Archive for the ‘BW and classical writing’ Category

BW and Classical Writing (Part Four)

Sunday, March 19th, 2006

Learning in the 21st Century: our natural environment

I’ve written and rewritten this blog entry. I’ve decided to share what I have and then we can discuss it together.

Sometimes when I read discussions related to a classical education or Charlotte Mason or any other form of educating that relies heavily on reading and writing, I find myself inwardly qualifying the advice. We live in the 21st century. We have the Internet. We have DVDs and DVRs, radio and cable, telephones and podcasts, digital cameras and video games, computers and ipods.

When we read the classics, we inform our minds of other modes of speech and writing that went before our time. We round out our contemporary linguistic habits with a wider vocabulary, we develop a palette of images and metaphors, myths and legends from which to draw when we write. We honor and discover people of the past and learn the ways in which we are who we are because of their contributions to literature, philosophy, history, religion and science.

These are all good and I encourage all of us to visit the library, or alternately, to buy books and strew them throughought the house, to go to Shakespeare’s plays and visit art museums, to test out Archimedes’s lever and to see the stars through a telescope for yourself. Study history chronologically if that works best for you.

In addition to all of these wonderful ways of learning, though, please don’t forget that today’s world has all kinds of resources open to you that will enhance the learning experience.

Let me share with you a few of the ways today’s resources enhance our learning experience.

Last week we purchased iLife for our Mac computers. The program includes a variety of ways to manage digital photos, to create blogs and DVDs, to set up slide shows and to create pod casts.

My 14 year old was enthralled with all the technological possibilities. Immediately, he made several slide shows to music from our trip to Italy last summer. Then he set up a blog to organize our photos and to post them for family. After that, he started playing with the pod cast software. He and Caitrin became enraptured with the idea of being radio personalities—broadcasting to family on the west coast. They developed a little show that they call “Intelligent Conversations with Caitrin and Jake.” They added music and voila! A way to communicate that was less formal than a speech, but more formal than a phone call.

The possibilities suddenly poured in. Jacob saw that he could make a weekly pod cast that would tell something about a book or movie he had read that week. We made a list of ideas: history, science, literature, movies, music, and business. These are all subjects he enjoys. His older sister got home later that day and they set up a long interview with her. I listened as they attempted to imitate radio show hosts they’d “heard over the years” intuitively, with style and panache.

We aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the 21st century tools at our disposal. Today’s colleges expect that kids will arrive equipped to use PowerPoint (I’ve used it in half of my graduate courses), to do Internet research, and to know how to publish in Word or PDF formats, to participate in online forum discussions, to use online library reserves, and more.

Here are ways Brave Writer students incorporate writing into their technologically advanced lives:

Online Journals or blogs 
These can be used for writing about topics of interest, such as favorite movies, WWII tanks, baseball records, book reviews, history narrations, biographies and more. Invite family members to read what is posted. Instant audience.

PowerPoint
One Brave Writer family uses PowerPoint to create interesting lectures related to historical topics. The child chooses an area to research and then creates a powerpoint lecture that includes visual aids (pictures, illustrations, graphs, screen captures, movie clips). PowerPoint encourages organization, fact selection and communication skills.

PodCasts
Podcasts provide the ideal setting for oral narration. There is something about a microphone that induces even the most reluctant narrator to speak. Short of podcasting, the old fashioned tape recorder and microphone work just as well.

Internet
Make use of the Internet to supplement what you read. Look up the bio on the author, locate the country on Google Earth, and really see it in real time from a satellite over the globe. Look up the artists you enjoy and see more of their works in museums too far away to visit. Read reviews and critiques of the writers you read to get a wider perspective of the impact of their work.

Additionally, become comfortable with a modern writing sensibility. Though classic writers endure the test of time and we continue to appreciate them because of their competence, we write for a modern audience. Though we may admire Descartes and Plato, it is unlikely that their writing style in our hands is the one that will connect with today’s audience. As we groom our kids to be effective writers, we want them just as versed in modern writing as we do in classic writing. Today’s effective (read: paid) writers have mastered the kind of writing that appeals to this generation.

Don’t make the mistake of disdainful snobbery about the past versus today’s writers either. The ability to write well is important in every era. Each age demands a different kind of writing style to best communicate with its audience. Today, there is a wider range of writing styles to explore than ever. So don’t feel that one is better and another inferior. Rather, learn to write to suit your audience.

Today’s popular writing has become more punchy, more visceral than yester-year’s. Popular writers have to compete with the world of the visual. Images are everywhere demanding our attention, invading our mental space. Dicken’s purple patches of prose are no longer necessary in the world of cable television and big screen movies.

To hold the attention of their easily distracted audiences, today’s writers reach readers through meter (the pacing of the piece – sentence variety), through surprise (the ability to wake up the reader with novelty and humor), through power (the argument must be sophisticated and cogent, not just polemical), through analogy (drawing on the huge resevoir of cultural concepts and news events, legends and histories, myths and religious icons, sports and celebrity, to relate the new to the familiar or vice versa).

Those raised with classical literature, with art and music, with mythology and history have a much wider base to draw from when they write and think. But all of that wonderful exposure must be updated to relate to a world that has gone utterly technological and multinational. So make use of these powerful tools. If you don’t know how to use them yourself, not to worry. Buy the software and turn your kids loose. They’ll be happy to teach you. After all, they are native sons of this age while we are the immigrants who still speak the old language and the new one with an accent.

ETA: Facebook and Twitter are today’s online publishing tools that teens love to use to discover whether what they write triggers response from an audience.

Brave Writer and Classical Writing (Part Three)

Sunday, February 26th, 2006

How regulated writing can damage the writer.

In our previous installment, I promised to discuss how writers can be damaged by too much writing, by writing that is controlled or overly scripted. Let’s look at that now.

The premise of Brave Writer is that writing grows naturally in writers as they are allowed to develop a relationship to the page that represents their original thoughts, language and ideas. This development will be as meandering as the development of speech, but it will show growth and development nonetheless.

What happens if the process is controlled, instead? What happens when a parent believes that a child doesn’t yet have anything valuable to say and will only have something worth writing when he or she is much older, and has absorbed the forms and thoughts of classical writers or those who are mature adult authors?

Taking our discussion from the past two entries about this topic, let’s use the analogy to speech again. If we required children to speak correctly, to use proper manners, to form complete sentences, to only speak once they were able to reproduce what they heard adults say, how much joy would that child take in speaking? Speech would become a source of anxiety and potential failure rather than a vehicle for communication.

When teaching writing, we need to be attentive to the messages we send based on the program we use. Imitation of classic writers is a noble goal. I like that Charlotte Mason suggests reading these writers each day, over time, with confidence that children can understand them and learn from them. E. B. White, the great American stylist, says that we would do well to sit in a parlor with the great writers of history in order to learn their syntax and usage, their style and wit. Since they are mostly dead, reading their writing will have to suffice.

Reading great writers is key to growth in writing.

Can we then go the next step and require or suggest imitation? And at what ages?

Brave Writer offers a course called The Just So Stories that uses the principles of imitation for the writing product that results. We read four of the stories, examine them for their literary elements and techniques and then each student writes her own “Just So Story” based on the model by Rudyard Kipling. The results are delightful. So I am not at all opposed to imitation per se.

What I want to emphasize, however, is that imitation is most fruitful in a child who has already experienced freedom in writing. It is more difficult to inject voice into a regimen of imitating than it is to inject imitation of specific literary techniques into a well-developed writer’s voice.

Brave Writer starts with the child and what he or she wants to say, but we have no problem offering tantalizing exercises that use classic writers for models. What I want to avoid is drudgery – models that don’t inspire imitation, models that are too advanced for a child’s particular developmental stage or the idea that models take precedence over the individual child’s developing writing voice.

In other words, imitation ought to be a cheerful, natural time of word play – a chance to show off skills, to toy with language, to control the act of writing to approximate someone else’s style and wit. It ought not to be a time of drudgery where the student’s original writing voice is discredited, overridden, or judged as inferior to the model. It shouldn’t be a time of technical accuracy as much as joyful appropriation.

