book Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. You can read my review of it here. Though I wasn’t thrilled by the book, it made me think. Not to surprisingly in a work on imagination (or the lack thereof) in children, Esolen gives us some insight into his take on education. Though he does not profess allegiance to one particular philosophy of education, he seems to me to fall in the classical education camp. Though my own approach tends to follow along the lines of a Charlotte Mason education, I was intrigued by some of what he had to say.

Esolen is a fan of memorywork, not for the sake of rote learning, but as a means to further innovation and inspiration. He says:

” . . . a developed memory is a wondrous and terrible storehouse of things seen and heard and done. It can do what no mere search engine on the internet can do. It can call up apparently unrelated things at once molding them into a whole impression, a new thought.” (p. 9)

It is the first part of this that makes me think Esolen might fall into the classical camp with its division of education into stages– first the grammar stage with its memorization and then later logic and rhetoric. This has never appealed to me. But I rather like the picture painted by the second and third sentences of how those seeds come together to form new ideas. Combining disparate threads into something new seems like a wonderful outcome of an education to me. To support his view, Esolen also references the ancient Greeks who said that the Muses, those bearers of inspiration in all the arts, were the daughters of Memory. What a lovely connection that is. Esolen goes on to clarify that it is not merely a matter of memorizing anything that is available. The subject of memorization must be valuable or worthy (note that the whole tone of the book is tongue-in-cheek; therefore Esolen speaks as if he is advocating the killing of the imagination and his advice here has that goal in mind):

“We can encourage laziness. by never insisting that young people actually master, for example, the rules of multiplication, or the location of cities and rivers and lakes on the globe. Then we can allow what is left of the memory to be filled with trash . . . Therefore, for children, books with silly, flat, banal language is best.” (p. 14)

Esolen moves on to discuss other areas of education, among them grammar. His advice here (and remember he speaks as if the goal is to stifle imagination) is to not teach grammar or, if one must, to only pretend to teach it. I really wish he had expanded upon what he means by this. It seems that much of what he would he would term “pretending to teach grammar.” But I am not sure I understand what it would look like to really teach grammar. From what I can gather, the pretending looks like learning a lot of disjointed, picky rules.

I have noticed in my own homeschooling that what we teach often does not seem to match the kind of writing we find in great books. For example, we tell children to use lots of good descriptive adjectives, but the sentences they come up with are not what I would call impressive writing. They are overburdened with details when they are not necessary. Similarly, we rail against run-on sentences but as far as I can see great books are full of them. This is the example Esolen uses as well. He quotes a long passage from Henry Fielding and then says, “But teachers will undoubtedly call that carefully structured sentence, building to its absurd climax, a run-on, because it happens to be long” (p. 19). But what can we do to teach children to write well other than expose them to great writing? Esolen implies there is a way, but he does not give me enough information to know what he means. Admittedly, his book is not meant to be a guide to teaching grammar.  Still, I would like to think more about this. How can we teach grammar in a way that really produces good writing? Any ideas?


What Kind of Writing Should We Teach?

Dear Reader,

I have addressed this topic before, but I had a new bit of input and so I wanted to return to it briefly. I have a friend who pooh-poohs creative writing as a fairly worthless endeavor. She does not see her children ever really needing or using it. But she does want them to be able to write well by academic standards. Her husband is a university professor, and she values the ability to write academic prose but does not see how creative writing could help at all.

My thought has been that I would much rather read academic writing if it is also readable and even approaches entertaining. Why must these two be distinct categories? I can only think that the ability to write creatively will help one in other areas as well.

I was pleasantly surprised then to read an article recently in Harvard Magazine in which the subject, a sociologist examining poverty in America, is praised by his colleagues for how interesting his academic writing is. This is a very small part of the article and really not the point of it at all, but it was nice to hear that academic writing can be interesting and that others value its being so as well. Here is what it says:

“Whether he is writing about race and poverty or about firefighting, Desmond’s prose displays a lyrical quality and keen observation.” (“Disrupted Lives” by Elizabeth Gudrais, Harvard Magazine, Jan-Feb 2014)

Matthew Desmond, the sociologist the article is about, says of his own work that he “aimed to create a ‘non-textbook textbook’.” While his main purpose seems to have been not to boil down his subject matter to a point were it oversimplified the real situation, he also says that he didn’t want to present just “a collection of bold-faced terms and facts you memorize for the midterm.”

And I think that beyond being dull, this is probably a lot of the problem with other textbooks or non-living books. They take all the life out of their subject matter and with it a lot of the truth. Because truth is often complicated and we lose something of it when we boil it down as Desmond describes.

So to return to my friend who sees no value in creative writing, I would like to say first that all writing can be benefited by elements borrowed from creative writing. There is no need for academic writing to be dull. And I think a lot of the reason we do not see this is that we no longer value living books. We live very much in a textbook world. We need to get beyond this so we can have not just better writing but more interesting, more informative and even more true writing.


