Writing & Rhetoric: the Method, Philosophy & the Progymnasmata

Students are often expected to write with no clear model before them. Modern composition scolds traditional writing instruction as rote and unimaginative. It takes imitation to task for a lack of freedom and personal expression. And yet, effective communication from writer to reader always requires some sort of form and structure. Many of history’s greatest writers learned by imitation. In other words, writing takes the same kind of determined study as ballet or diving. Creativity uses conventional form as a stage or a springboard from which to launch grand jetés and somersaults. Too often in a school or homeschool writing curriculum students are expected to tackle complex writing assignments without learning the necessary intermediate steps. The assumption is that because most everyone can speak English well enough to be understood, and form letters with a pencil, everyone should be able to write well. Yet how many of us would expect a child to sit at a piano, without piano lessons, and play a concerto? Writing is never automatic.

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The Writing & Rhetoric series by Classical Academic Press is a creative approach to the classical progymnasmata for the modern student. It can be used in schools or homeschools. The series is comprised of twelve books, each one designed as a one-semester course. Using two books per year, the series will fully train and equip students in writing over a period of six years. The Writing & Rhetoric method employs fluent reading, careful listening, models for imitation, and progressive steps. It assumes that students learn best by reading excellent, whole-story examples of literature and by growing their skills through imitation. In this school and homeschool writing curriculum series, you can expect your students to grow in all forms of modern composition—narrative, expository, descriptive, and persuasive—while at the same time developing unique rhetorical muscle. Each exercise is intended to impart a skill (or tool) that can be employed in all kinds of writing and speaking. The exercises are arranged from simple to more complex. What’s more, the exercises are cumulative, meaning that later exercises incorporate the skills acquired in preceding exercises. This method derives its strength from the incremental and thorough development of each form of writing. The Writing & Rhetoric series does not skip from form to form and leave the others behind, but rather builds a solid foundation of mastery by blending the forms. This series is a step-by-step apprenticeship in the art of writing and rhetoric.

 

Progymnasmata?? This strange, mouthful of a word derives from the same root for exercise as do “gymnasium” and “gymnastics.” It means “preliminary exercises.” The goal of these lessons is to prepare students for rhetoric, which is the art of writing well and speaking persuasively. This method assumes that students learn best by reading excellent examples of literature and by growing their skills through imitation. Although the progymnasmata (progym) are an ancient method of approaching writing, they are extraordinarily relevant today. This is because modern composition owes almost everything to the progym, having borrowed heavily from many of the progym’s various exercises. For example, modern stories are essentially unchanged from the ancient fable and narrative forms. Persuasive essays of today are basically the same as the ancient commonplace and thesis exercises. The progym will prepare your students to enjoy transforming that blank sheet of paper into a spectacular view from atop the pinnacle of their own imagination.
Christine Perrin is the Director of Writing at Messiah College and has taught literature and creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, at Gordon College’s Orvieto Program, through the Pennsylvania Arts Council to students of all ages, and at the local classical school where her children attended. She consults with classical schools in curriculum development and faculty development in poetry and writing, and speaks regularly at the CiRCE Institute as well as the Society for Classical Learning conferences. She is a two-time recipient of the PA Arts Council Artists Fellowship and also received a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellowship. Her own work appears in various journals including The New England Review, Image, TriQuarterly, Blackbird, Christianity & Literature, and The Cresset. Christine is the series editor for the Writing & Rhetoric series and the author of The Art of Poetry, a textbook for middle to high school students, all published by Classical Academic Press. She attended Johns Hopkins as an undergraduate student and earned her MFA from the University of Maryland.

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