One of the skills I insist my children learn as they become teenagers is outlining.  The ability to pick out main ideas from their studies, organize those on paper, and then create a composition from their outline has proven to be invaluable (so they tell me).

Here’s where it all began:

I first learned to outline at Roosevelt Jr. High School in the ’70s.  The man who taught the honors history block required a number of things if you were going to pass his class.  Neat handwriting, a research paper and a book report each quarter, and a neatly outlined notebook (to be reviewed by him at a moment’s notice!).  Each day upon reporting to class, the chalkboard would be covered with the outline for that day.  Proper form, all information written neatly in a clear cursive hand, ready to be copied.  And so we copied-each word properly spaced, neatly taken down so that we could refer to it later as we studied.  While I dispute some of the conclusions he drew in regards to history, I will be forever grateful to him for the gift of outlining he gave us.  As I progressed through school, I used outlining as a tool over and over again.  Sometimes it was required as part of an assignment; sometimes I used it simply to organize my thoughts as I started to work on a paper.  Because it was so vital to me, I determined my children would learn it too.

The process of creating an outline is simple.  The form is straight-forward and easy to follow.  It should look like this (each new idea is indented five spaces from the earlier one until you get to the next main idea.):

I.  First main idea

A. Subheading for main idea

1. Detail supporting subheading for main idea

a. more specific detail for main idea

b. more specific detail for main idea

2.Detail supporting subheading for main idea

B. Subheading for main idea

II. Second main idea

And so forth.

There are a few basic rules when creating an outline.  You can use either phrases (called a phrase outline) or complete sentences (called a sentence outline).  You must choose one or the other.  The numbering system is standard and does not vary.  Roman numerals for the main ideas; capitol letters for the subheadings; Arabic numerals for details; lower case letters for more specific details; Arabic numerals in a parentheses next; lower case letters in a parentheses after that.  Indent 5 spaces for each notation after a main idea.  If you have a 1, you must have a 2.  If you put in an A, you must also include a B.  When including an outline in a report, the pages are numbers with lower case Roman numerals.

When working on a research paper, a basic precursor to an outline is keeping note cards.  One thought per card.  Only one.  When you have your ideas written down, line the cards up on table (or on the floor, if you need that kind of room) in outline form.  I., A., B., 1., 2., a., b., II., etc.  Number or label them in the order you want to use them, and then transfer this information onto paper.  If you find a few more facts you want to use when it is written, go ahead and add them to your outline.

I am aware that an outline can be generated with most basic word processing systems.  Whatever.  Our children need to know how to generate one using the oldest “processing system” we have- paper, pencil, and their brain.  If they want to learn how to use the computer later, fine.  Just ensure they know how to create one themselves first.  Being able to write a well thought out, articulate paper will serve them well for the rest of their lives.


Don’t forget poetry!

Most parents understand the importance of ensuring their children are proficient in the three R’s.  There can be some other studies which get neglected is pursuit of that proficiency.  Poetry is often one of them.  While I would agree to the idea that reading classic literature and learning algebra are important to a basic education, I would also like to suggest that we owe it to our children to give them to opportunity hear the magic of language in poetic form.

It can begin as simply as hearing Mother Goose read or recited.   Meter and rhyme are easily internalized as they have fun with finger plays.  Some rhyme schemes work as great memory aids (Red at night- sailor’s delight.  Red in the morning- sailors take warning, etc.)   There are beautiful pieces written to commemorate historical events such as O Captain, My Captain and Paul Revere’s Ride.  Poets such as Shel Silverstein and Edward Lear delight us with nonsense poetry.  And the classic poets such as Wordsworth and Frost give us images about which to ponder and lessons to learn.

Each day read a poem or two with your children.  Memorize some.  As they get older, try and find a message in them.  If you are uncertain how to interpret poetry, it can be easier to find meaning if you keep the following in mind.

  • Poetry generally fits into one or more of the following categories- deity, life/death, joy/depression, love, humor.
  • Poets often use symbols and/or allusions to well-known cultural themes.  Save this kind of poetry for when your children have enough literary exposure to understand the references.
  • Poetry can be a great opportunity to learn new vocabulary.  Don’t shy away from unfamiliar words.  Look them up.  Find ways to incorporate them into your own communications.

As you study poetry more seriously in the high school years, take time to write some.  Explore the various forms, meters, rhyme schemes, and purposes of poetry.  Have fun with limericks.  Tell a story in a ballad.  Paint a picture through haiku or another different visual form.  Study the lives of famous poets.  (Where they lived.  Why they wrote .  Was it a source of income, or a way to process life around them?)  Not all poetry rhymes; some takes a different, but still planned form.

Poetry cannot be paraphrased.  It cannot be abridged.  It must be experienced in it’s entirety.  It can serve as a voice for the deepest feelings of the heart.

Some of my favorite books of poetry are:

Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein

The World of Christopher Robin by A.A. Milne

The Best Loved Poems of the American People selected by Hazel Felleman

A Family Book of Verse selected by Lewis Gannett

Complete poems of Robert Frost

Walking the Bridge of Your Nose selected by Michael Rosen

A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson