Friday, October 28, 2011

Review: Excellence in Literature

A couple of years ago, I was looking for something for junior high literature.  I looked, and I looked, and I looked... and nothing really made me light up and say "YES!  That's what I want!"

Until one day I was fantasizing about some writing programs from IEW, and I ran across Excellence in Literature there.  Watching the video catalog, with Andrew Pudewa talking about why he likes the American and British Literature offerings totally and completely sold me on the entire series.  (The video is available here.)
The only problem was that the program is meant to be a five-year one, starting in 8th grade, and I was looking for something for my 7th grader.  So I found something to do that year, and into 8th grade, and about a year ago, I purchased English I from Everyday Education
Okay, so a break from the story here to tell you a bit about Connor.  When he was two, he had a vocabulary of maybe a dozen words.  Maybe.  But he would line up toys in groups of two, or groups of three, and blather on in gibberish... and it was *clear* that he was working out mathematical principles in his head.

That two year old, now a teen, hasn't changed a lot.  Everything language arts related has been a struggle, with him not learning to read on a typical schedule, spelling still being an issue, and writing too.  Once he "gets it" he has it... but I ought to have known that college prep lit study was going to be too much for him in 8th grade.
I took one look (okay, a lot of long looks) and determined we were going to spend the rest of 8th grade preparing to use this as a 9th grade program.  So we used Teaching the Classics (something Janice Campbell recommends using prior to or concurrently with EIL), and we continued to work through IEW's Student Writing Intensive.

So for ninth grade, we have started with English I: Introduction to Literature.  And I absolutely love it.  My plan was to start at the beginning of English I and just keep on working straight through.  And I'm making it at least semi-honors.  Well... let me stop and explain the program a bit.

Excellence in Literature is a non-consumable product (I love that) written by Janice Campbell.  Classic literature is studied throughout, with nine units per level, intended to take four weeks each.  Each unit (with a couple of exceptions) has the student studying a single work, but also learning about the author, and the time period the author is from.  That background information includes things like music, art, poetry, history, social conditions, and so on.  The student might also be given contextual information on the time period being written about.  Each unit also has the student doing some significant writing, generally a fairly easy assignment and an essay.  The honors track has the student reading an additional, related work (sometimes two) and doing additional writing.

The text is written to the student, and while the assignments are broken up by week, the students are told that they will need to manage their time and figure how much to read each day, or how to schedule the writing.

You can get an overview of the program and a complete booklist for all five years here.  Just reading the booklist would have been enough to make me fall in love with this program (but all the levels weren't written when I discovered it!)  One thing I particularly love is that the literature is boy-friendly.  Yes, there are still titles like Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre.  But that is about it for "girly" units.  Three out of forty-five.  It's not that my boys have a problem reading "girl" books -- but it is so nice to see titles like Treasure Island and The Count of Monte Cristo.  Most literature programs seem to be so heavy on books that appeal mostly to girls.

Okay... so back to what we are doing.  Since I am starting in 9th grade, I only have four years to use this with Connor.  I'm fairly certain the same will be true for my next two students, as I really don't anticipate them being ready for this as 8th graders. 

Connor is totally able to handle the reading level, but the writing is a bit challenging.  So instead of doing this at the "honors" level in the way Janice recommends, we have reached a happy medium.  Right now, we are in Unit 3.  My expectation is that Connor will read/listen/view many of the context resources on Mark Twain.  He will read both A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (the regular text) and The Prince and the Pauper (the honors text).  And he will write the 500 word essay, though we do the IEW thing and figure out paragraphs rather than counting words.  He will discuss the honors text with me, but I have no expectations of him doing any writing on it.

The essay question for unit 3, just so you have an idea, is:
Although this book is a humorous time-travel story, Twain addresses a number of serious social issues through the Connecticut Yankee's experiences. Consider how Hank Morgan's story expresses Twain's views on monarchy versus democracy, slavery and/or serfdom, or technology versus tradition. Choose one of these issues and show how Twain used Morgan's experiences to express his views and how these views reflect the values of America during his time.
Can I point something out here?  I took honor's English all through high school.  I had a perfect score on the AP exam, which gave me 9 college credits in composition and literature.  I never once, even in my senior year AP English course, had to write a paper that required that depth of thought.  Not once. 

