Beyond Letter Grades and Lesson Plans

Learning and teaching are about the in-between parts.

"She's so intelligent," says a father or mother wistfully. "If only she'd do her homework." 

Or, "He's so smart, despite his illegible handwriting. Well, thank goodness for keyboarding classes!"

Or another: "His hair is always a mess, and he smells, but my! what a genius."

From a different angle, I remember with great fondness certain university classes or lectures in which the speaker was doing his best impression of Ben Stein in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," relying heavily on PowerPoint, and not at all heavily on vocal inflection. The content of the lectures was good, very substantive, but it was all I could do to stay awake. "He's such an acclaimed professor," I said to myself wistfully. "If only he'd make this interesting."

In short, good teachers and good students focus on the in-between parts: they don't just execute tasks, they fully embody their roles.

For teachers, this means they do not download information onto their students hard drives, straight-faced. They do not stand in front of the classroom and read straight from the textbook. They do not focus exclusively on their lesson plans and their handouts, and they do not use their voices like sedatives, or like clubs, as though their audience is hostile. Instead, they teach the in-between parts of a subject: they communicate information to minds that they know also come with hearts. They require verbatim memorization of textbook terms, but they first make those terms come to life, because all terms represent magical realities. They use lesson plans and handouts with great joy, because they know God is a God of order, and that therefore their students need order. They discipline with love, whether with lines or reprimands or office visits, because they know that God disciplines those he loves, and because they love their students as human beings made in the image of God, and who are being refined by fire and water for excellence.

For students, this means they do not measure their intelligence by a letter grade, but by their faithfulness in all duties, including regular homework. They do not think certain subjects are more important than others, as though poor handwriting and bad grammar are excusable as long as they "get the right answer." They do not think that personal habits, particularly personal hygiene, are irrelevant as long as they are math and science whizzes. Instead, they study with a sense of responsibility, knowing that simple obedience to a duty is part of learning, even if they already know the concept. They know that a job half done is a job not done, and so they do not accept poor penmanship or incomplete sentences, even if they nail the correct answer every time. They take pride in their appearance, since they know that etiquette and hygiene within the classroom are expressions of love, and of the golden rule.

Good teachers and students know that there is a deeper right than being right, and so they live and act with a healthy pride, and a great deal of thankfulness. They accept nothing less than excellence and the best they can possibly do -- and then they fill in everything in between: doing the right thing when nobody's looking, obeying simply and without questions, and loving their neighbors as themselves.

And as always, God will take care of the rest. 

Aim High, and Get There

Humans are quick-fix oriented by nature, and we live in a quick-fix culture. We want a formula to plug our problem into, and then we'll solve for success. With just the right program, you can turn the Achievement Crank. In fact, instead of being counter-cultural, this is sometimes exactly what we do with classical Christian education (CCE). We see it as a vending machine. Put in your tuition payments, and out bumps a well-educated kid.

Success? Sometimes, it's more like a mangled kid caught in the gears. They somehow turn out hating whatever we've taught them.

So here are some quick reminders about what CCE isn't, and a few reminders about what it is, and what we should keep doing.

What CCE isn't, and doesn't:

1) CCE didn't die on the cross for your kids' sins. It's an excellent method, and a great gift from God, but it doesn't create saints. (The work of the Holy Spirit does.) If we put classical education in the place of Christ and his Church, we'll produce the opposite of what we want.

2) CCE shouldn't be educational syncretism. Classical education is time-tested, which means it doesn't need much tweaking. It must teach today's student, not yesterday's, but it must not have flavors of other educational models. To tweak Chesterton, "Classical education has not been tried and found wanting; it has occasionally been found difficult and left untried." Let's go whole-hog, long-term, without looking to the right or to the left.

3) CCE isn't a Preschool-12th thing. It's a life pursuit. Because it aims to shape hearts and create life-long learners, we should think of CCE in terms of paideia, as a life culture. This means thinking about classical Christian colleges, and about our own classical pursuits as adults.

And few good reminders:

1) Shape your child's affections. Nothing competes with love. "You are what you love," says James K. A. Smith, and this goes for CCE. Do our kids love it? If they don't, it's pretty useless. Help shape their affections by lots of prayer, laughter, and light hearts. 

