Monday, May 16, 2011

TOS Review: IEW

The problem with being a writer and teaching writing is, well ... you're a little too close to your subject matter. I've heard this same thing form countless other homeschooling parents in regards to their own personal proclivities: "I can't for the life of me find a decent science curriculum. None of them cover what I what to teach." "I'm an artist who rarely draws with my own kids. I just can't seem to get them to see things the way I do." "As a math person, I know what I want in a math program, but no one has it!"

It makes sense, really. When you have the level of intimacy that comes with practicing a discipline daily, you have certain priorities and expectations when it comes to passing on your hard-won knowledge. A casual introduction--what might be "good enough" for the vast majority of folks--just doesn't cut it. You need meat, you need depth, and you need quality. And yes, you know the real deal when you see it.

All of this hints at why I was less thrilled than anxious when given a beautiful, expansive collection of materials from the Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW) to review. I had given their products a quick once over at my state convention, and thought about sitting in on a session the author presented a few years back. IEW had, it seemed, become one of those homeschool "it" curriculums. The one everyone who's anyone uses. The one people mention in passing and the whole circle of moms nods knowingly, "Ah, yes. IEW. Unit three. Been there." I knew plenty of people who sang the praises of IEW, and more than a few who enthusiastically assured me that even as a writer, I would love their stuff.

But what if I didn't?  What if IEW was like The Bridges of Madison County? You remember The Bridges of Madison County, right? Runaway success. Highly acclaimed. Made Oprah--and the whole nation--swoon. Well ... the whole nation minus me. I finally gave in and read the thing and, truth be told, was bored out of my mind. I nearly gave up a third of the way in, but I persevered. Surely, I thought, surely, there's a reason why this thing is such a hit.

There wasn't, far as I could tell.

IEW is, I'm happy to report, a different story altogether. 

After months and months of using and abusing this curriculum, I can say with my whole heart that IEW is the real deal. And get this: you definitely don't need to be a writer to teach using this curriculum ... but if you are, you won't be disappointed, either.

I was given an almost intimidating set-up to review: the Teaching Writing/Student Writing Intensive Combo Pack Level B, along with a portable wall.  When I pulled the materials from the box, as a matter of fact, "intimidated" was my very first reaction. There were so many dvds, a couple of big notebooks, a manilla envelope full of what looked like worksheets, and what on earth was that file folder thingy?

The first week of trying to make sense of the program was, frankly, just as overwhelming. There was just too much to wade through. Finally, I gave up on shuffling papers and attempting to make heads or tales of them. I popped in one of the Teaching Writing dvds and sighed deeply, hoping that this was what pulled the whole thing together. It did. 

These dvds are the backbone of the entire IEW approach. If you felt fairly confident in learning something on your own and creating your own program from scratch based off of that teaching, then you could honestly watch this series, take copious notes, refer back as a refresher from time to time and yes, be a great writing coach. Andrew Pudewa, director of IEW and homeschooling dad of seven, has a talent for passing on information in a tangible, easily digestible manner. By the way, he's pretty funny, too. His approach to writing is simple: learn some tools. Vary your sentences. Build a library of winning words to pull from. And write, write, write.

The simplicity of those concepts belie the creativity and playfulness of the IEW program, however. This is not a dry, learn-and-regurgitate curriculum. Nor is it a writing-for-the-sake-of-writing program. The skills learned in the context of these lessons are applicable across the board, grow with your student, and will be as valuable for the future auto mechanic as they will be for an aspiring novelist.

After figuring out where Mr. Pudewa was headed via the Teaching Writing dvds, the rest of this program fell into place for easy use in our homeschool. I was able to teach Jo, Atticus, and Logan (8th, 5th, and 3rd grades) using the same program. From the very first lessons, I began to notice a change in the writing coming out of my kids. The texture of their sentences changed. The edges smoothed out. They just sounded more polished somehow, as if all those things I had tried to let them figure out on their own had suddenly found their way onto the table. Which, of course, they had: through IEW we had begun to actively pursue what had previously been a hit-or-miss subject in our home. There's a big difference between telling a child, "All of your sentences sound the same. How can we fix that?" and showing a child bit by bit how to make this kind of sentence, then this one, and another, then one more.

As a writer, I appreciate that this program circles through fiction and non-fiction units. The skills are so often transferable, but very few curricula seem to acknowledge this. Also, flipping between the genres keeps things lively for the children. Please note that we did a good bit more skipping than your average user in an attempt to cover enough material to get a good feel for the program. These are weighty units, and easily lend themselves to deep, deep delving. The fact that we were able to try out so many units is not indicative of how the average user would navigate this program. When they say you can cycle through it again and again, with the same children even ... it's dead on. This one program is literally all you need to teach writing from elementary through high school. If you do, you'll hit essays, fiction, writing from pictures, critique, and so much more.

The portable wall (that odd file folder) is a nifty bonus, too. Crammed with rules, hints, verbs, and anything else you might need, this folder is a boon to homschoolers who generally don't go around posting big colorful "Friendly Adjectives!" posters in their dining rooms. Do yourself a favor and pick one or two up. You'll use them.

IEW's programs are designed so that you, as the teacher, can control the writing prompts. That allows you to tie the program in to the rest of your curriculum if you wish. You can also use the many, many examples given within the program itself to streamline the program if you wish. I think that newbies might be less likely to branch out, but trust me, it's surprisingly easy to do with Mr. Pudewa holding your hand. 

I found this curriculum to require a fair amount of preparation on my behalf. It is not open and go, nor is it something you can pop in on once a month or so and expect to see any results. I also don't think this level (B) is suited to self-directed learning. Having an involved writing coach always makes a huge difference in the quality of a student's writing, and no matter how engaging the IEW videos are, they're no substitute for that kind of interaction.

One final note on this program: cost. The main thing that held me back from really looking beyond the surface of IEW prior to my review was the hefty price tag. Truly, it is not for the faint of heart to hit "submit" on a $200+ order for a single subject. Depending on what bits and pieces you decide would work best for your family, this could be your biggest curriculum purchase for a given year. That's a difficult call to make--and a hard thing to convince your budget of. However, I urge you to consider this a one-time investment that will serve all of your children for all of their homeschooling years. For example, if I purchased the $239 set that I reviewed just for Jo, and used it for the remaining 4 years of her homeschooling (plus the year we just completed for review), then I would have spent $47.80 per year on writing instruction. Looking at the long-term plan puts IEW in perspective--the proper perspective. Folks, this is a long-term curriculum. It's an investment. And I'm surprised to say that I'm impressed.

No matter how wrong the herd was about The Bridges of Madison County, they got this one right.

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this product for review purposes. Refer to my general disclaimer for more information on my policies regarding reviews.


Doug said...

I'm so glad to read this review, MG. I bought IEW this year so that I could "familiarize" myself with it before using it in the next couple of years... and it has sat, and sat, and sat. Like you said, I just didn't know where to start or what to do.

When I get back to the other side of the pond, where my IEW stuff is, I'll pop in that DVD. Thanks for the nudge. I'm excited!


Doug said...

Oops, I was signed into my husband's account- this is Making Home Jess. :)