Friday, July 5, 2013

Institute for Excellence in Writing {Schoolhouse Crew Review}

Institute for Excellence in Writing has earned a reputation for excellence in homeschool circles, and with very good reason, as we had opportunity to find out for ourselves. When I received word that we would be able to review materials from IEW, I was thrilled! My students, to be honest, were not quite as excited, but they mistakenly believed they'd be required to slog away at something boring during the first weeks of their summer break. We received the Teaching Writing with Structure and Style set (TWSS), and the Student Writing Intensive Level B set (SWI).
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I think it's fair to say most homeschoolers have heard of Institute for Excellence in Writing, but a little background is still in order. While teaching at a small school in Montana, Andrew Pudewa was encouraged to take a teacher-training course in composition taught by a professor of African history. Dr. James B. Webster had developed the course as he sought to improve the writing skills of his history students at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Mr. Pudewa had excellent results with the method at his school, and then with his own homeschooled students, and eventually worked with Dr. Webster to design the program so it could be taught to homeschool parents as a two-day workshop. The Teaching Writing with Structure and Style (TWSS) DVD seminar is the result.  TWSS instructs teachers, not just in how to teach the material to students, but in using the method themselves to improve their own writing! The Student Writing Intensive (SWI) is a DVD seminar taught directly to the students, and is available in three levels. Level A is for students in Grades 3-5, Level B for students in Grades 6-8, and Level C for students in Grades 9-12.

Andrew Pudewa is a gifted communicator, with the ability to engage and entertain as he instructs. I've had the privilege of hearing him at homeschool conventions, so I knew before starting to watch TWSS that it would hold my attention and I expected his presentation to be practical and inspiring, as well as humorous. And I was not disappointed! I knew that once my kids had a chance to hear him for themselves in the SWI lessons, that they might find themselves actually enjoying a writing class!

TWSS is a total of 10 hours of training geared to the parent educator, instructing in how to teach writing to students using nine structural models and various stylistic techniques. It was filmed in a live class, so questions and responses from those in attendance can be heard, giving it an interactive feel. The DVDs can be viewed as an intensive training workshop similar to the original presentation, or spread out over a longer period, but it's intended for the teacher to view these before presenting the material to students. The set includes a Seminar Workbook, which is the syllabus for the course and contains charts, word lists, lesson plans, and samples of student work.

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SWI Level B was also recorded live, with Mr Pudewa teaching to a group of middle school age students. It is a four-DVD writing course that can be covered in 15 to 30 weeks, and helps students use many structural models and stylistic techniques in their writing of both fiction and non-fiction. The accompanying student binder contains all the student handouts, teacher's notes, and scope and sequence.
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How did we use it? My students are very different. Landon is starting Grade 9, and is a very reluctant writer, especially resistant to writing fiction. He writes only as much as is absolutely required, using few words and very simple sentences, because if he can't avoid writing altogether he wants to at least get it over with as soon as possible. Kennady is starting Grade 7 and she loves to write and tell stories, and she does so at great length, if you take my meaning. *ahem* She's less enthusiastic about writing reports, but still is usually willing to put pen to paper. I chose SWI Level B for them, thinking it would be perfect for Kennady and also very beneficial for Landon since he has less experience with writing and would benefit from this more foundational level.

But before turning them loose to start writing, I had to do some learning myself! I thoroughly enjoyed watching the TWSS DVDs, and if I'd had the uninterrupted blocks of time, I would happily have watched all of them at once. However, I chose to spread out my lesson time over several days, and watched about half of the entire series before starting the kids on SWI Level B. Then I continued with the rest of the teacher training portions as I had the time, provided I was always staying at least one step ahead of the kids. (This is pretty much my goal in every subject anyway!) I loved that the teacher training does not just tell me what to tell my kids, but expected me to do the same types of writing exercises. I got to learn about choosing key words and writing from a key word outline, and how to dress up writing and make it more interesting. (Even as I write that, I hope that my own writing in this review will reflect favorably on me and what I claim to have learned! No pressure though, right?!)

The first day I brought Landon and Kennady in to watch their first lesson, they resisted and complained and fretted. I assured them that I thought they would find it quite painless, and in any case it was required of them. (I had also purchased a second student notebook so they each had their own.) As I suspected, once Mr Pudewa began the class, my kids were drawn in and I haven't heard a word of complaint about it since! True story! I could even leave the room and know that they were still watching the DVD, and doing the assignments just as instructed. They laugh at the jokes, and 'interact' with Mr Pudewa, and even quote some of what he says later.

