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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    What Didn’t Work This Year: Classical Composition III {A Curriculum Review}

    June 10, 2015 by Brandy Vencel

    [dropcap]I[/dropcap]f on Monday I shared something that worked really well for us, I suppose it is only fair to spend Wednesday sharing something that totally didn’t work for us. Now, as a disclaimer, it is only fair to say that the problem with this curriculum was likely me. I think this curriculum can do exactly what it’s intended to do. It’s just that ultimately I was trying to bend it to fit my philosophy, and I failed.

    Classical Composition III Why it didn't work

    Most of you know that I did the first two levels of this curriculum with my oldest child a couple years ago — a modified, CM application of it, anyhow — with great success. Naturally, I thought the third level would work just as well. A couple of you {Jami comes to mind} tried to warn me, but I really thought I’d be able to modify it to fit a CM approach because that is what I’d done with the other two.

    Um. No.


    My First Mistake

    Let me back up a little, though. My first mistake was actually in scheduling two composition programs in one year. I didn’t see it that way at the time. I saw Grammar of Poetry as a poetry program. But actually, Grammar of Poetry had my student writing poetry quite often, and other times we would work what he learned into a written narration. For example, when we learned alliteration, he tried to cram as much of it into a narration as possible. Another time, metaphors. And so on.

    So, really, even if I had thought this curriculum was fantastic and had chosen to continue it throughout the year, I would have been putting too much composition into our weekly schedule.


    Why It Didn’t Work

    Ultimately, this curriculum’s goal is to teach a basic, five-paragraph essay. The problem is that five-paragraph essays make me cringe, and I think that teaching it early in a student’s writing career is a sure way to create stilted, formulaic writing. So while in the fable and narrative stages, I was able to incorporate what we learned into our normal, written narrations {like we did with Grammar of Poetry as well}, it was impossible to get around the five-paragraph issues.

    I ended up teaching my child what a maxim is, and a few other basics, and then we put it aside and focused entirely on Grammar of Poetry.

    I think that if I had been a little more devoted to doing research on the progymnasmata, I might have been able to come up with some exercises of my own that utilized the selection of maxim {maxims??} in the workbook, and that might have made me feel like I had gotten my money’s worth.

    My main issue with the five-paragraph essay approach to this stage is that the five-paragraph essay was invented about last Friday, while the progymnasmata is as old as the hills. I bought this curriculum hoping to know what the ancients were doing. I highly doubt they were writing boring five-paragraph essays.

    A quick internet search tells me that in the chreia stage, students are to elaborate on a maxim {which is basically a short saying}. While I’m sure that the five-paragraph essay is a way of elaborating on a maxim, I have my doubts about said essays in the first place, and so I skipped it.


    What We did Instead

    You already know about Grammar of Poetry and my undying affection for it. In addition to this, at the end of the year, I also discovered a new YouTube channel called Field Notes for Writers. It’s by author Jonathan Rogers. The best narration I received this year was written shortly after E-Age-Thirteen watched Episode 1: Nouns and Verbs, Adjectives and Adverbs. It was a written narration of a chapter of The Once and Future King, and it felt like I was reading a chapter out of the Redwall series. It was seriously well done.

    I also discovered that this was the sort of writing coaching my son was really craving. He wanted practical tips — one or two at a time — that he could try to incorporate into his narrations. So, I emailed him the videos every once in a while, and he enjoyed trying to implement what he learned. It was all very casual, while making a huge difference in his writing.


    What the Future Holds

    I’m not saying that we won’t revisit the progym. It’s lasted a couple thousand years for a reason. But this coming year we’re going to explore some of the Common Topics using The Lost Tools of Writing, and we’re really looking forward to it.

    What curriculum totally bombed at your house this year?


