If you’re a loyal reader, then you’ll know I’ve been struggling a little with figuring out what I want for writing as well as what the kids need. I taught middle and high school level students writing, but figuring out how I want my kids to take those first steps is proving to be more difficult for me. I already posted about my skepticism about the classical approach to writing and the emphasis on copywork. Yet the current school model, pushing kids to write tons of drivel without any critical eye toward improving grammar, vocabulary or sentence structure doesn’t work for me either.
Here’s what we’ve been doing in the last month or so. I bought both the Just Write program as well as an older (and therefore cheaper) version of the Write Source program. I also bookmarked the Small World’s Wordsmithery, which is a free program from a fellow homeschool blogger. After trying a few things, we’ve been using Just Write for a few weeks now. If you saw my curriculum declaration about how my kids like workbooks, that helps explain why. We’ve also been doing more Mad Libs as well as watching Schoolhouse Rock’s grammar songs and reading Brian Cleary’s cute picture books about the parts of speech.
Just Write is a program from EPS, who also make the popular Explode the Code series. There are two workbooks for first grade called Write About Me and Write About My World. Then there are three workbooks intended for grades 2-4 entitled Just Write 1-3. There are also teacher books, but I skipped those. We started with the Just Write 1 book. Although it’s intended for second grade, it has so far been okay for my first graders.
The workbook is on the thick side, with nearly 150 pages. The topics move pretty quickly from brainstorming into writing “stories” which can be true or fictional. Later topics topics touch on punctuation, adding details, and editing a story. Most pages are spent on developing skills, especially organizational skills. For example, after the topic of sequence is introduced, kids are invited to put out of sequence stories in order. Then, they must underline common sequence words, such as “first” and “later” in a story. They add on to a story themselves, using sequence words. They complete sentences using sequence words and order pictures with sequence words. In the culminating activity, they must write a set of simple directions using sequence words.
Above you can see one of Mushroom’s writings from section on sequence. Other than asking how to spell “teacups,” he didn’t get a lot of help with this, though he needed me to sit at the table to help with sheer persistence. I recall he needed to be reminded to add periods at the end of his sentences. I think it’s pretty decent for a first grader, especially one with his reading skills, which are not especially high. He did this assignment with confidence and without complaint or too much anxiety, which can be a problem for him. You can probably see that the text helped structure it for him by giving him a space to plan his “story” with a web.
Clearly, at least for my kids, that’s the strength of this particular program. It builds kids up to where they feel like they can face a page of blank lines and write on them. Some of the writing prompts are cute. Others seem dreadful to me, but most of them are just open ended, such as this one, asking kids to demonstrate a particular skill or write about something very general, such as a feeling, a person, or a problem.
On the other hand, the writing that Mushroom did there is interminably dull. I don’t want to be mean. I’m proud of what he did. I don’t really expect more from a first grader. It’s possible that the purpose of him writing with a workbook is to simply remove the anxiety associated with a blank page in his journal. And once he’s confident enough to write, then we can start thinking about things like beautiful, interesting words. That’s what I hope anyway.
What I worry is that it’s too fill in the blank. It’s certainly a very schooly program. It’s always a balance between pushing kids toward thinking for themselves and providing the structure so they can. Fill in the blank is the easy way out, but I’m trying to figure out when it’s necessary. I’m sure I’ll swing back at some point and rebel against this writing in a box attitude, which doesn’t entirely suit me and which I don’t want to suit my kids too well either.