Daily Archives: May 13, 2011

TOS Crew: Institute for Excellence in Writing

This is a review that I’ve been excited about for quite awhile. You see, not only were the good folks at Institute for Excellence in Writing incredibly generous to the TOS Crew in terms of the materials they sent us to review, but they gave us months to use the program, to get a real feel for how it works, and to see the results.

…fondly known amongst home educators I hang out with as IEW. (And that’s not pronounced “eeew” — because it’s just the opposite; definitely a “Yes! I can do this!” Say, instead, “eye, eee, double-u” and you’ll sound like an old pro.)

I was first introduced to Andrew Pudewa and his methods for teaching writing when Middlest was a second grader.¬† Our church sponsored an IEW seminar. Now, I didn’t know what IEW was, only that it had been spoken of highly by other homeschoolers in our church, some of whom had been using the program for a few years.

Attending a live seminar…

It was like drinking from a firehose, only strangely refreshing. I learned so much over the course of a few days. The room was full of moms, sitting at tables, doing what we’d soon be practicing at home with our students. It was teacher training at its best and most intensive (at least, the most intensive I’ve experienced). We were not just learning theory, we were doing.

We went through the exercises, did the writing and the talking and the raising hands (not that you necessarily have to raise your hand at home) and the contributing to the discussion. We called out answers to Mr. Pudewa’s questions; we wrote key-word outlines; we paired off and spoke from our outlines to each other; we composed our paragraphs. The pace was fast, yet not hurried. We had fun… and yet we worked hard, and better yet, we learned about learning to write, and helping someone else learn the skills that we as adults may well take for granted and not quite know how to pass on to our children.

Frankly, I don’t remember all the details of that live seminar. I’m pretty sure we didn’t go through all nine units in Teaching Writing: Structure and Style, though Mr. Pudewa occasionally mentioned the more advanced units, especially during question-and-answer sessions. I remember when I got home I was rather dazed, and I probably didn’t absorb all the information that was presented.

Later I had the chance to work my way through the old VHS version of Teaching Writing: Structure and Style with a small group of moms. That was much better! (Edited to add: If you have the opportunity to go to a live seminar, GO! You’ll learn a lot, and you’ll lose a lot of that fear of teaching writing as you pick up practical tools. When I said “better” I meant I was able to retain more, at the slower pace of a little bit every week, with opportunities to rewind and watch something over again if needed. But the live seminar was a great jump start into writing.)

Our homeschool group bought the video tapes, and each of us bought our own copy of the syllabus. We met once a week. We’d watch a lesson, stopping the tapes to do the practice exercises, discussing the material after the lesson, sometimes trouble-shooting and problem solving. That was a long time ago, and I sort of got away from IEW-style writing, in part because Eldest is a special learner and took years to understand how to make a key-word outline. I fell back on copywork and narration, first oral, and then written, though I still listened wistfully to friends who’d used IEW over the years, and how well it had worked.

…versus DVDs

One of the products our family was privileged to review was Teaching Writing: Structure and Style. This is the drawn-out version of the live TWSS seminar. The course is $169, including DVDs and seminar workbook, plus the additional TIPS DVD (see below).

When the Crew was offered the chance to review IEW materials, I thought it time to give it another try, and now I wish I’d started a few years ago with Middlest and Youngest, who took to key-word outlines with no problem at all, and soon were ready for the next step, and the next. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Back to Teaching Wrting: Structure and Style. The set contains ten DVDs and a workbook. It’s a “video seminar for teachers and parents,” but it also contains three student workshop DVDs, for grades 2-4, 5-7, and 8-10, where Mr. Pudewa demonstrates the IEW approach with a roomful of students, whose voices can be heard responding to his conversational style of teaching. (Lots of enthusiasm, punctuated with laughter. Think of it: Writing made painless.) As a bonus, a DVD with “Tips & Tricks for Teaching through the Nine Units” is included.

The first six DVDs are teacher training, introducing each of the nine units that comprise IEW’s methodology. The units start with very simple concepts and build from there. You start out with an established piece of writing. (Do you know what that means? You don’t have to sit there and stare at a blank page and think of something to write!) You learn to pick out key ideas, to take notes that will become a basis for your own writing.

Eventually, you’ll end up with your own written passage. It restates the information in the model, but it’s not plagiarism. You’ve taken the ideas and re-formed them in your own words. Along the way, you’ve learned some stylistic techniques to enrich your writing (different types of sentences, adverbs, strong verbs and adjectives, and that sort of thing).

In some ways, the writing is mechanical. IEW provides a step-by-step method for teaching and learning writing. You learn how to take notes, how to rewrite a passage, how to come up with a title. You work with fiction and nonfiction. You learn to synthesize from multiple sources. You learn to write reports, and eventually, essays and critiques. (We haven’t gotten to the reports and essays, yet.) You have a checklist and word lists for reference while writing.

