Teaching Writing Slowly

Rhetoric is the art of decision-making in community. As a liberating art, many smaller skills culminate in this faculty of truth perception. Teachers often cultivate this art through writing. How can our students slow down to think before they write? Writing demands attention and consistency, much like learning to play the piano or shoot a bow. The finnal artifact is infused by the initial inventory of ideas. Classical rhetoric offers the canon of invention, and teachers can utilize these tools to guide discussions, launch written responses and pursue unidentified truths. By using these tools, students will have thoughtful responses modeled for them each day.

Matt Bianco

Matt is the Director of Consulting and Integrated Resources for the CiRCE Institute, where he also serves as a mentor in the apprenticeship program. A homeschooling father of three, he has already graduated two sons. The eldest son attends St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and his second son attends Belmont Abbey College in Charlotte, North Carolina. His daughter is a high school senior. He is married to his altogether lovely, high school sweetheart, Patty. Matt is the author of Letters to My Sons: A Humane Vision for Human Relationships.

Recovering a Lost Tool of Rhetoric: Stasis Theory in the Writing Classroom (Part II)

No rhetorical tool is perhaps more important to revive than stasis theory. Developed in ancient law courts, stasis theory offers immediate applications for the classical classroom.
With stasis theory, students unlock three of the most difficult elements of persuasive writing: inventing ideas, generating claims and structuring arguments. Most importantly, students are trained to position their argument at a point where they can make real progress. is session’s emphasis is practical, born out of years of using the theory as a backbone for rhetoric classes. Attendees will learn how to incorporate stasis theory into writing classrooms, where it can be used to craft short essays, argumentative papers and even a senior thesis.

Shea Ramquist

Shea is a native of Tokyo, Japan. He earned his bachelor’s degree in humanities a er studying at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute and Oxford University. He then earned a master’s degree in intellectual history at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in the American classical college and the rise of the modern university. In 2015, he accepted a position in the rhetoric school of Trinity Classical Academy in Santa Clarita, California, where he teaches honors courses in history, philosophy and rhetoric, including senior thesis.

Nurturing Our Youngest Writers

Many a parent has been elected to their school’s board, excited about opportunities to support the mission, exchange ideas with the leadership and instigate growth and improvement. And many a board member has found doing these noble things to be difficult, if not seemingly impossible. This workshop identifies a handful of common realities affecting the performance of many leadership teams. Hurdles exist which, if not recognized, inhibit governing wisdom, organizational effectiveness and the board’s reputation. Understanding our problems is the first step to remedying them.

Mo Gaffney

Dr. Mo Gaffney currently serves as Head of Lower School at The Covenant School in Charlottesville, Virginia. Before that, she was the Co-Director of the Central Virginia Writing Project and developed teachers of writing through the Summer Writing Institute at The University of Virginia. She has done extensive writing research in elementary schools and has presented her findings at the NCTE national conference. Mo is an Adjunct Professor for The University of Virginia, teaching courses in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. She has led professional development workshops and has presented at Society of Classical Learning conferences on teacher evaluations, reading and writing connections, homework in schools and Singapore Math.

Teaching Sentence Diagramming as Storytelling

In his book Teaching as Story Telling, Kieran Egan encourages teachers to incorporate imaginative storytelling techniques into our lessons. But how can we teach grammar as a story? How can diagramming sentences spark the imagination? The aim of this workshop is to explore how to set up the task of diagramming sentences as a mystery to be explored. Students will delight in the challenges of road-mapping sentences and solidify their understanding of the structure of language when it begins in wonder.

Catherine McChristian

Ms. Catherine McChristian is the sixth-grade lead teacher at The Cambridge School in San Diego. She has taught sixth grade in classical schools for five years. She is a member of the Torrey Honors Institute, a classical Great Books program at Biola University in California. She earned a BA in Liberal Studies with an emphasis in English as well as a multiple-subject teaching credential from Biola. Ms. McChristian loves teaching in the Christian classical community, where she has the opportunity to teach and collaborate with those who share her passion for effectively training students to live purposeful, Christ-centered lives. She especially enjoys the challenges of supporting sixth-graders as they prepare to transition from the end of grammar school to the rigors of logic school.

Teaching Writing in a Humanities Course

Join veteran teacher Rick Trumbo of Veritas School in a conversation about practical ideas for instructing students in writing in the context of an interdisciplinary Humanities course. Rick will suggest general principles of writing instruction and specific assignments and methods of assessment that he has employed, as well as soliciting discussion from workshop participants in their own practices and questions. Middle and high school teachers of history and/or literature will nd this conversation useful.

Rick Trumbo

Rick Trumbo has nished his 40th year as a teacher of humanities and classics. He is a graduate of Hampden-Sydney College (BA, Humanities) and the University of Richmond (MHum, concentration in Classics). He is the father of ve children and grandfather of 10. He is a ruling elder in the PCA, and has served on the Candidates and Credentials commi ee of James River Presbytery. He has taught Humanities, Latin, the Bible, and Logic at Veritas School for the past nine years. Rick has previously o ered workshops at SCL on interdisciplinary courses and on classical virtue in political thought.

More Than a Subject: the Purpose, Place and Power of Language

Picture a city, established long ago through the wisdom and virtue of those who founded and built it, but gradually weakened by the long neglect of that wisdom andvirtue. Now it finds itself assaulted by a tyrannical and temperamental enemy whose weapons consist of deception, envy, and confusion.

