Hallelujah, I Found a Language Arts Program I Actually Like!

If you know me, you know I’m incredibly, annoyingly opinionated.  I usually know what I think.  And having written and taught writing at the secondary level for years, I had some opinions about writing – how to teach it, what was really important, what my philosophy was and so forth.

Then something dreadful happened.  I had to teach my own young children to write.

And slowly, over the course of the last three years, I’ve become more and more at sea.  I honestly was at the point where I didn’t know what in the world I thought.  I knew that there were some resources that we had tried or looked at that I didn’t like and a few that I did.  I saw, after fighting it for ages, that copywork, narration and dictation were useful for the kids, but I couldn’t fit them into any larger philosophical framework that satisfied me.  There were a lot of things I had believed that I wasn’t even sure were true anymore.

What I really wanted was a book or a curriculum that would make me feel about teaching writing the way something like Bird by Bird or If You Want to Write makes me feel about writing itself.  Yet every time I tried to read anything, it either didn’t resonate with my experiences as a writer or as a writing teacher or it made me want to throw things.

And then, a little more than a week ago, I heard Julie Bogart speak.  Can I just say, I think I have a little homeschool crush on her now.  Julie Bogart is the author of The Writer’s Jungle, which is the foundation of the Bravewriter program.  I had looked at Bravewriter before and couldn’t figure it out (more on that if you scroll down a little ways) and it’s not cheap enough to just try, so it remained something I had heard was good, not something I knew anything much about.

Practically everything Julie Bogart said in her talk and her book is either stuff I used to believe, say and do or new ideas that really resonated with me.  The Writer’s Jungle is exactly that book I was looking for that would make me feel about teaching writing the way good books about writing make me feel about writing itself.  It made me feel more confident in my kids, myself, and in my end goals, which are much more in keeping with Bravewriter’s goals, than any other method or curriculum with which I’ve flirted.  The end goal of the Bravewriter program is to create kids who like writing, aren’t intimidated by it and have lifelong writing skills, which are not necessarily the same as academic writing skills.

I’m still such a jumble of thoughts, that I’m just going to list some of the notes I’ve jotted down as I read her book and listened to her talk.

  • Create routines, not schedules (Advice I’ve always followed and given in regards to practically every other aspect of homeschooling!  Why was this so hard to envision for writing and language arts?)
  • Be your child’s ally and supporter for writing.  Believe your child will be able to write.  Make writing feel safe.
  • It can all be fixed later in the teen years.  (Having taught some abysmal teen writers who were able to turn around and write solid, if not award-winning, essays, I always used to believe this and somehow lost sight of it in the last three years.)
  • Creating a language-rich environment by reading good books and appreciating words is more important that doing grammar lessons for making good writers.
  • Writing daily isn’t important.
  • Getting kids to write about what they’re passionate about is important, but giving them vague open-ended assignments isn’t the way to do it (as in, “write about your favorite…” kinds of assignments, which make kids feel at sea about what to do).
  • Don’t confuse revision with editing for mechanics.
  • Don’t be afraid to help kids.  It’s scaffolding, not cheating!

Before I go any further, let me tell you that I had heard about Bravewriter, looked at the website, and not been able to figure out what in the world you were even buying if you purchased it.  And I’ll just say from the get go that despite how much I am liking this, I don’t know that I can justify the expense at all.  It’s very expensive for a program that relies on you as the parent to do so much of the planning and implementing.  They support the program and Julie Bogart says she emails with parents constantly.  However, other curriculum authors do the same for much, much less.  It does go on sale at HSBC periodically, helping ease the price a good bit.  So to help you out, here’s what I now understand are the purchasable elements that I figured out:

  • The Writer’s Jungle is just a book (though bound in a big binder if you buy the hard copy) about the philosophy of the program, though it contains lots of examples, assignments and even schedules.
  • The Wand is a thin supplement of mostly copywork and narration exercises for K-2nd grade.  If you subscribe, they send you one for each month.  There are three levels in The Wand.
  • The Arrow is a thin supplement for grades 3-8 that shows how to make loose lessons around a single read aloud book.  There is dictation, a literary element to discuss and a writing assignment.  If you subscribe, they also send you one for each month.  However, if you, like me, have already read half the books for the year, you can pick and choose back issues to buy and use instead.
  • Bravewriter also offers a book about high school writing and an ever-changing slate of online courses for kids grades 3 and up.

