Jul 7, 2013

Schoolhouse Review Crew: Institute for Excellence in Writing

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My favorite kind of homeschool moms are the seasoned veterans. The ones who started teaching their children in kindergarten or first grade and who have taught them all the way through and seen some, if not all, graduate and go on to succeed in college. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend some time chatting with one such veteran, and she introduced me to the curriculum known as IEW. More properly, it is called The Institute for Excellence in Writing and she was completely and utterly sold on it. The cost made me hesitate, so I waffled for years, listening to her talk about it every chance I got, and visiting the website frequently to drool and dream. Last fall, we had the opportunity blessing to review PAL, a reading and writing curriculum put out by the same company, and I was convinced that the main writing curriculum, Teaching Writing: Structure and Style, was most definitely something that we had to have. I put it on my list of things to buy for our 2013/2014 year. So naturally, I was quite thrilled when we were chosen to review it this spring!
We were sent Teaching Writing: Structure and Style (TWSS) and the Student Writing Intensive A (SWI-A). Each consists of a pack of DVDs, a binder, and a package of handouts and dividers. I took them out of the box, put the handouts and dividers in the binder following the simple directions included and that was it. We were ready to go.

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I began watching the teacher's portion of the curriculum, which is the TWSS: a recorded seminar explaining the method and how to implement it with your students. There are six DVDs of this seminar so it is recommended that you break your viewing down into nine different sessions. A detailed viewing schedule is provided in the packet of handouts and the time required for each session is even included. Each session is concluded with a practicum exercise. These exercises are just basically the same things that your student will be doing in their lessons. I found these exercises to be... well, let's just say... not exactly easy! I had to think and exercise some lazy mental muscles. This gave me some empathy for the kids when it was their turn, as well as giving me a better idea of what was being asked of them.
The nine units include: note making and outlines; summarizing from notes; summarizing narrative stories; summarizing references and library reports; writing from pictures; creative writing; essay writing; and critiques. This is what you will be teaching your students to do, later on.
In the student lessons, it is noted when you need to watch each lesson, but since I needed to be sure and watch all of them for the purpose of this review, I watched them at a rate of one or two a week. But, I didn't wait to start the kids on their part. I am a see-it-then-do-it kind of learner and I knew I would get lost in the big picture if I didn't go ahead and implement what I had learned. Then I re-watched each lesson as it came up in the student lessons. I recommend this method because there is a lot of information in these DVDs and this helped me to remember and absorb it all.
The thing that I love the most about IEW is their gentle, but effective methodology of teaching and with each product of theirs that I use, I learn a little bit more of how to implement their method. With PAL, I learned to engage the kids in what they were learning and how simple that could be with fun and games. With TWSS I learned not to expect the kids to produce what they haven't been taught. I can be pretty exacting of my kids and it was a relief to hear that I don't need to be in order for them to learn and learn well. (the kids have felt some relief from this idea as well!)
Mastery is also stressed in the IEW method, which is a concept I embraced long ago. A course schedule is provided in the student packet, but is only intended for a guideline. We used it as a sequence, ignoring the "week" and "day" parts and just moving down the page, lingering where needed and moving on when the concept was grasped by the children.

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The SWI-A is the student part of the curriculum. It is intended for students in grades 3-5 who are beginning with IEW. There are other levels for older students: B for grades 6-8 and C for grades 9-12.
Again, this curriculum is pretty much "open and go" and everything is explained. There is a Table of Contents, a Scope and Sequence, a Scene Breakdown, which the times of the lessons for each DVD (where you can find it on the DVD if you are hunting it), a Suggested Course Schedule, and very detailed notes that tells you when to do what in each lesson and has all the information you could possibly need right there at hand. On the back of each lesson assignment is a checklist for your student, so they know exactly what is required in each assignment and can keep track of what they have included and what they have not. For the first lesson, there are only three things on the checklist, and one of those is to put their name on their paper. So you can see that they are truly taught step by step and nothing is required of them that they haven't been taught.
We started with the first DVD lesson. Now, my daughter is ten and she loves to write stories and be creative. She does not enjoy handwriting, but she is willing to suffer for her art. My son is nine and he hates HATES  ABHORS WITH A PASSION handwriting, writing stories, and being creative in any form. So I was expecting some grief from him with this curriculum. He did, indeed, grumble, when I told him to get a pen and paper and come sit down in the living room for a writing lesson. But once Andrew Pudewa started talking, I never heard another complaint. They both completely engaged in the lesson, laughed at all the jokes, and were utterly thrilled by his "only use a pen when writing and never erase anything" rule. After the DVD, they both sat right down and completed the lesson without one whimper, whine or complaint. I was pleasantly surprised, to say the least. They loved the fact that they knew exactly what was expected of them. Nate grinned from ear to ear when Mr. Andrew said he would not be required to come up with his own ideas while learning how to write. Kaytie was pleased when she heard she was allowed to ask how a word is spelled. And they both appreciated the checklist.

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The copywrite for this product is that you are free to make copies within your family (but not if you are teaching a class) but I found that even that was mostly unnecessary. I put the handout on the table between them and they worked together. I could also have split them up and let them use the handout one at a time. As for the checklist on the other side, they just checked off opposite ends. If this method won't work with you and you don't care to make copies, you can order an extra student packet for $19 or as an ebook for $10.

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What we liked about IEW:

  • the general methodology
  • the excellent quality of the product
  • that it is mastery based
  • its ease of use
  • that it teaches ME how to teach
  • that it is non-consumable if you need it to be
  • that Andrew Pudewa is funny and easy to listen to
  • that my kids enjoyed learning to write, which is a topic at least one of them hates (and here is a picture to prove it... see, no grouchy expressions here!)

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What we didn't like about IEW:

  • ummm, well, I'll have to get back with you on that, because I haven't found anything yet!

The TWSS can be purchased alone for $169.
The SWI-A can be purchased alone for $109.
or you can buy both together for the reduced price of $249.

While I enjoyed the TWSS and got A LOT out of it, if money is a concern, the SWI-A comes with an overview of the TWSS and can be used alone.

Other reasons to use IEW is their customer support, which includes a yahoo group where ALL of your questions and comments will be answered, and their return policy which is simply awesome.
Now that I have used IEW, I would most definitely pay to buy it again if I had to. (And that is the highest recommendation I can ever give any curriculum!) I love this, we will be continuing to use it next year until we finish it and then we will go on to their other writing products. I will also use SWI-A with Daniel and Abbie when they are old enough.

The kids' opinions were:

Kaytie: I liked it! I liked finding the key words and writing the compositions. I liked learning how to write the paragraph in my own words and shorter than the original one. Mostly the only thing I didn't like was having to type it out because I don't really like to type that much. I thought the teacher was funny! 

Nate: I liked the videos but I didn't like the writing part because I don't like to write. I didn't complain about it because it wasn't that bad. The guy in the videos was very funny.

But you don't just have to take our word for it, you can see excerpts of the TWSS, excerpts of the SWI-A, and even see a sample of it. Also, the Crew reviewed a variety of IEW products, you can read about their experiences and opinions here on the Crew Blog.

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