I like to call this kind of writing “stealing.” Steal the good stuff from those who are better at writing than you are. Hi-jack their literary elements and manipulate those elements so that they dress up your writing, not so that you relinquish control over your voice for the sake of sounding like someone else.

Let me give you an example of how this works.

Lots of kids know advertizing syntax backwards and forwards. Give them a product, they’ll give you a jingle. If asked to write ad copy for a bicycle or a teddy bear, they can do it with alarming competence (no need to teach the elements of advertizing – they know them from repeated exposure). What they express sounds like the ads you hear on radio or TV.

So if we want our kids to learn argument, we need to read, read, read arugment. We explain how argument works, we deconstruct argument in the writings of great writers and we allow our kids to play with argument – perhaps starting with silly arguments they care about (why kids should not have to do chores, or why a child deserves to his own bedroom). The forms of expository writing (such as persuasive, compare and contrast, informative and so on) take time to absorb and are not appropriate for kids under 13 (in my humble opinion). Rhetorical thinking is developed in the teen years. Children under 13 can be expected to cite reasons for what they believe or feel, but that is not the same as argument (which requires an ability to nuance positions by evaluating sources and so forth).

To sum up: writing programs that marshall a child’s writing efforts into preconcceived writing formats at a young age stifle the important development of writer’s voice and can ironically strip a child of joy in the process. The ownership of the writing product is inadvertently stolen from the writer and is instead assigned to the model. Children learn then that writing is not about what they want to say, but guessing and working hard to figure out what they are supposed to say.

Over time, this experience can become tedious and even painful. Some children lose heart completely. I’ve taught many students who have come to me as teens who have never known that writing is related to them and their ideas in any way. It is a shock to their systems to realize that I am interested in their thoughts in their own words. And that moment is usually the beginning of recovery of voice.

The next installment will be about how to create a context for natural writing within the context of classical education.

BW and Classical Writing (Part Two)

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2006

So I wrote a lengthy treatment of this subject and gave it to my husband to read on Monday night. He read it. Silently. (Not a good sign) He handed my computer back to me.

“Julie, what do you really want to say? This sounds like a paper for grad school.”

And of course, it was written like one too. You see, the thing is, I know that Brave Writer gets charged with being “creative” or “unschooly” or somehow not disciplined. I had one mom email me saying, “Once I’ve done Brave Writer with my kids, what can I do to teach my kids real writing?” What the heck? I think I subconsciously wanted to show all of you that disciplined academic style writing is the goal of my program and it is also the natural fruit.

My favorite kind of writing (I know I sound insane when I say it) is academic writing. And I’m good at it. I love the strict nature of the structure, the importance of the positions being argued and the power of doing it well enough to persuade or change a reader. So if you are under the misimpression that academic writing is not the goal of Brave Writer, I want to correct that now. It is my goal for all my students. But it is not the primary goal.

Let’s look at the foundation of what writing really ought to be.
Writing is about writers, first. It is about identifying what you want to say and then finding the right vehicle for saying it. So the question is: how do we get there? And that’s where programs offer you a variety of philosophies to consider. Let’s look at BW again and see how it helps your writers do just that.

Brave Writer is not primarily about teaching kids to be creative (as in writing silly stories or personal anecdotes or fiction). It is not a program that is designed for lazy moms or those who want to avoid doing the hard work of writing instruction. Rather, Brave Writer promotes a lifestyle (habit) and a practice (discipline) that leads to effective, original, thoughtful writing that sounds like the writer and reflects the original and unique contribution that writer wants to make to the topic.

Classical writing programs often begin with imitation of great writers and a practice that focuses on getting it right – right format, right style, right grammar, right mechanics, right argument structure, right ideas, right discipline. The goal (to have an intelligent, competent writer by college) is the same one I have for my kids and my students. It’s just that we get there differently.

Brave Writer doesn’t start with imitation or with the topic of writing at all. It starts with a person – the writer. Let me show you how it’s done by comparing it to another process you know well: speaking.