What should they do, return to the forgotten virtues, or forsake them entirely and learn instead to think and act like the attacker? Could they win with the second option? If they did, would such a city be worth living in?

Language has been under assault for a long time. For one thing, the logic of technology is to reduce reality to something it can manage, but language can never be managed. Furthermore, the dual philosophical attacks of Relativism and Utilitarianism (“meaning is determined by usage alone”) have severed the fruitful bond between language and both the things it names and the insights it prompts through its generative forms.

I was asked, “Why subject children to the agony of learning to sustain a line of thought in well-ordered written paragraphs in the computer age which has redefined human communication and freed us from linear thinking. Isn’t it akin to teaching children to build catapults in the age of the nuclear guided missile?”

One is struck by the use of weapons technology for the metaphors, typical of the modern thinker even in this post-modern age. Power, it assumes, is found in machines and techniques.

There are better metaphors with which to think about education. For example, it was once common to think of education as a tree. We still speak of the branches of learning, and, occasionally, of the fruit of study. It is less common to mention the trunk of the tree of learning.

The conventional curriculum, however, presents branches of learning lacking both trunk and roots. But the classical curriculum attended assiduously to trunk and the roots, allowed the branches to grow naturally from the trunk, and watched those branches bear fruit.

source of life, rendering it as fruitful as a branch lopped from a tree. It is a liberating art reduced to a specialized subject. But writing cannot be a mere subject, it must be an expression of rhetoric, and rhetoric must be recognized as the focal point and organizing principle of the whole tree of learning.

Therefore, the argument I offer in this article is that writing is at least as important as ever, and for this reason it must be taught correctly. Writing is important for two reasons, each of which I will develop while considering what it means to teach correctly. First, writing is the practical integrating principle of the curriculum. Second, writing is an art of truth-perception.

To realize the significance of these two values, let us consider how to teach writing correctly in five areas, each drawn from the heart of the Christian classical tradition. Writing must be taught according to its nature, its purpose (i.e. for the right reasons), its modes (i.e. in the right ways), its parts, and its relations (i.e. it must be given its proper place in the curriculum).

According to its nature

First, to teach writing correctly, we must understand what it is, and the most important thing we must understand about it is that it is a Liberating Art, not a mere “subject.” To be precise, writing is an element flowing through the three language arts contained in the classical trivium. I cannot overemphasize the fact that the trivium does not consist of isolated “subjects,” but rather of the skills that flow through and, in fact, enable what we call subjects (though this is an unfortunate use of the word).

The liberating arts are arts of truth perception, and writing is a tool those arts use extensively. Therefore, the second biggest mistake a school can make with writing is to treat it like a specialized subject, equal to any other, when it is truly an art on which every other study depends.

Thus writing must be taught as an art that enables students to perceive and reflect on truth and that enables the subjects, activities, and artifacts that compose the rest of the curriculum. It must not be treated like a specialized

The trunk of the tree is the seven liberating arts. Writing severed from this trunk does not abide in its activity or an isolated subject, but as the heart of the classical trivium.

According to its purpose

Next, writing must be taught for the right reason. Wisdom instructs us to distinguish purpose from blessings. It is for us to faithfully fulfill our commission; it is for God to bless according to His wisdom. When we approach teaching writing classically, our goal must not be to seek the known benefits that writing usually provides, but to faithfully fulfill its God-given purpose.

Only love of God and neighbor provide an adequate motivation and sufficient purpose for writing instruction. Well-ordered thought is a fine way to express love for your neighbor. Disordered thought is self- indulgence.

Since, above all, our odyssey requires wisdom and virtue, cultivating them is the secondary purpose of writing instruction. A virtue is a human ability (a faculty) refined to a pitch of excellence. Language is a faculty given to us by God to glorify, know, and enjoy Him and to bless and love our neighbors. Writing is a means to transform our use of language from a natural ability into a virtue. No lesser purpose will reveal the extent of its power or achieve its full benefits.

In addition, writing should be taught to teach us how to think and communicate. It is the most effective way we humans have ever come up with to practice thinking, explore our thoughts, and communicate them with each other.

Thus writing must be taught to the end that the writer is better able to love God and neighbor, both of which are nourished through the cultivation of wisdom and virtue.

According to its modes

To these noble ends, writing must be taught according to its modes, or in the right ways. Once again, this means, not as a specialized activity or isolated subject.

Specialized writing courses want to take a single path – and that a shortcut – to good writing, but there are six paths on which the student must travel, some of which are not usually considered “writing.”

These six paths are:

  • The Literary Path: writers must read the best

    writings available to them,

  • The Linguistic Path: writers must learn a

    foreign language,

• The Theoretical Path: writers must study the principles, elements, and forms of writing,

• The Critical Path: writers must master the rules and customs of good writing (e.g. Spelling, grammar rules, rhetorical conventions, etc.),

• The Practical Path: writers must practice the coached exercises that discipline their raw skills.

• Life: the aspiration to write requires that the writer live a little and pray a lot, or at least open himself to inspiration.

In other words, learning to write takes a very long time with consistent coaching, examined experience, and wide learning.

According to its parts

Furthermore, no one can learn to write well unless he is taught its elements (the practical path). Writing embodies three canons, or elements, of classical rhetoric: Invention, or coming up with something to say, Arrangement, or ordering what has been discovered, and Elocution, or expressing the materials appropriately.

Invention might well be the pith of the trunk of the tree of learning because it provides the most fundamental and universal tools of thinking: the questions that we ask no matter what we are thinking about. These questions, which comprise both material and formal logic, are the tools of perception, which is partly why I argued earlier that writing is a tool of truth-perception: what we perceive depends on what we ask.