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  • Reply MelissaS March 10, 2024 at 3:02 pm

    Brandy, what ever came of using LOTW? I’ve read your subsequent post from 2019 where you mentioned using Lively Art of Writing and Zinsser (I have both), but did you ever actually use LOTW or did decide it wasn’t necessary? My son is in 10th grade and we are going to start reading Zinsser’s book followed by Lively Art next year, so I was curious. Thanks!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 10, 2024 at 4:27 pm

      I got rid of it. I tried it briefly, and it was awful. I was so disappointed because it was the most expensive curriculum I had ever purchased at that point in my homeschooling, and a large percentage of my budget. I tried to use a couple things from it because of my money guilt, and then finally I started. I was later told by a friend that it was a rewrite of a progressive textbook being falsely advertised as classical. I’ve never been able to fact check that because I cannot find the textbook to see for myself.

  • Reply Homeschooling High School: Looking Back on 11th Grade Writing Instruction | Afterthoughts May 29, 2019 at 9:17 pm

    […] I have a love/hate (but mostly hate) relationship with the five paragraph essay. Many years ago, I dropped Classical Composition III for this exact reason. It’s not that I hate essays or think learning to write an essay is not important. It’s […]

  • Reply Crystal December 19, 2017 at 11:25 am

    I’m so glad I found this. I randomly saw your yr7 planning post and almost purchased this at 1/2 priced books yesterday. I did not like the way it looked as I peeked through it. Then I decided to come home first and see if you did a follow up. Thank you for posting this!

  • Reply Jody White June 18, 2016 at 10:22 am

    I have successfully implemented Classical Composition now for MANY years. My oldest is in the tenth of the fourteen stages (?) of the progymnasmata. It is a solid, well structured plan in learning how to become an effective and elegant communicator. It definitely is an exercise in stretching the student’s mind (as well as my own) and equipping them for later academic endeavors. I will caution that it is HARD and takes substantial commitment to: 1) learn it as an educator 2) teach it to your student 3) implement it effectively. It is not for the faint at heart. However, every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears poured into by both teacher and student is MOST CERTAINLY WORTH IT.

    I would recommend finding another like minded homeschool family to stay the course with. The extra friend/teacher to learn and digest it with is very helpful, and the students working through it together is very beneficial. They give each other feedback, constructive criticism, and encouragement, which we all need.

    • Reply Jenny March 8, 2017 at 10:33 pm

      Hi Jody, Do you have any recommendations for how the parent can prepare him/herself to teach this program? Did you feel that the teacher’s guides were adeqaute, or did you use outside resources to help equip yourself? Any advice for effective implementation? Thank you!

  • Reply Amber Vanderpol June 17, 2015 at 6:20 pm

    I don’t have anything particularly intelligent to add, but I am so glad to read that you and I have the same opinion of 5 paragraph essays. 🙂 I’m planning on teaching them later as a special category of writing needed in certain circumstances, not as a one size fits all solution. I’m eyeing LToW for next year and wondering if I’m up to teaching it because of time constraints. I want to make sure I’m available enough for it, but I’m not sure if I can be yet.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 21, 2015 at 3:39 pm

      Now that I know that we are both essay snobs, Amber, I am extra excited to meet you in person at the conference in September! 😉

  • Reply *missy June 13, 2015 at 7:31 am

    This post and conversation are very helpful. I was sad to read that this level of CC focuses on the 5 paragraph essay, that doesn’t seem in keeping with the progym at all. I hadn’t heard that anywhere else. I agree with trying to keep writing more synthetic for as long as possible. The thought of the 5 paragraph essay meeting the needs of a certain audience is also something to keep in mind. For now I am going to keep using Learning Language through Literature by Kathy Jo Devote over at Barefoot Ragamuffin because it pulls together poetry, diagramming and playing with words and sentences. I can’t wait to hear what you think of LTOW – do you have the newest version? Do you plan to use the DVDs?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 13, 2015 at 11:02 am

      I’m purchasing the streaming version of LToW, so we’ll see how it goes. I’ve never done that before! But I really wanted to use the new version, so…here we are. 🙂

