31 January 2010

Faith, Arts, and Education: Classical Ed. part 3

In my last post, I mentioned that there are various ways of organizing the historical-time-period rotation in a school (or homeschool) that follows the Classical method of education.

One of the distinctive features of a Classical education, as I currently understand it—or maybe as I recommend it?—is the organization of all subjects and courses around an historical framework. Either each grade level or each academic year is assigned an Era: all classes and projects in that grade or year are more or less related to that time period. I’ll discuss how to do that soon; right now, I want to suggest some rotation patterns that I’ve come across in my reading or personal experience.

But first, a huge caveat. Actually, two caveats. Caveat the first: the time periods are organized according to movements or events in “Western” history; i.e., European and American (which sometimes includes Russia, the north-eastern part of Africa, the “Middle East,” and perhaps Australia) history. The argument for this, in an increasingly global world, multi-cultural awareness, and privileging of minority groups and their cultures of origin, is that a student needs a foundation, so we might as well give him the one we know best and from which most of his heritage (either via bloodlines or geographically) came. For schools in Europe and America, this still might be true; however, it is less and less so each year. Perhaps I’ll dedicate a post in future to the problem a Classical education faces during the decline of “Western” culture.

Caveat the second: the names and dates of the time periods are extremely debatable. With only a few exceptions, there was no one day, or even year, when everything changed suddenly and distinctly enough for the beginning and end of eras to be marked with certainty. Even when something did change in, say, painting, it may have taken a long time to carry over into music, or literature, or politics. So if you are the administrator of a Classical school or a homeschool Mom, feel free to debate with, modify, rename, and otherwise mess with these labels and dates.

All right: The Rotations.

1. In my first post on Classical education, I suggested a Twelve-Year, Eight-Era Rotation Containing Three Repetitions. This is, according to Susan Wise Bauer, the best method, because repetitions of the historical cycle allow for greater depth in each repetition as the student’s mind develops. Here it is again:
1st, 5th, and 9th grades: Ancient (creation-0 B.C.) & Apostolic (0-500 A.D.)
2nd, 6th, and 10th grades: Medieval (500-1300) & Renaissance (1300-1660)
3rd, 7th, and 11th grades: Neoclassical (1660-1789) & Romantic (1789-1900)
4th, 8th, and 12th grades: Modern (1900-1960) & Postmodern (1960-present)

2. Many teachers (myself included) feel that one semester is not nearly enough time for most of these time periods. So here’s a Twelve-Year , Six-Era Rotation Containing Two Repetitions; you present the first era mentioned during the fall term, and the second era during the spring term:
1st and 7th grade: Ancient (creation-0 B.C.) & Apostolic (0-500 A.D.)
2nd and 8th grade: Medieval (500-1100) & High Medieval (1100-1300)
3rd and 9th grade: Renaissance (1300-1517) & Reformation (1517-1660)
4th and 10th grade: Restoration (1660-1700) & Baroque (1700-1750)
5th and 11th grade: Romantic (1750-1830) & Victorian (1830-1900)
6th and 12th grade: Modern (1900-1960) & Postmodern (1960-present)
This is a nice one because it gives you lots of time to discuss historical events, first on a basic, then on a more detailed level, and to read lots of primary and secondary sources. Also, students only go through a time period twice, so they don’t feel “bored” the third time around. The problem is that it doesn’t fit the Trivium nicely; students would move from Grammar to Dialectic somewhere in the middle of the first one, and from Dialectic to Rhetoric in the last.