In addition, the topics of Invention equip students to read at ever higher levels by teaching them to ask their own questions. Students answering text-book questions are necessarily reading at a low level, if only because they are not engaged in self-directed reading. Giving them the tools of Invention enables them to read well on their own.

The second canon of rhetoric is Arrangement, which teaches writers the structures of the various types
of writing, enabling them to write and to read ever more challenging compositions. Arrangement tends to be boring; however, it is one of the areas where love of neighbor most manifests itself in the writer’s character.

The third canon of rhetoric is Elocution, which consists of schemes, tropes, and revision. The forms learned through Elocution reveal the generative power of limits. By learning about subordinate clauses, the student is enabled to pursue a raw thought in multiple directions.

By learning about parallel structures, he learns to explore relations between real things (not just words). By learning how to rhyme or use alliteration he experiences the sensory pleasure of words and is often surprised by the insights generated by the coincidences in words. By learning how to generate similes and metaphors he learns about surprising relationships between the things that make up the universe of images created by the Good Creator.

According to its relations

I have insisted repeatedly that writing is a liberating art, not a mere subject. I have also argued that, as a liberating art, writing is the foundation for every other subject. What I am trying to stress is that writing is not and cannot be a class or subject but that it is the very core, the only appropriate integrating activity, of the curriculum. Nothing else flows between the subjects without mingling and confusing them. Not only is it appropriate for writing to be used in the subjects, it is writing, or at least the trivium, that makes the subjects possible. The Trivium, therefore, is the trunk of the tree of learning.

I should perhaps clarify what I mean by a subject. Indeed, the very word subject is a vague and almost meaningless substitute for what the classical tradition called arts (ways of making) and sciences (things known). The liberating arts are liberating because they are used to make knowledge, knowledge can only be of truth, and truth liberates us. Arts > Truth perception > Liberty.

Subjects don’t concern themselves with such idealistic matters.

Think for example of history. If you see it as a subject, and most students do, then it’s easy to see how you could regard writing as unnecessary. You just need to learn a lot of information about history and go on to the next subject. But if you see it as a moral science, as the classical tradition does, then you need to think about the questions it raises, not simply remember information. You need to apply the liberating arts of reading and writing, logic and dialectic, and rhetoric to the issues raised in historical

studies. That way, you learn to perceive the sorts of truths history teaches which can strengthen a nation’s liberties, not through indoctrination but through truth.

When you begin to think, you need to write.The decline of writing in the school curriculum, therefore, is a product of the loss of the classical curriculum and a cause of the loss of freedom.

One could go on, and comment on how writing prepares the writer to speak, supports his memory, and disciplines the mind in a dozen ways while opening to him the “realms of gold” about which Keats sang. But I am out of space. I will only say that this gold is the Christian classical curriculum and that writing prepares the student to love and feed on it.

Our duty is to teach writing as a thread of classical rhetoric, for the right reasons, in the right modes, including the right parts, and in the right relations. God will attend to the blessings that will flow from that according to the measure of His good will, though some of them are bound up in the nature of writing and can be realistically expected.

It takes a long time with intensive coaching over many years to learn how to write. All six paths have to be walked intelligently. All three canons must be mastered. The relations between writing and other subjects and artifacts needs to be recognized and nourished. But the blessings it contains are more than any student or teacher will ever know.

A closing thought: it wasn’t hard for me to purge my mind of the ideas that poured into this article. Most of my time went into putting it in order so you could follow
it and think about these things for yourself. I hope it was worth the trouble because it was done out of respect to you, my dear reader/neighbor.

The Essentials of a True Writing Program: Part 2

Having labored to establish the ends and means of good writing in the last issue, I should very quickly be able to show how a classical education answers them in every particular. Classical education by its very nature invites students to have “points” to make on matters of great moment. The method of Socratic discussion employed in all subjects, but particularly in literature, requires students to answer questions such as “Was Julius Caesar a great man or a tyrant?” “Did Robinson Crusoe learn to be more human by being away from human beings?” “Would we find ourselves more alien or at home in Huxley’s brave new world?” “Does Dostoyevsky show through Raskolnikov’s turmoil that religious faith is the only true antidote to the will to power?” Now compare these questions to the thoughtless ones being asked of students in regular public schools. Is it any wonder why our students are engaged (nihil humanum mihi alienum est) and typical students are bored and completely alienated from the inquiry into the human condition? Our students are having to figure out who they are, where they have come from, and how they must act in the world. Wishy-washy answers to inane questions, the routine of the regular public schools, won’t do.

The points that our students have to make are not based on their untutored “feelings” and reflex opinions as at other schools. The constant refrain of progressive education is “how does this make you feel?” rather than “what do you know?” A classical education demands students to know things: many, many things as it turns out. Students cannot offer glib commentary on how the world works without having a deep knowledge (or at least beginning to have one) of the people and events that have shaped and continue to shape that world. Initially, our students speak and write on topics that are confined to a particular text or experiment or historical moment. By the time they graduate, however, they are able to marshal these discreet articles of knowledge to make sense, with some more advanced study, of almost any problem or challenge that comes their way. These basic facts are precisely the pieces of evidence that their less-informed fellow students and colleagues will neglect, still relying, as Plato’s prisoners, on the shadows of the cave.

