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.




Changes of State

IMG_0553After four months of not blogging or otherwise writing anything more than website content and emails, I’m feeling a bit wobbly as I figure out how to fit writing into a very busy and quite changed life. I now have two teens, one entering his senior year and the other starting eighth grade. I’m married after many years of being a solo adult in the house. I’m also taking on more work under the (hopefully not false) belief that older children will be more independent children, thus creating some additional space for me to expand my professional life. Oh. And I’m still homeschooling.

Somewhere in all that flux, I stopped writing. While I needed to put my time and energy into the changes our family has been experiencing, I’ve missed the outlet writing provides. I process when I write. I move from minutiae to main idea, finding themes and patterns and often gaining perspective. But the last four months required privacy of thought and experience. They have demanded time, attention, and planning, accompanied with heaps of patience and perseverance. Teens. A husband. Work.  Oh, so many deep breaths.

Teens. Somehow, without permission, my younger son entered his teens. If you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s “twelve plus one,” insisting he’s not a teen until he’s fourteen, because that’s when high school formally begins. Whether this is a bit of reluctance to be grouped as the suspect being named “teen” or just a quirky way to spin a milestone that he doesn’t see as meaningful (“No, I don’t feel any different now that I’m twelve plus one.”), I don’t know. When I do the family body count, I find two teens, two beings wrestling with autonomy, responsibility, hormonal fluctuations, dramatic brain changes, and the necessity of regular showers. For the past few years, I’ve found myself holding my breath, relishing the relatively easy preteen years of my younger son, wondering what changes would happen. It is getting harder again, as it should. Teens have a hard job, growing up into themselves.

Marriage. Sharing a home with an adult who loves me deeply delights me. The preparation for sharing a home and a life challenged all of us, with all the physical work of moving and the emotional upheaval that goes with even the best of change.  It’s taken less time than I anticipated to find our rhythm and for the boys to adjust to the change. It’s still new, and I know we have plenty to learn about living together as a couple and as a foursome, but the joy seems to deepen by the day. It’s the most worthwhile sort of work, learning to love more completely and communicate effectively within that shared love of family.

Work. For two years, I’ve taught writing to gifted homeschoolers via the internet. One-on-one, I’ve worked with children ages ten through sixteen on academic writing (essays and research papers) with a bit of fiction writing worked in for those who feel the need. I’ve also coached a few graduate students through their academic writing projects and dissertation proposals, helping them organize their thoughts and present them more professionally while nudging along skills in grammar, usage, and punctuation. (See Write With Sarah for more information. My individual tutoring spots are full for 2014/15, but I’m available for coaching on a project-by-project basis for writers of any age.)  I’m also offering copy editing, a new service that will likely take some time to develop, but seems a natural extension of my coaching.

More work: This year, I’m also serving as writing coach for Online G3, an online source of classes in the humanities (and now science!) designed for gifted kids. (Click here my review of Online G3.) Joining an organization that’s been the highlight of my younger son’s homeschooling experience is heady and daunting. My technological acumen is, ahem, rudimentary, and I’m slowly wading my way through electronic classroom software and forum software. I have fine guides, and I’m keeping my focus on the content of this endeavor and trying not to fret about the tech end too much. It will come together. I’m sure!

Oh. And homeschooling. Homeschooling older teens often consists more of administrative duties than teaching duties. Dual enrollment courses for my older require me to drive a fair amount, write a few checks each semester, and keep the internet provider paid, but I do little actual teaching for my older. Despite years of maintaining his transcript, I still find myself awed by the responsibility of the task. What exactly is a high school credit measured by, time spent, material learned, or some magical mix between them? What do I grade, and what is just deemed “passed”? I’ve gained some confidence in this role, but I can’t say I’m comfortable reducing his educational experience to a few sheets of paper full of numbers and letter grades. Oh, and college applications. I’ll have on my counselor hat for that task.