Encouraging Words on Writing

Dear Reader,

I have been reading along through Charlotte Mason’s sixth book, Towards a Philosophy of Education, with the Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival. The next section is on composition, and it is just what I needed to hear. I feel like I have written and written about this subject, and if you are a regular, you are probably sick of hearing it. Though I am not really worrying about my kids’ writing skills, I have in the last week felt a little left behind as many of their good friends sign up to take a writing course with a local teacher. Now this teacher is excellent. She makes up her own curriculum and really gets kids motivated and subtly teaches them a lot. I know because my older two did a class with her for a year. But I also have to prioritize what goes in our schedule and what we spend our money on (the cost is very reasonable though). So I keep asking myself: are we doing okay on writing? Would this class really help?

In the midst of all this, it was very comforting to run across this section in Charlotte’s book which says once again that there is not so much we need to do. In Form I, which would be about ages 6-9 I believe, the children do not do composition, but rely on oral narrations. This builds their telling skills without the added burden of writing. And there is a lot involved in simply telling, like organizing one’s thoughts, remembering and sequencing events, and putting it all together into a coherent narrative. But this is all done naturally. I do believe children are natural tellers. They love to tell someone all they have seen, done, or read without any prompting. It is we who often drive that desire out of them by ignoring or silencing them.

Even when they begin to do written narrations, Charlotte urges us not to burden children with grammatical rules. But you will say, surely we at least can ask them to start sentences with capitals and end them with periods? This is pretty basic and is often the first formal bit of instruction on writing that we introduce. But even this Charlotte would hold off on:

“Children must not be teased or instructed about the use of stops or capital letters. These things too come by nature to the child who reads, and the teacher’s instructions are apt to issue in the use of a pepper box for commas.” (p. 191)

I think here we get a hint of part of the problem. Charlotte’s theory is that kids who read, and she means read good, living books, what we might call literature, will naturally develop composition skills. But how many of our kids read a quantity of such books? Charlotte does not say that they can never read poorer quality books, but only that their school books should be high quality. And of course, in a  CM education, there is quite a lot of reading to be done. So I think part of the answer for me at least is that if I am doing things as I should, and getting lots of good books in, then we shouldn’t be needing the extra classes.

My own observation, and indeed my own feelings, tell me that it is very hard to trust that the CM way of teaching writing will work. Even on Charlotte Mason-themed message boards, I see a lot of posts about which writing curriculum to use. But Charlotte did not advocate any curriculum for this. In fact, she argues specifically against doing too much in this area lest it turn the children off.

I have come across a couple of excellent posts recently which give me hope that children can learn writing the CM way. Aut-2-Be Home in Carolina writes on “Composition with an Eye toward Development.” And Higher Up and Further In tells why “You Don’t Need a Composition Program” and gives lots of specific, practical advice in “How I Raised  a Professional Writer.”


IEW and CM

Dear Reader,

Since I had talked about the institute in Excellence for Writing (IEW) in another post, I thought I should actually look at it  a little and form a more considered opinion rather than relying on just what others have told me about it. In particular, I was interested in whether this curriculum is Charlotte Mason-friendly or not.

Having poked around a little, reading many articles on their website and looking at some of the samples of their materials, I do have a more favorable opinion of IEW but I also think that it is not for us.

I like that IEW does not throw children out on their own and say “write something creative.” Instead they do basically what we have been doing, they have children base their compositions on good writing. The end result that an IEW lesson aims for is a retelling of the passage that has been read. This is narration, isn’t it? Narration, first oral and then written, is the backbone of Charlotte Mason’s writing program (if you can call it that). Thus far, IEW does seem CM-friendly.

I had some concerns about the kinds of passages that IEW uses in its lessons. This was based on the remarks of a friend who used the program for a while. But having looked at IEW’s online samples, I think I was led a bit astray in my opinion of it. I believe my friend substituted her own passages and that she did not choose what I would call living materials. Based on the few samples I can see online, it does look like the selections IEW uses are decent. The early ones appear to be essentially fables, something which we have found excellent for early narration exercises. My one complaint about their choices might be that they are all taken out of context. If one were really diligent, I suppose one could use selections from books that were being read already so that it would not feel so much like children are getting a piece here and a piece there.

Where it all starts falling apart for me is in the getting from point A to point B bit. Starting with examples of living materials is great. The end result being the child’s own retelling of those materials is also great. But how do we get there? In Charlotte Mason’s approach, the answer is really just “narration.” The specific steps are not laid out for the child. There is a progression in that they hopefully begin young and narrate simple passages orally (Aesop’s fables again are a wonderful place to start). Then as they grow, they begin to do periodic written narrations. But there are really no steps in between. You read, you narrate. The child is not told to make an outline (though this could be a kind of narration one teaches at some point) or to use certain kinds of words (eg. adverbs). They are not told how to find the key points in a passage because the whole point is that they should tell you what was key or important or interesting to them. There is a lot of trust in the CM approach in the child’s inherent abilities to find what is key to them, to organize their thoughts and to be able to give a coherent narration. Perhaps early efforts will not be so coherent but they more they do it, the more they learn.

