A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Category: Homeschooling

Copywork as a model of good writing

When we see a child struggling to master a challenging piece of music, we understand that it’s an uphill battle. And we’re not even asking the child to make up his own music. We’re not standing over him saying, “Okay, you’ve played ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ – now write your own song.” What we too often don’t consider, as adults, is that the struggle to write – and especially to write independently — is even harder, in its way, than learning to play music. Our written language is a complex system. Its spelling is complex. Its grammar is complex. Its vocabulary, all its seemingly infinite shades of meaning, are even more complex. To its novices, though they use it in speaking every day, its rules are an overwhelming, even paralyzing mystery.

And so I’ve come to love copywork for much more than its penmanship potential. What I’ve come to value about copywork over the ten years I’ve been watching children do it is that it teaches writing far beyond the level of mere handwriting. It’s an exercise in writing good words, good sentences, good paragraphs, even good poems – spelled correctly, punctuated correctly, in legible print or cursive, without the impossible pressure of, on top of the stress of the physical act of writing, also having to think of something to say.

What copywork frees the child to do is to write well, to render something – maybe something he hasn’t even thought about thinking yet – into better prose than he would quite be capable of on his own, particularly when the mechanical task of handwriting still consumes so much of his concentration.  As a composition program, as the composition program we’ve used in the elementary years, I’ve seen its implicit lessons soak in.

Sally Thomas, a writer and homeschooling mother

An Ancient Greek Drama, written for first and second graders

For a little unit on Greek history that my wife is teaching at our homeschool co-op, I have written a small play. I like to claim that it’s the best new ancient Greek play in centuries–after all, it seems like forever since Sophocles has come out with a new script–but I won’t defend that claim in court. I have chopped the chorus’s lines into parts, because I thought having first and second graders read five sentences in unison seemed like a pointless challenge, and I have obviously taken a few harmless liberties with the story of Oedipus. The students have already created their own Greek theatre masks, which they’ll wear while performing the play. I hope they enjoy it!


  • Queen of Thebes
  • Messenger to the Queen
  • Oedipus
  • Dead man
  • Chorus of three individual

Chorus enters.

Chorus:  O, woe are we!

Chorus 1: Our king is dead!

Chorus 2: Our city of Thebes is trapped!

Chorus 3: The Sphinx will not leave us alone!

Chorus: O, woe are we!

Enter Queen, followed by messenger.

Queen: Has anyone come today to save us?

Messenger: A young man has come to solve the Riddle of the Sphinx, my queen.

Queen: Does he look smart?

Messenger: No, my queen – he looks proud, but not smart. (Messenger exits.)

Queen: Four men have perished for answering the Sphinx incorrectly, will this be the fifth?

Messenger: (dragging body) My queen another has perished. (lays body on stage)

Queen: Five now!

Messenger: But my queen another man has come. He travels alone, but speaks boldly and cunningly to the  Sphinx.

Queen: Go, watch him and tell me what happens. And take this man away, as the sphinx will want to eat him.

(Messenger exits, dragging the body.)

Chorus: Could this be the one?

Chorus 1: If he solves the riddle, the city will be free!

Chorus 2: If he solves the riddle, he will marry the queen!

Chorus 3: If he solve the riddle, he will be our new king!

Chorus: Could this be the one?

Enter Messenger.

Messenger: My Queen! He has done it! He has solved the riddle and the Sphinx is gone!

Queen: O! O joy!

(Enter Oedipus)

Oedipus: My queen, your city is free.

Queen: O, hero who are you, and how have you done this? What was the riddle, for the Sphinx never allowed us to hear.

Oedipus: My Queen, I am Oedipus, I come from far away, across the mountains. The sphinx said to me, What animal walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night?

Queen: What a difficult riddle!

Chorus: How challenging!

Queen: What did you say?

Oedipus: I told the Sphinx the answer was simple, Man!

Queen: A man!

Chorus: A man!

Messenger: A man! But how is that so?

