Sing, goddess, of Achilles' rage
Against Atreus' son
Who wouldn't give back Chryseis
Who he had fairly won
And for Chryseis' father
Who was Apollo's chief high priest
Apollo shot deadly arrows
Until Chryseis was released."
- My eleven-year-old son
English literature and composition is one of the subjects I dreaded having to teach to the kids. I think I am a pretty good writer, in an instinctive sort of way, but it isn't really something I work at or think about; I don't carefully craft my writing most of the time. I have a methodical, mathematical sort of mind; I am obsessively organized; I prefer clarity to obfuscation; and I am reasonably well-read. My communications training, if I can be said to have had any, is in technical writing. This makes it not hard for me to churn out halfway-decent pieces of writing without really trying very hard.
But I am not sure I can really teach writing, because it is the sort of thing I do without having to think about it much. I think I can teach revising, but I don't know how to teach the act of creation.
I stumbled a little bit over five-paragraph essays when my oldest was in fourth grade and finally appealed to H., who is a much more Englishy person than me, could she please pretty please take over English?
Atreus' son Achilles did hate
His heart for him unclean
So Achilles asked his mother
To give a lying dream.
To Agamemnon it was sent
And said he would not fail,
But when he tested his men's loyalty
All his soldiers tried to sail,
And in the bustling chaos
Odysseus stopped the flight
And hit the cowardly men
No Acheans would leave that night."
Our little co-schooled class of middle schoolers -- an eighth-grade girl and two sixth-grade boys -- was studying the Ancients in world history last year, so H. chose to study epic poetry with them. She spent the first part of the year with how-to-analyze-a-story fundamentals, which she taught using children's literature, and then they dove into the Iliad. And that was almost the whole rest of the year, except for a few weeks spent on Beowulf at the end. Depth, not breadth.
The two husbands of Helen
Did fight for one wife
Among their men on the plain
They engaged in mortal strife.
Paris threw his golden spear
At Menelaus' layered shield,
But off it it reverberated
And landed harmless on the field.
Then Menelaus threw his spear
And through the shield it went
And pierced Paris' breastplate
And the sweaty vest it rent.
Paris still not dead
Menelaus fought with his sword
And when this weapon did shatter
To Athena he did implore.
Then Menelaus grasped the helmet's plume
And Aphrodite flew through the air
For Paris the cow-hide strap did choke,
And for Paris Aphrodite did care."
She was going to have them write a summary of the Iliad anyway, but then she realized that she also wanted them to incorporate the things they'd learned about how the epics were composed and how they were memorized and retold orally and passed from bard to bard, and also various literary and poetic devices, so she decided to have the kids write their summaries in verse.
Bloodthirsty was Agamemnon
Who wouldn't spare a life
His anger against all Trojans
His soul full of strife.
While kind and noble Hector
Found his loving wife,
Agamemnon quickly ended
Adrastus' pleading life."
I don't know how many drafts they went through. I didn't get to hear much of the instruction she gave the kids because I was busy teaching world history to a passel of first through third graders. I do know that the kids composed their own poetry, read it to each other, rattled off lists of rhyming words. H. edited, proofread, and helped let them know when they were trying to use a word in a way that didn't work very well -- they would stretch usage pretty far in an attempt to cram an idea into the meter and rhyme scheme they wanted. In the end each child wrote twenty-four stanzas, one for each book of the Iliad.
Hera did watch from above
The Achaeans sorely pressed,
And wishing she could aid them
To Zeus she did protest.
And when Zeus did refuse
She quickly went and pressed
The good god of sleep
To put Zeus at rest."
One of the things I really like about co-schooling is that your kids, working with some other adult, really get a chance to surprise you. I would never have guessed that my sixth-grader had this in him -- well, it is mostly in Homer, but the boy took it in and made it his own and transformed it, which is the point of all this narration and retelling and rewriting we keep doing with them.
From the sky the gods looked down
On Priam full of despair
For Priam had lost his noblest son
And for Hector he did care.
So Hermes the slayer of Argon
To Priam quickly wine
And bid Priam not worry
'To guide you I was sent.'
So Priam traveled through the night
Guided by Hermes' glint
And through the Achaean gates they traveled
To Achilles' golden tent.
And passing Achaean lines
They entered Achilles' shelter,
And when Achilles turned to his guest
Each saw a man who was better.
And then Priam spoke with grief
And for the body he did implore,
'O Achilles I beg for my son
That is why I have come to your door.'
And Achilles thinking of his father
Gave the body of Priam's son
And Priam returned to fabled Troy,
And the burning was quickly done."