Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Question, 5 Common Topics, and a Discussion

Asking Good Questions with the 5 common topics @ Mt. Hope Chronicles

On a Saturday morning once a month, a group of women gather over coffee and treats in order to encourage each other, to share and discuss ideas, and to learn and grow as teachers and mothers.

Last year, we worked our way through The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education one chapter at a time, spending a whole morning on each chapter/subject. This year, we are working our way through The Question: Teaching Your Child the Essentials of Classical Education, the second book in the set (eventually a trilogy corresponding to the three arts and stages of the Trivium) by Leigh Bortins.

In The Question, Bortins introduces the chief tool of the dialectic or logic stage: the question. Not only is the question the greatest tool we possess for the skill of thinking, but we are given specific questions that make a whole, integrated curriculum completely accessible. These questions foster an independence in education because they apply to any idea in any realm of endeavor, and they can be used by anyone to think deeply about a subject.

These power questions are part of Aristotle’s Five Common Topics of Invention: definition, comparison, relationship, circumstance, and testimony. This is a systematic approach to thinking, essentially structured brainstorming. The topics of invention open up discussion like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.

After we read through and discussed the chapter on the subject of reading, our fearless facilitator suggested we spend another morning practicing what we had learned by using the questions to discuss a piece of literature. What resulted was a serious conversation about a single picture book. Eight of us, and we could have talked for another hour or two or more.

Our facilitator, my lovely friend Mindy Pickens, began by reading Chanticleer and the Fox aloud.

The story is an adaptation of the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and is illustrated by Barbara Cooney (one of my favorite author-illustrators). It won the Caldecott Medal in 1959.


Once we had listened to the story, we established a basic idea of the plot and characters by asking the “Who-What-How-What” questions as outlined by Courtney Sanford on page 68 of The Question.

(Who? establishes the characters. What? establishes the conflict or problem and the rising action of the plot. How? establishes resolution, or the climax and denouement of the plot. The second What? establishes the theme or moral of the story.)

Characters: poor widow, two daughters, farm animals, Chanticleer the rooster and his seven hens (including his favorite, Demoiselle Partlet), and the fox.

Conflict and Rising Action: Chanticleer has a foreboding dream, Demoiselle Partlet calls him a coward, the fox compliments his singing so that he will expose his neck, and the fox grabs him by the throat and carries him to the woods. The rooster needs to escape the fox’s hold or he will be eaten.

Resolution: Chanticleer turns the tables on the fox and suggests he give a speech to the widow and farm animals who have followed in distress. When he opens his mouth to give the speech, the rooster escapes. The fox tries to trick the rooster once more, but Chanticleer has learned his lesson.

Theme/moral: Chanticleer declares, “Never again shall you with your flattery get me to sing with my eyes closed. For he who closes his eyes when he should watch, God let him never prosper.” The fox replies, “No, but God bring misfortune to him who is so careless about his self-control as to prattle when he should hold his peace.” The widow says, “See, that is the result of trusting in flattery.”


It was then time to dive head-first into the Five Common Topics.

I’ll share some notes I made from that discussion. Obviously, I cannot reproduce our complete discussion, even though I wish that I could!


Our facilitator asked us to define the word flattery.

Complimenting with the intent to manipulate (something in it for the one who is doing the complimenting).

Does it have to be manipulative? Is there always a negative connotation?

(How about in the passive? I’m flattered, but… It is often used when turning down a request, so obviously the person giving praise wanted something, but not necessarily manipulative. Or the person asked felt it was excessive praise simply to be asked. Maybe the person turning down request is saying that they are not worthy of the praise by way of thanks and gently letting down the person who made a request?)

In what other contexts have we heard the word flattery? How is it used in the Bible? Always negatively?

Excessive praise.

Can play to someone’s best “features” or something they are self-conscious about.

What broad category does flattery fall under?

Lie? Not always. Can be true or not.

(What if someone praises someone for the other person’s benefit? Not flattery. Encouragement? Can that praise be true or untrue? Is untrue or excessive praise encouraging if it is given for honorable reasons? It might be more damaging in the long-run. Seems insincere. Should find true things to say in order to encourage.)


How else can one manipulate? What are other divisions of that category?

Fear, guilt, pity.

What is one using against another when they flatter? Pride.

Broad category: Manipulation. Types: Fear, Guilt, Pity, Pride  (Vices?)

How are they different?

Pity tells something about the person doing the manipulation. Pride tells something about the person being manipulated.

Was the flattery to the rooster and the fox the same? Were they appealing to the same kind of pride?

One appealed to vanity, one to cunning/power.

[Definition can be applied to any word, character, or idea in a story, so this discussion could continue for hours.]


Let’s compare the widow and Demoiselle Partlet.

How are they the same?

Female, are or have been married (with children?), and are productive. The hen is “polite, discreet, and companionable,” and the widow seems to be as well. They live on the same farm.

How are they different?

