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Friday, January 4, 2013

Classical Education: Reflections on Student Teaching

My mom hates winter.  She hates the bone-biting cold and the dead trees and the hovering despair.  Most people see winter as holiday season, but mom has always been one to see under the tinsel and glitter.  Winter is winter.  To her, its purpose is to build anticipation for spring and get through it with as much family fun and positive outlook as one can muster.
Personally, spring means boxes of tissues and creative pollen avoidance methods.  So I don't mind winter so much.  In fact, I enjoy the moments I can spend at the kitchen table with some hot tea and a pen, enjoying cold winter light filtering past the trees in the yard and watching cardinals dip timid beaks into the frigid bird bath.  Today, I'm doing just that while listening to Susan Boyle's melancholy album "I Dreamed A Dream" and regretting that I've neglected my blog. Does anybody still read this thing?

A lot has happened since my last post.  There's a backlog of thoughts that need to be processed and writing is an effective method for doing so.  Read on if your brave enough to slog through reflections on student teaching at a classical school.  This is not a post for the faint of eye or for those uninterested in educational theory and practice.  :)


What's the difference between classical education and "regular" education?
If you're asking this question you were probably educated in a public school or a non-classical Christian school.  (There's a chance you were homeschooled, but in my experience a lot of homeschooled kids know about classical education.)  If that's the case you probably went to a "progressive" school which is currently the mainstream educational model.  "Normal," "mainstream," or "progressive" education is all the same thing.  It means that teachers teach material to meet the testing standards for the state.  They pull from state recognized textbooks and the goal is to get the student to know the information.
There's nothing inherently wrong with this model.  And, as I've learned, there are strengths and weaknesses to both models.  But I do believe classical education to be the superior choice for reasons I'll explain momentarily.

One thing to note: Kids in progressive schools are easily frustrated by the volume of "pointless" classes/information.  Progressive models work on the assumed value of the material.  And most progressive schools don't take time to make meaning explicit.  Students don't know why they need the information they are getting.  And when they work up the nerve (or impertinence) to ask the teacher why, the teacher usually stammers and sputters and tries to explain that they need to pass the state test to get to college to make something of themselves.  But then the student, naturally, begins to question the validity of a test that assesses seemingly pointless objectives.  "If I want to be a lawyer, why do I need to know physics?"  At this point, teachers sometimes say things like, "Well you never might end up being a math teacher."  Another circular reasoning method that irritates and confuses the learner.  I knew from the time I was in fourth grade that my gifts did NOT lie in the realm of mathematics.  It would be poor stewardship to head in that direction.  (My friends who know of my one year math major catastrophe in college have full right to laugh at this statement.)

The classical model of education differs in material covered as well as objectives.
Classical education follows the ancient Greek/Roman model of the Trivium and Quadrivium (with a modern emphasis on the trivium).
The trivium is educational theory that emphasizes Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric.

At the lower level, the Grammar level, students are required to do a lot of memorizing.
They learn language and how it works and the basics of math and science.  They are encouraged to think, but the emphasis is to give them the tools they need in order to get to the good stuff later.  The key difference in content at the grammar level is the learning of Latin which is later to be used as a branch to better understanding English and easily learning any Latin based language.

At the upper levels (Rhetoric level), students take classes in logic and debate and continue their Latin studies.  They take their usual English, math, science, etc.  But these classes are designed not to feed information to waiting brains, but rather to engage students with critical thinking and force them to do something with what they have been learning. In these final levels of the model (junior and senior years), students are forced to articulate their their learning in writing and speaking.  They engage in rhetoric which puts them in a place to have their ideas challenged.  They must be able to defend their critical thinking.  This usually happens in the form of a senior thesis which is a topic the student researches, writes a persuasive paper about, and presents verbally to a panel which challenges the student's views with hard questions which the student must answer on the spot.
Intense?  Yep.  You bet.  And VERY practical.
The final product of a Classical school is a student who thinks critically and is able to defend those thoughts.
There's a goal.  It's not just to pass state tests.  It's to make a young adult who can actively engage in the world as a thinking, interested, intelligent, human being.

As a Christian there are obvious benefits to using the classical model.  The ability to discern and articulate the gospel primarily and everything else as it relates to the gospel secondarily is one of the ways that we are to bring glory to God as Image Bearers.  So when classical education is fused with Biblical truth, it's power is magnified by a LOT.  Progressive education fused with Biblical truth is still missing the "why."
I would argue that those inquisitive students who want to know "why I need to know algebra" are not wrong or impertinent to ask those questions.  After all, we only have 70 or so years here on earth.  Why waste it on stuff that doesn't matter?  And algebra does matter!  But we have to remember why.  
The classical teacher has the delight of making the "why" more readily explicit.  Why algebra?  Algebra points us to the Creator and allows us to hone our critical and abstract thinking as well as test our logic skills.  Why history?  History is the textbook for the present.  We need the perspective of the past to test our present ideas.  My favorite aspect of the classical model?  Everything connects.  In a classical model it is more readily apparent that the connection (crossover) of subjects is not only existent, but also strong and necessary in a way that helps students apply concepts for the glory of God.