In my estimation, both approaches are trying to get to the same place, but IEW does not trust in the child’s abilities as CM does. It does not assume that the child can discern what is important or that they can order their thoughts on their own. I can see that for someone who has not regularly included CM-style narration, that a program like IEW could be really beneficial. If the child has not had practice narrating what they have read, with all the many mental tasks that involves, then they may not take naturally to writing, and IEW could fill in skills that they have not had the chance to develop. But my own opinion is still that it would be better to just begin narration, even at a late date, and to take the time to build skills that way.


New Thoughts on Writing

Dear Reader,

This seems to be a subject I keep coming back to. I also find that it comes up in discussion with a lot of other homeschool moms. Writing is a tough subject to teach. One of the biggest hurdles is just know how much to teach it and how. Do we make them write every day? Do we concentrate on the mechanics? Do we point out every  mistake? Do we care more about building their self-esteem and confidence? Do we focus on creative writing? The list goes on and on.

I have blogged previously on our attempts this year to follow something like the progymnasmata,  a classical approach to writing. What I really have liked, and still do like about this approach, is that it teaches writing through imitation. Just as painters learn by copying the great masters, so our kids learn by copying good writing. I also like that it does not leave kids floundering in search of a topic. While what we have done (rewriting fables and narratives) is creative, it doesn’t leave all the finding of ideas up to the child; they have some direction given in the assignment itself. And my kids have responded very well to what we have done this year. In fact, my daughter asks to do it more often. My son does not, but he does put in a good effort and generates some good writing when we do it.

But I am not sure we are going to continue with the progymnasmata. Mostly I am at a loss as to what to do beyond fable and narrative. The progym calls for some forms of writing which I just don’t find that valuable. For example, one is asked to write an essay praising a famous person. It sounds very ancient Roman to me, but it just doesn’t seem like a form of writing that will be valuable to my kids.

Instead, I think I would like to take the principle behind the progym and apply it to more modern forms of writing. We can still imitate good writing, but I’d like to focus on kinds of writing that I think my kids will actually need some day. Having said which, I haven’t actually decided what those are or made a plan about how to proceed from here. I have till September at this point to think about it and I am most definitely open to ideas if you have any.

But I also wanted to say that while these kinds of writing assignments are something we do every couple of weeks or so, I do not view them as the only thing we do to build writing skills. Taking a Charlotte Mason approach to education, we do a lot of narrating. Most of what we do is oral at this point, but the children do do at least two written narrations a week. And the older two kids, at least, do a good job with it. Even oral narration requires kids to organize their thoughts and present them logically. This is a large part of the process of writing. We do some grammar and spelling as well as copywork or dictation to help with the mechanics. But I do not correct their errors in their written narrations. In fact, I usually don’t read the older kids’ but have them read them aloud to us so if there are spelling errors or the like, I don’t see them.

I have also been very encouraged lately by this article by Stephen Palmer at TJEd (see my post on TJEd here). I first ran across this article thanks to Homeschooling Middle East. The part that particularly strikes me is this:

“I’d rather have a wild stallion as a student who thinks wild and free, than a docile gelding who knows the technicalities but doesn’t know how to think.”

and this:

“Big ideas should be the pilot, technicalities the co-pilot.”

In other words, don’t worry too much about the mechanics of writing (though there is a time to polish those up), the most important thing is that kids have ideas so they have something to write about. I think Charlotte Mason would be cheering us on at this point. Her whole approach is about feeding kids with real, living materials that contain the intellectual food their minds need which is ideas. So really one of the biggest things we do to foster good writing may involve no writing at all; it is just to have them read (or read to them) good, living books. One can’t write if one has nothing to say. Ideas fill their minds, give them something intellectual to chew on. And it is only after they have been ingesting these ideas for a number of years that we can really expect them to produce some good writing of their own. So I don’t think early writing instruction can be that helpful. They need time to take in ideas first before they produce much. Of course, mechanics are still important. But if they have something to say, they will want to communicate it clearly to others and then (I hope) they will desire to learn the mechanics so that their writing can be easily understood by others.

So I think the basic outlines of my plan for the future are to continue to read and narrate from good books and to occasionally look more closely at a good piece of writing and to try to imitate it in some way. When I say this, I mean to look at one specific aspect of a piece and to focus on what makes it effective writing. An example might be a piece that switches to using short sentences when the action gets moving. We would read the piece, talk about how the author varies his sentence structure to convey action, and then have the kids try it on their own.

Those are my thoughts on writing at the moment. What are yours?