keepin' it old school in the homeschool

I'm not sure if that title really conveys what I am planning to write about, but I am feeling it. Know what I mean?

I have a stash of homeschool posts that I've been meaning to write: homeschool sanity savers, the 4-1-1- on classical education, and a post that is in-the-works-but-taking-forever entitled "how the kindle fire is changing the way we homeschool". I know- you're on the edge of your seats, I'm sure. Well, sit back a moment, because today we are going to address numero 2- classical education.

On a side note (because- let's face it- I love side notes) I'd like to stick in a disclaimer that I am by no means an expert on classical education. In fact, I had the strong urge to google the words "classical education" just to make sure I had a few things right, and maybe for a simple definition. But I resisted said urge because this post is not an exhaustive reference but a simple explanation of the topic as I understand it and see it at work in our family.

Classical education is exactly what it sounds like- an educational model that is based on the classical way education used to work a long time ago. The approach involves heavy memorization in the early grades, then moving on to the skills of writing, analysis, and debate or rhetoric. There is a strong emphasis on reading/using primary sources (like why not read Jefferson's writings as opposed to just read a text book about him), focus on relevant literature of a time period, and frequent use of the word trivium. The end result (hopefully!) is an education that is well-rounded, giving kids a very broad understanding of history and sciences, and the tools to think critically and learn effectively given new information. That is a very basic summary.

A few other points on the subject that I would like to mention but don't want to work into paragraph form:

  • We're not talking "classic" like a classic car from the '50's; we're talking classic like Plato had opinions about it. Old school, people, old school.
  • The most common book on this subject that people will talk about (at least people I know) is The Well-Trained Mind:A Guide to Classical Education at Home by Susan Wise Bauer.
  • There is also a book called The Well-Educated Mind that basically can help you develop skills that would have been part of a classical education. I've read started it...a few times.
  • This is not to be confused with The Well-Caffeinated Mind, the personal memoir I am writing about being a homeschool mom. Oh, yeah, it's coming, folks.
So, what are the benefits of this approach? Why did we pick it? What are the pitfalls? How is it working?

Wow, that's a lot of questions. You're obviously very curious which I really appreciate.

What hooked me?

I once read a quote by Augustine, one of the great writers and figures in Church history, and it said something like this: The goal of education is to give a student a thorough knowledge of the scripture and a general knowledge about everything else.

Really? I thought. A general knowledge about everything else?

As I studied more, it made sense. Sometimes education can become fractured or disjointed in a way that, in the end, doesn't lend to an overall understanding of history or science or the artsThe idea is not for students to have exhaustive knowledge of every historical event, but to have a general knowledge that will help them place that event in the right era. Late 1800's? Hmmmm, that would be after the American Revolution and around the time of the French Revolution. That would be a general understanding.

What's with all the memorization? Why should kids memorize things they don't understand?

To be honest, I don't know the thinking originally behind the idea that memorization happened at the youngest level. But I can tell you why it makes sense for learners today.

1. Young minds memorize effortlessly. I'm serious. I know you think this is not true, but if you get into a pattern and help young children organize information, they will retain it with minimal energy. I can attest to this because my four-year old knows his states and capitals. My six year old can conjugate a lot of irregular verbs. My two year old can tell you the features of the Western Mountains and several key details about the Louisiana Purchase. And a lot more. We have accomplished this just in this school year in about 20 minutes each day, with occasional review and a lot of singing facts. They only need hear it a few times before it is ingrained in the memory. Children are so good at memorizing; so why not fill their young minds with rich information?

2. It is OK to learn things that you don't understand (case in point: I took Statistics in college. Still don't understand a thing but any day now that comprehension will be arriving. Guess that isn't the strongest example.) Sure- some would argue that it is pointless (and maybe mean?) to force kids to memorize things they don't understand. But I would say that the goal at this level is not comprehension; the goal is preparation.

It's kind of like those cooking shows where the the chef looks the audience in eye as he dumps in his ingredients that have been chopped, measured, shredded, and minced into little glass bowls. He is doing the cooking- but everything is ready to go in. So I picture Isaac a few years down the road as he studies the human body. He will already have memorized all the main systems and parts; now he gets to learn what they actually do, how they interact, and why they are important. The prior knowledge won't stifle him- quite the opposite! He won't have to spend time memorizing (a skill that will become increasingly difficult as he gets older) when he is ready for the higher levels of analysis, synthesis, and critique. The ingredients will be there; he can put them all together to build a working knowledge.

