Why Classical Education? Roots and Wings

by Angela Berkeley

Why Classical Homeschooling?    The answer is probably different for each family that chooses it.  Here is our story.

When I decided to homeschool, I had a wonderful library of homeschooling theory, practice, and curriculum books available to me, and I read voraciously about it. I was attracted to unschooling, particularly as it related to being a continuation of the way that very young children learn — led by their own curiosity, assisted by having parents, and others who are interesting in answering questions and delighting in learning new things themselves; and relying on self-motivation as the primary factor in educational direction. I thought that this sounded beautiful, and was confident that I could create an environment that would enrich this kind of approach. And I remembered how much I learned that way as a kid, reading on my own about varying subjects — ants, mountains, theology, chemistry, revolutionary war history, pioneer how-to skills, all kinds of things.

But what about skills? I was skeptical about whether a child would necessarily memorize the multiplication tables, or learn grammar, or learn essay forms of her own volition. How would a child even know that it is important to learn these things? Also, what about the developmental changes that made it easy for me to memorize things up to about the 5th grade, but more difficult after that? How would a child know what to memorize, and what would make sure that she did so during that key window? What about the known advantage in learning a foreign language as a child, crucial to developing a native accent? Why let those windows go by? And what would keep someone studying enough arithmetic (so boring) to prepare for learning actual mathematics? Could this method possibly end up giving children an excellent and well-rounded education? And was I willing to bet my daughter’s future on that assumption, even if, as some unschoolers I knew, she did not learn to read until she was 12? Sure, as an avid reader from childhood I could ensure that she would learn a ton of great things and enjoy fantastic conversations and stories and ideas and discoveries just by reading to her, but was that really going to end up enabling her to develop her own abilities? I love history, literature, and theology, and studied chemistry in college, so I had a well-rounded enough background to be able to create an enriched learning environment in our home, but I questioned whether facility in basic skills would ever result from that.

Then two pivotal factors arose. One was that I realized that my particular daughter needed to be taught to read, and sooner rather than later. She was hearing all her friends claim to be reading and starting to decide that she was just too dumb to read, because she would pick up a book and not be able to see what it said. Yet the informal work on reading that was supposed to lead to her ‘picking it up’ was not working — she had learned letter sounds, and I read to her for hours each day, but she was not connecting the words on the page with what she heard well enough to recognize them, nor was she sounding words out. We clearly needed a more structured approach, and Teach Your Child to Read in 100 EZ Lessons was the one we tried. This was not a response to her initiative, but it was a response to what she needed. And it was clear to me that arithmetic was going to need to be similarly structured. We weren’t going to be able to unschool after all.

The other factor was that I finally ran across The Well-Trained Mind.  And there it all was — a complete and thorough plan for a solid and appropriate education. This approach honored the developmental stages that children naturally grow through, starting with easy memorization and love of stories during the grammar stage, and progressing through increasingly more affinity toward logical patterns of knowledge during the logic stage, and then progressing further toward assimilating and critically considering new information in light of the broad body of knowledge that is already present during the rhetoric stage.

There is an emphasis on teaching skills gradually and in an age-appropriate way, using copywork, memorization, read-aloud books, reading acquisition, and oral work at first, and then progressing to more and more written work, more advanced grammar, composition, literary writing, and arithmetic, and then moving into advanced writing, difficult literature, and mathematics rather than just arithmetic. In parallel, the approach to teaching content was also engaging and age-appropriate — early exposure to foreign language study, hands on and demonstrated science study that included the language and the logic of science, history taught first as engaging stories, and then later filling in dates and details with timeline work, and literature progressing from discussion to writing summaries, then to increasingly complex literary analysis, and then full-fledged thesis papers at the most mature stage.

This made beautiful sense, and it was exactly what our family needed to teach skills well, and also to enjoy the learning of content. Additionally, it gave me the opportunity to convey both roots and wings. Roots were provided abundantly in the study of history, great literature, the work of great thinkers in math and science, foreign language competence and its relationship to English, and theology. Wings were conveyed in developing skills and knowledge to the point of being able to assimilate new information critically, to be able to approach learning any brand new subject with a clear methodology (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) that leads to mastery, and a broad enough exposure to lay a foundation for studies of any chosen discipline at the college level down the road.

Angela Berkeley–Although Angela Berkeley wanted to homeschool her daughter, she was unable to find others to partner with in this endeavor and felt that it was unfair to homeschool an only child; so she enrolled her in kindergarten. However, because the family was facing a mid-semester cross-country move during their daughter’s first grade year, she pulled her out to homeschool until they settled into their new home. This went so well, and her daughter liked it so much, that they ended up homeschooling through 8th grade.  Using an eclectic classical style, this was an extremely successful process, producing a confident, personable, and academically well-prepared entrant into a local high school.

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