Writers in Residence (WIR) by Debra Bell will eventually be a four-volume series for teaching language arts to students in grades four through eight. Each volume might be used for more than one grade level. However, the four volumes need to be used sequentially since they build upon one another. So, Volume 1: Apprentice is the starting place for all students. The next three volumes will be Volume 2: Journeyman, Volume 3: Craftsman, and Volume 4: Master Craftsman. While only the first volume is available thus far, my review is based upon it, and the design of subsequent volumes should be similar. (Note that Readers in Residence, from the same publisher, combines with WIR to make a complete language arts program.)
WIR is a comprehensive language arts course, although it frequently uses writing as the vehicle for teaching grammar and other language arts skills. It might be used with a single student or with a group class. The ideal is to have students work on their own four days a week, then meet with others for a group class one day a week.
Each volume should take one year to complete, although you might take longer if you are working with younger students. The course is arranged in six units with four modules per unit and from 11 to 16 lesson segments per module. Suggested lesson plans in the book show modules taking from three to seven days to complete. Following the lesson plans on pages xliv to xlvii makes it easy to sort out how much to expect from students each day.
The bulky course book has 576 pages and is almost an inch and a half thick. This is a consumable worktext containing both instructional information and activity pages for students to complete. (Each student needs his or her own book.) The companion answer key is 144 pages. Important information at the front of the course book explains how the course works. Personally, I would prefer to have that information in the answer key since it would reduce the size of the book by more than 20 pages. The course book has a plastic spiral binding so pages will lie flat as students work in the book. However, the thickness of the book means that students will often be writing on pages raised more than an inch from their writing surface which might be awkward. (It is possible to flip excess pages all of the way to the left or right so that the few upon which a student is writing are at "desk-top" level, but it isn't easy.) While attractively-formatted pages are included for students to write preliminary and final drafts of their compositions, students might find it more comfortable and more practical to type these into a computer.
The course is largely self-instructional, so WIR often refers to the “writing coach” rather than a teacher since the writing coach guides students rather than teaching them. Lessons sometimes include open-ended questions, and they also occasionally tell students to discuss questions or ideas with a parent, teacher, or writing coach. I also spotted at least one lesson that instructs students to work with a partner. In such instances, a parent, teacher, or writing coach should be able to work as a partner. If a student seems overwhelmed by the amount of handwriting required, you might have them discuss some of their answers rather than requiring written responses.
One aspect of WIR that I really like is Bell’s approach to different genres of writing. As she explains at the beginning, most composition courses categorize writing as personal, expository, persuasive, and narrative. While labels on the categories might vary in other programs, the categories themselves set artificial and unrealistic boundaries that are really not applicable to most writing done in real life. So Bell changes to four types of writing tasks, tasks that might cross the boundaries of the standard categories. Her categories are “I Remember,” where students write about their own experiences, “I Imagine,” which leads into creative writing, “I Investigate,” which introduces students to research-based writing, and “I think,” which challenges students to present a position and defend it. As Bell explains on page xx, “Writing must be authentic. Emerging writers should follow the same pathways professional writers have taken in the journey from beginner to experienced writer to expert writer. Assignments should mimic the writing activities and writing process adults engage in.”
While this is the ideal, we know that authors use very diverse strategies as they write. Rather than just leave it up to students to come up with their own unique strategy, Bell includes many different strategies without imposing a one-size-fits-all approach throughout the course.
One important strategy that Bell uses is teaching students how to model their work after that of professional authors, drawing inspiration from their work. To that end, excerpts from many different books are used throughout the course. (While students are not required to read the complete books, it is sometimes suggested as an option.)
Grammar and usage are taught in the context of writing as often as possible. This first volume assumes that students have at least been introduced to the basic parts of speech, but it teaches how to apply that knowledge as they write. It covers nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions and interjections as well as the basics of capitalization and punctuation.
For example, using models from an author’s work, students learn how to make their writing more lively by choosing “vigorous verbs.” Students practice with sentences from The Cay by Theodore Taylor. The sentences in the text substitute bland verbs for Taylor’s original verbs. Students are challenged to come up with their own vigorous verbs for these sentences. In the course’s answer key, students can compare their choices with the original verbs used by Taylor. While many of the grammar activities relate directly to literature as in this case, some are similar to grammar exercises found in traditional textbooks.
In addition to developing composition and grammar skills, the course also incorporates work on vocabulary and spelling, but this is done entirely within the context of student writing rather than as isolated exercises. Word Collection pages in the appendix are to be used by students to record interesting words they would like to use in their compositions or words that they want to remember how to spell. How well this works will depend upon how diligent students are in using a thesaurus and adding words to those pages.
The entire series uses a spiral approach with subsequent volumes reviewing and expanding upon concepts taught in previous volumes. However, even within each volume, systematic review is built into the lessons. Mastery tests in each module check student comprehension of grammatical skills taught in that module. Six unit reviews (one at the end of each unit) check to see if students recall both grammar and composition skills covered in each unit, and a final review covers the entire course.
However, Bell stresses working toward skill development rather than good grades. To that end, the reviews and tests should be used for discussion and remediation rather than primarily for recordable grades.
More useful than assessments are the checklists and rubrics included throughout the course. These help students to be aware in advance of items for which they will be held accountable, and they train students to self-edit their work. Checklists list specific items to be completed within each module. Students should check off each item as they complete it. Parents, teachers, or writing coaches can then assign points earned depending upon the quality of student work. Similarly, rubrics for composition work identify key elements for student accountability such as organization, ideas, and sentence structure. However, on the rubrics within the lessons students will first rate themselves on each element. Then, a “reviewer” will use a similar rubric form found in the appendix to provide a second point of view. (Note that instructions for using the second rubric on page 56 are well-explained on page 59, but the first rubric on page 6 lacks specifics as to when it should be used. Reading page 59 should help you understand when and how to use the first rubric as well.)
After students have received feedback via a reviewer’s rubric, they should rewrite their composition into its final form. Students should create a portfolio of their polished writing that can be shared with others.
The course could have been written for a secular audience, except for just a few instances. Six professional authors, all of whom are Christians, are featured in the course with each one introduced through an interview. Most of the authors mention their faith. For example, the interview with the first author, Bill Myers, shows the importance of prayer and of being open to God’s direction in our lives. Aside from the author interviews, I spotted just one other Christian reference: “C.S. Lewis is my favorite author because his books helped me come to faith in Christ” (p. 313). While there might be others, they would be so few that those looking for a secular curriculum could easily use this course.
While other programs teach language arts within the context of literature, some of those programs are more time consuming because the literature component requires students to read a number of complete books. Or, some of those program concentrate so heavily on the literature that composition and grammar are presented in a random or incomplete fashion. WIR seems to be a more efficient way to incorporate some elements of literature while leaving plenty of time for sequential instruction in composition and grammar.