In other ways, the writing is creative and fun. The examples Mr. Pudewa has chosen for his lectures helps, and he’s got subjects to appeal to boys and girls by turn. “Gooey, mushy” vulture bees, for example — doesn’t that sound like something a boy could really… well, not exactly sink his teeth into, but perhaps push his pencil along with a bit more relish than if he’s been assigned a description of his bedroom as a writing topic.

Teaching Writing: Structure and Style is not just a nine-month (one academic year) course. It doesn’t work that way. Well, I suppose it can, if you can manage to teach one unit a month. (If you did approach it that way, you could repeat the course each year, using more challenging materials each time through.) The way the course has worked for us, is for each of the girls to work at her own level. That means that Eldest, after several months, is still working to master concepts from Units 1 and 2, Note Taking and Summarizing from Notes, with just a few “Dress-Ups” or stylistic techniques thrown in. Youngest is slightly further along, having mastered the skills presented in Unit 6 (Writing from Pictures) but still needing to practice drawing from multiple sources to produce a report. Middlest has sprinted ahead, but can benefit from more practice from the standpoint of the organization and discipline imposed by this formal approach to writing. (Whoa, that was a cumbersome sentence. Sorry, Mr. Pudewa!)

Anyhow, we will keep working at these writing skills at each of the girls’ levels. One of the beauties of the IEW method is that they can apply these writing skills in just about any of their academic subjects: Bible, history, literature, and science, to name a few.

Student Writing Intensive

…which brings me to the second product we reviewed. The Student Writing Intensive¬† is sort of like the Student Workshop from TWSS, only on steroids. Mr. Pudewa teaches directly to the students. This product comes in three levels ($99 each level):

– A: Grades 3-5
– B: Grades 6-8
– C: Grades 9-12

Each level comes with DVDs, teacher notes, source texts, and student handouts which may be copied for the students within one family. You can buy additional student handouts for co-op or multiple family use.

It was really hard to choose just one level! …especially with the three girls at such different levels. At last I elected to try Level C, even though two of the girls are slightly below that grade level. One of the deciding factors was the list of topics included in each level. (See diagram below.) Taking notes from a live lecture is a skill that all three of the girls need now, and this skill is covered in Level C. (Also, when I asked a friend’s advice, she thought that all three girls would be able to manage this level if I let them move at a slower pace, and did additional exercises as needed if somebody didn’t grasp a concept right away.)

We took about four weeks to go through the four DVDs included in the Student Writing Intensive, and this summer I’ll probably go through it with them again, just to see how much more they understand (or maybe I should say, to see how much more I understand) after using Teaching Writing: Structure and Style.

At the IEW website, you can get both Teaching Writing: Structure and Style and one level of the Student Writing Intensive for a combined price of $239 (a savings of $29 over buying each individually). These IEW courses may seem expensive at first glance, but they are non-consumable, and you can use them year after year. If it’s still too much of a stretch, you might consider joining together with another family or two to buy the sets, plus additional student materials as needed. You could either pass the DVDs around, or (as we did, years ago with the course on VHS) get together for regular sessions. (Actually, it’s kind of fun for students to work together and share their creativity!)

I almost forgot, we also received the Portable Wall ($7), a nifty (did I just say “nifty”?) reference tool for those using IEW as a writing course, or IEW techniques in your other academic subjects. It’s a pocket folder with an extra page, and its surfaces are covered with IEW writing charts and words lists. I’d already bought one before I knew the Crew would be reviewing IEW materials, and because the girls liked the look of it so much I already had plans to get more copies so that all four of us (the girls and I) could each have our own. It’s a valuable reference tool and a handy place to keep your current writing project.

IEW has other products as well, related to spelling and speaking, grammar and literature. Check out their website and catalog. There’s also a yahoo group for users of IEW materials.

In Conclusion

Writing doesn’t have to be painful or stuffy, for the student or the teacher. IEW gives the student the tools to succeed at writing, whether an enthusiastic yet disorganized spewer-of-words or a taciturn pen-pusher. In addition, it gives the teacher a method to follow, as well as clear direction on how to evaluate your child’s writing and encourage improvement.

Andrew Pudewa’s presentation crackles with energy. He shares his insight into how people learn. He speaks in clipped, precise tones, displaying a dry wit. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, though it’s obvious that he takes his subject seriously, and he challenges his students to do their best.

Excellence in Writing?

You bet.

Disclaimer: Members of the TOS Crew received materials from the Institute for Excellence in Writing for review purposes only. Opinions are our own. No additional compensation was involved.

To read more TOS Crew reviews of IEW materials, click here.