Tuesday, March 19, 2013

{Crew Review} Essentials in Writing, Grade 8

For the past month or so, Ben and I have been trying a new writing curriculum called Essentials in Writing (EiW).  If you’ve followed my blog for awhile, you’ll recall that writing has always been a challenging subject for Ben.  Although he’s gained a lot more confidence over the past year or so, it is still a labored process for him, and I’m always on the lookout for fresh ideas to help make it less taxing.

We’ve been using the Eighth Grade Curriculum ($40) which includes Matthew Stevens, the writer of the curriculum, video teaching for each of the 64 lessons. It is designed for 13-14 year olds. Included as well is a DVD full of Mr. Stevens reviewing the basics of grammar (there are no written exercises for the grammar, however). The first three DVDs include the lessons for the writing program, while the 4th DVD includes the grammar and PDF worksheets necessary to complete the program. This program is designed to be used and finished in a school year (each lesson might have two or three sets of workbook pages, so a lesson might last 2-4 days or so).

The lessons are broken down into sentence, paragraph, and composition sections:
  • Lessons 1-7 – Sentence Development
  • Lessons 8-12 – Writing Techniques (suck as similes, hyperbole, imagery) image
  • Lessons 13-17 – Paragraphs (expository, descriptive, persuasive, compare/contrast)
  • Lessons 18 – The Writing Process 
  • Lessons 19-25 – Personal narrative
  • Lessons 26-27 – Summary
  • Lessons 28-31 – Compare/ Contrast Business letter
  • Lessons 32- Parts of a Formal Essay
  • Lessons 33- 39 – Persuasive essay
  • Lessons 40- Choosing/ Narrowing a Topic
  • Lessons 41-49 - Expository essay 
  • Lessons 50-64 – Research Paper
The fourth disc has a grammar review.  These are clips of Mr. Stevens explaining grammar terms and parts of speech.  Here’s what is included:
I thought Mr. Stevens did a good job explaining basic grammar terms, and Ben did to. But, let’s face it, grammar can be kind of boring, and with no corresponding written work it was pretty easy to gloss over. But, it is a nice resource to have. Also, since some grammar programs use different terms (we used a grammar program once that didn’t introduce the term “predicate”) it was a good overview to watch before we headed into sentences.

You can view a comprehensive Scope and Sequence of the whole program as well as a lesson sample on the website.

Worksheets are numbered to correspond to the video lessons on the DVDs.  Sometimes, there are several worksheets for each lesson – which are lettered “A,” B,” and/or “C.”  Lessons that have more than one worksheet are meant to be done over a series of days – 22A on Monday, 22B on Tuesday, etc. This breaks up writing lessons into small, manageable chucks. For some writing-phobic students, this might be a gentle approach!

How We Used the Program:  First off, if you purchase this program, you’ll want to throw in the last disc and read through Mr. Steven’s written introduction to parents (from the website it does say they are sending the workbook files as a PDF, so perhaps it will be in your email). He provides great information about how to use the program to meet your child’s needs. His suggestion is to basically follow your child’s lead, waiting to progress him/her when he shows understanding of the material. He also provides suggestions on how to plan out the curriculum to complete it timely.

Next, you’ll want to print off worksheets, as Mr. Stevens stresses that they are not optional. Whether you print them off all at once (the workbook itself will print out about 160 pages) or section by section, you’ll want to throw it in a binder and get started. I noticed on the website that they are offering pre-printed workbooks for $20 if you don’t want to print it out yourself.

For this review, I really wanted to sample a variety of lessons from each of the sentence, paragraph, and composition sections.  We usually watched the video one day, and I gave Ben 1-2 days to work on the assignment (though usually less if it was a short assignment).  We really breezed through the sentence and some of the beginning paragraph material.

What Ben and I both found was that Mr. Stevens did a really great job teaching the parts-to-whole approach of writing.  It has been quite a few years since Ben had to focus on actually constructing and manipulating components at just a sentence level, and he and I found it to be a great refresher. The lessons at this level usually had 2-3 assignments: 
  • Identify the structures in given sentences
  • Re-write given sentences
  • Read through a paragraph, replace sentences with the targeted structures
One of the things that can be hard for students is generating information and then integrating new structures (sentence structures, in this case). For those who are not natural writers, having to make up novel sentences can be a chore; add that to having to use new sentence structures and you’ve got a double whammy of trouble for some! 

When you get to Lesson 18 (The Writing Process), you will see that the steps of writing really become the backbone that Mr. Stevens uses to teach various types of writing.  Lessons for all the compositions follow these steps – organizing/ brainstorming, drafting, revising, and finally edit/ publishing.  Here’s a video sample of Mr. Stevens:

Thankfully, Mr. Stevens does not leave young writers and their teachers hanging with little guidance.  Writing prompts are suggested, graphic organizers are offered, and there are even grading rubrics for us moms:
Ben seems to have the most difficulty with the revision portion of the writing process.  Most of the time,  he’s just happy to have gotten his ideas on paper and is ready to move on!  I like that Mr. Stevens takes the time to  walk the students through this process, focusing on word choice and sentence structure. What I really appreciate is watching Mr. Stevens humbly go through this process as the students watch him wrestle with his work.  I’ve told Ben often to read his drafts out loud to help him focus on how his writing sounds, an idea Mr. Stevens emphasized.  I’m hopeful that hearing this from another person (not just mom) will encourage him to walk more carefully through the revision process!
My recommendations & thoughts:
Mr. Steven’s writing program, Essentials in Writing offers a lot of solid teaching for a great price.  Ben and I both liked that it included a parts-to-whole approach to writing:  sentences –> paragraphs –> compositions.  I cannot say that this program made Ben love writing, but I can say that it has added some great content and methods to our writing program.  I love that it walks us step-by-step through the writing  process for each assignment, not making assumptions that drafting or editing in one writing task will look the same in another.
Schoolhouse Review Crew members were able to review nearly every grade level of this program. If you are looking for a different grade, click on the graphic below to read what other crew members thought of Essentials in Writing, please click on the banner below:


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