A Day In the Life

This is an old entry, from when I had a demanding toddler.

7:30 Will the baby go back to sleep? She’s quiet..

7:54 No.

8:06 Morning ablutions with a fussy toddler on my hip. Meanwhile, elder DD has gone into the living room to watch YouTube.

8:10 Checking email while snagging breakfast. One important student email I need to respond to is flagged for later. I grab 2 breakfast burritos out of the freezer and jam them in the microwave. Husband can drive through McD’s tomorrow because I’m almost out of this batch of breakfast burritos—mental note to make another batch this weekend. With the toddler still on my hip, I grab a soda off the back porch. It’s too warm to keep storing my soda on the back porch—mental note to bring it in. Sometime when the toddler isn’t screaming at me to come back inside. Her separation anxiety is fierce. Meanwhile, the older is still watching YouTube. I think about saying something, but don’t. The microwave beeps, and the toddler demands my breakfast.

8:15 trying to persuade the older child to eat breakfast is always a losing battle. Her gastroesophageal reflux tends to make her queasy in the morning. Nevertheless, I make her two pieces of cinnamon toast, and get her a glass of water for her Prilosec.

8:20 While DD’s toast cooks, I try to eat my breakfast and respond to email, but the toddler sits on my lap and eats all the sausage out of my burritos. DD is still watching YouTube.

8:25 The toast has been retrieved from the toaster and offered to the eldest child. Her Prilosec has been taken, anyway. I settle back in at my desk with the toddler, trying to finish answering my email.

8:37 where did the time go? The toddler is wandering around the living room, wreaking havoc. Eldest child is still watching YouTube. I tell her that we will do school in 10 minutes, and open up the tab for Facebook.

9:01 it’s a good thing eldest daughter wasn’t paying attention, because I wasn’t either. The toddler has curled up on my lap, on the Boppy, and is nursing peacefully. I decide not to disturb her.

9:07 So much for peaceful nursing.

9:15 having overcome all the vociferous objections to actually doing academic work, I wrangled the child to the dining room table. Once she is actually seated, she works quickly. We do math, poem memorization, composition, grammar, handwriting, history, and I decide to do Latin in the car, listening to the CD and repeating it.

10:20 I pick up the science book, and start reading it to her, but then realize that we don’t have enough time to finish it because we all have to get dressed and tidied before the sitter gets here. I finish the paragraph.

10:25 The girls’ room is a mess. No time to clean. Must find decent outfits for both. Of course younger child needs her diaper changed right now!

10:30 Strenuously objecting to the diaper change, younger daughter has run away half naked while I’m still not dressed for work. At least elder daughter is dressed, although she’s hungry, finally.

10:35 Younger daughter caught and dressed, bean burrito plucked out of the freezer and microwaving for elder daughter, I venture into my clean laundry pile. I need to buy some un-stained tops.

10:40 finally, we are all dressed. I grab a cucumber out of the refrigerator and quickly slice some up. Cucumber in a little glass bowl, tomato slices in a bowl, chopped cold chicken in a bowl, bean burrito cut up on a plate, and apple sauce poured into a bowl equals lunch for older daughter. Extra handful of Cheerios, a pouch with some applesauce, and some diced cucumber for younger daughter means lunch is pretty much done. I grab a protein bar and another soda, and frantically put away toys in the living room while I wait for the babysitter.

10:47 of course sitter is running late. I pay almost 25% of my take-home salary in babysitting fees, and I am lucky to get her.

10:50 I have deposited my screaming toddler in the arms of the college age babysitter, and harden my heart as I walk away. She will be fine. It is only two hours. I try not to think about her screaming as I walk downstairs.

10:52 I load my whiteboard, and prep for class. I transfer all of my attention to my students. They’re my sole concern for the next two hours. Compartmentalization is a skill, and I can exercise it.

12:52 Hopefully I have been entertaining enough, engaging enough, and had enough relevant expertise to keep up with these fiercely bright and curious students today. My noon section was particularly on the ball, and I just needed a light hand to steer the conversation. They created their own lightbulb moment. I love teaching.

12:53 Back to motherhood. All is silent upstairs.

12:55 I quietly write a check for the sitter. She transfers the sleeping toddler into my arms, and of course she wakes up. Her face is tear stained, and she grabs me, holding me tight. I settle down at my desk to nurse her, but she wiggles and twists and turns while she nurses. (Years later, I realize that this is a sign of her vicious GERD). Meanwhile, eldest had settled on the sofa with a book, but since her sister is awake, she decides to go back to Minecraft.

1:11 The toddler wants to go outside, but I need to check the discussion forums in my classes. She wanders over to the window and bangs on it, while I load up Blackboard.

