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    Homeschooling High School: Organic Writing Instruction

    January 30, 2018 by Brandy Vencel

    I don’t know about you, but when I used to think about homeschooling high school, it wasn’t just the thought of chemistry labs and calculus that shook my confidence. It was also writing. The thing about Charlotte Mason writing instruction is that most of us can’t intuit how to transition from written narration to the types of writing our children will be asked to do when they are grown. On the one hand, narration is a wonderful training ground for writing. On the other hand, there is a mental disconnect between narration and other types of writing — or, at least, there has been for me.

    Karen Glass’ new book, Know and Tell: The Art of Narration, if the two chapters I’ve read are any indication, is going to be a great help in closing this gap. But today, I’m not talking about Karen’s book. Instead, I want to highlight another book: William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, an option listed in the upper years of AmblesideOnline. The question is what to do with it. Just read it, narrate it, and move on?

    I don’t know exactly what AO wants us to do, but we’ve been having a good time with the book, and so I thought I’d share.

    The Part I preliminary chapters are what you’d expect, laying out the principles of good writing. My student didn’t just read and narrate these chapters. I also asked him to put what he read into practice. So, for example, after reading the chapter on clutter, I asked him to review a week’s worth of written narrations (all unedited first drafts) and find his own clutter.  His next written narration was to aim for “clutter-free.”

    We had good discussions about clutter after that. We discovered that aiming for clutter-free in a first draft might be a bad idea. It can slow you down, impeding the flow of words. Perhaps it is better, we decided, to let the whole mess out first and then edit down from there.

    Part II focused on methods. We found less to work with here, but the chapter on leads and endings was our favorite. We tried our hands at perfecting our endings according to Zinsser’s advice.

    Part III is where we are now. It covers different forms of nonfiction writing — travel writing, sports writing, science writing, and so on. We don’t travel much, but travel writing is actually writing about places, and what place does a person know better than their own hometown? We live in a city that people talk about in a derogatory manner — California’s equivalent of flyover country. Could he describe this place with love and respect, sans jargon? That was the challenge, and his first draft impressed me.

    “How did you come up with this?” I asked. (It was seriously good.)

    Mary Austin,” he said. You never know when those old narrations will come in handy.

    This week, we read the chapter on science writing. Choosing an assignment was not hard because Zinsser says this early on:

    The science assignment that I give to students is a simple one. I just ask them to describe how something works. (p. 148)

    I underlined these sentences and wrote in the margins, “And this is what YOU get to do this week!” He knows the drill: replace one written narration with this assignment.

    We’re only in tenth grade. I still don’t know that I’ve done well, or done enough. But I’ve seen beautiful growth so far this year, and never once have I had to ask for formulaic writing to get it.

    Before he leaves home, I know we’ll have to cover longer papers (I’m assigning one this year, actually, and I’ll write about that after we’ve done it). I know we’ll have to learn proper methods of citation. But for now, my student is improving his writing the way I improve my writing: reading books and essays on the subject and applying the ideas with my own pen.

    I think of this as “organic” writing instruction because it’s born out of our real life interaction with books and other sources, rather than any structured writing curriculum. I’ve tried prepared curriculum (mostly out of fear that I was Missing Something), and I’ve always tinkered with them to make them more Charlotte Mason … almost to the point that they were no longer recognizable. I’ve plundered them for great ideas, used them to improve conversations, but never could I bear the thing they seemed to ask for most: bad writing.

    There. I said it.

    I feel like there has to be a way to learn to write that always asks for the best the student can give — that always draws out of the student his best expression and ideas — that isn’t boring, and doesn’t make him think writing is a chore.

    So I keep circling back around to this book-based approach. For now, I’m happy with my student’s progress. Ultimately, good writing shouldn’t be so hard to attain, if we’re giving our students the habit of thinking. After all, Zinsser himself said:

    Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all. (p. 147)

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  • Reply Thoughtworthy (Amazon Gift Cards, Read Alouds, Logo Updates, & MORE!) | Afterthoughts January 31, 2020 at 2:05 am

    […] This post contains some basics on how I do writing in high school. […]

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

    […] If you haven’t read what I wrote last year (Homeschooling High School: Organic Writing Instruction), I recommend reading that first. It provides a bit of context for this […]

  • Reply Jess June 17, 2018 at 12:08 pm

    Hey Brandy,

    IF you were to write a short ebook detailing your writing lesson instructions from Year 10, I would totally buy it.

