Epic Battles for Middle School

My son is using Don and Jenny Killgallon’s Paragraphs for Middle School as part of his writing curriculum this year. The idea is to introduce writing concepts, illustrate them with passages from literature, have the student identify and imitate the techniques used in the passages, then have the student practice the techniques in their own writing. I was a little skeptical of the approach at first, but it really seems to be working for my son.

From the moment he first grabbed a marker and wrote his name on the dining room wall, writing has always been his thing, but he’s not always been keen on exploring the mechanics of the process. Paragraphs helps him learn about the nitty-gritty while doing the writing that he enjoys, which is mostly epic battle scenes a la Lord of the Rings and D&D. I’ve included an example below from an assignment to practice a variety of sentence openers while narrating a scene with a lot of action. I don’t understand all of it, but I think he’s succeeded. I also think I’m going to encourage some more gentle reading. (I only counted the final paragraph for his assignment, but he feels that the lead-in is necessary to set the mood.)


The sounds of war thundered through the huge keep of Nerdath, a skullcracking wave of sound from tens of hundreds of destrachans blazing sound pulses at the walls from all directions.

Thump-thump-thump.

Those were Asmodeus’s legion devils, the more powerful ice, bearded, and bone devils, a few archdevils, and half a million imps.

Thud-thud-BOOM.

Thud-thud-BOOM.

That was the orcs and the hobgoblins, leading behemoths and titans to batter down the walls.

Thunk-thud-thunk-thud-thunk-thud.

Those were more orcs and those uruk-hai, with their fearsome worg and guulvorg mounts.

Slam-crash-thud-crash-slam.

Giant goristros and other brutal battlebiars, destroying everything in their path as they dragged huge clubs and siege machines, charging towards the castle.

Vorp-flicker-vorp-flicker.

Those were the flittering beholders, with clouds and clouds of harpies, imps, and all manner of rocs, phoenixes, and giant eagles.

Crunch-smack-crunch-smack.

And those were the enormous, terrifying spiders and snakes, with little yuan-ti dragging anathemas and hordes of drow, closing the gaps between the orcs and the hobgoblins.

Squelch-wriggle-wriggle-squelch.

I averted my eyes as a wave of red ooze covered in eyes and fanged mouths rolled across the ground, enveloping everything edible in their path. These were the gibbering beasts of the Far Realm, paving the way for a thundering, rampaging battle-host of beholders, foulspawn, balhannoths, destrachans, chuuls, carrion crawlers, mind flayers, aboleths, and swarms of kuo-toa with harpoons and spears and sahuagin guards to go along.

KA-BOOM!!!

With a tremendous roar and a slam, all the beasts of burden charging the walls met with a thunderous crash, which split the battlements asunder. The evil armies poured in, in the tens of thousands. I found myself locked in combat with five evistros and a huge minotaur, only to find them hushed away by the pointing finger of a large blue humanoid. Where he pointed, men shouted in agony and fell dead. Savage balor demons, vast titans, spiders bigger than elephants, and dragons swinging claws and tails, stood out sharply among the dull, armored mass of orcs, legion devils, and foulspawn. I lopped off a carnage demon’s head, and narrowly missed a stream of acid from a huge dragon lumbering toward me, heedless of the dozens of creatures caught below its stabbing claws. It fired another jet of acid at me, which I barely dodged, and I found myself in the middle of a mass of orcs. I sliced through them and won, but then I saw that the demonic foes were swarming through the outer city. They were a wave of creatures, breaking through Nerdath’s defenders like water dislodging rocks from the ground. Skilled gnome archers were knocked from the splitting walls, and I swung my sword with all my force. It tore through the body of a vast minotaur with a critical blow that sundered the bestial creature into two pieces. But I felt my strength begin to lag. First, the minotaur’s top half swung an arm and knocked me back twenty feet, into a horde of thirty legion devils. Their eyes were without feeling or senses, their faces dull, almost bored, as they hacked me with their blades and trampled me beneath their iron-shod heels. I was in a swirl of pain. The world faded to black around me.

Smashing Assumptions

Flute PracticeMy children’s flute teacher retired from teaching last month, and the process of finding a new flute teacher has been fraught. Their relationship with their teacher was so close, the thought of replacing her feels wrong, like we’re reducing our relationship to the mere pragmatics of finding someone to teach the mechanics of playing the flute when it was so much more.

“It’s like trying to find a new brother, or another parent,” my daughter says.

My son is reluctantly willing to play for prospective teachers, but insists he doesn’t want anyone but the teacher he’s known since he was eighteen months old to teach him.

The depth of my children’s connection doesn’t particularly surprise me, but the lessons I’m learning from this process are not the ones I expected. My daughter is quite advanced in her flute playing, so we’ve been focusing primarily on the obvious hard-hitters of the eastern Massachusetts flute scene, which are numerous but often a significant distance from where we live.

During this process, I learned that a fellow homeschooling mom is a piano and flute teacher, and she teaches right here in town. After I spoke with her, I decided we’d consider her for flute for my son or piano for both kids, but I thought she wasn’t high enough caliber to be my daughter’s flute teacher. This might be true, but when I went over my reasons for this assumption, I was really surprised with myself.

Here was a teacher with similar credentials, experience, and mentors as the other teachers we’re interviewing, but I put her at the bottom of the stack because she’s a homeschooling mom.

Like me.

That was a shock. It’s quite possible that this teacher will not be a match for my daughter, but I shouldn’t dismiss her because she’s a mother and a homeschooler. Here I am spending conscious effort every day to change the negative perceptions people have of stay-at-home parents, and I’m applying the same stereotypes I’m trying to fight.

I’m trying to see how positive it is that I even recognized this latent assumption and how it colors how I perceive other women, but at the moment, I’m just ashamed and very, very sad.

What does this say about how I think of myself? Why am I engaging in such self-defeating thinking? I’ve internalized the messages of our culture, that by choosing to focus on motherhood and put career well down on my list of priorities, I’ve relinquished my claim on any expertise I might have. What would the nineteen-year-old me sitting and steaming in Women’s Studies classes think?

How many times have I dismissed fellow mothers and not even realized it? How many other assumptions and biases influence my perceptions every day?

I’m trying—trying—to feel hopeful that this awareness will help me get better at seeing people for who they are in the future, instead of blindly following my biases. I’m starting by scheduling trial flute lessons for my daughter with the homeschooling mom flute teacher. If she’s not a match, she’s not a match, but I won’t be writing her off simply because she’s chosen a path similar to mine.