My younger still is transcript-free, but one administrative job this fall is to start one for him. I’m still actively teaching him, although online classes and homeschool group classes put me in the part-time teacher category. Math lessons are done with me. Latin is at least graded by me, as I’m not devoting myself to actually learning the Latin with him. ( I know my limits, and he’s far better at the language than I.) Chemistry, however, is all mine — my younger son along three other teens will be my students for lab, lecture, and hopefully a fire-free year of high school chemistry. I’ve started to plan but still have a good way to go before the syllabus is complete. Oh, there’s work to be done…

So with teens, marriage, work, and homeschooling in front of me, I return to blogging and other writing endeavors. I’ve missed writing. Writing offers time for me to be present with a single line of thought, and while I’d not name that process meditative, I’d call it mindful. I need more of that in a life that feels constructed of dozens of pieces, many calling me at the same time. I want the peace of the process brings and the clarity that results from the sorting and thinking as I go. How it fits into an increasingly busy life remains to be seen, but I need this part of me back.




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.

Review: Brave Writer (Help for High School)

I’m fascinated with writing curriculum. Since I started teaching writing, I’ve had the chance to sample several. No, I’ve not found the one that works for everyone, but I am developing a sense of what might make a good match for a particular student. This fall, a family wanted to try Brave Writer’s Help for High School, by Julia Bogart,  for their gifted twelve-year-old. I’d long wanted to see a Brave Writer title, given the rave reviews and supposed ease of use, so I eagerly purchased a copy, read it through, and started to work through it with the young man.

Brave Writer’s Help for High School is supposed to “help teens learn how to think, argue, and create their own powerful writing at the same time.” It’s aimed for a teen to read and work through independently, with the parent as “ally” (the author’s word), available for support and conversation while also editing and marking assignments for clarity and thoroughness. Two essay types are addressed, a closed form essay (the traditional formal essay of academic writing) and the open form essay (more informal with the thesis less obviously stated and with a more literary bent). Bogart adds a third category, a hybrid of sorts, which she calls investigative essay writing (or later, an exploratory essay), which seems to be an examination of a problem or question without a specific thesis. An expository essay (closed form and argumentative) follows, with materials on paraphrasing and summary.

Help for High School is broken into two parts, Preparation for Essay Writing and Essay Writing. For each module (chapter), the student reads the material and does some writing. For the first half of the book, most of this writing is personal and highly informal. The purpose seems to be to relax the student and encourage thinking about subjects from different angles. For all the assignments, the student picks the topic, a practice I’ve used in my teaching, since it increases engagement in the material and, for the reluctant students, at least provides a point of enjoyment in what otherwise may seem like an onerous task. Assignments in the first section are designed to help students make associations between topics and their own beliefs, values, and experiences. She stretches students to come up with, for example, colors and shapes that indicate confusion for the student or names of people the student thinks of when thinking of the word greed. While some of this brainstorming and prewriting leads to slightly longer assignments, most is done and set aside, with a focus on the process of generating ideas and thoughts rather than developing those ideas and thoughts into a full piece of writing. There is a sense of “trust the process” through this first half of the book, which can be challenging to sell to a critical young thinker who wants the whole picture from the start.

In the second half, the essay writing portion, the assignments gradually shift. Attention to asking a meaningful question to explore comes first, with an assignment of a  first-person essay that simply looks at a question from many angles with no clear thesis or outcome. As she approaches the expository essay, she raises the question of thesis with tension, and this is where I feel Help for High School is at its strongest. Bogart differentiates between topic and thesis quite well, attention well-deserved, since many a student essay falls flat for lack of a strong thesis that matters. Her attention to support (which she calls points)  and details to support those points (particulars) leads to an outline format that should guide a writer to producing a more organized essay that stays on track. Paraphrasing and summarizing receive a module, but, despite examples of direct quotations in the sample essay, quotations do not. She briefly covers introductions and conclusions as well as essay structure for the five-paragraph essay. MLA citations are mentioned and used in an example but not taught. Formality, addressed fairly thoroughly, is mentioned much earlier in the text and would be more appropriate within the essay writing portion of the text. It goes unused early on, where the writing is personal, and its lessons could easily be forgotten. This portion of Help for High School is a fairly strong yet far too brief introduction to the essay.

