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    The Progym Plan: Fable Stage

    August 16, 2012 by Brandy Vencel

    I mentioned awhile back that I planned to begin using the progym with my Year Five student. {Please note that he is advanced in writing and has done written narrations for a couple years now–I am not suggesting that a child who has never done written narrations attempt this sort of thing!} I did a lot of research; I read articles and blog posts and random online Aphthonius translations. I tried to get a sense of it all so that I could do it on my own, but I finally decided to break down and buy a copy of the teacher guide for the fable stage of Classical Composition by James Selby. I’m so glad I did because it gave me a chance to see what it might look like to actually teach the progymnasmata to an actual student.

    Teaching is 2/3 imagination, right? If we can’t visualize it, we can’t do it.

    At least, I can’t.

    Now, you have to understand that it was quite hard for me to make a purchase like this because I knew I wouldn’t want to follow the book exactly, and it was expensive. I can’t remember the last time I spent $30 on a single item for lessons. But I didn’t think I’d be able to teach this without some sort of guide that explained the day-to-day aspect, and I’m glad I did it.

    What I want to share here, though, is my plan for teaching, because it is quite different from Selby’s. This is my basic outline, and I’m holding all of this with an open hand because I know that I might find that things go other than wonderful when I put this into action.

    First, let’s talk about the progym.

    Disclaimer One: I am no expert.

    I’m going to tell you a bit of what I have learned so far, and it’s up to you to check my work. I’m just saying.

    So the entire progymnasmata is a progressive series of writing exercises, some of which correspond to the formal stages of classical rhetoric. This year, I intend to try my hand at the fable stage, and if we fly through that, then we’ll head to narrative. This post will only discuss the fable stage; I didn’t even purchase anything for narrative yet.

    Disclaimer Two: I am trying to make this as CM-styled as possible.

    That doesn’t mean I succeeded. Feel free to throw tomatoes.

    So now I’ll explain my plans.

    Ps. If you have suggestions on how to make it even more CM-friendly, I’m all ears.

    Day One

    On the first day, we will read a fable from Aesop. We will do only a single reading, and immediately afterwards, my student will give a narration. Also, I will make an attempt at Grand Conversation by having my student guess the moral of the tale, or by asking questions, especially, “Does this remind you of anything else.” As you can see, the first day is explicitly Charlotte Mason-style.

    Day Two

    On the second day, we’re going to write an outline of the story. If you are looking at Selby’s teacher guide, then you know that I’ve already departed from his sequence. I feel free to do that because {1} Selby is not my boss, and {2} I’m the teacher. Frankly, because I’m so unfamiliar with this, I feel I need to do it in a way that makes sense to me, and outlining before rewriting makes a lot of sense to me.
    On the first day, Selby has the teacher give lessons on elements of style such as Recognition, Reversal, and Suffering, and has the students identify these. But later he says that they should note it in their outline. I like to teach as organically as possible, so I’m not going to give a lesson on these things, or press my student to identify them. Instead, I’m going to tell him the official word for the thing when it pops up in his outline. {“Do you know what that’s called? That’s Reversal, where the high are brought low!”} As he learns to outline well, whatever of these elements that appear in the fable should definitely appear in his outline.
    Of course, I may come back and publicly repent of changing Selby’s order. Consider yourself warned.

    Day Three

    On the third day, then, I’m going to have my student write it shorter. I don’t notice that Selby focuses on this, but everything else I’ve read says that learning to retell in a concise manner is essential in the fable stage. My student is very wordy, so I think this might offer him the greatest assistance in his writing, at least in the short term, so I want to make sure that we touch on this each time.
    Using his outline, I think it should be fairly simple {once he gets the hang of it} to write a short, “just the facts” version of the story. The key is that he has to write it shorter than the fable itself, even if the fable is already quite short {and many of them are}.

    Day Four

    On the fourth day, he will write a variation, choosing from these options {and he can’t choose the same one two lessons in a row}:
    1. Write it longer. He will need to be creative and imagine more to the story than is there, but not in such a way that he changes the essence of the plot. He can describe a character’s body {Selby calls this Effictio}. He can describe the landscape {Geographia}. I am making the rash assumption that my student can figure this out. If not, Selby has lots of helpful description exercises to help him get started.
    2. Write it from the perspective of one of the characters in the story {sermocinatio}. Using the first person, he’ll rewrite this {and every other variation} from his outline, not the original text. This could possibly be styled as a monologue.
    3. Invert the sequence of events. This might be the hardest one, and I’ll be thankful if he saves it for last. Selby offers some handy transition sentences in order to make this happen, but I’m personally not good at telling a story out of sequence, so it could get interesting.
    4. Write the same plot, but with different characters and setting. So if there’s a grasshopper and some ants out in a field, the new version might have two very different animals, or even some humans, in a desert or at the beach or in a garden. This one sounds like fun to me.
    I might think of–or discover–more variations as time goes on, but this is the list I’m starting from.

    Day Five

    This is the last day, and we’ll edit and revise, ending with a final draft. For editing, I usually have my student read his work aloud to me. When he does this, he catches missed words, bad spelling–all sorts of errors. After that, I plan to pick a sentence or two and help him refine it by asking him some questions. Finally, he’ll rewrite it all in his best cursive.

    The Very First Week

    I’ve always thought that modeling was a superior sort of teaching, so my plan is that, for week one, I will work through this process, and he will watch. I will try to do all of my thinking aloud so that he can understand what I’m doing. By the end of the week, he should have an idea of the process and be ready to try it himself.

    Am I Glad I Purchased Selby, Since I’m Changing so Much?

