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Classical Education at Home

Updated: Jul 20, 2020

Worries about #COVID into this next school season has caused many families to consider educating their children at home. This was our chosen path since our first child was six years old, twenty years ago now. Let me assure you, not only is educating your child at home doable, but it isn't even very intimidating once you understand some basics. Indiana is one of the best states in the country in which families may homeschool, as our requirements are to teach English as the primary language and to maintain an attendance record. If you are outside of Indiana, your state is very likely to have a #homeschool association that will guide you in understanding your local laws and regulations.


Even without COVID fears, many are not living near a school with dedicated teachers invested in developing your child's skills in reading, writing, arithmetic, history and science, and working within small classrooms that are safe. They aren't all equipped to teach logic, critical thinking skills, and advanced writing or offer one-on-one instruction. Debate, art history, and music appreciation aren't often prioritized, or even vocational skills and technical training. Many parents are concluding if they want their children to have an excellent education, they need to take control of it themselves.


One point I always make to families transitioning into educating their children at home is to appreciate that the goal is not to replicate what you've become accustomed to in the government schools. Keep in mind, government schools and the education of the school teachers is a lot about classroom management of many, many children. You will have one child or at least your own to focus offering you the opportunity to discover what works best for both your child, and your family.


A second point is that for only the very first few years are you actually educating your child one-on-one; afterwards, you are guiding them and holding them accountable. Many larger school corporations are spoon-feeding students scripted educational material intent on any particular agenda. Home educators typically prioritize teaching children how to think moreso than what to think. The advantage here is that your children can then explore wherever their little minds desire and you get to guide them to assure they dig into their studies in a balanced way, at least eventually.


My third suggestion is never, ever try to do everything suggested. Homeschool guides and curriculums are sort of like and all you can eat buffet. Remember portion size or you will become very overwhelmed and burnt out. This is hard when there are so many options and you're so excited to dive into all that is available, but don't do it. You'll get stuck and make even less progress.


Classical Education has been our Preference


There are many online quizzes that can help focus your homeschool direction in that they evaluate your values and core goals and then stir you towards a philosophy most fitting. I tend to be more of a potato-head homeschool momma in that I like to pull from everywhere and create my own approach. Classical education however, is always among my top preferences and a curriculum which is heavily nature and worldly-based.


Classical education is language-centered, not image-centered. Students read and listen and write, but rarely watch. Early years are spent learning facts, laying the foundation for advanced study. Children are taught to think through arguments, and then they are taught to express themselves. Younger children easily absorb information, greatly enjoy memorization, and aren't really focused on self-expression and self-discovery. They want to learn the rules of phonics and spelling, rules for grammar, poems, vocabulary, history and literature, plants and animals - on and on forever and ever. By fifth grade, children start to think more analytically. They are asking why more often, thinking more logically. They focus on cause and effect, to relationships among the various fields of knowledge, and are curious about the way facts fit together. The final years are more focused in rhetoric when they learn to write and speak with force and originality. These are the years they focus more specifically on their passions.


Language learning requires a bit more mental fortitude. One must translate a symbol into a concept. Imagines, such as those on television or video games, allow the mind to be passive. The brain can essentially "sit back and relax," but the mind is required to wake up and remain alert when faced with the written word. The other intriguing aspect of a classical education is that subjects aren't learned in isolation as our governmental programs are modeled. This mindset has plagued our healthcare system too, in that specialists forget that health anywhere in the body is dependent on health throughout the body. We can't isolate the various subjects of our education or we get lost without direction or connection.


There is debate about filling our young one's minds with facts, as so many prefer to let children prioritize self-expression. I love that too, but the Classical Education's infamous leaders have shared that if you squeeze a dry sponge, nothing comes out. If we want our children to have thoughtfulness and be creative, even offer critical thought, they must have some facts and information within their minds to create individual rationalizations. Their sponge has to be filled. It has also been said that too much self-expression early on may cause them greater challenge later, as they lack a frame of reference and a sense of how their ideas measure up against their thoughts and beliefs of others.


Often I hear parents say they could never educate their children at home, as they haven't the patience for it. This always perplexes me a bit as these parents clearly taught their children to walk and even taught them the very complicated English language. Educating your child at home doesn't require drawing a line between parenting and teaching. Our teaching of our children begins at birth and can continue throughout their lives.



Preschool: Birth through Age Three


Immersing your toddler in language is the top priority at this age. Turn off the television. Talk to your child. Tell her all about your day. Explain to her what you are doing. Research has discovered that children read to while they are in the womb can recognize, in their infancy, if they are being read to in another language and when the sentence is read backwards. Language is not simply about reading or even communicating, but it is how we process our thoughts and feelings. Many years ago I heard that our feelings match the depths of our vocabulary. A limited vocabulary will limit our ability to think and express our emotions.