1:46 Only 45 minutes before we need to load up in the car. Of course the toddler needs a fresh outfit. This one is smeared with the beans from her sister’s lunch.

2:06 I decide to load them up a bit early. It takes a half an hour to get anywhere anyway, and this way we will have enough time to run through McDonald’s for an afternoon snack. Elder daughter grabs her Kindle to read in the car.

2:33 The toddler is screaming loudly, when we drive through McDonald’s. Of course. I order an extra small french fry, in hopes that she’s just cranky because she’s hungry.

2:40 Having devoured the french fries, the toddler has fallen asleep. Unfortunately, I have to wake her up in 15 minutes to walk her sister in to therapy.

2:55 Everybody out of the car. I snuggle the cranky sleepy toddler in the mei tai so I can have my hands free while we walk in.

3:00 Big sister dropped off, we wait in the waiting room. I wonder how often they clean the toys, and make polite conversation with the clearly harassed mother of two. Hers look 3.5 and 2, if I had to guess. She’s got fabulous hair.

3:30 Big sister is finished, time to load everybody back into the car, so I can go home and make dinner. I belatedly remember Latin, but I can’t figure out how to pause the CD in the car, and they speak so fast, I’m not sure it’s useful.

4:00 Time for dinner. Too hot for the planned Salisbury steak, I decide to make spaghetti Carbonara. It’s not much lighter, but it’s quick. Plus, I have ham that needs to be eaten, and as expensive as that was, it’d be a shame to waste it.

4:07 Thank goodness DH arrived home. He takes cranky hungry toddler, while I chop ham, and eldest daughter complains about being bored.

4:27 Spaghetti is boiling, so I quickly write up the recipe as a possible submission to the faculty blog.

4:53 Dinner is on the table and so is the toddler. I call eldest daughter away from the computer, asking her to tell my mom that dinner is ready. She’d arrived home from work while I was cooking, but I’ve not yet talked to her today.

5:01 Why does eldest child not want to eat this?! She gobbled it down last week!

5:03 My mother asks me if there’s egg in the sauce. Of course there is. “Why are you letting her eat it?” Bad Mommy. I had forgotten that the allergist recommended the toddler avoid egg. sigh

5:45 Everyone has drifted away from the table, but I’m not clearing it. I need to check my email, and frankly, I’m tired. Dear Husband has gone outside with the girls, so I take a moment to call a potential Birth To Three client, review a specialty developmental assessment with my mother, balance the bank account, and return parent email.

6:37 I venture on the back porch, where Dear Husband and I have a tense discussion about the need to replace our 15-year-old car. The girls are filthy, and are going to need baths.

7:09 I vegetate on Facebook while Dear Husband runs a bath for the girls.

7:29 I commence operation Scrub The Children. This is a complex, multi-part operation with up to four different players, which can easily take an hour.

8:34 I decide I need a shower.

9:06 Time to nag eldest child to brush her teeth.

9:16 I try to quickly return a parent email, only to realize I’ve lost an important file. It takes me a good 25 minutes to find it, while Dear Husband wrangles the children into pajamas.

9:45 I attempt to nurse the toddler to sleep, but she’s discovered that Daddy is awake in the next room, reading science to her sister, and she wants no part of a boring, dark room with Mommy. Three tries are required before she finally falls asleep.

10:46 Dear Husband finally slips into bed with me, but we’re both so fried, we putter on electronic devices instead of talking.

11:30 I shut off my Kindle, as Allan Bloom is no longer making sense.

Reading Reconsidered In the Homeschool—Chapter 2

This chapter is about Common Core style Close Reading, which isn’t something taught in either Well-Trained Mind style classical education, or Charlotte Mason style classical education. This kind of literature analysis on steroids is quite possibly my least favorite activity on Earth, behind washing dishes.

Close Reading is the methodical breaking down of the language and structure of a complex passage to establish and analyze its meaning. Teaching students to do it requires layered reading and asked sequenced, text-dependent questions; and it should end whenever possible with mastery expressed through writing.

Reading Reconsidered

I think this chapter is worthwhile because this style of close reading is tested on major assessments, like the SAT. For example, when I reviewed a Pennsylvanian 4th grade summative assessment, and answered the Close Reading sample questions, I got them wrong because I used my background knowledge, instead of an incorrect answer that corresponded with questionable inferences from the text.

Assessments based on this style of reading are intentionally dumbing down reading comprehension by sticking to only what can be decoded from the “four corners of the text.”

