Thursday, June 25, 2015

Charlotte Mason and Composition

I've been thinking about composition pedagogy a lot recently. A couple of months ago, my principal announced that there was some funding available for Common Core instructional materials, and my grade level was able to purchase some teacher packages from Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW). In preparation for next year, I've been watching IEW training DVDs.

I like IEW. A lot. But it's not the way Charlotte Mason believed composition should be taught. I also like some of the progymnasmata-inspired curricula out there. But, again, it's not the way Charlotte Mason believed composition should be taught.

My favorite Mason quote about composition comes from Home Education (247):
In fact, lessons in 'composition' should follow the model of the famous essay on "Snakes in Ireland" - "There are none."
As a public school teacher, this is completely the opposite of what I'm mandated to "believe." And yet, I agree with Mason.

It's not that Mason thought composition should never be taught. She just didn't think it should be taught until about 10th grade (Form V).
In these Forms some definite teaching in the art of composition is advisable, but not too much, lest the young scholars be saddled with a stilted style which may encumber them for life. (Vol. 6: 194)
Some. But not too much.

The idea of waiting to teach "writing" until a child is in high school is something that, I think, many people are uncomfortable with. It's not the way we learned writing. It's not the way children in public schools are taught writing. If everyone else's child can write a state report by the end of fifth grade, won't my child be "behind" if she can't? Doesn't my child need to be able to write essays for college applications? Won't delaying teaching my child essay-writing until high school cause her detriment? How will she get into college? How will she be successful in college classes?

But I'm so comfortable with this.

In public elementary schools, students go through the writing process. They draft, revise, edit, publish. Why? They don't have a firm grasp of the grammar rules. They don't have a firm grasp of spelling rules; they're still getting weekly spelling lists and taking weekly spelling tests. They haven't been interested keenly* in the subjects they're asked to write about.

*from pg. 193 of Mason's An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education

I teach 4th grade at a Title I school, which means that the majority of my students come from low-income homes. Last year, most of my students came from homes where English was not their parents' first language. One-third of my students had parents who didn't speak English at all.

I wish I could delay teaching them how to write.

If my students were in a PNEU school, they would be in Form II. In Form II (4th through 6th grade), children wrote narrations, but their narrations weren't revised. They weren't edited. They weren't published. (They weren't celebrated with fruit platters and parent invitations and colorful Post-It notes, the way we public school teachers have been trained to celebrate the writing of children.) The narrations didn't conform to a certain length. (If I had a nickel for every time a child asked me how long a piece of writing needed to be, or if their paragraph needed to have five sentences, I would have quite a few nickels...)

The rules about paragraphing weren't established until 1866. Defoe and Dickens didn't need these rules to be Defoe and Dickens.

It wasn't until later that students wrote in other genres. In Form III (~7th/8th grade), students wrote:
  • a good precis (pronounced pray-see, a very specific kind of summary) of a lesson
  • a descriptive essay
  • narrative poems on striking events
  • a resume (meaning a summary, not an employment resume) once a week, about something read in literature, the news, history, or about an allegorical subject (which would be less like writing a summary and more like writing a literary analysis)
  • letters (Christmas letters to friends abroad on general news)
And then there is this interesting parenthetical note in Programme 93 for Form III:
(See Meiklejohn, 176-183.)
I'm assuming this refers to Meiklejohn's A New Grammar for the English Tongue.
Now, pages 176 to 183 of this edition are about paraphrasing and prosody. So students in about 7th grade - by Term 93 - were reading about how to paraphrase and about some of the meters used in English poetry (it looks like these pages in Meiklejohn cover iambic, trochaic, anapestic, amphibrachic, and dactylic meters).

In Term 94, the programme changes a little. Prior to 94, students were not required to write poetry that would scan. But in 94, students are. The programme doesn't require students to write their poems in a specific meter - YET.

