classical christian education

Three Key Parts of a Classical Christian Education

The mission of Augustine Classical Academy is to partner with families in providing an education that is both classical and Christian; to equip students to know, love, and practice what is true, good, and beautiful; and to challenge them to strive for excellence as they live for the glory of God and the good of all people. This mission is designed to be an offshoot biblical truths, specifically that God is the author and revealer of all things (John 1:1-5), that he delights in reason (Isaiah 1:18) and excellence (Col. 3:23) in what we do, and that he wants us to teach our children diligently night and day (Deut. 11:18-21) for the good of those around us (James 1:27, Matt. 28:19-20).

Proverbs also speaks of education in three essential parts: knowledge, understanding, and wisdom (Prov. 4:5-9). Education today often centers on the first two: on the acquisition of knowledge, whether or not there is understanding; or on knowledge and understanding without the foundation of wisdom. At Augustine Classical Academy, our mission is a wholehearted embrace of all three: the accurate acquisition of knowledge (theme: grammar phase), a right understanding of knowledge (theme: logic phase), and a wisdom to apply our understanding the right way in all circumstances (theme: rhetoric phase).

ACA's mission is students who are not confused by their knowledge or by the world they live in, not taught that knowledge means whatever is most convenient, most comforting to them, or most in-vogue. Instead, they are equipped to bless others with their education -- in their homes, in their careers, and in the world. They are wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Matt. 10:16).

God is gracious and faithful, and he has given us the tools we need to equip the next generation of children for his glory. Thank you for continuing to partner with Augustine Classical Academy for the sake of our children, and for his glory.

Taking ACA's Vision Forward

ACA is one of just a few small classical Christian schools in Denver, founded to be a competitive academic academy focused on teaching truth and modeling virtue, for God's glory and the good of all people. This mission has flourished in our first eight years. What is our outlook for the years ahead?

Growth. ACA's 2018-19 enrollment is 120 students, with approximately 40 students in our ACP programs and 80 students in K-12. Overall growth year-over-year is important to us, as the more students are enrolled, the more quality we can invest in our programs, the more aid we can extend to families in need, and the more students we can impact from diverse backgrounds. However, one of our most important growth goals is to retain our low 16:1 student-teacher ratio regardless of future size. That's a sweet spot for quality learning.

Location. ACA's long-term plan is to remain in Lakewood for our main campus. We've successfully put down roots here while still attracting families from diverse locations around the greater Denver area. In 2020, our Lakewood-Belmar lease is due for renewal, and we plan to remain on site for the next few years, during which time we'll explore other possible venues in the nearby area as we out-grow this building space. Additionally, our preschool branch in Edgewater is in a valuable position for families in the West Denver area, and we are in the process of renewing our lease there for the next few years. Overall, our long-term vision is owning a larger permanent location with widespread influence in the Lakewood community, and a continued long-term preschool presence in the West Denver area.

Content. ACA's curriculum is designed to be classical, Christian, and traditional. You can peruse preschool philosophy hereK-6 curriculum maps here and 7th-12th (upper school) detailed scope here. All core knowledge areas of standard public education are taught at ACA, but our teaching methodology, learning standards, and worldview are fundamentally different. This allows ACA to remain relevant in the 21st century in terms of practical training, preparation, and ability to grapple with current issues, but it sets ACA apart by emphasizing time-tested learning skills, independent thinking (particularly in later years), clear communication, and moral standards rooted in the objective truth of the gospel. Relative to their public school peers nationally, this creates better college readiness, marketability, and cultural engagement for God's glory.