To write well, as we have said, the writer must know grammar. Students in classical schools typically study grammar formally in every grade K-9 and continue to encounter grammar either in foreign languages or in the comments they receive on their papers in grades 10-12. Many schools ease into grammar by devices that set sentence structure to nursery rhymes or jingles, but students are ready to start more formal methods even in the early elementary grades. In addition, teachers in all grades and in all subjects should vigilantly police their students’ bad usage by correcting incorrect or substandard speech in class, no matter the subject under discussion at the moment. “Me and Johnny need to go to the bathroom” is unacceptable. By the fourth grade, if not earlier, students should be knee- deep in sentence diagramming, just as Churchill was as a boy. Further, students at classical schools will generally take at least three years of Latin, starting in the later elementary grades or the middle school. To the progressive “educator,” and to the ultra-utilitarian singing his chorus of “job skills for a twenty-first-century work force,” Latin is anathema.

“Why would you waste time on dead languages with so much new technology and information out there?” (The world “out there,” you see, is very scary!) These whiz-bang progressives forget the basic Aristotelian insight that human beings are the creatures that use language, and language— whether texted or tweeted or faxed or e-mailed or sent in Morse Code or still yet written down with quill and ink—still has a basic structure that anyone must acquire to express himself logically, vividly, and forcefully. While students are often awfully casual about the grammar of their own language, they cannot afford to be so in Latin class. Even if they make it all the way through grade
five without learning how to employ the parts of speech, the various forms of the past tense, the indicative and the subjunctive moods, and all the other hard facts of grammar, they cannot escape them through three or four or more years of Latin. Latin was in the past and remains today the boot camp of ordered expression.

Words are the meat and potatoes of a classical education. A student has no excuse for graduating from a classical school with anything short of an immense vocabulary, a ready “stock of words” in Franklin’s phrase, and an ability to choose the right word on the right occasion. Both the academic program and the atmosphere of a classical school encourage students to become masters of words. In the first place, a classical headmaster should be hiring only articulate teachers: in every grade and in every subject. Second, the teachers in classical schools do not “talk down” to students but encourage students to come up to their level. Children are emulative beings. They follow the verbal patterns to which they are exposed. For this reason, the greatest of classical schoolmasters, Quintilian, urged mothers to spend time with their infants rather than passing them off to servants. Even in the crib, babies would become accustomed to the standard speech of their well-spoken mothers rather than pick up the bad grammar of the uneducated, according to Quintilian. In every class in a classical school, therefore, two levels of instruction are taking place: first, in the particular subject matter at hand and, second, in the form of civilized speech through which subjects are discussed and explained to students. Though nominally a teacher of history, the more time I spend in the classroom, the more I consider myself a teacher of language. Consider for a moment the many words that must be understood to have a meaningful discussion about our political history: liberty, equality, sovereignty, faction, justice, rights, inalienable, happiness, limited, government, federalism, and so on. Not only are such words misunderstood or only vaguely grasped by today’s young men and women. Such is the impoverished language of today’s culture and schools that often students have not even encountered these words. Every year I am surprised by a word that whole classes of freshmen in college have never encountered or cannot define. A few years ago it was the word bicameral. How can students who have supposedly taken years of American history and in most cases a semester
of government in high school not know the word bicameral? To what extent did the American Founders think that their liberties depended upon the principle of bicameralism? The different outcomes of the American and French Revolutions are one measure of the importance of the matter.

All is not left to osmosis and chance in the imparting of the meaning of words in a classical school. From the first day of kindergarten, students are taught the meaning of words. At some point, one hopes, the students will learn the meaning of the words of the Pledge of Allegiance which are by no means easy (allegiance, liberty, justice), but ought to be understood nonetheless. Students are required to look up words they encounter in the rich literature they read from the second grade onward. At least by the fourth grade, students learn “word histories” by being introduced formally to Greek and Latin roots. At some point in the upper elementary or middle school students formally study Latin, the language which accounts for about 60% of English word origins. Should a girl be praised for her “pulchritude” or a boy for his “pecuniary prescience”? A proper Latin student will not even have to look those words up. Finally, even in the higher studies of literature, science, history, and other subjects, students continue to discover the precious treasures found in the words of the English language. In a moral philosophy class I used to teach to high school students we would spend a lot of time on the differences between happiness and fun as found in some of the texts. The word history is instructive. “Fun” seems to have come from the Middle English
fon, the word for fool. The “fool” or jester in a medieval court was always the character cutting up and making light of everything. The individual who pursues fun, then, in contrast to Jefferson’s (or Aristotle’s) happiness, takes nothing in life seriously. The consequences of such a life can be easily seen in Jane Austen’s Lydia, the character in Pride and Prejudice who speaks of nothing but fun (and uses bad grammar to boot). Language, then, is not mere ornament. It is nothing less than the medium through which we govern ourselves, express our souls, and live out our lives. We cannot afford to be sloppy or unknowing about language.

