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Reviving the Mastery of Writing: Exploring the Australian Progymnasmata Approach

In the realm of writing, a noticeable decline in Australian standards has become evident over time. Comparing the eloquently crafted works of basic infantrymen, like the Anzacs who fought in Gallipoli, to the standards of present-day writing reveals a stark contrast. These soldiers possessed a level of writing proficiency that is often lacking in contemporary times. Delving into their beautifully crafted letters and journals, it becomes apparent that writing was once highly esteemed and meticulously practised. The attention to detail, clarity of expression, and eloquence displayed by these individuals highlights the writing proficiency gaps that exist today. Whilst there are several factors that have led to this decline, one major contributor is the shift from traditional mastery to student-led inquiry in composition instruction. Recognising the significance of mastery in writing, it is imperative that we strive to restore it as a fundamental skill in education. A return to the progymnasmata for writing instruction could serve as a transformative step in this pursuit.

The ancient Greek writers knew a thing or two about how to write effectively, as reflected in the rhetorical exercises known as 'progymnasmata.' Central to the progymnasmata were imitation exercises, where students meticulously copied and analysed the works of great orators and writers, learning not just about content, but also style and structure. In essence, they 'stood on the shoulders of giants' to build their abilities. This attests to the timeless efficacy of imitation exercises in crafting competent communicators. Unfortunately, modern educators threw this time-tested method out, instead focusing on student personal experience to guide writing. This, combined with other factors – notably technological changes, has resulted in a significant decline in writing proficiency. It is time to reclaim these old writing traditions as well as challenge the use of technology for our young writers.

Throughout history, numerous celebrated writers and orators have refined their skills through the use of ancient 'progymnasmata exercises.' These exercises were instrumental in shaping the craft of renowned figures, including the illustrious playwright Shakespeare. With his poetic brilliance and unparalleled storytelling, Shakespeare adeptly incorporated the progymnasmata techniques of his predecessors. Notable writers such as G.K. Chesterton and Robert Louis Stevenson meticulously emulated the styles of various authors to enhance their own writing. In their works, one can discern a profound comprehension and replication of the stylistic choices and structural elements employed by the masters they studied. Even Thomas Jefferson, the esteemed statesman and author of the American Declaration of Independence, acknowledged the value of studying and emulating the progymnasmata communication styles of great thinkers. Building upon this rich tradition, the Australian Progymnasmata series offers a mastery approach to composition instruction, nurturing students to articulate their thoughts eloquently through writing and speaking.

The Australian Progymnasmata series focuses on a mastery approach to composition instruction. It nurtures students' ability to articulate thoughts effectively through writing and speaking. By imitating accomplished writers, students develop their unique voice while blending it with time-tested writing skills. The series incorporates Australian stories, poetry, and the best of the Western tradition. Through this fusion, students are inspired in their writing journey. It serves as a comprehensive composition textbook, helping students master the principles of persuasive writing. By engaging in exercises that emphasize the art of writing, students gain the skills and confidence to succeed. The progymnasmata offers a systematic approach to writing, taking 6 years to complete with each area of composition textbooks taking six months to complete. The first book in Australian Progymnasmata uses fables for imitation, offering students a comprehensive and systematic approach to writing.

The Australian Progymnasmata: Fables textbook offers students a comprehensive and systematic approach to writing that not only develops their unique voice and time-tested writing skills but also cultivates virtues, moral imagination, and an appreciation for timeless truths and enduring values. Students are explicitly taught new vocabulary to enhance their comprehension. Additionally, students are asked to amplify known fables, adding descriptive language, dialogue, and other literary techniques, paying attention to maintaining the characters, events, and moral of the story. Students may also create variations of the original fable by changing elements such as setting or characters while preserving the underlying lesson. Through detailed analysis of the fables' sentences, students dissect sentence construction, identify parts of speech, and study verb tenses and agreements. This comprehensive approach helps students not only create enchanting fables but also grasp the complexities of grammar usage.

Students in these early years are encouraged to begin developing their active reading, based on the theory set out in Mortimer Adler's "How to read a Book". In the Australian Progymnasmata: Fables Textbook, students are explicitly taught annotation skills, which requires them to identify unknown information, ask questions about the materials, and make connections to information inside out outside the story. One of the unique features of this mastery education programme is the use of poetry recitation, to develop students' love of good poetry, as well as commencing a good foundation for later rhetoric development. Students learn to recite Australian poems such as Brave Ben Hall (anonymous) and Said Hanrahan by John O'Brien. Poetry recitation can greatly contribute to the mastery of rhetoric. By memorising and performing a poem, individuals begin to develop a keen eye for the techniques used to manipulate language for emotional impact and persuasive power. This process, which includes elements such as intonation, pausing, and other expressive techniques, not only enhances their ability to communicate effectively but also cultivates a deeper understanding of the fundamental aspects of rhetoric.