  • Reply KarenC June 11, 2015 at 8:38 am

    Oops! I forgot to tell you her age. She is going to be in eighth grade next year. And yes, your response totally helps me! I took a look at the samples of the IEW program and it definitely looks doable with GoP. GoP doesn’t have to be done every single week anyway, so I think we can do it. She is a good writer and it comes pretty easily to her. I wanted to give her a challenge next year because we are going to be studying poetry all together as a family. I wanted to push her a little. Thank you again. You are right on top of things! I don’t know how you do it!! 😀

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 11, 2015 at 9:41 am

      Glad that helped! As to how I do it, I can only say that being a bit neurotic helps. 😉

      • Reply KarenC June 12, 2015 at 11:08 am

        Haha!! Well, then all I can say is that I’m grateful you are a little neurotic. 😉

        • Reply Brandy Vencel June 12, 2015 at 1:41 pm

          Ha! 🙂

  • Reply KarenC June 11, 2015 at 7:53 am

    Hi Brandy,

    I started reading through the comments and feel a little out of place here, but I have a question regarding the Grammar of Poetry and other composition programs. I am slightly familiar with Charlotte Mason, but by no means follow her program. Not because I don’t like it or anything like that, but because I just haven’t made it a point to really look at what it entails. So these words you all are using are very foreign to me. All of that set aside, here is my question: Do you think it is doable to do another writing program with Grammar of Poetry? I enjoy using IEW’s (Institute for Excellence in Writing) materials and I was going to use The Elegant Essay with her for next year, along with Grammar of Poetry. Am I overloading her? I can’t imagine just doing Grammar of Poetry without some other activity for writing. I know she will be writing in other areas, such as narration, and other composition exercises within our curriculum, but I really wanted her to concentrate on formal writing exercises to prepare her for entering high school. She wants to go and my husband wants the kids to go, so I’m just trying to go with the flow here. Anyway, was just wondering if doing another writing program along with Grammar of Poetry is a mistake. Thank you!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 11, 2015 at 8:05 am

      First, I would ask how old your student is. If she’s in high school, I think it’d not only be fine, but totally appropriate. I was doing this with a seventh grader, and I didn’t want him spending that much time on writing. Of course, here is the clincher: he IS writing every day using what we in the CM world call written narrations. So I guess technically, that means I’m *already* doing another writing program along with GoP. Maybe that is really the issue: adding something in addition to GoP meant we had *three* writing programs going, which was too much.

      Here is my thought: I would think about it in terms of time budget. How much time do you want your daughter to spend on her writing? This will vary by family, and also by age of the student. So then from there you can figure out how the other things will fit for you. I would say plan about an hour and a half on average per week for GoP as a baseline (this includes the lesson time), if you really want to do GoP. Some weeks will be much less (because there isn’t any original poetry writing on those weeks), and it will also depend upon how quickly your student can write poetry. Some are more natural at it, of course. 🙂 So then you can figure out how other things will fit. It might be that you don’t do your other writing program quite as quickly, not that you drop it altogether…

      Does that help? 🙂

  • Reply Kathy Weitz June 11, 2015 at 6:48 am

    Thought I’d chime in here since Mystie kindly introduced me. 😀 I agree with you, Brandy about the five-paragraph essay. It’s new, it’s formulaic, and it’s pretty much useless beyond academia.

    And yet, it IS required in academia, so that is something. Sort of like standardized testing (another thing I despise!) for college admission. Principles meeting practicality. If you consider that one aspect of writing is to consider your audience, these kind of academic forms are easier to stomach. I make sure my students know the uses and limitations of the five paragraph essay!

    The good news is that the five paragraph essay is simple to teach, especially once you’ve laid the foundation of the anecdote or proverb essay. In fact, when I do teach it in Cottage Press Poetics & Progym (just finishing the first book up this week!), it is one or two lessons at the end of the book after 26 lessons or so of reviewing fable and narrative, and then learning anecdote and proverb, with a whole bunch of poetry thrown in.