Our preschoolers love to be read to and they love repetition. Read the same books over and over. Ask your child questions about what was read. Sing the alphabet song. Shape the letters in play-dough. Let your little scribble. Help them write their letters in a tub of rice. Write with chalk. Count fingers, toes, eyes, and ears. Count rocks and sticks. Play hide-and-seek. Count to five and then to ten, fifteen, even twenty. County by twos, fives, and tens. Let them race around the yard after you count backwards for takeoff. Read number books. Read about nature. Read about people in different cultures.



Kindergarten Years: Four & Five


This age group still very much enjoys and benefits greatly from play and continued reading. Writing becomes a bit more important and crafting skills are increasingly enjoyable, but many still aren't quite ready for very much paper-and-pencil work. Skipping a formal kindergarten program and entering directly into first grade is unlikely to prove much difference in the child's development, except maybe they'll already know how to stand in line and raise their hand before they speak. Aim to teach your child reading and arithmetic the same way you taught them to put their shoes on their right foot, to pick up their toys, and to dress themselves - simply demonstrate the basic skills yourself, practice them a few times each day, and walla - let them impress you. Stickers might make this all a bit easier too, but not necessary.


Simple books on tape are excellent for children while riding in the car or while you're cooking dinner. Magnet letters on the refrigerator are an excellent tool for teaching the littles their letters and letter sounds, or even an alphabet puzzle. While four and five year olds can learn phonics and even reading, fine motor skills often take a little bit longer; therefore, handwriting can be delayed a bit longer. Bob Books are popular starter books. Explore the Code is popular for introducing phonics, but wait to begin these until your little is ready for paper work. Handwriting Without Tears is the more popular handwriting approach. Four-year-olds are quite good at learning their letters and the sounds of each. Ultimately, the goal is to assist your child to read by the time they begin first grade.


As you advance your math teachings, use beans, buttons, chocolate chips, or kitty counters. Teach them about money. Teach fractions while cooking. Play Uno. Practice counting to 100. Teach them the clock, geometric figures, and learn to write numbers. The local library will have books about math and numbers which your little will enjoy. Kindergarten math is really more a fun game than academic.


A piece of advice: I valued individual expression a great deal so while I taught my children how to follow the arrows when we began penmanship, I allowed them to modify their lessons and establish their own style. The more they progressed with their writing, particularly into cursive writing, the more this individual style challenged them. They really do need to learn counter-clockwise circles and where each letter begins and ends. Some of my children would start at the bottom or opposite side and I allowed them to figure out what worked best for them. However, having a few children with autism and at least one with significant dyslexia, I hadn't previously realized how much we learn without really being taught. For example, we read from the top left side of the page to the lower right. I also clean my home this way, mopping from one side of the room to the next. My autistic children however, start at the bottom of their letters, in the middle of the page, and the middle of the room. They have no real direction when writing. This took a lot longer to unlearn and reteach than had I been more particular when they were young.



Younger Elementary


The primary goal of these early elementary years is to teach proper use of language so that it becomes second nature to your littles. Later, your children will learn logic and rhetoric, but first they must learn how-to write and express themselves verbally. Until the child can read without difficulty, he can't absorb the grammar of history, literature, or science and until he can write with ease, he can't express his growing mastery of this material. Therefore, children at this age need to master spelling, English grammar itself, reading, and writing. This is where the bulk of their time should be spent at this age.


These early years though, children's development varies so greatly, many homeschoolers don't prescribe to assigning them particular grades. Rather, they progress each child through each subject as they master the content, with each subject varying based on their strengths and interests. We tend to think more in levels than in grades. Rather than simply "pass" their assigned work, homeschooled children are more often expected to master their work prior to advancing to the next level.


Ultimately, spelling, grammar, reading, and writing should be well developed by the end of fourth grade, at or around the age of ten or eleven. First grade would initiate when your little has completed The Ordinary Parent's Guide to Teaching Reading and they've covered phonics rules and are reading simple books without reluctance. They should also know how to form their letters, but writing isn't pertinent just yet. Letter reversal can still persist at this age; however, dyslexia is far more complex than so many understand so if you have concerns, please connect with myself or your child's primary care provider for an evaluation. Interestingly, one can't reverse cursive letters so starting this earlier may resolve this hurdle.