3. Suppose you don’t want to repeat time periods at all, and you feel that going through once fits with child development. The ancient (or classical) time period was a time of symmetry and balance that is reassuring to younger students, whereas the postmodern period is fraught with disaster, despair, and nihilism that should only be approached by students who have developed spiritual maturity. Here’s a way you can arrange your entire elementary & middle school around an All-School, Eight-Year, Eight-Era Rotation Without Repetitions:
Year 1: Ancient (creation-500 A.D.)
Year 2: Medieval (500-1300)
Year 3: Renaissance (1300-1660)
Year 4: Baroque (1660-1750)
Year 5: Romantic (1750-1830)
Year 6: Victorian (1830-1900)
Year 7: Modern (1900-1960)
Year 8: Postmodern (1960-present)
This is the best method for having the most time to really learn tons about the time period; it’s the only one that really allows English classes to read enough classics from the era. There are two ways to do it: either “Year 1” is first grade, “Year 2” is second grade, etc., OR you take your entire school, as a body, through the periods one academic year at a time. I haven’t worked through the latter in my mind yet, about how to staff it, etc.
The first way (Year 1 = first grade) doesn’t work too badly with the first two phases of the Trivium, I would imagine: little kids love mummies, pyramids, Greek gods and goddess. Students aren’t really ready for Freud and Derrida until they’re older (even 8th grade is pushing it for that stuff!). The biggest problem, academically, is that older students don’t get to study the old eras in depth unless they go on to a high school period that repeats.

That’s it for today. In later posts I’ll 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. I'll also compare the homeschool program where I now teach, and maybe I’ll investigate some other schools. Perhaps I’ll dedicate a post in future to the problem a Classical education faces during the decline of “Western” culture. A lot of other material related to this series of posts is available in the shortened version of a workshop I taught at a “MACSA conference back in the fall”; I’ll also post a bibliography at the end of the series.

30 January 2010

Faith, Arts, and Education: Classical Ed. part 2

In yesterday’s post, I promised to talk about the advantages of the Classical method of education. I believe that there are four major advantages of this method over any other I’ve ever encountered or heard described. They are as follows.

1) The Classical method is highly organized and structured, but allows lots of creativity and freedom (for both teachers and students) within its structure. Once a school decides what chronological structure to use, the order of courses is set. Students then proceed through the courses in a logical, systematic manner. Each class builds on the specific foundational elements laid in previous courses. As students grow older and more mature, and as they master more and more of the simple facts and ideas presented to them, they can take on more and more independence and exercise their own creativity within the historical contexts outlined by the rotation.
2) The Classical Trivium is designed to fit the stages of a child’s mental development. When children are very young, from around age 5 until maybe 9 or 10, they love rhymes, jingles, sing-song stories, metrical patterns, repetitions of sounds and gestures, and all things conducive to great feats of memory. Children can memorize enormous portions of Scripture at this age and can absorb a second language almost as easily as their native tongue. This is the time to study Latin or a modern language (or a few!) and to discipline students to repeat, repeat, repeat all kinds of tables, charts, and lists. When children get a little older and begin to develop abstract reasoning skills, they will no longer be content with the simple repetition of facts. There are two totally obvious symptoms of a student’s having reached this stage: s/he’ll be embarrassed by the cheesy rhymes and jingles, and s/he’ll start asking “Why?” about everything. Not every child reaches this second stage at the same time, so teachers and administrators need to be alert, sensitive, and flexible: they need to be ready to push a child ahead as soon as s/he exhibits those “dialectic” symptoms. Right now I teach a class of mixed ages, 11 to 17 all in one room. And there are 4 students in the class who have not reached Dialectic. They are not, interestingly enough, the 4 youngest. One of them is in 10th grade, but he has not yet developed abstract reasoning. One barely 11 year old has reached that stage. So if we were in an ideal Classical school, some of those older kids would be in the Grammar phase, while some of the younger ones would have moved on to Dialectic/Logic. The third phase, Rhetoric, capitalizes on teenagers’ need for independence and self-expression. My teaching experiences and observations suggest that this three-phase cycle is the best method for teaching to children’s developmental phases. But it has to be flexible and not lump kids in based on their age or grade.
3) The historical presentation of all courses makes the learning of history (both events and movements) natural. Since everything—and I mean everything, math and science along with the rest—is [ideally] presented in chronological order over a four, six, or eight year span, students don’t have to try to remember what came first: it’s whatever they studied first! And their social interactions and all school experiences will go together to helping them build an internal timeline. I can imagine conversations in which older teenagers try to recall when a certain historical event happened, and they’d say things like, “It must have been in the Baroque, because that’s when you weren’t talking to so-and-so, but you had to work with her in a group, remember?” or “That was in the Ancient period, because remember, we had Mr. So-and-So that year.”
4) Similarly, the unity of all subjects with one another through their historical contexts promotes synthesis. I remember being shocked to discover (way too late in life; I won’t admit when!) that Mozart, Wordsworth, and George Washington were contemporaries (Wordsworth was born a bit later than the other two, but they overlapped). Mozart seemed very old-fashioned to me: witness the symmetry, balance, and apparent “simplicity” of many of his works to the superficial listener. George Washington seemed even longer-ago; I mean, he founded this ancient country in which I live! But Wordsworth, with his long, lush lines, natural meters, and soaring sublimity, seemed much later. I remember being astonished to find that Richard Strauss died the year my mother was born (sorry, Mom!); I thought, since he wrote “Classical” music [really just “good” music] that he had to have lived hundreds of years ago! And experiences like that abound. It wasn’t until college that I was first asked to think about how ideas affected events and vice-versa, or how mental movements became distinguishing marks of time periods, or how currents of thought washed across continents and over oceans to influence several cultures, or how the events of one period set in motion causes whose effects could be seen centuries later. The one purpose of a Classical education, at least as I imagine it in its ideal form, is to create a synthesized understanding of all [Western] subjects, through their historical contexts, in its students.