A classical school also requires the student to write logically and with coherence. It is often said by classical schoolmasters that “the logic stage” of learning trains the young mind to make logical distinctions about complex subjects so as to gain understanding. At the same time, it is not easy to explain what exactly “logical distinctions” are. In terms of writing, however, the issue is a little clearer. Logic usually refers to the marshalling and ordering of evidence so as to make a compelling argument based, we hope, on truth. The untutored student will often say, “I know what I want to say, but I just can’t say it.” As a result, he will often resort just to his feelings or a jumbled assemblage of platitudes. The classically-trained student, who will have read, among other things, The Declaration of Independence and the Lincoln- Douglas debates—models of logical expression— will be able to deploy quotations, historical events, the actions and decisions of men and women in history or characters in literature, the results of scientific experiments, plausible theories of human nature, and, of course, the meaning of actual words, in order to prove his case. To this end, the classical student will be able to handle more than the silly, trivial, or ho-hum essay questions required on state standardized tests, the most popular being, “Tell us who your hero is and why,” with the standard response being incoherent ramblings about my dad or Beyoncé or the current champion cage fighter. Rather, the student will be able to take on questions such as, “Was Washington really the ‘indispensable man’?” or “To become human, were Adam and Eve bound to fall?” Such questions require much work in the grammar of history or philosophy, to be sure. What did George Washington do, exactly? How precisely did the story of the Garden unfold? Yet such probing questions also demand the strenuous exercise of a logical mind. What might constitute a single man in history being indispensable? Could the Revolution have been successful without Washington? Can we imagine a Revolution without a Madison, a Jefferson, an Adams, or even a Franklin, yet not without Washington? Might America have become something very different had the Founding Father acted differently, even in a single moment? (Newburgh, perhaps?). In what respects were Adam and Eve “human” before the Fall? In what respects were they not? What does it mean to be human? Is knowledge opposed to happiness or to human goodness? Is freedom the opposite of obedience? Were there fallacies in the serpent’s argument? Was it in any sense—at least technically—true? Did the original couple have the mental capacity to beat the serpent’s argument?

Should they have entered into the discussion in the first place? And so on. The thinking to ask these kinds of questions, the answering them, and the ordering of them into a coherent and convincing thesis is a logical undertaking of no small degree. And such an intellectual enterprise sure beats the “critical thinking skills” so much talked about and so little demonstrated by the prevailing education regime. The logician might even be prone to ask whether there can be thinking that is not critical or whether thinking is an art or a discipline rather than a skill.

A classical education also seeks to impart style in the writer. Style, admittedly, does not come without great effort on the part of the student. Yet for any student who knocks, the door will be opened. Just as Franklin worked hard to acquire an elegant English style by internalizing the essays of Addison, so students at any classical school read, analyze, and—above all—enjoy the best that has been written and said in our great language: from Shakespeare to Milton to The Federalist authors to Burke to Emerson. Style, like dress, is an emulative fashion. The classical school does not leave students’ style to drift in the winds of popular culture or to be further truncated by the high-tech grunting of the text or the tweet. Nor does the school only count on the influence of the teachers’ verbal habits, though that, too, as we have said, is of consequence. At the classical school, the young keep company—we dare not say “hang out”—with the most celebrated writers who ever put quill or pen to paper. The masters of the language are our students’ private tutors in the elements of style. For hours every day students of the classics consider, to be sure, the great writers’ aims, examine their evidence, follow their logic, learn their words, and wrestle with their insights into the human condition. Even so, our task would not be done if the students failed to appreciate—and to imitate—the finest style of the finest writers. The student truly ambitious of becoming a “tolerable English writer” cannot falter in that noble, some would say that noblest, art. One more thing. True art only comes with practice. I am told that learning a musical instrument requires two hours of practice every day. To become a virtuoso takes more. The craft of writing is no different. Writers write. They spend a fair portion of their day writing. Even when not writing, they often look at the world as they would write about it. Students at classical schools have to write. Their teachers compel them to write often, and then those teachers correct that writing with considerable attention to the elements of good writing. Those teachers are not reticent with red ink. If my intelligence is accurate, students at classical schools write about four to five times more than do their counterparts at regular public schools. Whether so much time spent writing is warranted can be seen in simply asking the question, In what field of endeavor does four times more practice not produce better results?

We began this subject by asking whether classical schools have a better approach to writing than the canned “programs” of the typical school. We ask that question again: Who has the real writing program, them or us? Consider two football teams, the players being of equal size and speed. One coach was a solid player in his day and became a great student of the game. He has mastered the playbooks of Lombardi, Shula, Landry, and Walsh. The other is a ham-and-egger. He was never a first- string player himself and has spent no time with
the great luminaries of the game. The first team has an elaborate playbook, but it is based upon the fundamentals. It is also tailored to the strengths of his players. From this playbook, the coach carefully chooses the plays that make up a distinct game-plan aimed at the weaknesses and strengths of every opposing team. The coach knows which play to call on which down. The second team has a limited and predictable playbook that the coach bought from a profitable publishing company called Step Up to Football. The book consists of a couple of running and a couple of passing plays. Its method is straightforward. First down: run up the middle. Second down: run up the middle. Third down: pass in desperation. Finally, the first team practices several hours a day, five days a week. The practices are extremely orderly and comprehensive. The second team practices once a week; their practices seem more like an unorganized pick-up game than a real practice. After practices, the first team watches films of their previous game and goes over and over the mistakes they made. They also watch the films of the team they will play in the next game to know what they are up against and to learn how they will approach their adversary. The second team watches a lot of films, to be sure, but nothing to do with football. Which of these two teams will be the most prepared on game day? Which team has the better “football program”?

The Classical Way to Teach Narrative Composition (Story Telling)

Writing has a soul and the classical tradition was nourished by and nourished that soul. The 20th century saw a decline in writing because it lost its classical soul. This practical workshop shows how to teach story telling classically and shows why it works so much better than the gimmick based approaches of many modern writing programs.

Andrew Kern

Andrew Kern is the Founder and President of CiRCE Institute. He has also helped found Providence Academy, Ambrose School, Great Ideas Academy and Regents Schools of the Carolinas. Andrew is the co-author of Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America, The Lost Tools of Writing and The CiRCE Guide to Reading. Andrew is also a consultant and founded the CiRCE apprenticeship.