    I love your blog, by the way! Thanks for all you are doing to encourage home educating moms.


    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 11, 2015 at 7:57 am

      I like that, Kathy. “If you consider that one aspect of writing is to consider your audience, these kind of academic forms are easier to stomach.” I’m going to remember that! 🙂

  • Reply Ma F June 10, 2015 at 12:15 pm

    My it is our first year with out a fail! Well book wise, I did drop some balls with scheduling. It only took a decade! In reference to the above we have used the CAP writing books 1-3 and they have adapted well with our CM approach…we don’t use the workbook part. Mostly I use them as a support for myself in giving more direct instruction in writing with my kiddo with ASD. Book 4 covers something called a “six paragraph essay” and book 5 a “4 paragraph essay” but that is not the central point of the program. I am still hoping to get a copy of the Grammar of Poetry for my oldest for yr 8 in the fall…

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 10, 2015 at 7:52 pm

      Congratulations on not having a single fail this year! That is truly an accomplishment! 🙂

  • Reply Andrea June 10, 2015 at 11:02 am

    Maybe the problem is trying to make this into a modern five paragraph essay. It’s not a five paragraph essay. It’s eight paragraphs, some quite small, but each with its own purpose. The maxim/chreia stage is a big jump up from the previous two stages. I don’t really think it’s suitable for students below sixth grade (not sure how old your child is). I think it teaches them the beginning techniques of persuasion, which will become front and center in the following stages after stages three/four. I’ve taught this curriculum sixth graders, and they have produced some amazing and engaging essays. I have had training in how to teach this program, and I do think that without some hands-on training/practice, the teacher’s guide is a bit obtuse.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 10, 2015 at 7:58 pm

      As I’m thinking about this more and more, I think I’m starting to realize that what I really doubt about this stage of the curriculum is that it is teaching the actual stages of the progym that it claims to teach. For example, one of the questions I recall was why we should listen to the person who said the maxim. But that question sounds a lot more like the encomium stage than something appropriate for maxim or chreia. I really think that I will probably be frustrated by anything I buy until I finally set aside the time to read Aphthonius directly…

      I am sure it’s a lot easier to figure it out when you have had training! 🙂

      • Reply Jami June 11, 2015 at 5:40 am

        You do write a short encomium about the speaker of the maxim or the doer of the chreia, but it’s much smaller than the full encomium essay would be. I wish we could sit down and talk!

        I agree with Andrea that these are different sorts of paragraphs, but in the skills for the maxim/chreia paragraphs, you get the foundation for how you would support an argument in a modern essay. Encomium gives biographical information to set a context, paraphrase explains the argument or thesis, cause and opposite then lay out arguments for and against your thesis, analogy and example are both ways to illustrate the thesis and a great place to make use of synthetic knowledge! Then there’s a paragraph for testimony which sets the stage for referring to experts in a field or other authorities. And then the student concludes by restating the argument (maxim/chreia) and why it is wise.

        It is a step up from fable and narrative stages and it surprises me that both CAP and MP take students through these stages in late elementary/early jr. high.

        Fun discussion!


        • Reply Brandy Vencel June 11, 2015 at 6:09 am

          I wish we could sit down and talk, too! WHY do I not travel more? So sad. 🙁

          I love this conversation so much! Someday we will have it IN PERSON. That is my new goal. 🙂

  • Reply Jami June 10, 2015 at 7:54 am

    I end up feeling that way about most Memoria Press programs, to be honest. Sorry MP!

    I use Classical Writing and it takes more time than AO suggests for composition. It is a full language arts program with grammar and some analysis of literature built in to the program as well. There’s a learning curve with it for teachers and students, but I’ve been happy with the work the kids have done with it.