Culture. Our aim is to create not just annual waves of successful students, but a culture of educational likemindedness. From successful organizations to influential religions to advanced civilizations, each is marked by a strong cultural center, a shared set of values and customs. Cultures always share both beliefs and practices. At ACA, our vision is to continue building this two-part recipe for educational strength: shared belief in the specifics of quality education, and shared practice in terms of how we live that out day-to-day, in and out of the classroom, as we develop relationships with students and families. In the years ahead, we aim to continue building both the quality of our programs and the ways we educate families about what we do. Our model for educational culture is the gospel: "You shall teach the gospel diligently to your children, and shall talk of it when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise." (Deut. 6:4-9)

Thank you for your faithful partnership with ACA. God has been good to us and blessed us, and I am fully confident that he will continue to do so -- for his glory, for the good of our students, and to spread his truth throughout the world.

ACA's Educational Vision

Christian School. Augustine Classical Academy is first a Christian School. We teach and uphold our statement of faith and traditional Christian morality. We believe the Holy Scriptures are the divinely inspired word of God.

ACA warmly welcomes families of other faiths but asks that all families respect its distinctive Christian identity. In all instruction we are respectful of other faiths while humbly maintaining the truths of our Christian faith.

Classical School. Augustine Classical Academy is a Classical School. One of the most valuable developments of western civilization, classical education utilizes traditional liberal arts as a means of instilling wisdom and virtue in our students. Our liberal arts curriculum is delivered by way of the “Trivium,” a word that describes three modes of learning: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar is concerned with the basic facts, rules and required skills of any given subject. Logic involves learning to think and reason in the language of various subjects. Rhetoric requires students to express their thoughts in a compelling and persuasive manner.

Classical education is fundamentally about the cultivation of wisdom and virtue. It employs a time-tested approach to provide students with the tools for a lifetime of learning. High academic standards allow students to rise to their God-given potential. Our vision reaches beyond teaching children what to think; we also teach them how to think. In the tradition of western civilization, education and classical education have always been synonymous.

Classical education can be distinguished from modern education, in that it does not neglect the important first step of giving students the tools for both intellectual development and for understanding their western, Christian heritage.

Traditional School. Augustine Classical Academy is a traditional school. Although schools have tried many experimental innovations, few have been able to duplicate the success of the traditional classroom.

In a traditional classroom, a knowledgeable, enthusiastic teacher carefully leads students into an understanding of each subject. Classrooms are quiet, orderly, and disciplined. Lessons are incremental, content is age appropriate, and students learn the important skill of quality written work completed in a timely manner. Homework is moderate and is for the purpose of practicing and preparing for a lesson. The traditional classroom is consistent with human nature, and the experience of many centuries has demonstrated its superior quality to the modern child-centered classroom.

Kings & Queens of Your Castle

"You are kings and queens of your castle!”

A few weeks ago during chapel, this is the charge I gave to upper school students. What did I mean exactly? I told them that they are in charge of their rooms at home and their lockers and supplies at school. When they demonstrate the ability to take care of their rooms and their school supplies, they are showing that they are capable of being responsible for what has been given to them. They should think of their rooms/lockers/backpacks as their kingdoms - this is what has been entrusted to them and they rule over their little kingdoms. Naturally, they can be good or bad kings/queens. They can either show dominion over the chaos and establish rule and order or they can let the chaos take over and be controlled by their mess. I encouraged them to be faithful in the little things in which they have been entrusted.  Someday, they might want to be responsible for more.  

At last week’s chapel (and the last US chapel of the semester), I compared the story of Herod’s anger at hearing of the birth of Jesus, and the downward path he took to commit an act of great evil, to how we can go down a similar path when we let our anger control us. Herod was “greatly troubled” when he heard the news out of Bethlehem. His agenda was being interrupted, and he came up with a plan to neutralize this threat. He tried to extract information from the wise men, and when that plan failed, he “became furious.”