Grammar, Spelling, Reading, & Writing

It may help to get through The Ordinary Parent's Guide to Teaching Reading, or at least half way through before starting spelling. Then take a peek at Modern Curriculum Press's Spelling Workout, although there are many options. Let your littles narrate their stories. By fourth grade, they should know all the important parts of speech, the rules of punctuation and capitalization, dictionary use, and the proper forms for letters, reports, and other common pieces of writing. Until this is mastered, logic won't be mastered. If they need a little more help with spelling, take a peek at Spelling Power.


Our family has used the Rod & Staff curriculum for grammar. It's a Mennonite publisher but very good at English mechanics. Very textbook approach. They are rigorous, thorough, and repetitive. Keep in mind they were originally created for the classroom. Not all the work needs to be completed, only what your child needs to do to master the teaching. We often did only evens or odds. Voyages in English is another option, more secular and less thorough. The writing should be skipped, as there are better options.


"A classical education instills a passion for books in the student... During the first four years of education, you have two purposes: to get the child to read quickly, well, and habitually; and to fill his mind with stories of every kind - myths, legends, classic tales, biographies, great stories from history" (Bauer & Wise, 2004, p 57).


In our family, we have morning routines; chores are part of those. Then they have self-care practices, including mindfulness, and then assigned readings. This is about thirty to forty-five minutes each day and are readings a little higher on their reading level. This is to challenge them and we do review of their comprehension or narration with these readings. Later in the day, they have a shorter session of reading for fun with books a little below their reading level which helps them build their speed. These habits also teach them how to sit still with a book and encourages their love for reading. By third grade, your child should be reading on their own and by fourth grade, about an hour each day. Once or twice a week, your child should be able to narrate in their reading notebooks what they've read. By fourth grade, they should fairly easily accomplish writing a full page. Visit the library at least once week.



A new concept for me is the need to censor your child's reading from the simpler books, such as Goosebumps. These books train your child to think in short sentences, simple sentence structures, with simple vocabulary and uncomplicated paragraphs. They offer shallow and exceedingly simple plots. This can really derail them from moving on towards more complex readings as they won't want the challenge of books that make their minds work too hard. Goosebumps encourages a lazy mind. Censor them in their reading as you censor their food to optimize their health, at least until they are capable of enjoying complex material. Comic books are image-centered entertainment and do not qualify as books for free reading time.


Reading fluency is a skill that we forget we must master if for no other reason so that when they grow up, their children beg to have them read to them before bed time. My son told me this week, after a particularly hard day at work, "You know, you could quit that job and just read to kids at the library because you're super good at it." Once a week is plenty time to work on fluency which may be done by having your child read the same short passage multiple times, having them listen to it on tape and then reading along with the tape, or even reading at the same time as you're reading aloud. Either way, become very familiar with a passage that they can read aloud with ease.


Finally, writing is a challenge for this age group primarily because they are still learning how to express their thoughts into content, while also learning the tools of expression. For this reason, copy-work, dictation, and retelling of stories is typically a better approach. At the lower levels, penmanship is more the goal, working five to fifteen minutes per day. Cursive writing is typically introduced about second grade when their line paper becomes more narrow. Once they are copying sentences well, they can advance to dictation.


Don't frustrate your child. Remember the goal is to encourage the love of learning. Spend a few minutes daily working on this skill and after just a few weeks, they will be very good at it and require little of your time. Dictation develops phonics, spelling, handwriting, grammar, and punctuation. Admittedly, I have a huge imagination and have always been a story-teller so I couldn't comprehend that my kids didn't have the ability to write stories as little ones. While some kids are creative naturally, others really do require the mental strengthening to get here; therefore, don't demand your elementary age students be creative during grammar studies at this point in their education. Writing Strands is a good source for writing, as is the Institute for Excellence in Writing.


Mathematics

At the lower elementary ages, foundations are the priority upon which the littles will expand their skills. One might consider that mathematics is a language in itself using symbols and phrases to represent abstract thought. Just like grammar where the children started with copy-work and then they progressed to dictation and then independent writing, children start math by using manipulatives before they think through math concepts in their head. Mental math requires abstract thought which is a developmental stage each child will reach at their own pace. Pushing too soon will cause frustration and disinterest or anxiety about math.


Generally speaking, children ages five to seven usually need concrete objects to work through math concepts. Children enter the "mental image" stage generally between the ages of eight years and ten years. Ask a five-year-old how many people are in her family and she'll turn and count her family members. Ask an eight-year-old the same question, and you'll see her look up and count in her mind the images she sees in her head. True abstract thought - the ability to use numbers and math symbols without using or picturing concrete objects - is the third stage of mental development. The goal in early elementary is to transition the child from manipulating real objects to pictures in their mind. This may happen through practice with beans. In later elementary and after much repetition, your child will see these written numbers and know what they represent from practice with the bean but this takes much patience and time. Be gentle. Don't rush these steps.