Close reading is how the Common Core ELA standards handle students with poor reading skills, and in turn, makes texts incomprehensible even to the authors. As per Reading Reconsidered, “Close Reading is the tool that allows students to read text that is over their heads”, which begs the question of reading comprehension.

Ironically, the explicit assumption in Reading Reconsidered is that close reading gives students “the ability to wrestle with the most demanding texts, interpret them independently, and understand why and how they mean what they do.” Another explicit assumption is that Close Reading helps students become familiar with genre styles.

In Reading Reconsidered‘s version of Close Reading, the student should explain in writing what the text says and be able how to use the text to answer “text-dependent questions”; there is only one right answer, and it must be found within solely within the words on the page, using multiple reads of a paragraph length snippet of text over the course of an hour or so.

If there is anything better designed to suck the joy out of reading, I’m not sure what it is. Reading Reconsidered breaks Close Reading down into four common steps, “1) contiguous read, 2) initial writing to Check For Understanding, 3) reread with text-dependent questions, 4) final writing.”

What they call “Layered Reading,” is broken down into three types, which can be used independently or concurrently:

  • “Contiguous Read” — just keepin’ on truckin’ through the whole thing, often read aloud in the classroom with the occasional vocabulary word defined as they read
  • “line-by-line read” — just as dreadful as it sounds, answering multiple questions about a single sentence or line of poetry. “Who is they? Is this a good or a bad thing? Why didn’t the author mention _____? Why did the author choose that word?” Of course, even though the author isn’t there to gift you with their insight, and literature professors have been arguing about word choice for centuries, there is only one right answer, and it must only come from the text, not your knowledge of the author or the context in which the text is written, etc.
  • “leapfrog read” — this is skimming to find how the author treated key words or phrases, and then answering inferential questions–only using the text, and there is only one right answer. Reading Reconsidered suggests using this technique as early as second grade.
    • “Where is ___ first mentioned? What is it doing? Is this positive or negative? What is the object of ____? What is the result of ____? What will happen if ____ continues? What’s being described as ____? Give one literal and one figurative reason why the author would describe _____ that way.”
    • “Underline _____. The author chose ____ adjectives. How would the effect have been different if they’d chosen _____? What kinds of things are ____? What is the author implying? Why does the author say ____? What is the object of _____?”
    • “Under the phrase _____. Compare it to ______. The last time ____ was mentioned it was ____? Now we’re sure the author is comparing it to a ____. What is it doing? In your notes, briefly describe the role of ____.”

“Unless the conversation starts with a deep understanding of the specifics of what Shakespeare wrote rather than some generalized proximity of it, the discussion is not an exercise in reading. It is a substitute activity–a philosophical discussion about issues raised in a text…such discussions don’t generally teach students to read deeply.”

Reading Reconsidered

For classical homeschoolers, using literature to engage in the Great Conversation is the point rather than something to be avoided. Particularly for Well-Trained Mind style homeschoolers, reading or listening to “generalized proximity” versions of the text as youngsters allows for deeper reading of text specifics later. It’s arguable that Common Core style Close Reading puts the cart before the horse.

Paraphrase vs Summary vs Narration

Reading Reconsidered distinguishes between a paraphrase (“a restatement of the sentence in simpler and clarified terms that still capture all of the explicit meaning and as much of the connotation as possible” in the same tense, syntax, and POV) and a summary (“a statement about the text from 3rd person POV with simplified language focusing on relevant information.”) Most narrations are summaries, but Reading Reconsidered has a preference for paraphrases.

Text Dependent Questions (TDQs)

TDQs are divided into word or phrase level questions, sentence or line level questions, and paragraph or stanza level questions. All three types can either be questions to establish meaning, or questions to analyze meaning. Reading Reconsidered points out that instructors can switch back and forth between types and kinds of questions and zoom in and out from word choice to paragraph analysis. You’ll note that these are not the typical kinds of questions we use when talking about books we read as classical homeschoolers.

Establishing Meaning

First they offer three types of word or phrase level questions: referent questions (“What is ‘it’?”), denotation questions (“What are ___? What would have to be true for ____ to happen? What might that show about _____?”) and explanation questions (“What does ____ mean? How is it different from ____?”)

Next they offer four types of sentence-level questions: paraphrase questions, key line questions (“What does this sentence tell us about ___ and why is that important?”), reference questions (“Who is ___ talking about?”), and sentence structure questions (“Why does the author _____ at the beginning/end/middle of each sentence?”).

Finally, they offer four types of paragraph/stanza level questions: summary questions, delineation questions (“trace the elements of the argument” or “trace the sequence of events in the narrative”), and finite evidence questions (“Find all/multiple/# of pieces of evidence throughout the section.”)