Notice Herod’s progression of emotions: first he was troubled, then angry, and finally he resorted to violence and ordered the slaughter of children. Like Herod, we can easily find ourselves on the same path (without the capacity to order the murder of scores of children) when our plans are interrupted. Anger has the power to be so destructive that Jesus addresses it first in his Sermon on the Mount. Dallas Willard said that anger “is a feeling that seizes us in our body and immediately impels us toward interfering with, and possibly even harming, those who have thwarted our will and interfered with our life.” The first step in learning to control our anger is learning to be open to divine interruptions, which often come in the form of ordinary everyday annoyances. We should welcome God to interrupt and thwart our plans, and as a result we open ourselves up to experience his grace and love. Then, by God’s grace, we can release the anger we feel when we are interrupted by others.

Social / Emotional Elements of the Rhetoric Stage

Much of the rhetoric stage of the trivium centers around awareness, independence, and identity. In the high school years, students are essentially adults -- adults by other cultural or historical standards at the very least. Differences of specific maturity levels aside, the rhetoric stage is populated by students who are no longer children; and it is crucial that they are not treated as children.

A great teacher recognizes who each student is, not just what that student must learn. This is the gateway to engagement and learning, and it is a key goal for high school teachers. If a late teenager is treated the same way as a middle schooler, achieving learning objects will be like jamming a square peg into a round hole: it may produce results sometimes, but not smoothly or effectively.

ACA's upper school teachers and parents can partner effectively together by remembering the frame of our rhetoric stage students in these key ways:

  1. Engage with high school students in many of the same ways that we engage with other adults. While students are not our friends or peers, they still become respectable when we show them they are worthy of respect -- even if they are not immediately demonstrating respectable habits.

  2. Standards and conformity are still key, but we should win their hearts before we win the argument. High school students have thin skin, high levels of pride, and low levels of confidence. They need support and kindness through the difficult tasks they face.

  3. Tough love is still love. Students may be frustrated by a difficult standard or consequence, but they can still ultimately see that they are being loved through a consequence -- as long as that love and respect has been authentically built with them over time. 

  4. Teaching or parenting high schoolers should prepare them for independence. If they do not feel empowered toward independence from teachers or parents, they will always find that empowerment elsewhere.

  5. Grades and college admissions are important, but a student's faith during college is essential. As teachers and parents, are we more focused on our kids' robust report cards, or on their robust understanding of, and submission to, the whole counsels of God for life?

Above all, let's pray for ACA's older students, pray for our own kids, and thank God for his saving grace and plans for our good. 

Navigating High School Homework Loads

In most schools, a key challenge for high school students is an increased amount of homework, often to the near-exclusion of meaningful free time. ACA, as a rigorous 4-day school, shares this challenge within its upper school. So an important question is: How can students learn to manage a high workload without detrimental effects?

In 2007, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that, on average, US high school students spend 6.8 hours per week on homework, or about 82 minutes per night. For a 4-day school like ACA, not accounting for its accelerated academic standards, that equates to about 1 hour and 42 minutes per night. In ACA's Parent Handbook, our homework policy suggests (pp. 27-29) that 7th-8th grades should target 75 minutes of homework per night, and that 9th-12th graders should target 1.5 - 2.5 hours homework per night, goals that appropriately balance national 5-day averages with ACA's advanced 4-day program.

But not all students have the same abilities, and not all assignments are created equal. This means that struggles with homework loads in upper school are still common. Given that reality, there are a few important ways to approach homework in advanced grades.

Challenging homework prepares students for college-level work, and for the real world. Times of transition are difficult, and upper school begins preparations for adulthood. Students learn to manage decreased levels of rest and free time, as well as increased levels of work and responsibility. This is a challenge, but it is also a gift. Students are trained for independence and self-sufficiency.

Homework should still never be more than is necessary. At ACA, we're keenly aware of the strategic strain our curriculum places on upper school students. Our design is to challenge them, but not to smother them. In assessing our degree of rigor, we look for general, long-term trends in student performance and well-being, and we are committed to limiting assignments to those that are essential for growth.