  • Reply Thoughtworthy (New Podcast Episode, New Book, New Dojo, and MORE!) | Afterthoughts February 9, 2018 at 1:32 am

    […] got a new book!! This is always exciting, amiright? In the comments somewhere (Facebook, maybe?) to my high school writing post, someone mentioned they were reading Zinsser’s other book, Writing to Learn. With a title […]

  • Reply Hillary February 3, 2018 at 9:24 am

    Seeing this book on your blog was a fun throwback for me. Both my husband and I studied journalism in college and wrote/edited for our separate college newspapers, and Zinsser was a required text for both of us. Still have my copy, waiting in an AO-HEO bin!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 3, 2018 at 10:09 pm

      So fun! ♥ I love it when we can pull out books from college and use them with our kids. 🙂

  • Reply Nancy January 31, 2018 at 8:53 am

    Thank you for writing about this Brandy! It puts the “elephant in the room” into perspective for me. I am gearing up for this with my middle and want her(me) to be ready.

  • Reply the.china.lady January 30, 2018 at 7:33 pm

    Hubby teaches Logic at the local Uni. HE has them write papers presenting an argument from an article and either support it or reject it. He gives them very straightforward instructions on what he expects and how to write LOGIC paper (philosophy writing is so different from other subjects!). Then he takes an article and writes the paper during class, showing students how to do it. And you know what, most of the time the students don’t follow instructions. Its amazing, and astounding. He holds their hands so that they could get an “A”, but, nope, they can’t do it. Being able to write well is good, but being able to follow instructions is even more important. That said, having an MA, and Hubby having a PhD, we have decided having a good grasp of the English language is more important than being able to ‘write’, b/c every subject is so different and how you write for that subject varies so much between subjects.

    And with all, I’m totally checking out that book.

    • Reply the.china.lady January 30, 2018 at 7:34 pm

      And it’s always good to proofread, since I just found 2 typos. 😀 Never submit a first draft, no matter how good you think it is!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 31, 2018 at 7:03 am

      Rachael! This was helpful to me. We just read the philosophy chapter in Zinsser this week, and I had trouble coming up with an assignment. I felt like what my student really needed to do was read some examples since he has little experience with philosophy reading — get a taste of, say, a dialogue from Plato, or the way Aquinas sets up arguments, etc. (Zinsser briefly describes the different forms philosophy writing has taken over the years.) Anyhow, I hadn’t considered asking for a logic paper. I think I will do that. 🙂

      I have done that orally in my Plutarch class — we start with an argument and then they have to find evidence in the text for and against the argument.

      Thank you!

      • Reply the.china.lady January 31, 2018 at 8:07 am

        If you want an example, I can ask Hubby for something to share. I know his logic papers are more than just restating the article, but it starts there.

        • Reply Brandy Vencel January 31, 2018 at 8:53 am

          Yes, please! I love gathering all the ideas I can. 🙂

          • Rachel Cueva May 10, 2023 at 7:24 pm

            Brandy, I’d love to know more specifically the writing assignments you explored using this book. I’m not even sure what a logic or philosophy paper would look like, for example. My son is rising 9th and has done narrations the entire time. I relied on Writing and Rhetoric this year after suffering an accident, but I’m not sure we’ll continue that next year. His writing was better when he spent more time reading, less time in workbooks. My new plan is to start with this book and then move to Lively, after having read that post. Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

  • Reply Amanda January 30, 2018 at 12:29 pm

    Love this so much, Brandy! Our writing methods need an overhaul right now. It just feels too complicated. I know all these things, but breaking them down to teach can be tough. This really simplifies it!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 31, 2018 at 7:04 am

      This is exactly how I’ve felt, too, Amanda. I know it, but I don’t know how to *teach* it for some reason. This is why the book’s guidance has been so great — I don’t have to remember, and now I’m just helping. 🙂

  • Reply Julie January 30, 2018 at 9:24 am

    Have you used The Lost Tools of Writing? It seems I remember you saying that was in your plan at one point. Writing is THE most intimidating thing, for me, about high school because I’m not a writer. My copy of Know and Tell is on the way though and I have high hopes for it.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 30, 2018 at 11:37 am

      Ahem. Okay, I’ve avoided this question for a long time, so I guess I will go ahead an answer it. I’ve hesitated because I *really like* CiRCE.