    I’m adding this because it seems like an obvious question. My answer is: most definitely yes. First of all, I’m not going to pick the fables; I’m going to use Selby’s selections. At least, I am for the time being. {I’ve toyed with adding in some parables of Jesus as well.} In addition to this, I would never have been able to write up a plan like this without the guide. I was having trouble moving from theory to practice. And perhaps most importantly, I feel like I have a safety net in this book. If my student gets stuck and has trouble moving forward anywhere in the process, Selby has exercises and ideas to help him get over the hump and continue writing. There are example outlines. Also, not every fable contains every element of style that the entire body of fables can teach us. So I noticed by looking through all of the lessons that as we go along we’ll also be able to pick up more of the language of classical writing, which will hone our ability to think about writing in the first place.

    And That’s That

    Anyone else attempting the progym this year?

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  • Reply cat January 17, 2015 at 7:19 am

    Having followed Selby’s plans for Fable, Narrative and now Chrea/Maxim, I think your plan sounds good. The only thing missing is synonyms, but you may be doing that when you rewrite the fable. My kids benefitted from having 2 weeks per fable. Chrea/Maxim was daunting this year. I actually looked for other writing programs because it just looked so much harder than narrative. However, to my astonishment, because of Fable and Narrative my kids are actually sailing through it! My kids are 13 and 11. They are writing beautiful 8 paragraph essays and learning so much about American history this year because of the Chreas being from many presidents and other influential Americans.
    I am glad you found a way to adapt to CM so many others will benefit too. MP is hands down the best writing curriculum.

  • Reply Willa November 15, 2013 at 5:24 am

    I know this is a very late comment, but I am researching and came back to your series. I like that idea of doing the process yourself as a model for your son. I will have to remember that! I do it informally but never thought about it quite the way you described it. I am enjoying reading through your whole series again (when it first came out my 10 year old wasn’t ready for the progym, but now he is). .

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 16, 2013 at 6:06 pm

      Thanks, Willa!

      I feel like one of the big things I’m learning right now is how powerful modeling can be, and that’s probably because we tend to learn through imitation. So, for example, my children never really “got” nature journaling until I began to keep one myself. Same for the Century Book. I guess there is truth to that “lead by example” saying we have. 🙂

  • Reply Kristine August 30, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    I love how you made this more CM accessible, Brandy. I picked this up at a homeschool convention this summer after the woman at the LToW recommended it or IEW to help prepare for LToW. About a year of two ago I had contacted LToW about a “bridge” to help get my boys ready for their writing, and I received an email from David Kern I think, saying, “That’s an easy question: IEW.” So we did some IEW writing, which was helpful. I think the outlining would be the most similar to CC, but it emphasizes adding “dress-ups,” which are everything from adding vivid verbs to using a who/which clause. It can feel a bit formulaic, and all the adjectives can be a bit excessive, but their writing and editing did improve.
    Anyway, I look forward to following your progress through the Progym and plan on starting the first lesson, using your revised method next week. I hope I manage modeling it well. Thanks for the tips!

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts August 31, 2012 at 1:32 pm

      Thanks, Kristine! You know, I never looked at IEW because I listened to a talk by James Selby and fell in love with his ideas. Is IEW also a progym-type program? Just curious.

      I would like to hear how it goes for you!

  • Reply Heather August 28, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    When you get time Brandy, will you update how this is going? I, like Mystie will probably wait until next year, but I would like to perhaps have some direction for this year’s written narrations. My son needs to work on being concise, especially when there is conversation in the story. He wants to recount the whole thing.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts August 29, 2012 at 7:08 pm

      Sure! I actually have something written up. I made this topic its own category so that I have a place to think about it as things come up.

      I totally understand with your son–learning to be concise is definitely difficult, especially if a child is at all a detail person. A detail person, I think, can have trouble learning which details matter and which are expendable.

  • Reply Meredith in Aus August 20, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    I’ll be covering progym via Writing with Skill by Wise Bauer with my 15-year-old (by the time we get to it). We’re using Writing with Ease Level 4 at present and have found it to be just the thing to help me get my lot caught up with writing, embarrassingly (at their age) with narration. I never managed to get the narration thing happening as early as you did. I think it was partly my first student and the rest was me totally stuffing it up!

    Anyway, your plan sounds good. Look forward to hearing more.


    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts August 20, 2012 at 3:57 pm

      There are so many writing curricula out there! I hope this is a blessing for your student. I really think that God blessed me when he gave me my firstborn, in terms of how our school has evolved over the years. He is extremely talented (a gift from God) in anything dealing with words–he was reading at 3, and that’s where it all started. Because the younger children grew up with him narrating all the time, all they had to do is fall in line. I think a lot would be different in our home had God not gifted my son the way he has.

      With that said, I have this feeling that if I want to do the progym with my second child, I’ll either have to do it later in life, or do a lot of it orally. She might surprise me, of course, but she is 7 and still not reading well, so I have trouble imagining her *writing* in a year or two, you know? At least not well…

      But we shall see…

  • Reply Pilgrim August 17, 2012 at 2:38 am

    This is so helpful. I could have really benefited from the “write it shorter” practice. I also like your idea of spending the first week modeling it for him. We have a while to go before we hit this stage though. Look forward to hearing more about what you are learning as you go.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts August 20, 2012 at 3:54 pm

      Pilgrim, I hear you on writing it shorter! I’m going to try and study along with him and improve my writing ability as much as possible. I’ll try and come back here to share progress; I think it might be very interesting.

  • Reply Mystie August 16, 2012 at 11:40 pm

    Not this year. I’m watching you go first. 🙂

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