We have had a rough time getting as far through the lessons as I would have liked, given that we've had several interruptions to our schedule, but even working on this an average of three days a week, I've seen significant improvement in their writing, and perhaps more importantly, in their attitude towards writing. This teaching method provides the writing topics and the students learn structure by making an outline of key words from a provided paragraph or sample, and then rewriting the essay or story in their own words using the outline they've made. This relieves the student of needing to come up with something to say, while at the same time saying it with interesting words and structurally sound sentences and paragraphs. Landon has proved that he can write solid and descriptive paragraphs without it taking all day. Kennady has proved that she can stick to an outline to tell about her subject in a more concise manner, but still use her creativity to advantage. They both especially enjoyed challenging each other to come up with strong verbs and avoid the "banned words".

I remembered to scan a couple of their early assignments in progress, and although they don't show up very well here, they may give a bit of a sense of what they were learning. Landon hadn't yet added his title to this retelling of a paragraph about cephalopods. You can see that he double-spaced it. This is important because any edits or additions can be added in the blank lines, and you can see that he has done so near the bottom. He has underlined the "which" clause as he was instructed to do. In fact, the only thing Mr Pudewa has told Landon to do that he doesn't do is to use a pen. I guess Mr Pudewa will have to come bite the eraser off Landon's pencil.

Kennady did use a pen, so her writing shows up a little better. This was the very first assignment, and I was impressed with how she was immediately able to construct her own complete sentences using the keyword outline. She has a tendency to use sentence fragments, so on the very first day she learned something valuable! Of course she has to illustrate everything she writes. I have been extremely happy with the writing samples my kids have produced, because they got progressively better each lesson.

What we liked best:
  • the DVDs are just plain fun to watch. As I said, once Landon and Kennady started, they were hooked by Andrew Pudewa's engaging style and they actually LIKE watching.
  • to a large extent, I can leave the instruction to the DVD. I am still here, giving feedback and suggestions and asking questions while the kids work on the writing, but they can see and hear Mr Pudewa teaching the material themselves. And they see the real "how to" examples in the recorded class.
  • the method can be used starting with almost any writing sample. When we start working on history in the new school year, I can choose any piece of writing from a book we are studying and have them rewrite in their own words - and they will be learning the material as well as honing writing skills. Bonus: for a student that doesn't easily come up with ideas about a topic to write about, they don't have to do that all on their own, and think about grammar and composition at the same time.
  • enjoyable and practical for the struggling and reluctant writer in my family, and for the verbose story-teller in the family.
  • we can do this together, despite grade and age differences, and the kids are cooperating by critiquing (constructively!) each other's work!
  • Teacher notes are clear and detailed enough so that I am not left floundering.
What I need to mention:
  • I have to admit that what held me back from trying IEW before this is the price. While the initial outlay can be steep for many families, now that I have used it, I would say that it is well worth it because it gets excellent results. 
Our bottom line: I don't think I can adequately express how great this has been for me and for my students! We have gone from all three of us dreading writing assignments to enjoying the process, and we are all learning it together. I don't think I will hesitate to purchase the SWI Level C in a year or so, because I have already seen how well it's working. I'm looking back over what I've written for this review post, and I think I'm at risk of gushing and going on too long about what I love about IEW, but it's all true!

Would you like to teach excellent writing skills in your homeschool? Here's what you need to know:
Visit the website at:
View the complete line of products in the catalog, and view Andrew's Introduction to Writing Products on YouTube. New to IEW? Start here.

Pricing: Teaching Writing: Structure & Style DVD Seminar with Seminar Workbook is available for $169. Student Writing Intensive Level B is available for $109. You  may also purchase the Teaching Writing/Student Writing Value Package Level B which includes TWSS and SWI for $249. See the website for additional pricing packages and more details.

Recommended Ages: TWSS is recommended for the parent or teacher. There are Student Writing Intensives at three levels. Level B, which we reviewed, is geared for Grades 6-8.

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Visit the Schoolhouse Review Crew blog for more information and to read other Crew member reviews. Crew members also reviewed Levels A and C, and Teaching the Classics, so be sure to check out their thoughts on those resources as well!

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Candy @ So little time... said...

We have level A. The beginning was great, starting with the single paragraphs. We could pick out the key words and rewrite the paragraph. Once the program moved into three paragraphs, we were lost. I'll admit I did need to spend more time watching the TWSS DVD. When I didn't understand what was going on, I needed to re-watch the DVD but didn't. I found it time consuming.
That was a couple of years ago. I should try again.

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