The most common problem among student writers is that they don't know what to say. While this could stem in part from laziness on their part, it's much more the result of a lack of instruction: no one has ever showed them how to find a suitable topic, how to organize the various parts of that topic, and how to present the whole thing clearly and engagingly.
These three problems form the first three canons (or, rules of measure) of the classical rhetoric curriculum, and are technically known as Invention, Arrangement, and Elocution.The Lost Tools of Writing centers around these canons, and is designed not to teach primarily grammar and usage, but rhetoric and communication skills.
Unlike other writing programs, this one isn't for all ages. Nor do its authors overreach themselves: they have a very focused set of skills and knowledge to impart to middle and high school students, and they do so with clarity and simplicity. Are the teacher's guides complicated? A bit, but more because the concepts will be unfamiliar to most people, not because the authors of the course are inarticulate or unclear.
How Do These Work?
The Lost Tools of Writing are intended for grades 7-12. Students should have a good understanding of grammar and sentence structure, be able to identify and correct mistakes, and be able to write a good paragraph. In the words of Classical-style education, students need to be competent in the skills learned at the Grammar stage; this course covers the Logic and Rhetoric stages.
Level One introduces students to the "lost tools" of clear thinking and clear expression. There are 13 lessons (one of them introductory, and the last one primarily review); the middle eleven lessons are each built around a different essay for students to write and thereby learn the skill under consideration.
There's a teacher's guide, a student workbook, and a set of instructional DVDs. The teacher's guide provides the meat of the program, providing parents/teachers everything they need to instruct their students, while the student workbook provides space for students to complete exercises and assignments.
The audio CDs feature course author Andrew Kern delivering lectures on the three canons covered in the program. This is specific to the content in the program, but not to the individual lessons. For lesson-by-lesson lectures, the DVDs offer filmed talks by Andrew Kern and CiRCE Institute program director M. Buck Holler (who has the coolest name and the coolest mustache ever worn by a home school curriculum guru).
For Level Two there is just a teacher's guide and a student workbook. The content of this portion of the program draws on the three canons focus of Level One, but extends those ideas to guide students in writing more advanced essays. Because of the continuity between the two levels, teachers will be more prepared to present the material, and there are therefore no CDs or DVDs for this level.
Each level is best used as a one-year course, though you can easily stretch the material over a two-year period. Middle and high school students with good grammar and basic composition skills are the target audience, though if you take your time it is possible to complete the material with younger students (not generally recommended). All students should complete Level One before Level Two, regardless of ability.
In Level One, with the exception of the introductory and concluding lessons, each lesson is to be completed on a three-week basis, and will take about two hours per week. (Part of these two hours centers around information to be integrated with other subjects.) Students spend most of the course perfecting their understanding of and ability to write persuasive essays, with a couple lessons at the end devoted to the comparison essay. Lessons in Level Two are less time-specific.
At the heart of each Level One lesson is the ANI sheet. ANI stands for Affirmative, Negative, and Interesting, and consists of one column for each of these headings in which students write the appropriate statements concerning their chosen topic. This means that, once an essay topic has been chosen, students make lists of the positive elements of their topic, the negative elements, and those aspects of their topic that readers might find interesting.
Using the ANI chart, students are guided through the work of paring down their ideas and material to a manageable size before presenting what's left in a clear and interesting way. Lessons tend to be pretty intense, but the teacher's guides are thorough and well laid out, so neither teachers nor students should have too much difficulty. If you do get too confused, the CiRCE Institute offers help for those who need it. The Level Two lessons are more difficult, but less structured, though ANI sheets are still used.
This is very much a teacher-intensive course. Teachers will need to read the material before presenting it, and they'll need to dialogue with and instruct students directly. The instructional DVDs can serve to alleviate some of this burden, but you'll still need to be directly involved. This is all for the best: students are capable of learning facts on their own, but a skill as foundational as writing must be taught.
And actually, the ability to study alone is one of the skills The Lost Tools of Writing is intended to instill in students. One of the best aspects of the program is the way it can and ought to be integrated with other subjects. The authors don't see writing as an academic discipline all by itself; rather, it is to be understood as a fundamental element of all academic endeavor.
The value of this course, in that regard, is that it teaches students to think, to organize their thoughts, and to express those thoughts well in whatever context they find themselves. The skills learned here will illuminate disciplines as varied as technical writing, speech and debate, literary analysis, history, and Bible study.
One potential difficulty is the liberal use of Latin words and technical terms for literary devices (or, "tropes"). These are all fully explained, but they do add a very foreign element to content that most teachers will find fairly foreign to begin with. Still, the identification of devices and ideas is important, and therefore the use of sometimes unfamiliar monikers is warranted.
Because the emphasis is on clear thinking and not just clear expression, it's best to use both levels. There is much continuity between them, and together they'll prepare your students for more in-depth work either in high school or in college. This course is also designed to make you a better writing teacher, and to offer the tools needed to equip students.
Our Honest Opinion
In the mad dash to recover Classical-style education, more and more authors and publishing companies are developing writing curricula supposedly based on the Progymnasmata or Trivium models. Most of these tend to focus more on style than on clear thinking, and most of them therefore fail to accomplish what they set out to do.
The Lost Tools of Writing is a notable exception. Andrew Kern pays close attention to both style and ideas, and therefore is able to demonstrate the relationship between the two in a way that helps students excel in writing. The often abstruse terminology can be frustrating at first, but once teachers and students get into the program such difficulty will likely fade.
Because they focus primarily on Grammar stage skills, either Andrew Pudewa's Teaching Writing: Structure & Style or Susan Wise Bauer's Writing With Ease would be an excellent place to start. After The Lost Tools of Writing, students will either continue to hone their skills in assigned essays, or they'll move on to college.
This is a very professionally presented program, a challenging course that will nonetheless solidly ground your students and thus prepare them to be capable and engaging communicators and writers. While there are plenty of writing curricula that do well covering one or two specific elements of the process, this is the best and most comprehensive upper-level course we've seen.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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