Jots & Thoughts: The Teaching Writing Series #5~ Evidences & Red Herrings

In this article I discuss how specificity and detail are your answers to solving the “mystery” of writing. The example I use is that of an academic essay, but specificity applies to all writing genres.

The Sherlock Holmes analogy springs to life again as we talk about the heart of your writing. If you are Holmes investigating 1) You look for evidences and develop a theory about how the crime was committed; 2) You use a theory and look for evidences. Solving a mystery is both analytic and synthetic (inductive and deductive).

When you write, your topic/subject is your mystery. Your topic must be specific, just as Holmes-Image-Loupe resizedHolmes solves particular riddles. He doesn’t think about mysteries in general; in fact, when he has no particular mystery to solve, he falls into deep depression and resorts to taking cocaine!

Instructors often say, “Don’t be too specific, and don’t be too vague,” but most people should focus on the last part of that advice, as the challenge of writing is usually to clarify your point, not broaden it. So let’s say you want to write an academic essay about Frodo, based on The Fellowship of the Ring. You’ve decided that the theme you focus on is that of his self-sacrifice, so you write a thesis which asserts that the Shire is saved because Frodo is willing to take on the sacrificial quest of destroying the ring. Great–you’ve solved one aspect of the mystery! Now what?

You need to find “clues” from the text–evidences–which support your claim. For instance, Frodo accepts the dangerous assignment when Gandolf asks him to do it. flashlight resizedSecond, he continues the quest even when the Black Riders attempt to stop him and turn him into a wraith. And you continue on, finding other times when Frodo continues the journey. You can even go into times when he almost gives in to the power of the Ring, as these are also ways in which he would have given up the quest. (If you are writing an academic essay, be sure to use brief quotes from the text as your “evidences.”)

How do you determine whether an evidence/clue is an important one or not? Sherlock often runs across “red herrings” in his investigations: evidences whichred-herring resized seem relevant to the crime, but are not. While it’s easier to determine what textual evidences which relate to your topic than it is for Sherlock to sort his clues out, it can sometimes be challenging to decide which are important.

Choosing the best textual evidences takes judgment and effort.  First, find all of the examples you think are important. Then review them and choose only the ones you think are the strongest: do they push your thesis forward? Do they cause the reader to make deeper connections between your point and the text? How do your evidences help the reader to “see” the point you are making? Always loop back to your thesis and reassess as you flip back and forth between thinking about how powerfully your evidences develop your thesis and rereading the thesis. As with detective work, your strongest evidences will lead you to the strongest results!

Cindy Lange, MA
integritasacademy.com

Next time: #6~ The Heart of the Essay

Beginning the fall of 2019 Integritas Academy will provide an approved College Board AP course online for English Literature and Composition. Please check out our course page at http://www.integritasacademy.com/about-register.html or email Cindy@integritasacademy.com

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Jots and Thoughts: The Teaching Writing Series #4~ “Which Kind of Writer Are You?”

With point #4 I investigate the pros and cons of outlining, as determiners of personality types!

There are two kinds of people: those who outline, and those who don’t. That’s how I see

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Hemingway

the world, anyway, based on my decades of experience in teaching students of all ages how to write.  Most writing programs do require students to learn how to outline, and it’s a necessary skill. But not all students write well by starting with an outline. Here’s why–how can I know beforehand what the details of my paper will be? If you think about it, you don’t know when you begin to write what you are specifically going to write about, so how can you outline information you haven’t thought out yet?

The idea of an outline is that you will lay out a map, or blueprint, for your essay. This makes perfect sense, but writing isn’t like that. If we could neatly write an outline, in order, the minute we wanted to write a paper, we would hardly need to write the essay backward-clipart-10at all because the order and development of the concepts would be obvious! However, some people do work best with outlines because they find that having all of their “ducks in a row” before they begin to write actual sentences is most helpful.

Others of us work backwards and find that we need to write down our ideas in a somewhat random manner and then put them in order, once we consider how they relate to each other. We find it much easier to “see” their relationships before they are listed in a formal manner.

You are probably familiar with an alternative method which has been developed, called by various names: the “cluster,” “spider diagramming,” “bubble,”

cluster
(10th gr. St. Vrain Valley School Dist.)

“mind map,” or “brainstorming” method. This is a helpful approach for people who are intimidated by outlining or whose thought processes don’t work well for outlining, especially when first learning to write. Another method of helping students develop the frameworks for their essays is to simply have them write their ideas down using phrases, either on paper or typed on the computer), leaving a space or line between ideas. Then they can number them, circle them, etc., with arrows going from one to another – whatever works for them, in order to get the ideas ordered. From there they can make an outline fairly easily.

