The Modern School and the Trivium and Quadrivium

While classical education has roots going back 2500 years, the trivium and quadrivium hark back to the Middle Ages, about 700 years ago.

Much ink has been spilled (or, one might say, much CRT, LED, LCD and touch screen space has been displayed) in classical education circles about the trivium and quadrivium model of classical education, which was noted by Dorothy Sayers in the Lost Tools of Learning and harks back, ultimately, to the middle ages.  The trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) conforms to what we think of as elementary school learning, where students read, write, and learn to form basic explanations and descriptions, and, hopefully, argue in favor of simple prepositions.  (“Why do you think Huck Finn is a ‘bad boy,’ Johnny?”  “Because he wears rags instead of clothes and lives in a barrel by the river instead of a house.”  “But does that make him ‘bad?’  “Well … )

I digress.  The point is, a modern classical school can hew quite close to the traditional grammar school “trivium” curriculum.  It is when we get to the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) that we run into trouble. I have not heard of any modern classical schools that claim that they are focusing the middle-ages quadrivium by itself.

We still study math — though these days arithmetic is generally considered to mean the four basic functions (addition, subtraction, division and multiplying) and thus falls into elementary school, and geometry is considered an extension of arithmetic, often taught in 9th grade or thereabouts.  Then there’s music.  We study music, usually mostly in middle school and high school, but it’s now considered voluntary, an elective.  And finally, astronomy, a topic that is now only studied in college, and by few. What can we say, then, about the “quadrivium” in the modern school?

Well, the quadrivium, which represented the applied sciences and the university studies of the middle ages, is now too abbreviated to cover what students should study to be considered fully conversant with the current day’s knowledge. You now tend to see in classical high schools, in addition to an augmented math program and music, the subjects of science, ancient and possibly modern language,  and history.  At a minimum.

The utility of the quadrivium in the current day, then,  is to allow us to see the two-stage progression in the classical education structure:  mastery of the tools of thinking, and applying the tools.  The fact that the quadrivium’s original topics are somewhat antiquated does not change the fact that the basic premise of trivium and quadrivum still hold, the difference being that the quadrivium’s place is now held by a wider and more developed group of applied sciences, studied in high school and college, concordant with our greater modern knowledge base.

Favorite Blog Posts of May

effects of exercise on human brain
The potential gains for those students allowed to attend recess more are clear from this diagram. Thanks to

Education Policy

America desperately needs to redefine college and career ready, according to  @dintersmith .  “The reality is that we’ve turned schools into college prep factories, leaving the vast majority of kids ill-prepared for career or life … ” 

Also, Colorado’s teacher evaluation review doesn’t seem to be working as it was designed  … via @matt_barnum. Principals do not seem to be willing to rate teachers as “ineffective.”  The reason is unclear but speculation might be that more-effective teachers are not readily available. 

On the Ed Tech Debate:  Ed Tech Makes No Significant Impact on Learning?  via @EduWells I was taught in grad school last year that there was an effect, albeit a small one.  Why is effect relatively small?  Because it is the teacher, not to tech, that’s critical.  “Teachers are only truly successful when focused both on the design of and the locus of control within a social learning environment.”   For more, watch the YouTube video on the last 100 years and the claim that “This will revolutionize education.” Via @veritasium


From @eduleadershipIs the Instructional Leadership movement undermining the teaching profession?  Well, maybe not, but there is a need for principals to give more instructional leadership to new or struggling teachers.

The Toughest Part of Teaching is the constant whipsaw changes in ed theory, according to . “Be it teaching the textbook or teaching to the test, dumbing down or top-down management, homework or homeschooling, curricular mandates or mandated reporters, skillsets or mindsets, dittos or data… teachers have endured and experimented a lot–and not always by choice.” Preach brother.

Another reflection on the same theme, English Grammar School Debate revisited is from @TeacherToolkit.  Given the edthink revolution of the past 50 years, the author asserts that the ‘expert, top-down’ model of decision-making suits those that believe they know best for whatever reason … ” but not the teachers and students or other citizens of any given country.