Senior Thesis

In one level, Rhetoric II is a class like any other at Regents School of Austin. It meets four days a week for 55 minutes. It requires homework, participation, and demonstrated learning. It earns 1.0 credits toward a student’s graduation requirements. On his final transcript, it shows up as a single line with a number and a grade posted next to it. But every Regents School graduate knows that this description does not do this course justice whatsoever. Rhetoric II—the Senior Thesis—was always intended to be more than just the last requirement of a senior course, and it indeed is.

For the last ten years the senior thesis has been a requirement for graduation at Regents. Seniors must select a topic for their thesis that is both researchable and debatable, and faculty have the final say in approving students’ topics. Seniors must deliver their thesis in a public forum in front of a panel of judges. The students’ speeches are between 17-22 minutes in length, followed by a rigorous round of 20 minutes of Q & A. This Q & A session weighs heavily in determining the final grade. Students are only permitted two sheets of paper (8 1⁄2 x 11, front side only) when presenting their theses.

Each student is paired with a faculty advisor who mentors the student throughout the thesis process by interacting with the student’s research and written work. The advisor also helps the student prepare for the Q & A portion of the presentation and serves on the judging panel. Each presentation is recorded on DVD and stored, along with the written text, in Regents’ library. We believe that these presentations are the culmination of each student’s education at Regents.

Students prepare an annotated bibliography early in their research, gathering reputable sources for both sides of their issue. This process prepares the students for the more rigorous research method that they will face at the collegiate level and presses them into defending their sources.

Prior to the thesis presentations, students present in class an anti-thesis. These enable the students to honestly consider the opponents’ perspectives and compel them to dig more deeply into the research. Regents gives an annual Senior Thesis Award at graduation based on evaluations from the course instructor, judges, and other faculty.

Since Regents is a Christian school, students consider the spiritual aspects of their topics. Some topics naturally lend themselves to a spiritual bent, but others do not. We challenge the students to consider how their topics have been shaped by man’s sinfulness, by man’s redemption (or lack thereof), and what scripture may relate to their topics.

Quintilian said, “A rhetor is a good man speaking well,” so we spend significant time on delivery. Our students must be able to speak well so others will want to listen. Throughout the year, students practice speaking in front of their classes, honing specific delivery skills. Every student participates, there are no exceptions. The teacher offers immediate feedback. This brief assessment should be both positive and constructive. The rhetoric teachers try to make these days fun and entertaining because mastering difficult concepts, such as movement, can be frustrating for students. By keeping the class lighthearted, students are much more willing to address these more challenging issues and begin to lose their fear of standing in front of an audience.

Students who complete a thesis at Regents know that they have done something substantive and difficult. We believe they have begun mastering the art of persuasion, thereby preparing them for college and beyond.

Listed below are a few of the activities that we use at Regents to help our students improve their public speaking skills.

Bad-Habits Activity – An important first step in speaking well is identifying problems in students’ presentations. For this activity, the teacher lists specific bad habits (e.g., saying “uh”, leaning on the podium, and playing with clothing) on note cards and hands these cards out to students. Each student also receives a paper with a paragraph to read at the podium. One-by-one, the students must stand at the front of the class and read their paragraph while exhibiting the bad habit. After giving the speaker a moment to demonstrate it, members of the audience try to guess the offending trait. This fun activity permits students to look ridiculous as long as everyone looks equally ridiculous.

Psalms Activity – The teacher identifies various portions of the Psalms that lend themselves to passionate or angry pleas. These verses are randomly distributed to the class. Students must display the appropriate emotion in a believable manner. Some students are much more capable than others at expressing the designated emotion. We have discovered that a sincere interaction with this activity can be a beautiful demonstration of religious affections.

Gesture Activity – After providing basic instruction on gesturing, the teacher selects short paragraphs of great speeches from J.F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Winston Churchill, etc. (see www.americanrhetoric.com for a collection of great speeches) and asks the students to consider how they would incorporate gestures into their speech. The students must then deliver their paragraph using the appropriate gestures. Immediate feedback is especially important to the success of this activity. An alternative gesture activity is to watch video clips of presidential debates and evaluate the various speakers’ mannerisms.

Eye-Contact Activity – Each student is given a clicker. These clickers make an annoying sound. The teacher asks a student to go to the front of the room and speak on a topic that he knows well and can talk about comfortably. Once the student begins, the audience members begin clicking their clickers. The speaker must make sustained eye contact with each member of the class. When the speaker accomplishes this, the person he is looking at should stop clicking. If the speaker looks up at the ceiling or down at the floor or away from the audience in some way, all clickers resume. When the speaker has made meaningful eye contact with everyone in the classroom, all clicking should have stopped and only then is the speaker finished.

The Dreaded Cowbell Activity – Because we want our students to avoid certain words (e.g., uh, um, well, like, you know) when answering questions from the judges, they need to be alerted when they lapse into saying them. For this activity, the teacher brings a loud cowbell to class. The students must answer classmates’ questions about their thesis. When the speaker utters any of the banned words from our list, the teacher rings the cowbell LOUDLY. Regents’ rhetoric classes do this activity near the time of the actual thesis presentation. Although students hate this day, it works wonders.

Regents’ faculty have many more activities that refine students’ presentation skills. All in all, though, whether speaking or writing, excellence is expected.

