Finding a balance between exclusively teaching your own child, participating in co-op, taking online classes, taking classes at a junior college, and a myriad of other options is one of those things that all homeschoolers have to do. Most will, at least once, step out of the schoolroom to see what other options exist. For us, that happened in the last couple of months with our experience with the Homeschool Learning Labs from Bridgeway Academy.
Bridgeway Academy offers a host of accredited classes (and even textbooks) for homeschooled students. Easy Essay is one of their high school offerings. The class typically meets for 90 minutes per week over the course of a nine-week period. The class costs $275 and yields a .5 high school English credit. For the purpose of this review, we were offered an eight week class that met for 60 minutes each week.
How It Works
Watching the video is the best way to understand the process. Essentially, Therese's (12) High School Essay class met each Monday at 12:15 Central Time. About ten minutes prior to the class start time, students started logging into class through Jigsaw Meeting Software (basically a Go To Meeting type thing). At 12:15, Kimberly Kulp, the class instructor would begin class. Each class had a set topic, known to the class ahead of time by virtue of the syllabus. Mrs. Kulp would conduct the class with the assistance of a Power Point presentation, allowing for limited student interaction via their microphones. Students would be able to take notes on the whiteboard on screen, chat with the teacher or the class via the chat screen, see Mrs. Kulp, and view the Power Point.
The class required about two hours of homework per week in addition to the hour in class. The homework was due on Friday. Mrs. Kulp typically returned it via email an hour or so before class. For some reason, Therese could not email Mrs. Kulp directly. Her emails were rejected by the server. I had to email for her.
Our Experience with the Class
Our initial experience with this class was frustrating. Although we bought a brand new top of the line headset, Mrs. Kulp told Therese that she could not hear her through the microphone during the first class. That was very discouraging for Therese. Fortunately, Jigsaw's technical staff was wonderful and we figured out the problem very quickly before the next class. It was nothing more than a misunderstanding of how to use the "talk" button necessary for communicating during class. The microphone worked fine. I think that first class and the inability to talk made Therese very wary in future classes, though. It was hugely frustrating for me not to be able to really hear the classes because of the headphone requirement. I could never quite follow the class completely despite my best efforts.
The class followed a fairly standard "How to Write an Essay" format with pre-writing, brainstorming, thesis statements, etc. Therese has not had a formal essay class, but as with many voracious readers, she is a naturally good writer. I will confess to several irritations from the outset. First, there was at least one grammatical error on the syllabus. (It was either a "whose" instead of a "who's" or vice-versa. I don't have it in front of me right now.) For an English class, I can't excuse an error like that. Second, the homework assignments were so vague that it seemed that there was no way for Therese to be entirely successful with them. Sometimes she got the point of them; sometimes she didn't. Her success on the homework had no bearing on how well she understood the concept being taught, though. To me, that is not a successful homework assignment. Third, Mrs. Kulp's grading expectations were not clear at all. Let me explain.
On the paragraph assignment, I looked at Therese's returned homework and immediately saw several egregious grammar errors that were not corrected by Mrs. Kulp. I emailed her to ask why she had corrected some mistakes but not others. She let me know that she doesn't worry about correcting minor grammar errors when the focus is supposed to be on the essay skills. Again, I can't countenance that in any English class. Also, she had marked on Therese's paper that one of her sentences was a fragment when it wasn't. I diagrammed it and parsed it just to be sure, but it wasn't.
Organizationally, this class was a little bit all over the place. The classes were supposed to be recorded, but there were some technical problems with accomplishing that. Mrs. Kulp did go above and beyond the call of duty to reteach the classes to get them recorded, but it seems that other classes under review did not have these technical issues.
Therese really did not enjoy this class. One thing about her is that she wants to see the point of everything that she does, and she did not see the point of many of the homework assignments. One assignment asked the students to write paragraphs incorrectly (organizationally speaking) after writing them correctly. I agree with Therese that there is no point to doing something incorrectly just to prove some kind of point. Therese felt that the Power Point presentations got in the way of what she felt could have been more personal teaching. That could be her bias as a homeschooled student who is used to less technology and more personal interaction. Also, Therese felt that the insistence that all students *must* brainstorm and pre-write prior to writing an essay was a limited viewpoint. Although her performance in her class did not bear out her true ability (her reluctance to participate in this class definitely showed in her lackadaisical work), she writes very successful essays without the need for either brainstorming or pre-writing. Therese felt that it would have been better to have taught these things as tools or options for "stuck" writers, rather than as necessary steps in the process. All in all, she thought that there was not nearly enough material to fill a 60 minute class and that she could have learned just as much from the Power Point alone without needing to be in class. In essence, there was not enough student-student interaction or teacher-student interaction to justify the class time.
As a highly gifted kid, Therese learns things very quickly. She gets the point and moves on. I think the problem for her with this class is that she already knew how to write an essay. It is no secret that I have high expectations of her (read: I push her hard). I have been hitting grammar and sentence structure hard with all of my kids since before they could write. They shake their heads sadly when adults err with correct subject and object pronoun use. So when Therese knew she was taking a high school essay class, she was really excited. She had very high expectations. The class just wasn't quite what either one of us expected. It was more like what I was teaching Therese a couple of years ago. Having said that, for parents who have not done any writing instruction with their kids or who don't really know where to start with formal essay instruction, this class could be a solid starting point. It covers all of the basics. My main problems are these: the price is quite high. I would think it out of reach for many homeschool families. There are less expensive options at junior colleges. Also, there are still some rather significant technical issues that need to be worked out. Basic things like how to communicate during class need to be conveyed more precisely to students at the outset.
Despite our lack of success with this product, other Crew members have been loving Bridgeway Academy, and I am seriously thinking about purchasing Bridgeway English Book 2 Focus on Writing for Nicky (10). He loves workbooks, and this one looks perfect for where he is right now!
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