Analyzing Meaning

First they offer five types of word or phrase level questions: word pattern questions (anaphora, etc), connotation questions (implied meaning based on associations and how this affects meaning or tone), figurative vs literal meaning (Not what, but why and how. “Why personification here? Why a simile comparing to X rather than Y?”), sensitivity analysis (Why this word and not that one?), missing word analyses (“Why wouldn’t the author mention ____?)

Next they offer four types of sentence-level questions: key line question (“What might it accomplish to express the idea with such subtlety? What other similar lines are in the book? Why would the author keep ____ hidden/explicit in this type of work?”), allusion questions (“What is the allusion? Why use it?”), figurative language questions (asks about the meaning of imagery or nonliteral language such as simile, metaphor, symbolism, analogy, etc), and pattern questions (ask about a pattern in structure, syntax, or sound and how that affects meaning).

Finally, they offer three types of paragraph/stanza level questions: paragraph function (“Look carefully at paragraph number __ and ___. How has the author shifted the use of ____ and the degree to which they are using ____? Why are they making the shift? How does this build from ____?”), dramatic irony (difference between their own knowledge and that of characters within the narrative), extended metaphor/allegory question (ask students to trace a metaphor across multiple lines of text).

Global Level Questions

Last, but not least, they offer “global-level” questions for use after Close Reading, to apply insights to a large section of text.

  • convention alignment analyses — compare and contrast to genre styles and how that creates meaning
  • intratextual motifs and discourse — analyze the connection between different parts of a text or how a motif shows up elsewhere in the text
  • intertextual discourse — analyze the explicit or implicit connections between a given text and other specific texts
  • ambiguity questions — analyze what is left unstated or unresolved
  • part-to-whole questions — what role this scene/chapter/excerpt plays in the context of the larger work

Writing About Reading is Not Optional

I can just hear all the classical homeschoolers taking a sharp, in-drawn breath. Yes, Reading Reconsidered insists that students not only write about literature, but also argue about it–but only teacher-approved arguments, of course.

One Ring to Rule Them All

That’s because Reading Reconsidered says that teachers should be “modeling how to ‘argue a line,’ tracing a theme, a motif, a conflict, or an image through the complexity of a text. Teachers are encouraged to be “de-emphasizing certain aspects of the text to facilitate” this process–AKA, ensuring that students write up the right answer “by analyzing specific details from the text” that the teacher has shown them.

Big Little Lessons

Noting that teachers will begin with the end in mind, Reading Reconsidered encourages teachers to march students through this joy-filled process every single day, even if only in 10-15 minute stints of prepared bits like epigraphs, or by accident when students take unplanned detours away from the approved line of argument. Teachers are encouraged to have students re-read bits three and four times, asking TDQs until they come up with the right answers.

I suspect that this is why I ended up reading a play a week during my college-level Shakespeare class, doggedly writing a weekly essay about the “play within a play” in every single week’s reading. And this would be why I don’t read “literature” anymore–only genre fiction and nonfiction.

In Sum

While most classical style homeschoolers will not be running their second-graders through this process–and possibly not even their high schoolers–I think it’s important that homeschoolers understand the concepts behind Common Core style Close Reading.

While college bound students will need to learn genre conventions, typical literature analysis techniques, and all the accompanying vocabulary, like motif and allegory, nowadays they’ll also need to be prepared to deal with the expectation that they are only to write about the approved text, using no outside information to inform their writing, making the correct argument they’re to discern from the way the question is asked. Most will not find this particularly onerous, but it is a hoop they need to learn to jump through.

Reading Reconsidered In the Homeschool—Chapter 1

This chapter is about text selection, something near and dear to the homeschool community.

The authors begin with “The Decline of the Canon.” First, let me say that as a fan of Susan Wise Bauer’s work, I subscribe to her idea that no list of the Great Books is canonical. I also am sympathetic to the idea that there are lesser-known works by authors who were not in positions of power that have been overlooked as possible candidates for inclusion.

After positing that there are “universal and fungible [reading] skills, applicable and applied to almost any text,” Lemov nods to the idea that “reading … depends heavily on knowledge.” So far, so good. Perfectly compatible with Bauer’s idea that:

a classical education follows a specific three-part pattern: the mind must be first supplied with facts and images, then given the logical tools for organization of those facts and images, and finally equipped to express conclusions

reading has two parts: ongoing instruction in how to read and the actual reading of worthwhile books

The Well-Trained Mind

Next the authors run through what is essentially an argument for classical education without any of the key words. The choice of texts matters, student need cultural literacy, the point of education was the Great Conversation, universal education produces good citizens, a shout-out to the McGuffey Reader, etc–and then stop to emphasize that they’re not arguing for this, of course not, because old = bad.