Upper School students learn flexibility in habits. Ideal workloads never fall into the lap of every student generally. Rather, students must learn to strategize about ways to make their work more efficient. They consider questions such as, How can I make the most of every minute of the day? Are all my materials organized? Do I follow a consistent, inviolable homework routine every day of the year? Am I constantly challenging myself to greater speed and focus? Academic success is in large part a function of productivity, a non-academic metric. Investments into habits and structure pay dividends in terms of accuracy, speed, and retention. 

Upper school students balance long-term excellence with short-term growth adjustments. Sometimes, a short-term loss is a long-term win. If students are struggling with big reading loads or with getting math problem sets done, excellence is not always to dig in, go slower, and spend six hours per night working instead of two. Rather, students learn the appropriateness of setting occasional time limits on assignments. They might aim for total accuracy and speed, but they also bind themselves by the clock. This often results in lower short-term scores while efficiency is built, but over time, greater speed, efficiency, and accuracy are developed. Far from de-prioritizing ACA's standard of academic excellence, these strategies help students appropriately evolve their habits to the changing expectations they are given each year.

Excellence, growth, flexibility, and preparation for independence -- these are a few of the wonderful features of ACA's unique upper school program. Our students work hard, but they are met with treasures at every turn (Ps. 16:11), gifts from a loving Father about his world that will prepare them for a life of service for his kingdom.

Knowledge that Comes Out the Fingertips

Last week, we began a look at ACA's upper school program in grades 7-12, specifically focusing on themes and features via its curriculum. In future weeks, we'll take a look at college preparedness, emotional and developmental features of upper school students, homework loads, and sports and extracurriculars.

Today, I'd like to focus on what the rhetoric stage is within upper school, and what it is not. Most uses of the word "rhetoric" today mean the opposite of what we're after -- today, rhetoric means verbal fluff, smoke, deception. But classical use revives the full historical meaning of the word: honest persuasion in the pursuit of truth.

In this stage of upper school, students learn how to make what they say appealing. This aligns with their maturing developmental phase, which desires respect, recognition, and a clear identity as budding adults. Students are interested in making people believe them -- their friends, mentors, parents, or college admissions officers. This is a phase, but we want them to carry its outlook permanently, like God.  "The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times" (Ps. 12:6).

The rhetoric stage is the capstone of the trivium.  It is the telos of all prior years of study since preschool, the goal, the crown and glory of classical education.  Until this stage is reached, the grammar and logic stages are incomplete preparation -- valuable in their own right, but weakened and compromised without unification.  As a goal, rhetoric is a queen with her crown, the picture of unity, strength, and power.

But this is not just an impractical philosophical beauty. Upper school students still need to get into good colleges for God's glory. So the rhetoric stage is knowledge "coming out the fingertips" in terms of real hard work in math and science, Latin and public speaking, history and theology, art and music, writing and rhetoric. The beauty of the rhetoric stage is a practical beauty.

Further, rhetoric fixes all knowledge to the standard of God's beauty, and it speaks like he speaks.  It writes like he writes, creates like he creates, and loves like he loves. Unless that universal model of beauty is learned, what might happen to knowledge?

Many things, from the silly to the tragic. Without beauty, brilliantly-educated minds give soporific speeches via monotone PowerPoint.  Those that conceived the great cathedrals are gone, and "the architecture of servitude and boredom" (as Russell Kirk once said) produce industrial slums.  The "suicide art" of Jackson Pollock and the "Piss Christ" of Andres Serrano are hailed as masterpieces.  The ruling elite see the stunning magic of the infant human form as inventory to be chopped up and sold to the highest bidder.  And if there is no beauty, no standard for loveliness, who are we to object?  Let our children use their classically-educated minds to find their own truth.

But the earth is full of God's glory, and it is crying unending praise to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  What is all our knowledge and logic without the living Word?  What is beauty without the glory of Christ?  What is love without incarnate Love?  We lay all our learning at his feet -- from grammar to logic to rhetoric and beyond -- in recognition that he is the author and finisher of all.

