5 Types of Classical Education/A Brief History of Classical Education

In Ancient Rome (200 BC to AD 450) education was predominantly literary and rhetorical.  Children were taught how to read and from there memorized large swaths of the best of classical literature.  And from there, they devoted the majority of their energy to composing and delivering speeches and other types of rhetorical exercises.

Out of Late Antiquity (AD 450-600), which introduced the trivium, the sequential instruction in grammar, logic and rhetoric for elementary and middle school followed by the Quadrivium in high school and college which included instruction in arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy, rose Medieval Scholasticism (1100 to 1350) taught in cathedral schools and the medieval university.  The emphasis was on practical preparation for the professions, namely, medical doctors, lawyers, and professors of theology.

Italian Renaissance:  The humanists pitted themselves against the scholastics’ utilitarian approach because they sought to revive arts and letters (the classical canon of literature and the fine arts) from classical antiquity which they deemed to be superior in scope and content to the content and methods which derived from the period they dubbed “the middle age” between the classical past and their own.  They advocated a course of study they dubbed the “studia humanitatis” or the studies of human culture.  This was a program that consisted of oratory, poetry, history, moral philosophy with great emphasis on the style and rhetoric of the classical Roman writers.  They believed that scholastic logic chopping utterly fails to convince people and there was a need to develop a fine style for the ability to persuade and move people.

By the Victorian era, education for the upper classes of the United Kingdom and America consisted predominantly of the study of the language and literature of Greece and Rome.  When this curriculum was marginalized by John Dewey and his education reform movement, Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins created the Great Books movement at Columbia and the University of Chicago in the 1920’s.  In creating this rear-guard action to preserve the idea of humanistic education, the Great Books movement created a new, English language canon and methodology (the Socratic maieutic, or round table book discussion group) that removed the need for the study of ancient language.

Modern classical schools movement: in the wake of the “look-say” reading instruction methods and the “whole language” reading programs and their poor success, modern educators and home schoolers (post 1970) have turned back to look for classical methods to teach reading, writing, ancient language, mythology and history.  Modern classical schools use a wide range of methods and materials gleaned from classical education history, but the term “classical” remains rather amorphous today when attached to an institution of learning.

Parts of Speech Exercise — Build a Sentence

20160406_093840I was most pleased with myself for cooking this one up.  My first graders have been studying nouns, verbs, and adjectives.  Reciting “a noun is a person place or thing” will not do.  They have to understand what a noun, verb and adjective really are.  This exercise suggested that they randomly use the word types in the same order to create new sentences.

This exercise allowed differentiation in the following ways:  First, I could give a goal number of sentences — students could write anywhere from two for the struggling writers to 8 for my speed demons in the ten to fifteen minute block.  Second, those with weak vocabulary could just work on getting a sentence put together, while those who were more advanced could work on creating a truly ridiculous sentence.  My beginning English learner who barely speaks words yet could simply copy the sentences as they were presented.

Review of The Three Billy Goats Gruff, a Lifetime Book

Three Billy Goats GruffSome books have the language to move our imagination, and some pictures combine into a classic presentation that moves the soul.  Such a book is “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.”

I was at teacher training on Thursday, reviewing the techniques of doing a read-aloud book. There was a display table with various quality books for this purpose.  Forty-four years after first being read about the billy goats, I felt a shock of recognition, a memory of laughter, happiness, and the freedom of childhood.

Some books have the power to hook the class, and I knew this would one.  The sing-song of the repeated phrases, the winning and friendly faces of the billy goats, the horribly ugly but still funny troll – the book is magical.

I went on line and bought another copy right then and there.  This would be my third.  The first was at my childhood home.  The second was in the home where I raised my children.  The third would be in my classroom.  Where did the other copies go?   They were worn out.  Some books are worth a second read.  Some are worth 5 or ten.  But Three Billy Goats Gruff is a lifetime book.  Thank you Paul Goldone.