Overall, however, I’m disappointed. As a reader and writer of exploratory and expository essays and teacher of the expository essay, I hoped for more time spent on the academic (expository or argumentative) essay and less on lists of associations, personal anecdotal writing, and informal free writing. Her section on the expository essay itself — the sort of essay needed for high school and beyond — is but a small portion of the book.  I do think this text from Brave Writer could be helpful for an emotive child willing to brainstorm, free write, and associate creatively to see how those associations can move from thought to essay.  Much of the first section of the book, however, is intensely personal, and for a sensitive or private kid, the assignments are just too revealing, even if they are only viewed by Mom or a tutor. Given that sort of writing is exactly what won’t be acceptable in academic circles, I question the emphasis. Brave Writer’s Help for High School is, however, gentle. If the goal is to move a comfortable writer who doesn’t mind the level of sharing the text requires, then it succeeds. There are, I’m sure, many emotive writers needing to transition to academic writing for whom this curriculum would be useful.

The program is remarkably homeschooling- and teen-friendly. The language is designed to be accessible to the teen and to feel conversational. Since I’m not a teen, I’m not certain how her audience perceives her assumptions about teen interests and stances on a variety of subjects, but she certainly tries to appeal to that audience. Some of her topic suggestions (and one of the two formal essay examples) are about homeschooling issues specifically, while others are about topics she thinks might matter to teenage homeschoolers.

This is a secular curriculum. Bogart spends a few pages on writing and faith, noting that “the vast majority” of the homeschoolers she knows are Christian. Early in the book, she differentiates between apologetics and strong academic argument clearly and firmly without putting down the importance of faith in the lives of her students. She weaves in a discussion on audience, encouraging writers to consider the appropriateness of apologetics or reliance on the Bible as evidence for a statement. While there are mentions of religious belief in some of the essay and other writing examples, they are not present in the two formal expository samples and aren’t likely to be a problem for anyone, secular or religious.

Help for High School, $80 through the Brave Writer site carries a hefty price tag for a 166 page PDF file, although it is often on sale on the Homeschool Buyers Co-op for far less. It can be used, says the author, in as little as 6 to 8 weeks or stretched out over longer than a semester. Certainly many of the sections could be done more than once with different subjects, although this is true with most writing curricula.

Would I teach from Help for High School again? Yes, with the right student. With a willing writer comfortable with personal disclosure and open-ended assignments that don’t lead to a finished project, this would be an interesting and likely productive book for transitioning from personal, informal writing to the formal essay. Overall, I prefer more formal tomes: Essay VoyageAdvanced Academic Writing, or They Say, I Say (to be reviewed later). These moved quickly to the sort of academic writing young people need for high school coursework and beyond. And should the writer choose to write personal essays in his or her leisure time, say as a blogger about homeschooling, the lessons learned in academic writing transfer well to more literary writing. Despite her statement to the contrary (“…none of us will read expository essays for pleasure…”), this book has something to offer with the right student and with plenty of deeper essay exploration to follow.



Teaching Other People’s Children

Thompson Lab 10.2:  And the color change after

I never planned to teach children. At different points as a kid, I wanted to be an archaeologist,  an astronaut, a brain surgeon, and a social worker (although I didn’t know what they did). So naturally, I spent college as an English major. My inner scientist emerged a few years later, and I found myself as a Physician Assistant with an inkling that writing professionally and teaching in a PA program would come later.

It’s eighteen years later, and I write for free, don’t teach at the Univeristy level, and do teach children, my own and Other People’s Children. Oh, and I still practice as a PA. Of all those, it’s teaching other people’s children that’s stretched me the furthest and taught me the most.

My movement into the education of offspring other than my own (beyond a bit of Sunday School) started four years back, beginning what is now known as MacLeod Biology or Quarks and Quirks Biology.My older son, then 12, was ready for high-school level biology, and I had a history of flaking out on labs and formal science study. His buddy, another gifted kid, needed Biology as well. I knew I’d not flake with two, so after a summer of reviewing biology books, chatting with my biology professor of a father, and making then unmaking plans, I started teaching my two charges.

