Teaching the Trivium

A few months ago, we moved out of Washington, D.C., to be closer to where we'll be sending our children to school. That decision wasn't just made because it's our parish school or because many DC public schools have serious problems. Prior to getting married, my husband and I separately served on the school board that oversaw the change in our parish school's curriculum to a Classical approach. It was a large undertaking but we couldn't be more pleased with the results. From my experience, I know that the Classical movement is sizable and under-covered by major media. So I was completely delighted to read about a new Classical school in the area in a recent Washington Post. Written by Julia Duin, it begins with an anecdote that shows how Classical education works:

It’s 1 p.m. and time for Amy Clayton’s fifth grade to show off their memorization skills.

Decked out in blue long-sleeved shirts and dark pants for boys and bright yellow blouses and plaid jumpers for girls, the students begin with the words of Patrick Henry’s immortal “Give me liberty or give me death” speech first delivered on March 23, 1775, in Richmond. That recitation merges into verses from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride.” That morphs into a few phrases from the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution and finally to fragments of speeches by Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

“Beautifully done,” Clayton says at the conclusion. “We just encapsulated 80 years of American history in our recitation.” She is engaged, dramatic, and students are nearly jumping out of their seats trying to answer her questions about the beginnings of the Civil War. To her right is a banner containing a quote from Aesop: “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” Near that hangs a crucifix.

The article tells the story of St. Jerome Classical School, a once struggling Roman Catholic elementary and middle school in Hyattsville, Maryland. We learn about how the change was made. A school in Texas that served as the model for the change is also described in detail. The story does an excellent job of balancing the individual story of the school with helpful information about a dramatically different approach to education. I know from experience that it can take time and nuance to explain the approach. Duin does it here:

Classical theory divides childhood development into three stages known as the trivium: grammar, logic and rhetoric. During the “grammar” years (kindergarten through fourth grade), children soak up knowledge. They memorize, absorb facts, learn the rules of phonics and spelling, recite poetry, and study plants, animals, basic math and other topics. Moral lessons are included. ...

In the “logic” stage (roughly grades five through eight), children learn to analyze, question, discern and evaluate. Students learn to think through arguments, pay attention to cause and effect and begin to see how facts fit together. This is where the study of algebra and how to propose and support a thesis comes in.

The “rhetoric” stage (grades nine through 12) concentrates on acquiring wisdom and applying knowledge. Students learn to express themselves persuasively.

In Michael Murray’s fourth-grade class, students are moving into the logic stage using focused discussion. They have just read from Plato’s “The Republic” about how people behave when they think no one is watching.

The article gives plenty of examples of how these stages work in action. We learn about the Latin basis of the program. We learn about the qualifications of the teachers at the school. We learn how a Catholic school handles instructions about non-Catholic religious systems. We even see a quote from a GetReligion reader involved with the school! My one question about the story was why it focused almost exclusively on Roman Catholic schools. Here's the only mention:

The organizers knew of only one other Catholic parochial school -- St. Theresa’s in Sugar Land, Tex. -- that was trying this method. About 230 other classical schools in the country were mostly run by evangelical Protestants.

But there's no discussion of these other schools, even though many of them are here in the area. The article intentionally focuses on just the story of this school. In an NPR interview I listened to after the story ran, it was clear that Duin was knowledgeable about the broader story involving other Christians. Here is just one of the several snippets from the interview with Michel Martin discussing Protestant embrace of the model:

MARTIN: OK. And what do parents like about it? One of the things you point out in the piece is that - and I wanted to ask you about something you mentioned earlier, which is that a number of Evangelical Protestant schools seem to have embraced this method of education first, and I'm curious why you think that is. But what is it that parents are drawn to?

Ms. DUIN: Well, it's a great method of education. I mean, the kids don't get fluff. I saw things going on where they were studying Greek history and Roman -there were - the maps of Ancient Rome up on school walls. On the walls of this school, they would have the virtues listed: Truth, goodness, beauty. Again, like one of the people in the article said: We don't have Snoopy on our walls here. Not that they're anti Harry Potter or Snoopy.

I mean, they have Harry Potter books in the library. So, they're not, like, retro in that sense. But they really feel that the classics have eternal truths in them that schools would be doing really well to incorporate in their curriculum.

MARTIN: But what about people like, you know, Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass and, you know, modern-day people that other people feel - many people feel would be important to learn about too?

Ms. DUIN: Oh, they do. They do go through history. I mean, I was listening to them recite speeches. In fact, they had a speech by Frederick Douglass that they were having to recite by heart. But same thing about Abraham Lincoln, too. So they don't ignore history, but they do a lot of referrals back to Greek and Roman

The whole topic has been discussed in detail in niche press, including Christian press. But it's wonderful to see the Washington Post and NPR inform readers and listeners about this story that is so significant in the lives of many families around the country.

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