The Jane Schaffer method of teaching writing, which is the method I use, is a wonderful way to bring in outlining through side door. It gives students a “place to hang their hats” without constraining them to develop complex outlines, yet they really are outlining their essays organically. The difference is that as they develop their essays they think conceptually about categories, integrating their content logically as they progress. You can find my article about the Schaffer method at https://writetothink.blog/the-writing-process/.

As I say to my students: Writing is structured, but it’s not formulaic. It’s analytical, but it’s also synthetic. It’s the development of logical thought, not just the explication of it. Write to think!

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Cindy Lange, MA
integritasacademy.com

Jots and Thoughts: The Teaching Writing Series #3~ “The Imitation Game”

I continue the series by discussing the classical writing technique of “imitation” and how to apply this today.

stones buildingIn the classical education renewal there are attempts to get back to the art of imitation in writing. Traditionally this meant that scholars would imitate classical writers in a detailed manner, creating phrases and clauses which directly mimicked the grammar of the master they were modeling their work after. All of these present programs and efforts are laudable, but it is important to take into account the background of today’s students before offering up the most traditional kind of imitation curriculum. Here’s why:

In previous times a fully classical education included an exhaustive understanding of grammatical concepts, both in English and in Latin. While many “classically schooled” students today receive some solid grammar training, most don’t get the “full story.” (There are a few programs such as Rod and Staff or the Seton Home Study School which do provide the full complement of grammar.)

Students who receive only the rudiments of grammar in their early years should not try to “imitate” in the fully classical way in middle school and high school. Rather, they classical booksshould be given assignments in which they model their work after others without trying to directly imitate their sentence structures. I base this suggestion on my experience attempting to get students who don’t have a full understanding of sentence structure to “imitate” in the traditional way. What happens with these students is that they end up struggling so hard to replicate structures they do not understand that they never move past that to produce good writing themselves. They often complete the assignments in stilted ways, just trying to get through them. At the crucial time when they should be learning to argue and analyze texts, they are instead caught up in the weeds for the sake of a “classical” education, which will in all likelihood not help them to be better writers in the long run.

If students have received genuinely complete training in grammar, they can benefit some from imitating the great writers in the traditional way.  However, all students should be given assignments which focus on the diction of the works they study. This is the etch booksemphasis of the AP (Advanced Placement) approach to teaching and testing in English and composition. First, by analyzing the diction (literary devices, tone, etc.) of great writers, all students come to understand the “nuts and bolts” of how the best authors communicate through both synthesis and analysis. Second, by responding to short assignments requiring them to compose in such a manner themselves without “worrying” about the specifics of grammar they have not learned students begin to truly model themselves after and “imitate” the finest writing. I believe that for most students today, this approach is the most helpful.

pen in book

Beginning the fall of 2019 Integritas Academy will provide an approved College Board AP course online for English Literature and Composition. Please check out our course page at http://www.integritasacademy.com/about-register.html or email Cindy@integritasacademy.com

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Cindy Lange, MA

Jots and Thoughts: The Teaching Writing Series #2~ “It’s not just the facts, Ma’am.”

In Point #1 of this series about how to teach writing I briefly discussed the underlying connection between logic and writing and how your job as a parent/teacher is to point this connection out to your students on a daily basis, in as many areas as possible.

Point #2: Learning Isn’t Just About the Facts

Because learning to write is such a holistic activity and experience, it’s more important than ever to take the student’s attitude into account. Many students have trepidation about writing: they don’t know what is expected, and even when given good instructions their thoughts may be so “frozen” that they cannot think clearly. Here are two suggestions for helping students get past this “writer’s block.”

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First, give the student a brief initial assignment which is easy. Praise the student for specific phrases which are good. Do not focus on minor grammar issues at this point, but instead, bring out the positive content you see. You can almost always find something good to say about any genuine effort a student has made.

Second, when you do get to where you want the student to edit, do not use strictly negative words and phrases such as “No” or “That’s not right.” If you do, the recalcitrant student will return to the “frozen” mode because of fear of failure. Here are are some helpful phrases I use which work well: “That’s a good start, and also _______”; “You’re almost there, but you also need to _______”; “Not quite; let’s see how you can _________.” Students will learn that your phrases mean that aspects of the work aren’t what they should be, but they won’t shut down or feel that you are rejecting their efforts altogether; they will be want to improve and feel capable of improving.

