Saturday, July 4, 2009

Snakes in Ireland -- or teaching composition

I am presently planning my English course outline for my 8th grader, so I searched throughout Charlotte Mason's volumes: Home Education, School Education, and Philosophy of Education, using the term "composition", to try to get an overview of how she thought writing should be taught. It's funny, because it's not that different from the way writing evolved in our home. I put all the bits I could find in a Google Doc: Charlotte Mason on Composition.

Here are a few bits -- sorry about the long quotes -- I am putting together this outline in order to prepare for teaching my 13 year old, so I took out the bits related to older and younger children. But they are in the document linked above if you are interested.

First of all, this following quote is in the book for children under nine, but it sums up pithily what I want to remember, so here:

Lessons on 'composition' should follow the model of that famous essay on "Snakes in Ireland"––"There are none."
Now here's the long version:

From School Education (talking about children in Form II, about ages 9 to 12)

Children in this Form have a wider range of reading, a more fertile field of thought, and more delightful subjects for composition. They write their little essays themselves, and as for the accuracy of their knowledge and justice of their expression, why, 'still the wonder grows.'
  • They will describe their favourite scene from The Tempest or Woodstock.
  • They write or 'tell' stories from work set in Plutarch or Shakespeare or tell of the events of the day.
  • They narrate from English, French and General History, from the Old and the New Testament, from Stories from the History of Rome, from Bulfinch's Age of Fable, from, for example, Goldsmith's or Wordsworth's poems, from The Heroes Of Asgard:

.. in fact, Composition is not an adjunct but an integral part of their education in every subject. The exercise affords very great pleasure to children, perhaps we all like to tell what we know, and in proportion as their composition is entirely artless, it is in the same degree artistic and any child is apt to produce a style to be envied for its vigour and grace.

But let me again say there must be no attempt to teach composition. Our failure as teachers is that we place too little dependence on the intellectual power of our scholars, and as they are modest little souls what the teacher kindly volunteers to do for them, they feel that they cannot do for themselves.

But give them a fair field and no favour and they will describe their favourite scene from the play they have read, and much besides.

Now, for Forms III and IV (I guess ages 13 to 15)
In these Forms as in I and II what called 'composition' is an inevitable consequence of a free yet exact use of books and
  • requires no special attention until the pupil is old enough to take of his own accord a critical interest in the use of words.
  • The measured cadences of verse are as pleasing to children as to their elders. Many children write verse as readily as prose, and the conciseness and power of bringing their subject matter to a point which this form of composition requires affords valuable mental training. One thing must be borne in mind. Exercises in scansion are as necessary in English as in Latin verse. Rhythm and accent on the other hand take care of themselves in proportion as a child is accustomed to read poetry.
  • In III and IV as in the earlier Forms, the matter of their reading during the term, topics of the day, and the passing of the Seasons, afford innumerable subjects for short essays or short sets of verses of a more abstract nature in IV than in III: the point to be considered is that the subject be one on which, to quote again Jane Austen's expression, the imagination of the children has been 'warmed.'
  • They should be asked to write upon subjects which have interested them keenly. Then when the terminal examination comes they will respond to such a question as,––"Write twelve lines (which must scan) on 'Sir Henry Lee,' or 'Cordelia,' or Pericles, or Livingstone," or, to take a question from the early days of the War, "Discuss Lord Derby's Scheme. How is it working?"; or, (IV) an essay on "The new army in the making, shewing what some of the difficulties have been and what has been achieved."
Some examples of composition exercises are listed in School Education (either in exams, or in normal course work) -- here's one:

Read on Thursdays and write from memory on Tuesdays (a) a passage from Ecce Homo, Ecce Rex, Part II., chapters ii. and iit, by Mrs R. Charles (S.P.C.K., 3S. 6d.); (b) Amold-Forster's History of England, chapter Ixxvii.

And finally, here is a bit from School Education which talks about some of the ways a student can narrate either orally or in written form.

There is much difference between intelligent reading, which the pupil should do in silence, and a mere parrot-like cramming up of contents; and it is not a bad test of education to be able to give the points of a description, the sequence of a series of incidents, the links in a chain of argument, correctly, after a single careful reading. This is a power which a barrister, a publisher, a scholar, labours to acquire; and it is a power which children can acquire with great ease, and once acquired, the gulf is bridged which divides the reading from the non-reading community.

But this is only one way to use books: others are to enumerate the statements in a given paragraph or chapter; to analyse a chapter, to divide it into paragraphs under proper headings, to tabulate and classify series; to trace cause to consequence and consequence to cause; to discern character and perceive how character and circumstance interact; to get lessons of life and conduct, or the living knowledge which makes for science, out of books; all this is possible for school boys and girls, and until they have begun to use books for themselves in such ways, they can hardly be said to have begun their education.

As for the teacher, Charlotte Mason thought that the main danger is OVER-teaching. She mentions in several places throughout her books that if children learn to rely on the teacher either predigesting the material for the students, or giving them point by point directions on how to write, or point by point corrections, they will learn to depend on the teacher for this. Avoiding over-teaching ISN'T, in her view a matter of standing back passively, but of avoiding being a crutch for the child's mental processes.

But here are some things a teacher CAN do.

The teacher's part is, in the first place, to see what is to be done, to look over the of the day in advance and see what mental discipline, as well as what vital knowledge, this and that lesson afford; and then to set such questions and such tasks as shall give full scope to his pupils' mental activity. Let marginal notes be freely made, as neatly and beautifully as may be, for books should be handled with reverence. Let numbers, letters, underlining be used to help the eye and to save the needless fag of writing abstracts. Let the pupil write for himself half a dozen questions which cover the passage studied; he need not write the answers if he be taught that the mind can know nothing but what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put by the mind to itself.
So this gives a fair cross-section of the sort of thing I will probably be trying to foster or encourage this year. It may not come across in these particular selections of CM's thoughts, but she thought that composition should be done across the curriculum, just not taught in great detail. Last year, I found this online book called The Mother Tongue III -- Elements in Composition -- which seemed to be compatible with CM's approach. But I am very much afraid I can't read a composition book, no matter how "humane" and high quality, without getting a sort of sick feeling. So all my children have sort of been "scrambled up" in the matter of writing and they've all become decent writers -- go figure.

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