Why We Educate at Home, a Discussion of the Classical Education Method

The Smithsonian Institution’s recipe for genius and leadership:

  1. Children should spend a great deal of time with loving, educationally minded parents;
  2. Children should be allowed a lot of free exploration; and
  3. Children should have little to no association with peers outside of family and relatives. –H. McCurdy

My husband and I have no qualms about our style of parenting, which is so tied up in home education. He grew up beside his father in a greenhouse. Our first apartment at 500 sq ft, had 31 houseplants in it. He now works as a landscape designer. So we understand this analogy: Children are like little plants. You take the seed and put it in a little cup of the best topsoil. You give it lots of light. You gently sprinkle it with drops of water so the delicate leaves aren’t broken. When it gets a decent root system, you transplant it to a bigger pot. You protect it from the wind and the hottest sun. You bring it in when there’s a freeze. You don’t put it out where the dog will trample it or a deer will eat the buds. When its well-established, and the season is right, you can transplant it finally to its place outside your home. Then it will do well on its own in the downpours and coldest winters.

So we plan to raise our children, protecting them and ensuring they are firmly established before they go out into the world. It is our hope that they do much better at surviving their relationships and careers with such a secure beginning. Our family follows the Classical Education model. I use the book, “The Well-Trained Mind” as the base for our curriculum. The basic premise of the classical method is the breakdown of education into three sections which each build on each other. First is the Grammar stage, generally 1st-4th grades, in which a child’s curiosity is encouraged by just stuffing them full of images and facts. The next stage is the Logic stage, generally 5th- 8th grades, where an adolescent begins to find the answers to the how and why of what they learned in the Grammar stage. Last is the Rhetoric stage, in which 9th -12th graders learn how to coherently express what they have learned. In Classical Education, all learning follows history as its base and the other subjects work around it. In addition, a student goes over the same material three times in his education (cycling through the material once in each stage).

An example of this is our reading material. Ideally, it should be exciting to entrance and interest the first grader, in-depth for the questioning fifth grader, and even more interesting and in depth for the ninth grader. In our home, I buy books on a fifth grade level to read to our first grader, and when we cycle back to the same material in the fifth grade, they read it for themselves, and in ninth grade they read source material. For example, I read The Trojan War and the 12 Labors of Hercules to my first grader. All of my children were enthralled. There were no pictures except those that streamed through their imaginations. Then, when we return to ancient history in the fifth grade, she will curl up on the couch and read about Hercules on her own. This time she’ll learn that mom edited out the reason why he was assigned the 12 tasks: he killed his wife and children in a drunken rage. Then, when she returns again to the ancients in the ninth grade, she won’t be intimidated by reading Homer’s Illiad itself in the poetic original version. What’s to be afraid of, when you’re already familiar with the times and places? Also, when she was taught astronomy in the second grade, she already knew the story behind the crab-shaped constellation, from last year when she saw Hercules toss him into the sky in her mind’s eye.

I was looking at a book from a series aimed at second-graders, called Junie B. Jones. It is listed on reading lists for this age group- yet it has sentences starting with conjunctions and fragments on every page. It has adjectives like bestest. It frequently says me and her. On a whim I looked up classical literature for this age group. I found rough breakdowns of classical literature by grade level. One example was The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. The first five sentences in The Velveteen Rabbit had an average of 29.2 words in each sentence. The first five sentences of Junie B. Jones and her Big Fat Mouth had an average of 5.4 words per sentence.

An example of one of the more complex sentences which I found in JBJ & her Big Fat Mouth was “Eating things that you find on the ground is very, very dangerous.” I gave it another try and found “That’s because I had tingling excitement in me about Job Day.” In addition to using more complex sentence structure, Williams does not pare down her vocabulary to meet the child reader. Look how this sentence from The Velveteen Rabbit teaches the meaning of the word superior: “The mechanical toys were very superior, and looked down upon every one else; they were full of modern ideas, and pretended they were real.” JBJ is so full of incorrect grammar and simple sentences because it is written from the point of view of a modern first-grader, who would actually speak like that (unfortunately) and have simple interactions. However, there are quite a few older books, written in a different time, from the point of view of a five-year-old (Heidi, Little House series). They are also more complex and descriptive and are much preferred to modern books written for our young people.

Another difference found in the Classical Education model is the emphasis of the use of whole books instead of readers. In public schools today, segments of books are printed in textbooks with summary questions at the end. The publisher chops the most exciting or pertinent portions of a work out, puts it in the textbook, and asks directed questions which can be answered by that portion. Then we wonder later why kids can’t dig through a whole book and find themes when it is not spelled out to them!

I encourage you to challenge your child’s reading level by not feeding them Goosebumps or Sweet Valley High, Babysitter’s Club, or such books. Yes, your child is reading, but she is not really being challenged when she only reads about familiar locales in familiar phrasing. Always read what is a little difficult, not playground conversation in written form. When I was in middle school I really enjoyed the Sackett series by Louis L’Amour. A few of them are written from the point of view of a young girl. They give excellent images of early backwoods Eastern America. They encourage determination, hard work, overcoming obstacles, honesty, trustworthiness, gumption, and a host of other excellent qualities.

Those are virtues I would hope that any parent would like to see cultivated in their child. But because educating at home is solely the responsibility of the parents, these are especially crucial. As homeschoolers, we have great freedom to:

  • Do our schoolwork wherever we want
  • Wear whatever we want
  • Go at whatever pace we choose
  • Drop work we already know
  • Spend extra time on topics we love
  • Do our work whenever we want
  • Take breaks or work through

but these freedoms give us responsibilities that families with children in regular schools don’t carry. They aren’t held accountable for what is (or isn’t) learned. They don’t have to be personally disciplined to cover the material or lessons themselves. They have an outside authority taking care of all that, who will be held accountable in a public forum. As home educators, we have to force ourselves take care of the objectives. We meet the goals which we set for ourselves, or we don’t. No one else will come in and check on us. We have to be responsible for our own education, and that means getting the work done and then doing the playing. So traits like persistence, responsibility, determination, honesty and the ability to do hard work are instilled in each work day, as much as math, science, history or English skills are. Unlike those who defer the education of their children to others, we are able and willing to drop the spelling lesson and address the poor attitude. We can put the multiplication drills on hold until the whining is under control. We can give time to grieve a lost grandparent before expecting academic performance to continue on uninterrupted. There are many, many reasons why we have chosen to educate our children at home. These are just a few.

Teresa Dear is a homeschooling mother of four. She and her husband of eleven years are not worried about the socialization of their children. You can follow the blog exploration of classical education in general and their homeschool lifestyle in particular at http://highereducation-mama4x.blogspot.com She divides her time between education, the house, the extra-curricular activities, shopping for curriculum, and stocking her http://www.mama4x.etsy.com storefront, where you can find handmade greeting cards and vintage ephemera.

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