In later posts I’ll discuss the various historical time-period rotations that can be used, methods for integrating math and science, examples of interdisciplinary lessons, and observations of the Classical school I visited. I'll also compare the homeschool program where I now teach, and maybe investigate some other schools.

29 January 2010

Faith, Arts, and Education: Classical Ed. part 1

I've been pondering and researching, in a small way, various types of Christian education in my area. Earlier this week I visited a "Classical" school in NJ to see the Classical method in action.

The Classical method became popular after Dorothy Sayers gave a speech entitled "The Lost Tools of Learning". This gives a very good overview of the problems that plagued British education then (and which, it could be argued, plague American education today) and her suggested solution. Her main proposal was a reinstitution of the Trivium, a three-stage developmental approach to eduction. This is the first of the two main aspects of a Classical education:
I. GRAMMAR, or "Parrot" stage, generally grades 1-4, repetition and memorization of facts (names, dates, the alphabet, verb conjugations, Latin declension, timelines, the multiplication table, the periodic table of the elements....)
II. called variously LOGIC or DIALECTIC, the "Pert" phase. Generally grades 5-8, when students begin to ask "Why?" It focuses on cause and effect, connections, reasons, influences, movements, ideas, schools of thought, and so on. Debate is a main tool of learning at this stage, when critical thinking skills are developed.
III. RHETORIC, or "Poetic" level. Usually grades 9-12, when well-trained students can begin producing works themselves (literary interpretations, original solutions to mathematical problems, experimentations on self-chosen scientific hypotheses, defenses of positions, hands-on technical or mechanical productions, and original creative work/performances). Students should be encouraged to chose a major area of focus during this time and to pursue somewhat independent work with teacher guidance.

The other main aspect of a Classical education, at least according to Susan Wise Bauer, a proponent of Classical education in the homeschool, is a chronological arrangement and synthesis of courses. The curriculum should rotate through a series of historical time periods, and all classes should be presented from the point of view of that era. There are various ways to do this; here is one:

Twelve-Year, Eight-Era Rotation Containing Three Repetitions
1st, 5th, and 9th grades: Ancient (creation-0 B.C.) & Apostolic (0-500 A.D.)
2nd, 6th, and 10th grades: Medieval (500-1300) & Renaissance (1300-1660)
3rd, 7th, and 11th grades: Neoclassical (1660-1789) & Romantic (1789-1900)
4th, 8th, and 12th grades: Modern (1900-1960) & Postmodern (1960-present)

What's relevant for this blog about the Classical method is that it is ideally suited for teaching a Christian worldview and for integrating the Arts. One can teach the history through a Christian interpretation (note: A Christian interpretation; I don't believe there's just one), focusing [of course] on "Western" history (one can't teach it all).