They stop to discuss Dead White Males, YA fiction, and texts selected less by posited virtues and more by one’s inner child. Noting that the free-for-all text selection allows for more diverse perspectives and voices, but loses shared discourse, the authors point out that “intertextuality” (Adler’s “syntopical reading”) requires texts in common.

With a subtle nod to E.D. Hirsch, Jr., they make the point that Sayer’s “educational capital,” like Piketty’s, accrues to heirs, rather than wider society. Where Jessie Wise writes that “sooner or later, the capital gets used up,” the authors throw in a reference to the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Finally, the authors recommend an “internal canon” determined locally, whereas Well-Trained Mind style classical educators tend to rely literature linked to history studies. One reads “classics” because they’re the literature of the time period. A nonsectarian approach to history will necessarily result in a more diverse set of literature choices.

Next, the authors address Lexile scores and leveled texts. Note that there is no quality research for leveled texts. While we all know there is more to a text than its Lexile score (Night by Elie Wiesel is a perfect example), the authors make the excellent point that:

[a well-chosen book] builds students’ knowledge base about books and storytelling in a way that will be useful to them in understanding how texts work, throughout a lifetime of reading

Susan Wise Bauer and the authors agree that books should not be read in snippets–whole books are best. Then, the authors point out five distinct difficulties to overcome when tasking students with “complex texts”–what Sayers would refer to as not “twaddle.”

  • archaic syntax and vocabulary–remedy by carefully scaling up in difficulty. “Pre-complex texts” are listed, with a suggestion to read them out loud, heartwarming to any classical educator
  • nonlinear time sequences, including “unclear timing of an event, shifts in fixity of time, layers of memory, shifts in rate of time elapsing, recurrence of events”–remedy with suggested texts for introducing nonlinear time sequence
  • complexity of narrator, including the idea that the narrator could by lying or hallucinating–remedy with suggested texts for introducing complex voice
  • complexity of story (plot and symbolism)–remedy with intentionally exposing students to such a book.
  • resistant text–remedy with exposure to other difficulties, poetry, and close reading
  • nonfiction–see chapter 3

Where the authors lean on long-term, non-obvious benefits, Bauer quotes Steele.

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.
-Richard Steele, The Tatler

The fourth part of the chapter points out the scarcity of time to read, not unlike the meme about 960 Sundays from birth to age 18. This is something that I think is less key to classical homeschoolers, who have chosen to have more time to devote to reading good books. Most classical homeschoolers I know are fans of reading deeply and widely.

Like many homeschoolers, the authors say that children can handle reading something that they don’t know if they’ll like, that it’s an advantage to be able to read and discuss books, and that some books matter more than others.

The next bit might as well be an ad for the Well-Trained Mind, in that children learn by reading, especially good historical fiction about unfamiliar cultures and settings. One thing that children can learn is the procession of ideas through the ages, and how different write reference them.

The last section is about how to select texts. This bit is mostly irrelevant to homeschoolers, as it assumes a school wide setting.

Reading Reconsidered in the Homeschool — Intro

Reading Reconsidered is not aimed at homeschoolers, but I think it contains some useful information that classical homeschoolers might want to consider. First, an introduction to who and what this book is about.

Reading Reconsidered’s subtitle is “A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction.” Those of you who wince at the word “rigorous” might remember the Common Core wars and make no mistake, Lemov is all in on the Common Core.

In fact, Lemov got his Edu-Professional-Consultant start under the NCLB regime, called in to turn around schools unable to meet the NCLB standardized testing requirements. In response to the unpredictable quality of the average classroom teacher, he made a virtue of Taylorization in the classroom, complete with video monitoring. While it’s true that factories are more efficient since Taylor and his stopwatch, applying those values to the classroom understandably had serious push back, including accusations of racist practices.

Lemov went on to lead the Uncommon Schools charter network in the “no excuses” style. In fact, all of the authors of this book (Lemov, Driggs, and Woolway) are currently affiliated with Uncommon Schools. No Excuses Schools have been a flashpoint for criticism on many fronts.

relentlessly penalizing students who commit minor infractions: resting a head on a desk, chewing gum, talking during the silent march from class to class (Chalkbeat),

students in third grade and above wetting themselves during practice tests (NY Times),

but fewer than a third of its high school graduates were earning college degrees on time (NY Times)

[and parents said] “I wouldn’t put my dog in that school,” (Jacobin)

Very bluntly, all three of these college-educated, white, education professionals want to send poor (83% low-income), “urban” (94% Black or Hispanic) children to college. Reading Reconsidered is much like Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion in that it’s entirely teacher focused–it’s all about what the teacher should do when teaching reading.

