(This is the answer key for Writer's in Residence Volume I)
Apologia's new writing course contains a hefty, brightly colored spiral-bound book that's both textbook and workbook, and a smaller paperback answer key. That and a good attitude are all you'll need. Author Debra Bell, who wrote the excellent Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling, created this multi-level writing course to make teaching writing "authentic." Students, she believes, should "mimic the writing activities... adults engage in." Most writing program expect students to work on assignments that are boring, by-the-book, and irrelevant to them. Bell wants teachers to instead create "a culture where students are rewarded for experimenting and taking risks."
The textbook is divided into six units, or twenty-four modules with six writing projects. Students will cover approximately one module every four days of work. A colorful daily schedule and checklist is included. There are about 128 days worth of work, and its recommended that students plan on doing this course at least three days a week. Depending on how fast the student goes or how challenging the subject matter is, this could take a year to a year and half to complete. This course is designed to work well with groups and co-ops, and it's designed to be used independently. Students at the lower levels may need more supervision, but older students should be able to handle this course mostly on their own.
Grammar and punctuation skills are integrated into the writing assignments. The teacher's guide at the beginning of the student textbook shows at-a-glance which language skills are taught in each module. Instead of using generic examples, the textbook takes passages from classic books to illustrate grammar concepts. Students are asked to mimic some of the sentence structure and writing style from famous authors in their own writing assignments.
Instead of teaching students to write in the four forms most often taught in writing programs (personal, expository, persuasive, narrative) the book splits the writing assignments into four categories, which roughly correspond to these forms but contain some overlap and are more fluid, the book claims, like real-world writing.
Similarly, the grading system is based off a rubric with a series of points. Bell advises not to use letter grades, but to evaluate assignments for their strengths and weaknesses and provide constructive criticism. Grading rubrics are included in the book, and ask teachers to help students fill in points for each skill exhibited. The points system goes from 1 ("need to improve") to 5 ("best I've ever done") and there are 50 points available for each assignment. The teacher intent on letter grades can certainly find a way to do so, but Bell emphasises that students are using writing to express who they are and thus shouldn't be graded too harshly or put into a box.
As part of the effort to make the program nurturing and inspiring for young writers the book includes six interviews with famous Christian authors, among them Amy Parker, Phil Vischer, and Irene Howat. It also has students work on "sandbox assignments," which are fun light projects that give them space to play with the concepts that they're learning.
Our honest opinion:
Dr. Debra Bell has been teaching for thirty years, and some would call her ideas unorthodox. Her philosophy for language and writing is to make it as practical as possible for students. Grammar and spellilng are largely irrelevant for her—they're only useful when learned in the context of writing.
She claims that "accurate spelling is not essential for clear communication," and that professional writers use spellcheck. While this is true, it's important that children have at least some spelling training. Spellcheck can only get you so far, and incorrect spelling makes you look unprofessional in our world. The grammar covered in this curriculum may be enough to get a student through, but if your student struggles with spelling you'll definitely need an outside curriculum.
We appreciate her emphasis on writing as a form of self-expression that should be nurtured, not criticized. While maintaining this attitude, the course still manages to be challenging and stretching for students of different ages. "Writing must be authentic, and a student's time and efforts should be respected," says Debra Bell, and we couldn't agree more. If you're willing to forgo some of the more traditional methods of learning writing in favor of a freer curriculum, then this may just be the program on which your students will thrive.
Review by Lauren Shearer
Lauren Shearer writes words for fun and profit. She also makes films, but everyone knows you can't make a profit doing that. Her other hobby is consistently volunteering way too much of her time. You can read more of her reviews here.
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