Review: Models for Writers (Short Essays for Composition)

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 9.09.33 AMPerhaps the best part of teaching writing to other people’s children is the curriculum I accumulate along the way. Over the past two years, I’ve purchased more writing books than I could have ever justified buying for my two boys alone. I’ve tried a few that have flopped (Brave Writer and One Year Adventure Novel), used some old favorites (Michael Clay Thompson’s Paragraph Town and Essay Voyage), and found some new friends. Still more sits on my shelf, waiting for the right student to come along. The longer I teach gifted students to write, the easier it is to make guesses about what will work and what will flop, but  as children are as different from each other as are snowflakes from one another, I’ve tossed very little aside for good.

Models for Writers: Short Essays for Composition (Alfred Rosa and Paul Eschholz) has served as assigned reading in college and high school composition classrooms for years. I teach out of the 9th and 10th editions, which are recent enough to be easy to find and old enough to make used copies easy to afford. (I’ve never seen the urgency in having the newest edition of a writing text anyway.) There is little difference between these two editions, so I’ll not be drawing distinctions between them. I use this text after Michael Clay Thompson’s Essay Voyage and before more formal argumentation texts, finding it works well after a student understands the essay writing process overall while providing a bridge for writers before they move to formal and cited academic writing, as in MCT’s Academic Writing 1.

Models for Writers is divided into four sections. The first three (The Writing Process, The Elements of the Essay, and The Language of the Essay) focus on just what an essay is and how it is put together. The first section covers the basics of all writing, from prewriting through first draft to revising and editing. It’s an effective review for students who’ve done projects requiring prereading, not a guide for the first-time writer.  The second section does much of what MCT’s Essay Voyage does — it addresses what writers must master to make any essay work: thesis, unity, organization, beginnings and endings, paragraphs, transitions, and effective sentences. The fourth, Types of Essays, the section I use most heavily when I teach one-on-one,  explores the many genre of essay: illustration, definition, comparison and contrast, narration, argument and more are explained fully with examples. The book concludes with a short treatment of the research paper. I’d not call this last section sufficient for teaching the process of writing from sources, but it does serve a fine introduction to the craft. It touches what comes next, just as the first section provides a short look back.

For all but the first section of the book, the format is the same. Rosa and Eschholz provide a few pages of instruction on the topic at hand. These brief but comprehensive portions of each chapter give the reader the language of the topic and the basics of the technique at hand. What follows are three or four essays to serve as examples for the topics at hand. Essays by Russell Baker, Eudora Welty, Helen Keller, Annie Dillard, Natalie Goldberg, and many others illustrate the chapter’s lesson. After each essay are questions for study and discussion, questions focused on helping the student analyze the given essay in the context of the lessons it’s supposed to illustrate. These questions demand a set of skills I’ve not found elsewhere: careful reading followed by deep thought not just about what the writer wrote but about the devices the writer used in the essay.

These are hard questions for many young students, quite gifted ones included. Even organic writers (not the sort grown without pesticides but the kind who were born with stories to tell and a keyboard attached to their fingers) struggle when it’s time to talk about elements of writing within another’s writing. Initially, I used the book without those questions, assigning the readings as examples. That worked fairly well, as we could talk about some of the patterns a writer would use or note a particular way to handle an introduction. Using the book this way won’t shortchange a writer, as there is plenty to learn without those questions. But despite the struggle they cause for some students, these questions are generally worth the grapple. They move a student to think about what they read and then, hopefully, about their own writing in a critical and analytical way. Whether discussed or assigned as written work, using at least some of these question sets will bring your writer further along in composition and reading skills.

After the questions come classroom activities which, I suppose, would be helpful for one teaching in a classroom. A few are amenable to using one-on-one, but most require a partner or small group. The suggested writing assignments that follow each essay are far more helpful. Note: Some of these assignments aren’t directly addressing the skill at hand while others are more chapter-related.  Because I like my students to have some say in what they write, I usually ask them to look over particular assignments in these sections, selecting options that would elicit writing that best addresses the purpose of the chapter.

As mentioned earlier, I use Models for Writers after I’ve taught the essay via Essay Voyage or with students having some basic command of the essay, understanding the principles of the form and format all essays share. Because of that command, I start with section four, which addresses the types of essays one can write. (Note: The division into types helps teach techniques that might be hard to sort out otherwise. Few essays fit neatly into a single category. A comparison and contrast piece may have highly descriptive passages, for example.) This book could certainly be used start to finish for a writer less familiar with the form.  I generally assign material from the first three sections as needed with my more experienced writers, combining, say, the chapter on introductions and conclusions with the chapter on definition writing. This reinforces the essential techniques and parts of the essay while providing context for using that skill while writing. It’s a flexible text.