    I’m not sure how I would have integrated the maxim work into our AO reading, unless I had deliberately gone through their readings to find short, wise sayings that we could write about. Chreia would be easier since it includes actions that teach wisdom.

    Classical Writing does use the maxim and chreia levels to teach the 5 paragraph essay, but that’s a final step that shows how to integrate the other elements of the essay or how to choose your strongest support material. And how to transition from the more antiquated language of these imitation essays to a modern thesis statement.

    Next year we’ll be more 50% AO and the older two will be doing Lost Tools of Writing. I hope we love it!


    • Reply Jami June 10, 2015 at 7:57 am

      And thanks for the Jonathan Rogers videos! I think we’ll watch some of those for our summer session.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 10, 2015 at 8:38 am

      I always wish you had a blog, Jami, so I could read more about what you’re doing!

      • Reply Jami June 11, 2015 at 5:43 am

        I am not a writer, I’m a talker. So I don’t see any blogs in my future. I’d be neurotic all day about who was reading, commenting, dissecting my every word…not that you should feel that way! 😉


        • Reply Brandy Vencel June 11, 2015 at 6:11 am

          So you’re saying you need a PODCAST, Jami? 😉

  • Reply Amanda June 10, 2015 at 7:43 am

    I liked this idea of modeling based on literature and the old OOP books linked to in this post:

    Another idea to keep in mind.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 10, 2015 at 7:45 am

      Ooh! That is really interesting! I might have to keep this one on file for after we finish LTOW!

  • Reply Amanda June 10, 2015 at 7:12 am

    I wonder how this stage is presented in the CAP materials. We have only used fable, very spread out, but I like their creative approach.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 10, 2015 at 7:13 am

      I actually wondered the same thing, Amanda! When I first bought CC, it was the only progym curriculum I could find out there, and then I kept buying within the series…

      • Reply Amanda June 10, 2015 at 7:16 am

        I think that they way you are using it CC is a little easier to adapt. CAP WR is definitely geared to the workbook. But still CM enough for me and good for a less eager writer. Fables are friendly and they make it fun and it’s Not Mom.

        I’ll check out the samples later on today.

  • Reply Mystie June 10, 2015 at 6:32 am

    Heh, heh. I taught my writing class the 5-paragraph paper last year. I hope you won’t hold it against me. I like how it forces them to make a point and stick to it without getting distracted on tangents or filling in with random details that don’t move the point forward. But I love thesis-based writing and don’t have a creative-writing bone in my body. 🙂

    But next year I’ll just have them do written narrations, expecting topic sentences, conclusion sentences, and every sentence on topic.

    One of my college classes had a little book that was basically a chapter per stylistic device – I wish I’d kept it or remembered what it was called! We learned probably 15 or so, but 3 stuck with me and make up a huge part of my personal style to this day.

    Thanks for the videos! We like Jonathon Rogers. 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 10, 2015 at 7:11 am

      I could never hold ANYTHING against you; you know that. 🙂 But my question is: when you said you were teaching the 5-paragraph essay, did you say you were teaching the progym? Because I feel like those are two different things…

      I would be really curious to know the name of the book you used in college! That sounds interesting to me!

      I hope you enjoy the videos. So far, we’ve thought they were really great. And, like I said, the fact that they are short and focused on one thing is super helpful because then we don’t watch another one until we feel like we’ve really practiced what he said to do. It’s been fun. Everything he has taught us so far has worked really well within normal written narrations, so we haven’t done anything extra other than watching the videos.

      • Reply Mystie June 10, 2015 at 7:25 am

        No, I would not say it was anything like progym. I knew IEW, I knew 5-paragraph. I knew what kind of writing I was aiming for, and I had experience getting kids there. I know that at 6th/7th grade after my class they’d all easily ace a standard English 101 class at college. Every time I’ve tried to research progym, I couldn’t find anything that I could wrap my head around, so I figured I’d stick with what I knew and let others do the ground work with progym. 🙂 I prefer to come into a set of principles that’s been worked out and make it easier and more doable, not lay that first foundation of what a thing is to begin with.

