Saturday, August 03, 2013

Countdown to School: Middle School Language Arts, Part Three

Part One is here.
Part Two is here.  (Link Fixed!)

When I was fulminating in the last post against slightly pretentious textbook assignments, there was one other issue I meant to point out: that those are often not "English" assignments anyway, or at least not literature. I've noticed this ever since I sat down with the Apprentice to study eleventh-grade writing rubrics, and found that all the sample essays were all about Issues, like gun control.  So if the point of that textbook is to deepen understanding and appreciation of literature, the culminating question could become something like "How does literature connect the human family?"

That, I could happily live with.  Science of relations?

The problem is that Language Arts isn't necessarily Literature.  It's more of a dumping ground for everything from literary genres to newspaper studies to "graphic texts" (i.e. pictures?), and from skills in "conferencing" to knowledge of "language conventions" (putting periods after sentences) and short story structure.  Not to mention that, if we did talk about Literature, we might be forced to pin down one particular Literature (while excluding another), or one form of Literature (excluding graphic novels or some non-book format), or even have a good old university-style argument over whether Literature exists at all.  It's easier to make it Language Arts, call it Sam and be done, as the Hillbilly Housewife used to say.

But one book that Charlotte Mason did include, at the middle school level, was H.E. Marshall's History of Literature for Boys and Girls (sometimes called for Young People).   That is, English literature, with a bit of Scottish and Welsh and Irish thrown in, up to about the turn of the last century.  Obviously that's not a complete "history of literature" for those of us outside the UK in 2013.  However, it's there.  It's included in the curriculum, it's a subject, Literature.  Ironically, that outdated book throws out a few ideas that might connect with the question of the "human family."
“In the Listening Time”: “Has there ever been a time when no stories were told? Has there ever been a people who did not care to listen? I think not.  When we were little, before we could read for ourselves, did we not gather eagerly round father or mother, friend or nurse, at the promise of a story?”
“The Story of the Cattle Raid of Cooley”: “Our earliest literature was history and poetry. Indeed, we might say poetry only, for in those far-off times history was always poetry, it being only through the songs of the bards and minstrels that history was known. And when I say history I do not mean history as we know it. It was then merely the gallant tale of some hero's deeds listened to because it was a gallant tale.”
So Language Arts is not just Literature; but it should recognize Literature in both its historical and its imaginative/human senses, and our Grade 7 Language Arts will contain not only this history of literature, but as much actual literature as we can manage.  "Literature" to talk about, and literature to read.

Then reading skills, with an introduction to Mortimer J. Adler and his marking-up and "X-Raying" of books.  I happen to be very fond of How to Read a Book, and I think we will read even a bit more of it than Ambleside Online recommends for Year Seven. (One extra but unfortunate reason for that is it or not...Dollygirl may be going off to public high school in Grade Nine, like her sisters; so if we want to get through Adler, middle school may be our only chance.)

And since both Northrop Frye and H.E. Marshall agree that poetry is foundational, we will work through The Grammar of Poetry, by Matt Whitling. I have nothing against Shel Silverstein and Jane Yolen (typical poets from the above-mentioned grade seven textbook), but I find the inclusion of more challenging poets such as George Herbert a delightful bonus.  This will be our first time actually working through this one, because we did not own a copy until recently.

And then there are the speaking and listening skills, and the written assignments.  An online search for "creative narration ideas" will provide many suggestions.  For more critical assignments, I've found ideas such as writing about the use of metaphor and symbolism in a book or play; comparing two characters; discussing themes; writing about the effects of a character's decision; going deeper into the historical time period of a book (a crossover assignment with history).

Do grade seven students need to be specifically taught to do these assignments?  Yes and no. The resources (such as the handbook Write Source 2000) are there to give general format, tips and examples for things like research papers; but the students' ability to work with the books or scripts,  put their thoughts together coherently, and say something worth listening to or reading--that has to be part of the bigger picture, what it's all about in the first place.  I can help Dollygirl revise a piece of writing, I can show her how writers use symbol and metaphor (meaning she can too!), but without a structure of living books and ideas underneath, the rest becomes just interior decorating.  (There's a metaphor.)

Does it matter if the assignments are done on paper or as a podcast? I'm still on the fence about that.  One thing the textbook said did make sense, although I think it could be abused:  that the students should choose a variety of formats for assignments throughout the year (not always a poster, an essay, or a stop-motion video), and that they should choose formats that fit their learning styles or abilities.  For some learners, a project done only as a long essay might be so difficult that they quit and don't learn anything; obviously, length and difficulty of the topics have to be considered.  But even for reluctant writers, shorter written assignments might be appropriate.  I also like the idea I saw mentioned somewhere (I've seen it in more than one place) about putting together a "portfolio" of work about one longer novel or play.  For Ivanhoe, you might have an essay, some written narrations, a character sketch, an illustration, a "wanted" poster for runaway serfs, or whatever.  The student might be required to have a certain number of pieces of work in the porfolio, but be given a choice about which ones.

And here's a bonus:  a Grade Seven assignment I came up with all on my own.

NOVEL:  Ivanhoe
Beverly Cleary, the author of the Ramona series, once recalled: "When I was a child, a relative gave me Ivanhoe to grow into. I was so disappointed that I still have not grown into it."  As a response to this quote, do one of the following:  1.  Write a letter to Beverly Cleary, attempting to get her to change her mind.  2.  Write this event as a scene from a story.  Does your character change her mind about the book, or not?

I'm finally satisfied with our plan for Language Arts.  It may not be as thematically exciting as the grade seven textbook, and it doesn't have as many "graphic texts," but I think it's going to work.

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