In Form IV (~8th/9th grade), students wrote:
  • weekly resumes (as in Form III)
  • poems about current events, characters in the term's reading, heroic deeds, historical characters, or on scenes of the season
  • letters to friends about family events and general news
But here's where it gets interesting. The parenthetical note says:
note metre of poems set for this term
Each term focused on one meter. Students could spend a whole three months exploring iambs. Or a whole three months playing with trochees.

If only!

I love that, with my own daughter, I will have the freedom to focus.

Forms V and VI (10th through 12th grade) appear very similar, except Form VI appears to list more essays.

In Form V:
  • a good precis
  •  a letter to the editor 
  • essays on subjects taken from history, literature, and economics
  • ekphrasis/analysis: (write on a picture studied
  • write on some aspect of nature 
  • letters for magazine on nature: for the P.U.S. Magazine...on occurrences in nature
  • essays, in the style of Macauley [Thomas Babington Macaulay maybe?] on subjects suggested by the term's work in Early Stuart Literature
  • poetry: occasionally, twenty lines of blank verse** or sonnets events that stir general feeling, or on historical or living personages. These must scan, see Abbott & Seeley***, Part III. 
**iambic pentameter
***Part III (pages 91-150) are about metre, disyllabic metre, and trisyllabic metre

In Form VI:
  • essays on ethical and economic problems
  • essays on events and questions of the day
  • essays on any subject that interests you
  • poetry: occasionally, twenty lines of blank verse on some deed of heroism or aspect of nature
  • letters to the editor
  • a good precis
  • letters for the P.U.S. Magazine on occurrences in nature
  • essays, in the style of Macauley [Thomas Babington Macaulay maybe?] on subjects suggested by the term's work in Early Stuart Literature
  • ekphrasis/analysis: write on a picture studied
  • write on some aspect of nature
  • poetry: occasionally, twenty lines of blank verse or sonnets (events that stir general feeling, or on historical or living personages. These must scan, see Abbott & Seeley, Part III.)
It's interesting to me that, while a student would have studied iambic pentameter, and would have had lots of exposure to Shakespeare prior to 10th grade, he or she wouldn't have been required to try their hand at a full sonnet until Form V.

Most of the above was about poetry, but the essays PNEU students read were sophisticated and dense. James Anthony Froude, Charles Lamb, Sir James Stephen.

I don't know how useful reading essays like these would be nowadays would be (if useful is ever a concern) as the essay has changed. For slightly more modern collections, one could look at books like One Man's Meat by E.B. White and How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher. I read these in grad school.

Thoughts? I'd love to hear them. :)


  1. What a meaty blog. I needed to read it several times to digest all the information. You've given me much to think about. Possibly, we as educators (both at home and at school) teach writing structure and style because we ourselves are not proficient enough in grammar and writing to teach it in the CM manner. I certainly would struggle with that lofty task and yet I see the value. I'm comfortable teaching writing skills by means of narration combined with a skill specific approach. IEW has been our curriculum. I'm going to change it up with homeschool child number 2 and introduce the use of narration to my CC IEW writing class in the Fall. I'll refer to this post often. Thanks.

    1. Please write about using narration with IEW! I look forward to reading about it. :)

  2. You've obviously thought about this in much more depth than I ever have. My thought...don't you think all narration is, in a sense, "composition"? I see CM's method more as an organic way of growing composition that begins from the very beginning of a child's schooling. First oral narration, then written narration makes a child very comfortable with communicating what he knows. I think that's why we can afford to wait on specific forms of composition until the child is really ready.

    1. I've thought about it quite a bit. ;)

      I DO think that all narration is composition.

      In "A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing," Linda Flower and John R. Hayes discuss this: "The process of writing is best understood as a set of distinctive thinking processes which writers orchestrate or organize during the act of composing."

      Composing is thinking. Writing is just a physical act.

      And to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald: "The reason one writes isn't the fact he wants to say something. He writes because he has something to say."

      How very CM! :)