Oedipus: A man, as a babe, crawls on all fours. When grown he walks on two, and when old, he uses a cane to walk on three.

Queen: Brilliant!

Messenger: The words of a genius!

Chorus: The words of a King!

(Oedipus and Queen walk off stage side by side.)

Chorus: And so the city is free!

Chorus 1: Oedipus is our new king!

Chorus 2: Where he came from, we don’t know.

Chorus 3: Someday, we will find out.

Chorus: But today, our city is free.

Treasure hunting and finding Robert Louis Stevenson

On a date with my eldest daughter today we went to the used book store and I drilled her on part of the fun of a used bookstore–hunting for treasures. What I didn’t tell her was that part of the fun of looking for treasures is knowing what is a treasure and what is simply twaddle. She’s not ready to make the distinction at a glance, and, quite honestly, now that I think about it, neither am I. It is very difficult to wander into a used book store (or a new book store–is that how you say it? Suddenly the phrase used book store seems odd) and find something wonderful just by browsing. It can happen, I suppose, but it is much more helpful knowing something about the world of books and writers.

Thus, my being the one who knows something, I helped us hunt for treasure this morning. We found way up high, on the top shelf, a copy of Meindert Dejong’s The Singing Hill and grabbed it, knowing nothing of the plot of the story but knowing that Dejong’s The Wheel on the School was wonderful and that, so far, his The House of 60 Fathers is wonderful too (I’m reading it currently and will report on it later).

We also found a copy of A Child’s Garden of Verses, a picture book made of Robert Louis Stevenson’s book of poetry. I’ve stumbled across a number of Stevenson’s poems from this volume and brought them home for my children. They are wonderful, and my middle child, who is three, has basically memorized “The Swing.”

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

My eldest and I read through a number of these poems in the coffee shop (the second half of our date) and my hunch about the appeal and quality of these poems, based on those few I’d read, was right. Their content works for children, even though it was written in the 19th Century, and the rhyming sings (see Give her rhymes, not poetry, for more on the importance of that). If my children are to love and enjoy poetry, and I hope they do, not because it will make them smart but because it can bring them joy, it seems to me that this is the kind of poetry to start on. Our favorite today was “Block City,” which I’ll post in full here for your pleasure, knowing Stevenson’s copyright has long disappeared.

WHAT are you able to build with your blocks?
Castles and palaces, temples and docks.
Rain may keep raining, and others go roam,
But I can be happy and building at home.

Let the sofa be mountains, the carpet be sea,
There I’ll establish a city for me:
A kirk and a mill and a palace beside,
And a harbour as well where my vessels may ride.

Great is the palace with pillar and wall,
A sort of a tower on the top of it all,
And steps coming down in an orderly way
To where my toy vessels lie safe in the bay.

This one is sailing and that one is moored:
Hark to the song of the sailors on board!
And see on the steps of my palace, the kings
Coming and going with presents and things.

Now I have done with it, down let it go!
All in a moment the town is laid low.
Block upon block lying scattered and free,
What is there left of my town by the sea?

Yet as I saw it, I see it again,
The kirk and the palace, the ships and the men,
And as long as I live and where’er I may be,
I’ll always remember my town by the sea.

Thanks for reading.

Reading The Story of the World

I am completely fascinated with Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of the World books. In my car I have the audio version of the third book in the series, covering the “Early Modern Times” (there are four volumes total), and despite my measly 10 minute commute, I have already worked through four of the CDs. Though they are targeted to children ages 5-12, I consider myself a fitting audience. Previously, I had no idea how Oliver Cromwell fit into the history of London; now I am as least passingly informed (with a few amusing stories to go with it).

I also have the first book checked out from the library and have been reading snippets from it to my girls every night after dinner. We have learned about Roman gladiators, the legend of Romulus, aqueducts, Julius Caesar, and Augustus Caesar. Did you know Julius Caesar was once captured by pirates and held for ransom? He was not yet a consul of Rome, but he was growing more powerful and popular. After his release he raised a small group of soldiers and set right back out to sea, where he engaged the pirates who captured him, arresting the leaders and killing many of the rest. The leader was then executed in Rome, and Caesar’s reputation with the people leaped in its growth.

