I teach writing. In homeschooling circles when you make that statement, it’s typically followed up with a question: “What curriculum do you use?”.
It’s a fair question. And a common one even when you aren’t talking about writing. There are a plethora of homeschool curricula on the market, and I would wager there is at least one perfect match for every homeschooling family. It’s one of the ways that those of us who aren’t experts in every field (hello, chemistry, I’m talking to you) are able to confidently teach our children.
But when people ask me what curriculum I use for teaching writing, they are usually expecting me to say a particular program (IEW , Time for Writing or The Write Foundation are a few of the popular ones). But I don’t use any of those. In fact, I don’t use a writing curriculum at all, nor do I even consider what I taught in my high school classroom a curriculum of the same ilk as those programs.
Perhaps it would be helpful to clarify what I mean by curriculum. When I taught in the classroom, I had a set of goals for my students that my department agreed were age and ability appropriate. There were textbooks and primary sources, but the number and type of assignments and activities were left up to me. Fortunately, I had generous colleagues and the educational background that helped me build the scope and sequence for my course. By the time I left the high school classroom for good, I had crafted a solid course of action that integrated literary analysis with lots and lots (and lots!) of writing. My students wrote between eight and 10 major pieces a year – roughly one a month. We practiced thesis development. Sharpened sentence construction. Refined organization. All of this was done in context, in the analysis of the works we read and the production of the works we wrote. I read and wrote with them, modeling the skills I wanted my students to master.
The only caveat to this – and it is a big one – was the specter of the five paragraph essay. You know. The introduction, thesis with three points, three body paragraphs that match the three points, conclusion. I was required to teach this. I was required to have my students fit their writing into a prefabricated model according to a curriculum of rules. And I did, at first. But their writing. Oh, their writing! It was stilted. Repetitive. Lacking creativity and critical thought. I had adhered too closely to this guideline and my students were suffering.
So after my first year, I made some changes. I still taught the rules. But then, I taught how to break them.
For me this was easy. I had always loved writing, and I had been blessed with acceptance into the National Writing Project during graduate school. As a fellow first and later a Teacher Consultant, I learned how to authentically teach writing without a prescribed, step by step process. The vast majority of homeschool educators, however, don’t have this sort of support. While many of them may love to write themselves, teaching someone else to write and subsequently evaluating the finished pieces are daunting tasks. That’s where the aforementioned writing curricula come into play, and why I am frequently asked what curriculum I use. As a homeschooling mother who is currently out of her element with at least one of her students (Kindergarten! Yikes!) I completely understand the desire to have an incremental plan laid out in front of me that will Teach Me How To Teach Writing. So what, then, is the problem? Remember that five paragraph essay? Me, too. And yes – that is the problem. Some students do very, very well with a prescribed set of instructions. And some of them (many of them) go on to college completely unprepared for the upper level writing they are expected to produce. Their writing is stilted. Repetitive. Lacking creativity and critical thought. And they end up in remedial writing courses taught by Adjunct Professors like me, un-learning everything they were taught in high school because their prose is too heavily weighed down with modifiers or the structure of their essay doesn’t fit the content.
I must say that I respect and admire the professionals who have researched, written and produced these programs. They are integral and useful aspects of successful homeschools all over the country. But I do not find them helpful to me. I do not find them helpful to my students. What I find the most helpful, and what I will write more about as time goes on, is the practice of knowing first and foremost what one wants to say. Starting with content rather than a format makes writing an organic process, an adventure which one relishes to the end.
So no. I don’t use a writing curriculum. I use the written word.