In our second composition textbook, a crucial steppingstone towards mastery, we expand upon the foundation laid in The Australian Progymnasmata: Fables. In The Australian Progymnasmata: Narrative, students delve into the world of classical literature, exploring short narratives including legends, myths, fairy tales, and historical accounts. Through these timeless tales, students gain profound insights into human nature, moral dilemmas, and the captivating power of storytelling. Students will immerse themselves in these literary treasures as we meticulously analyse the structural elements, themes, and rhetorical devices employed by these masterful writers. Through exercises involving imitation, elaboration, dictation and creative expression, we refine our own abilities to craft compelling narratives, but our journey doesn't end there. Alongside our appreciation for classical literature, we also cultivate strong communication skills. Students continue with a poetry recitation programme, exposing them to Australia's rich literary heritage as well as building on the oration skills.

The Australian progymnasmata programme will be a six-year course – aiming for mastery of writing and rhetoric. Every six months, a new textbook will be released. Below is the outline of the textbook offering in the series.

Chreia: The chreia stage focuses on crafting concise sayings or maxims attributed to renowned individuals. Students learn to select appropriate anecdotes or quotations, analyse their meaning, and provide commentary on their significance. This exercise nurtures students' synthesis and interpretation skills while honing their capacity to express ideas concisely. Due for release in December 2023.

Maxim: Similar to the chreia stage, the maxim stage underscores the creation of pithy, universal statements or proverbs. Students acquire the ability to express timeless truths or principles in a succinct and memorable manner. This stage encourages critical thinking.

Refutation: In the refutation stage, students practise constructing arguments against given theses or positions. They learn to identify weak points or fallacies in arguments and develop counterarguments to effectively refute them. This stage fosters critical thinking, logical reasoning, and persuasive writing skills.

Confirmation: The confirmation stage centres around presenting arguments in support of a given thesis or position. Students learn to gather evidence, construct coherent arguments, and employ persuasive techniques to convince their audience. This stage develops students' research skills, analytical thinking, and ability to present well-supported arguments.

Commonplace: In the commonplace stage, students create speeches or essays on general topics of interest or importance. This phase enhances their ability to articulate thoughts clearly, organise ideas effectively, and engage with a wider range of subject matter. The commonplace stage strengthens students' overall rhetorical skills, enabling them to become confident and persuasive communicators.

Encomium: Students compose speeches or essays that praise a person, event, or concept, refining their ability to use persuasive language, employ vivid imagery, and effectively convey admiration or celebration.

Vituperation: Students write speeches or essays that criticise or condemn a person, event, or idea. This stage develops skills in constructing compelling arguments, employing rhetorical devices, and presenting strong evidence to support negative assessments.

Comparison: Students analyse and write comparative essays on two or more subjects, highlighting similarities, differences, and drawing insightful observations. This exercise cultivates analytical thinking, logical reasoning, and the ability to make meaningful connections.

Thesis/Declamation: Students compose and deliver persuasive speeches on a specific topic of their choice, showcasing their mastery of rhetorical techniques, complex argument structures, and persuasive language. This final stage allows them to apply all the skills and knowledge acquired throughout their progymnasmata journey.

Learning to write using the progymnasmata approach is like the steady and methodical journey of the tortoise. Each step in the progymnasmata is designed to master one writing style at a time, perfecting each aspect before moving on to the next, much like the Tortoise's slow but steady pace that ultimately leads to its destination. On the other hand, modern writing pedagogies can be likened to the hare who darts from one style to another, without paying sufficient attention to the mastery of each. This approach may seem fast and exciting, but it often results in a lack of depth and understanding in each writing style, just as the hare's speedy but erratic progress leads him to lose the race. The tortoise's victory in the end highlights the effectiveness of a slow and steady approach, underscoring the value of the progymnasmata’s method of incremental mastery.

The Australian Progymnasmata series is an effective and valuable tool for mastering persuasive writing and rhetoric. It has a long and rich history, dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, and has been adapted to fit the needs of modern students and homeschoolers in Australia. The Australian Progymnasmata series provides students with a comprehensive text book (student and teacher guides) to help them become better writers. Take the time to explore the Australian Progymnasmata series and see how it can help your student become a better writer- and reclaim the writing skills of the ANZACS.

The Old Australian Ways, By Banjo Patterson

Recited by 9 year old Georgia.

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