Friday, July 20, 2012

Imitation on a Small Scale

One of the best website designs I have ever seen is the very orderly Silva Rhetoricae, which organizes "the forest of rhetoric" into its "trees" and "flowers." If you go to the site and search for the term "imitation," you'll get a brief history of this amazing teaching tool in the first link. But beware--you can get lost in this enchanted forest!
Path to Harbison Chapel

As explained in the little article linked above, imitation can be used on a grand scale or a small one. Today I want to share a brief exercise from the first quarter of the course Composition II that Chris Finnegan and I developed for Veritas Press Scholars Academy two years ago. After discussing a larger portion of an essay by Theodore Dalrymple, "Sympathy Deformed," we focused in on this pair of sentences:

To sympathize with those who are less fortunate is honorable and decent. A man able to commiserate only with himself would surely be neither admirable nor attractive.
When we want to imitate something like this, we need first to understand it, and for many a kind of shorthand can help:

Sympathize = honorable, decent
Self-sympathize = unadmirable, unattractive

In logic this comes out as S = P, Not S = Not P.  In class we discuss simple examples like "kindness is good" and "unkindness is bad" to be sure everyone gets the core of the meaning.  Then we set them loose with an imitation exercise using Dalrymple's sentence structure (and double description).  Here are a few of the student examples:

  • Peace promotes both happiness and patience. War promotes neither contentment nor fortitude. (Rob Holzknecht)  This very simple one follows the basic rules well and illustrates the principle.
  • When a person's emotions are controlled, all those around him will have peace, but when his temper consumes him, there is no calm for anyone. (H.K.)  This has more personal application and makes us nod and say, "Yes, that's very true."  It's reminiscent of the "better a corner of the housetop" Proverbs 21:9 and 25:24.
  • The ardent flames of love melt away the harsh ice of terror, leaving only comfort for those in the midst of the passionate fire. A man with no love to detect in his soul is never to feel true tranquility, but will forever remain frozen in hatred’s cold grasp. (Aubrey Muffett) Fire and ice -- obvious contrasts that help to illustrate the point, though we have to buy into the writer's equation of fire with a kind of comfortable, passionate tranquility. I expect this student was reading Dante in another class. :-)
  • To have self-control is to have a chest full of gold. A man who can only fume and yell is like the beggar who, despite his cries for money and food, receives none. (J.G.) This one has concrete images (and sounds). Note that the first sentence is quite brief and powerful. The second illustrates futility even in the length and syntax, with that final "receives none" to clinch the deal.

Want to give it a try yourself?  

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Fees Changing August 1: Up, Down, and Steady

I am currently working on adjustments to my fees for the new school year, effective August 1. Some fees are staying the same, some are increasing, and a couple are even going down!

If you order by August 1 you can be sure to get the best rates, and I will issue a refund for any fee that goes down after that date.

Staying the same: Resource Membership for Apprenticeship Writing Workshop, Resource Membership for Progymnasmata, and 4-assignment and 10-assignment enrollments for Great Books Writing Workshop.

Going down: Resource Membership for Great Books Writing Workshop (from $100 to $50!), One-Time Evaluation (from $60 to $50).

Going up 3% to 10%: Apprenticeship Writing Workshop, Progymnasmata Tutorials, and Evaluation Packages -- and the larger package will have more flexibility, with more submissions.

Going up 20%: The first hours of Consultation, which include free Resources or Resource Membership. I recognize the limited resources of small private schools and home schools, and it is my desire to work with clients to offer the most efficient and economical version of my services to meet their needs. Sometimes that means using existing curricula or materials developed for previous clients, or even charging only part of my time to develop materials I can use for other clients.

As an example, for an initial consultation of under $200 I have had email correspondence and an hour-long phone meeting with staff members of Samuel Fuller School, researched a curriculum they were interested in, and created for them a long-term plan for a solid writing program as the school grows, with a Resource Membership and site license in perpetuity for all my Progymnasmata materials. They desired more guidance for the year, and teacher training, and when they determined a budget for these services I came up with a plan that prioritizes their needs: full customized syllabi for two grade levels of Progymnasmata instruction for this year, evaluation of early assignments from the two classes, and phone/online coaching of the teachers on these assignments and at least two later ones as the year progresses.

May I do the same for you? Order an initial Consultation by August 1 and enjoy the lower rate throughout your project!

Monday, July 16, 2012

"Assessment That Blesses" Available Until August 3

While there's still time, listen to this talk from Andrew Kern of the CiRCE Institute: "Assessment That Blesses." And then watch for an upcoming post from me about how to apply these ideas.

  • Andrew's main message is that everybody has anxiety related to education (the student, the teacher, the parents), and that anxiety gets its power in assessment, or judgment.  On what basis will work be judged--how should we measure it?
  • To be effective, assessment must be based on the nature of the student, the nature of the subject, and the relationship between them.
  • Judgment is based on right thinking (based on accuracy, based on wisdom, based on grace), and the feedback we give students should be this measure:  what is the goal, and how far have you come along the path toward that goal?
  • We must give honor where it is due.  When a student is talented, we should praise God for that.  When the student shows virtue by working hard, we can praise the student for that.
  • When truth enters the soul, it always brings joy.

