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Writing Assessment Services Review by Heidi Shaw

Progymnasmata: Classical Writing Worksheets - Narrative
By Cindy Marsch, M.A.
Writing Assessment Services

Cindy has developed a fantastic resource for home school families. A writing assessment service to grade and critique assignments; Cindy has a lot of experience teaching and assessing student's progress. You can sign up for many different courses through Cindy's website. There are different levels and choices that can be adapted to fit your particular needs. Cindy will also assess writing projects from your own programs. You can check out all these great services on her website.

The program Cindy sent me to review is based on the classical progymnasmata; a group of a dozen or so writing exercises used since ancient times to fully prepare students as they mature. Cindy sent me the first in the series, this one based on the Narrative. Each of these is in an electronic workbook format and though each stands alone, they do increase in complexity and build one from the other. For example, after you have finished the Narrative workbook and the Proverb notebook, you would use the skills learned in both of these to help you write the Anecdote workbook. Other topics include Description and Fable. Each workbook has 15 lessons (exercises), which focus on topics from history and literature with excerpts from the Great Books.

These programs are all aimed at high school students (and even their parents), who have had at least a year of writing experience. They can be used as enrichment activities to supplement a text based course or they can stand alone, and you can take one workbook per semester, one exercise per week, to build a comprehensive three-year program. Cindy recommends alternating lesson length from session to session for variety. Let's take a look at how the workbook is set up and the mechanics involved.

Every lesson has four parts. Much like a physical workout, students begin Progym with a warm-up. This usually consists of reading the excerpt for the exercise, then jotting down some thoughts "journalist style." By this, I mean they answer the basic questions of how, what, where, when, and why. They also take the excerpt and condense it from the approximately 300 words given, down to 100 or so. This limbers up their thought processes and gets the mind in gear for what is to come. I should mention here that Cindy provides a fantastic "sample" lesson that shows the process very well.

From the warm up, the student progresses into the "aerobic" phase where they learn to take the condensed paragraph they have written and expand it back to 300 words, without looking at the original. This process totally intrigued me. I really wanted to try it myself! And the beauty of it is that these are great pieces of literature with which the students are working - Biblical excerpts, quotes from the likes of C.S. Lewis, Plutarch, and even Augustine. Your students will definitely stretch and grow while working through them. Imitation of great works can do so much to make one a better writer and thinker.

From the aerobic phase, the students move onto the strengthening "anaerobic" phase. Here the students will again rewrite and expand their now original expanded version, but with a twist. The student will choose one or more of the five suggested stylizations, and incorporate them into their narrative. For example, they could choose to retell the paragraph with a specific bias or "slant." They will think of differing perspectives and write from that angle. This will generate a great deal of discussion and the products will be fascinating. The different twists that are offered are all explained and Cindy offers online help when needed. Also included with the purchase of the workbook is an assessment of one of their finished exercises. You can purchase more assessments if needed. I personally think the $40 for four more assessments would be an extremely worthy purchase.

After the anaerobic phase, it is time to cool down. Students do this by choosing one of the original sentences from the excerpt at the beginning and rewriting it, imitating the style while using their own words and experiences. This is challenging and exciting. A student who really jumps into this program can't help but be a better writer and thinker, when finished. I can't wait to start with my 15-year-old and I am already looking forward to purchasing the next workbook - I'm so eager to continue the process. Cindy encourages parents to give it a try and I did find the stimulation profitable. I enjoyed this far more than when I had to do "creative writing" in high school. Here, the students are not expected to come up with totally original thoughts. It is much easier to work with imitation and learn from the styles of the masters than trying to pull something out of nothing (meaning my brain). By using this form of imitation and rewriting, students learn what good writing looks and feels like.

This is a very affordable program, and the very neat thing about it is when you purchase the program, she will send it to you electronically in a downloadable format so you can begin immediately. If you have the full Adobe Acrobat, you can even do the exercises on the computer, although I agree with Cindy that there is something intrinsically beneficial to actually scratching out words with a pen and rewriting in one's own hand. This program gives you the opportunity to alternate between computer and hand. The beauty of an electronic workbook is that you can print out as many times as you please. With the free evaluation that comes with the purchase, your student will have immediate, positive feedback from a very caring, professional instructor. I highly recommend Cindy's programs and I encourage you to go to her website at and checkout all the programs and services she has available. There are many more programs available including Cindy's popular Grammar and Composition for Real People. High school education in the home school community is getting a much-needed boost with these programs!

-- Product Review by: Heidi Shaw, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine