Thursday, September 23, 2010

Weekly Writer Club: A Review

There are some problems that homeschool mums love and one of them is when your kids are so into a project or activity that you can't get them to do anything else. That’s what we have with our new favourite activity – the Weekly Writer Club. This is an fantastic language arts programme that puts the fun into writing and creating and it has my kids addicted.

So what is the Weekly Writer Club?

It is the brainchild of Judy Steidl who acts as the director of the Club and cheerleader to all the kids’ efforts. It is an online writing programme where kids can participate in the club's many projects, activities and forums aimed at grades 2-8. What makes it unique is that it is highly interactive and fuelled largely by interests of the children in the club.  At the same time, these customised writing opportunities are designed to help meet grade level expectations (US State Standards) .

What I love is how Judy supports and interacts with my kids, constantly encouraging them to build on their ideas and to initiate new forums or stories based on their own interests. The premise of this programme is about getting kids contributing and writing about the things they are interested in and she has created so many different avenues for them to express themselves. Not only that, it is a safe place for kids to interact with one another and also provides interesting opportunities for them to develop their leadership and technology skills.

The best way to explain what it offers is to give you a sampling of the myriad of activities that my girls are now participating in:

When they joined, they each had their own profile and blog which they could personalise by writing about their hobbies, interests, ambitions, favourite books etc and they got to customise it by adding their own pictures and images. They are also able to send and receive messages within this safe environment to Judy and the other kids in the club.

There is a Virtual Cafe where the kids can meet at “tables” (forums) and discuss anything from Lego, Food, Fantasy pets, People watching, Music, History, Science and anything else that takes their fancy. The girls have written about their favourite places to go for fun and added pictures, they’ve engaged in a discussion about their fantasy pets, discussed music they like and contemplated what they would do if they were given one wish.

There is a Virtual Library where there are book reviews and kids get a chance to review and discuss their favourite books. I know there are a few books on the girls' lists that they want to get a chance to put in there.  

Fantasy Island is a firm favourite. Here they can create adventures about how they came to be shipwrecked on the island and what they have to do to survive. There are numerous aspects about life on the island where they can imagine the kind of animals that might be found there and food that they can eat, the dangers they may be face (pirates, sharks, storms!). It is fun non-pressurised creative writing because the kids can write as much or as little as they want in order to contribute to the whole story.

A big part of the WWclub programme is where kids are encouraged to join the QuickStart Letter Writing programme. This is where they are given a series of steps to get started on writing and sending physical letters - first to Judy, then to friends and family and followed by suggestions to write to community leaders and career experts in the areas where the kids are interested in or passionate about. A variety of skills get practiced in the act of composing different types of letters and the reward of receiving an answer in the post is motivation enough for my girls. When they start on the course, they get business cards from Judy and if they write at least seven letters in the term and receive five replies, they get promoted to Club Ambassador. All these act as incentives to get them writing.

The Brain Bank is a place where kids are given opportunities to research and write about things that interest them. There are various courses like the Research course which teaches them various skills needed for effective information gathering and organisation, as well a lesson on how to create a Wiki document which acts as a repository for all kinds of interesting information, videos and images. They are encouraged to become Captains of a Wiki topic and take responsibility for developing it into a fun and interesting source of information. The topics range from Future Careers, Holidays, Entertainment, Journalism, Photography, Faith, Entertainment, Art, Cartoons, Weather – the list is exhaustive. The idea is to engage all the kids and get them contributing to these Wikis, using their research skills to create an interesting and informative document. It is a new initiative and my girls have both expressed interest in being Captains and I am looking forward to them doing the research course and practicing their new skills in subjects they are have chosen themselves.

There is a Travel Club where kids can write about their adventures, trips or favourite countries. They are encouraged to post interesting information on any country of their choosing, maybe do a little research and add links so that other kids can learn too.

There are plenty of Study Helps which help the children to find ways to improve their grammar, vocabulary, spelling, through challenges and games. They can even post about their homework and get help and encouragement with that in the forums.

Along the way, Judy will to introduce interesting little challenges or videos such as the “Create a Voki Character (personalised avatar) Competition”. These do a marvellous job in getting the kids interested and involved which inevitably spurs more discussions (hence writing) between them. I love these things because they are so fun and they get my reluctant writer practising her typing skills, checking her spelling and punctuation and just writing where she would normally avoid it.

To be honest, there is so much going on that it would probably be impossible to do every single thing. However, what it does do is provide countless alternatives for writing and plenty of diversity which would make it practically impossible not to find something in this club that would spark a child’s interest. Frankly, I’d love to be writing in some of these forums! (Sadly, no parents allowed in the club, it is just for kids – although there is a parent’s support forum).

Without a doubt , it is the creativity and participation of  Club Director Judy who keeps the club moving on. She is very active and absolutely lovely - sending encouraging emails to the kids, responding to their suggestions and always looking for ways to create new forums to include their interests and ideas.

My girls look forward to logging in every day and they are writing and improving their typing skills. They are getting lots of practice informally on how to use punctuation, spelling, checking over their work before they post and what makes a good sentence and tons of creative writing opportunities.

What I like as well, is the fact that there is a lot of grace - the children are given the freedom to tap into their creativity without worrying too much about spelling or punctuation. These budding writers will have an opportunity to take the work that they are personally proud of through the editing process later as they will be encouraged to submit their writing for publication in an ebook at the end of each semester. It fits right into the Brave Writer philosophy – freeing kids to express themselves without the shackles of worry about good grammar and perfect spelling which may make them hesitant to write and stunt creativity. 

Membership for the whole family for one semester costs US$99 (so the more kids you have the better!). At the moment, it costs US$198 for a whole year’s access for the family.

When I first enquired about the WWClub this was Judy’s reply to me which sums up what the club is about:

We take all the state standards for writing and create activities to match those requirements, but we do so in ways that keep the activities customized and a good match for each student.
We are seeing that their excitement propels them to write more and, as young writers, this is the beginning of true literary appreciation as we dig deep to see an author's toolbox and how we can adapt good writing techniques, proper punctuation, and paragraph organization simply by practicing our own writing and borrowing from our favorite authors' successful examples.

In addition, in the fall, we have opportunities for kids to group together to study a book, discuss magazines, publish eBook creative writing (per semester), learn Web 2.0 technology, and earn leadership awards based on the number of letters that they write and receive.

Sometime I may publish products as many vendors do. But, with the WWClub,  I want to create an opportunity for kids to experience true communicative arts, to see the relevancy in their writing, and to explore and deepen (and practice) their skills.  I want them to understand that their writing matters, because they have important things to say....just like other writers who have come before them.

Beyond all this, the WWClub is so flexible that you can opt in or opt out of any activity as your schedule requires and is so open that we can create new opportunities simply because it will best match the needs for one child.

At the end of the term, we want the kids to have a stack of letters that are worth preserving; we want them to be able to say that they have been "published" in an eBook, we want them to be able to understand key lessons about Internet Safety and Moodle, and we want them to be able to celebrate a list of achievements in mastering content objectives through
WWClub activities with new friends, forums, and blogs.

Why join the club? Well, if you are looking for something that gets kids writing on their own terms, energised and fighting their siblings to get onto the computer to write - this is a wonderful tool. It is full, fun and fabulous and I can unreservedly recommend it as a excellent way to supplement your language arts curriculum and get your kids animated and excited about writing.

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