I like Models for Writers. It’s approach to technique is straightforward and logical. It’s essays are highly engaging and carefully chosen to illustrate the point at hand. Its assignments for essay types are varied and can easily be expanded upon. The essays are, however, chosen with a college audience in mind. If you have a particularly sensitive child or if your child is quite young, pre-read the essays you assign, ensuring they are appropriate for your child. All essays come with an introduction to orient the reader to the context of the essay (time, publication location, author background). Don’t skip these sections, as they help guide the reader through the piece.

What happens after Models for Writers? Michael Clay Thompson’s Academic Writing 1 could follow or be used along with Models. I’ve also used Writing from Sources (Brenda Spatt) when I want to develop a student’s ability to summarize, paraphrase, and quote effectively. They Say, I Say (Graff, Birkenstein, and Durst) helps students effectively incorporate the writing of others in to argumentative writing. New to me this year is Everything’s an Argument (Lunsford, Ruszkiewicz, and Walters), a book teaching argumentation. Whatever text one chooses, it’s likely time to move into using outside sources for one’s writing, learning the techniques of academic writing. The essay skills learned in Models give writers a strong start for that next task.

Note: I’m unable to accept new private students this semester as my docket is full. Should I have openings for weekly students, I’ll note availability at Write with Sarah, my professional website.  I do have room for project coaching, a service detailed on my website.




Review: One Year Adventure Novel

One Year Adventure Novel (OYAN) , a year-long high school level course on how to write a novel, caught my eye when my younger son, then ten, was gleefully working his way through his first NaNoWriMo. He’d started that process on a bit of a whim, and despite having only written one short story before that November, he completed a quite readable story of over 10,000 words. (For the details of our experience, read this.) He’d been bitten by the fiction writing bug, so naturally, I searched for more avenues to learn about that style of writing. I visited the OYAN homepage several times over the next two years, but the price was off-putting. (Full price, it is $200 and, per the website, not to be resold, although doing so seems to only bar purchaser of the used material access to the website forums and the ability to purchase additional workbooks.)  I wasn’t sure I wanted to make a formal study of this personal passion. But last semester, a parent of a writing student of mine wanted her daughter to give it a try. My excuse to purchase had presented itself, and I agreed, excited to try it out with an eager, exceptionally bright fiction writer.

OYAN, a DVD and text-based program,  is designed to be used over a school year of 36 weeks.  The Compass, a textbook of 78  short chapters including excerpts from novels, gives the meat of the lesson. Each chapter is just a few pages, periodically including a few pages of text from an adventure classic with a few questions for the student to answer. The DVD lecture is nearly identical to the textbook, meaning the curriculum supports auditory and visual learners. Some lectures include well-chosen movie excerpts to illustrate a particular point, but many are simply explanations of what is in the text.  Ranging from six to about fifteen minutes, the lectures are easy to fit into even a busy schedule. At the end of the last DVD are student quizzes, designed to give weekly, other adventure novels, and other extras.

Daniel Schwabauer, the author of the text and the lecturer on the DVDs, is thorough and generally interesting, first covering minutiae about every element of first the main character then the supporting characters. Plot receives similar attention, with nine chapters dedicated to outlining each chapter in great detail. It’s only in Chapter 40 that the writing begins, along with discussions of dialogue, narration, a variety of literary devices, and  a smattering of other topics about writing. Revision receives four chapters, a seemingly paltry amount given how much time it generally takes and the importance it has, an importance acknowledged by the author but given short shrift in the schedule. Getting the first draft done seems to be the main goal.

The Map is the accompanying workbook, and it consists of forty chapters (the workbook stops when the writing begins),  starting with discussions of theme, conflict, and protagonist, leading to character sketches, and ending with detailed chapter outlines. The student who completes those forty chapters will have a clear template for writing his or her book. Some of these questions are quite challenging, reaching beyond the text, especially in the first half of the workbook, when the student may have little idea of what will happen in his or her book. This intense focus on sometimes abstract novel characteristics can be frustrating to the writer who just wants to tell a story. Discussions of theme and the necessity of meaning are repeated, with an emphasis that this is to be a novel of depth rather than a fun read. Again, given this is likely often the first substantial writing project in a student’s experience, this can be overwhelming. A fun, cohesive read with a strong plot and well-developed characters would be likely a more appropriate goal.