The assumption in this book is that children will attend college, and the overarching goal is to prepare children to succeed at that endeavor

Classical educators will find much that is familiar in this book, and in fact on the second page the authors nod to home educated guiding lights of the 19th century. Immediately rejecting “let them read on their own and hope for the best,” they argue for “the diligent study of reading” through, you guessed it, the Taylorization of teaching reading.

Significant goals overlap with classical education:

The authors point out that college level reading is more difficult because it require reading dense, technical, primary sources and classic literature. Of course, those who classically educate their children already appreciate the value of classic literature and primary sources.

“The old books lay a foundation for all later learning and life.” —David Hicks

Reading Reconsidered spends a great deal of time on “close reading,” which is possibly the academic skill I most despise, and which I will discuss more thoroughly later. However, it’s worth noting that the Well-Trained Mind Academy offers a study skills class that includes close reading.

Later post in this series will discuss Reading Reconsidered chapter by chapter, and discuss its applicability (or not) to classical homeschooling.

I think my homeschooled child might be gifted. Now what?

One common misconception is that gifted kids don’t need extra care, because they’re gifted. Obviously they’re more capable, right?

Well, yes and no.

There are ups and downs to giftedness, and some of those downs can be quite marked. Having a gifted child is not all sunshine and roses.

For example, gifted children are often asynchronous: they can intellectually understand something that they’re not emotionally able to handle, like a disaster on the evening news. One preschool child I knew had a full-scale meltdown and nightmares for months after she realized that the dinosaurs had been wiped out, because she was afraid that it could happen to humans.

Asynchrony works in other ways too–a gifted child might be hugely passionate about an intellectual pursuit that other children their age are uninterested in, like special relativity. Other children would want to play tag, but they want to play up, down, strange, charm, bottom, and top quark. Plus, other children aren’t going to get a joke about strange charms.

Sometimes their minds are ready for intellectual challenges before their bodies are mature enough to cooperate (handwriting, needing to sleep or eat, poor elocution), which can make the child immensely frustrated. Often, gifted children are misdiagnosed with medical issues instead of giftedness.

In addition, defining giftedness can be tricky. Schools often use a definition of academic achievement, whereas psychologists tend to use an IQ-based definition. When your child is twice-exceptional, or both gifted and learning disabled, finding an appropriately skilled clinician for testing and academic evaluation can be both difficult and prohibitively expensive because giftedness often masks learning disabilities but can show up as behavioral issues.

As a homeschooler, I think the best reason to test is “when a question needs to be answered.” (Hoagies) Why isn’t that great curriculum working for your child? Are they really that difficult, or is there a learning issue? Why are they crying about the evening news? Those are the kinds of questions a good educational psychologist can help answer.

Why Classical Education? (redux)

One of the most common questions I get from parents thinking about classical home education is

“Why this? Why classical education versus what my children are already doing? How can you possibly do it, when you haven’t done it yourself?”

Last part first.

I read books.  No, seriously, I read widely and deeply. For example, when I assigned my eldest child The Odyssey, I read Wilson’s translation. I also read about education and classical education. Finally ready for a deeper dive, I read Norms & Nobility last winter.


  1. Reading comprehension is essentially a background knowledge test
    1. Classical education (AKA, a knowledge-rich curriculum) offers the most background knowledge. It’s the reason why studies show that the only curriculum shown to make a difference in test scores, all other variables held constant, is that at private order religious schools (not Catholic parish schools).
    2. Religious order schools offer a classical education, right down to classics departments that teach Latin and Greek.
  2. Classical education helps give students the ability to reason well and problem solve.
    1. Background knowledge helps increase problem solving skills.
    2. Your children will also build analytical skills:
      1. grammar (language analysis)
      2. math (proofs)
      3. composition (argumentative essays)
      4. science (scientific method)
      5. history (historical analysis)
  3. Being drawn into fake news like tree octopuses and terrible situations like cults is less likely because they’ll know about what’s real—AKA have a handle on truth.


This is the second good reason to practice classical education: your children will learn about truths and Truth.

What do religions believe?
How does that impact culture?
What are the underlying philosophical issues impacting our world today?

When you start at the beginning and blend in religious studies and philosophy, you begin to see patterns in how those arguments play out over time, and you can spy when threadbare, defeated arguments pop up again in pretty new guises. All that is old is new again. 


