There are two subjects that make many parents shake in their boots when they think about trying to teach them: math and writing. This course won't help with the first one, but it will put The Power in Your Hands when it comes to writing....or rather, in your high school student's hands, as they learn how to write stellar essays in all of the nonfiction writing modes.
Sharon Watson showed her ability to get reluctant and confused younger writers putting their thoughts on paper with Jump In. With The Power in Your Hands: Writing Nonfiction in High School, she expands similar ground for older students and takes them into completely new territory, some of which is more difficult to navigate. But "difficult" is not how most would describe this course.
That's not to say students are in for a cakewalk, though. This is certainly challenging material, but it's handled so expertly, so confidently, and with such clarity of thought and explanation that it would actually take more work to bet bogged down than it would to stay afloat. The fact that only one volume is needed to accomplish so much is testament to the author's abilities as a writer and a teacher.
How Does This Work?
The course is self-directed, and contained entirely in a single non-consumable textbook. Students work on their own, making their way through a total of 108 daily lessons divided somewhat unevenly among 23 chapters. Lessons are basically scripted directly to students, since Watson addresses them throughout and scatters exercises and assignments among the text to be read.
Some of the initial content will be something of a retread for veterans of Jump In, but Watson warns students of this and offers them the opportunity to breeze through certain sections. After a brief introduction to writing by way of a reminder that planning is always crucial, she starts the course proper with a discussion of opinions and how to write about them.
This helps hook reluctant writers—who doesn't like to express their opinions?—but it also provides an opportunity to talk about how opinions can be used and misused, what makes an opinion valid or invalid, and how you should go about defending yours logically. This is one of the great benefits of this program: Watson constantly makes students think about the ethics of writing.
The first major section is devoted to persuasion. The first two chapters in this section establish some fundamentals of writing persuasively before moving on to chapters on logical appeals, compare and contrast, moral/ethical appeals, and emotional appeals. For each chapter in this section students will write an essay in the style under consideration, and this is the pattern of the whole book—kids actually learn to imitate every style they encounter.
Other sections cover proofreading, exposition (the most extensive section), description, narration, and reference (in which students write an actual research paper with cited references, a thesis, etc.). Style guidance and instruction is woven throughout each chapter to provide a more organic learning experience. There is also overlap among sections so it's not like students are always learning one thing all at once.
This gradual method of instruction is beneficial for teaching writing because it helps kids mentally integrate the many elements they need to master. Even more helpful are Watson's thoroughness and her use of questions to help kids achieve understanding. Her thorough approach manifests itself throughout, from the fact that students will actually learn to use formal proofreading marks to the time she takes unfolding even relatively simple essay-writing forms like the how-to essay.
As for her use of questions in the service of teaching, this is a trait carried over from her earlier Jump In course. Basically all the questions students will encounter in the text are ones they can answer with no more than some personal reflection, but that nevertheless advance their understanding of broader writing concepts. This Socratic method is missing from many comparable writing programs, even though it is arguably necessary to adequately teach the subject.
The Power in Your Hands contains many essays or portions of essays for students to evaluate so they can see firsthand what works and what doesn't, and why it stands or falls. It also gives students a fresh perspective on their own writing by way of comparison, revealing where they can improve both as crafters and as thinkers.
Thinking as the crucial aspect of good writing is emphasized throughout. You can't say anything worthwhile if you don't have good ideas; clarity of style indicates clarity of thought; readers must be able to follow your argument without too much effort, and so on. While some kids might balk at the depth of questions that Watson makes them answer, it is intended to get them thinking clearly and logically, not just to torment their poor high school souls.
Watson also shines light on many commonly overlooked aspects of good writing. For instance, courtesy is stressed as an important value in writing, which leads the author to present a list of things not to do or say in an email along with explanations. She also warns against the use of "Christianese," explaining that you immediately limit your audience with such jargon.
While Watson is a Christian and this is explicit in the course (at one point, kids write a devotional piece), her faith isn't a club she uses to beat students into submission. Bible verses do crop up from time to time, but Watson isn't given to moralizing or invoking the same Christianese she eschews in her instruction. At the same time, there's nothing here to offend Christians, and no attempts to downplay the author's faith. (A note: the research paper example topic revolves around debunking evolution.)
This can be completed in one school year, but students work at their own pace, and as long as they aren't shirking there's no reason they can't take longer. The Power in Your Hands is an intense course, and may very well require more effort for some. If your student hasn't used Jump In or a comparable program before, they'll probably need to move through at least the early chapters of this one more gradually.
A non-optional Teacher's Guide provides essential help for instructors regarding grading and evaluation, with extensive rubrics for assigning letter grades for both form and content. There are also teaching notes, worksheets for students to aid them in self-evaluation and self-editing, and answers to some of the exercises in the student book.
The Teacher's Guide also includes something Watson calls the "14-Minute Power Surges Program," a weekly selection of writing prompts that help students bolster their writing skill in a non-threatening environment. These prompts take many forms (students write brief essays, poems, imaginary dialog, etc.), and can serve to supplement the broader program, or just to provide a break in the sometimes arduous task of learning to write serious nonfiction.
Our Honest Opinion
Why hem and haw? Watson has hit it out of the ballpark. This is hands down one of the best high school writing courses we've seen, without exception. Her engaging yet mature voice throughout, the way she forces students to face the fact that everything they want to say isn't worth saying, the uniquely high standards she exacts (and clearly holds herself to as well), and much more contribute to make The Power in Your Hands a top-notch choice for teaching high school students how to write.
Perhaps the best selling point is its simplicity. Watson hasn't devised some complicated instructional program, doesn't require students to do anything not immediately relevant to the task at hand, and offers no range of supplements that will only bog down already harried and exhausted parents. She just presents the fundamentals of writing in a way that even poor or reluctant writers can grasp and enjoy.
Doth we protest too much? No, this really is as good as it sounds. That's not to say it's easy! As with any skill worth acquiring, learning to write nonfiction well means a lot of effort and some pain and buckets of sweat. But if you want your kids to acquire that skill for real, and not some second-rate imitation of it, get them this book. It's demanding and at times difficult, but it's also fun, engaging, and (perhaps most important) will instill the confidence students need to simply put their thoughts on paper. Trust us—you need this book.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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