        If that college text wasn’t this one: it was one as equally unmemorable. It was for a once-a-week How to Tutor Writing class for English majors, and it was probably more how the instructor used the book than the book itself.

        • Reply Karen @ The Simply Blog June 10, 2015 at 12:06 pm

          Mystie, that’s how I felt when I first tried to understand the progymnasmata thing. I can’t remember what program I was looking at at that time, but it relied heavily on the teacher instructing and it didn’t give much instructing to the teacher to know *how* to do the instructing. So I dropped it.

          I actually like the 5 paragraph essay format. Sorry Brandy. 🙂 I’ve been having to work with my daughter helping her form those essays well….keep on topic…form a good thesis sentence and structure the essay accordingly. And she’s doing pretty good right now with her essay writing even though there’s still room for improvement. 😉 I think it is important that they know how to write a five paragraph essay…and do it well. Because they *will* have to do this in college.

          But that’s just my humble opinion. 🙂

          • Brandy Vencel June 10, 2015 at 8:05 pm

            No apologies necessary!

            And to clarify: it isn’t that I will *never* teach essay writing, five paragraphs or otherwise. It’s just that I won’t be teaching it at this age. I’m still very determined to try to keep our knowledge synthetic until high school, or 15 as CM suggested if possible.

            Next year, I’ll introduce writing paraphrases of essays by Francis Bacon, and I think that’ll be a good introduction to essay writing that isn’t taking us into analysis and offers whole, ideal models of good writing.

            I promise my child will be able to write an essay for college. 🙂

          • Karen @ The Simply Blog June 11, 2015 at 4:12 am

            Ooops….sorry Brandy…you were talking about a younger age range, weren’t you? *blush* My daughter is in high school. I did begin teaching three paragraph and five paragraph essays when she was in junior higher…very basic teaching…and we’ve built on that in high school, along with narration. 🙂

          • Brandy Vencel June 11, 2015 at 6:10 am

            Oh, I totally knew your daughter was in high school! And I know a lot of people do this in junior high. I think that part of my resistance is trying to hold back on being analytical as long as we can — because this child of mine can miss the forest for the trees if I let him…

  • Reply Heather M June 10, 2015 at 6:24 am

    Oh no! I’ve only got the Fable stage but I’m excited to use it next year. I wonder if the materials from Cottage Press might do a better job? I, too, despise the five paragraph essay. Back when I was an English teacher in the public schools I would race through that unit. 🙂 I so wish I had the progrym when I was teaching.

    • Reply Mystie June 10, 2015 at 6:34 am

      Cottage Press would be very open-and-go and already CM-style, plus it has all the components of language arts built in (spelling rules, copywork, etc.). I was really impressed with the Fables book I was able to review.

      • Reply Amy Hines June 10, 2015 at 10:29 am

        Misty, the cottage press preview really seems to encourage writing in the book. At $40 a book I don’t think we’d do that. So how usable is the program without writing in the book? It looks very well done. I do wish more publishers of workbooks would publish PDFs for large families.

        Brandy, thank you so much for the follow up!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 10, 2015 at 7:06 am

      I will say, Heather, that I LOVED using fable and narrative stage. I’m not familiar with the Cottage Press materials, but I will say that I found it easy to use the fable and narrative stages and just adapt them to be a little more CM in how I approached it {like not doing vocabulary lessons — which aren’t part of the progym, anyhow!}. All of that so say: I in no way think you have wasted money you already spent!

    • Reply Jami June 10, 2015 at 8:05 am

      I haven’t used the Cottage Press materials, but Kathy Weitz helped the Classical Writing authors develop workbooks for their materials, so she knows the progym!

      • Reply Brandy Vencel June 10, 2015 at 8:41 am

        Oh, interesting! I didn’t know that about her!

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