This is absolutely not an open and go program like, well, practically any of the other writing programs out there.  If you want a strong grammar program, consider Michael Clay Thomas.  If you want open and go copywork and grammar, consider First Language Lessons and Writing With Ease.  If you want a workbook style program consider Evan-Moor’s Six Trait Daily Writing or Winning With Writing.  I could keep going suggesting other things I’ve looked at and been unsatisfied by that fall into these categories.

But if you want an approach that you tailor for your child, then this could be it.  They literally call it the “Bravewriter lifestyle,” which initially kind of turned me off, but having read about it more now, I see what they’re trying to get at.  It’s about making those routines instead of schedules.  The most famous of these is the “Tuesday Tea and Poetry” that has gained popularity among a lot of homeschoolers, but there are others, such as designating days to do different types of writing and reading assignments.

I’m obviously still in the honeymoon phase with this.  I needed something that helped me integrate these old-fashioned basics of copywork, narration and dictation along with the ideas I had formed in my writing and teaching life over the years.  I’ll let you know how implementing it all goes.  However, I feel more assured than I have about anything else we’ve tried with writing.  I think step one in my detox will have to be stopping reading all internet discussions of the “right” way to teach writing.

11 thoughts on “Hallelujah, I Found a Language Arts Program I Actually Like!

  1. Hi Farrar. I found your blog via the Secular Homeschoolers site. Thanks for writing about Brave Writer, and please do keep us updated as you go along. I purchased The Writer’s Jungle a few months ago (on sale!) and have looked at it, but I admit to being daunted. What sold me on it is how beautiful Julie Bogart’s own writing is — her writing about writing really spoke to me. I also like how she believes the “teacher” should do the assignments along with the kids so that “everyone takes the same writing risks.” Hmmm, maybe you’ve inspired me to dig in to the program as well.

  2. Ha! Yes, hopefully it can all be fixed in the teen years 🙂 Dd12 grew up on the Bravewriter philosophy ( without Bravewriter ) and she really is a good writer in terms of having a voice and being able to use it. However, her English teacher and I are having some interesting discussions about her need to – er – use the rules….

    I hope it works well for you and your boys. It is very expensive and if you have a background in English/writing, I think it’s very easy to do yourself!

  3. Thank you for this, Farrar. This really clarifies the program. I will be interested to hear how it goes. And I will look on HSBC, too. Can’t believe we were both at the conference, possibly in the same session, and didn’t meet each other. Crazy. 🙂

  4. Thank you for this post! I recently bought The Writer’s Jungle and am reading through it. I get the Brave Writer Lifestyle tips in my email. However, one point I had *not* gotten to was writing every day, and I’m glad to know I don’t have to make my kids do it!