2) Aim high. Christian art and culture today is not up to par. Nonchristians produce better music and movies, and they've got a monopoly on cultural influence. This is because Christians are content with mediocre academic goals, mediocre colleges, and mediocre careers. We can do better. Set high goals for your kids for God's glory, and for cultural transformation.

3) Get there. Goals are nothing without follow-through. Robert P. George has said, "There is nothing so successful as success." Christ said, "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." Aim high -- and then require your kids to get there, by hook or by crook. They can do it.

Why Classical Must Be Essentially Christian

Augustine Classical Academy has, and remains committed to, a classical and a Christian approach to education. One can find schools that are classical and one can find schools that are Christian, but why do we insist on holding to both of these ideals in the same institution? 

One of the most powerful and alluring features of classical education is its integrated approach to learning. It recognizes that the world is not a disparate set of individual categories, but that everything is connected to everything else. History cannot and should not be understood apart from literature and science and math and ethics. Life is vibrantly integral; it is an interconnected whole. Classical education recognizes this about the world and adopts an approach to learning that embraces this sort of world. But such a view of the world comes from somewhere. A randomly generated universe gives us no reason to expect that anything is connected to anything else. But if we live in a created universe -- created by a Person who has done so with great intentionality, then we can reasonably expect to find a world where everything is connected to everything else. Science and history and math and morality and beauty all held together by a God who designed it that way. But such design requires a commitment to thinking about the world as one who believes in a God like this. Without this “religious” component to education, we lose one of Classical education’s greatest strengths.  

Secondly, classical education aims at the formation of human beings. It recognizes that education is formation. This is why ACA doesn’t simply exist to teach students to know truth, virtue and beauty, but to train students to love and practice these things as well.

The ideas of Truth, Virtue and Beauty require some basis in reality. They must to come from somewhere. Without some norm for these things, truth becomes nonsensical, goodness a matter of preference and beauty simply a matter of taste. Schools that attempt to divorce truth, goodness, and beauty from some objective standard are left without the most powerful and anchoring idea in all of education: the Why. Why does 2+2=4? Why does a triangle have to have 3 sides? Why is human cellular structure so complex? Why is it heroic when Bilbo deceives Thorin?  Why is it wrong to cheat on my spelling test? Christianity -- and importantly the whole view of the world which Christianity provides -- unapologetically answers all of these questions. Secular educational models (like what is found in all public schools and many private institutions) are left without any way to root what is taught in the classroom to anything outside of current social norms, or what seems to work. In other words, the transcendent is lost, and there is nothing to anchor life in outside of ourselves. Such an approach to education tends to turn all of society inward, producing a general drift towards rootlessness, triviality, and rampant individualism.

A Christian education is free to anchor the formation of our students in a transcendent view of the world. A world where there are actual things like truth, goodness and beauty. A Christian education is free to anchor this education in the beauty of grace: a God who is not only there, but who loves and redeems His people. The label Christian in classical Christian Education provides the overarching context for everything we teach, while classical provides the delivery method. We want our students to know, love, and practice truth, beauty, and goodness because we want our students to know, love, and obey the God has created those things and revealed them to the world. 

Brian Brown is a founding Board member of Augustine Classical Academy, where all three of his children are enrolled, and planting pastor at Trinity Church Denver in Golden.

5 Ways to Totally Not Work While You Study

Kids, I'd like to share with you some quick and easy keys to success. Gone are the days of hard work. That's right! By simply using these simple formulas every day, you'll be happy, your parents will be happy, you'll get straight A's, and there will be scholarships waiting for you at Harvard and Yale.

In short, here are the 5 ways to study in school and at home . . . and totally not work at all!

1. Zone out in class. There's no need to listen to what the teacher says, because you'll be able to figure it out when you get home. You'll also be able to look it up on the internet, because Wikipedia is your BFF. Never do today what you can put off till late tonight.

2. Always ask the teacher, "Will this be on the test?" This question is the mark of educational maturity. If the teacher doesn't explicitly say it will be, don't study it. Don't worry if you have a rude surprise during the exam with an unexpected question; you can always get your parents to coax a grade increase out of the teacher.