Istation and my Whole Class Intervention

Istation goalsI’m hoping not to be called a hypocrite for still using data after a couple of major beefs with the way data is used! I do use data!  And last week the vice principal seemed pleased overall with my whole class intervention plan using istation, in which each student had a current reading level, an intervention strategy, and a goal number for the first of February.

The interventions were as followes:  the highest readers would receive extra Accelerated Reader time on the computers, so that they would be able to read independently and check their understanding. Although not the ideal (the ideal would be me talking with them about the books and choosing new ones together) it was what I came up with according to the time and resources available in the classroom.

The next group, who are primarily English Language Learners (ELLs)  is  receiving what I called oral language intervention, which means that they receive targeted talk with me throughout the day.  I “check in” with them more frequently and give them additional chances to speak English.

A third group was given phonics intervention, which meant while other students were reading independently, this group (along with the one below it) would do oral phonics drills of the Orton Gillingham phonics powerpoint.  Then they would practice the sight words using a Powerpoint I had made at the start of the year.

The final group would receive, in addition to the phonics intervention, after school tutorials.  These tutorials are comprised of phonics drills, phonics games, phonics writing and small reading group time.

Each student is supposed to gain 20 points on their istation score from the first test in September by the end of the year, so I gave each student the goal of gaining at least two points by the start of February.

Will Raising Teacher Pay Make a Difference?

I heard it yet again yesterday, and not in the school building: teachers don’t get paid enough, that’s why the job is not “done properly.”  I always feel uncomfortable when I hear this.  Certainly I am not against getting paid more, nor do I really believe that raising teacher pay  would hurt the economy.  And yet … I don’t actually feel this is the issue. Coming from the classical viewpoint, for one thing, teaching and learning is supposed to be a joy and, left to itself, the job of teaching should be very rewarding. Time was, before NCLB etc, teaching used to be lower stress than other professions as well.  This was as it should be, because stress slows down the learning process.

But the bucolic days of happy learning seem to have disappeared. Marshall McLuhan said that “the medium is the message.”  Now  for the average educrat in America, “testing is the message.”  And following the “all by the numbers” thinking, salaries are the determinant of how good a job is and how well it is done.

I suppose if we raised salaries we might get teachers with higher GRE scores, but then, would that necessarily translate into higher scores on students’ tests? I know a couple of teachers with high GRE’s — besides myself — and they are as perplexed by the difficulty of playing the test score game as everyone else is.

“A man is good because he is good,” said Garrison Keillor.  What if we said the same about children? What if we offered them an education designed holistically to make them better people, to allow them to experience life more fully?  And what if, instead of paying more, in person and in print we thanked teachers for doing this critical job?  Then, I believe, there would be greater well being everywhere.  And probably better test scores as well, if we were to create a truly “whole-child,” humanistic education model …

No, I conclude, I don’t believe that teacher salaries have much to do with “the problem.” The problem is a spiritual one, the problem of trying to change education into a scientific, quantifiable commodity. And that is simply wrong.  A child is not a number, and neither is a teacher.  “Numerification” of education is the problem, turning that which is supposed to be humanistic to anti-humanism.

Video: Little Kids Speaking Latin

This promo video was created for my husband’s school (yes, that’s him, the teacher, speaking the narration) about his living language-based method for teaching Latin.   His point, that “you can’t really read a language you can’t speak” is emphasized to us public school teachers when we are instructed to increase academic speaking opportunities for English Language Learners and students with low vocabulary.  Meanwhile the idea that “students need to develop language using creative play” is music to the ears of primary teachers (k-2) everywhere!