  5. Hi Farrar. I saw your conversation about this on TWTM and popped over to read your review. We used The Wand some this year. There is no narration and no writing to speak of in the program. It is fully a reading and spelling program and quite a meaty one at that. The website lists it for ages 7-8 and that is really accurate. I tried it with my young 6yo, average reader and we had to slow down a great deal. The books start easy, but quickly get more difficult, so I would expect most kids would need to be reading above the level of the first few month’s worth of books to move successfully through the program at the written pace. The program does offer copywork and discussion about conventions and punctuation (capital letters, punctuating direct quotes). About four months into the program they also introduce French dictation. There are also suggested spelling words for you to choose from and phonics to study. While it does seem fairly gentle, it was not nearly as cuddle-on-the-couch as I expected given the Bravewriter philosophy. We have gotten through the November books, taking each week’s work at a pace of about three-four weeks to finish. We review much more than it calls for and add in extra work with the phonics rules. They are good-sized — the March issue was 61 pages and that is pretty standard. I think the program is a good review for someone with a strong phonics background. You could move through at the recommended pace, build reading confidence, and practice copywork and eventually dictation while covering some spelling. We are moving back to something else, though, because we do not have that strong phonics base and my daughter is struggling with the spelling. Since I learned to read look-say, I find I need a more systematic approach to know what to teach. We may come back and finish The Wand afterwards. All of that said, I love the BW approach for writing, and Julie commented on her Facebook page that they have a new product coming out. Rumor has it that it is a curriculum guide (i.e. more hand-holding) for the Jot It Down Phase.

    1. Sorry – I think I conflated it with what she said about narration in her talk and in the book. I just looked through the samples they had there as I ended up going with The Wand, which continues the French-style dictations. For me, at least with what I see in that, it’s not cuddly, but it’s also not daily and a huge lot of work. It’s a once a week sort of serious thing, which is much more our style here – where we struggle to do something like that every day, but can definitely do it once a week.

      She had the preview of the Jot It Down stage guide and it looked really cool, but really thin. She told me it would be out within a month or so and there will be a guide for each phase. I think she said something about it just waiting to go to the graphic designer to get all properly laid out.

      The stages of writing thing, which I heard her talk about, is interesting to me, but also really loose, so I’m not sure what the curriculum guide will do entirely. In some ways, my kids are in that first Jot It Down stage, in others, they’re really not – BalletBoy can sit and write several sentences of his own accord without much prompting. The thing that resonated with me about it the most was the idea that kids flow between the stages, especially as they are ready to advance and do new types of writing.

  6. Hey…this is great stuff! I’ve never heard of Julie Bogart until now, and I like what she has to say (according to you in this blog, though I have no reason to doubt you). I found this blog through blogcatalog.com and was trying to find how to teach kids to write with the least amount of stress and struggle. I faced a lot of anxiety when I was young and learning to write and express my thoughts or ideas.
    What I see from Bogart’s philosophy (as you’ve described it, and I certainly want to check out The Writer’s Jungle now) is similar to other writing curriculums I’ve explored, mainly with how helping your child isn’t cheating, but actually gives the kid feedback and helps them grow, and how teaching grammar in rigid, rule-oriented way is unhelpful compared to simply reading and learning how other writers use language. This is all good stuff, actually a lot like Fred Lybrand’s writing course (http://www.advanced-writing-resources.com) in terms of setting kids free of their fear of writing, and alternate ways to give them a grip on language. That’s another course I’ve looked into, and it has the same sort of common sense ring to it, which I dig.

    Honeymoon phase or not, it sounds like you’re on to something, or rather, Bogart is. Thanks so much for this advert…it looks insightful!

    Question, how does one go about becoming a better speller? What is your experience with your kids? It’s always come naturally to me (though I use spellcheck a healthy amount), but in teaching it to others it comes up as a constant issue. Learning by writing is obviously not the solution when it comes to spelling. Just wondering if you have any tips.

    1. The Bravewriter and Jot It Down are on sale at the moment at homeschool buyers coop. I hope the Jot it Down book is “the thing” you were talking about that would have actual activities for those of us who don’t want to totally build this approach from scratch. It looks like a philosophically wonderful thing, but I would need more solid “start here” kind of stuff. Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm!! How is it going after the honeymoon phase??

    2. Have you looked at the All About Spelling program? We have used the All About Reading program (which is newer and is now what you are supposed to start with before going to all about spelling) and is seems to have a pretty solid foundation. It’s billed as a multisensory curriculum, but I have to supplement if I want multisensory to mean more than papers and suggested hand motions to go with the words and the flat letter tiles. But it’s open and go otherwise which I like for at least some of our subjects within our mostly immersion style learning. Good luck!

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