Speak up!
When your kids were less than a year old, you talked with them all the time, even though they couldn’t talk back. Some time around a year to 18 mos, your little darling uttered her first word. In my family, our son Noah pointed and said “Nana” indicating that he wanted a banana. I immediately shrieked “Jon, get here quick. Noah is brilliant!” I then coaxed Noah to say “nana” again so that Jon would see how good his genes were. After handing Noah the banana he wanted, I ran to the baby book and wrote down the date and the word “nana.”

Here is what I did not do. I did not panic and think: “Oh no. He said nana not banana. I wonder if he’ll ever learn the right word.” I didn’t stop him and say, “Now you know, Noah, the word is banana and it is a noun. You must use it in a sentence like this. If you use it correctly, I will give you a banana.”

Rather, for the next five years, our lives were filled with speaking opportunities. We talked with him every day, we giggled over his mispronunciations and put them in the baby book, we helped him when he got stuck and couldn’t think of a word, we listened to his rambling stories and experiences waiting for him to find vocabulary or sort out the details.

At age five, when his fluency kicked in, we did not suddenly impose structures on his speech. He didn’t have to give public addresses, act in plays, enter debates or make presentations. He was free to enjoy talking, all while we slowly introduced him to varieties of ways talking could be used. Over the next twelve years, Noah learned the following speech formats: how to chat on the phone, how to meet and greet people, how to host a party, how to act (he has done both Shakespeare and contemporary plays), how to give an oral report, he learned to recite and perform poetry and speeches, he discovered and excelled at improvisational acting, he taught others how to use computers, and he made presentations.

He could not learn these “formats” while he was still learning to become fluent in speaking. These uses of speech came after he had been sufficiently saturated in spoken language in a loving and supportive environment for years. We introduced spoken formats over time, with increasing difficulty as they became relevant to his life and capabilities.

Write it out
So let’s compare this now to writing. Did you, the first time your child misspelled a word, run to the baby book and jot down how cute it was to read “becuaz” instead of “because”? Did you delight in the fact that your daughter wrote an entire page of invented phonics to tell a story that you couldn’t read but that she could?

Probably not. There is something in us that says when it is written, it must be perfect. But let’s think about this for a moment. When does writing ever get to be about the joy of self-expression aimed at a reader? What if we focused on that written self-expression for about, say, four or five years? We could start at age 7 or 8, and let them narrate while we jot things down for them. We could watch them transition to writing some of it themselves (in all its glorious inaccuracy and fumbled attempts at punctuation) while they are 9-10… maybe even 11.

At the same time, we immerse them in language. We read, we copy, we dictate passages to transcribe. We watch Shakespeare and read Chaucer. We recite poetry and we tell jokes. We watch sitcoms and movies. We write down what they think of all these things. Or they write it. Or we do it together, modeling how to access that language that is growing inside. We show how to put in periods and commas, how to figure out spellings when not sure, how to use Spell and Grammar Check, how to revise our work so that it is better than it was on the first pass, how to upgrade word choices and images to convey meaning. We do all of these things, together, at the table as we make time for it.

By about age 13, then, your writer will likely be fluent at written self-expression. He or she will feel comfortable on the page – it will be a true reflection of that person’s voice and insights, ideas and thoughts, images, and metaphors. These will be growing naturally in your writer over all those years together writing, reading, and talking.

When you hit those high school years, then, it is time for formats and that’s when we move out of the more freewheeling style of writing and learn how to discipline it to satisfy the demands of an academic community. Let me tell you – kids who have been active online (writing) and who grow up in the Brave Writer style of language arts development make this transition seamlessly. They are my best writers, bar none. They may not always be the best mechanically (at first). But they have so much to say, so many words to draw on, so many ideas and insights… and they brim with confidence.

Kids who come to me who have been “well-taught” (grammar, mechanics, formats) often can put together good copy (as in following the structural directions), but there is little imagination. I don’t mean imagination as in fiction. I mean the ability to think and reason creatively, persuasively, with insight.