Curiosity is an interesting force. Do I enjoy these books because I have a general knowledge of these figures and places but little knowledge of the wonderful details, enabling my brain to attend fully to the fascinating particulars? This was certainly the case with Cromwell, whom I’d heard of but knew nothing about.  Or are the stories themselves so wonderful and inviting that any listener is drawn in? I suspect it is a combination of the two. My hunch is that the stories draw me in, just like they suck in my three-year old and five-year old daughters, but then since I am already familiar with many of the names and places, for me the stories actually stick a bit better.

At least for now. If we keep reading these books, I have a feeling it will not be long before my daughters will know far more than me.

Thanks for reading.

Peering into ourselves with a poem of the day

This year I have begun each class with a poem of the day. I type the poem into a document and run off a class set, filing it in my cabinet in the order we read the poems. I thought by setting poetry free from the fetters of the unit, I might help my students grow a more significant familiarity with the genre. By the time the end of the year comes, my students will have seen more poems than any of my previous students have ever read with me, and I would hope the edge of intimidation that poetry, and language, often presents to my students will have worn off a bit by then.

Plus, poetry provides me with countless opportunities to talk about the characteristics of literature in a small and recurrent form: a nice use of irony in the poem yesterday, a wonderful trick of suspense in the poem today, a touch of satire in the poem tomorrow.

It is the first year I have done this, so I spend a lot of time chasing down poems, which has proved to be one of the joys of my year. When things get slow or my supply grows slim, I set aside a half hour to mine poetry books or my favorite poetry websites (I prefer Poetry Foundation and The Academy of American Poets). I then accidentally spend an hour and a half reading poetry.

The poems I have chosen vary greatly. I have chosen cultural keystones like “O Captain, My Captain” and “The Lamb,” poems about which educated people should be able to say, “Hey, I read that once”; modern intrigues like “On Cooking a Symbol at 400 Degrees” and “Deer Hit,” which utilize the same poetic devices as the classics to communicate messages in familiar settings; and socially tied messages like “Mother to Son” and “The Powwow at the End of the World,” which cut deeply into our shared history. Perhaps at the end of the year I will publish a list of all the poems I have shared.

Originally I had not known whether this poem of the day idea would stick, but it has. The trickiest part has proved to be how to fit it in on busy days, when students need to use every moment for things like writing research papers. (I should mention too that my school is on a block schedule, which means when I occasionally use 20 minutes to discuss a poem, it’s not half the period, but 20 minutes of 95.) This year, when crammed for time I have dropped the poem for the day; next year on these days I plan to reach to a stock pile of “light verse.” We can then begin each day in the same way and I can slip in poems that are exceedingly accessible and do not require discussion. If it is funny, discussion will not likely help students’ enjoyment anyway, as E.B. White pointed out in his introduction to A Subtreasury of American Humor:

Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.

The light verse may provide relief from some of the deeper conversations I push on students for certain poems (we spent more than an hour on “Unknown Citizen” and “Still I Rise”), but that does not mean it is a lower form of poetry. I stumbled across wisdom from Charles Causley in his introduction to Modern Ballads and Story Poems, a collection he edited. He defends the importance of simple verse :

The fact that a poem may read simply should never deceive us as to its fundamentally deep and serious nature. If we are sensitive to the feel of such a poem, there is more than a hint of the powerful and frequently terrible currents that accompany its course, as they accompany the course of daily life.

That simple verse can be more substantial than it looks is no more perfectly illustrated than with Ogden Nash, the poet that gets my wife’s eyes rolling more than any other. About once a year I check out a volume of Nash’s poetry from the library and follow her around the house with it, attempting to recite lines through my own giggles and laughter but mostly botching the delivery by laughing at a joke when I spot it but before she hears it. She rolls her eyes at these moments because she can barely understand the poem when I read it this way, and also because I often begin this as she is brushing her teeth and getting ready for bed. While she attempts to lay her head to rest, I insist, “Wait, this one’s great. I love this one” and launch into “Lather as You Go”:

Beneath this slab
John Brown is stowed.
He watched the ads,
And not the road.