October 2010 031I’ve not looked back. Teaching someone else’s child increased my follow-through as well as my drive to find supporting materials for classes and labs. I did, after all, have two hours once a week to fill, and being responsible for the education of another’s offspring brought out the more responsible  me. I kept a list of labs, videos, assignments, and readings on a website, thus (ideally) fostering some independence on their part as well as a record of what we’d done.

Delighted with our success, the boys and I moved on to high school level chemistry. I was nervous. Where biology offered the comfort of the familiar, chemistry brought the promise of review. My chemistry over 20 years old, dusted off only in the context of medicine and revisited only lightly as a homeschooling parent of children under the age of 13. I expected a rough time of it and was surprised how quickly the material returned. My son and his friend brought enthusiasm for the subject matter. I brought the discipline that comes with maturity and far better discernment when working with fire and potentially hazardous materials. They distilled spirits, made black powder (not an official lab, but safely done), and regularly reviewed lab safety while learning an impressive amount of Chemistry. As a teacher, I honed my test design skills and learned when to stretch my students. It was a fabulous year.

Last year, without a science to teach (having drawn the line at physics), I taught six weeks of bioethics and team taught six weeks of research paper writing. With a group of ten, classroom management issues appeared. Faced with a spectrum of skills and experience, I was stretched further than previously to make a concept clear in several different ways for the varying learning styles of my students. When teaching them to write a research paper, I learned to discard global expectations and simply work with each student individually, attempting to improve a few skills during our six weeks of writing.

The lessons learned with those students led me to start teaching writing one-on-one this school year. Most of my writing students are profoundly gifted, and some also have a learning disability. Familiarity with my home-grown versions of twice exceptionality gave me only a hint of how to start approaching other people’s children with similar challenges. The first weeks or even months with each student can be littered with my missteps and mid-course corrections, and patient parents, tired from the battle, become my allies as we pick our way through the labyrinth of their children’s complicated minds. Generally, we find a way through, a pace that works for the family, and perhaps even a bit of rhythm.

Teaching writing to other people’s children informed my work with my own sons’ writing. As one who loves to write, my older son’s writing challenges and resistance have frustrated me. After teaching other people’s children,  I began to think differently about the process of teaching him to write. I now work with him through Google Docs, making notes in the margin and through the text, just as I do with my distance students. This seems a bit less personal than red marks all over a paper. It provides some distance we both need, which helps both of us.

IMG_0162This year also found me teaching physics and physical science. Both boys needed the material, and both had a friend or two also in need. My one and only physics class was 25 years back, but, alas, several of the topics we’re covering were not in that semester of coursework (electricity seemed to be a second semester offering, for example). It’s work. Hard work at times, explaining what I’ve just only figured out. But teaching as I’m learning drives me to reach deeper understanding faster than if I were learning the material on my own. Additionally, I’ve become more familiar with the workings of the universe. More of the world makes sense, and that delights me.

Teaching other people’s children offers an opportunity to share what you love, to hone a skill that’s been dormant, or to learn new material, even the type that scares you. It broadens your appreciation for the differences between kids and between homeschooling families. It can even help you educate your own children more effectively, if you can bring the patience cultivated from that experience back home. That’s the benefit the whole family can appreciate.

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.

Composition Choices: Michael Clay Thompson

Previously, I’ve reviewed MCT’s first three levels of language arts materials (General, Grammar and Poetics, Vocabulary and Composition)  and the first composition book for the fourth level (Advanced Academic Writing I). While the grammar, vocabulary, and poetics books at each level work well together, the corresponding composition books tend to be beyond the reach of many young, gifted kids. As I’ve begun to tutor young writers, discussing what level of MCT composition is appropriate has come up more than once. Here are some thoughts on making a selection. 

Michael Clay Thompson breathes life into language arts instruction. With six levels of materials covering grammar, vocabulary, composition, poetics, and literature, he seamlessly integrates those elements of the English language in a manner that assumes his readers are intelligent, active learners. These are not workbooks for self-study — they are texts best explored with a teacher or guide. While the composition books could be used without the rest of the books in the corresponding level, the learner would need a strong grasp of grammar to truly take advantage of what they have to offer and an understanding of MCT’s four-level approach to grammar. (Take home message — if you’re using a composition book, purchase that level of grammar or higher to use with it.)

All his books within a level are integrated, each rooted heavily in the corresponding grammar book and somewhat less on the vocabulary book.  For many young gifted learners this presents a dilemma — what a level child is able to manage in grammar, vocabulary and poetics reaches a level or often more above what works for composition for the child. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for a child to be ready for the fourth level of grammar and vocabulary but still be working on the second level of composition. No need to worry, however, as that difference works quite well.

Sentence Island: This is a fine start for the beginning young writer. While the content is applicable to writers of all levels, it has a young feel, which would likely be off-putting to the upper elementary or older learner (over age 10, perhaps, depending on the child). This book teaches writing beyond the sentence and demands understanding of the grammar taught in the corresponding level. For my younger son, it was too demanding (unless I scribed for him) until he was about nine, at which point, he was finishing the Voyage (third) level of everything else. This worked well for my (then) reluctant writer, and I was glad we waited. (Only the Teacher Manual is necessary when using this at home.)

Paragraph Town: The second writing book of the MCT series takes the writer through the story of two ducks, Fishmeal and Queequack, as Fishmeal seeks knowledge about the paragraph. The story nature of the book makes it better suited for younger users, but the material is so worthwhile, I’d encourage the reluctant but somewhat older writer to read through the story and work through the exercises (which are fine for any age). Even experienced writers can benefit from the thorough treatment of the paragraph in this fine text. There’s quite a bit here. Resist the urge to fly through, and take time to assure the lessons are absorbed and sufficient practice occurs. (Again, only the Teacher Manual is necessary for home use.)

Essay Voyage: This text makes a big leap from Paragraph Town in style and content. Gone is the story form of teaching. Instead, MCT breaks essay writing tasks into ten chapters, covering such topics as structure, formality,  content, conclusion, and even correct citations and use of quotations. Each element of writing is clearly taught, complete with examples. Most chapters offer a list of options including research and reflections on readings. Gradually, essays are included in the options, and by the end, essays with quotations are expected. It’s a steep set of expectations that, if met, would lead to developing quite strong writing skills that certainly would prepare a learner for high school and exceed what many can do before heading to college.

The essay examples range from the lighthearted to the quite difficult, including a selection from the Federalist Papers and the Narrative of Frederick Douglass, just to name two. This represents a challenge when using the book with a younger learner who just may not related to the content of the essays for examination. For the younger child, moving directly from Paragraph Town, with its more gentle approach and easy reading material, to Essay Voyage may not be advisable. If in doubt, wait, working longer with the earlier book or supplementing with other materials. (As with the other books at this level, only the TM is necessary.)
Advanced Academic Writing I: The fourth book (reviewed here) continues where the third left off, using literature as a starting point for writing with quotations and, new to this level, paraphrasing with citations. While sound in content, the tone is harsh. Yes, writers should be held to high standards in form and content, but this volume is a bit punishing for my taste, at least on the grading front. in my opinion, his focus on grading interferes with the material taught. One could certainly soften that approach and ignore the rubric MCT presents, but a large portion of the book is based on meeting this demands.
This is not a tome for the younger gifted writer, and it is a leap beyond the previous level, Essay Voyage. The first assignment requires writing about literature,  a difficult task for any writer (and the gifted child may be at this fourth level at 10 or even earlier). While there is fine writing advice given here, I’ve chosen other paths to teaching this level of composition. (This book is best used with both the student text and TM. MCT offers a second and third level of Advanced Academic Writing, which I’ve yet to explore.)

