The Thrills of Teaching Genre in Classical Education

Lately I have been thinking about genre as it pertains to preparing students in a publicly-funded charter school for the state test. Classical schools may be at a disadvantage when it comes to preparing for the reading STAAR because in the classical canon, we focus on only a few of the genres: poetry, historical fiction, history, fantasy. The big gaps are nonfiction text, contemporary realistic fiction, and modern fantasies of the type exemplified by Anne McCaffrey.

The genres we are covering we are covering well. The problem comes in when students who have not seeing a type of text, or a STAAR objective-based question confront them on the STAAR.  How can we expand the genres we teach and how they are taught in classical education? And why would we want to anyway, we already have them reading all the best books as it is?

I suggest a three-pronged attack of this problem. First, we should teach our classical textsusing at least some of the time, that is, we should teach topics such as character, plot, setting, conflict, and writers purpose. Next we should teach nonfiction reading objectives some of the time when we teach history and science. Important nonfiction text  objectives include finding the facts in the text, inferring the author’s intended conclusions, and using graphic sources pictures. Finally I suggest we use reading logs and have students read self-selected books at home. This will give the students experience, by choice, in reading modern fantasy and contemporary realistic novels. 

This may be surprising, however I have found a lot of thrills in teaching genre in classical education using these techniques. The students have responded with excitement to discussions of character and plot. They have enjoyed finding the facts and the author’s intended purpose, and despite their complaints, they have enjoyed their reading logs in their independent books, especially the books about dragons, it seems.

Insider Report: Characteristics of a Classical Education Teacher

There seems to be surging interest in classical education these days, as noted by various news stories including this one from the Indianapolis Star.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and write about what classical education teachers tend to be like.  It’s true, there is a wide variety of approaches to classical education.  But this list is supposed to generalize.

  1. They are interested in what has long been called the Western Canon (a group of classical fictional and poetry texts) and Western Civilization (a history of a type of democratic and/or republican government that emphasizes opportunities for citizens to self-rule.)
  2. They believe in the education of the whole child, body, soul, and spirit.
  3. They tend to use more traditional instruction methods such whole class discussions, writing book reports, doing science fair projects, memorizing  word roots, phonics, memorizing poems and math facts, etc.
  4. They tend to see instruction in Latin as a necessary component of a classical education.
  5. They tend to emphasize music performance including choir, orchestra, and home instruction in playing instruments.
  6. They tend to expect students and parents to follow the rules of instruction and homework regimens and to feel that failure to follow these rules and expectations should necessarily lead to failing grades.
  7. They tend to demand an orderly classroom.
  8. They often subscribe to conservative religious and/or political beliefs but this is by no means universal.  Classical education appeals to many liberal-minded folks as well, and teachers as a group tend to be more liberal than the general populace.
  9. They tend to take the long view of education, seeing it as a 12 or 13 year, or better still, life-long process, not something in which failure or success will be decided by high stakes tests in April.


Anchor Charts are Enchanting: An end of year Reflection

what is in my desk
This anchor chart made “desk check” easy in a first grade classroom. I had trouble with kids putting things in their desk they didn’t need, and not having the things they did. It’s obvious that you should have a book bag and a writing folder, or something has gone wrong. It’s also obvious that “little toy Lego man” is not supposed to be in your desk. 

I have trouble letting go of my students at the end of the school year, and that’s not surprising.  What is surprising is my difficulty with throwing away old anchor charts.

My anchor charts, which are usually written with the students present and then decorated afterwards, remind me of students and lessons of the past.  I look at them and see the faces.  I remember how the lessons went.

Anchor charts are all about problems and solutions.  You see a rough spot in instruction — the students are having trouble doing whatever it is — and you make a chart to help them.

Seems too simple to be believed.  But I had kids in first grade who couldn’t keep their conduct folders straight.  This chart allowed them to see that the conduct chart is always on the left, the homework is always on the right.  Then, when I would go around at the end of the day, it was easy to make sure they had everything they needed to go home. 

Classroom management is a big reason that I write anchor charts.  It’s worthwhile to post on the wall what an expectation is.  But over the years I’ve felt that the biggest user of anchor charts is me.  I refer to them all day long.

As part of my garage clean out, I took pictures of all the anchor charts.  Now I’ve organized them into different topics.  And I’ve decided to post them here on the blog, in case they may be of help to someone.  The truth is, a lot of them are adaptations of other people’s charts or advice.  Some are, on the other hand, totally mine.  The ones I’m sharing today were a lot of help in a first grade class.

A reflection on why I write with a fountain pen

I start most days writing in ink. I ultimately spend more time on digital spaces but this process of marking a page with a line of ink can only be called spiritual. It’s like riding a horse. There’s muscle memory involved; it’s an integrated process between thought and action. Most of the memoir and novel I’m writing were originally penned in ink on a notebook.
Technology defines us. But I do fear at times both the dystopia of The Terminator, in which rogue computers try to take men over by warlike means, and The Matrix, where the takeover is interior.

Last night in the bookstore, I read the first pages of many memoirs – sensational memoirs, “I was thrown in prison,” “I succumbed to porn addiction,” “in my Southern childhood, we suffered degradation so humiliating, I’ve never been able to be around decent people and feel normal since,” “I murdered someone at age 19 and now I found recovery.”

That last one seemed themost promising but it made me wonder where “I had six kids and my husband had no job and now I was running away across the country in a Suburban trying to find the meaning of life” fits. Does it fit?

It seemed to me these published memoirs were the type of thing which technology has inculcated, in which sensationalism and weirdness is required at all times.

My favorite memoir of all time is my dad’s, which is bound, but was self-published, not because it’s the best necessarily but because it’s the most about me. And that’s also why I love writing in ink on paper: it may not be as good as other writing, but it is really mine and I treasure it.

Great writing should let us connect with the writer deeply. But writing in pen and ink is a shortcut to writing “great writing” for myself: I don’t need to work on becoming connected. There’s a line going straight from my heart and onto the page.

My Back-End, Zero-Instructional-Time-Used Reader’s Workshop

child readingClassical curriculum is very much a stand-and-deliver, sage on the stage type of instruction.  So how do you get the well-documented benefits of independent reading and talking about books (often called “reader’s workshop”) in the classical classroom when you’ve got no minutes to implement it and no mandate from administration?  You can, through what I’ve decided to call the Back End Reading Workshop, or, if you like, reading when you’re done with your work and other times during the day.

What will you need?  The following are the components:

1) Teach students that when they are done with any written assignment they are expected to read a book.  The thing to emphasize is that the book must be open or they are off-task.  The completed written assignment should be on their desk where you can see it so you know they are done and free to read. They should bring one book from home and have it in their backpack for this purpose. If they don’t have a book lend them one.

2) Collect books for a classroom library. Label the books with your name and something along the lines of “classroom book.”  I used to put the classroom number but since room numbers change, that’s not efficient.  Just your name.

3) Teach the students how to evaluate whether they want to read a book.  Tell them they must be able to read enough of the words so the book makes sense.  Tell them the book should be interesting.  Tell them if it’s not working, to take it back and get something else.

4)  Allow students to raise their hands and go to the library and switch books.  Let them take the books home as long as they ask you first.

5) Now is the time to get the beehive of the classroom library really humming.  Observe the kids, talk to the kids and if necessary take a reading interest inventory of the class and start collecting the books they really want to read.  That means considering subject matter and reading ability level.  The easiest way to do this is to do this is to do a Scholastic Book Club, sending book catalogues home, getting the parents to buy a few books, and choosing classroom books offered for free with your order.

That’s really all you have to do to radically increase the independent minutes read daily by your students.  And the workshop, or discussion of books aspect? That will happen naturally, as the students find books they are excited about and share and talk about them (whispering, of course) while they’re at the desks, eating lunch, waiting in line at the restroom and before and after school.  It happens in my classroom every year — just try it and watch.

Master Teacher of My Childhood: Differentiation in the ’70’s.

I was not a wonderful compliant student.  I was more of a disaffected and socially awkward GT type who sometimes chaffed under school routines and expectations.  There were some years that didn’t go too well.  My first grade classroom, however, I remember as being remarkable.

During kindergarten, I had suffered from social ostracism to some degree.  I can remember a girl I wanted so much to be friends with making it public that she was not including me in her birthday party. I remember being mocked by the teacher.  I can remember hiding on the playground, or playing alone.

It apparently was bad enough that my mother went down to the school and complained.  The principal replied that none of the kindergarten classrooms were likely to be any better.

“Then in first grade, can you please put her in a first-rate classroom?” Mom asked.

That, the principal promised to do, and did.