That's all I will say today. In subsequent posts, I intend to talk about the advantages of this method, other rotations that can be used, methods for integrating math and science, examples of interdisciplinary lessons, and observations of the Classical school I visited. I'll also compare the homeschool program where I now teach, and maybe investigate some other schools.

But for now, I'd like to hear from anybody who teaches at a Classical school, who attends/ed one, or who uses the method at home. Do you employ these two aspects? How do they work?

11 January 2010

Ekphrasis Report #2

There have been two meetings of Ekphrasis since I last reported; I’ll report on the earlier one here.

The December meeting of Ekphrasis was not as successful as others have been in the past, primarily because of the setting. I love Starbucks, but I hope that’s the last time I have to try to coordinate eight people listening to poetry and short stories over the sound of the latte whirling machines, canned Holiday music, and clamorous Christmas shoppers stopping in for something hot. We were crouched over two of those little round tables, leaning in, trying to hear one another, trying to remain polite over interruptions by random acquaintances dropping by for coffee and children of members dropping by for money, trying to maneuvre the inevitable generation gap created by the (at least) 40-year age span represented in our group. Furthermore, no one from the Master’s Academy was able to attend, due to a performance of Little Women in which most of them were involved—and MAFA people always add humour and quality work. However, there was still some good work shared, and I’ll talk about it a little here.

DM and ES did not bring physical work to share; instead, they spent time talking about a movie they are currently filming. DM is doing story-boarding for the film (for which his brother wrote the script); ES is playing the female lead. I asked as much as I could in the short time about what film acting is like compared to stage acting: you don’t go through the story in order, you do multiple takes of one scene, you’re not necessarily surrounded by the people and objects to which your character is responding. In other words, I suppose, it take much more acting! Stage actors have the opportunity to be immersed in the character. Except for the time spent backstage (which I suppose could be as disorienting as filming out of order), you are that character, and enact certain scenes in her life in real time. ES has done both, and said she really likes film acting. I asked about memorizing lines; for this particular film, the director said DON’T memorize; he wants them to get a general idea of what is to happen in each scene, then improvise in their own style of speech, for an impression of realism. So that’s one huge difference between this kind of film and, say, filming a Shakespeare play or a Jane Austen novel. There are some awful moments in making a movie, though. One night, it was below freezing, and they were filming an outdoor scene. ES’s character was, at that moment, lying on the pavement (wounded, I believe, by zombies?). So ES spent AGES lying on the freezing pavement while they did take after take. Her hands were freezing, so someone lent her his gloves in between takes. The only problem with that was that she had to wear makeup on her hand—the characters hands were filthy at that point. So every time she took the gloves off, off came the makeup inside the gloves, and the makeup artists had to swoop in again and redo her hands. Meanwhile, she’s still stretched out on the freezing pavement! Yikes. Ah, the pains we suffer for art.

If you have ever been in a film, maybe you can share some of your experiences here, and especially what makes it different from stage acting (and which you prefer).

MD attended for the first time, and she brought a new genre to our attention: children’s literature. She has begun writing children’s books on several levels. What she shared to us that evening was a selection from a book for a very young child, and she intends for it to be part of a series. This one was set on the sea shore, and she hopes to write ones responding to other geographical features: the desert, the forest. She dedicated and sent it to her first grandchild, so it had a personal motivation. That’s good: her audience was perfectly clear in her mind, and so was the narrative persona, because she intentionally wrote it in her own voice, rather than trying to take on some other tone. This book lead us into two discussions. The first was about how to teach information without being didactic. There were places in which she wrote, “These are called such-and-such” or “This is what we call the so-and-so.” We encouraged her to simply work the terms into the narrative, because since a little child is learning everything for the first time, no one term needs to be taught in a specific teaching context (in that kind of book). We suggested just working those words smoothly into the prose as a whole. The second discussion was based on the premise that a good children’s book can be enjoyed by any age, and a book that is for children only really isn’t good for anyone. On that basis, we encouraged her to seek ways of crafting and structuring the prose. She already had repetition; we suggested meter, or closer attention to consonance, and a keener eye to the prose itself. In other words, we didn’t want anything to be sloppy, cheesy, or inattentive just because it’s for a kid-reader.

