Category Archives: Classical Education

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.


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


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.

A Classical Educator Reflects on Writer’s Workshop

The ancient Greeks wrote on papyrus, made of cross-hatched strips of the plant.

Just to be above board at the first:  I think Writer’s Workshop is 100% compatible with classical education methods and curriculum.  If you don’t think so, let me explain …

In grad school this week, we were assigned an essay about Writer’s Workshop by the famous (to public school teachers) Lucy Calkins. I have glanced over her materials in the past, but a vignette from the Calkins essay we read struck a nerve with me.  She told of a writer who remembers being sick as a child and her mother bringing her orange slices that were almost too beautiful to eat.  If she ate them, they would be gone forever, and this thought seemed awful.  “These oranges are part of my life,’ she thought, ‘and I am going to forget them.”  Thus was born in her the desire to write.

How deeply I have felt that same sense of the treasured moments of life slipping away.  Once, I jokingly told a friend that I had a “disordered attachment to being alive.” Attached to every second, I clutch at time as it slips past.  I feel a momentary sadness for every passing day.

I can’t be sure, but I have the belief that students feel the same way about their lives.  When Calkins says “we can’t give children rich lives but we can give them the lens to appreciate the richness that is already there … “ I feel like agreeing  “everyone’s life is rich in some sense.”  Even boredom is a kind of gift, if used in the right way to drive us to become creative.  But is this seeking the richness in life, and writing about feelings, really a classical strategy?

Writing freely and personally is what the ancient Greeks did when they studied what interested them the most (such as philosophy and education).  Dialogue about what we are writing and thinking is what Plato did at his Academy, arguably the first university.  Writing workshop can be seen to descend from these impulses and practices, giving every student the treasure of time to seek out and sift out what is really important to them, and bring it to a sharper focus.

Sometimes classical educators have the impulse to eschew all “new” methods.  However, Writer’s Workshop is not actually a new method.  It reminds me very much of the activities of the aforementioned-in-this-blog Bronte sisters in Claire Harmon’s biography Charlotte Bronte a Fiery Heart.  The three sisters wrote and shared homemade books and stories for years and years, wrote letters and diaries … all the types of activities we now do in Writer’s Workshop.  In other words, Writer’s Workshop mimics not just ancient scholarly environments but the home school of the early 19th century.

As a classically inspired educator in a public school,  I’ve always had faith in students to work by themselves or together in small groups. From the earliest I have found that although we can’t dispense with direct instruction, independent learning is powerful as well, and proceeds mystically as students self-engage in meaningful tasks.  Of these tasks, I know of none more powerful than writing.

Therefore, as we seek to classically educate students, I think we should look to these earlier models, and answer “yes” to students writing on self-selected topics and sharing their writing.  Although I never agree with anyone all the time, I admit that I believe we owe a great deal to Lucy Calkins and her writer’s workshop promotion, for allowing this venerable method of developing young minds to be known all over the country, to the  good of students.

What is Classical Education — Definition for my Grad School Colleagues

Music and dance as well as fine art are all part of the classical education tradition.

I was asked in online grad school for a quick definition of what classical education is.   I paused for a moment, then thought: wait!  I can do this.  And here’s my response.

What is classical education? Well that is the $64,000 question …

I will say that classical education emphasizes literature and history that is considered excellent over time, and also certain pedagogical methods that are actually truly ancient such as memorization of poetry and speeches, live performance of drama, and ancient language study especially Latin. There is a focus on chronological history, and great books. Many classical programs include the ancient subjects of music, fine arts and dance. The result of this education plan has been high achievement for students across a wide variety of abilities and backgrounds. Although classical education has been at times misused and misunderstood, so that people often think of it as exclusive or repressive, as I understand it, it is a humanistic and progressive method of education.

The Difference Between Classical Education, Modern Education, and Traditional American Education

It would seem that in these days of educational innovation and simultaneous looking back at successes  of the past, there would be two “warring” impulses in education (actually, they’re not always at war, many times they both are fighting against the same ineffective practices, but that’s another post) the Classical and the Modern.  This goes back to Jonathan Swift’s Battle of the Books of 1697 in which the war between the classical and the modern was worked out into a metaphorical campaign of war in which the Ancients won. What’s remarkable to me is that now, three hundred years after Swift’s work, many which were then called “moderns” are now considered “classics,” but that’s yet another post.