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so, therefore is curriculum. However, I don’t see anyone suggesting we should throw out the decimal system merely because it’s old! Likewise, I suggest that the idea of the seven liberal arts, the knowledge, skills, and abilities understood to free your mind, should also be given respect and their beauty honored. The details may vary in the implementation, but the underlying ideas remain.

“What we call civilization – the accumulation of knowledge which has come to us from our forefathers – is the fruit of thousands of years of human thought and toil … it is by right the common heritage of all.” —Robert Tressell via Ben Newmark

A utilitarian view of classical education

Classical education is distinctive in part because it has a prescribed path of study. Different classical educators have different paths, but I plan our program of instruction using the scope and sequence of the curricula mapped in the  Well-Trained Mind. 

This systematic approach is anathema to many public schoolers using weak standards, eclectic homeschoolers who just study whatever the parent deems important, and unschooling types who feel that dictating an area of study is doing violence upon their child, but I disagree for several reasons.

Unknown Unknowns

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. — Donald Rumsfeld

I believe that there are “unknown unknowns,” and that children, with their limited experience in the world naturally have a significantly higher number of unknown unknowns.

For example, I grew up in a house without regular electricity, and my mother always cleaned the antique stove with harsh chemicals when my sibling and I were out of the house. Therefore, as an adult I didn’t know that modern ovens had a cleaning setting until my husband and I bought a new stove. 

Prior Background Knowledge

I didn’t know what I didn’t know. This calls the idea of having prior background knowledge into sharp relief. I couldn’t Google something I didn’t know existed. In fact, in 1988, two researchers from Marquette University completed a study, since thoroughly verified and replicated, that shows just how important background knowledge is for reading comprehension. Here’s a 3 minute, 50 second summary video. Go ahead, I’ll wait. 

Knowledge has a much bigger impact on reading comprehension than ability. — Schwartz

As per Aaron Tippin, “you’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.” In a study at the University of Connecticut, the vast majority of students fell for a hoax website about tree octopuses. Researchers blamed the lack of generic reading skills, but as per the baseball study we know that in fact, students didn’t have the prior background knowledge about the natural world to understand that octopuses can’t live in trees. They couldn’t push back against false information without reliable background knowledge. 

Since time is limited, what knowledge is most important?

Key Domains of Education

Modern educators recognize seven distinct core subject areas:

Classical educators tend to use the seven liberal arts (so-called because they liberate your mind.) According to Sister Miriam Joseph, they break down into science (knowledge) and art (action) that tend to correspond pretty well to modern subject areas:

Trivium: reading, writing, speaking, listening in English, Latin, and other languages about literature, history, and philosophy (natural, moral, and metaphysical)

    • logic — directive thinking
    • grammar — expressing thought
      • phonetics, spelling, sentence composition, paragraph and longer compositions, reasoning
    • rhetoric — correct, effective, truthful communication

Quadrivium: math and its applications

    • mathematics — number (arithmetic, calculus, etc)
    • music — application of arithmetic (discrete mathematics: harmonics, physics, chemistry, etc)
    • geometry — space (continuous mathematics: analytic geometry,  trigonometry, etc)
    • astronomy — application of geometry (architecture, geography, surveying, engineering)

The content areas I choose to cover in my homeschool tend to include, though are not limited to, the modern core subject areas, but I cover them in a classical, systematic way. For example, next school year my daughter is studying logic, math, science, history, geography, spelling, grammar, composition, Latin, Spanish, visual and music arts appreciation, and literature. 

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness

While I think joining the “Great Conversation” is a good thing, I also believe that Lord Morley’s aphorism about truth is another excellent goal of education. 

An educated man is one who knows when a thing is proved and when it is not. An uneducated man does not know. — quoted in A Defence of Classical Education

If, in the end, my daughters end up with a honed ability to determine truth, beauty, and goodness, my homeschool efforts will have not been in vain.

Yes, we use the Well-Trained Mind, but …

People tend to forget that it’s a plan, not a prison. Yes, I peruse it every spring, but my children are not theoretical constructs. I customize it.

For example, next year will be the 6th grade for my eldest child. So, I flipped open my Kindle copy of the most recent edition, clicked on Part II. The Logic Stage: Fifth Grade through Eighth Grade, skipped the introduction (I’ve already been convinced!), and re-read the How to Teach.

I noted the “if she can support her points with the facts” and reminded myself that I’d like to use the exercises from The Writing Revolution with Gwen next year.

“Language, mathematics, logic, history, and science are staples of the logic stage; art and music should be pursued if possible.”

(Location 5986 in The Well-Trained Mind)

Step 1: Logic.