My first grade teacher let me sit in the classroom library, an alcove with books and cushions, and move at my own pace from easy readers to chapter books.  During independent work time, she had set out converted shoe boxes which had been turned into math facts machines — you fed in a paper card with a problem on the front, and it came out the bottom,  having turned itself over, and displayed the answer. I mastered the math facts quickly but I absolutely refused to do my “boring” math workbook.

Still, most days were pleasant and equitable in that peaceful classroom.  I can remember the teacher’s aide, who every afternoon poured a gallon of water into a plastic pitcher, and then, the next morning, used the “aired out” water to refill the tank of our class goldfish.  The swish of the water pouring in was one of those comforting routines of childhood. Taking care of the fish, taking care of the children, peace, serenity.  I don’t remember any mean girls from that year.

Mrs. T. knew I didn’t need much of her attention.  She let me bloom at my own pace and I never felt ignored or slighted.  Yet I had a completely unfilled-in math book.  She must have been doing math in small group  … or was math done whole group and I was I just refusing to participate?  At any rate, it was close to the end of the year.  She called my mother and proposed the turtle solution. If I would finish the book, she would buy me a pet turtle, which she knew I deeply wanted.  This got me interested.  I immediately took the book home. I sat in my room with a pencil and went through page by page. Counting the ducks and writing how many in all.  Circling groups of three balls. One digit addition.  Then subtraction.   There was something like 150 pages of things like that.  When I had finished it, my mother came after school and I was awarded two red-eared slider turtles.

I remember my mother, very respectfully, thanking my teacher.  I remember my mother’s black pumps and her early 70’s dress, skimming above the knee, and Mrs. T.’s sensible brown teacher loafers, the hem of her blue suit skirt.

Now today, looking back, I marvel at the breadth of Mrs. T’s knowledge of differentiation and her creation of the positive learning environment for all students in a diverse classroom. As I learn more about children, about instruction, the teachers of my childhood drift back into my mind, as my first grade teacher did today, and I marvel at what they knew long before research had explained it.  God bless you Mrs. T.


Differentiated instructional routines for use with various types of literature

When we chose books for the class, how do we read them?  Classical educators tend to rely on the quality of the books to drive instruction, but is there a place for mainline reading strategies in a classical classroom?  I would say yes, and here is my description of the basic strategies I use in an average week.  I am indebted for this post to Robert Ward (@RewardingEdu) for his blog post “A Balanced approach to teaching literature … “

Who reads what Examples: Appropriate Books Who chooses the book Spotlight Objective
Teacher read aloud:  This strategy is to practice listening comprehension and reader response to heard stories.  It is appropriate for when the text itself is too difficult for the class, but the story is something from which they will benefit Reading “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” to a group of 11th graders.


Reading “Robin Hood” to a fourth grade class.


Reading nursery rhymes in primary grades during circle time.

The classics – canonized literature from the past


Or – popular or nonfiction books from which the students need to comprehend material, and which are too difficult for them to handle alone.

The teacher, after surveying the subject matters the class is covering and their interests. Reading comprehension.
Student shared read:  In which the teacher reads the text and the students track the words.  This is appropriate for when many in the class are able to read the text, but the rest need help and the teacher wants to discuss the material as he or she goes. Making the basal reader into a read aloud in a 3rd or 4th grade classroom.



A cross-section of books, including classics, modern day, and non-fiction, but must be more or less on grade level in order to properly engage student readers. The teacher and the textbook editors of the basal reader.  Student preferences can be considered for selection of stories as well. Comprehension, fluency.
Small group guided reading:  the teacher calls two to six students to a table and they read and/or discuss previous reading as a small group. Leading a group of students who are reading a fantasy novel above grade level and discussing their progress.


Taking a group of below-grade-level students and reading an adventure story about dogs.

 Inexpensive consumable books which are leveled to the small group’s ability.  Because a classroom needs a lot of them, they tend to be nonfiction and inexpensively produced. Students and teacher collaborate in choosing from available books.


If books must be downloaded, teacher must chose after considering needs of students.

