I’m fascinated with writing curriculum. Since I started teaching writing, I’ve had the chance to sample several. No, I’ve not found the one that works for everyone, but I am developing a sense of what might make a good match for a particular student. This fall, a family wanted to try Brave Writer’s Help for High School, by Julia Bogart, for their gifted twelve-year-old. I’d long wanted to see a Brave Writer title, given the rave reviews and supposed ease of use, so I eagerly purchased a copy, read it through, and started to work through it with the young man.
Brave Writer’s Help for High School is supposed to “help teens learn how to think, argue, and create their own powerful writing at the same time.” It’s aimed for a teen to read and work through independently, with the parent as “ally” (the author’s word), available for support and conversation while also editing and marking assignments for clarity and thoroughness. Two essay types are addressed, a closed form essay (the traditional formal essay of academic writing) and the open form essay (more informal with the thesis less obviously stated and with a more literary bent). Bogart adds a third category, a hybrid of sorts, which she calls investigative essay writing (or later, an exploratory essay), which seems to be an examination of a problem or question without a specific thesis. An expository essay (closed form and argumentative) follows, with materials on paraphrasing and summary.
Help for High School is broken into two parts, Preparation for Essay Writing and Essay Writing. For each module (chapter), the student reads the material and does some writing. For the first half of the book, most of this writing is personal and highly informal. The purpose seems to be to relax the student and encourage thinking about subjects from different angles. For all the assignments, the student picks the topic, a practice I’ve used in my teaching, since it increases engagement in the material and, for the reluctant students, at least provides a point of enjoyment in what otherwise may seem like an onerous task. Assignments in the first section are designed to help students make associations between topics and their own beliefs, values, and experiences. She stretches students to come up with, for example, colors and shapes that indicate confusion for the student or names of people the student thinks of when thinking of the word greed. While some of this brainstorming and prewriting leads to slightly longer assignments, most is done and set aside, with a focus on the process of generating ideas and thoughts rather than developing those ideas and thoughts into a full piece of writing. There is a sense of “trust the process” through this first half of the book, which can be challenging to sell to a critical young thinker who wants the whole picture from the start.
In the second half, the essay writing portion, the assignments gradually shift. Attention to asking a meaningful question to explore comes first, with an assignment of a first-person essay that simply looks at a question from many angles with no clear thesis or outcome. As she approaches the expository essay, she raises the question of thesis with tension, and this is where I feel Help for High School is at its strongest. Bogart differentiates between topic and thesis quite well, attention well-deserved, since many a student essay falls flat for lack of a strong thesis that matters. Her attention to support (which she calls points) and details to support those points (particulars) leads to an outline format that should guide a writer to producing a more organized essay that stays on track. Paraphrasing and summarizing receive a module, but, despite examples of direct quotations in the sample essay, quotations do not. She briefly covers introductions and conclusions as well as essay structure for the five-paragraph essay. MLA citations are mentioned and used in an example but not taught. Formality, addressed fairly thoroughly, is mentioned much earlier in the text and would be more appropriate within the essay writing portion of the text. It goes unused early on, where the writing is personal, and its lessons could easily be forgotten. This portion of Help for High School is a fairly strong yet far too brief introduction to the essay.
Overall, however, I’m disappointed. As a reader and writer of exploratory and expository essays and teacher of the expository essay, I hoped for more time spent on the academic (expository or argumentative) essay and less on lists of associations, personal anecdotal writing, and informal free writing. Her section on the expository essay itself — the sort of essay needed for high school and beyond — is but a small portion of the book. I do think this text from Brave Writer could be helpful for an emotive child willing to brainstorm, free write, and associate creatively to see how those associations can move from thought to essay. Much of the first section of the book, however, is intensely personal, and for a sensitive or private kid, the assignments are just too revealing, even if they are only viewed by Mom or a tutor. Given that sort of writing is exactly what won’t be acceptable in academic circles, I question the emphasis. Brave Writer’s Help for High School is, however, gentle. If the goal is to move a comfortable writer who doesn’t mind the level of sharing the text requires, then it succeeds. There are, I’m sure, many emotive writers needing to transition to academic writing for whom this curriculum would be useful.
The program is remarkably homeschooling- and teen-friendly. The language is designed to be accessible to the teen and to feel conversational. Since I’m not a teen, I’m not certain how her audience perceives her assumptions about teen interests and stances on a variety of subjects, but she certainly tries to appeal to that audience. Some of her topic suggestions (and one of the two formal essay examples) are about homeschooling issues specifically, while others are about topics she thinks might matter to teenage homeschoolers.
This is a secular curriculum. Bogart spends a few pages on writing and faith, noting that “the vast majority” of the homeschoolers she knows are Christian. Early in the book, she differentiates between apologetics and strong academic argument clearly and firmly without putting down the importance of faith in the lives of her students. She weaves in a discussion on audience, encouraging writers to consider the appropriateness of apologetics or reliance on the Bible as evidence for a statement. While there are mentions of religious belief in some of the essay and other writing examples, they are not present in the two formal expository samples and aren’t likely to be a problem for anyone, secular or religious.
Help for High School, $80 through the Brave Writer site carries a hefty price tag for a 166 page PDF file, although it is often on sale on the Homeschool Buyers Co-op for far less. It can be used, says the author, in as little as 6 to 8 weeks or stretched out over longer than a semester. Certainly many of the sections could be done more than once with different subjects, although this is true with most writing curricula.
Would I teach from Help for High School again? Yes, with the right student. With a willing writer comfortable with personal disclosure and open-ended assignments that don’t lead to a finished project, this would be an interesting and likely productive book for transitioning from personal, informal writing to the formal essay. Overall, I prefer more formal tomes: Essay Voyage, Advanced Academic Writing, or They Say, I Say (to be reviewed later). These moved quickly to the sort of academic writing young people need for high school coursework and beyond. And should the writer choose to write personal essays in his or her leisure time, say as a blogger about homeschooling, the lessons learned in academic writing transfer well to more literary writing. Despite her statement to the contrary (“…none of us will read expository essays for pleasure…”), this book has something to offer with the right student and with plenty of deeper essay exploration to follow.