The Essentials of a True Writing Program

A question was once, somehow or other, started between Collins and me, of the propriety of educating the female sex in learning, and their abilities for study. He was of opinion that it was improper, and that they were naturally unequal to it. I took the contrary side, perhaps a little for dispute’s sake. He was naturally more eloquent, had a ready plenty of words; and sometimes, as I thought, bore me down more by his fluency than by the strength of his reasons. As we parted without settling the point, and were not to see one another again for some time, I sat down to put my arguments in writing, which I copied fair and sent to him. He answered, and I replied. Three or four letters of a side had passed, when my father happened to find my papers and read them. Without entering into the discussion, he took occasion to talk to me about the manner of my writing; observed that, though I had the advantage of my antagonist in correct spelling and pointing (which I flow’d to the printing house), I fell far short in elegance of expression, in method and perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances. I saw the justice of his remarks, and thence grew more attentive to the manner in writing, and determined to endeavor at improvement.

About this time [around 14-15?] I met with an odd volume of the Spectator. It was the third. I have never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was very much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand.

Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them. . . . Therefore I took some of the tales [in the Spectator] and turned them into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and completed the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.“

–Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography

Thus did Benjamin Franklin, after some hints from his father, teach himself to become one of the greatest writers in the English language. The occasion for this long quotation is the consideration of the question whether classical schools should adopt a specialized “writing program” or instead teach writing as an art that is closely allied with and emanates from the other disciplines of classical training. The temptation in schools is to opt for a “program” that can be handed to the teachers in a binder, the teachers being told, “Here, follow this.” I contend that students learn to write rather by reading good writing and by being required to write often under the tutelage of someone who has an eye for good writing and who can bring to bear all other parts of the curriculum in teaching students how to organize and express their thoughts on the blank page. That endeavor is an art, not a “process,” and not a canned “program.”

We should first be frank about what a “writing program” is. These programs, which have been “adopted” in schools throughout the country, public and private, attempt to reduce all thoughts on all occasions to a contrived, prescriptive, mind- numbing formula by means of a lot of gimmicks. These programs are all deficient in major respects, though each usually has one or two fairly obvious suggestions that might prove useful. Mostly they are deficient because they are not written by good writers nor written for good writers as a guide to teach good writing. Instead, they are made for the typical uneducated schoolteacher who has no love of nor proficiency in the English language, who cannot write well, and yet who must “teach writing” because the curriculum calls for it. With this need in mind, textbook publishers and program-makers are ready to come up with an easy-to-use method that promises higher standardized-test scores, a method, by the way, that no real writer has ever used. One wonders how Bacon and Locke and Addison and Johnson and Franklin and the Federalist authors and all the great essayists of our language, not to mention the poets and playwrights and novelists, ever learned to write a sentence without Six Traits and Step-Up to Writing. The greatest deficiency of these programs, however, is that in showing teachers and students the quick-and-easy method of getting thoughts down on paper, they never quote or make reference to those great writers in our language from whom we have the most to learn. Had Franklin learned from Six Traits rather than from Addison’s Spectator, he no doubt would have learned to slap some words down on paper but would never have fulfilled his ambition of becoming a “tolerable English writer,” certainly not a writer whom anyone wanted to read. We must begin, then, by asking, “what is good writing?” All good writing makes a point. Without a point, writing is in vain. We have all read articles and essays, some written by children, others by older students, some by those who appear in journals and newspapers, and wondered, “What’s the point?” Professor Joe Williams, my own writing teacher and the author of the acclaimed Style, used to say, “the biggest problem with undergraduate writing is that it’s pointless.” By that he meant that immature writers often make no claim, have no thesis, do not build their writing around a central theme. Very often they have no point because they have nothing to say or do not know what is at stake on a given topic. To this end, young writers often have to be given topics. Nonetheless, even young children and adolescents have big questions on their minds. Notice that the young Franklin’s point in his first essay came from an argument he had been having with his friend Collins. (Whether girls could undergo a classical education—“learning”—in those days was still an open question.) Writers must take care not to drift away from their points as they write. Furthermore, they should avoid being wishy-washy. Too many papers of young writers take on an “it’s-sort-of-this- but-sort-of-that” quality. I tell students to write their papers as they would argue a legal case. As a prosecutor you would not make a very strong case by arguing that the defendant is “sort-of guilty.”

Once a writer has a point, he must harness the forces of knowledge, logic, and eloquence to support it clearly and convincingly. All good writers must have a thorough knowledge of their subject and of the world in general to find supporting evidence for their case. Writing without knowledge only exposes one’s ignorance. Knowledge differs from mere opinion. Opinions are people’s raw desire to express themselves without having studied an issue or given it any thought. Knowledge comes as the result of patient study combined with sound judgment.

Such knowledge is derived from many sources, but two are crucial: books and nature. With the former, only books that are themselves the result of patient research and sound judgment are worth reading. The latter can be divided into the physical and the human world. Any good writer will then be a voracious reader and a careful observer of the natural world and of the human condition. Consider Franklin’s essay. Even given the knowledge about women at the time, he could easily have argued that women could undergo a classical education. From books he would have learned about Cornelia, mother of the brothers Gracchi, who had essentially home-schooled her famous sons. He would have cited Locke, the great philosopher of the age, who had similarly observed women schooling their children. He could have referred to many young women privately educated in the home who had acquired French and Italian through their singing lessons. Finally, he could have decimated his rival’s arguments with a bit of common sense. “Learning has always centered upon the learning of Latin. Girls can learn Latin as well as boys. They merely have not done so recently because no one bothers to teach it to them. If girls cannot learn Latin, then what did women in ancient Rome speak? Surely, they did not speak a language wholly different from their fathers, brothers, and husbands. And unless my opponent wishes to argue that human nature has changed fundamentally since the times of the ancient Romans, he cannot provide a reason for thinking girls in these enlightened times are any less capable of learning that noble language.”