Can depth lie in verse like “The Parent”?

Children aren’t happy with nothing to ignore,
And that’s what parents were created for.

The answer is yes, and Dana Gioia explains it nicely in a forward to Douglas M. Parker’s biography of Nash (available on Gioia’s website):

He was an inveterate experimentalist—a congenial one, to be sure, but also a wildly inventive artist. In terms of technical experimentation, his work sits comfortably beside that of his critically acknowledged revolutionary contemporaries

Not that my students are ready to consider this light verse on such a level. I would be happy if they simply laugh at it. Such openness towards poetry would be a good place to start; it suggests they are bringing something to the poem, a crucial step, as Causley explains in the same paragraph I quoted above:

A poem will keep something of itself permanently apart. It will always reveal, at a fresh reading, some new mystery. And it will reveal only as much as the reader is prepared to bring of himself. “A book, said the German physicist and astronomer G.C. Lichtenberg, “is a mirror: if an ass peers into it, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.”

It is here I am convinced my job as an educator enters. If the poem of the day helps to remove any edge of intimidation present on poetry, if it helps students to acquire skills for approaching a poem and helps them add their own experiences to a poem’s significance, perhaps they will be able to discover a new mystery in poetry and find that someone worthy is looking out of that mirror.


Thanks for reading.

  • Making Poetry on Flickr by: aurelio.asiain
  • White, E.B., ed. A Subtreasury of American Humor. New York: Modern Library, 1941.
  • Causley, Charles, ed. Modern Ballads and Story Poems. New York: Franklin Watts, 1964.

More time in school will hinder the education of the entire person

I try very hard not to pay attention to politics. To this particular area, I aspire to the example of Benjamin Franklin, whose behavior during floor debate in the Continental Congress is captured wonderfully by David McCullough in John Adams:

Franklin wanted independence . . . But [he] had no liking for floor debate. He was patient, imperturbable, and at times sound asleep in his chair. Never would he argue a point. Indeed, it was rare that he spoke at all or ventured an opinion except in private conversation. (92)

Take the health care debate as an example. My opinion is set, my senators’ votes are set, I am not going to be given a chance to vote directly, and getting upset about what I see in the news will only raise my blood pressure. Thus, I refuse to follow the details and I will not discuss it with you or almost anyone else.

Yet I do pay a passing bit of attention, and I recall hearing sometime near the beginning of the school year that President Obama had expressed an opinion in favor of longer school hours. With a quick search I found on ABC News a summary of his comments and those of his staff:

Obama and Duncan say kids in the United States need more school because kids in other nations have more school.

“Young people in other countries are going to school 25, 30 percent longer than our students here,” [Education Secretary Arne] Duncan told the AP. “I want to just level the playing field.”

The reason, then, appears to be that everybody else is doing it, though to be more specific, the reason given is that the people with higher test scores are doing it:

Researcher Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution looked at math scores in countries that added math instruction time. Scores rose significantly, especially in countries that added minutes to the day, rather than days to the year.

There are other factors in all this, including the social justice idea of raising test scores for students in low socioeconomic situations:

Disadvantaged kids, on the whole, make no progress in the summer . . . Some studies suggest they actually fall back. Wealthier kids have parents who read to them, have strong language skills and go to great lengths to give them learning opportunities such as computers, summer camp, vacations, music lessons, or playing on sports teams.

“If your parents are high school dropouts with low literacy levels and reading for pleasure is not hard-wired, it’s hard to be a good role model for your children, even if you really want to be”

Yet deep in the recesses of my brain, I recall reacting to such opinions as a parent who is highly involved in the lives of his children. “You think your government school is better at raising my children than me? How dare you take my children away from me even more than you already do?” Alternatively, I thought, “Why would you penalize those of us who can raise our children in constructive homes by pulling them out of them even more?”