The other bug-a-boo is that a regimented program often dulls the child’s natural writing voice and interest in writing. As long as writing is external to the child’s inner life (is about fulfilling requirements for someone else), the writer suffers. I will talk more about how that happens and why tomorrow.

(I’ve turned on comments if you’d like to talk about this entry or have any questions.)

Brave Writer and Classical Writing (Part One)

Thursday, February 16th, 2006

Setting the Stage for Classical Education in a Brave Writer home

With the rise of The Well Trained Mind, homeschoolers are suddenly aware of significant gaps in their own educations. Most of us don’t remember learning the Greek myths, haven’t read The Illiad or The Odyssey, remember very little of our western civ coursework from college and feel that any expository writing we did in college was more of a lick and a prayer than serious argument.

Adults are drawn to the classical education model like Martha Stewart to a “good thing.” We see what we haven’t learned and are in awe of the opportunity to learn it now, with our kids, hoping they will be the intellectual competents that we fear we are not.

Great goal.

Love the four year history rotation, love the integration of the sciences into history, love reading classical literature, love the classical argument models, love the immersion in myth and legend and tale and epic poem that is classical education.

Kids deserve to be expanded by great literature, myth, epic poetry, legend, artwork, history, scientific discovery, the stars, mathematics as a language (not just as a workbook), Shakespeare, theater, music, dance, and languages. These sources provide rich material for imagination, vocabulary, and inner life. Such inner lives naturally spill over into writing with content and texture.

Each stage of development (grammar, logic and rhetoric) offers new levels of personal expression and connection to these living source materials. Conversations, drawings, written narrations, transcription of great writing, mini dramas acted out, imitation, and metaphorical thinking (where one connects the past to present experience in a meaningful way) all give the ideas dimension and relevance to the student.

So how does Brave Writer fit into this style of education? I love to say that joy is the best teacher. A happy mother makes a better home educator. The happiness must come from within, not from compliant children. So we begin with you. Begin the adventure of a classical education because you want one, not because your children should have one. You’ll need staying power to carry this course through. Your enjoyment of the lifestyle of classical education must be the fuel in your homeschool engine.

If a classical education model is what excites you, live it first, in front of your children. Read the classics (alone first, or a children’s version aloud). Get some commentaries to help you. You might start with Greek myths (they are so captivating and prevalent, you will find lots of reinforcement in art and literature to help you learn the myths and Gods that go with them).

If you are new to epic poetry, pick out something like Beowulf, narrated by Seamus Heaney on CD and play it over breakfast, a little bit each day. Listen to the story and draw pictures of Grendel. Keep a little lexicon of terms that you define as you discover them. Play with them in sentences over breakfast when your listening is done.

If your kids are writers (9-10 or older), you can use a Friday freewrite to write what you think will happen next, or to write a new ending, or to think about what Grendel may have felt in those last moments. (For those who don’t know, there is a book called Grendel that was written just for that purpose. You might check that out and compare it to your own speculations.)

You might use the Friday freewrite to write a new myth or to create a Greek god (what god do you think the Greeks lacked and why?). Reinforce what you are learning not just through rote repetition, but using your imagination to make connections to our time, to our understandings.

Certainly any child who plays online games will make scores of connections since these games are rife with references to the ancient world in particular. Look up the names of characters and discover a pantheon of Egyptian and Phonecian gods that are hidden within the games.

Oral narration is key to a classical education because the ideas are unfamiliar and the vocabulary is often challenging. So talk over tea and in the car and over dinner. Take your time and keep the experience relevant to kids (don’t rely only on your sense that the material is important to “get them” to do their work). Our family spent two years solid on Ancient Greece, with our major concentration on Greek mythology. My kids know their myths backwards and forwards because they love them, not because they had to learn them.

Eventually this immersion in myths led to a fascination with epic poems, such as Gilgamesh. The results in our home: My daughter wrote her own Greek myth modeled after the ones she loved and my son wrote a screenplay for the story of Gilgamesh. These were not assignments, but spilled out of long term incubation and saturation with the material.

I’ll continue this series on classical education and Brave Writer next week.