Word attack skills, text structure, going back to the text to check, text-to self-connections
Independent reading books chosen one by one, by individual student readers, and read by themselves. Allowing the students free rein over the bookshelves when they have completed their work or when you are leading a small group. Popular novels and nonfiction books are most commonly chosen, but if classic children’s novels are in the library they will also be chosen. Students chose by themselves. Fluency, text-to-self connections


Admonition: Time is passing in school and in life

At times have I seen the students lose focus, and start to whisper and look at each other, glance under the books into the desks. Instruction grinds down to a crawl.  The teacher has to do something at these moments.  “Now students,” I might say, “I know, it seems like you have time to play in class, but at 3:00 you will be leaving for the day.  Time is passing faster than you know, we have to get through the curriculum of this year before June, and as Benjamin Franklin said, “Time which is lost is never found again.”

They look at me questioningly.  Unbelieving. Time is infinite when you’re nine years old.

“Yes it’s true,” I tell them.  “When you’re young, it seems like Saturday will never come, but it will.  Even years go by. Where you are now, a child, I once was, and where I am today, a grandparent, you some day will be.”

They look pensive. They are considering whether this might be true. Turning into someone my age is not something they think is really possible.  But it might be true.  It clearly happened to me. They stop looking in the desks.

“Okay,” I say, because I’ve got them back.  “Pick up those pencils, and write this down,” I put the instruction on the board, return to asking questions, moving on.  In the afternoon, we will do independent work, stations, singing, dancing, etc., but the ability to listen attentively to instruction is to me a non-negotiable for a capable student.

What I have done I call admonition, direct instruction in personal character.  It’s difficult to do.  It has to be motivated by a sincere concern for student welfare.  And you have to put yourself in there too, be honest about what you wish you had done, back when you were nine.  It’s a way of remembering yourself.  You were like them, years ago.  Don’t you wish someone had explained some things back then?  If so, tell the students today.

Classical Education can Address the Problem with Fake News

The current focus on fake news in the media is something I was reflecting on this morning as I did my grad school reading. It was in Fountas and Pinnell’s 2001 book Guiding Readers and Writers that I found the quote:

We cannot predict with certainty what today’s students in grades 3 through 6 will encounter in the twenty-first century, but we do know that their world will be driven by information and those who seek it. For these students, quality of life will depend on their ability to use a wide variety of texts — in both print and nonprint media.” (p. 390)

As I read this, I realized that in 2001 the authors had no idea that there would be a problem with students, and adults, being able to ascertain the reliability, validity and importance of a given text.  It simply didn’t occur to even the best minds at the turn of the century that we were creating a group of people who believed that their belief was a sufficient justification for an argument.

Classical education, of course, spends much time in the study of rhetoric, the structuring of argument, and on history, which helps a reader understand the perspective of the author.  Decades ago I began a practice of checking the copyright of books.  I need to know what was happening in the world at the time a text was written.  And I am aware of the relative quality of books.  Wuthering Heights is no easy read, but the depth of its thought makes it still of value 180 years after it was written.  As I read it, I think about the author:  where in her psyche did she draw the character of Heathcliff from?  Did Emily Bronte have a friend or acquaintance that he is based on?  Or is he based on the Bronte’s father, Patrick?  As I read Claire Harmon’s biography of her sister Charlotte, I consider the details Harmon gives to support various interpretations.

This is the type of discursive reading that classical education seeks to develop in students.  We read the finest books, and then we break them down.  Last week, as we were discussing Alice M. Hadfield’s King Arthur (1954) my students and I discussed the use of the ordeal, or joust, to determine the validity of a legal claim.  “People in those days believed that a person who held a false belief would not be able to win a joust,” I explained.  “The ordeal was actually an improvement over the method for extracting justice before it, which often was no more than a blood feud.”

“You mean like family feud?” asked a student.

“No, no no!  The name family feud is a play on the concept of the blood feud.  The original feud was where they killed a member of your family, than your family killed one of theirs, and it went on, sometimes for more than a generation … you can see why having a single joust to determine a matter of justice is preferable.”

The students nodded their heads.  They could both see my point, and see the distance we had come since the Middle Ages.

This type of instruction, with texts drawn out of history, allows the student to see how writing is a truth claim that may or may not be completely valid.  In our day, the blood feud, the duel, and the joust are antiquated.  But in our history, they had their place.  This understanding of history and how life has changed teaches students that we must continue to evaluate the methods we use to settle disputes and work to improve justice for all.

