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.)