How a Classical Approach Works For Us

By Nancy Renwick Clendenon, Midlothian

Originally published in the March-April 2012 VaHomeschoolers Voice.

When many homeschoolers give their first impression of what is meant by classical education, the phrases “three year history cycle,” “lots of Latin,” and “Susan Wise Bauer” may come up. But a classical approach to learning is far more than any of those things; in fact, it may not specifically involve any of them at all.

I will admit that my first exposure to classical homeschooling was through reading The Well-Trained Mind, a book that spoke to my own personal intellectual interests (read: too much time in liberal arts graduate school) and lined up quite nicely with what I gravitated to in school (major in English, minors in history and Classical languages). Alas, the ambitious plans set out in the book did not line up with my family reality—super-energetic boy twins and a 2-year-old. For the first few years homeschooling, I had a very eclectic approach to how we learned. As time has gone on, however, I have found myself very much embracing classical methods and they have woven them- selves in as a primary component of how we do things in my family.

Classical approaches get a bad rap sometimes as being just about “drill and kill.” In fairness, there is some drill and repetition, but I hope no one and nothing, including enthusiasm, gets killed. I had originally believed that learning the “grammar” of something meant having it exist in some holding pen of the brain in a somewhat meaningless state until an undetermined “later” time which might never come. However, for us it has not been that way at all. Yes, sometimes my children do memorize something that is currently little more than a pile of words (and my youngest son has speech issues and can barely pronounce some of what he will proudly recite). Still, it is often no time at all until they find an opportunity to move on to the crucial next step in classical learning—sometimes called the dialectic or logic phase: wanting to know more, making connections, dialoguing with other people, and really delving into the hows and whys. This might happen at a museum when we see something that mentions Louis XIV of France; when we pass a highway sign for the capital of North Carolina; while on vacation at the beach when they see a jellyfish or horseshoe crab and they can burst into song with what they already know about classification of invertebrates; or when my first grader plays an online math game where skip counting the sixes suddenly comes in very handy for reaching the next level and earning a token for the carnival.

The classical approach encourages us to develop and use a practical, basic study skill—the ability to determine the most important things we need to know about a new topic or subject.

In fact, often my kids become interested in digging deeper rather quickly because now they know something about the topic, perhaps one they may not have stumbled upon on their own. It makes our conversations about current events much richer and listening to our online history class much more engaging when we already have a base of knowledge. While studying simple machines using a science kit, my younger kids had a chance to use what they had already stored away in their brains about the First Law of Thermodynamics. What is critical to me about understanding classical education is that the much-talked about emphasis on memorization is really just the first step in a larger process of exploring, applying, and ultimately contributing something as a result of knowledge.

You can embed information in your head with so much more than a worksheet and a stopwatch. Some of my kids review using www.quizlet.com or by playing the geography game www.seterra.net on my iPhone and trying to beat a friend’s time. My middle-schoolers have played Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders where they cannot move their piece the allotted number of spaces or colors until they have answered a question on a card we’ve made. My 6-year-old happily sings himself to sleep most nights with songs about Charlemagne or the parts of the food chain. Some of my children like to draw whatever they are learning until they can do it quickly and from memory.

Fortunately for us, learning classically has been compatible with all different learning styles and modalities. One of my children is very much an auditory learner; one of them learns especially well through drawing or hands-on projects; one of them needs to see patterns and rhythms; and one impatiently just wants to know whatever she needs so she can move on. One of them has, in the past, had a documented challenge in the area of long-term memory. In fact, rather than being a poor fit for him because he has had trouble recalling or storing what he knows, taking a classical approach has helped him build his repertoire of ways to catalog and process information. I would almost say it has been like a therapy. All of my children, who have very different strengths and styles, have literally amazed me with what they have been able to accomplish in terms of recalling and synthesizing.

The classical approach encourages us to develop and use a practical, basic study skill—the ability to determine the most important things we need to know about a new topic or subject. This past fall, my ten-year-old daughter and some of her friends learned about botany together with a weekly science group I facilitated. We covered a lot of information (more than I ever did even in high school) as we did scavenger hunts, performed experiments, dissected things, and classified leaves. Now that I think more from a classical perspective, I realize that much of what we did will be forgotten, but there are two or three things I want them to take away and never forget (or at least ring a huge bell when they see it in a high school or college biology class). One week it may be three purposes of roots. Another week we might have dissected flowers and seen and labeled a lot of parts; if they remember nothing else, I hope they recall that the stamen is the male part because it has the word “men” in it and the carpel is the female part because “my Mom drives the carpool to dance.” Next time they encounter these plant parts, whether in a class or on a sunny spring day at the botanical garden, I hope they will have more brain energy for learning new material because this information is already a part of them.