3. When your teacher gives you terms to memorize, don't. You're not a caveman. However, you need to feel as though you're memorizing them, so be sure to spend your precious and limited study time by getting ready to memorize without actually memorizing. Cut out index vocab cards that you have no intention of ever using. Convince yourself that "you memorize by writing things down," so just keep copying down the same old terms so you can pretend you're engaging your brain. Success is all about self-confidence.

4. Study with as many distractions as possible. Not only will this make homework a joy for you, but it will prevent you from doing any work. For example, your bed, archaically recognized as a place reserved for sleeping, is your best choice. However, you can also study downstairs in the living room where your parents are watching TV shows. Don't forget to bring your smartphone with you so that you can text for absolutely no reason at all. If the TV isn't on, utilize your earbuds or your Monster Beats by Dr. Dre headphones. As you write your essay on the evolution of modern psychology, this environment will force you to avoid the traditional rules of grammar and composition, allowing you to write from your heart. With luck, your teacher will have no idea what you're saying.

5. Shut your bedroom door by 8:00 PM, but do not begin homework until 10:00 PM, preferably 12:00 AM. You need space to FaceTime your friends, watch clips on YouTube, and visit interesting websites. By the time you begin studying, you'll be able to doze onto your math book every 90 seconds. This is known as double-tasking, a universal virtue. You are getting much-needed rest and following in the noble footsteps of Einstein. It is a high and lonely destiny! 

In summary, remember that at the end of the day, you're your own hero. When the going gets tough, there's always someone besides yourself that you can blame! Kiddo, you need to learn how to make your own kind of music and sing your own special song.


Talking about Your Kids

When it comes to education and parenting, communication is key.

It's also hard.

Parent-Teacher conferences (and other conversations about your kids' success), like any good thing, can potentially become a problem. Put another way, there's a ditch on both sides of the road. On the one hand, you might dread conferences because you don't want to hear all the negatives. On the other hand, you might love conferences as an ego-stroking opportunity, living vicariously through the success of your child. In either case, we need some healthy balance as parents. Here's what we should remember:

First, God holds our children in the palm of his hand. He loves them like a perfect father, and he will not forsake them.

Second, we should take long views. Where our children are now is not where they will be later. Children develop, and the struggles they face today will not last forever. Likewise, the ease they have with academics or social interactions today may not be the same ease in future years. We should encourage and prepare them for the future by thinking long-term. Put another way, look at the video of your child's life, not the daily snapshot.

Third, remember that education is difficult by nature. Training hurts. If it didn't, there would be no progress. As you speak frankly with your teachers, and as they speak frankly about your children, remember that education is the right kind of pain, the right kind of work. All children struggle academically and socially on some level, and this is a normal part of the wonderful and arduous journey that education is.

Fourth, know that ACA loves your children. Love involves both praise and correction, and your teachers want what is best for your child. This means that they will speak honestly with you, and it means that you can speak honestly with them. We are all God's children, all part of the single body of Christ, and this should give us confidence as we partner in educating our children for his glory.

Perseverance and St. Patrick's Day

A look back at last month's St. Patrick's Day:

On this day in 461 AD, tradition holds that Saint Patrick died, who we celebrate with beer and any old green thing. (Americans like traditions pregnant with substance.) Many of us also know that Saint Patrick was a British Christian missionary to Ireland. In his Confessions, he said this:

“I pray to God to give me perseverance and to deign that I be a faithful witness to Him to the end of my life for my God.” 

Well said, good Saint Patrick. Persevere. Be faithful to the end. This truth could be applied to any number of lessons, hopefully without watering down the first original meaning, and so I'd like to make quick applications to just a couple things, first generally and then specifically.

In a general sense, we can apply this to education. Saint Patrick reminds us that whatever our calling is, we can't treat it like there's an Easy Button somewhere. In the case of education, we must not treat it like we're searching for a formula. A rigorous, liberal, gospel-centered education is not finding the right equation, solving for the right variable, and plugging in values. We do not insert the perfect teacher or perfect school and compute straight-A students. Instead, we are faithful every day in the little things. We know ahead of time that education is difficult by nature. Like Saint Patrick, we work hard, and we are diligent through all the expected gnarly parts. 