What I am driving at here is that often, methods which are loosely termed “classical” are not classical methods at all, but traditional American methods.  Such as an emphasis on rigid grades and handwriting.  I made a chart over the three educational philosophies:


Classical Traditional American Modern
Overarching structure of the method Trivium – Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric Reading, Writing, ‘Rithmatic Skills based reading, math science and social studies.
Approach to History Chronological history of world going back to 4000 BC Patriotic American history focusing on presidents and generals Anecdotal history, driven by current politics
Assessment practices Poem recitation.  Dramatic performances. Music and art participation.  Writing about what has been read. Pass-fail grading. High stakes assessments such as STAAR; End of Course pass or no-graduate standards; special education (coding) of students unable to pass exams.
Favorite classroom techniques Reading of Mythology and Ancient stories; Ancient Language (Latin); memorization Cursive writing and handwriting;  Sentence diagraming Educational technology ; Small group reading
Classroom management strategies Reading of Mythology and Ancient stories; Ancient wisdom; aphoristic thinking Rules and regulations Situational ethics, thinking problems through; student centered classroom; teamwork
Underlying philosophy Education in the best that has been thought and said will bring the students to the best that they themselves can be. Based in American values of the 19th century, the goal is raising and good citizen in a “Christian country.” Education as a method for improving society; College and Career readiness, schools which represent the best of what America is today.

To look at the chart is to see, I believe, that the classic method, done well, can be argued to be the most interesting, the most effective, but perhaps surprisingly if you look at the row for assessment practices, the most humanistic and humane.  A proper classical education did not function on failing students.  It focused on building up students as far as they would go.  Ancient school teachers were all private school teachers, and they developed assessments such as memorization and performance, which all students could complete.  Students who were able to do more would then be expected to do more. 

It remained for the interpreters of Horace Mann at the end of the 20th century to come out with the idea of No Child Left Behind, make rigid academic standards (and one might argue arbitrary ones too) and then proceed to put legal codes on those who could not fulfill the requirements.

The intervening method between the Classical Method and the Modern, the Traditional American method, is perhaps the culprit for this unfortunate turn of events.  Although I am not an educational history specialist, the view I have of American public schools before 1920 suggests a rigid curriculum taught by teachers who were only roughly prepared to educate students whose home background did not make them particularly ready to learn.  The cruelty and failures of this method brought the advent of modern education practice, but any educational researcher worth their salt knows that when you start with underprepared teachers (such as Laura Ingalls Wilder, 17 years old when she took the school at DeSmet) or uncaring teachers (such as the inhuman teachers of Betty Smith in the ghettos of turn-of-the-century A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) and combine them with students who lack appropriate school preparation, results will be poor.

I have compiled this blog post in order to introduce this trichotomy of school philosophies and test it out on colleagues who read this blog.  What do you think?  Are all educational practices before 1920 to be considered “Classical?” Or was there a third way, responsible for the backlash of Mannian education reform, the Traditional American School?  I welcome any thoughts.


What do we do in classical education for pre-K?

A friend wanted to get her child ready for kindergarten at a local classical school.  She wrote:


I am very interested in classical education for (3 year old son). I only taught in public school which did not teach classical education. I would love to hear more about it. I really feel like he could greatly benefit. There is a classical school near me, its a charter school and its k-12. I am thinking if I know more about it I could give him a good preschool education by homeschooling him with classical teachings. That way he will be all prepared for kindergarten.

I do want to add that he knows his alphabet, basic sounds for each letter, numbers to 12 by identifying, 1-25 by saying independently, shapes, understanding of patterns, and colors. I am a proud mamma bear!


It sounds like you’re doing a great job. I’m sure he will be fine in any school.

At his age, the classical approach would encourage nursery rhyme memorization, child’s song singing times, playing with blocks and Duplos, going on walks, drawing pictures, both of books and of what he sees outside, copying letters and words if he wishes to, learning good manners, reading aloud as much as he will listen, and orderly home routines (putting his toys in a toy box before coming to supper).

Also you might begin to practice counting with association (how many) and putting groups together just for fun. Though they’ll teach all that in kindergarten, he’ll be a little ahead.


I found the following blog post by Amy at Living and Learning at Home helpful.  Most of this is a detailed expansion of the same type of things I wrote about above, but she also includes narration, which I hadn’t thought of, and which would appear helpful as well: Five Days a Week Preschool.


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.