To be honest, I did not have very high expectations of this writing program. I had already tried Writing With Ease levels 1 and 3 (from Peace Hill Press) without much success. My kids did okay with it, but I ended up ditching it both times in favor of finding my own copy work, narration, and dictation exercises. Since Eliana was starting fourth grade this year I really wanted to give writing curriculum another chance. I spent a lot of time comparing three different classical programs: Classical Writing, Writing & Rhetoric, and Classical Composition.
All of these curricula follow the progymnasmata, which is a step-by-step process that begins by imitating great writers and trains the mind to think clearly and rhetorically. Over an eight-year course of constant practice and reviewing skills, the student learns to effectively choose words which will engage the imagination of the reader. This method of instruction was successfully used for thousands of years and produced almost all of the greatest Western authors. Although the progymnasmata has relatively recently been abandoned in public schools, where “creative expression” is often the goal of writing instruction even from early years, I was sold on this method. I love the emphasis on training students to think, not just to write.
Now, to choose the right program. They each begin at the Fable stage, which is the first step in the progymnasmata. If you look at the samples of all three programs, certain differences will stand out. Classical Writing includes rather a lot of spelling, vocabulary, and grammar. Hmm… we already had good programs for grammar and spelling, and vocabulary is included in our literature (not to mention in our Latin). I was pretty sure I did not want that to be the emphasis in our writing program.
Compared to the other two, Writing & Rhetoric sure looks like more fun at first glance! The font is larger, there are cute drawings on the pages, and the instructions to the student are written in an engaging, humorous way. I was very close to ordering this program, but the price staggered me a bit. Since each level is intended to be used for only a semester, I would have to purchase two levels for the year, each for a higher price than one level of Classical Composition. Not to mention the fact that I suspected the first level would be too easy for Eliana.
Hesitatingly, I decided to just go with Classical Composition. The samples of Classical Composition did not look too exciting, in my opinion. I was not at all sure how my daughter would take to it, although from the beginning she was eager to study “Fables.” When we began our school year, I made sure to allot thirty minutes of my time every day to help her with this subject. I wanted to go slowly and do it all together in the beginning since this was a completely new method for her. I half expected tears of frustration. For the first 2-3 weeks, we went over each section together so that I could help guide her writing. After that, however, she was confident that she could do it on her own (and there have been no tears so far). We still do many parts of the lesson together, but she completes the Variations and Paraphrase sections independently. (There is a DVD available but we did not purchase that so I can’t speak to its usefulness.)
So what does it look like in practice? Each lesson is meant to be used over two weeks, which means that the workload is not too crazy on any single day. Basically, it works like this.
Day 1: Read the fable together, discuss vocabulary, and write down examples of recognition, reversal, and suffering. She narrates the fable back to me orally.
Day 2: Variations. This is a fun exercise. Two sentences are given and the student has to come up with several synonyms for the words in the sentences. Then they rewrite the sentences three different ways.
Day 3: Outline the fable. This is made easier by the skeleton outline provided for each fable. The Teacher Guide has an example outline filled in for reference.
Day 4: Narration. You can choose whether to have the student do this orally or written. We do it orally since there is plenty of written work coming up!
Day 5: Correct the student’s narration. Since we do it orally, there is nothing to correct and so we have an “off day” from this subject on day 5.
Day 6: Paraphrase. The student is introduced to three figures of description, and is then instructed to write a paraphrase of the fable including examples of each.
Day 7: Paraphrase. Again the student rewrites the fable, but this time there is a different instruction, such as inverting the fable (starting from the end and writing it backwards).
Day 8: Variations. For the second time the student alters the words in two sentences and rewrites the sentences in different ways.
Day 9: Final Draft. The student chooses one paraphrase to write neatly on separate paper and hand in for a grade.
Day 10: If the final draft had errors, it needs to be rewritten and handed in this day.
Memoria Press also has a precursor program to Classical Composition, which is called Introduction to Composition and is included in the third grade curriculum package. From the online samples, it looks like it focuses on copy work, narration skills, and writing from dictation. It also introduces constructing an outline. We had already been doing most of those things for a long time, but if you have a fourth grader that has never done that type of writing it might be a good idea to introduce those skills before beginning Classical Composition Fable.
My favorite things about it:
-I like all the new terms she is learning, such as reversal in a fable, and the figures of description, such as “astrothesia-a vivid description of stars.”
-In a simple, no fuss way she has been taught how to make a three level outline from a text, and how to write from an outline.
-The variations are a good outlet for creativity. She enjoys adding her own style to the writing and I like that she is learning how to choose between different words with similar meanings.
-Following the same basic procedure week after week allows the student to master the skills being taught.
Things I wish were different:
-While there is a grading rubric in the teacher’s book, it can still be difficult to evaluate the student’s work. Perhaps every homeschool mom feels this way, but it can be hard to know if I’m being too easy or too hard on her.
-I wish there was more space between the lines to allow for a kid’s larger handwriting. She hasn’t complained, but I find it difficult to read her writing on such small lines. Obviously this could be solved by using a separate notebook, but I like having it all contained within her student book.
Perhaps my absolute favorite thing about it is…she loves it! She enjoys reading the fables, loves rewriting the sentences, and even likes writing the paraphrases. Who would have believed it? I’m thrilled that this was a successful purchase, and am excited about the future levels, which look like this:
Fable (Fourth): Retell a story
Narrative (Fifth): Retell a story
Chreia/Maxim (Sixth): Explain a saying
Refutation/Confirmation (Seventh): Counter an argument, Support an argument
Common Topic (Eighth): Seek punishment for a vice
Ecomium/Invective/Comparison (Ninth): Praise a hero, blame a villain, compare heroes and villains
Characterization (Tenth): Imitate a person
Description (Eleventh): Vividly describe
Thesis & Law (Twelfth): Persuade unto action