The widow is a woman. She is simple, careful, capable. Even her name (widow) is simple. She takes care of herself and her farm (so she is master over the hen). Her husband died.

Demoiselle Partlet is a hen. She is “debonair.” She has a fancy French name. She has to be led to the grain. She is one of seven wives.

[Comparison can be made between any two things (characters, events, ideas, objects) in the story or between something in the story and something outside of it. For instance, one could compare Chanticleer with another animal character in a different story. Or compare a character’s experience to one’s own. They don’t even have to be two similar things.]


What caused Chanticleer’s predicament?

His wife wounded his pride and called him a coward when he opened up and shared his dream and fears with her.

(Flattery or manipulation works best if person is wounded in that area first.)

He responded to his wife’s criticism by strutting like a prince and being fearless. He looked with pride upon his domain.

The fox flattered him by complimenting his voice and the rooster began to sing.

What were the effects of the predicament?

The whole farm was in great distress. They ran after him, frightened. “They ran so hard they thought their hearts would burst.” “It seemed that heaven would fall.”

The rooster had to be brave in spite of his fear. [Bravery, caution, and/or pride would make interesting comparisons.] He had to outwit the cunning fox. Both Chanticleer and the fox learned lessons.

Who bore responsibility?

The author says “Alas, that Chanticleer flew down from the rafters!” but doesn’t mention that he gave in to flattery. But the author also says “Alas, that his wife took no heed of dreams!” Does the author place blame on the wife?

[There are other relationship questions. We just talked about cause and effect of one event in the story.]


What was happening (and where) when Chanticleer was taken by the fox?

Small circle: hens watching rooster being carried off

Next circle: widow and daughters run outside and follow

Larger circle: all animals reacting (farm and countryside)

The farm is a microcosm of a community of people (rather than unrelated farm animals); one animal’s failure affected everyone.

Wide circle: Rural area. England. During Chaucer’s time (Medieval period).

(What was England’s relationship with the French at the time? What did they think of the French people? What does the hen’s French name say about her character?)

What was Chaucer’s world like?

It was a very moral, religious world (even if people didn’t follow the moral code). Chaucer’s characters present many universal “types.”


[Aristotle divides this topic into six categories: authority, testimonial, statistics, maxims, laws, and precedents.]

Who is an authority within the book?

The author says that the book is about the widow and then proceeds to tell about the rooster and the hen. The story also says that the widow had patiently led a very simple life since the day her husband died. What was she like before? How did her husband die? Is the story something similar to what the widow had experienced? There was an odd halt in the action right after the rooster was taken. Was the story up to that point something the widow had experienced, but her experience had a different outcome? Was she speaking from the authority of experience when she said “That is the result of trusting in flattery”?

The widow is an authority because she is the matriarch of the farm. (Oddly, Chanticleer, the only patriarch on the farm, is carried off by pride.)

Both Chanticleer and the fox give their testimony when they tell what they’ve learned from the experience. (Might also be considered authority?)

In addition to the morals or proverbs listed above we have the idioms turnabout is fair play and pride comes before a fall.

Would numerous examples of people falling as a result of pride be considered precedents? (We briefly mentioned others such as Samson who was manipulated by someone appealing to his vanity.)

Would you allow this book to be an authority in your home? Would you allow it to say something about flattery to your children?

Why or why not?


I hope this gives you a little taste of what our rich discussion was like!

What I’m discovering is that these questions truly are the key to integrated learning.

Later that same day, I attended a phenomenal performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear. All the conflict in that tragedy stems from flattery!

In addition to this Saturday morning book club, we are also spending a year (one Thursday evening a month) reading through Hamlet and discussing it using the same questions. It is surprising how much the conversation for Hamlet is similar to the conversation for a picture book when using the common topics. At our first discussion meeting (after watching the movie together during two previous meetings) we spent time defining “Hamlet” (the play and the characters). At our next meeting, we defined “ghost.” Our discussion included talking about how we think of ghosts, what the play had to say about ghosts, as well as how Shakespeare’s culture in Elizabethan England defined and thought about ghosts, so we pulled in some circumstance there.

Levi and I are also using the common topics for our Lost Tools of Writing discussions. (More about that here and here.) Lost Tools of Writing guides students through the common topics.

Shakespeare's King Lear Mt. Hope Chronicles


Angela Awald said...

This sounds lovely! I especially like when you said, "Would you allow this book to be an authority in your home? Would you allow it to say something about flattery to your children?" It is a good reminder to be intentional and thoughtful with the books we choose to share with our children. Thank you.

Windhover Farm said...

I so appreciate you detailing the specifics of your book group discussion. So helpful compared to "we're reading "The Question" and discussed the "Chanticleer and the Fox"". Thank you for your efforts with us readers!

Jennifer said...

What a fantastic blog post!!! The detail is especially inspiring. I've wanted to do a book club for a while...

Sherry said...

Love this blog post! This is so helpful in understanding how this works. Thanks for your help. BTW, I love your children's names.

Lara said...

Love this! I just shared it with my CC community!