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.





Planning Time: What’s Happening for the Younger (age 10)

After an email request for an update to my “What We Say We’re Doing” page, I decided it was indeed time to figure out what the heck we’re doing come fall.  I have plenty kicking around in my head, but that’s only the start of the real work.  Planning for my 10-year-old is the easier of the two jobs this year, so I’ll start with him.

Math:  Last year, more independent mathematical work was one of my goals.  My younger still has a fair amount of panic about getting problems wrong, so generally he checks in with me after each problem.  This drives me nuts, honestly, and while he’s sometimes willing to forgo that pattern when he’s feeling super-confident, he has a long way to go.  We slowed math down last year when his panic at the word “math” began to mount.  He’s mathematically talented, and I really struggle with his aversion to something he does so well.  We added some of Theoni Pappas‘ work for fun, and Penrose the Cat is a hit.  Anything with a cat is a hit, but I have yet to find the all-cat math curriculum. We’ll continue with Pappas and similar material as we finish up Singapore 6B and Singapore Challenging Word Problems 6, a project that shouldn’t take long.  Upon his request, we’ll work through Pre-Algebra I and II from Life of Fred. (He saw a friend’s copy and thought it looked okay.)I didn’t bother with pre-algebra with my older, heading straight to Jacob’s Algebra after Singapore 6, but this child needs confidence despite his obvious talent, and I hope time and some diversions into other aspects of math provides that.

Science:  We’re all on to Earth Science this year, using CPO Middle School Earth Science for my younger.  It’s an inquiry-based curriculum, which means that questioning comes before vocabulary and scientific thinking trumps rote comprehension questions.  I’m a fan of the inquiry method and excited to try this well-reviewed curriculum.  It’s not designed for homeschoolers, and I’ll try to keep track of changes we make and materials we need so others might benefit later.  We have a bit of Middle School Chemistry to finish still, but hopefully we’ll finish that up this summer.

History:  After a highly successful semester with Online G3‘s History of US 2B (1899 to the present), my younger’s eager to take the rest of her offerings.  First semester, he’ll take the corresponding 1A course, covering the first three books of the History of US series by Joy Hakim.  He’s likely to pick up another in the series come spring.  History is in Headmistress’ Guinevere’s hands. Whew.

Language Arts:  My younger devoured two levels of Michael Clay Thompson’s Grammar and Vocabulary books, so this year he hits the big leagues with Word Within the Word I and Magic Lens I.  As did his brother, he’ll do these with Online G3, but while I left his brother does his own devices and kept my nose (mostly) out of the class, I’ll keep tighter reign on my younger son.  We’ll read the books together, and I plan on more outside work on the vocabulary for him.  I probably should have done the latter with his older brother last year, but it just didn’t happen.  We’re only half-way through Paragraph Town’s 20 lessons, meaning the book has been read but that other activities are left to be done.  At the end of last school year, typing skills sharp from Online G3 classes, he started a blog (Bertram’s Blog).  He’s abandoned it so far this summer, but it’s built his confidence as a writer.  Hopefully, we’ll move into Essay Voyage as the year progresses.  For the fall, he’ll take Lightening Literature 7, again with Online G3.  Can you tell we adore Headmistress Guinevere and her classes?

The Rest:  As a family, we’re trying Rosetta Stone Spanish I in hopes of providing all of us with some exposure to the language before someone takes Spanish in a classroom (likely my older son, who needs two years of it before college).  Karate continues to be our main source of PE, and we may be up for our black belts in March.  Piano study for my younger also continues.  Spelling with Steck-Vaughn materials was a wild success.  Who knew we just needed a traditional old workbook approach for that subject?  He’ll move onto the 5th level this year, and he’s delighted.  Handwriting issues have hit and hit hard. A year and a half of cursive via Handwriting Without Tears has produced many tears and no usable cursive.  His older brother fared no better, so, like his older brother did, we’ll move him back to print and finish out Handwriting Without Tears Can-Do Print.  His printing is far better than his older brother’s who has some serious dysgraphia issues, but it is still a work in progress.  Thankfully, both boys type quite well.

Of course, these plans are all subject to change, but this is one year for one child that I feel I’m looking at plans that could really work. As always, suggestions and “been there, done that” stories are welcome.





Rougher Still: Plans for Fall 2010 (Age 9)

My plans for my older son, now 13, are pretty much set.  Plans for my younger, who will be 9 this fall (4th grade by age) are less certain.  He’s more of a challenge now — less independent (than I want him to be, than I think he should be) in areas that he fears making mistakes, like math and composition.  I’d like to see his independence increase come fall, but how to gently assist that I’m not certain.  Anyway, here’s what I have planned so far.

Math: Singapore 5B, 6A, and 6B are on the schedule for fall, including the Challenging Word Problems, which are pretty darn, well, challenging, by this level.  We’re both happy with Singapore in content and format, and he’d like to finish it up next year.   With my older, we moved directly to Jacob’s Elementary Algebra after Singapore.  It’s a progression that worked for him, but I’m not sure it’s what I’ll do with my younger.  Possible next steps include Art of Problem Solving, Volume I  or continuing with Singapore’s next level (New Elementary Math).  As always, ideas and comments are appreciated!

Science:  Since my older’s doing chemistry this fall, my younger’s interested in going along with that plan.  Whew.  I’m considering Ellen McHenry’s The Elements:  Ingredients of the Universe and it’s sequel, Carbon Chemistry.  Both are heavily activity based, which, honestly, isn’t my favorite way to teach.  That may be part laziness on my part, but my boys learn quickly, and several times I’ve put far more effort into creating a material or setting up an activity only to find they master the information so quickly that the material is barely touched and the activity is unnecessary.  So I’m undecided here.  Again, ideas are appreciated.

History:  With Story of the World IV behind us (well, in about 6 chapters it will be), we’re ready to move away from the chronological approach to history and onto thematic and topical studies.  My younger has no interest in the music history program his brother will pursue and has plans of his own.  He’s determined to study World War I and World War II in greater depth.  He avoids holocaust study because, as he note, it’s just too disturbing.  I’ve no desire to explore that topic with a nine year-old, so that’s fine with me.  However, he long ago exceeded my knowledge of those wars and their times (and so many other historical periods and events), and I’m not sure how to proceed.  He’s unwilling to watch many of the videos about those wars for fear of running into video including blood, and while I don’t desire to expose him to that much violence, I’m stumped at how to assist him in this study.  Now for the chorus:  Ideas are appreciated!

Language Arts:  We’ll move on to Michael Clay Thompson’s Town series, the second level of his amazing language arts collection.  I’m hesitant about using Paragraph Town with a child who rarely agrees to write a single sentence, but having watched one non-writer (reluctant would be too kind a word), I’m fine with a watch and see approach.  For reading, I’m planning on using Suppose the Wolf Were an Octopus, another Royal Fireworks Press publication.  None of us care for the read-and-answer-the-content questions approach that followed me through school and still seems to be the basis of most literature curricula, and the questions posed by this intelligent series reach far beyond content alone.  Handwriting practice continues with the second of the cursive series from Handwriting Without Tears.  My younger says he’s forgotten how to make some of the cursive letters.  Shocking, given his writing frequency (note maternal eye roll). 

The Rest:  Piano continues with 30 minute lessons weekly and daily practice.  Like his brother and I, Tang Soo Do lessons twice a week keep him on the path for black belt.  He has no interest in competitive sports at this point.  We’re abandoning Spanish for an assortment of reasons, which I’ll delineate in an upcoming review of Spanish for Children.  Spelling plans are lacking, and I’m still not convinced that focused study on spelling is terribly valuable.  Or, perhaps, I just hate directing spelling instructing.  That, too, is another post. 

Join me in the chorus one last time:  Ideas are appreciated!

