Sunday, August 22, 2010

Liberty and Constraint in Writing

When we began AO/HEO, I thought that narration, dictation and copywork would cause my children to simply blossom into amazing writers. I remember explaining my point of view to a living-books friend whose part-time job is grading standardized test essays. Her response was gentle but a little disturbing. She looked at me doubtfully and said, "Well, that isn't going to be enough for my kids."

That was two years into our Ambleside experience. The kernel of doubt thus lodged in my mind was nurtured by the lack of structure I found in my kids' writing. They were imaginative, yes. They had things to say, absolutely. But they were not succinct or cohesive. Sometimes they were not even coherent.

By that time, my oldest was beginning Year 7. I saw that there were specific books recommended for composition. They were commendable, trusted commentaries and celebrated writing handbooks. I had heard of these.

But I wanted systematic assignments. I wanted someone to lay out the work for me. I didn't have the experience to know how to order the work to be done with these books. My student and I read them through and tried to implement them in the narration process, but our efforts were sporadic.

As we went through Year 7 and into Year 8, I began to panic a little. Some of my panic was public, which is rather embarassing to recall. I started purchasing any and every writing handbook I could find for cheap. Anxious to stay away from 'formula' writing programs, I shunned IEW and purchased BraveWriter. It was good for making me calm as I taught the kids writing, but didn't fill that gap I perceived in our writing program.

In Year 9, desperate, I purchased Jensen's Format Writing and had my oldest work through that. It wasn't a complete success, although she dutifully wrote dry essays in the 'proper' five-paragraph format. She rewrote Lamb's Essays of Elia for dictation at the same time, which are definitely NOT 'proper' five-paragraph essays-- Jensen and Lamb are as different as night and day. In comparing the two, I finally saw the difference between writing for an "A" and writing for the joy of expression.

The rewriting of essays in the last year-- a recommendation given at AO/HEO Year 9-- has probably been the best thing that we have done at our house to improve writing skills. I am following the HEO Year 10 plan of having her rewrite eighteen more essays from various authors this year. But slogging through Jensen's was helpful too, in terms of making her aware that structure is not optional. She eventually discovered structure in the Lamb essays, but I do not know that she would have seen it without having to outline and bullet-point her way through a format writing curriculum.

I asked Aravis what she felt helped her the most with writing essays and articles. She thought perhaps writing for the science fair, since it was the only 'report writing' she did for so many years. I think this is funny because after last year's science fair, students were told in no uncertain terms that if they were writing their project speeches in literary style, they needed to stop that and be more brief and technical. You can't please everyone.

But Aravis had a point. In writing for the science fair, she had a purpose, she had a goal, and she had to be coherent.

Good writers write. They read and they research and they live, and then they write and write and write. Some of the writing is motivated by the writer's own desire to express, to get it out of the mind and onto the page. Sometimes the writer is given a job to do, with boundaries and requirements, but inside those limits the joy of expression can still be found.

Aravis has been learning the art of the 25-minute SAT essay this summer. It is difficult to impossible to freewrite through the SAT essay. The tight time limit and complicated writing topics practically require the student to quickly develop a thesis and bullet points as framework before composing. It is not a leisurely exercise. But these assignments will present themselves despite my efforts to allow my students time to think. I now hope to teach my kids how to discover writing liberty within the constraints that will be imposed on them by their guides, overseers and rulers.

(Related note: I am still looking for an excellent writing program to help us on our journey, and am currently interested in-- read: drooling over-- Andrew Kern's Lost Tools of Writing.)


Sarah said...

Thank you so much for sharing your experiences here.

We're at beginning of our homeschooling days, but this is very helpful to me in forming a vision of the years ahead. I plan on bookmarking this post and coming back to it when my children are older. You've shared many interesting and helpful things that I know will be useful to me very soon.

Javamom said...

Have you looked at Peter Elbow's _Writing With Power_? I love it, but it is just another opinion and method for writing tricks and techniques. I still believe that each teacher and professor has their own personal favorites and will require their students to write using that format while in their class. This helped me relax a lot. Maybe too much, but there it is. The older two (who learned more of an iew style) adapted to their other teachers' preferences just fine (in college classes). #3 did pretty well with the Science Fair project, for not being interested in writing. We'll see how #4 develops. I think he will appreciate the Peter Elbow style as much as I did when I was in college.

I do love the method put forth in year 10. It is smart and leads 'by example.'

Ah well. I am tired of some of the details of homeschooling. I'm glad I'm almost finished having to be responsible for so many subjects. I have my favorites and am getting very comfortable in them. haha.
It's a good thing for Spanish classes, but maybe not so much in my least favorite subject. But you already knew that! (huge grin!)

Katie said...

Is writing your least favorite subject, Javamom? I didn't realize that.

I think I've heard of Peter Elbow's book (perhaps you have encouraged me to read it before). I need to get it and read it!

I agree with you-- they are going to need to be flexible as they head into the realm of other teachers and bosses! I think subconsciously I was so stressed at the thought of that SAT essay that I hyperfocused on writing. Now that I have seen what it really is, I feel better. :)

Mrs. H said...

Thanks for writing your experiences. My oldest is a 14 yo boy who has no desire to write - anything! I also drool ovet TLTOW, but I already have IEW! I always imagine something else is going to be better.

I agree that I am also kind of "hyperfocusing" on writing and haven't got it all simplified and clear in my head yet ;)

Mrs. H

Katie said...

I have actually unbent enough to consider IEW, thankfully. I don't like that the student *has* to have five of this and three of that and never, ever use this word, etc., but Jensen's had similar restraints and requirements (although not as many), and as long as the teacher doesn't become a slave to the curriculum/teacher's guide, IEW can help too.

In the last year I have put to use a couple of techniques I learned from IEW moms, and those techniques helped. I guess I am a pick-and-choose writing teacher.

Linda said...

I too have stressed over writing. Towards the end of last school year I purchased IEW's Student Writing Intensive C for my 2 high school dd's and we began working on it immediately. After taking the summer off we picked it up again and are only on lesson 10 but already I see some promising fruit. I am seeing the "five of this and three of that" that you mention as actually being very helpful. I'm thinking the discipline of keeping to the format will eventually produce more polished writing with their own voices showing through. I am seeing it already.

I'm thinking too that this writing stress may be something we impose upon ourselves and we all need to relax and perhaps ramp it down a few notches!