Michael Clay Thompson offers a fine introduction to essay writing, starting at the level of the sentence. The young writer will likely need a slower progression through the writing portion of the MCT books, and the guide above may help one find the right pace to start. Remember, MCT’s composition books are targeted toward academic essays and papers, not fiction or other genre. While I’m of the thought that teaching this more formal writing should be the first priority when teaching children to write, there is value in adding other creative components to a writing curriculum, especially for children craving that sort of writing outlet. Whatever type of writing a learner prefers, however, the material taught in his first three composition books will form a solid base of writing skills that would serve writers of any genre.

As with all my reviews, I’ve received no compensation in materials or otherwise for this review. 

Summer Break?

I’ve moved past the “Whew! It’s over!” stage that began Memorial Day weekend. The first few weeks of summer, I luxuriated in my new freedom from coaxing kids through assignments and planning lessons. Then I started to approach a few of those nagging projects: the doors that needed painting, the mounds of paperwork on my desk, and church committee work. Once the fun of all that wore off (yes, there are still more doors needing a coat of paint), I moved on to start preparations for fall. No, they aren’t complete. No, I don’t know exactly what each subject will look like for my kids (although here’s my guess for my older and my younger). Specifically, I have two new projects (and another hatching project) that keep me occupied and occasionally stressed during these hot and hazy days of summer.

As mentioned in my preliminary plans for my older son, I’m teaching Physics this fall. No one could be more surprised than I. Biology was my first foray into planning and executing a lab science course for more than just my own child, and I had fun. It is my domain, scientifically, and I thoroughly enjoy the exploration of the living science and sharing that exploration with others.

Chemistry was the logical next step, and I felt some trepidation planning that one. My last Chemistry class was two decades earlier, and while I understood the basics of the science, I didn’t have the same passion about it. But my son and his friend had an enormous amount of excitement about the course, which promised dangerous chemicals, controlled explosions, and liberal use of flames. Their excitement was contagious and made planning easier.

But after Chemistry, I swore I was done. No Physics, I told them and myself. And last year, my older took a year off from lab science, instead doing a Meteorology and Earth Science study while I focused my energy on subjects other than science.

But Physics was due. With nine other credits at a local University scheduled for my older son this fall, I knew college-level physics at the same institution would be overwhelming. I also knew we’d both fare better if his Physics study included someone other than just him. Science is collaborative, and bouncing ideas off of lab partners mirrors the intra-lab confabs that occur in professional science. Plus, I’m more consistently prepared when my audience extends beyond my offspring. (Call me a bad mom, but it’s true.)

So mid-August, I’ll begin an Algebra-based Physics course for four high schoolers, ranging from 14 to 17 years old. We’ll meet weekly for three hours or so, spending time on assignment review, lecture, and labs. Once a month, more or less, another dedicated homeschooling parent will make the class sing, encouraging experiment design and implementation with plenty of support and wisdom. With a true love for Physics, he’ll provide the heart for the science that I find a tad intimidating. I’m grateful beyond words.

As the lesson plans unfold, I’ll add them to a page on the top of this blog. This may not happen every week, so if you’re interested, visit Don’t Touch the Photons for the most up-to-date lesson and links. Keeping a webpage for a class keeps crucial information about assignments in the hands of students and forces me to plan ahead, which are both convincing reasons for me to make the effort.

My other summer endeavor falls well within my comfort zone. I’m offering writing coaching/tutoring to a handful of students. A few are local, but most are scattered around the country. While I’ll rely somewhat on Michael Clay Thompson’s Paragraph Town and Essay Voyage, I’ll likely create my own materials based on the needs the kids present. For some students, I’ll be planning a course and carrying it out, available via email and Google Hangout (a Skype-like setting where documents can be shared and marked up together). For others, I’m assisting on a project assigned by someone else. I’m quite excited as I start this journey, anticipating steep learning curve for me while hopefully delighting in the growth of young writers.

My own writing projects often takes a back seat, and this summer proves to be no exception. This is avoidance, of course, and a fear of starting without the whole picture in front of me. I have a few larger projects in mind (read: books that want out of my head), including one that would likely spring in one direction or another from my writing here. I see some holes in the books available for homeschooling families, and I’d like to try to fill one. If that sounds vague, it’s because it is still fuzzy to me. I’m not sure what I’m waiting to have happen — what moment of clarity I await  — but I seem to be in a holding pattern.

