Continuing my summer thoughts in the spirit of “Beach Reading,” I have a confession to make. I am a great lover of the mystery story, the traditional thriller, and yes, even the noir genre. Dorothy L. Sayers wrote in defense of the idea that reading about murder is a justifiable activity, even from a religious point of view. I’ll save comments about her thoughts for another time, but simply confess to you that I not only love a well written mystery, but think that they often qualify as legitimate literature.
There was a “Golden Age” of the mystery from about 1920 to 1950. During this era, British authors perfected the genre. They delighted in presenting highly puzzling plots which played “fair” and gave all of the clues a reader would need to solve the mystery, if he or she were paying close attention.
In recent years, while there have been some well-written mysteries, many (most?) are dumbed down and rather prosaic, so it’s best if a person can become acquainted with the “Golden Age” mysteries first. Here are some authors from the Golden Age literary-minded teenagers may enjoy:
Dorothy L. Sayers; John Dickson Carr; Agatha Christie (of course); Margery Allingham; Ngaio Marsh; Edmund Crispin; Josephine Tey; Michael Innes; Patricia Wentworth; G K Chesterton (The Father Brown mysteries)
Reading a good mystery is a lovely way for a book lover to take a break from more serious literature, while still enjoying great writing. My personal favorites are Ngaio March, Josephine Tey, G. K. Chesterton (his Father Brown character), and Michael Innes. And let’s not forget the original detective story writers: Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
To start the summer, I’m sharing some favorite books and authors with you. You might like to try them sometime– maybe even this summer. When homeschooling our five children, I always looked forward to summer when I could explore “new to me” books in a leisurely manner.
I am selective about modern/contemporary literature, but I have a few authors I think are keepers. They are in no particular order, since I can’t decide which ones I like best. First on my list is Marilyn Robinson. I do not recommend starting with her earlier book, Housekeeping, but rather, go to her trilogy, starting with the Pultizer Prize winner, Gilead. Robinson has a strong grasp of the deeply Christian nature of our culture, and celebrates the family of a pastor in these brilliant novels.
Second on my list is Fred Chappell and his Kirkman tetralogy, beginning with I Am One of You Forever. His books also focus on family and contain a spiritual ethos, but they have a comic side to them that makes me laugh out loud when I reread them. He was poet laureate of North Carolina from 1997-2002, and has also won many awards for his work.
Finally, I recommend Ron Hansen’s book, Atticus, which is a prodigal son story (also a mystery) full of warmth and hope. In addition to receiving many book awards, two of Hansen’s novels have been made into movies. Hansen is a professor in my home territory at Santa Clara University, where I received my teaching degree.
I’m happy to be able to recommend the books of these three living authors to you, and perhaps you will dip into one or more of them while dipping your toes in the water, or vacationing in some mountain idyll. All three of these authors know how to “dig in” and find the “stories” that make you appreciate and rejoice in life and faith.
I hope you all have a blessed summer with family and friends, no matter where you are or what you are doing.
Scenario: You’ve written the bulk of your essay, and you feel like you’re done. And I mean –DONE! You glare in desperation at the paper or computer screen, which seems to be floating in air before your unbelieving eyes in a taunting mirage, and you wonder why essays must have conclusion paragraphs when you’ve said everything already. You know you’re supposed to write something more, but–what? Even students who have learned how to write solid introduction and “body” paragraphs can fall into despair when it comes to developing a conclusion paragraph.
Students are often taught in their early years to summarize the introduction paragraph and restate the thesis for their conclusion paragraphs–and–that’s it. Check in the box. This formulaic way of approaching an essay limits students’ understanding of the power they themselves have in developing their final paragraphs. It’s especially negative because it trains very young students to shut off their thought processes, which otherwise probably would have led them to some interesting new conclusions, based on what they have discovered during the very process of writing their essays. So even if students have done some good analysis in their middle (body) paragraphs, they are at sea when it comes to drawing their thoughts together into a galvanizing proclamation full of punch and power.
It’s important to remember that when you write, you are developing your thinking/logic processes (Write to think!); therefore, limiting students to regurgitating or rephrasing the points of the essay is not only boring for the reader: it actually trains the students not to think, not to make the kinds of connections which will grow them into independent thinkers and wise citizens.
I’ve said this before: Writing is structured but it’s not formulaic. Yes, students must learn the framework of building a paper, but no, they should not be taught to follow restrictive steps which do not involve the process of applying what they’ve learned. They must have the freedom to draw their own conclusions about the written “discussion” they have just engaged in with the reader. They are learning to think; they are learning to participate in the cultural engagement which Mortimer Adler first called “The Great Conversation.” When students are taught the regimen of walking step-by-step through conclusion paragraphs by simply “plugging in” a recap of their introductory paragraph with an added flourish, they are really being told that the body paragraphs of their essays are merely “proofs” for an equation that they have been asked to solve merely for the sake of the facts. Instead, they should be lead into learning to assimilate concepts and interpretations in ways which cause them to develop their own theories and hypotheses about what they have read and written.
What is the alternative? A better question might be, What are the alternatives? When comes to writing, the world is your oyster. But for now, let’s investigate a few ideas which will help students to create essays which command attention through piquing the reader’s thought processes and imagination. So, here are some suggestions as to how to approach writing conclusion paragraphs:
Some instructors tell students to “rephrase” the thesis statement in their final paragraph, but this serves no purpose except to weary the reader. Instead, students must rethink their thesis statements in light of the analysis they have provided in the essay, and use their new thoughts to pull the “parts” of their essay together to say something new and significant. In one way, it’s simple: What is the point of all that you have written here? What new idea are you communicating to your audience? If you do not have a new idea, then you really have nothing to say.