When I first started looking for a school close to home where I could student teach, I was shocked to realize how marginalized critical thinking was in Christian schools.  Even those which had achieved accreditation seemed to be all about pushing through to the SAT and pressuring kids to get high scores.  If critical thinking could be sprinkled into the daily lessons as a garnish, fine. If not, it really wasn't a big deal because the important thing was college entrance scores.  Worse than the high-pressure, score-crazy schools, there were the non-accredited, low-pressure schools that didn't push their kids to do much of anything.  It was a pendulum and I felt like I was choosing between academic mediocrity and high-gear bean counting.

I'm not going to identify the source of this incorrect emphasis, because I truly don't know.  Parents?  Teachers? The federal government?  The students themselves?  A mix of everything?  That's a debate I don't want to waste time on.
I'm just glad the Lord led me to Summit Christian Academy.  It's not a perfect school.  But I learned so much there.

I'm a global thinking die-hard idealist.  Which is great if you need someone to encourage you.  But a terrible, dangerous mix if you're trying to get a good idea of what reality looks like and how to fix a problem.   Here's the short list of major things I learned as a student teacher at Summit.

1. There is a reason my "brilliant" ideas haven't been made common educational practice.  

Before I began my 8 weeks of teaching, I had to do in-class observations.  I admit that I did these with a degree of smugness.  I watched great teachers employ conventional teaching methods and I would sit in the back of the classroom and sniff haughtily.  "When I teach, we won't do boring things like that."  And then I got my turn.  And my "creativity" backfired on more than one occasion.  The result, I have lost my disdain for all convention.  There is a reason that teachers still use the time tested methods of teaching.  There is a place for creativity.  And there is a place for new and fresh.  But some things will be what they are.  And that's okay.

2. Details are important to some degree.  

More times than I could count, my class would have just finished a phenomenal discussion.  I would walk out of the classroom on cloud nine, absolutely elated that I had implemented good teaching methods, inspired my students to think critically, and connected all of it back to the Word of God so that they actually had application for the seemingly archaic lesson about Greek mythology.  Yes!  Score one for a great day of teaching!  Then my fantastic cooperating teacher would catch up to me as I sailed blissfully down the hall to my next class.  "Emily!  What a great discussion today!"  Nearly giddy at this point I would reply, "Thanks!"  And then the world would come crashing down as she would inquire, "What are you going to assess from that lesson?"  Assess?  Like give a test or quiz?  Who needs an assessment!?  They clearly got it!  They were interested and answering questions.  They were alive to the material and absorbing and using it.  I forgot...they do need a measurable objective so I can help them get from one point to another.

My global thinking is a strength and a weakness.  It helps me see the big picture of what my students need as an end goal.  But as one of my favorite teachers (Dr. Fellars...) once said, "Stories live in their details."  So do lessons.  And life itself.  Details are important.  Otherwise, we could live in a blank slate sort of world doing general things.  But that's not how God made us.  I could summarize the story of "To Kill a Mockingbird."  And whoever listens to the summary would get the point.  But there's more than the point.  And the impact is greatly increased when I let the details speak.  

3. Every day cannot be a party.  
While I want to teach by delighting, I can't do that every day.  I can work hard to make the material as interesting as possible, but ultimately, I'm not here to make them happy.  I'm here to make them better people better able to know and serve God.  One day I came home from school frustrated and near tears.  Mom found me in this deplorable state and asked, "What's going on?"  I told her how much I was pouring into my 9th grade poetry lessons and how much I wanted my students to love poetry with every fiber of their beings.  I told her how I'd been so excited and passionate and kept laboring to help them see the beauty and majesty of God in the language of poetry, and in spite of all that work I was still getting blank stares from my students.  Mom smiled at me and laughed a little.  Then she said, "Emily, every day cannot be a party.  Every kid isn't going to have an 'aha' moment every day.  Every lesson can't be amazing.  Some days are just like that.  It's okay.  Keep doing your best and trusting God.  Maybe they'll love poetry.  Maybe not.  But you're planting seeds."

4. Classical education isn't going to save the world. 
I admit that I had on a pair of glasses colored deep rose when I first started my student teaching.  I thought I had wonderful ideas, and I thought a classical school would be the best place to affirm my brilliance.  Talk about arrogance.  It was a humbling experience to be corrected and realize that I desperately needed that correction.  Now I think I had decent ideas that needed a LOT of refining from the brilliant teachers that I was privileged to work under in the boot camp of classical school.
As I learned to remove the glasses and see reality, I understood that classical education doesn't change hearts.  Moving an apathetic student from a progressive school to a classical school doesn't help unless God works in the heart. Equipping kids to think critically but not praying for God to make them humble servants doesn't better the world in any way.
If I had children and it came down to choosing between progressive and classical schools, I wouldn't even have to think about it.  I would choose to send them to a classical school.  But I am not going to expect that classical model to change the heart of my child.  I would expect my child to learn and grow and become a critical thinker.  But there's no magic system.  God is still the only one who changes people.

Student teaching was a great experience. It was hard and wonderful.  I miss my students!  How difficult it was to say goodbye to them!  I am pretty sure that I learned much more from them than they did from me.  I guess I'm a little more realistic in my expectations these days, but I was still encouraged by the Summit staff to dream big and expect great things.

To Mrs. Lane, Mrs. Spaulding, and Mrs. Hardison most of all, thank you for your patience and love and support.
To the rest of the Summit staff and of course, to my students who made me laugh and cry and wish I could stay, I thank God for you all and look forward to what He will do in the future with you.  :)

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