In an earlier post on the topic of Classical education, I promised to ponder the staffing/scheduling problem with the whole-school-in-one-time-period method, suggest ways of integrating math and science, give examples of interdisciplinary lessons, and relate some observations of the Classical school I visited. Well, I still intend to do that, but I’d like to take the discussion out of order. I’d like to share with you what I observed at a Classical school I visited.
On Tuesday, January 26th, I visited a Classical school that shall remain nameless. Most of what I have to say is positive, but I also intend to critique, or at least query, so there’s no need to incriminate anyone. This school is only seven years old. When a Classical school opens, it usually does so with only the first few grades. This is mainly because it could not function properly as a Classical school if it had only transfer students in the upper grades; students cannot do the Classical thing in middle- and high-school unless they’ve been properly trained in it during their younger years. Now, Classical schools will take transfer students (they put them through a summer program to try to get them caught up), but they don’t want any one grade to consist of exclusively transfer students, or even for transfers to be the majority; that would compromise the integrity of the program. This school, therefore, only goes up to 9th grade. So right off the bat, that meant I didn’t get to see any of the results of the Grammar phase working in the Rhetoric phase; I didn’t get to see whether Classical high school students are more articulate, better writers, more critically aware abstract thinkers, more well-informed, or better behaved than the plain vanilla variety—or than my homeschoolers. I did sit in on part of a history/literature class of 7th-9th graders studying Herodatus. I was only there for half an hour, so I really can’t judge—but I wasn’t impressed. My middle school students are more engaged with the material than those students were. They appeared uninterested and the few questions they asked or answered did not reveal any deep understanding of—anything, really. But as I said, that’s not really enough to go by.
But there were a few other funny things that surprised me.
Funny thing # one: the school was not organized around any historical rotation. They do try to have students study the same time period in history and literature during most grades, but there’s no sense of “First grade is the Ancient Period” or “Academic Year 2010-2011 will be The Baroque” as I expected. Maybe I expected too much; maybe the unity of history and literature is all I ought to look for.
Funny thing # two: the Grammar phase, the “parrot” stage, lasts all through sixth grade in that school. I expected it to last only through fourth grade. After that, kids get super bored with repetition; they’re asking “WHY?” by age 10, 11, or certainly 12 (unless they have a developmental disability). At that point, as soon as they start asking that question, push them forward! Let them go on! Start teaching them logic and let them debate.
Now, I did observe half an hour or so of a 5th-6th grade combined class that was studying poetry for the first time; that day was their first introduction to poetry. [As a poet and avid teacher of poetry, both the study of it and the writing of it, I am about to die of shock that they didn’t encounter poetry until January 26th of their 6th grade year, but that’s beside the point. I guess. What in the world were they doing the rest of the year—the rest of the 5 ½ years??? How do you study the literature Ancient Greece and Rome without studying poetry? it’s all in verse!!!]. This class was not doing the rote memory thing. The teacher was doing almost exactly what I do when I give an introduction to poetry. She had them brainstorm what they thought poetry was, then she gave them an “official” definition, then she gave a handout that included a random selection of poems and they read them and did some activities with them. Not bad. But the:
Funny thing # three: During that poetry class, the following odd occurrence startled me. On the board, the teacher put a list of what she called “categories” for poetry, then proceeded to list “Nature,” “Religious,” “Descriptive,” “Narrative,” and “Humorous.” Why in the world didn’t she teach them the term “GENRES” and then give them the actual genre names (pastoral, lyric, and so on)? I mean, if this is a Classical school in which students are supposed to be drilled in all the most time-honored facts and figures, learning Latin by the time they’re 7 and learning how to think critically by the time they’re 14, surely 6th graders can handle the word “Genre.” I teach it to my middle schoolers, no problem. That was weird. It felt an awful lot like dumbing down, to me. Hum.
Funny thing # 4: I understood why the biggest criticism leveled at Classical schools is that “You’re just teaching them to parrot facts, not to think or to understand!” And this was exacerbated, I believe, by extending the Grammar stage thought 6th grade. I observed a 4th grade English class. For at least 15 minutes, the teacher stood up in front and held up one big flash card after another. On the front of the card, the side the students saw, was a prefix, suffix, or other morpheme. On the other side, apparently, was a super complicated rule about how that morpheme gets used in the spelling of English words. Not its meaning, just its spelling (and sometimes pronunciation). The students were required to rattle off, in unison, that rule. I had never heard of any of these rules for different times –ight occurs, or how to use pairs of vowels, or any of this stuff. And the poor kids just mumble through it as fast as they possibly could without the slightest symptom of comprehension. Naturally enough, they were awfully fidgety, wiggling and swivling around. So was I, inside.
All of that rather confused me. Perhaps I wasn’t there long enough to see how well it really works. I intend to email the high school English teacher and ask to read some writing samples, so I can see if student writing is better via this method than the others I’ve encountered. Maybe I should go back in a few years and talk to some seniors. Or maybe I’ll visit another, longer-running, school closer to me.
Sorry: I said this post would be mostly positive. I guess I didn’t get to the positive stuff. Good thing I withheld the name of the school!
In future posts, I'll compare the homeschool program where I now teach to the official Classical method. Perhaps I’ll dedicate a post in future to the problem a Classical education faces during the decline of “Western” culture. I’ll also post a bibliography at the end of the series.