Teaching Writing Classically
- Friday, January 03, 2014
As a Christian, writing well is one of my greatest aspirations—it is another way I can reflect our Lord, the Word made Flesh. I am made in his image; he writes so I will write. Writing is one of the most difficult skills to acquire, as well as one of the most beneficial. It takes a lifetime to become an accomplished writer, and one never reaches perfection. There is always more to say in a better way! (Aha! A new “Leighism” for my students!)
Principle #1: You must learn your own language in order to be a better writer. The greatest joy I have received as a homeschooling parent is improvement in my own writing skills. I dragged my eldest two sons through writing lessons as I learned all that I could not do well myself, let alone teach to someone else. The Lord is good, and I stumbled onto Teaching Writing: Structure and Style from the Institute for Excellence in Writing. Finally, I could create a decent outline and name the sentence openers.
In my search for better language skills, I began to study English in earnest and to study Latin. I dug into Latin's Not so Tough! and Henle Latin and Warriner’s English Composition and Grammar and Our Mother Tongue. I quickly realized all that I should know about language but had never learned. So, because the best way to learn something is to teach yourself, I wrote my own grammar book: Essentials of the English Language. Since then I’ve learned to love books about words, such as How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish and Tracey Lee Simmons’ Climbing Parnassus. The more I love words, the more I love The Word.
My eldest two missed out on many of these recovered tools, but they continued to muddle through writing in college. They can express a good idea fairly coherently as adults, but their grammar is still atrocious. I wondered how they earned really high grades in their writing courses at college. They admit it was because they turned in the assignments on time and tried to answer the professor’s questions with the answers he or she was looking for, not because they wrote well. I wanted more for my younger sons.
Principle #2: Writing well involves forming big ideas by reading widely and wrestling those ideas into a cohesive argument. Now, my two younger boys are in high school. Unlike the older two, they have been writing papers, studying Latin, and mastering grammar their whole lives. They know it because I was learning it too. They both know what I mean when I refer to an adjective clause or a third-person singular verb.
My William struggles to organize his thoughts because he has so much to say. Recently, he was working on his first assignment for Classical Conversations Plus, where Bryan College gives college credit to juniors and seniors who are enrolled in Classical Conversations for certain coursework. I asked William about the length of his paper. He had already written five hundred words—for the first paragraph. I reminded him that the paper needed to be four to six paragraphs long with around a thousand words. He threw away what he had written and started over. Then he did the same thing again. In frustration he asked me for help: “How am I supposed to tell the story of freedom in a thousand words? I’ve no room for set-up or plot.”
So I stepped in to instruct and really help. We re-read the assignment; assessed the one hundred pages of data, stories, and analyses that he had read; and began to dialogue about the theme. We talked for about an hour and made eight or nine verbal outlines before we progressed to writing ideas down on paper. I acted as secretary while he told me his thoughts for an outline. While I led and wrote, he realized that all my examples were made up and did not actually reflect what the text had said. He released me, saying, “I think I know what to do now.”
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