Now, at first glance, my thoughts are... "Connor can't do that!"  But you know what?  The first unit of English 1 (on short stories) really walked us (I needed it too!) through how to think about literature, and how to write some of this out.  The second unit (on Around the World in Eighty Days... a book Connor loves) also helped ease him into this level of writing.

He isn't done with unit three yet... but I have no doubts that he will turn in an adequate paper, which is all I'm expecting right now.  With practice, I expect that by next year, he will be doing far better.  He will easily be writing more concise and thoughtful essays at the end of high school than I ever did.

The other thing we plan is that for some units, we will move faster.  Like the next one... on Jane Eyre.  My plan for that one, to be honest, is that he will spend a week reading the context resources and the discussion in this text.  Then we are going to watch the movie and discuss some of the issues Janice brings up.  And we will move on to Unit 5.  It isn't that I don't think Jane Eyre is important (though I've never read it!), but we have to skip some, or make him spend an extra year in high school.  So this is one we are mostly skipping.

This jumping around and using the units out of order does mean that I will need to be purchasing the second level soon.  Not what I budgeted for this year, but we will make it work.

For my future high school students, I will plan to start with Introduction to Literature also, doing the first four units in order (and skipping through Jane Eyre as well... though maybe I'll make Trina read it!) and that would be my recommendation for others as well.  I think it would be really hard for most students to jump into this program in the middle somewhere.  But after you work through the first couple units, I do believe you can skip around and do the units you want.

Speaking of my future students... one thing I adore about Janice and the EIL program is that she encourages students to do things like listen to audiobooks (and actually links to some on librivox) and watch the movie versions.  I would have my struggling readers use audio as much as possible anyway... but the fact that she makes us all feel like that isn't "cheating" makes me that much more excited about this program.  While this is a rigorous college-prep program, I think it is achievable for average students with some extra coaching from an adult.  That excites me.  A lot.

I think Excellence in Literature is beyond amazing for the bright, advanced high school student.  I think it is fabulous for the average student.  And I think with some adjustment, it can be great for the student who struggles in language arts as well.

These books are available as a download for $27 with no shipping.  This is what I chose.  I love it, because I have the text on my computer for easy reference whenever I need it.  And Connor has the text on the iPad.  Both of us can easily click the links for context information.  We don't have to type anything.  And we can't lose it.  We do occasionally print a page or two out, but mostly we use it electronically.  (I did verify with Janice that we aren't violating copyright by having it on different devices within our family!)

If you love print, you can purchase it that way for $29 plus shipping.

Or (and I wish this option had been available when I first purchased!) you can get all five levels at once.  $135 for ebooks, $139 for print.

While you are visiting the Everyday Education site, you also need to check out the TimeFrame Timeline.  This is the first timeline Connor has ever been willing to do.  We love it.

You can read what other TOS Crew Members have to say about this program here:


Disclaimer:  As part of the TOS Homeschool Review Crew leadership, I chose to review this product that I already owned. I was not required to write a review. All opinions are my own.  For more about my take on reviews, visit my blog post here.


Debbie said...

I love Jane Eyre! You should read it with at least one of your kids!

Susan said...

Making a mental note for my oldest who's got only 1 more year before he might be ready for this.

Unknown said...

I'm in the process of picking our curriculum for high school English, and I LOVE your review! Thank you so much, you answered so many of my questions! And I have to second Debbie, you should read Jane Eyre. It's a bit intimidating at first, but it is truly a great book. None of the movie versions do it justice. :)

Anonymous said...

I am using this program for my daughter. As someone who is very familiar with what goes on in both public and private high schools in the U.S., I can safely say that Campbell's basic course outline is more than so-called honors level. Typical honors and AP students read far less (and write about far less) than the basic 9 modules included in Excellence in Literature. I like your idea about having your son read some of the additional texts but not writing about them. Most honors students are only reading four or five novels and perhaps one play in a typical year. If you do the honors track as outlined, it would equal about three semesters of a typical 300 level college literature course. That being said, you would write far FEWER papers in those three college semesters, but the reading would be about the same. I took a 300 level British Novel course at a top state university and we read six or seven novels (with no additional reading and one of the novels was optional). I wrote two four-page papers and had an essay exam for the final. That was far less rigorous than Excellence in Literature.