If you are a writer of children’s literature, maybe you can add your thoughts here. Or just as a sensitive reader: what is it about a really great kid’s book that makes you want to reread it when you’re 10, 20, 40, 70?

JM shared a poem he’s working on that was a parody of the Lord’s Prayer. While moments of it (and the whole idea) put me in mind of Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” this was not a rip-off of Eliot. It was distinctive. It was a much closer parody, too, very cleverly changing just a word or phrase here and there from the original Prayer—which actually had a more devastating effect than a whole new poem made to critique the Prayer would have had. It was a very honest poem about the author’s anger and struggles with faith, too. That of course ties in to what I always encourage: spiritual honesty. I don’t want sunshine and roses if you haven’t got any sunshine and roses. As a matter of fact, the sunshine and roses are probably better left for the greeting card industry, because it’s only on birthdays that we really get those in unstinting measure. The rest of the time mud and acid rain are more appropriate. At least, that’s my experience.

But I’m going to talk later about how far one can go and still be a creator of “Christian” art—or even a Christian making art. Surely there must be a line, beyond which too much profanity, or heresy, or pornography, disqualifies one from membership in the roll of “Christian artists”?

JL next shared the very beginning of a work of modern apologetics he wants to do. He felt troubled by the lack of belief in the world and wanted to do some kind of contemporary C. S. Lewis sort of thing. So he started writing a book—a play? a novel?—a kind of dialogue in which a young skeptic was dating a Christian girl, and the two were going to have serious debates about the guy’s objections to Christianity. A great premise. I suggested that JL read the works of Peter Kreeft, who has written several pieces that he calls “Socratic dialogues” in which characters, historical or fictional, meet and debate religious topics. Now, I warned JL against using Kreeft’s prose as a model; his prose is extremely clumsy and elementary. And then, come to think of it, so are his logic, characterization, and conclusions. He really takes the easy cheesy way out, by making his Christian characters smarter than his atheists, until the non-Christians are no more than straw men. And the prose is so bad that it makes me sick at my stomach. So, we really just wanted JL to take a look at these books to see what has been done recently. But there was a more fundamental discussion that went on. JL was planning to use, in his book, questions that we’re pretty sure are out of date: very Medieval, esoteric queries with no connection to “real life” or to today’s young people. JL is a teacher of both high school and college English. So first we suggested that he listen to the questions they are asking. We told him that today’s young person is not at all concerned with the types of questions he had in mind, and not really even with the classic, “If God exists, why is the world such a mess?” Really, we’re way beyond even that. Beyond good and evil, to use Nietzsche’s phrase. In order to know that the world is messed up, you have to have a standard of what it would mean to NOT be messed up. And perhaps the average Joe has that. But not the average academic, in which I include college students and the more informed and intelligent high school students. It’s not about that anymore. It’s not about right and wrong. It’s not about God’s existence or nonexistence. It’s not about binaries. We have absorbed Deconstruction, and moved on. JM suggested that JL might get more of an idea if he read some Eastern stuff, mysticism and so forth, perhaps starting with the poet Rumi.

But then JM had an even better idea. Don’t speculate what questions other might be asking. Don’t even poll them to find out what they’re asking. Instead (the old, tried-and-true adage), write what you know. Imagine what questions you’d be asking if you were a skeptic or an out-and-out atheist. Look deep inside and find your own personal demons. JL liked that. And he can do that, I know. He’s done a bit of that in his first novel. Whatever those problems are, the inability to really believe, the sense of isolation in the universe, the sick terror of eternity, or whatever else, they’ll be universal and timeless. Great suggestion.

Then CG shared a poem with us. She is planning to apply to an MFA program soon, and so brings a poem for good critique and workshopping each time. This poem was one of my favorites of all those she’s shared. It was “about” gardening and her grandmother, but it took a neat approach. It began with large language, using a larger, more important issue (orphans, needy children) as metaphor for something smaller (flowers, tomato plants). I liked that. I was very glad that it wasn’t the other way around (using the plants as metaphor for children), because that would have been cliché. This way was better. And there were some great descriptive moments, some powerful sounds and images. Very nice!