My younger two children attend Classical Conversations, a once-a-week program where they are introduced to new memory work across a range of subjects and can play review games in a group. To be sure, it has taught me many tips, tricks, tools, and methods for helping all kinds of learners do learning classically. Additionally, it has been a help for my entire family by the process of osmosis that so many homeschooling families are familiar with — one person does something, and it trickles down or bubbles up to the others. Because we are constantly listening in the car to the Classical Conversations CD and many more materials available through file sharing, my older kids also (probably much to their chagrin) find themselves with the goofy songs stuck in their heads — U.S. presidents, a timeline, parts of speech, irregular verbs, the first ten constitutional amendments.

Most—maybe all?—of the curricula that my two older boys use are not specifically or overtly classical.

I see [my children] becoming truly excited about moving on to the critical next steps of the classical style of learning—making connections between things they know and recognizing ways they can use the knowledge they have been accumulating to express their own thoughts, interpretations, and explanations of what they read, hear, and experience in the world around them.

However, the way that we use what we use often is. Although they have a mainstream textbook for math, I take to heart the classical practice of being positive that they know the basic terms and operations and have rules or options for how to do a task down pat. It might mean taking two minutes before they start work each day to have them repeat three methods for graphing a linear equation and have them write down the slope-intercept formula and standard form. With a foreign language, it might mean having them jot down on a dry-erase chart the verb conjugations they have learned so far. With spelling using All About Spelling, it might mean always starting a lesson by repeating rules, like when to use “c” or “k” to make the /k/ sound, even if they do roll their eyes a little. With a writing program like Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW), it may mean rattling off the various sentence openers or coordinating conjunctions. When they do little bits of review often, the work and recall becomes quick and practically effortless.

Whereas I thought that classical education sounded kind of stressful and daunting when I first read about it, it has actually turned out to be kind of comforting. And believe it or not, it has even been a time-saver and has assuaged some of the guilt I seem to constantly feel as a homeschooler — guilt that we are not doing enough. While we still have as many organizational difficulties as ever, and we still don’t get to all of the Chemistry Experiments You Can Eat and crafty history hands-on stuff that I promise myself in September that we’ll do, I can see that my kids do know things, even many hardcore academic things. And I know they know them because I can just ask them. My fourth grader is the one who seems to always get the short end of the stick, partly because she is the fabled Middle Child, and partly because she hates with a passion anything that looks like teaching or school. I know I am not alone in having a child who cannot stand not knowing something already but who becomes all bristles when someone tries to answer her questions. But I feel less angst when I reflect on how this year she can name all the presidents; knows all the states and capitals and their locations; can find several dozen rivers, mountain ranges, lakes, and features on a U.S. map; can give you a consistent and reliable definition for all the parts of speech, parts of a sentence, and parts of a verb; and can tell a variety of tidbits from American and European history. In fact, because she is already armed with some of this confident knowledge, when she does learn in more detail about something, she is not starting from the place where she goes crazy because she may have to (gasp) ask some basic questions. And this particular learning got into her with minimal time investment. Adding just a few more things each week and then reviewing what has been covered in previous weeks may only take twenty or so minutes a day, but done consistently produces lasting results.

For my family, perhaps the best benefit of embracing a classical approach to learning is that we have all felt empowered. I really do abhor that word, but it is probably the most apt descriptor of what getting a certain amount of information in our head about various topics has done for all of us. My oldest two are proud of how much they know about world geography, and that they can locate just about any place they read about in the newspaper or hear about on television. My youngest son beams when he tells someone about the phases of the moon or about Charlemagne because the information is really a part of him. When they can devise a strategy for learning new information on their own or demonstrate some of what they have worked to make second nature, they all feel like they can say, “I’ve got skills!” Best of all, I see them becoming truly excited about moving on to the critical next steps of the classical style of learning — making connections between things they know and recognizing ways they can use the knowledge they have been accumulating to express their own thoughts, interpretations, and explanations of what they read, hear, and experience in the world around them.

About the Author

Nancy Renwick Clendenon homeschools using classical and other approaches in Midlothian. Her four children, Walter (13), Ollie (13), Frances (10), and Rutledge (6), she will admit, are occasionally called upon to perform some kind of memory work parlor trick for grandparents.

Originally published in the March-April 2012 VaHomeschoolers Voice.

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