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Readers in Residence, Volume 1: Sleuth, written by Debra Bell and published by Apologia, wins our family's 'award' for favourite homeschooling curriculum this year. Readers in Residence is a homeschool reading curriculum, but it is so much more than that. In this review, I'll talk about the program and everything we loved about it. If you are looking for a new reading curriculum for next year that will take your children beyond reading to understanding and appreciating the books they read and the authors who write them, I wholeheartedly recommend Readers in Residence.
When I received Debra Bell's newsletter announcing the publication of her new reading and writing curriculum for homeschoolers just over a year ago, I was immediately excited. I love everything Debra Bell writes (such as The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling and The Ultimate Homeschool Planner), so my hopes were high. I had never really used a structured reading program in our homeschool before, but I'm always on the look out for new things to incorporate, and, as reading and writing are the most popular subjects in our house, I knew I needed to check this one out.
The Structure of the Readers In Residence Program
The Readers in Residence Volume 1: Sleuth program is a year-long curriculum with six separate novel studies. Debra Bell has selected the first, third, and fifth novels--Sarah, Plain and Tall, Charlotte's Web, and Because of Winn Dixie--and families choose the other three novels themselves, either from Debra's suggestions or from their own research. I imagine that the system is equally effective no matter what books you choose here, as long as you follow her guidelines. The purpose is to learn a method of study and then apply it to any book you read, so you have a lot of margin in what you choose to work with.
Each pair of books reflects one genre: historical fiction, animal fantasy, or contemporary realistic fiction. The amount of time dedicated to each novel study varies, with the pre-selected books receiving the most attention. The proposed schedule is as follows:
- Book 1: 8.5 weeks
- Book 2: 3 weeks
- Book 3: 8.5 weeks
- Book 4: 2.75 weeks
- Book 5: 7 weeks
- Book 6: 2.75 weeks
- Total: 32 weeks
Each novel study introduces new concepts and builds on the concepts previously developed. Unit 1 (Sarah, Plain and Tall) focuses on understanding genres, the concept of reading as detective work, the kinds of clues readers should be looking for in books, the particular writing style of Patricia MacLachlan, character development, types of characters, making inferences from prior knowledge, using context to make sense of unfamiliar words, conflict, themes, and the writing conventions of capitalization, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. The two major projects for this unit are 1) designing a book cover for a book you would like to write, and 2) creating a character map for one of the characters in that book.
Unit 2 (choose your own historical fiction) reinforces the topics introduced in Unit 1, with a primary focus on the different ways that authors develop characters.
Unit 3 (Charlotte's Web) introduces the concept of plot stages and develops a vivid analogy of plot as a mountain. Throughout this novel study, Debra walks us up the mountain to the climax, and back down to the resolution. This metaphor was so useful that we've used it to discuss every reading and writing project we've encountered since. It's really helpful to keep extra copies of the mountain diagram on hand so that whenever kids get stuck, you can ask them where they are on the mountain.
Unit 3 also covers the writing style of EB White, denotations and connotations, onomatopoeia, making predications, and the conventions of italics, punctuation, simple sentences. The major project for this term is to develop a storyboard for a story of your invention following the six plot stages.
Unit 4 (on your own animal fantasy) reinforces the concepts learned thus far.
Unit 5 (Because of Winn Dixie) introduces us to contemporary realistic fiction, and hones in on setting, metaphors and similes, hyperbole, personification, and comparing and contrasting. The major project is to create a collage of the setting of Winn Dixie.
Unit 6 (your choice) again reinforces all of the concepts.
How We Use the Program
On the recommendation of our former learning consultant, we chose to use the curriculum over two years instead of one. As a busy family with little ones in the mix, we have to keep our expectations of ourselves realistic. Spreading the program over two years is allowing us to slow down and savour the resource instead of rushing through it frantically, trying to check all the boxes.
We formed a book club comprised of our two girls and four of their friends. We met once a week for an hour and a half.
The only prep work I had to do was a tweaking of the schedule before we started meeting. Since the book provides a weekly schedule based on a) finishing the book in a year, and b) working on it four days a week, we needed to adapt it to our needs. I planned this out for the year, taking into account any weeks we wouldn't be able to meet because of vacations, holidays, and other commitments. I shared these with the other parents so they would also know what was expected each week.