Review: Michael C. Thompson Language Arts (Vocabulary and Composition)

This is the third in a series of reviews on the first three levels of Michael Clay Thompson’s language arts series published by Royal Fireworks Press.  The first review is an overview of the elementary program, and the second focuses on the grammar and poetics books.  In this portion, I’ll discuss the vocabulary and composition volumes.

Building Language, the first of the MCT vocabulary books, gently introduces the learner to the Latin roots of English using the extended metaphor of an arch, with Latin stems standing in for blocks of the arch.  Ancient Roman history suffuses the three levels, starting with the architecture reference in Building Language and, in the next two books,  stretching to selections from Julius Caesar’s Commentaries  on the Galllic Wars and the works of Shakespeare.   The first level formally introduces just 10 stems, with another handful informally added along the way.  Each stem takes on a voice suiting it’s meaning, and the stems converse in their roles as the book progresses.  Words containing the stems, some familiar and some more advanced, increase vocabulary while advancing the main idea:  parts of words mean something, making many words decodable if you know the parts.

The next two levels, Caesar’s English I and II, each twenty chapters long, increase the intensity, introducing either five new words or five new stems in each chapter.  The vocabulary far outpaces typical late elementary (and often middle school) fare.  Discussion of the stems and words includes numerous references to classic works of literature, many that require some discussion for fuller understanding.  Again, these books are meant to be taught and discussed, not independently absorbed.  In our home, my older son and I spend a session reading the chapter, discussing the words and stems, completing the analogies, and reading any additional information in the lesson.  He’s responsible for studying the week’s new material and all previous material before the end of the week, when I quiz him orally.  Quizzes and answers to all analogies in the text are found at the back of the teacher’s edition of the book (which is the only version we buy), and all quizzes are cumulative.  I encourage him to judiciously use new vocabulary words in his writing, and he’s quick to point out their presence in his reading.  Thompson chose words for this series with care, focusing on the vocabulary of the classics.  And his research is spot on.  My older son mentions when he finds these words in his readings,and that’s quite satisfying to both of us.

Grammar finds its way into the vocabulary books as well, and noun, adjective, verb, and adverb forms of new vocabulary words are illustrated in each chapter of  Caesar’s English I and II.  In each of the twenty chapters, a sentence for four-level analysis zeroes in on one of the words, continuing grammar practice and stretching vocabulary further.  These books bear no resemblance to my childhood vocabulary workbooks and rival the other root-based  programs we’ve used in previous years.  These books put vocabulary into the context of literature and composition, stressing proper usage as well as highlighting unusual ways literary masters have used these words.  Thompson gives vocabulary a seat of honor at the language table, a seat it justly deserves.

In the teacher’s edition of Sentence Island is an assignment to discuss these quotes:  “The adverb is not your friend” (Stephen King) and   “If you see and adjective, kill it.” (Mark Twain).  What a departure from my early writing education, where  we were encouraged  to add adjectives and adverbs to adorn our writing.  Several well-known homeschooling writing curricula rely on these parts of speech to improve writing, but books by authors for aspiring authors state contrary advice:  use precise nouns and strong verbs, which trumps stack of adjectives and adverbs.  Thompson’s emphasis on word choice begins from the start of his writing volumes, supported by a rigorous vocabulary program.  Use a precise verb or noun, and create a stronger sentence.  Once in  (Catholic) high school English courses, I learned proper  grammar and a strong thesis form the underpinnings to competent writing rather than superfluous modifiers, but Thompson’s approach encourages precise language and much more from book one, decreasing the skills to “unlearn” later.

Aside from a few forays in the first two books, Sentence Island and Paragraph Town, formal writing is the focus.  These are not the books to learn to write short stories, nor do they encourage journaling.  By the second book, the emphasis stays with formal writing techniques, which Thompson points out, are the types of writing needed for high school, college, and the work world.  And I agree with this bent, but if I had children inclined to story composition, I might want to add to the MCT materials to foster the skills of character development, plot development, dialogue,  and the like.  I don’t have burgeoning fiction-writing fans, however, so these materials help me meet my goals of raising  proficient writers.  (His poetry series gives writers a chance to try various poetic techniques, and his contributions to the Self-Evident Truths series bring these techniques to famous speeches.)

