Saturday, July 28, 2012

Essentials in Writing Review

I used Essentials in Writing last year, and I really like how the author (Matthew Stephens) walks kids through this process. This has been a GREAT program so far for my reluctant writer. Now, he still says that writing is a pain...but he says it with a smile and lightness now that wasn't there before, and says he likes it best of the things we've tried.

My son gave me permission to post a descriptive paragraph ( which I'll post below) that he did in its various stages: he started with a sentence about an embarrassing incident.  That one sentence went into 2 different style graphic organizers where my son added more details each time, then into a rough draft paragraph, then revised with more details a couple of times, and finally into a final, edited draft.  He was able to craft some colorful descriptions because the program took him through step by step, gave him examples to think about, told him how to elongate a climactic part by slowing down and describing more, and really helped him to come up with a great narrative paragraph.  No other program has ever drawn this much vibrant description out of him!  Of course, he didn't write like this every time, we had some "just regular old pieces" too--but this one really encouraged me!

Things I like:
The author talks through the concept as he's writing.  He leaves mistakes up, then corrects them.  Or occasionally he'll start writing, erase a whole sentence, and then start again.  Students get to see what the writing process is actually like--it's not perfection on the first try!

He shows ONE thing--a literary device, or something like fragments and run-ons. Then students practice that concept. Some worksheets have them identify that thing, others have them practice rewriting, still others have them do writing from scratch (sentences, paragraphs, essays, and so on).

The author gives clear examples that let the student see the difference between "showing" versus "telling," and teaches how to change things to make their writing come alive (you'll see the metamorphosis in my son's writing below). He helps students want to communicate the "movie" that's in their minds through words.  He teaches how to discover what's unclear in their writing and fix those spots.  

When he taught paragraphs, he made sure to explain that narrative paragraphs are different from essays/research type paragraphs--he taught both styles.

My son enjoys his teaching!

The worksheets are available on a CD-ROM and are clearly labeled--very user friendly.  You can print off one lesson at a time or the whole year's worth.  Or you can buy a workbook if you prefer.

Essentials includes grammar lessons for 1st-6th grade, but not in the 7th grade level I used (it's in there as a review if you need it, it's not scheduled like in levels 1-6).

The answer key is helpful.  Even if "answers may vary," it gives examples so you have a feel for what you are looking for.  My son feels empowered and even interested in writing, which I appreciate.  And the price is awesome!  Overall I find it's very incremental and breaks things down into doable parts.

Things I don't like:
The sound quality needs improvement. It's tolerable, but it could be better.   But since the videos are so short, it isn't too bad. You can hear the samples online to see what you think.  We've seen a few minor errors here & there, but that's normal in a new program & none have been major things. One other con is that the grade level label is in the videos and on the cover of the DVD (though not on the worksheets). Normally you would use the grade level your child is in though, so that's really only a con for me!  I used the 7th grade version with my 9th grader (higher levels were not out when we started, but I really wanted to try this, and the Cathy Duffy review said it would be meaty enough to use with a high school student). I discussed this with my son (I didn't want him to think I was calling him a 7th grader!), and he was willing to try it after watching a sample video online.

I can't wait to use this program again this year!

Here is the descriptive paragraph that my son did:

Day 1, Brainstorming:
Zach chose this topic:  Practicing my fake limp.

Day 2, Organizing thoughts:
Who:  Me and an old guy
What:  I was practicing my fake limp for fun and I turned around and saw the old man staring at me through a window.
When:  Monday afternoon.
Where:  McKinley Street

Day 3, Event organizer:
In the middle of school > turned on McKinley Street > started working on a fake limp for a disguise
limped for a block > stopped to look and see if anyone was watching me > old man staring and shaking his head.
I ran away fast.

Original paragraph:
I was doing my exercise in the middle of school.  I turned onto McKinley Street and started working on a fake limp for a disguise.  I limped for a block and then stopped to see if anyone was watching me.  An old man was staring right at me and shaking his head.  I ran away fast!

Final Revision (a few versions later):
It all started one cold and cloudy Monday afternoon when I was doing my exercise.  I walked up the hill and then dashed onto McKinley Street.  By then I was getting bored because I had left my MP3 at home, so I decided to work on my fake limp.  I had watched a documentary about changing yourself to hide in plain sight.  It was really hard because I kept mixing up which foot to use, so after a block or so I gave up on the whole thing.  Only then did I look around to see if anyone was watching.  I turned to my left and looked into the window of a light brown house.  Looking back at me was an old shaggy man who looked like he'd been sleeping for a couple of days.  His hair was standing up all over, and his chiseled face held a look of scorn, as if to say, "Stop acting like a fool!"  I high-tailed it out of there as fast as I could!