Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Classical Conversations: An Overview
Classical Conversations is a nation-wide program that helps train and equip parents to provide their children with a Christian classical education. Individual communities hire parents to be trained as tutors through Classical Conversations practicums, who then lead small classes of children in weekly meetings.
For the grammar stage (grades K4-6th), the Foundations program meets for 24 weeks during the school year. This allows for a full month off in December, two weeks for spring break, and ends the year in early April (though, I believe, individual communities set their own schedules). The Foundations classes meet one morning each week for 3 hours. (Leaving plenty of time during the week as well as during the year for additional studies.)
During the morning classes, students are led by their tutors through individual oral presentations (to learn public speaking skills). They are then introduced to memory work in timeline/history, science, geography, English grammar, Latin, math, and Bible. The memory work is followed by science and fine arts projects. Parents are required to attend classes with their children so that they observe and learn from the teaching modeled by the tutors, which will in turn help them guide their children in reviewing the memory work at home.
The memory work outlined in the Foundations classes is designed to prepare the students for the higher-level classes. CC recommends that parents supplement with phonics, math, and handwriting studies at home.
Beginning in 3rd or 4th grade, an afternoon session is available to supplement the Foundations classes through 6th grade. During Essentials, students learn language arts and structure with The Essentials of the English Language Guide, writing through the Institute for Excellence in Writing programs, and math through challenging problems and games.
Day-long (30 week) Challenge programs for logic and rhetoric stages begin in 7th grade. These classes cover math, Latin and Spanish, literature and writing, science labs, debate, rhetoric, and geography (mapping the whole world free-hand from memory!). Students complete lessons and assignments at home during the remainder of the week.
Why I Was Initially Hesitant:
When first presented with the idea of Classical Conversations, I thought it sounded wonderful.... but not for us. I love planning our curricula and sequence. That is one of my favorite aspects of homeschooling. The CC sequence doesn't correspond with our history/literature and science sequence. And we're in the middle of a 4-year rotation. CC employs a 3-year cycle and the history memory work is not perfectly chronological (Old World History, Modern World History, and American History). I didn't want to stop what we are doing and have planned, so CC would just be additional (and possibly distracting) work.
I knew that parents are required to be in the classrooms. The idea of monitoring my older boys while juggling Leif was overwhelming. Confession: I (as a very self-conscious introvert) find parenting my very outgoing BOY boys in social situations very stressful. Imagining watching as they adjust to a structured classroom situation (particularly for my wiggly Luke) just topped off the anxiety level. Add a baby due a few weeks into the fall session, and I assumed it wasn't going to be possible.
Other negatives I've heard proposed: the program's high cost (particularly when the parent continues to teach phonics, handwriting, and math at home), the intense focus on memory work without context, it is something a parent could implement at home without committing to the classes, and the simple fact that any program is only as good as the people (directors, tutors, parents, and children) involved. (Or, obviously, a dislike for classical and/or Christian programs in general.)
Why I Changed My Mind:
My sister became interested in Classical Conversations particularly for her daughter, Ilex, who will be entering high school this next year. They have just finished their four-year rotation of chronological history and literature as well as covering the four main sciences. They (her 8th grade daughter and 6th grade son, Drake) had years of intensive Latin, grammar, logic, math, and some Spanish. Her youngest daughter, Ivy, and cousin, Jake, just finished a fabulous K year. This is perfect timing for a transition in their schooling.
My mom has been participating in history with Ilex and has discovered an interest in education in general and history in particular. She also has been helpful in watching Leif an afternoon or two each week while I work with my older boys. A while ago, she let me know that if I was at all interested in trying CC, she would love to help by taking the boys to their weekly class and being the observing 'parent.' A CC information meeting was being held that evening. I decided to check it out.
The information meeting was excellent, and I really liked the director who is starting the program in our city this year. She seems very intelligent, well-spoken, calm and unflappable, organized, and personable. I found out that classes are available for ages as young as four, which means that Leif will be able to participate. Not all 4-year-olds would benefit from CC, but I think Leif will really thrive in that environment. My three boys will be in separate classes (which is a GOOD thing), but learning the same material (which will make weekly review much easier).
It occurred to me that Classical Conversations provides exactly the elements that are weaknesses for me and opportunities that my boys need: 1.) Consistency and discipline in memory work across all subjects. 2.) Accountability. 3.) A social network of families interested in the same educational goals. 4.) Experience in a classroom situation. 5.) Opportunity to make new friends. 6.) Learning from other adults and mentors. 7.) Hands-on science and fine arts projects. 8.) Practice in public speaking.
The cost wasn't a concern for me. Not that we had nothing else on which to spend the money, but that I felt it was worth what I would be getting. The bulk of the money goes to the director of the local program and the tutors of the classes my boys will be attending. I know that I will take the program more seriously (as will the other parents) after writing that check. And I assume that tutors will take their position and responsibilities more seriously than a volunteer. The registration (which goes to the national headquarters), supplies, and location fees are reasonable. And I'm very pleased with the materials I purchased.
It felt like Christmas the day my Foundations Curriculum Guide (and other materials) came in the mail. I poured over it and felt my excitement growing. It contains all the memory work for all 3 cycles. (We will only need one copy for all 3 boys for all the years of Foundations.)
Every year, Foundations students memorize all of the Veritas Press History Timeline cards from ancient history to modern times. These are memorized with hand motions. (The cards have additional information on the back that can be read during the week, as well as references for additional information in resources such as the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia or Victor Journey Through the Bible for Biblical events.) Students also memorize the U.S. presidents yearly.
Math memory work is also the same each cycle: skip counting numbers up to 15 and other math facts such as the formula for finding the area of a circle.
Students memorize a HUGE amount of geography (new material each cycle): not only countries but also mountains, bodies of water, ancient civilizations, deserts, the original 13 colonies, etc. Cycle 3 consists of all the U.S. states and capitals, bodies of water, mountains, territories, trails, canals, and more.
Classical Conversations now offers beautiful cards (very similar to the VP timeline cards) to correspond with the 3 years of science memory work, such as ocean zones, types of volcanoes, parts of an animal cell, kingdoms of living things, seven biomes, laws of thermodynamics, parts of the circulatory system, and the definition of catastrophism.
Other memory work includes weekly history sentences (the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, the Bill of Rights, the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, Charlemagne...), Latin (declensions, conjugations, and Bible translation), English (parts of speech, participles, irregular verb tenses, and clauses), and Bible memory. In addition to weekly hands-on science projects, students participate in four 6-week fine arts studies (drawing, famous artists, composer/instruments of the orchestra, and music theory/tin-whistle lessons).
Since my teaching/homeschooling strength (as well as Levi's) is content/context (rather than discipline/skill), I am very excited about using the memory work as a spring-board for supplemental studies during the week. All of the memory work is on a CD, so that will make it very easy to review every day. We'll be doing CC work and bare-bones studies during the week throughout the fall (when baby arrives), and adding in more when January rolls around. I'll share more about how Classical Conversations will play out in our over-all studies in a future post.
One last comment about people. I've already mentioned that I am impressed with our local CC director. But I am so excited about the friends who have also registered for Foundations classes! My sister's daughter, Ivy. Her cousin, Jake. My best friend's kids, McKinnon and Monet. Heather's boys. My mom has expressed interest in attending the classes even when I'm able to take the boys. I'm thrilled about seeing these wonderful people each week, and am looking forward to meeting the other families involved. Now, we are just praying for the tutor positions to be filled. And praying an exceptional tutor can be found for Ilex's (and C's) Challenge class.