This does not mean that students who write essays in school should be expected to know all previous ideas ever concluded about a topic. Instructors understand that students may discover new ideas when they write which are, in truth, only “new” to them. This doesn’t matter, because the point of an essay is that it is an exercise in growing the students’ thought/writing processes. Much relies on the teacher here, who must assess whether the particular student is reaching, stretching beyond his or her previous ability, and gaining new understanding. While emphasizing the message of the thesis statement, students should draw conclusions which extend well past the basics of what they have written about. As the saying goes, “The sum is greater than the parts.”
A conclusion paragraph should include new insights, drawn from the material you have been writing about. This takes thought, and is one more reason why a strong essay will involve several drafts, over a period of days, perhaps longer. A final paragraph expresses the topic in a fresh, expanded way, causing the reader to draw original conclusions. It should cause the reader to take pause, to take notice. Finally, completing an essay with an emotional appeal (pathos, in classical terminology) compels the reader to think beyond previous assumptions–to see the topic in a more complex, multi-layered light. In short, an inspiring conclusion challenges the compelling him to rethink or modify his worldview.
The interplay between writing and thinking cannot be completely codified, but it’s there and it’s important. The reason this connection can’t be put into a formula is because each person is created as a unique individual, and comes with his or her own cultural and textual knowledge. Therefore, each of us can “see” and put together truths and new insights in our own particular way. A good teacher recognizes the freedom of thought a student must have in order to write well, and understands that a peaceful, accepting atmosphere, time, and contemplation are the requisite conditions students need for their thoughts to percolate to the point where they can be gathered together, synthesized, and woven into narrative which draws subtlety and significance from the topic at hand.
What is the point of an essay if it isn’t to enrich the understanding of the audience? What is the point of an education if it isn’t to learn to think, and live, to the potential to which you are called? While there may be times when students just have to write an essay to “put a check in the box,” shouldn’t we teachers help them to move beyond doing the minimum, so that they have the opportunity to become excited about writing, and thinking, and learning, and growing? Let’s Write to Think!
What does constitute a great piece of fiction? In our Literature & Composition: Year 1 class, we are reading the bittersweet classic by Margaret Craven, I Heard the Owl Call My Name. The story is about a young Anglican pastor, Mark Brian, who is sent to a rural native community in British Columbia, and concerns his spiritual and internal growth as he learns to love this land and people, unaware that he himself will soon die. Each year when I reread it, I choke up, no matter how much I’ve prepared myself beforehand for the moving conclusion. The book has such power because it speaks truths with beauty and simplicity; the author’s restrained diction causes the reader to genuinely feel the unspoken, deep emotions which the characters express, often through what they do not say as they face their trials and joys. The straightforward yet imagistic style of the book also goes along with the setting and flavor of the native culture, since the people there, in addition to living without most of the material comforts of modern life, are without guile. I Heard the Owl Call My Name also speaks to what is best in us, pointing our souls towards the spiritual values which lie deep within through its symbolic language, borrowed from the natural world.
The novel uses foreshadowing and contrasts between two disparate cultures in organic ways which function as a tapestry, weaving together plot development, theme, and tone to connect the reader emotionally with the characters and their culture. From the first page wherein we a learn that the young pastor is unaware that he is dying, until the closing chapters in which the earthly and spiritual pilgrimages of Mark come to a fitting and moving conclusion, the reader accompanies Mark on his journey towards Love.
The perfect novel is a vessel which contains a unity of subject, thought, and spirit. The perfect novel inspires and rejuvenates our souls, calling us towards the transcendent. The perfect novel leaves us with the sense that we are more complete than we were before we read it; we are more than the sum of our parts; we more keenly know and feel our connections to humanity and to our spiritual roots.
The previous article in this series discussed how to choose evidences for an essay. You must have solid “facts” or examples from your texts in order to begin to interpret a text, and your choices must be based on what you’ve decided to write your essay about, specifically. That’s the most challenging part of finding your evidences.
Learning how to write analysis and interpretation means learning how to think independently. The most difficult thing – the key skill — in learning to interpret and understand texts is to learn how to dig into the specific diction of that work. This article addresses how to interpret literary texts.
Before analyzing a work, first find the most important theme, and it’s essential to know that a theme is more than an idea and cannot be described in just one word. Rather, a theme, as the “message” of the text, is a phrase which expresses a deep meaning of this message. For instance, in The Fellowship of the Ring, a powerful theme is that true love means being willing to sacrifice oneself for the sake of others, even to the point of death. For an example of how to analyze a poem, see my article on Robert Frost’s poem, “Frost Thoughts: Poetry with a Punch.”
Interpreting and writing about a short poem is the best way to learn how to analyze a work, both because a student can focus on a specific, focused amount of text, and because the diction of a poem is concentrated and powerful. Studying poetry is the most helpful technique for learning about the various types of literary terms/devices have (metaphor, alliteration, etc.), the real focus should be on recognizing this figurative language and then explicating how it informs the text. It’s a skill which is gained through careful, aware reading and practice. And unlike what many believe about the art of analyzing literature, it’s a rich experience to learn the “secrets” of understanding literature: it is the key to unlocking the mysteries of writing which enlighten us, fulfill us, and help us grow and learn.
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 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. Second, 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 which 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!
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 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 at 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,”
“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 the 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!
I continue the series by discussing the classical writing technique of “imitation” and how to apply this today.
In the classical education renewal movement 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 should 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 emphasis 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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.