Further, in a specific sense, I'd like to apply Saint Patrick to our Speech & Debate students yesterday. To prepare for the meet, ACA students had to work hard for an extended period of time. They had to be diligent and strong to press through the exquisite difficulty of memorization, and of the unnerving task of public competition. They could not wing it even if they wanted to. Additionally, they were persevering through one of life's most difficult studies: speaking in front of a large group of people. They had no guarantees of success or an award. But as difficult a task as it is, speaking is one of the most fundamental aspects of humanity. It is a metaphor for our personality and our virtue.

Look at it this way. Our students are speaking all the time. (We parents, too.) Speaking isn't just for speech meets. Our words and our actions say something 24-7. The way we make breakfast for our kids, say goodbye for the day to our families, the way we write emails, the way we prioritize time with family vs. friends, the music we listen to, the movies we watch -- all of these things speak. The speak loudly about ourselves, they speak loudly to our friends and acquaintances, and they speak loudly to our children. What we do, as well as what we say, speaks.

So the question is, what's our tone of voice like? How persuasive are we? Are we saying the right things?

This is why we train our students to speak well publicly, both because it is an exhibition of virtue, and because it is a metaphor for life. Christ was the Word made flesh, and in a sense, so are we. Christians are People of the Word, the People Who Speak. Saint Patrick and all wise men and women of history knew this, and they knew that any good thing takes faithfulness and long years of perseverance.

Fortunately, we have a good role model: Christ, who was faithful all the way to death, showed us how.

Why Study Latin?

When you study Latin, and even more so when you teach it, you will at some point be asked why. Why bother? What is the point, some benighted soul will ask you, of learning a language no one speaks? If they really want to vex you, they might even refer to it as a “dead language.”

And although I’d rather not, even I have to admit that it’s a fair question. I’ll also admit that it always baffles me a little. Not because I can’t think of reasons, no! But because I never know which one to pick first. Usually the people who ask this question want to know what practical benefit I find in Latin. And though I certainly do find practical benefits, those are not the reasons I love Latin, and not the reasons I hope you will, either. Nevertheless, I will lay out these reasons here, in order from most boringly practical to most sublime, and let you judge which you find the most compelling.

First, you may have heard that English is based on Latin. This is not entirely true, as English is a Germanic language, whereas Latin spawned the Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, inter alia). English, however, was heavily influenced by Latin as well as by these Romance languages, so much so that around half our words have Latin origins, including most of the fanciest ones. This means that the study of Latin not only prepares you well to learn many other languages, but it teaches you a great deal about English, as well. This brings us to our most boringly practical reason to learn Latin: Latin students crush their SATs. This is just a fact.

Second, Latin is an ideal vehicle for the study of language itself. At Augustine Classical Academy, our kids learn English grammar through a wonderful grammar curriculum, and that is fantastic. But our kids already know English, which makes the abstract grammatical structures harder for them to see in English, since they use it so intuitively. Latin, on the other hand, is not just unfamiliar, it is highly inflected. This means that it shows grammatical structure through the endings of words and not through the order of the words, as English does. This forces students to think about grammar in a way that is unfamiliar and unintuitive, which assures that they then grasp it in a secure, high-level way.

Third, Latin is important throughout almost the entire history of Western Civilization. Ever since the Romans took charge of the Mediterranean world from the Greeks, Latin has been the language in which the most important conversations in history took place. More of the theology, philosophy, science, math, history, and literature that we study was written in Latin than in any other language. Anyone who wants a scholarly career in those fields will certainly need a knowledge of Latin.

And this brings me to my fourth, and favorite reason for learning Latin. That is the glory of the language itself, and the literature and culture it opens up to those who know it. From classical love poetry, to the high rhetoric of Cicero; from the sermons of Augustine to Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Latin language contains much of the most beautiful and profound reading you will ever have the pleasure of doing.

But the barrier to entry into these texts is high. It takes years of study before the typical student can read Latin fluently enough that it constitutes a pleasure rather than a chore. If you have a child in the trenches of Latin-acquisition, it’s possible they might not always feel the labor is worth it. To encourage them, you might tell them how well Latin will help them perform on their college preparatory tests. You might remind them what an excellent grasp of language and grammar they are obtaining, how well they are training their minds, and how well-placed they will be to learn any other Romance language they might wish to learn in the future. These are all very good, very true things. But what I hope to give them, above all, is the feeling of accomplishment and joy that comes when, after years of hard work, the glories of the Latin language and its literature come alive before them.