The skill of reading between the lines, of questioning of the text, is developed by reading excellent texts and dissecting them.  This is something that the smartest students will do spontaneously.  Derrida’s rhetoricity is something that is understood implicitly by the very sharpest students, but it needs to be painstakingly explained for the average ones.  This is why the fake news phenomenon is so vexing for the intelligentsia:  they are not taken in, but the everyday among us are, because they have not been taught to think rhetorically and discursively.

The foundational cause of fake news is technology, of course.  But the modern educative impulse, which demands that every writer has an equally valid voice, has put us now in the company of a huge cohort of students who do not believe in the argument that some texts and ideas are better and more valid than others.  The idea that Huck Finn is not necessarily better than Captain Underpants allows people who go to fake news or politically divisive or even violent websites to claim “that’s just your opinion” when their motives and beliefs are questioned, instead of taking a look at the arguments.  The idea that if all texts are equal, all opinions are equal, is inescapable.  This is why I say that the abandonment of certain classical education impulses, such as the study of rhetoric and history along with the awareness of the relative merit of texts, has made the fake news crisis worse.


The Italian Licio Classico: Education from the Heart of the Classical World

By Giulia Bertagnolio, guest blogger

Aristotle had a school where he used to teach philosophy in a small village near Athens called Liceo, which explains the origin of the Italian word for a certain kind of secondary school. In Italy, liceo classico – a classical studies high school – has existed since Napoleon, 1796, even though some schools had been teaching Greek and Latin before he reformed the school system.

In 1923, G. Gentile proposed a law to reform the liceo, which became a school aiming to shape students’ way of thinking and educate them in the humanities, including Latin and ancient Greek. It was an elite school that trained students to reach the most highly paid and important professions (surgeons, politicians, lawyers). After five years of liceo classico, students could enroll in any university, while other licei did not give the same opportunity. Other reforms followed and more subjects were introduced. For example, philosophy turned into a core subject. Classico was structured almost as it is today (some schedules might differ slightly, depending on the school): the first two years are called gymnasium and the last three are called liceo. Students learn grammar rules within the three languages: Italian, Greek and Latin; they learn how to translate texts from the classics (versioni), which is the foundation of the classical method.

After 1969, access to any kind of university was made free to students who completed high school, regardless of the type of secondary education the student had received. This caused liceo classico a loss of prestige and importance. However,  if you want a rigorous education nowadays, liceo might be the right choice. It is considered that Latin and ancient Greek help develop the brain’s ability to reason and to interpret history, from its ancient roots in Greece, from the spread of writing and through all the ages in which Latin was used as a lingua franca in Europe. These two languages’ grammar systems and vocabulary increase students’ logical abilities and creative skills and allow them to learn about old populations and their literature, for example, epic poems such as Homer’s The Odyssey, and great  Italian poems like Dante’s Divina Commedia and many other works of art. Students who attend liceo classico face a weekly curriculum of 21 hours of History, History of Art, Philosophy, Latin, Greek, and Italian out of a 27-31 hour weekly schedule. This is a large amount of hours dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of those subjects: students translate classic texts, learn to recite poems, learn to read ancient languages that represent the basis of our European culture and origins.

Liceo classico is the only high school where ancient Greek is taught and where Greek authors (historians, politicians, philosophers, poets and playwrights) are studied. This distinguishes it from every other high school here in Italy. This does not necessarily mean that it is a better school, though it is a high level preparation and the effort required often discourages students, who end up choosing other schools.

As for my experience, I attended Massimo d’Azeglio liceo classico in Torino, Italy, from 1992 to 1997. This liceo is a rather famous one in my city; Italian poet Cesare Pavese and book publisher Giulio Einaudi studied there. My time at liceo was very happy, despite the amount of time I spent studying. I loved ancient Greek and its free way of writing and I really fell for the Greek playwrights: Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus and their exploration of the human condition at the very beginning of western civilization. I did not always appreciate the long tests, unexpectedly challenging pop quizzes or scary teachers (there were some…) but I can say now, more than 20 years later, that it was worth it.

Giulia Bertagnolio is an English teacher at “IPIA Plana” vocational school, Torino, Italy. She has been teaching ESL in secondary schools since 2004: she has worked in adult education, night school, liceo linguistico and liceo artistico. Giulia has taught English language and literature for eight years in a linguistic school because of her love for the language and the classics.

The first aim of Giulia’s teaching is the relationship with her students; her teaching degree thesis was centered on this very topic. She loves researching and practicing action-research in her classes. She loves reading books to her two daughters and adores the cinema.