As I watch myself procrastinate, I understand my children a bit better. Their stalling and occasional downright opposition to assignments (often the writing sort) stems from a similar place. Both admit to fears about starting when the whole project isn’t clearly in mind. Both suffer the sort of perfectionism that makes task initiation difficult or even impossible. I’m open about my own “stuck” times, sharing what worries me when I can’t start and what, if anything, I find to help me along.  And that, perhaps, is a perpetual fourth project: better understanding my children. The stakes feel high, but the timeline is long.

There’s plenty to do this summer. Along with two definitive projects, one incubating work (with duct tape on the egg as a precautionary action to ward off failure), and a lifelong quest, there are vacations to take, friends to see, gardens to tend, books to read, and clouds to watch. And those other doors? They’re not looking that bad after all.

Review: Advanced Academic Writing, Volume I (Michael Clay Thompson)

I’m committed to raising strong writers. For parts of my boys’ lives, they’ve been committed to not writing. I managed to cultivate enough patience accommodate this reluctance, scribing until they could type well and exposing them to plenty of fine writing along the way. We tried a few writing programs, but they largely felt formulaic and focused heavily on creative writing, which did not please my older son, who eventually broke through the writing wall with an online course.

A year or so later, we started using Michael Clay Thompson’s Language Arts materials from Royal Fireworks Press. (I’ve reviewed the Elementary resources here:  MCT Overview, Grammar and Poetics, Vocabulary and Composition ) Both my sons moved quickly and happily through the grammar and vocabulary books. Given their writing reluctance, we always lagged behind on the writing portion of the series, generally working a level behind on the writing end of the curriculum. This is a common solution for many using the series with younger children. The output required for the writing books far outpaces what many young children can manage, so many families just adjust accordingly.

Advanced Academic Writing, Volume 1 (AAW 1) is the first of the MCT writing Middle/Secondary writing series. It’s a serious tome designed to teach a learner how to write an MLA-style academic essay or research paper. It’s designed to be used with Magic Lens 1 (grammar) and Word Within a Word 1(vocabulary), which are also far more serious and demanding books than their predecessors. Like with the elementary series, I’ve found that while that at this level, the grammar and vocabulary books are accessible to my kids, the writing program is a giant leap above them. Admittedly, I’m using the books early for my younger (WWW 1 and ML 1 for 5th grade), and the asynchrony of gifted children often results in a delay on the product end of the learning equation. But even as we approach the second level of the secondary grammar and vocabulary, I know he’s not nearly ready for Advanced Academic Writing I.

Like Essay Voyage, the third writing text in the elementary trio, AAW 1 focuses on formal diction and prose and third-person writing. Advanced Academic Writing continues where Essay Voyage, the last volume of the elementary series, leaves off. While the other portions of the MCT language arts curriculum have a spiral element built-in, allowing a learner to enter at about any level, the writing portion is far more linear.  While a high school student could begin the rest of the middle/secondary series and be able to work through the series successfully, AAW 1 relies heavily on the material from  Essay Voyage, where the principles of a well-crafted essay are explicitly taught. This isn’t a problem if a student is well-schooled in writing an academic essay, but many students simply aren’t.

Advanced Academic Writing 1 begins with a fifty-odd page writing guide that briefly covers the mechanics of writing an academic essay or short research paper. After covering standard proofreading marks, MLA rules regarding form and style, and quotations, Thompson gives an example of a paper fitting his criteria with a few proofreading marks thrown in as examples. The paper is heavy on long quotes for it’s three page length, but it’s point is to illustrate form, formality, and adherence to the thesis. The samples in the book are all short, as are the assignments. Thompson is looking for perfecting each part of smaller works — learning correct form. I agree with the philosophy of several shorter assignments with the aim of learning the form. It’s a more efficient and less overwhelming way to learn the intricate process of academic writing. (When I co-taught a research paper class, this point was driven home to me. We assigned a paper three to four times the length MCT suggests, and the students were rather overwhelmed. Lesson learned.)