Having academic standards for students is different from putting unrealistic emotional pressure on them. It’s our job as teachers to figure out the ways we can inspire and motivate students so that they not only learn, but love learning.

Check back later for more tips on teaching writing!learning

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Cindy Lange, MA
integritasacademy.com

Jots and Thoughts: The Teaching Writing Series #1~ “Logically Speaking”

When you write, you connect the dots between language and logic. It’s a two-way street: The more you write, the more logical you become, and likewise, the more logical you are, the better writer you become.

This series of Jots and Thoughts mini-articles will present specific ways in which teachers, and specifically homeschool parents/teachers, can teach writing well. These steps will not be formulaic, but they will be structured. There is a big difference.

Structured writing is writing which has purpose and direction. It is a given that for students to learn write in a structured manner, they must have the basics of grammar under their belts. They use the “tools” of grammar to build the structures, or frameworks, of their essays. All writers should strive to be consciously structured in their writing. In other words, they should attempt to control their phrases and sentences, and the ways in which they express themselves.

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Formulaic writing is writing which demands that students use particular kinds phrases and clauses to create their work in particular and specific order–for instance, when a student is required to use phrases in assignments starting with certain types of words, such as prepositions,  adverbs, verbs, etc. While it might be helpful to train students in this sort of formula for a year or so, in the long run there are negatives which supersede the positives. The significant problem with this method is that it is an overly regimented way of teaching students how to think about how to write. What should be part of a comprehensive grammar program (usually not taught now) has been tacked onto the larger writing curriculum in an attempt to belatedly teach the students these grammatical constructs. I admit that the opposite problem, that of not teaching any rules of writing at all, is not good.  In fact, it’s worse. But that doesn’t make teaching writing formulaically a good solution. It’s not.

I think this gets back to the recent interpretation by “classical” learning advocates of the Dorothy L. Sayers essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” In this interpretation and application of how to teach, recent “classical” educators write curriculum based on a legalistic misunderstanding of the stages of learning. This is preposterous and Sayers, I am sure, would not agree with its extremity and rigidity. Children can think logically and independently from an early age; they can put their own thoughts together logically, although of course their levels of maturity must be taken into account. But to separate out their ability to think for themselves according to age is a completely fallacious approach to learning.

All that to lead up to my Point #1 for teaching writing:

Point #1: Teach the student how to focus and think logically. This is the background for learning to write a “unified” essay, but a thesis is merely a result of this kind of good thinking. You can do this by helping the student focus on whatever you discuss during the day, not just during school time.  Teach the child how to draw logical conclusions from opinions, no matter what the subject.

Next time: Point #2

antique background blur book
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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Cindy C. Lange, MA
http://www.integritasacademy.com

Mother Goose: Beloved Crone & Culture Bearer

We all know the following Mother Goose rhyme: Jack be nimble / Jack be quick / Jack jump over the moon. Wait! Something’s wrong here. Wasn’t it the cow that jumped over the moon? Indeed, nursery rhymes sound the depths of our childhood experiences, but they serve as far more than fond memories. The nursery rhyme has been a training ground for English speaking children for the past 400 years or perhaps longer. Mother Goose was the first “holistic educator,” because nursery rhymes teach to every aspect of a child’s nature: sensory, physical, cognitive, and moral. We can say with assurance that Mother Goose was far ahead of her time.

The mythical figure of Mother Goose is usually depicted as a crone who presides over the treasury of English nursery rhymes which has evolved over past centuries. The earliest reference to her is in a collection of French stories in 1650, but the name came into its current usage in 1780 after a British publisher adopted it in reference to a “compilation of traditional English nonsense songs and rhymes.”[i] The tradition of Mother Goose was MOTHE READINGcarried across the pond to the American colonies, where she has steadfastly remained the reigning denizen of early childhood literature. There are several reasons for the unwavering popularity of her verse; investigating them gives insight not only into the poems, but into the nature of children, and more specifically, into the ways in which children can and should develop.

