Style … is the ability to say in writing, with clarity and economy and grace, precisely what you want to say.
-Lucile Vaughan Payne
Long story short, I’m becoming a believer. Can writing really be taught, Charlotte Mason style, in an effective way? Karen Glass told me yes and so I followed her advice, but now I’m ready to say yes — yes, I think so. Obviously, we haven’t graduated any students yet. But I see a lot of promise.
Note: 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 post.
Teaching Writing Without Being Formulaic
As many of you know, 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 just that almost no one writes a five paragraph essay in real life, so I consider it a false form (or maybe a fake form?). Secondly, it’s almost always taught in a formulaic way that results in bad writing with a stilted style. Third, but possibly most important, is that it’s often taught too early. Regular old written narrations are more important in those early years of writing and there is no reason to jump to essays.
But this year, E-Age-Sixteen-Almost-Seventeen needed to learn to write an essay. Not only did he need to prepare for the SATs, but also his Great Books tutorial assigned some longer essay-type papers. He sort of looked at me askance when he found this out. Why hadn’t his mother taught him how to write an essay before now??
Um. Short answer: she wants you to be a good writer.
There is no time like the right time to teach essay writing, and it turns out when they are needed is just about the right time.
Our Eleventh Grade Writing Book
Enter The Lively Art of Writing by Lucile Vaughan Payne. Oh my goodness! Where has this book been all my life? It was delightful. It was perfect. And it was just different enough from Zinsser to provide some needed contrast.
There are a few of study guides out there that manage to take this lovely book and turn it into something awful (I know because I downloaded a couple of them), but the good news is you don’t need them.
How We Used The Lively Art of Writing for High School Writing Instruction
The method to my madness can be boiled down to a simple mantra:
I’m a Charlotte Mason teacher through and through, so it ought not surprise you that the cornerstone of my approach was narration. The end of each chapter has a list of comprehension questions. If the student is a good narrator, these questions are almost completely unnecessary (I think I used one of them) — the whole process way more pleasant than if we used them.
To flesh this out more, our basic process was read, narrate orally, and then apply in a written narration. Please note that I do not mean there was a second, written narration of this book. No. There was one narration of this book, and it was oral. I expected what was taught in the chapter we read to be applied in some way in at least one written narration sometime during the week.
Some chapters, of course, didn’t really need this. For example, the first chapter — What is an essay? — didn’t have an immediate application for written narrations and so we just read and narrated. But the book quickly picks up. In the chapters on developing a thesis, we went through the steps in the chapter, using various things we had read throughout the week as fodder. Each week, the chapters took us further until finally he developed a robust thesis based upon one of his books.
Did he write a full essay based on that thesis? No. The point of doing these activities along the way was to learn to do what was taught while keeping it interesting by using different material from different books along the way.
In December, Son E. had an 8-10 page paper due for his tutorial class. We hadn’t finished the book, but it covers the basic structure of an essay fairly early on, so he used what he had read up to that point. It was a great first paper.
We kept reading. There was one (and only one) point where I felt the exercises in the book would be helpful. Chapter 10 covered parallel structure and the exercises at the end had sentences written with faulty parallel structure that it asked the student to correct. I had my student do this and found it helpful.
We had fun with the later chapters, especially the one that covered irony. I had him practice irony in every written narration that week. One written narration had to be done in a fully ironic style while the others only contained an “ironic touch” (as Payne called it in the book). That was an especially fun week.
As a final project, my student was required to create a document with instructions for self-editing. He included not only what he learned in this book, but also some tips gleaned from Zinsser last year. I told him he’ll need to continue refining the document when he reads his senior year writing book. I want this to be something he can use in college to remind himself of what he knows in the midst of the flurry of writing college often requires.
Want a Schedule?
I’ll share mine with you, as long as you realize it might not be the best schedule for your situation. This is a short book, but I didn’t spread it out evenly. Because I knew my son had a paper due in December, and I also wanted him to have plenty of practice time in the latter half of the school year, I front-loaded the schedule.
Just fill out the form below to get my reading schedule for The Lively Art of Writing:
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