Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Institute for Excellence in Writing: Linguistic Development through Poetry Memorization (A Schoolhouse Crew Review)

When we began homeschooling, I had zero ideas about what homeschooling "style" we were.  "Whatever works," was what I'd say if someone asked me which theory best described us.   We're now in our fifth year of homeschooling, and while I would say we could be categorized as "extremely eclectic," we are finding that a classical, memorization approach to some subjects has been successful for us.  Knowing this, I was eager to try out Linguistic Development through Poetry Memorization from Institute for Excellence in Writing.  Our review package included a Teachers Manual, five audio CDs with five levels of poems and speeches, and a DVD recording of Andrew Pudewa's presentation, Nurturing Competent Communicators, and a .pdf file containing the Student Book.   It also included download codes for six additional audio MP3s (an audio version of Nurturing Competent Communicators is also included).  The student book is also available separately as a pre-printed spiral-bound book, which we also received.

The centerpiece of Institute for Excellence in Writing's curriculum is a core writing program for students and additional, supplemental activities.  One of our favorite add-ons is their Fix It! Writing program.  Luke and Matthew worked on it when we reviewed the program a few years ago, and because of their success, I then used it for Celia (to give her some extra assistance in grammar and writing) and Jude.  While it's not necessarily a purely classical model, Jude's appreciation of the repetitive nature led us to use some other similar programs, including one that uses poetry as a base for learning spelling words and rules. Through the year of using it, Jude's confidence has bloomed; he gets excited when he can say "I remember this," and takes great pride in being able to remember passages without having to wait for me to dictate them.  I looked forward to trying this program that used more adult poetry for source material rather than his other program's "nursery rhymes."

Before beginning the core program, I viewed Nurturing Competent Communicators.  In this presentation, Andrew Pudewa explains the mastery system, how it was used throughout history as a primary way of teaching/learning, and why memorizing poetry can positively impact a student's vocabulary and writing.  Here, he and I agree, but then our opinions diverge.  Mr. Pudewa discusses a long-held belief: if students are well-read, they will also be able to write well.  He makes the argument that many of the books children are exposed to should not be considered a source of language that is "reliably correct and sophisticated."  One one hand, he may have a point, but I would say that any book a child reads is better than one that sits on a shelf.  Having a child who struggled for so long to crack the visual and auditory codes of reading and speech, and even still often fights to comprehend them, I would argue that even a "lesser" book that interests the child and encourages a love of language is priceless.  I agree with the idea that we should read good literature aloud to and with our children, but I think that "good" is in the opinion of the reader.  I would rather Jude choose to read and be engaged with a book about superheroes rather than "check out" when being read a classic, as he did when we read Tales from Beatrix Potter.  (Maybe this is why we do not subscribe to a single educational theory?)

I tried not to let this bit of ruffled feathers affect me when Jude and I began studying. I went with the idea that we were just going to learn these great poems "for fun."  Apparently, my idea of fun and Jude's idea do not agree.

All students (regardless of grade) begin at Level One, and progress at individual paces; once they memorize a poem, it's time to start the next. I thought the Level One poems, with rhymes like "Ooey Gooey" and "Celery, stewed, is more easily chewed," were cute, straightforward, and simple to memorize.  Jude, however, though the opposite.  To him, they were random things to learn.  The student book included the words for him to follow along with (definitely appreciated when auditory processing is not a strength), but there was no lesson to connect with - no copy work, no phonemic chunking, no supporting lesson.  I imagine that the poems could be worked into other lessons/unit studies, but they didn't align with anything we were currently doing.  For him, it was like stepping blindfolded into a room and being expected to remember everyone's names.

He also struggled with enjoying the words.  The first time we went over the poems, they were "sort of" fun.  After that, they were like his speech homework, and he fought working on them (he'd rather lose a privilege for not doing his work than fail at a task).  I'd like to say that repetition at least helped his speech, but it only left him in tears. After much negotiation, we agreed that he would work on making it through the entire poem twice, and be done.  He succeeded in matching the cadence of the recordings, but not the articulation; he just couldn't get his mouth and tongue around the sounds.  Without being able to get the words clearly, he couldn't remember the poems from day to day.  Clearly, this was not a flaw with the program, but it does make want to warn others that if your child struggles with articulation, these may be frustrating for him.

In addition to four levels of poetry, there is a fifth level of (excerpts from) notable speeches.  They are chosen from different eras but serve as examples of great orations.  Among the pieces are the classic Greek Socrates' Apology by Plato,  Lincoln's inspiring Gettysburg Address, and Churchill's rallying We Shall Fight on the Beaches.  It also attributes the Brandenburg Gate Speech to President Ronald Reagan.  While it is the image of Regan standing in Germany, uttering the demand, "Tear down this wall!" that I clearly recall from my childhood, I wish that credit had been given to Reagan's speechwriter, Peter Robinson, for penning the iconic speech.

I know Jude is capable of memorizing because I've seen him do it in multiple situations.  However, Jude's particular set of disabilities made this program nearly impossible for him.  I think that the idea this program is a good one, and the selections that have been chosen are fantastic.  The bylines read like a "Who's Who" of poetry: William Shakespeare, William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson are among the notable authors; it even includes one of my favorite poems, Lewis Caroll's Jabberwocky.   I still think I love the classical ideas of this program, but I've decided we're definitely not purists. This is a substantial exposure to poetry, and I am inclined to use it next year as a spine (not stand-alone) for Matthew's literature course.

For more about this and other IEW programs, follow them on social media or click the banner below. To read our previous reviews, click the titles:

Fix It! Grammar
IEW Resource Trio


Linguistic Development through Poetry Memorization  IEW Review

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