Also, it is good to note that when you have a basic knowledge of something, even if it is just vocabulary recognition, you can begin to make connections. Just today Drew and I were reading about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the book mentioned he lived in Montgomery.

"Montgomery, Alabama!" Drew shouted. He knows that Montgomery is a capital. He knows Alabama is in the South. Both of those facts lend more detail to his understanding of the book we read.  And now, Drew has a detail that his mind will connect with Montgomery- the person and work of Martin Luther King, Jr.

3. There is brain research that suggests that memorizing is like a muscle; the more often you do it, the stronger that muscle becomes.

4. But what should exactly should kids memorize? We have participated in Classical Conversations, a homeschool community that has a specific curriculum and tools that specify what you are memorizing. You could select your own material, but that would be quite a task to design it, piece it together, and then support it with your own tools. But if you are up to the challenge- go for it! 

5. I don't remember exactly why I started numbering these sentences.

6. It kind of makes me feel organized when I type things in a numbered list. Don't you think?

7. Let's move on.

So anyways, you might be wondering if all we do is memorize in the early years. That is not the case. We do a regular dose of math and language arts alongside the memory work (which has facts for history, Latin, English grammar, math, science and geography).  

Confession: I would say that, as a teacher, I do not believe that all memory work is created equal. I don't work as hard on the Latin as I do on the history facts and geography.  The other things fall somewhere in between.

When we have a big review day for memory work, I like to call it Happy Hour in our kitchen. The kids pick between chocolate milk or juice. I make a half pot of coffee and pour generous amounts of hazelnut creamer (hence the title of my memoir). It's just a fun way to review. Sometimes I hand out oyster crackers as incentive; this works a lot better if you don't feed them breakfast (JUST KIDDING! My kids love oyster crackers even after their deliciously healthy breakfast.) 

We also like to make up games to review. We like to sing the history songs when we march around the kitchen. Just keeps it all light-hearted, and kids won't notice that they have sung a song six times in a row when they did it marching around the kitchen. 

Does it work? I hope so! I guess I can only answer that the kids are learning it, loving the actual community days, and generally having a really good time. I don't have any perspective to offer on the long-term, though I know there are many parents who have seen it all the way through and been pleased with the outcome. Guess you'll just have to keep reading for, oh, ten more years- and I'll tell you how it turns out. 

I keep scrolling back up this post and asking myself, "Where was I going with this?"  Usually that is a good sign to just wrap it up.

So there you have it. We aren't doing everything right, and this whole homeschool gig is a lot of trial and error. But I have been pleased with the effort and payoff of this first year in classical education. I look forward to seeing how the years build on each other and how the pieces of information that they file away will build into a general knowledge of everything. 

See you Friday.


Teresa said...

I love Happy Hour! That is awesome.

(And on a side note, one day you may be pouring a little something more than half and half into your coffee...)
(just saying...)
(just trying out these parentheses, since I've mastered your other technique of elipses ...)

Back to Happy Hour, I recently renamed our not-so-fun activity of, "Get in there and practice your piano!" to "Jam Session." Then I put a number on the door like there are a lot of people waiting for the recording studio.

(just kidding ...)

jennismith21 said...

So so helpful. Thank you!

Katie T. said...

Becky, this might sound weird, but I was literally thinking about e-mailing you this morning to ask what you guys do for homeschool curriculum. Thanks for reading my mind! In the past I've had an aversion to Classical education (probably my Myers-Briggs "P" coming out), but am warming to the idea. Keep it coming! : )

Becky said...

Teresa- like the idea of juicing the coffee. Happy hour, indeed. And I think you should pound on the door as little during their jam sessions- really up the "everyone wants in here" factor.

Jenni- been thinking of you lately. Good to see you here.

Katie- I had an aversion to homeschooling in general so I understand that it is a journey in figuring out where to land. Keep working it through!

Thanks for the comments!