The Prisoner of Zenda (an adventure novel by Anthony Hope) rounds out the student portion of the curriculum, and reading assignments about that novel with occasional question sets occur throughout the textbook. While this makes for slow reading of a short book, the readings are timed to match planning techniques. The Teacher’s Guide, a thin volume, contains guidelines for parents and teachers as they evaluate their students as well as answers to weekly quizzes. The course is designed to be completed solo aside from parental evaluations, leading the appropriately light amount of information in this book. (We did not use any of the 78 short answer quizzes, so I can’t speak to their usefulness. I suppose they would provide another criteria for granting a grade for the class, if that were desired.)

Disclosure point: My student and I made it only as far as Chapter 18. Mostly, we stopped because my student was bored and frustrated. Faced with thirteen weeks of not writing, she was losing enthusiasm for what she wanted to do — write her novel. She, like many gifted learners, is a whole-to-parts thinker. OYAN is the ultimate parts-to-whole curriculum. She was, therefore, rather miserable. She’d quickly created character sheets, and after the first week or two, we’d discussed her character’s goals and fears to the point of irritation. (Yes, I was bored, too.)

It’s not that I don’t see the point of planning. I’ve seen students start stories with enthusiasm only to reach a point where they didn’t know where to go next. These stories without a climax were initially wonderful, with compelling characters and well-planned settings, but they simply fail to reach satisfying endings. After a few such episodes, I insisted on a few planning basics: Know your setting, characters, plot, and climax with resolution before you start writing.  OYAN takes this several steps further, insisting on intricate planning before a word of the actual novel is written. Major points of focus in the first six weeks are theme and meaning, subjects that OYAN states are what make a novel worthwhile rather than just an entertaining read.

This is where my student got stuck. Me, too. Here was a bright, capable writer who’d discovered the essence of the story she wanted to tell. But what would be the greater message? She was stymied, and I was convinced it didn’t really matter whether she had a theme or message. We both simply wanted a story. Had she wanted to go on, I’d have walked with her, but as mentioned previously, this curriculum is best for a parts-to-whole thinker, particularly the meticulous type, and she was neither.

The issue of message also bothered me on another level. I’d done my homework. This is a curriculum claiming to have a biblical worldview. On principle and because of poor fit for us, I generally avoid these titles. Most tend to be, at best, simply dismissive of other belief systems and usually far worse. I knew that OYAN’s Chapter 18 contained language that belittled nonbelievers, but I’d also heard that was the worst of it, easily discussed with a student and let go. Given my student was not my own child, I planned to forgo the discussion, which worked well, as we had plenty of other matters to discuss.  The video, however, shook me up. Reading his words in the text had not prepared me for hearing his vitriol toward (and poor understanding of) secular humanists. After he misrepresents agnostics and atheists, he backtracks, saying and writing that meaning doesn’t have to come from religion. I can see no purpose to this rant of his other than to wave the flag of his beliefs while denigrating those who find meaning in something other than supernatural.

But even without this disturbing chapter, OYAN wasn’t for us: Not for my student, and not for me, and likely not for my novel-writing son. It has a good deal to offer for the student wanting a fiction writing curriculum with structure, a bottom-up approach, with plenty of examples of technique from a range of classics. It provides parents with plenty of points of evaluation, something that matters more to some homeschooling families than others. It also offers online support via forums for students and parents. Still, it’s expensive for what it offers, and given that purchasers of previously used copies (a company no-no, but not illegal) cannot simply buy a new workbook to go along with the durable materials.

So what is my novel-writing student using now? A free (for the pdf version), high school level workbook from NaNoWriMo. Elementary and middle school versions are also available, as are sets of lesson plans designed for classroom use. I’ve yet to check out the plans, but I can say that the workbooks are far more to-the-point than the OYAN curriculum, and that’s what she needs.

Writing Lessons: Write What You Like

Writing Lessons is an occasional series about teaching writing. 