The first and most important function of the rhymes is that their insistent sing-song rhythms immerse the very young in the cadences of the English language. The rhymes prepare inexperienced ears to recognize not only specific words, but entire phrases, laying down the neural pathways for children to aurally receive, process, and finally, organize the more detailed, chaotic information which will soon bombard them as they grow past toddlerhood and move into the world of cognition and reason. Take the well-known Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush—this ditty repeats the phrase “the mulberry bush” three times within four lines, with each repetition varying the tune and pitch slightly. Why? By retaining the same words while slightly altering the tune and placement on the musical scale, the MulberryBush_Rackham (2)phrase takes the child incrementally from the “known” to the “unknown”—this is foundational to the way that we learn. As they chant, the children run around an object, developing physical abilities in tandem with tonal memory. The content of this rhyme is irrelevant, but the repetitive nature of the words, with their sing-song lilt, provides children with a now-familiar milieu in which to learn; their auditory world becomes a known haven which yields a sense of security through its limited phraseology and repetition, while acting as a vehicle through which they refine their ability to distinguish differences in sounds.

The rhymes also provide children with information about the world around them. Mother Goose “educates” by creating touchstones for their expanding minds. For instance, many are about foods in the household. “Pat-a-cake” explains the baker’s wares; “Little Jack Horner” glorifies the Christmas plum pudding (and Jack’s thumb!); silly Jack Sprat and his wife exemplify fat and lean; the “little piggies” go to market mother goose USE.jpglooking for roast beef, etc.  Nursery rhymes also familiarize children with commonplace items in an entertaining manner. A cat plays a fiddle, a cow jumps over the moon, dishes and forks run away together . . . amazingly, this simple technique causes children to begin to make connections between and among objects, developing their analytical processes through the use of the furnishings of their everyday world.

Additionally, nursery rhymes serve to help children learn and appreciate humor, as in Sing a Song of Sixpence, wherein the king is served a blackbird pie in which the still-alive birds pop out of the crust singing. (Blackbirds were eaten as a gourmet item in earlier times.)

PUMPKIN EATER

Or take Peter, Peter, Pumpkin-eater, in which Peter cannot “keep” his wife until he places her in a pumpkin shell (!). Learning humor is a crucial aspect of developing critical thinking, and helps children to learn to differentiate between various aspects of the world around them, as they note the contrast between the joke-rhyme and the real world it supposedly reflects.

Mother Goose rhymes also inculcate morals and rules in children by using a form which they will easily remember, as in this sardonic scolding of a child for his tardiness:  A dillar, a dollar, a ten o’clock scholar! / What makes you come so soon? / You used to come at ten o’clock / But now you come at noon.  Or this one: Seesaw, Margery Daw / Sold her bed / And laid upon straw. And we all know about what happened to Jack and Jill when they ran up the hill, and it wasn’t pretty! While some lessons Mother Goose teaches might seem grim to us (Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home / Your house is on fire, your children all gone!) they were necessary helps to children of previous generations, who lived in a harsher environment where these admonitions were necessary. However, There’s a Neat Little Clock is charming even to the 21st century mind: There’s a neat little clock- /  In the classroom it stands- / And it points to the time /  With its two little hands. / And may we, like the clock, / Keep a face clean and bright, /  With hands ever ready / To do what is right.

The riddle-rhymes push the envelope further: My favorite is As I Was Going to St. Ives, which is often used in first grade readers because it incorporates logic with arithmetic (or so it would appear):

As I was going to St. Ives I met a man with seven wives, Each wife had seven sacks, each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits: kit, cats, sacks and wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?    

stives

Do you know the answer? Actually, it is unclear. Perhaps only one person was going to St. Ives, since the speaker states in the beginning that he is going there. Or perhaps everyone is headed that way, including the animals. Then there would be 2,802—talk about a traffic jam! It’s even possible that the last line of the riddle is only asking how many of the party he met were going, and doesn’t mean to include him in the question, in which case it is possible that zero could be the answer. This rhyme is actually a form of a riddle from 1650, BC called The Papyrus Rind[ii]–what better way to introduce children to the vagaries of language than that of a timeless logic problem hidden in a nursery rhyme?

Mother Goose has remained with us these many centuries because she is worthy of the honor; she is a teacher par excellence, an iconic and insightful culture-bearer who inculcates deep lessons into our Western heritage.  Let us adopt her and say wholeheartedly: Welcome, Thou Beloved Crone!


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Cindy C. Lange, MA
http://www.integritasacademy.com

(Originally published in the May, 2011 Epistula, Veritas Press Publishing Company)

[i] http://www.rhymes.org.uk/as_i_was_going_to_st_ives.htm.
[ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/As_I_was_going_to_St_Ives.

Sources:
Briggs, Raymond, The Mother Goose Treasury. Coward-McCann, Inc. New York: 1966.
http://www.rhymes.org.uk/as_i_was_going_to_st_ives.htm.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/As_I_was_going_to_St_Ives.
Mother Goose Anniversary Edition, The. Scholastic Inc. New York: 1916.