Features of ACA's Upper School

We've recently been taking a look at some key elements of a classical Christian education. Today, I'd like to begin a brief look at ACA's upper school. Over the next few weeks, we'll consider 1) our upper school curriculum, 2) the rhetoric stage of the trivium and college preparedness, 3) key emotional / developmental characteristics of upper school students, 4) homework loads, 4-day weeks, and sanity, and 5) sports and extracurricular opportunities. 

Upper School at ACA is grades 7-12, and it straddles the logic and rhetoric stages of the trivium. In 7th-8th grades, late logic-stage students learn and refine the tools of argumentation, of study strategies, and of overviews. In 9th-12th grades, students begin thinking independently, critically, and persuasively. Consequently, ACA's upper school curriculum is designed around these final developmental stages of a classical Christian education.

You can view ACA's upper school curriculum scope here. You'll notice a theme in each grade, which unifies each subject's aim, focus, or relationship. The theme for 7th Grade is The World in Overview, where students unite much of previous grammar school (K-6) knowledge toward world themes and surveys, particularly in humanities classes. In 8th Grade, the theme is The Ancient World, where students launch a deep-dive on primary texts and mature synthesis of ideas via the Omnibus humanities curriculum, which continues through their high school years. In 9th Grade, the theme is The Medieval World; in 10th, The Modern World; in 11th, Ancient & Medieval Influences on Western Civilization; in 12th, Modern Influences, & How Should We Then Live?

Are these themes relevant to ACA's STEM courses? Yes, but of course not directly. Though Christ is the Author of all knowledge, it would be problematic to unnecessarily "humanitize" or "theologize" math and science day-to-day, so ACA's commitment remains to providing competitive STEM courses that foster excellence and college preparedness for the sake of Christ's kingdom. Students who love Jesus but are lazy about their math and science homework aren't glorifying God, even if they know that God is the Author of STEM. ACA's upper school STEM curriculum is therefore designed to primarily encourage accuracy, speed, and excellence as God-glorifying works -- though, when relevant, it also applies upper school's grade-level themes: for instance, the great math and science discoveries that occurred in the ancient world (Archimedes, Ptolemy, Democritus), the medieval/Renaissance world (Kepler, Galileo, Newton), and the modern world (Planck, Einstein, Curie, Bohr).

Overall, ACA's upper school curriculum is a culmination of the great classical work begun in early childhood, established in the primary grades, solidified in the grammar stage, and sharpened in the logic stage. It is rigorous, but it is also intended to give life, preparing students for independence so that they can go into the world as men and women of action for God's glory.

Memory, Argument, & Persuasion

We've recently been taking quick looks at a few principles that distinguish classical Christian education from other methodologies -- its hows and whysits respect for the past, and its balance between nature and technology.

Classical Christian education champions the use of memory, argument, and persuasion to undergird all subjects. Comprising the Trivium, you may know them as grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Yet memory, argument, and persuasion have fallen by the wayside in the 21st century. Other educational methodologies, not to mention real-world practice, replace them with Google, popular opinion, and various self-identities. Where once ideas and cultural practice were moored by a large body of personal knowledge, a moral paradigm for interpreting that knowledge, and a standards-based worldview for making that interpretation pleasing, now reality is defined only by the preferences of the individual, verified only by his feelings.

Memory (Grammar)
The book of Deuteronomy might carry a single theme: remember. Do not forget. Moses wrote the entire book, just before his death, as a means of reminding the Israelites of the knowledge of God, and of his gifts: "Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes" (Deut. 8:11). Classical Christian education encourages students in a similar way: learn the ways of God, of the way he made the world, and of the things he has given you. Remember, and do not forget. In a real way, this is why classical education emphasizes memorization, not simply as a utilitarian means of calling up facts when we don't have a smartphone, but as a way of writing the knowledge of God and his world on students' hearts. This kind of memorization creates thankfulness.