      We only attempted LToW level 1, so I can’t say how this relates to level 2. LToW is one I found helpful for improving discussion. I could also see how it’d be helpful with a too-concise writer (not a problem with my oldest, but that is a weakness of one of my students coming up) in regard to idea generation.

      But honestly it was the most formulaic of all curricula I tried. On top of this, in the teacher training videos it was acknowledged that the essays were bad writing, and that’s okay because the important thing was learning the formula. I had already been working mightily to make it fit my philosophical paradigm. At that point, they just lost me because I realized that was exactly what I’d been doing — trying to tell a decent writer that bad writing was okay in this instance. It wasn’t a message I wanted to send any longer, so I broke up with LToW at that point.

      Here is what I’ve observed: kids not raised and educated the CM way may very well require a formal writing curriculum, and in that case, LToW might be the very thing (because of it’s focus on thinking).

      But more and more I see that kids who narrate from age 6 and begin written narrations around age 10, etc. naturally become decent writers. I think this is because (if Zinsser is right and writing is thinking on paper), they are in the habit of thinking all of the time. They are in the habit of articulating their thoughts. If they read their written narrations aloud (we start this pretty early on), they are in the habit of correcting where they misspeak or generally don’t make sense. From there, learning various forms of writing just isn’t a big step. It’s something they really can learn to do from books like Zinsser’s.

      The problem is that the organic way takes more time to mature. So CM kids will look “behind” for a number of years. And of course we all get that fear about what if they don’t catch up, what if something is wrong, you know? That’s hard to tackle because we can’t *really* know the future — there is evidence (i.e., other CM students) that our student will develop as well, but there aren’t guarantees, so I think it all feels risky.

      And now, look, I’ve practically written another post…

      • Reply Amber Vanderpol January 30, 2018 at 12:07 pm

        I’m so glad you responded to this, Brandy. I really like CiRCE too, but I just didn’t like LToW from looking at it. I bought it because a certain person that I highly respect was writing about it on her blog. *ahem* But in looking through it I just didn’t see the value of it for my daughter – at least not enough value to devote the time it would take for it. I actually never ended up using it, so I’m obviously not speaking from a place of experience here.

        This organic way does take a lot longer to mature, especially in some kids. I sometimes think that if my boys (4th & 6th grade) had to go to public school tomorrow, the writing expectations are the area they would struggle in the most (well, that and the whole having to be there for so long and be in a desk that much!). But yet I can see the growth, and I am so impressed by how well they can use more complex sentence structures, a wide vocabulary, as well as the ideas they are expressing.

        • Reply Brandy Vencel January 30, 2018 at 12:19 pm

          ACK! You bought it?? I am so sorry! I really have learned my lesson: I pretty much don’t write about things anymore until I’ve done them. On the rare occasions when I do, it’s with huge, glaring disclaimers. A million apologies, my friend. 🙁

          • Amber January 30, 2018 at 8:25 pm

            Ah, well, it happens. At least I got it on sale! And you are still one of the bloggers that I highly respect. 🙂

          • Crystal February 2, 2018 at 8:29 am

            Yay! I’m so glad to see this. LTOW is currently in my cart…soon to be removed. ?

      • Reply Mystie January 30, 2018 at 7:43 pm

        Having them read it aloud and fix errors is a superb practice – I can see where that would be so natural with written narrations. I always tell my students that reading their writing SLOWLY, aloud, is the first proofreading step they need to do before I ever lay eyes on it. 🙂

        • Reply Brandy Vencel January 31, 2018 at 7:06 am

          Yes! I couldn’t get them to slow down, but when they read it aloud, they catch most of their own errors — well, the basic ones, anyway. I figured since that is how I proof myself (because I catch more reading aloud), they could learn to do that, too.