Last year, my eldest child attempted The Art of Argument, but I didn’t have time to devote to going through it with her, and she didn’t get much out of the DVDs. She’d already done Bonnie Risby’s Blast Off With Logic Series the year before. Swamped at the beginning of the school year, I had her work through Unlocking Analogies instead, and then when she finished it, switched over to Building Critical Thinking Skills. She also participated in a local NCFCA club last school year.

This year, I want to do better for her. Since little sister is going to demand more of my time as a kindergarten student, I signed big sister up for CLRC’s Beginning Logic course that uses Art of Argument and Discovery of Deduction.

Step 2: Math.

This is a difficult subject for my eldest child. I’ve tried Singapore Math, RightStart Math, Math Mammoth, Beast Academy, and Saxon Math, and the program that she’s made the most progress with has been Saxon Math. Last year she successfully completed Saxon 6/5. I reviewed the scope and sequence for Saxon 5/4, 6/5, 7/6, and 8/7, and decided that since there were only three new concepts introduced in Saxon 7/6, she could attempt Saxon 8/7 next year.

Step 3: Science.

Sixth grade in the Well-Trained Mind method is earth science and astronomy. Science is one of my daughter’s favorite subjects, and I splurge a little in both time and money.

For earth science, I’ve decided to use CPO Earth Science as a spine, and downloaded all the supplemental worksheets and labs from their website. I still need to sort and plan exactly what we’ll cover and when. I also purchased TOPS 23 Rocks and Minerals.

For astronomy, I happen to have access to a 17-week course that uses Elemental Science‘s Astronomy for the Logic Stage.

Step 4. History and Geography.

This year is the Middle Ages for my daughter (AD 400 to AD 1600). Like science, this is one of her favorite subjects. I’m signing her up for the WTMA course, which will have outlining, summarization, and primary sources, using Story of the World and the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia.

She does keep a timeline. I purchased the Pandia Press timeline series, and the current year’s timeline hangs in the dining room.

For geography, while she’ll do the map work assigned in class, I’m adding in Evan-Moor’s Daily Geography.

Since she loves history so much, over the summer I’m also creating a supplemental curriculum to extend and deepen her knowledge as they go. I took the significant people list in the Well-Trained Mind for history and literature, added in the suggested primary sources, and mixed in a couple of the supplementary resources, like MP’s Famous Men of the Middle Ages. Then I spent a great deal of time finding locating them in OUP’s Human Odyssey, as well as high quality Internet resources. I like to add in videos and other illustrations. Jim Weiss is always a favorite!

Step 5. Spelling, Grammar, Reading, and Writing.

My daughter is precocious in her language arts skills, so her items for next year are not quite where the Well-Trained Mind recommends.

In terms of literature, the Well-Trained Mind recommends essentially what Memoria Press uses for 9th grade. Since my daughter is a precocious reader, I think I’m just going to purchase MP Poetry, Prose, & Drama Book One and MP’s Ninth Grade Literature Guide Set with Novels. I’ll probably use some of the poetry as this year’s memory work.

For writing, I’ll sign her up for WTMA’s Expository Writing 2, but I think I’m going to add in some exercises from The Writing Revolution and extend the exercises from Writing With Skill 2.

For spelling, she’ll continue the Vocabulary from Classical Roots.

For grammar, she’ll continue Grammar for the Well-Trained Mind, half-speed.

I also compiled a tentative list of novels and collections that I’ll keep in mind for “extra” reading. The MP set won’t keep her busy all year, and I like to offer her choice as much as possible. Because most of these are set in Europe, I’m always looking for non-European settings, authors, and characterss.

Step 6. Latin and Languages.

My eldest child has been studying Latin for a while, most recently using Ecce Romani in an Outschool class and First Form Latin at home. I’m looking forward to outsourcing it entirely to CLRC’s Intermediate Latin I, which is using chapters 1-8 of the Oxford Latin Course Part 1.

Spanish using Getting Started With Spanish this year didn’t go well, mainly because I failed to follow through. So, based on good recommendations from other homeschooling parents, I’m tentatively planning to sign both girls up with Homeschool Spanish Academy.

Step 7. Art and Music.

My eldest daughter spends hours every day doing art, so that’s not really a worry for me. I want to emphasize art appreciation with history, and add in some music appreciation other than her love for EDM and pop music. To that end, I’m using Harmony Fine Art’s Grade 6: Medieval and Renaissance Art and Music

All done!

This will be my eldest daughter’s seventh year of homeschooling, and by this time, I’ve got a good handle on what works for her, and what doesn’t. I also know what I can do, and what I can’t do (or am not interested in doing.) I outsource wherever I think it’s useful, use quality pre-built curricula whenever I can, and generally customize for a perfect fit.