Argument (Logic)
"'Come, let us reason together,' says the Lord" (Is. 1:18), the Word from the beginning, the "Logic" made flesh (John 1:1) The nature of God is rational, his creation is orderly, and therefore classical Christian education seeks to mold students' minds to the mind of God. What are the rules of the world that we have been given? What are the rules of thought? What is God like? The answers becomes the standard for all truth, and for all discourse. Without it, the only coherent question becomes, "Who's to say?" Reality is ultimately rendered meaningless.

Persuasion (Rhetoric)
At the end of creation, "God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31). Within the first week of the created order, God made things, communicated them into existence, and persuaded himself that they were "very good." He did not simply form beings with mere functional capacity; he gave them beauty. In turn as created beings, we have a longing for everything lovely, and for the ultimate Loveliness of Christ. Therefore, classical Christian education trains students to take joy in their creations, to imbue their projects, essays, labs, and speeches with loveliness, reflecting the beauty of their creator.

Exploring Nature and Technology

One of the beautiful aspects of classical Christian education is that it teaches students perspective and priority. Specifically, it teaches them to look to God first, then to man; to the universal, then to the particular; to nature, then to technology. Each element has value, so the distinctions are in terms of order and hierarchy, not of better and worse. I'd like to take a brief look at the last pair, the relationship between nature and technology in classical Christian education.

A knowledge of the natural, physical world is key to a primary education. Students learn about the nature of reality, its potential and its limitations. The human mind, a physical organ with intangible thoughts, links the natural world with the supernatural. This creates a greater sense of wonder, and a paradoxical union of opposites: students are aware of the ingredients of the world in all their near-infinite variety and order; they learn of the world's preposterous smallness and stupendous magnitude; they see their bodies, that they can be used in wonderful ways, but that reality is not defined by our senses, or by the physical world; that there is the heavenly and immortal realm of the Creator, which is our ultimate home. They learn to ask the question the psalmist asked: "When I look at the heavens . . . what is man that You are mindful of him?" (Ps. 8:3-4)

In a small way, these are some of the reasons why classical Christian education emphasizes simpler, purer uses of the human body and mind: nature walks to complement scientific studies; cursive, with its intimate and dance-like motions; the feel of paper between fingers and the tactile work of pencil annotation; the study of the stars, drawing our eyes physically upward, as when the psalmist lifted his eyes to the hills (Ps. 121:1); the study of traditional music on acoustic instruments, made and performed by human hands; the emphasis on the spoken word, conversation, and speech as ways of imitating the living Word, and of most perfectly developing loving relationships with each other.

Does this mean that technology is a detriment to education? Not at all. Even the word "technology" does not mean what we might think it means: it is any "science of craft," which therefore applies to book-binding, not just to smartphone manufacturing. The point of the emphasis of nature over technology is one of priority only. A study and love of nature leads to a study and love of technology. It is a natural, God-given progression to take the glorious fundamental elements of creation and to use them to create further gifts that glorify God and are a benefit to mankind. Problems only surface when that perspective, or progressional hierarchy, is ignored. Then, technology, in a limited and restricting sense, usurps the tools and the imaginations of students, stealing their work ethic, robbing them of their thoughts, conjuring false and impossibly romantic alternate realities, and deadening their senses to the beauty of creation. The gift of technology becomes a curse. In The Screwtape Letters, a similar scheme is used to drive humanity subtly from God: "The more often [a man] feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel."

Classical Christian education is at root about developing thankfulness, both of the natural elements of the world, and of its invented glories, like smartphones, Bugatti supercars, and treat-tossing dog cameras. But like every other good gift from God, timing is key. Imagine if Man had been created on the first day, not the sixth! (Just Adam floating in the void, like in Kubrick's "2001.") We are teaching students the same thing: First know who you are, who created you, and what the gifts are that you have been given. Then, get busy creating and enjoying gifts of your own.