The guide continues with word usage and punctuation guides along with a few examples of papers with errors. These lists are concise and easy to use, limited to a few pages each and accessible for the grammar-savvy user. What follows is less concise: nearly twenty pages of what he calls “core-element grading.” It’s at this where I disagree with MCT. His grading method starts with correct use of the English language, then moves to MLA format, correct essay structure, and, finally, the meaningfulness of the idea itself. In short, if the first item isn’t present (proper English) the paper can receive a grade no higher than a D with mastery (in order) of the following elements to achieve a C, B, or A. In short, a paper with an excellent thesis that is well-supported with excellent command of the English language can receive no more than a C if MLA formatting is incorrect. Form before function, I suppose.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a stickler about form and proper use of the English language. But I can’t agree with putting the quality and support of the thesis last. Kids develop their writing ability unevenly, and this one penalizes those who lag on the details but excel in content. Certainly the whole grading system could be dismissed. As homeschoolers, we regularly dismiss what does not fit our needs. However, the focus on errors in the first three categories continues throughout the book, and while the examples are helpful, I’d rather see far more focus on creating effective essays.

Four assignments make up the second half of the book, each with word lists from Word Within the Word 1, hints about word choice, a sentence from 4Practice 1, a sample paper with a few pages of comments (positive and negative) addressing the elements listed above, and, for two of the assignments, a writing lesson (organization and outlining; proper citation). Finally, the assignment is given. Thompson is painstakingly clear regarding expectations for each paper, although he leaves plenty of room for choice on the subject of each essay. His assignments each have a specific purpose, which he makes clear as well. Students are asked to write each of the following:

  • An interpretation of fiction using a single source
  • An essay citing multiple sources
  • An essay on a revolutionary character
  • An essay on an abstract concept
These choices leave plenty of room for a student to follow an interest or for a parent or teacher to shape into an assignment that intersects with other material being taught.
So how much did we use Advanced Academic Writing, Volume 1? Not much. The first few sections intimidated my older son, who was a ninth grader by age and still very reluctant to write. He can write quite well but tends to panic easily. The tone of this book was panic-inducing for him, and I quickly set it aside. He has written two fine research papers since then, both using many of the concepts Thompson teaches but with less demanding assignments. My younger is an astonishingly fine writer at ten would be unable to handle many of the assignments now. Interpretation of fiction is a task that flummoxes many an older teen, and his other assignments simply aren’t yet accessible to him. So for now, I rely on Essay Voyage and, for the most part, my own writing knowledge. It’s likely the homeschooler in me, but I’m far more intent on keeping writing from being hated and focusing on continuous improvement than letter-grading my kids’ work. I can see where this book would be a fine addition to an honors-level high school class, but it’s not for the reluctant writer or most younger children ready for the content he provides for grammar and vocabulary at this level.
So for now, Advanced Academic Writing, Volume 1, will continue to sit on my shelf. It may be a fine match for my younger son a few years from now. He’s a strong writer, and he’s less likely to be intimidated by the tone and content of this book. My older, however, needs a gentler, kinder path to mastering academic writing. What that is, I don’t quite know, but I’ll share our journey here when I work that out.

How to Write a Research Paper in Six (Really Five) Weeks

For a syllabus for the course and notes about the process, see the Research Paper Class page.

We’re done.  It’s been a grueling six (okay, really five) weeks since a writing-savvy friend and I launched eight homeschooled high schoolers on their research papers — the first for all but one.  Aged fourteen though seventeen, they muddled their way through topic selection, research and note taking, outline creation, two drafts, and one final copy about a subject of their choosing.  They worked hard, and they learned writing skills, MLA style, and perseverance.

Both aged a wee bit older, my comrade in torture patient instruction and I worked kids through crises, wielded pencils with moderate restraint (red ink was just too harsh), and bit our lips through it all.   Continue reading