Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The 4rs -- Writing

Over here I once shared how my family approaches writing.   In thinking through it this summer, I realized that our writing program, though informal and unsystematic, was never as chaotic and incidental as it sometimes seemed at the time.   Basically, my reading children naturally started seeing themselves as writers because that was who they were hanging around in their reading.   I don't think I fully understood the importance of this.   My children were reading the writing of great authors, and they were seeing me write and read, too.   Most of them started writing stories as soon as they could write.    The later children wrote stories even BEFORE they could write -- I have stories that Aidan and Paddy dictated to me, and stories that Sean and Kieron dictated to Clare before they could even read.

Last year, my 8th grader Kieron was signed up with California's Virtual Academy which uses the K12 curriculum.   They had quite a nice language arts course that included four "strands":  grammar, vocabulary, composition and literary analysis.    The composition course covered the typical 8th grade standards (which in turn prepare for high school level standards) of:  autobiography, description, persuasive, character analysis, research, persuasion/argument and perhaps a couple more I can't think of right now.

The first one he was assigned was a personal narrative, where he had to write about some experience in his past.  This looked dull both to him and to me.  This was where I suddenly remembered something that had worked for me in junior high -- the idea of taking an experience from my past and fictionalizing it.  I suggested this to him; he loved the idea and wrote a very good story (based on an experience visiting our dark spidery basement with a friend...).

Over the course of the year we did all his composition assignments this way.  Instead of the stupid persuasive/argument assignment where you have to argue whether students should have curfews or not, he wrote about a debate in his fictional world and how it was resolved.   This way we could stick to the rubrics of the assignment (presenting both sides, coming to a reasoned conclusions, etc) without having to write about something that bored both of us.

He was inspired and actually enjoyed being challenged to focus on one aspect of his fiction rather than just writing free-flow.    And his writing improved both mechanically and in style over the course of the year.   I realized that this was not too dissimilar to the way I personally had learned to write and it was also the way Liam had approached high school composition.   He followed the progym but used his own fictional world as the basis for the assignments.   He even wrote some of the assignments in Latin : ).   He still wrote some conventional high school papers but the fictional approach let him tone up his writing and experiment with effects in an enjoyable way.

Over this summer I was rereading Robert Schwickerath's Jesuit Education and  realized that what we were doing wasn't entirely dissimilar from the Jesuit method of developing the writing and speaking voice.   In the Jesuit schools, the students carefully studied the writing of excellent stylists (usually rhetoric, but sometimes poetry as well) and then imitated them.   If you take a look here, here, and here you can see some examples of how students were taught.  They converted prose to poetry, and vice versa. 

The idea of analyzing and imitating excellent writing isn't foreign to anyone who uses a literature-based curriculum.   The epiphany was in realizing that OF COURSE, my children tended to imitate what they had read, and that narrative is the most natural literary form for younger children.   Even at the older ages, as the progym sequence makes clear, it's a central part of effective discourse.  This wasn't something to be hurried through or passed over as just "what children do naturally".  It's actually something to build on.

1 comment:

  1. I love the idea of having my daughter fictionalize her assignments, as she struggles with non-fiction writing, but writes creatively the way other people breathe. I like the idea that she could still get the benefit of the assignment (looking at both sides of the argument), but in a way that plays to her strength.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!