“Cover Story” is a wonderfully creative one-year writing curriculum for middle school students. Students beyond middle school (even up to adults) who need to develop their writing skills should also find the program inspiring and not at all too young. The course is available either on a set of DVDs or through videos accessed via the cloud. Both course packages include a student book, a teacher guide, and a journal.
Author Daniel Schwabauer teaches the course through video lessons intended for use three days per week. After watching a video that runs about 20 minutes, students complete an activity in their student book. In addition, each day Monday through Friday, students write in The Remarkable Journal of Professor Gunther von Steuben. Lessons in the student book guide students as they write short stories, poems, interview articles, non-fiction articles, advertisements, and letters as written content for their own themed magazine. Schwabauer lays the groundwork for the magazine components with other writing activities as well as the journal entries. Many of the other writing activities feed directly into the magazine pieces.
For example, students first learn to choose precise adjectives for their descriptions. They learn to write “movie sentences” and “concept sentences,” trying to use more of the former and fewer of the latter. (This is a great way to convey the idea of “showing” rather than “telling.”) After students have become familiar with these and other writing strategies, they tackle their first written piece, an interview, during the fourth week of the course.
While students are creating content for their own magazine as they work through the lessons, they can present it in a binder or notebook. They don’t need to create the graphics and present it as an actual magazine unless they choose to do so.
A number of short stories are included in both the student and teacher books. These are integral to the writing lessons. For example, students read the short story “The Interlopers” by Saki, paying attention to his techniques for building tension in the story. Schwabauer then follows up with discussion of the techniques in the next lesson. Students then apply those techniques in the next few lessons in their own writing.
Students learn to write various forms of poetry—haiku, limerick, cinquain, and others. Poetry lessons help students learn to pay attention to word choice, imagery, rhythm, and techniques such as conveying change within a few words.
Writing prompts in the student book are themselves often very creative—ideas that are likely to motivate students to want to write. The course jumps around from one type of writing to another to keep things interesting, yet the skills learned within each type of writing all carry over into other writing projects.
For each type of writing, students work through the writing process by brainstorming, planning, analyzing, and outlining before they actually start writing. Lessons lead students through these various steps. The student book has space and graphic organizers for students to complete some of their activities, but they will need to complete some of their lengthier writing on a computer or in a notebook. A few activities are exercises with predictable answers. Answer keys for those lessons are in the teacher’s guide.
The course is divided into six units with twelve lessons per unit. Reproducible unit tests are at the back of the teacher’s guide along with answer keys.
The presentations on six of the DVDs (or on the videos viewed online) are the heart of the course. They are where most instruction takes place although student workbook activities also contain instructional information along with reading material and specific writing assignments. In the videos, Daniel Schwabauer dramatizes each lesson presentation, dressing in various costumes in settings with appropriate props reflecting a light “steampunk” theme. He even plays two different characters in one vignette. Schwabauer’s corny humor fits perfectly against these backdrops. Lesson presentations are interspersed with brief clips from old black-and-white movies. While movie clips are hit-and-miss as far as making clear connections to the topic on hand, they are nevertheless entertaining.
While journaling is an important part of the course, it doesn’t connect directly to the lessons. The Remarkable Journal of Professor Gunther von Steuben offers a unique approach to journaling. The journal, a beautifully bound, hardcover book, already has some journal entries. These entries reveal some information about Professor von Steuben, but just enough to leave the reader with lots of questions and curiosity. One thing we do know about the professor is that he is observing human behavior. Like the professor, students are then to write in the journal their own observations and thoughts about life. Students are given general instructions as to what type of journal entries they should make each week such as “Write 5 details per day for 5 days on pages 76-81.” The practice of journaling trains them to become thoughtful observers which then should provide fodder for their writing projects.
For students who need more work on grammar, there are 12 optional grammar lessons on a seventh DVD as well as in the student book. Grammar lessons address topics such as subjects and predicates, run-ons and fragments, subject/verb agreement, and comma usage. Exercises in the student book allow students to practice applying what they have learned.
The teacher’s guide provides a brief overview of the course, three pages on evaluation and grading, one-page “Weekly Lesson Guides” for each week, the short stories along with some discussion questions, tests, answer keys, and reproducible grading sheets.
The three lessons for each week are related to one another, so each “Weekly Lesson Guide” page covers a group of three lessons. It lists the creative pieces to be written that week, goals, grading instructions for the week’s assignments, and journaling assignments. Students can work through most of the lessons on their own, but they will need feedback and evaluation of their written work. Schwabauer suggests grading at the end of each unit rather than more frequently, an approach he believes encourages creativity.
The course can be taught as a group class, meeting three days a week. While the teaching is really done for you, some students would benefit from discussing and working through activities in the student book with others. However, student book lessons are easy enough to understand and complete that most students should have no trouble working independently.
Everything you need is contained within a course package: the videos, the student book, the teacher’s guide, and the journal. Student books and journals are consumable, so each student will need his or her own copies of those two items.
While the lessons ultimately teach much of the same material students would study in other courses, the delivery and learning methods are so different that even reluctant writers are likely to enjoy the process.