Essay Voyage, the third book, employs a structure of scaffolding skills.  In ten chapters, structure, unity, formality, wordiness, and more receive treatment, gradually building a foundation for all academic writing.  Historical essays are analyzed with attention to the focus of the particular chapter.  No five-paragraph essay rules here.  Instead, the guidelines support the shortest essay to much longer works.  After an undergraduate English major focused on technical writing, I’ve learned much from this book and believe my writing has improved because of it.  While aimed toward the late elementary-aged child, this book could inform many a mature writer in high school, college, and beyond.  I’m eager to explore the next level, Advanced Academic Writing I, with my older son come Fall.  I’m sure we’ll both benefit from that volume and the rest of the series.  Thank you, Michael Clay Thompson and Royal Fireworks Press for exemplary language arts materials that delight and inform.  What more could one want in this domain?

Note:  I’ve received no financial or material compensation for these reviews from the publisher, Royal Fireworks Press, or any other company.  All opinions expressed are my own.

Review: Michael Clay Thompson Language Arts (General)

We began Michael Clay Thompson’s Language Arts (MCT)materials about a year ago, starting with the first level of vocabulary (Building Language) and the second level  of grammar (Grammar Town), vocabulary (Caesar’s English I) and writing (Paragraph Town).  I considered the semester a  trial run on a program I’d heard rave reviews about in the gifted homeschooling community.  Last fall, my younger started the first level while my older began the third.  They enjoy the books, I like to teach from them, and we’re all learning.

Prior to the MCT series, my older and I tried many other combinations of grammar, vocabulary, and writing instruction, none we stuck with for more than a year (and many for much less).  After a few months with MCT, we were hooked.

For those unfamiliar with the materials, I’ll run over some basics, at least for the first three levels.  Each level contains four strands:  grammar, vocabulary, composition, and poetics.  While the grammar could stand alone, the other three rely on the terminology and skills taught in the grammar book.  To a lesser extent, vocabulary walks with the composition books, but they’re not as tightly linked.  Literature isn’t formally included, although numerous references to classical literature fill the strands, familiarizing the learner with the names of authors, great works, and well-crafted sentences.  (For guiding literature choices and discussion, Thompson’s book Classics in the Classroom offers support but not specific assignments.)

Some parents find the transition to MCT difficult.  It’s not a traditional curriculum in either form or function.  A practice sentence analysis book at each level in the only workbook.  The lessons are meant to be discussed, and this where understanding grows.  Simply put, this isn’t an independent do-a-page-a-day curriculum, at least not when executed as planned by the author.  Therefore, it may be more time-consuming than traditional curriculum, and that’s been true for us.  However, it reaches deeper than any language arts program I’ve used before, and my boys appreciate that difference as much as I do.  I’ve heard of families handing the books to their children to do alone, but I can’t picture that being either as effective or enjoyable as discussion the materials together.

So how does it work?  Grammar instruction only occurs for the first few months of the year, with regular practice sentences to analyze mixed into the vocabulary and composition books and in the “Practice” book for each level.  Composition, vocabulary, and poetics begin after the grammar is complete.  This gives the learner firm foundation in the workings of our language to use for understanding the new words and ideas in those three volumes.  Different that other programs?  Certainly.  But it works. For more information on scheduling the books, refer to the Elementary Curriculum Guide.  A yahoo group, visited regularly by the Thompson and some Royal Fireworks Press staff, serves as a forum for questions about the books, errata, concerns about choosing a level, and general support.  Your feedback is appreciated by the RFP folks, and Thompson answers many questions himself.

These unique books break from traditional language arts materials in many ways.  They’re deeper and more challenging yet highly accessible for the elementary-aged child.  They incorporate the classics across the series, making authors from the last several hundred years familiar names to young learners.  Studied with a parent or other mentor, they provide discussion points around words, grammar, poetry, and writing.  Our family is hooked, and I’ll share more particulars about the first three levels in  a future post.