If you're interested in seeing my schedules, I'll include download links here (there were my own personal versions, so they're not exactly formatted for re-use, but you may find them helpful, nonetheless. You'll notice that in the first unit, I tried to estimate how long each activity would take, but I soon abandoned that idea):
- Readers in Residence Unit 1 Timeline - Sarah, Plain and Tall
- Readers in Residence Unit 2 Timeline - Understood Betsy
- Readers in Residence Unit 3 Timeline - Charlotte's Web
Other than that, we worked through the book exactly as it is written. It's so well put together that I really felt no need to adapt it. I did not, however, mark any of the assignments because I didn't feel comfortable marking other people's children's work when I was not familiar with their ability levels outside of the book club setting.
What I Love about Readers in Residence
In a word: everything.
There are seasons of life when, as a homeschool mom, you have energy and creativity and you can create your own brilliant unit studies and lesson plans for your children. I am not in one of those seasons. With a three-year-old and one-year-old at home, I have to follow the path of least resistance. I need curricula that are completely plug-and-play, 'open the book ten minutes before and still be able to teach convincingly'-style resources.
Does that mean that I'm willing to settle for limp and lifeless, 'pick-my-chin-up-off-the-table because I lost interest five minutes in' novel studies? No way! I couldn't bear that and neither could my high-energy kids. We need programs that get to the point, that excite us, that make us feel like we're just hanging around acting like barnyard animals when really we're teaching eight-year-olds how to define onomatopoeia.
Readers in Residence delivers. Every Tuesday morning, six kids gathered in my living room at nine, expecting me to teach them awesome things, and I walked in confidently, coffee in hand, book as yet unopened, and we got results.
Here are the main things I love about it:
- It's thoroughly researched and structured, and beautifully designed.
- The book choices are superb, and the structure also allows you to bring in some of your own interests with the three On Your Own selections.
- A suggested daily schedule is provided, which can easily be adapted if you're working at a different pace. We worked through half the book in a year meeting once a week, so we covered about two days' worth of material each time we met.
- It's fun! The year starts off with a book club party and the end of each book is celebrated with another themed party. (Obviously, if parties are not your thing, you can totally skip this, but since we used the book club format to work through the curriculum, the parties were a must for us).
- The content is not dumbed-down at all but is explained in a clear and enticing way. As an avid reader and writer myself, I still learned a lot about story structure and plot devices from the Readers in Residence curriculum. Because of this, it's adaptable across many age groups.
- It develops a love of reading and of understanding literature in children. It's not just about reading a certain number of books in a set period of time; it really delves into the whos, whats, whys, whens, wheres, and hows of the books. We learn to not just take stories at their face value but to think critically about why the author chose the words, characters, settings, etc. that they did. This not only helps make children stronger readers, it inevitably helps their writing skills as well.
- There is a lot of hands-on work to break up the text, but none of it felt like busywork. Every assignment felt worthwhile and purposeful.
- It's sticky. The concepts in this reading curriculum have really stuck with my kids. My daughters constantly say things now like, "I just made an inference from prior knowledge," and "I'm going to introduce conflict in my story here by increasing the tension." With so many other resources we've used, they were all too happy to pack them away at the end of the year and never think about them again, but not with Readers in Residence. They're already talking about next year's book club and who they might invite.
- It encourages children to talk to each other (and their parents) about the books they are reading. This was really exciting for me as I watched these six girls bond over the books they love. I noticed, also, that as the year went on, they talked more and more about the stories they were writing as well.
- Throughout the book there are ample opportunities for both self-reflection and evaluation as well as parent-led evaluation. The rubrics provided help kids understand what is expected of them and how they can do well on their assignments.
- The creative term projects are really fun and valuable. The kids loved creating a cover, story board, and character map for a story of their own creation. It made them think more deeply about everything that's involved with crafting a story and publishing a book.
- It's a great deal. At $75 (USD) for the full text and workbook along with the teacher's guide, you're getting really great value from this curriculum. There is enough here that you can even spread it over two years like we are, and it will still have a huge impact. Plus, you can easily use this with multiple children at once.
I truly felt like the Readers in Residence program made 'living books' a tangible concept for us. Reading books in this slow and thoughtful way really allowed us to know the characters, the setting, the time period. We felt like we were with friends, rather than just whizzing past strangers on a highway. At the end of each book, we had a themed party where we celebrated the book and what we'd learned. Our year-end party was designed to bring to life the fair scene of Charlotte's Web.
As a final wrap-up project, my girls (grades 3 and 5) created a slideshow recapping their Readers in Residence year. Of course, their slides were heavily weighted towards the parties and the friendships, but here are a couple that stood out for me.
So, as you can tell, we are huge fans of this program and would definitely recommend it for other families who are looking to go deeper with the books they read.
I'd love to hear about your favourite curriculum from this year. Leave a comment and let me know what you loved so we can check it out.