Classic Children’s Literature – Jack London and The Call of the Wild Part 2

Thinking about London’s concept that domestic animals are drawn back to the wild when they get the chance, I am reminded of the nonfiction book Shy Boy, by Monty Roberts, in which a wild mustang is captured, trained, ridden, fed grain and hay, and then released again to run with a wild band of mustangs. In the end, the horse comes back to camp. I am also reminded of the heavily researched biography of Daniel Boone by John Mack Faragher I read a few years back, in which the quintessential woodsman was portrayed as a noble, honest man after years in the woods, not as someone who began to hark back to an early, lawless state …

But back to Call of the Wild.  One evening last week I read up to the dramatic place where the dog hero of the story, Buck, is hitched to a 1000 pound sled and has to first break it free of the ice and then pull it 1000 feet to win a bet for his beloved master. I handed my son the book. “Read it yourself,” I said and listened as the narrative animated my son’s reading and he plowed on ahead through the difficult text, anxious to find out who won. I was thankful in the moment to London, for creating a drama so intense that the struggling student would forget the difficulty of reading for a few moments in his desire to follow the episode to its conclusion.

But as I witnessed this, there was another discussion going on inside my head, the question from childhood, about London and his unfinished Wolf House, and it tied in with what I saw as philosophical errors in this book. The wilderness, I maintain – and this is also my training from childhood – ennobles, it does not barbarize. So the thesis of the book, that the wild calls man and dog back to savagery, does not completely sit well with me, no matter how much it thrills the adventure-center of the brain …

The conclusion I made is that London enshrined and revered animal instinct and his own visceral impulses, and that is why he has Buck responding to the call of the wild. Real life in Alaska may have weakened the sled dog’s attachment to men inasmuch as the food supply was scanty, but for almost every domestic beast, the trade of freedom for food has been made.

Re-reading an interview with biographer Daniel Dyer this morning, I see that Dyer categorizes London as a “minor writer.” From a classical perspective, London seems to be more than that – Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead” in my mind makes Call of the Wild a canonical children’s book. Yet his fame is less than Hemingway, less than Tolstoy. When I remember Tolstoy I think I have the answer – both writers wrote exhaustively of their own experience and created multiple stories throughout years – but Tolstoy, whose characters spring from some profound well of understanding of human beings and their motivations, creates a greater bond of understanding with adult readers because he understands more of what we are thinking and feeling. With London, it is more understanding what London thinks and feels, and for me that’s less interesting.

I sense, however, that I was not a fair judge. From the beginning I was worried by the yawning mouth of the empty basements of the Wolf House, I saw too early the ultimate conclusion of London’s adventuring. Perhaps it would be fairer to turn to the classroom. When taking a book-interest inventory of my fourth graders last year, I noted that stories about dogs had tremendous appeal, beating all other subjects. Second place went to death-defying stories about adventure, especially popular with boys. Call of the Wild combines these two themes more successfully than any other book I can remember except, perhaps, Old Yeller by Fred Gipson. For this, combining a “pulp fiction” type story line with deep thematic elements about the meaning of life and the natural human love of animals, London deserves his proper measure of respect. I place him firmly, then, in the canon of great children’s literature.

Classic Children’s Literature – Jack London and The Call of the Wild

Call of the WildThis week my son, who is in 6th grade at the local classical school, finished reading Call of the Wild by Jack London. Because I was raised by an outdoorsman father, the image of the man of the wilderness has always loomed large in my mind. At the same time, there has been a malaise about London from the very beginning.

When I was a child my father took me to Jack London Park in California, and showed me the empty foundations of London’s Wolf House. This was a mansion that London had built with the proceeds from his writing life, which burned down as it was nearing completion and, because of financial problems, never was rebuilt.

At the time, I looked at the moss growing on the rough cut stone surrounding the pit that was to have been the basement, and wondered. The mystery that surrounded this disastrous event stayed with me and I shied away from London until I was assigned, in college, to read his socialist novel, The Iron Heel.

I was impressed by London’s writing and troubled by his cynicism, but I didn’t read Call of the Wild yet, even when my oldest daughter, in junior high school, read it again and again and loved it. Later, I found a biography of London (Jack London, by Daniel Dyer) at the used book store, and, moved by my curiosity about the Wolf House, and the fact that he was my paisan, as a fellow Californian, I bought it and read it. Here I found a vision of London as an earlier Hemingway—adventurer, writer, unfulfilled husband, alcoholic—and he became for me symbolic of a certain type of Californian, the one who, despite his gifts and privileges, ultimately becomes unhappy and, in personal terms, fails to achieve the vision that was generated in his mind during the optimism of youth.

