Why Classical Education? High Standards, Customized, by Jen W.
I described in an earlier article how we fell into homeschooling. We fell into classical education in a similar manner. The Well-Trained Mind (TWTM) was first released in 1999, at the same time I was seeking information about homeschooling my eldest daughter. The ideas behind a neo-classical education appealed to me, from the idea of the Trivium to reading whole works of literature instead of excerpts from a textbook. Boxed curricula isn’t something that appealed to me; it didn’t feel natural or different enough from traditional school.
I combed through TWTM, carefully researching various programs and making elaborate schedules, even writing out a lesson plan for the entire year…in PEN! (I know, all of the veteran homeschooling moms are laughing now.) We’ve all been there, and most of us have figured out that it doesn’t generally work out as well in practice as it does in our heads or even on paper.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that there are various reactions from people when they find out I follow the ideas of classical education. They might get defensive, explaining why they didn’t want to do Latin. They might think I have too much time on my hands, that I am, in essence, designing my own curriculum. They might even say that it’s too stringent, not allowing time for creative play or to play to the strengths or weaknesses of a student. None of those things have been true in my experience.
My eldest is a senior this year. She completed two levels of Latin Primer before moving to Henle. She did Rosetta Stone Spanish and spent a year in a Spanish class for homeschooled kids. She suffered through the well-known boring but thorough “Traditional Logic.” She struggled through a variety of math programs before we found our groove. What did I learn? I learned that I was able to follow classical ideas in areas in which I am very comfortable while mixing more traditional forms of learning if and when I found it appropriate.
I majored in literature, and come from a family of history buffs. Those areas are my comfort zones. We follow TWTM closely in those subjects. I am less comfortable in science and math. We tend to use more traditional texts in those subjects. It may seem presumptuous (even sacrilegious!) to some people that I bastardize the program so heavily. But, when you listen to lectures that Susan Wise Bauer has given, read her blog, and watch videos from Peace Hill Press, you quickly realize that the intent was for you to pick and choose to customize your child’s education as you wish. The lists and schedules found in TWTM are descriptions of what might happen in a perfect world and while teaching a perfect child. But neither our world nor our children are perfect. We can adjust and allow for those imperfections.
The moment I realized I had been way too strict came when I was watching a video of Susan’s daughter doing spelling with a crayon. I never would have let my kids use crayon to write spelling words until that moment. I allowed myself to let go of the little things that only matter in a more traditional classroom. Why not do a spelling lesson in crayon? I try to ask myself that question more often now instead of strictly following a nebulous idea of a perfect classroom world. I’ve attended conventions, heard “experts” and spoken with veteran homeschool moms from all walks of life. None of our homeschools are perfect. There are “experts” whose child received a crash course in the 5-paragraph essay the week before the SAT or who had to spend two months doing nothing but Algebra because they fell so far behind. But, the education that they had received allowed them to quickly absorb and tackle the areas in which they were lacking.
The end goals of my homeschool are what I try to think about now. How do I help them love to learn? How do I help them learn to learn? What basic foundational tools will they need to accomplish those things? Learning to read fluently is a big one. Having a solid idea about the flow of history and how historical events relate to one another is another. Learning the basic language of math is the third. How to write a paper with a logical argument, sell themselves and comport themselves in public is the last (and yes, I think these are all tightly related). Everything else is a bonus.
I think one of the things that has helped my kids remain interested in learning is that I am interested in learning. When we make a scale model of the solar system, and I say, “WOW! Look how far away the sun is! That is amazing!” Well, they think that it’s amazing. I don’t think the fact that a text told us to make a scale model of the solar system makes it less delightful. How would I know how much delight I would take in creme brûlée, if I didn’t know that creme brûlée existed? When we talk about a book that we’ve both read and what we think it means, it has more meaning for them than a book I found too boring to read myself. I gave myself permission to do what I felt strongly about, even when it may have been put down as “too easy” here or there. For example, with my third child I finally learned my lesson about logic stage history. He is going through Story of the World a second time. I added videos, more difficult books, the tests, he outlines from a separate spine, etc. But, he is retaining the information better with the benefit of the narrative history text. So, I let go of the idea that he “should be” moving on to something higher level or more difficult in favor of better retention. Other moms will make different choices, and that’s okay!
In the end, this is what I like about neo-classical education. It is highly customizable. It allows you to work to your strengths and the strengths of your child. It allows you to shore up your weaknesses or your child’s weaknesses. It allows you to adjust texts and works of literature, and/or focus in history to feed the fires of your child’s interests. Most veteran homeschool moms who persevere throughout the school years learn these things the hard way. Listen to them. Learn from their experiences and relax a bit. It will make your home and your homeschool happier places to be.
Next year my eldest will head to college classes. She will be attending our local community college because (as a military family) we are likely to move the summer after her freshman year. I have no doubt that she will be successful both there and after she transfers to a four-year school. I know she will be successful despite (or maybe because of–who really knows?) my educational experimenting.
Jen W.– Jen is a born and bred Sooner who has spent twenty years following her military husband around the world. Jen started on her homeschooling journey when her eldest daughter learned to read at three years old, and she decided that she couldn’t screw up kindergarten that badly. That child is now a senior in high school, and they have both survived homeschooling throughout. Jen has two more children who are equally smart and have also homeschooled all along.