Those are the kernels of wisdom I gleaned from this talk, and I've been thinking over them for the last week or two. Stay tuned for where that thinking is going . . .
Teaching excellence

I chose this illustration photo of a really engaged teacher, Lorien Foote. It's no surprise she was given a Teaching Excellence Award by the University of Central Arkansas!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Setting the Stage for Argument

When students have to argue in their writing, they often do it adamantly, plainly, without persuasive subtlety. But an argument essay works best when the writer can draw the reader along, a friendly arm about the shoulder, persuading the reader to agree with him on minor points until suddenly they find themselves together at the writer's conclusion, and it all seems so obvious.  At least that's the hope.

In the Progymnasma called "Confirmation/Refutation," a writer works through a set form of argument, examining the possibility, probability, credibility, and other characteristics of a proposition. The exercise gives students a chance to investigate or promulgate an urban myth, pet theory, or historical dilemma of their choice.  In the Intermediate level of my Progymnasmata Tutorial I provide my own investigation into George Washington's wooden dentures.  This summer one student decided to look into the claim of Herodotus, and later others, that Helen was never in Troy during the decade-long siege of Homer's epic.
Helen of Troy busk at the V&A, London
Michael Helvey, 10th grade, begins by setting up the history of the original story and establishing Homer as the ultimate extant source of the tale, and then showing that Herodotus is inconsistent in his quibbles and that almost no-one else agreed with him--oratory students of ancient times even took on the ridiculous challenge of TRYING to argue that Helen was not in Troy.  Then he fast-forwards us to a few centuries ago and shows how more recent thinkers have revisited the question:
In the Age of Reason, everything was most unreasonably thrown into uncertainty, with Descartes setting out to “doubt everything,” and the chronological snobbery so characteristic of Modernity automatically casting every fact from the ancient and Medieval worlds into suspicion. When men were unsure of their own existence, it is no surprise that they also doubted the veracity of Homer. John Stuart Mill, reflecting the temperament of his age, referred to the “alleged siege of Troy,” in his The Subjection of Women. Earlier, Blaise Pascal wrote that “Homer wrote a romance, for nobody supposes that Troy and Agamemnon existed any more than the apples of the Hesperides. He had no intention to write history, but only to amuse us,” (Pensées, part ix, §628). For them, Helen was not only not in Troy, but neither she nor Troy had ever existed.
A greener student might have argued something simple, like this:
In the 17th century Descartes argued that Helen was not in Troy, and John Stuart Mill questioned the whole story, calling it the "alleged siege of Troy." Others agreed.  So great minds of a few centuries ago doubted whether Helen was in Troy or even existed. But even though they doubt the story, that does not make it false.
Note how this "greener" version just puts the facts out there plainly, showing us only that people disagree, and some of those people famous smart ones. The final declaration, typical of a young writer, relies on the declaration that the existence of an opposition does not prove that opposition. That's a pretty thin argument.

But look at what Michael does in presenting this material. He uses "unreasonably thrown into uncertainty" and "chronological snobbery . . . automatically . . . casting every fact . . . into suspicion." Note the negative constructions, the twist of criticism, the accusation of narrowmindedness!  This last would be especially appealing to today's reader, even if he is himself a purveyor of chronological snobbery. 

Even more effective, note his explanation of the mindset of Descartes and Mill, "men unsure of their own existence."  Instead of dismissing these big names with reference only to their conclusions, he quotes them, letting them speak for themselves. And of course a man unsure of his own existence would be even more unsure of the existence of a woman or a city a couple of millennia before!

By presenting his opposition with interpretations of their mindset and culture, by quoting them directly to let them speak for themselves, Mr. Helvey shows true command of his material, demonstrates his deep understanding, and helping us trust him for the conclusions that are to come. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

A Brave Metaphor

David Kern, in his blog Wanderings, has a review of the movie Brave that I'm not sure I completely agree with, though I appreciate the challenge of his critique.  But I want to celebrate a great little paragraph introducing a metaphor you can understand even if you know nothing about the movie:

It’s as if the writers decided to transplant the thematic heart of the film, only they failed to properly connect all the ventricles and veins with the rest of the organs, leaving it to pump aimlessly, purposelessly. 

Well done, David!  Thanks to Lynne Spear of Sweetbriar Films for the original link.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Great Moments in Teaching

I'm so glad this teacher, Michelle Kerr, writing on the blog of Larry Cuban on June 27, 2012, shared her exhilarating hour in the classroom, and I'm glad Rod Dreher let us know about it!

"The kids carried the conversational load on that poem for ten minutes."
     --"The Miracle and the Moment"          

I love it when that happens!

She goes on to describe how what happened didn't really fit her lesson plans, that she was supervised that day and knew she'd be missing many of the stated objectives.  But something important happened there.

If you teach, I hope you have the joy of many such moments, and if you learn, I hope you are part of a miracle such as Ms. Kerr describes.  Aren't our best memories of our educations from moments like these?