Love Is a Game-Changer

A look back at 2nd-grade teacher Linda Thigpen's reflections on Valentines Day, teaching, and Christ's love.

As we enter into the most noted month for celebrating love, it got me thinking about ACA and how much love plays a huge part of who we are as a community.  “Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.”  1 Corinthians 13:4-8   

At ACA, we are uniquely committed to our students and our families.  We have a rich desire to walk together in this journey called parenting.  Our families are encouraged, prayed for, lifted up by each other and by our staff.  We are a small community united in helping our families to overcome the hard times and challenges that school and life bring our way.  We are not guaranteed easy paths, but together, united in love, we are able to hold each other up through all circumstances.  

This is a particular blessing as a teacher at ACA. Teachers get the opportunity to see love be a “game-changer” everyday in our classrooms. The way our students care for each other is amazing.  When a student is overcome with frustration and dismay, there is always a peer reaching out to them to encourage, pray for, and celebrate their success.  And teachers meet the students where they are!  We pour God's love into them.  We share our personal stories of how God has blessed, guided, and loved us along our journeys.  We want to walk with our students as they travel theirs.

To have the freedom to love my students well, set high academic standards, and pray during class for my students and their families is a treasure.  Our school is small but mighty.  We are blessed by God to have precious families helping each other along this path -- because parenting has days that are very difficult! Our teachers and staff care very much about partnering with our families.  When you are enrolled at our school, you are more than an enrollment number -- you are part of our family.  God equips us with loving hearts and a desire to nurture and assist each family in their needs.

You are not alone in this journey. I pray that this February is a time to thank God for his goodness to us, and for us to continue to live loved.  Love is a “game changer”!

Stuck in Their Heads

Recitation is always an enjoyable experience as we listen to pieces shared by each grade level and see the progression of learning at ACA. As Nate Ahern explained yesterday morning, recitation is a wonderful opportunity to see a snapshot of each level of the trivium, from theGrammar stage where students are memorizing facts to the Rhetoric stage where students are eloquently expressing all that they have learned.

Yesterday when my 1st-graders arrived back in our classroom following recitation, a chorus of little voices exclaimed, “Mrs. Molen, we have the Northern Border States and Capitals song stuck in our heads!”

I smiled. “That's wonderful! That means I’ve done my job!”

The puzzled looks on their faces showed they were not expecting this response, so I explained. 

“Mr. Ahern actually hired me to do just that -- to get things stuck in your heads.”

This responsibility of getting information stuck in my students’ heads excites me. It is such a privilege to have the opportunity daily to see light bulbs come on as my 1st-graders learn new things, and to share in their love of learning. Early in the year, when we were practicing some of our chants, I shared the following story with my students to explain why we continue to review information we have already learned.

“Close your eyes and imagine that we are standing in a huge field with grass taller than you. Now imagine that one of our classmates runs across the field to the other side. Would you be able to see your friend? Would you know how to find him? It would probably be difficult and take a long time to cross the field and find your friend.

Now imagine that one of our classmates runs across the field to the other side followed by all of the kindergarteners, 2nd graders, 3rd graders, 4th graders, 5th graders, 6th graders, and upper-schoolers. Imagine that all of your moms and dads and brothers and sisters also follow him to the other side. Would you know how to find him now? What do you think would happen to that tall grass after all of these people followed the same path to the other side? The grass would be flattened. It would be simple and quick to run across the field to your friend.

When we memorize chants, jingles, and songs and review them over and over, we are doing the same thing. We are creating pathways in our brains which make it simple and quick for us to remember information we have learned.”

Whether we are learning the states and capitals, the characteristics of mammals and birds, the definition of a preposition, a passage from Scripture, the doubles addition math facts, or the silent final E spelling rules, repetition helps us create those pathways in our brains so we can easily and quickly recall information. This becomes the basis for higher-level learning as students build on that information by asking hard questions and making connections later on.

That's my job, and it's a beautiful one. To get knowledge stuck in their heads.