I’ve been teaching/coaching/tutoring writing for the past three months. I have five students in my charge, ranging from age 9 to age 15 and from 3 to 3,000 miles away. We communicate via Google Hangout and email. All my students could be characterized as reluctant writers, or at least not the enthusiastic type who loves to spend hours at the computer turning ideas into words on the page. But all are writing, and some are surprised to find out they enjoy it. I’m learning as I go, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

I know I’ve learned this: when possible, let them choose the topic. Let them write about what they like. While this seems obvious for the youngest writers, it’s easy to assume that the older writer should be writing about whatever topic is presented. Certainly that’s a skill necessary for academic and, often, professional success. I’ve never been asked at work if I wanted to write a note on a patient I’ve just seen or if I’d rather pick another subject. It’s not an option — for some reason, the family practice that employs me prefers me write about the medical encounter and not home schooling, Unitarian Universalism, or matters of the heart, all preferable topics. College was no different. The subject was given or was at least constrained.

But for young writers, especially the reluctant ones, let them write about what they like. I’ve received paragraphs about cats, essays about Minecraft, and stories about monsters. Each student’s first assignment was to introduce himself or herself, which provided me with both a writing sample, and per my instructions, a list of topics one would find not too painful writing fodder. Armed with lists including pets, video games, space, nanotechnology,the hate of writing, and more, I began to give assignments. Within days, my inbox contained with pieces about cats. A few weeks later, it was Minecraft. While I share an affection for felines, I’m not so enamored with Minecraft, a game my children talk about at length. But no matter. The kids were writing, and writing fairly well.

Cats and video games lend themselves to a variety of formal and informal writing. Cats can be described in appearance (descriptive writing).  They can be given a voice (point of view). A pair of cats lend themselves to comparison and contrast. One can even give directions about how play with a cat. And while research is not yet on everyone’s assignment lists, I’m sure cats will serve well there, too. I can easily see persuasive essays about cat ownership or declawing. Creative writers can write about cats, too: I’ve read more than one student-produced cat-centered story, and my younger son is deeply writing his second cat novel. Cats, for some kids, work as interesting, comfortable writing material.

Minecraft (and any video game would work) lends itself to the same treatment. Writers can describe the creatures within the game and give instructions on dealing with those creatures without getting killed. A recent young writer drafted a fine essay extolling the virtues of relying on player-created videos to improve one’s game play. While it’s not a topic I’d have ever chosen as a writer or a teacher, it interested him. The writing technique we were honing was unity, and this could be accomplished with any subject. Doing it with one within his comfort zone made that a bit more enjoyable.

Writing about one’s own interests has a few benefits. First, it’s easier to pay attention to what interests one. Personally, I’d rather write about homeschooling or twice-exceptional education than about fluctuating corn prices or how to roast a pig. Just like me, when students choose their writing topics, they stay engaged and are often more eager to write (or less heavily resistant, which is on the spectrum of eager, right?). A reduction in the pain factor is always a plus.

Writing about what interests one can make a long assignment more bearable. When team-teaching a group of high-schoolers through a research paper, my teaching partner and I encouraged them to pick a topic with care since they’d be living intimately with it for a couple of months. Liking it makes that a more pleasant time. While most of the kids were thoroughly tired of the writing process by the end of six weeks, they were still generally interested in their topics.

Additionally, writing is a fine process for organizing previously learned information in new ways. Writing about a passion is far from just a recitation of what’s previously been learned. It’s a chance to categorize and recategorize what’s already been learned. New relationships are revealed, which can make one consider one’s cat or video game in a different light. A martial art studied for years becomes more sharply defined when held against a different martial art — what was taken for granted is somehow now new and different. These higher-order thinking skills can blossom through writing about the utterly familiar and ordinary.

Finally, when the subject is familiar and comfortable, the focus can be on the writing process rather than wrestling with new information about a subject. In the comfort of a student’s knowledge of his two cats, he or she can focus on the structure of a comparison and contrast essay about those beloved creatures. With the subject matter previously internalized, what to say is not as problematic, and the attention can go into how to say it. Experimenting with metaphorical language is easier when the objects for comparison are familiar, and learning to write an instructive piece is easier if the process being written about is familiar to the writer.

There will be plenty of times when a young writer doesn’t have a choice about the writing topic, but especially for young writers and resistant writers, turning over topic selection to the writer can make the project easier and more enjoyable for both learner and teacher. As many a homeschooling parent knows, writing can be hard enough to teach as it is. Give yourself a break. Whatever the next writing skill on the learning list is, try turning the topic selection entirely over to your child while focusing on teaching the techniques the child needs to know. If that turns into short stories about fairies, expository essays about black holes, or persuasive pieces about the benefits of video gaming for kids, so be it.  You might even catch your young writer smiling.