But those reactions are simply rants. Better expressed is the opinion of Susan Schaefer Macaulay, who points out in For the Children’s Sake that children are persons, whole persons, and should be treated as such. I’d venture to connect the dots for her by saying that when we focus our efforts in schools entirely upon reading and math skills  as represented by standardized scores, the way folks like Education Secretary Arne Duncan seem to be doing, we are ignoring most of the person.

One of Macaulay’s points is that play is a crucial piece for developing the full “riches of humanness” (21). Her opinion arises out of Charlotte Mason’s observations about the critical nature of play: “Boys and girls must have time to invent episodes, carry on adventures, live heroic lives, lay sieges and carry forts, even if the fortress be an old armchair” (21). The danger of removing independent play or structuring children’s play is that “the child of today has the rich creative play-response crushed out” (22).

The kind of play Macaulay encourages, and the kind of play children cherish most, is independent and creative. The most important element to such play is time, and more hours in school is highly unlikely to produce it.

School hours are like a monster (however excellent that school may be), gobbling up the child’s treasure of time. [Providing ample time] is often easier home-based than institution-based. There should be space, and lots of free time. (22-23)

I will not reveal my opinions on health care, but I will admit that I reject few ideas as thoroughly or soundly as the idea that more time in school will improve our children. It may raise their test scores, but the cost of such high scores will be not be calculable.

I find myself revisiting the wonderfully evocative scenes of The Sandlot and wonder if the children of our test score-junkie culture will squeeze the imaginative lives from them “forever . . . forever . . .”

Thanks for reading.


Blurring the lines between education and entertainment

On the way home today I stopped at the library to pick up more materials for the girls’ current unit of study, which is France, and which means my wife is attempting to broaden their minds to a realization that there is more in France than an annual bicycle race (that obsession would be my contribution—our favorite racer is Michael Cavendish). In one book on France the girls discovered a picture of the Tour, so every time my wife attempted to turn to a new page and share something else, A– would ask to return to the page with the bicycles. What can I say, that three week study we did on bicycle racing this summer was effective (Did I just call watching a sporting event on TV a unit study?).

They’re working out of the Five in a Row series for Kindergarten/pre-school, or at least, that’s where they begin. When the topic is particularly interesting we kind of go wherever it takes us, which means, for example, the girls now know quite a bit about China, more than their dad knew when he graduated high school, anyway.

Among the things I picked up at the library was a CD for learning French. That might sound insane for a family where the oldest child is five, but the reality is that neither of us parents could speak the language, so we needed to a CD to expose our children to the accent. I cannot express how sorry this situation is. I took four years of high school French and I have to buy a CD for my children simply to hear a few basic phrases and an accent. I am a pitiful man.

Before dinner E– began showing me what she’d read earlier in the day about Paris, and then I asked her if she wanted to hear French a bit. We popped the CD in the stereo and E bounced around the living room repeating every few words the folks on tracks said while A laid on the floor flipping through a children’s book about the Palace of Versailles. While brushing teeth tonight E and I played French, telling each other “Bon jour! Comment ca va?” and “Ca va bien!”

A beautiful thing about educating your children at home—a beauty that our home schooling friends with older children also affirm—is that the line between entertainment and education is rather blurred. Not that our children will always have these hyperbolically eager attitudes about learning (When does it generally wear off—7th grade?), but by filling our lives with learning, and by making learning our lifestyle rather than our 8-4 obligation, the jaded edge does not seem to develop as easily or as hard.

In my classroom, my students generally wear that edge, and how I can plane it off even a hair is a question I am asking but cannot answer. At this point, my main attempt is to blur that line between entertainment and education, between normal conversation and learning, as much as I can, thinking that somehow we might discover that learning is better suited to be a lifestyle than a duty. I don’t know that it’s possible—there are some mighty big obstacles out there—but I’ll give it a shot anyway. It’s another one of these areas where it’s the best thing for my own children, so why can’t I bring it to the classroom for other people’s children?

We’ll see.

Thanks for reading.