Good writing is also logical. In a logical essay the arguments are separate and coherent and follow a sensible order. Forming separate and distinct points to support the major one is critical to good writing. Immature writers will often make the mistake of taking up the same topic two or three times over the course of an essay rather than dealing with it all at once. At other times, the individual points seem to have no connection with each other. Redundancy and incoherence are major faults the young writer must overcome. The writer must further arrange those distinct points in the most compelling order. To teach himself logical arrangement, Franklin even jumbled up his individual “thoughts” and later put them back together as Addison had originally written them. No writing program can teach this logical order since too many variables exist for each attempt at writing: the demands of the subject, the style of the author, the nature of the audience, and the occasion for the essay. Should the most powerful piece of evidence come at the beginning or end of an essay? No writing program can answer that question.

The good writer must be both a master and a lover of the English language. The writer deploys words as an artist uses paints or a composer arranges notes: by putting words together to achieve a sublime composition. Language consists in many elements: principally grammar, vocabulary, and style.

Grammar, though to some not an alluring study, ranks as the most necessary for any writer. The English language, after all, has a structure or framework. That framework is essential to the stability of the edifice, and its integrity cannot be compromised. Had Jefferson written, “We hold that these truths is self-evident,” no one would have read what he had to say. Teachers of writing must not content themselves with correcting bad grammar, surgically, that has gone awry; they must teach good grammar prescriptively. Here is how Winston Churchill, one of the greatest writers and speakers of the English language, described his learning of English grammar:

[B]y being so long in the lowest form [grade] I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys. They all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that. But I was taught English. We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English. Mr. Somervell—a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great—was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing—namely, to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. Not only did we learn English parsing thoroughly, but we also practiced continually English analysis. Mr. Somervell had a system of his own. He took a fairly long sentence and broke it up into its components by means of black, red, blue, and green inks. Subject, verb, object: Relative Clauses, Conditional Clauses, Conjunctive and Disjunctive Clauses! Each had its color and its bracket. It was a kind of drill. We did it almost daily. As I remained in the Third Fourth three times as long as anyone else, I had three times as much of it. I learned it thoroughly. Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence—which is a noble thing.

There is no getting around it. The English sentence is a noble thing, but not a thing that can be picked up on the fly. Grammar must be drilled into a student’s very bones.

If grammar is the framework of the language, words are the bricks and mortar. We have a great many words to choose from in English. There are a couple of hundred thousand words in a good collegiate dictionary and around a million in the OED. English is said to be the richest language for its sheer volume of words. And yet any good writer knows that at a certain moment only one word will do. It is one thing to call a girl pretty. It is quite another to call her radiant. True, one girl may be pretty and another may be radiant, but they are not the same girl. A good writer does not blast away at his target with a shotgun but uses a rifle with a scope to achieve pinpoint accuracy. To achieve such accuracy, the good writer must be a lover of words. “Lover” is no hollow metaphor and no exaggeration. Again Churchill: “I had picked up a wide vocabulary and had a liking for words and for the feeling of words falling into their places like pennies in the slot. . . I admired these words.” In the middle of World War II, Churchill visited his alma mater Harrow to listen to the boys sing the old school songs, which he loved so much. To one of the school songs the boys had added another verse: Not less we praise in darker days/The Leader of our Nation,/And Churchill’s name shall win acclaim/ From each new generation. Though immensely touched by the added verse, Churchill requested that the boys change “darker” to “sterner.” Though admittedly difficult and challenging, these were not dark days. What sort of man, himself at the helm, would take the trouble in the middle of the greatest war in history to change a word in a school song? Was Churchill a pedant? No, indeed. To him the difference between darker and sterner was everything.

In addition to a solid grammar and a precise vocabulary, a good writer must possess style. The chief flaw of the contrived writing programs is their total want of style. Style is the manner, the tone, the address, the quality of a person’s writing. We normally use the word style in reference to dress. The analogy is apt. We change our dress to suit the occasion. One does not wear a tux to the gym or flip- flops to a funeral. Style in writing, too, must suit the occasion. Certain moments summon energy and force while others invite a lighter touch. Style also gives texture and nuance and force to writing by the use of various literary devices such as simile, metaphor, alliteration, parallelism and the like. When Lincoln called the nation a “house divided,” he did more than quote the Bible. He perfectly diagnosed the nation’s malady. More than suitability or literary device, style is the true signature of the writer. I remember reading somewhere that style is the image of the mind. The way one writes does, indeed, reveal qualities of mind, perhaps even of character. Consider the character that comes through in Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. Not only does each author have a style, but we may say that each age in history writes with a particular style that reflects the society’s manners and habits of mind. In the eighteenth century, men and women dressed with elegance, spoke with elegance, and consequently wrote with elegance. Is it any wonder that we in the twenty- first century dress in jeans, speak mostly of trivial things, and therefore too often write in a sloppy and slapdash manner? In classical education, though, there may be a remedy.

Having shown that the sources of good writing derive from disciplines and habits of mind that are not acquired in a “writing program,” we should be able with some force and perspicuity to demonstrate in a subsequent essay that a thorough classical education is the best means to learn and practice the art of good writing.