A Curriculum Is Born: Behind the Scenes with the Authors of WriteShop

by Kim Kautzer

Attending homeschool conferences for many years, I became convinced that exhibitors and speakers were somehow superior to me. After all, they were the experts. Certainly they never hid stacks of schoolwork in the oven when company arrived. It’s unlikely they ever locked themselves on the roof while washing windows. No doubt their kids mastered Latin and read the classics with ease by age ten. And in their homes, nutritious home-cooked meals graced a lovely table without fail every night.

Funny---as it turns out, I discovered these “experts” were as human as I. Like me, they sometimes ran out of year before the math book was finished. Like me, they locked their keys in the car, left the checkbook at home, forgot to throw the wet clothes into the dryer, and ate out of a paper bag a bit more often than they liked. But also like me, these ordinary homeschoolers developed something that worked, whether an educational philosophy, a method of instruction, or a successful curriculum. For Debbie and me, an idea grew from seed, changing two regular moms into published authors. The question is: how did all this happen when we weren’t looking?

Seven years ago, if anyone had bothered to ask me what I planned to “do” with my life when I was finished homeschooling, I may have rolled out a long list of unfinished projects I’d finally have time to complete. Perhaps I’d have spoken with longing of the stack of books I meant to read or of the conversational Spanish class I yearned to take. Or even of the possibility of venturing overseas with my husband on a short-term mission trip.

I would never have said, “I think I’ll write a curriculum for homeschoolers.” Neither would it have crossed my mind to suggest, “I see myself speaking at conventions and equipping parents to teach writing at home.”

My dreams did not transport me to kitchen tables, co-ops, and conventions across the country. They did not allow for the possibility that something I put my hand to would become a topic of conversation on Internet discussion boards, nor that homeschool retailers would one day stock their shelves with books whose byline read “Kim Kautzer and Debra Oldar.”

As they say, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” And for Debbie and me, necessity came in the shape of two twelve-year-old boys who simply could not write.

Debbie and I had used unit studies with our families because, while academics came easily to our girls, Ben and Brian struggled terribly. The unit approach was an ideal way for them to explore the world more concretely, offering opportunities to develop their interests through projects, field trips, and literature. From there we bravely entered the co-op scene, teaching California history in a unit study fashion. After a successful semester we taught geography, followed by world history the next year.

As the boys approached seventh grade, Debbie began talking earnestly of a writing class. Believe me, I balked. What did I know about teaching writing? Sure, I considered myself a decent writer, but I had no idea how to communicate that skill to others. Still, I was desperate to teach my son to write. Finally convinced that enough materials existed in the marketplace to assist us with our task, I gave in. Our writing class launched in September 1997.

Enthusiastic and expectant, we greeted our class that Tuesday morning with their first assignment, a five-sentence paragraph. But our high hopes met reality face-to-face when we sat down with those compositions. “Oh, no! What have we gotten ourselves into?” we squeaked. It wasn’t just our own boys whose efforts cried out for help---every student in the group struggled at some level. So we canceled class for two weeks, scrapped the lesson plans we had so carefully crafted over the summer, and started from scratch. We had made a commitment to these parents, but clearly we needed to take a detour.

In need of new resources, we pulled out every writing program we’d ever used (and believe me, between us we had them all!). We drafted a wish list detailing the components of our “ideal” writing class: prewriting games to stimulate creativity; a way to introduce and help develop new skills; creative, varied writing exercises with clearly defined expectations; incremental lessons that built upon previously learned material; writing checklists to help students edit their own work; and a simple evaluation tool to help us grade final drafts objectively. We didn’t think we were asking much! While each of the programs on our shelves had merit, not one of them provided everything we needed or wanted to help us feel successful at teaching writing. In that moment of clarity, WriteShop was born.

With a new plan in place, class began afresh. We prepared lesson plans and activities as well as homework assignments, and designed checklists and grading keys to suit our needs. We didn’t set out to write a curriculum. On the contrary, spending hours together in person and on the phone, Deb and I were relieved just to hammer out one lesson at a time by Monday at midnight! But within weeks we knew we’d struck pay dirt---writing finally began to “click,” and not just for our boys. After two years parents started asking us to write a teacher’s guide and turn our ideas into a curriculum. “Ha!” we scoffed, “That’s for ‘real’ authors.” But the seeds had been planted. And when a trusted friend with much experience as a curriculum counselor gave our materials her stamp of approval, we set to work on a teacher’s manual.

Many times we have felt like we were barreling down the rapids, but God has remained faithfully in control of our little boat. Years later, with WriteShop users in all 50 states as well as Canada, New Zealand, Great Britain, and the Ivory Coast, we still pinch ourselves now and then to make sure this is real. We don’t have all the answers, but we can offer tools to teach and evaluate writing in a parent-friendly, step-by-step manner. And while we may appear to be “writing gurus” to some, in truth we’re moms just like you, ordinary home schoolers who stumbled out of obscurity because our children had a need. Desperation yielded to creativity, creativity gave way to potential, and potential became reality.

Who knows? Maybe there’s an idea ready to hatch at your house!

©2003 Kim Kautzer

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