Common math programs include Saxon, which requires significant parental instruction; Math-U-See, great for those intimidated by teaching math; A Beka Math; offering a great deal of repetition; Singapore Primary Math, heavy focus on mental math; and Calvert Math, an independent correspondence course with teacher support. Pick a program and try it out. If your child does well with it, stick with it. These programs all build upon what was taught previously. If your child hates it, choose another. Sometimes the page lay-out, aesthetics, and amount of practice all make the difference in whether the program is a success.


Math is best practiced daily. Most school years are 180 days in length, so what I typically do is see how many lessons are in the curriculum I've purchased for the year and then space them out through the school year. This helps me determine if I am going to focus on math five days a week, four, or even three. I try to aim for three days a week so we have two more relaxed days where we can focus on science and history. However, sometimes this is too much work within a single day. We also have a number of math games, audio memory songs, learning wrap-ups, and math drills the kid's enjoy to supplement their lessons.


History & Geography

Never before has the study of history seemed more important. If we aren't cognizant of our past mistakes, we are destined to repeat them. Unless we plan to live entirely in the present moment, the study of history is inevitable. One could argue that history is not in fact a subject. History is the subject. It is our story. "This is the record of human experience, both personal and communal. It is the unfolding of human achievement in every area - science, literature, art, music, and politics" (Bauer & Wise, 2004, p 104).


Interestingly, in our governmental educational system, American history is studied twice as long as the study of the rest of the world. Personally, this not only seems exceedingly narrow-minded but it expands a very brief period of human history. First-grade often starts with the study of themselves, then their family, community, state, country, and finally, the rest of the world. This allows them a perspective very centered around themselves which could be argued is somewhat self-absorbed and self-referential. This approach causes our needs and wants to be the center of the human endeavor. This attitude may be somewhat destructive, particularly when our heart for our children is more multicultural with an understanding of global civilization.


Guiding a child to appreciate the world as much bigger than himself and develop love and empathy for cultures very different from his own is potentially best cultivated through an introduction to history through large, broad strokes. They can then fit themselves into this great landscape. Classical education starts the younger elementary with ancient history, a chronological approach, which also dives into the history that really peeks their interest: mummies in Egypt, the myths of Greece, the great wars of Rome, the armies from China. The average first grader is much more likely to enjoy the study of embalming process than go on a local field trip to his local governmental system.


Rather than trying to understand history through a text book, which is someone else's commentary about history, most all homeschool families approach this aspect of their education through books. They follow a timeline of sorts with specific areas of history to touch base, but armed with their library card, they head to the library and gather books that appeal to them within these specific times in history. This approach allows our littles to understand history from a number of perspectives, to dive into colorful literature, and read books at their desired level. They learn where to gather information and how to think for themselves. They will learn about great men and great women, battles and wars, important inventions, world religions, details of daily life and various cultures, and be familiar with great literature.


As a sort of guide through history, Classical educators often refer to The Story of the World: History fo the Classical Child. This is a four-volume series that offers some narrative support to your library readings. The Usborne Internet-Linked Encyclopedia of World History can supplement this journey, offering colorful illustrations, internet resources, and additional facts and resources. This book is written on a third-to-fourth grade reading level. The Story of the World would be read aloud to first and second grade children, while third and fourth graders would read independently. If you are starting with older children, maybe in the fifth grade. Add Kingfisher History Encyclopedia and a timeline.


Science

Often educators will coordinate their science lessons with whatever is being taught in history. For example, when studying ancient times, you might explore animal life, the human body, and plants. You may choose to take nature walks and sprout a garden. Textbooks for science are among the most boring of all. Once again, choose your topics and visit the library.


Science is not only my favorite, but also my littles favorites. We can get lost digging into science. There is just so much to explore here, but an important principle regarding science is its effort to build critical thinking skills. We aren't learning proofs here as science doesn't prove anything. Rather, science evolves because we are always asking questions. Keep a journal and encourage your littles to ask questions and write about their discoveries. We've kept nature journals which I've blogged about here.


Laying Foundations is Time-Consuming; It's an Investment


Your goal is not to gather the greatest amount of information possible, but rather to teach your child how to find information, how to fit that information together, and how to absorb information through narration and memorization. You simply won't be able to consume all you desire. Establish your priorities. Now let's add art and music! I'll discuss those in a future post.

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