They walk among us:  the children of incarcerated parents, and the effect a parent’s incarceration has on the whole family.  By via @ncte, the National Council of Teachers of English.

An alternative to endless worksheets:  End of the year cooperative learning idea for middle school from    Eco-regions of Texas student-led conference.

Teaching, Subgroup:  Humor

Five Education Ideas Applied to Alternative Contexts: via @greg_ashman.  No comment, just laughter.  He who ears, let him hear.  

Teacher Gets through week of fidget spinners alive “The fidget phenomenon has officially reached Khartoum.” Via @MrZachG 

Classical Education:

A scholar’s daily schedule, cribbed from the boyhood days of C.S. Lewis.  Comes complete with a reflection on growing and developing the ability to concentrate on “deep work,” or meditative study, and notes on the effects of digital media, with suggestions for further reading. Via @GCTutorials

What Classical Education is not:  from the Circe Institute, @circeins, in which it is argued that, yes, classical education is whole child education, and no, we do not intend to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  

Idiological bullying, Anne of Green Gables, and The Handmaid’s Tale, by Sara Masarik at Plumfield and Paideia.

Finally, for the armchair traveler, Taking a walk across the English countryside with  in which @JacyBrean visits the grave of Robin Hood’s Little John.

That’s all for this month, and thanks for stopping by!


Higher-Engagement Ideas for the Last Week of the Year

End of year activities and supplies
Use up the rest of the supplies at the end of the year.

Usually, at the end of the year I try to rely on either:   1) staying in traditional instruction even as it becomes almost impossible due to the schedule interruptions and students finding it hard to focus.  Or 2) I  plan to stay in traditional instruction and when it doesn’t work I desperately improvise on the fly.

This year I’ve got a few new ideas thanks to discussions on the #teachmindful Thursday evening chat on Twitter.  This is how it looks in my first grade classroom.

  1.  Return to units we’ve enjoyed in the past, but for which I ran out of time.  Our plants unit was particularly interesting, and we returned to writing about plants and now I’m making them a digital plant book from what they wrote.
  2. I also had a few cut and paste projects we never had time for, so I re-showed a youtube video to support the lesson (on the frog life cycle, for example) and then they did the cut and and paste.
  3. If you have students that want to work on independent projects, let them.  Two GT students are working on a book about Easter Eggs using a teacher-made blank book.
  4. Review the material they didn’t get yet.  I had my struggling readers group doing phonics exercises I had done with the rest of the class in the fall but which these kids were just now ready for.
  5. Dig in the closet and see if there’s anything you didn’t do or that you want to do again. We got out the clock puzzles which they couldn’t do back in February but now they can.
  6. Do the art or building projects you couldn’t do because of time constraints earlier in the year.  Stuff like marshmallow and toothpick buildings and plaster of paris Bigfoot tracks.
  7. Use up all the stuff in the supply cupboard! We had extra construction paper, so they made woven paper place mats.  No more “mindless busywork,” but now, a maker space!  Let them draw big pictures with the leftover markers.  If you need a curriculum link, tell them their work has to respond to a book they liked this year.
  8. Don’t forget to give away any remaining consumable books. To get them started on using the books over the summer, have them spend half an hour doing whatever page they like before putting them in the backpacks.

For more ideas about the end of the year you could visit this post:   Student research projects and presentations by Colliding with Science: ( 🙂




Book Review: Robert Ward’s A Teacher’s Inside Advice to Parents

A Teacher's Inside Advice to Parents by Robert Ward
A Teacher’s Inside Advice to Parents by Robert Ward

Robert Ward has turned his 23 years of experience teaching and reflection on middle school youth into a  handbook for parents perplexed by youth behavior, perhaps because we’ve forgotten to reflect on things from the standpoint of the child. This book has changed the way I parent and the way I teach.  Every time I read five pages I have stop and change what I’m doing to fix a problem.

In its own modern way, this book is a restatement of Dale Carnegies “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” in which Carnegie shows that people don’t actually want what you want, they want what *they* want, but if you figure out what *they* want, you can use it to get what you want too.

The competent parent, according to Ward, provides a household with Leadership, Love, Laughter, and Learning.  These characteristics of the family environment will result in the young person’s needs being met, and once their needs are met, problems of all types will dissipate.  For you and for them.

Parenting, my mother used to tell me, is not for the faint of heart, but with Ward’s book, you can expect yourself and your young ones to be strengthened by his positive practices that prepare people to be successful adults!  And to see that happen is why we all started raising these small people, isn’t it?  No, it’s not an easy fix, but I believe that, if you take his steps, a fix it will be, and when we’re talking book about parenting self-help, what more could you ask?

This review originally appeared as a reader review of the book an

Gladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum Exhibit Review

Gladiators.  Even to non-classical civ people, gladiators are a draw.   I reflected on this, along with why I love museums and why the science and history museum is so dimly lit,  as we walked up to the exhibit.  The dim lighting puts one in the mood for reflection, for imagination, for stretching ones mind. The first thing we saw was an actor in the costume of a retiaurius (net and trident man).

Actually, I wasn’t sure he was real at first.  Could he be just a really realistic simulation?  No. Tempted to ask a him question, I refrained, thinking that it might be rude:  I know no etiquette for approaching a live model at an exhibit of historical artifacts.  My initial uncertainty about whether he was real or a moving statue was an excellent way to prepare to enter the exhibit.

Passing through an arch, we entered a small display on Roman hunting traditions, then a larger room with drawings of and stone fragments from the Collosuem.  I’ve been there in actual life, a huge structure bearing up through the ages, its antiquity sitting like a heavy weight, immense, and at the same time, it wears the veneer of the modern day in the air conditioned and glassed-in ticket booth and the cars speeding by.  The fragments in the exhibit, on the other hand, are mostly drawn from the bastulades where the audience would file into the amphitheater through stairs from below.  A dragon’s head, a cornucopia, the carvings are of another era.  As I stare at them, I reflect that although the interest in the violent and dramatic is no different in our current day, in the Colloseum there was nothing virtual.  The blood was a real as the stone of the stairwells.

As I stare at the blocks, I feel as if the impressions drawn from movies like Gladiator and Ben Hur are falling away, and I am “communing with the stones.”  The stones can speak, but you have to know how to listen.  Whereas in movies, a story is fed to you bit by bit, and if the average man can’t follow along, the movie is a failure, with ancient relics, you have to construct the story, and you have to maintain in yourself a reflective spirit. Others give you information, but you are the one who creates your belief.  I sat in the room with the stones for some time, thinking of Ovid who once wrote an essay about how to pick up unattached women at the Colosseum.  I thought about the wild beasts that are pictured in mosaics along the walls, tigers, boars, and lions.  I imagined history:  A young woman wearing a stolla put her hand on the dragon head carved to my right, and walked up the stairs to take her seat.

In the next room we “visit” the ludus, the training camp of the gladiators. The coach or trainer is the lanista, and he is a cross between a football coach and an overseer of slaves, because most of the men are bondsmen and prisoners.  Bowls from which the gladiators ate their gruel, and a picture of a mosaic of the dinner before the fight, a kind of combination cast party and last supper, catch my interest.  And then I go on to the next room.

Here are marble statues of editors (producers of gladiatorial games) and the armor of the gladiators themselves, dressed according to gladiatorial traditions of form and function:  the Provacatour, the Retriarius, the Thracian, the Secutor, all have placards describing their weapons and armaments.  The cards at this point seem like author intrusion to me now, but of course they are necessary, since the artifacts have been removed from where they were found.  The ultimate historical museum experience would be going to a dig, I surmise.

This Roman culture is like ours in wealth.  They had exceeded meeting basic needs, and had gone on to indulgence, entertainment, spectacle.  And then they met the ancient desire for death.  Thanatos, the Greeks called it.  The gladiator’s helmet is the intersection of myth and Thanatos.  It is in the Retiarius’ net too, and in the intricate bronze sandal from a statue of a legionary.

I stop and stare at the closed and latched helmets which literally locked the head in. The round grids over the eyes give the helmet the look of a human fly.  Over the crown are mythic figures.  It is worked with such care, this could not be the helmet of a single man.  It would have belonged to the ludus.  It would have been worn by several, by many.  The gladiator would put in on, say his prayers (to a pagan god) and go and face potential death.  I look again at the helmet, seeking an answer:  how do you do that?  How do you face such a desperate fight?

When there’s no other way, you do what you have to.  The gladiator reminds us of this.  And this, win or lose, makes him a hero.  He is an alter-ego to the Roman woman ascending the stairs of the Colosseum, to the museum visitor who stops and stares at ancient armor.  He is what Jung would call an archetype, a hero, and reflection piece so powerful that he can still draw people 2000 years after he died, and even though they don’t know his name or whether he won or lost.  Perhaps that lack of story is part of the draw.   It’s the reflection on the other, on the past, on the strange and unbelievable, but also to the fact that you have to make your own story in your mind, that draws us to the spectacle in the first place.

Conclusion?  First rate exhibit.  Thanks to the organizers for an excellent hour’s reflection.



Favorite Blog Posts from April — Better Late than Never

This solid gold graphic is from the twitter feed of @KyleneBeers

This graphic to the right is solid gold:  The difference between top reading scores and bottoming out could be just 20 minutes of daily reading.  Via @KyleneBeers.

…  Next up:  This article was a standout, questioning the way we structure school and our attitudes about so-called failure:  Standards, Grades And Tests Are Wildly Outdated, Argues ‘End Of Average.  Via @anya1anya

Just a quote from my friend Robert Ward which gave me this top tweet with 24 engagements:  “Kids do not need abundance of gifts, they need frequent bouts of undivided attention.” This is from ‘s book A Teacher’s Inside Advice to Parents.

I have been reflecting and reflecting on what learned when I read Agatha Christie’s biography.  Ten ideas about writing that helped make her great:  What Agatha Christie taught me about novel writing .  The most important one, I think, is that it’s clear she didn’t worry over revising or criticism too much.

This fine article about parenting an LD child through a crisis also has a kernel of wisdom about the unreasonableness of allowing oneself to be consumed by fear: Learning Disabled- Weathering The Storm Within via

Finally, an old question in a new wineskin: To Extend the School Year/Day or not: That is the Question. via 

To prevent this April post from running any later into May, that’s all I’ve got.


What Agatha Christie Taught Me About Writing

Having recently finished Agatha Christie’s Autobiography, published in 1977,  I wanted to put down for reference some of the things her reminiscences brought me to conclude about life as a successful writer.  As the best-selling novelist of all time, Christie’s habits and beliefs about the writing life carry weight, and she does go against the modern “best practice” in several ways.

  1. Ruminate before you write.  Christie says she would decide all the technical and specific turns and twists of her plots, those amazing threads of surprising detail that led her to be called Queen of Mystery, before  beginning.  Then she would write the words in a straightforward and businesslike way.
  2. It’s okay to be rejected and to be ignored … for a while.  Her first novel was rejected several times, then sent to the publisher who ultimately bought it — but they made her wait for that acceptance; they didn’t get back to her for two years.  She had forgotten the project by the time they contacted her.
  3. Write the beginning and then the end. Once you’ve got the beginning and the end, the middle will fill in easily.  And the emotional intensity of starting the book, for the writer, will carry over into the ending and sustain the project.
  4. Don’t edit other writer’s work — wow, that’s a big one, but she didn’t do it.  How would she know about what would work for someone else and someone else’s readers? She certainly didn’t want to be responsible for discouraging someone who needed encouragement. And besides — she was busy writing her own books!
  5. See the world — there seems no doubt that Christie’s travels with her first husband, circumnavigating the globe, and her second husband in the Middle East significantly contributed to her creative outflow, as she wrote mystery after mystery about the places and people she had seen.
  6. Copy real people in your books.  Christie acknowledges that she used her own friends, neighbors and people she observed on the train or in the market as models.
  7. A novelist is not a critic, so don’t be self-critical.  Christie maintained that she didn’t actually know which book was her best.
  8. Take risks — what is life for if you can’t take a chance?
  9. Don’t waste too much time re-writing.  She reported that she once wrote a book in three days flat and that when she re-read it, she thought “it’s just right.”  She sent it off and it was published and received well. And finally,
  10. The publisher is not necessarily your friend.  Christie’s first publisher took advantage of her inexperience by offering her a low sum and putting her under contract for her first five books.  That would have been deadly for the career of the average novelist, for whom five books might have been over half their lifetime output.  However, for Christie, it was just a learning experience, and at her lifetime rate of one to two books per year she was able to get an agent and a much better deal with a second publisher. She ultimately finished a total of 90 books.

Although it’s long (my edition is 644 pages) I can heartily recommend  “An Autobiography:  Agatha Christie.”  It’s quite a journey, and now that I’ve finished, I feel a little of that melancholy that one feels on saying goodbye to a treasured friend who is going on a long journey. ] As she concludes, meditating on death, she does not seem afraid of what is to come, but grateful.  “Thank God for this good life, and for all the love that has been given to me,” she writes in closing.  All I can say is, sorry to see you go, Agatha, but I can’t say with all your novels, short stories and plays still here, you left us empty handed!



Job Fair Diary Day Two

This morning I had another job fair to attend.  My job fair enthusiasm having flagged a bit, I considered the prospect of staying home.  Then, realizing that This is the Time to Look For New Jobs, I got up,  got my resumes, and went down to the appointed senior high school, where parked outside was a sea of cars, showing that a huge number of my teacher colleagues were already there.  Inside were greeters, nametags, and tiger-striped bubble gum on a table.

Smile. Smile.  Exhibit Most Charming Version of Self.  No negativity.  You can do it!

Suddenly the impulse to run into the rest room and stay there.  No.  The sooner I went to meet the school representatives, the sooner I could go home and have breakfast.  I plunged in.  I approached the first table, decorated with (I can’t remember but these are some themes I saw)

a) supersized stuffed animals

b) balloon bouquets

c) Dr. Suess-themed memorabilia

d) cardboard cutouts depicting the habitat of the school’s mascot:  dessert, jungle, and polar ice cap (my personal favorite)

Do they make all these props just for the job fair, I wonder?  No of course not.  They have this stuff in hand for *any* event at which the school must represent itself. I feel relieved by this thought, somehow.

I go and approach the first table.

“Certification?” is the first question every time.

“Early childhood through 4th.”

“Grade Level preference?” That’s the second one.

“4th or 1st.”

“That’s rather an unusual pair to choose.”  Okay, it’s true.

“It’s all about reading,”  I tell them.  “Reading is my passion.”  Now it’s time to sell myself.  I remember Barbra Streisand singing in Funny Girl, “I am the greatest star, I am by far, but no one knows it.”  But really that idea coexists with the idea that I’m not good enough for any of these people.  Where did this bipolar self-assessment come from, and how do I keep it from operating? I need these two opposite self-assessments to shut up long enough so I can answer job interview questions without freezing up and looking foolish.

“What is the one thing you did this year which defines you as a teacher?” I’m asked.

My brain screams silently.   “Why didn’t you prep for some of these questions before leaving the house this morning?????”

I give a coherent answer about every child being special, even those who struggle, with the story of a child in my class who has done so.  But I’m not sure it goes over well.

Some of the lines are long.  While waiting I talk to other teachers who are also waiting, who have various reasons for being here.  I wonder what the principals will say when they get done? Will they look in the stacks of dozens, maybe hundreds of resumes that they received today? If so, will they see mine?

I do know that last year after the job fair last year I did get a couple calls — after I gave up looking and re-signed with my school, so I wasn’t able to go to the interviews — but it was something.  Months too late, but something.

One of the women I met has been working for years in a very high-need school.  “It’s 45 minutes from my house,” she said.  “I have to get something else! I already told my principal I couldn’t come back.”

“You resigned?”


Wow.  Radical step. Talk about burning bridges!

“I’m gonna get another job, whatever it takes!” she tells me.

I have to say I admired her courage.  Of all those who were milling around the tables, trying to be the one, the star, she was a realist.  If she got a desperate phone call from a principal who’d had a teacher leave suddenly in August, she’d be ready.

Would I be in my new classroom by then?  Well, as we say in the building, “more will be revealed.”  And also this, which I said to a new teacher I met outside the front door.

“When they want you, they really want you,  but when they don’t, you’ve gotta wait until they do.”  And putting out a lot of resumes is one way of doing that.




Job Fair Diary

Well, I did it, I went to the job fair of our local school district (I teach in the larger district “next door,” so to speak) and handed in my resume to 33 different school representatives in just over 4 hours.  I had many conversations.  (I’m adding in here to the original post that it was really positive that I’d started my Master’s degree in reading at UT Tyler.  I could see that the school representatives felt that distinction, along with being a grade chair, put my in a respectable position.)

And yet one conversation sticks out with me more than the others.  I was talking to a reading specialist at a school on the other side of the freeway, and she looked over my resume, asked a few questions, and somewhere in there I made a comment about  matching teachers with personalities of  the schools at which they will work.

“Oh no, it’s not about personalities, it’s about qualifications,” she said.

I thought to myself, “but I’ve got all the qualifications and then some … ” Every year people at all ability levels from first-year college graduate to veterans of 20 years with 3 TOY awards get hired.    I have to say I assume there’s a strong personality component to getting a teaching job.

Am I missing something here?  What do you think?  Is there a personality match component to teacher hires?



Could it possibly be true that CS Lewis was a misogynist (someone who hates women)?

C.S. Lewis statue, in Belfast, looking into the mythical wardrobe.
C.S. Lewis statue, in Belfast, looking into the mythical wardrobe.

I started writing this post months ago, after a toss-off comment by someone at work who thought they had read something about C.S. Lewis’ misogny somewhere.

“What?” I asked.  And yet, I thought I knew what the writer was talking about.  There are a couple of moments in Lewis’ books where women seem to get short shrift, in particular beautiful ones, for example, the scene in which Lucy stares into a spell book and looks at a spell to make one “Beautiful Beyond the Lot of Mortals” and is rebuked for her vain desires by a picture of an angry Aslan roaring.  These moments in the books seemed incidental, and perhaps related to the author’s single life and lack of success with women until fairly late in life.  (One wonders if he would have even written these books had he had the comforts of hearth and home and family to distract him.  As Garrison Keillor writers, “no happy man writes his memoirs … ” But I digress.

The main proponent of the Lewis-as-misogynist appears to be a man called Phillip Hensher who laid out his arguments in the article, “Don’t let your children go to Narnia” dated December 4, 1998 (my God once these stories get started they have a very long life, don’t they!) which calls the books “ghastly, priggish “revoltingly mean-minded books, written to corrupt,” half-witted, money-making drivel … ” “frightful” “the most corrupting feature of it all is the poverty of the imagination” and “vehicles for a narrow-minded man’s pet obsessions” Whew.

Now wait just a minute there.

The truth is, all that adjectival attack makes me think Hensher’s motive may be more philosophical or political than artistic.  And it turns out, his personal philosophy, as suggested by his story collection,  could be summarized according to the Guardian as “ there are two specific types of existence. There is the life worth living … the life devoted to excellence, and then there is just getting by. ”

It would seem the hoi polloi need not apply to attain a life worth living.  Personal worth by way of personal excellence is very far from Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” or any Christianity for that matter.  But one can’t really critique Lewis and the Narnia books on the basis of Lewis being Christian.  It’s too obvious and blase’.  You have to come up with a more persuasive and creative critique, like misogyny.