When I finally read “Call” with my son this month, it was my assignment to help him work through what was for him a challenging read. I had him read aloud and when he got tired I read it to him. The question we were working on was a simple one, relatively speaking: what was the Call of the Wild? Does the wild really make animals stronger in the book? And what is the “law of club and fang?”

Tomorrow: Classic Children’s Literature – Jack London and The Call of the Wild Part 2


How can I help my child succeed at school?

This week was parent conferences.  I do parent conferences as needed all year, for matters such as discipline or academic problems, but this was the time for those parents whose children are basically doing all right to come in.

I was caught off guard, perhaps, by one mother’s earnest response when I told her that her daughter was a good citizen, exhibited a strong interest in the material, but wasn’t at the top of the class … yet.  “How can I help her do better?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, “the child in first grade knows only a few things.  Our job is to attach more things to those they already know.  They write “I like turkey,” we ask, “why?” They count to 100, we ask them what if you take 10 away from 100. They read a book, and we ask them to think of another possible ending. It’s all about expanding their world one step at a time.”

It occurred to me afterwards that this response, though true as far as it went, was rather vague and perhaps too interpretive for some parents.  So I decided to come up with a numbered list of steps to improve your child’s success in school:

  1. Ask how it is going every day.  “What did you learn?” Ask them to explain.
  2. Talk to your child whenever possible — driving in the car, cooking food, walking across town — the more words the child hears, the more intelligent they will become.  Research proven!
  3. Have regular chores for the child and expect that they be done.  This will allow your child to develop self responsibility and know that they can do things for themselves and for others.  Part of this should be a set time for homework each week day.
  4. Severely limit TV, cell phone games and screens of all types, certainly no more than one hour a day, at the end of the day when all work is done.
  5. Read to your child and have them read to you.  Talk about what you read.  Reading at home is a huge advantage for your child.
  6. Whenever possible ask them to think and do things for themselves.  Don’t solve their problems for them until they ask you to.
  7. Provide consistent discipline.  Children need to know their limits and they need to have a consequence of some kind when these limits are broken.  It’s more important that there be consistency than what kind of discipline is used.  Some families put the rules and the consequences on the refrigerator.
  8. Most important you must try to show you love your child every day. Children who are sure they are loved have a huge advantage for life and school  And though I have met a large number of parents, some of whom were struggling in various ways, I have never met a parent who didn’t, underneath it all, love their child and want the child to succeed.  If you are reading this blog post it is obvious you love your child.  Let him or her know this  and tell them it’s because you love them that you want them to do well, in school and in everything.


More on this topic:  Study of parents of successful students in the Phillipines suggests best practices

From KidSource:  How Parents and Family Can Help Children Do Better in School

Using Nursery Rhymes for Primary Grades

I’ve begun using nursery rhymes for my first graders due to recent monthly reading tests showing their need for vocabulary.   Having heard before that songs and rhymes are a potent way to build vocabulary,  I decided to try a classical technique here — memorized recitation of high quality, “classical” texts.

The method is simple.  I chose four rhymes and each day I begin our circle time by reading them to the students. I chose Old Mother Goose, Hey Diddle Diddle, The House that Jack Built, and This Old Man.  I wondered:  would they get confused?  Be bored?  Nothing of the sort.  Right away the word music got their attention.  Soon they were decoding the meanings (“Wait!  A cow cannot jump over the moon!”) and after that they began to apply their minds to memorizing the words.  The routine went quickly, taking only 5 or 6 minutes a day.

Now, about two weeks later, the better part of the class is reciting large portions of the rhymes with me.  We do the rhymes in the afternoon before the math lesson, which can be a hard time for students to get focused.  But now the students immediately calm down and focus when they hear “our” familiar rhymes.

As for the vocabulary progress — we will have to see.  On the first of December, we will take another monthly reading assessment, and I will report back.