          The only pain is that my 11yo starts using me as a spell checker. 😉

          • Michele Reeves March 3, 2018 at 8:38 pm

            I have had my kiddos actually “read” their punctuation when reading their writing to me. The cat is blue(period) etc. haha But…it is so effective 🙂

      • Reply Anna January 30, 2018 at 8:10 pm

        I am glad to know I’m not alone in finding LToW wasn’t a good fit. I wish I’d listened to my gut, but we live and learn.
        I bought Zissner’s book a few months ago and suggested my daughter read it, but I don’t know whether she has. I like your ideas here. And I’m reading Know and Tell! 🙂

      • Reply Claire January 31, 2018 at 2:43 am

        Thanks for this, Brandy. I believe I once heard Andrew Kern describe in detail how LToW works but it sounded so incredibly inane I had trouble believing my own memory. I, too, have great respect for Circe and especially AK, so I wondered if there were more to it, or I was missing something. It’s good to have the opinion of an experienced CM mama.

        • Reply Brandy Vencel January 31, 2018 at 7:09 am

          I think AK’s big weakness is an elevation of form over content. Perhaps the bigger matter is that five paragraphs isn’t a stunning form in the way of, say, a sonnet. But even with a sonnet, the filling (content, style) also matters.

          With that said, I’m glad there were enough ways to use the content of LToW to improve conversation that I don’t feel like I completely wasted my money. 🙂

          • Abby January 31, 2018 at 3:32 pm

            My son strongly dislikes LToW. It was required for a class he is taking, we borrowed the discs and teacher manual from a friend. Thinking has never been his problem. He hates the formulaic approach and repetitive paragraph structure. Shrug. Next year we are going to read William Zinsser’s Writing to Learn, because he needs a philosophy adjustment. He is my question everything kid and needs a “why” that connects and compels. He has a great imagination and has wonderful thoughts, he just doesn’t love writing them on paper?

      • Reply Laura February 15, 2018 at 8:37 pm

        You have just given me a huge lightbulb moment – get the kids to read their written narrations aloud to me! Self- correction AND better accountability achieved in one easy step! I can hardly believe it. We start tomorrow.

        • Reply Brandy Vencel February 15, 2018 at 8:53 pm

          Wonderful! I think you’re going to love it! I can’t remember who first told me to do that, but it’s been amazing. ♥

  • Reply Amber Vanderpol January 30, 2018 at 8:10 am

    I love this, Brandy! I haven’t used a writing curriculum with my 10th grader since our horrible experience with one way back in 3rd grade, although I’ve been tempted at times. I am completely amazed by how well my daughter writes though. My next child, a boy who I had once thought could benefit from a more structured approach to writing, is now finding his feet in writing, and what he is writing is making me so glad I trusted Mason and didn’t try to make him learn some sort of formulaic program.

  • Reply Mystie January 30, 2018 at 8:10 am

    I love this! And I love the last quote by Zinsser and think it’s so true. I do love that book.

    I think the key to learning how to write well is learning how to revise, and getting over the fact that the first draft is never the final draft. Having strategies for improvement and being able to objectively go over your own work is a difficult process for anyone, but particularly at first before any practice – and it’s hard to teach!

    In my experience of teaching writing for over a decade, I have found I have to get more formulaic for those students who *don’t* think well and *haven’t* read widely and deeply. There is a process for helping use writing to teach thinking. But if thinking is already there, then we can just improve writing technique. Of course, I also think having a topic sentence and conclusion sentence is courtesy and clarity in an essay, not [necessarily] formula. 😉

    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 30, 2018 at 8:46 am

      This is such a good point — and I think that is one thing I’ve stumbled over: making time for revision in the actual schedule. It’s nice for me to *say* that this or that is only a “first draft” but for a very long time we were never revising. In the beginning, I think that was fine, but it’s something I’ve needed to move forward with in high school, but had trouble figuring it out (even logistically). I think Zinsser is at least helping us know what to look for — how to self-critique.

    • Reply KarenG January 30, 2018 at 10:41 pm

      Then I think you will get a kick out of the way I encourage young writers to also include a deliberate introduction. Something like, “Don’t grab your reader by the arm and yank them down the street. Politely tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘We’re going this way.'” 🙂

      • Reply Brandy Vencel January 31, 2018 at 7:11 am

        Oh my goodness! I love this, Karen! I remember in high school when I first learned about “The Hook.” I felt like I was supposed to be a circus sideshow or something!

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