At the end, when we were whittled down to a smaller group (most of the “grown-ups” besides myself having left early for their family obligations), I shared my article about three modes of writing one’s theology. The group made some suggestions, most of which I was able to incorporate before it was published. I also shared a parody of one of my own poems, which I’d written for DM—about zombies. ;)

07 January 2010

Arts & Faith's Top 100 Spiritually Significant Films

I created this document based on the list posted on Arts & Faith (the 2008/2009's version of the list, which they plan to update at some point this year) and descriptions from Moviemail (with their permission), since I thought it would be helpful to have all the info in one place. Original sources cited at the bottom of the document. Hope you find this useful when deciding what movies to rent. Most of these should spark some very good deep discussions. Enjoy! (Incidentally, I've seen 39 of the films on this list. Most of the rest of them are ones I want to see and will eventually make it onto my actual queue at Videomatica.)

Arts & Faith’s Top 100 Spiritually Significant Films

05 January 2010

Great Christian filmmaking

I'm going to take the liberty of reposting here a comment made on Facebook by Jeffrey Overstreet (author of Through a Screen Darkly and film reviewer for Christianity Today), because it's worth spreading far and wide. (Well it's probably already spread farther and wider among his 1497 FB friends than this blog's readership will reach, but this will reach some who might not otherwise have seen it.)
Many Christians say we need "Christian movies." And yet when a Christian makes a great movie about love & reconciliation - one that wins raves, wins awards at international film festivals, and appears on Top 10 Lists - the Christian media & the Christian filmmaking communities ignore it almost entirely. Read Roger Ebert's review of "Munyurangabo" (he calls it "a masterpiece"). See? When Christians make great art, it's recognized & embraced. But when mediocre, preachy stuff by Christians is criticized, Christians claim it's "anti-Christian bias".
I haven't seen "Munyurangabo" yet but it's now on my list of movies to see!

02 January 2010

"Stranger Than Diction"

I've written a little article about various ways to share/express/smuggle our faith into our arts. It's been published in the online version of Cardus's journal Comment. (click the title of this post to link to the article).


~ Sørina

01 January 2010

January Poem of the Month

This stanzaic, Medieval-minimalist poem was inspired by the Hopkins sonnet that I posted for Christmas. And the image off of which it grew is taken from a Chinese Checkers board on which I remember playing as a child. There are other allusions, images, and ideas that tie it together. Can you figure out what they are? What are the four dragons? What is the "ether"? And where did I get the "Stylized winds with ridiculous cheeks"?

Mappa Mundi

Four mortal dragons corner the earth
As capitals gild the Evangelists
With prodigal colour, with glory-ink:
Ecstatic, illuminates fear.

Dragonflies draw down spears of fire
and dragonwings weave the visible air
while dragonwalks stalk a thunder land
and dragondeeps quiet the sea.

Scarlet are their mile-long tongues:
Golden their keyhole irises.
The planet is squared in their slender bones
And time quartered between.

Dragonflies draw down spears of flame
and dragonwings weave the visible sky
while dragonwalks stalk a thunder ground
and dragondeeps quiet the waves.

Earth lies spread like an ancient chart
Before the eyes of its dragon kings.
Rivers are lapis lazuli chains,
Cities scales of bronze.

Dragonflies draw down shafts of flame
and dragonwings spin the invisible light
while dragonwalks tread a thunder drum
and dragondeeps silence the waves.

Stylized winds with ridiculous cheeks
Embouchure every joint of the frame,
Cool with their breath the dragon smoke,
And stir the parchment waves.

Dragonflies loose their fiery shafts
and dragonwings visit the spin of their sight
while dragonwalks thunder a trampled beat
and dragondeeps see into silence.

Four phases of spirit, four inspired flames
Inhale and exhale the germens of earth
And in turn are breathed forth from beyond the page
By the nimbus, the ether——the All?

Dragonflies draw down spears of fire
and dragonwings weave the visible air
while dragonwalks stalk a thunder land
and dragondeeps quiet the sea.

~ Sørina