rhetoric stage

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.

The Trivium for Life

Life is full of phases.  We enter them, we pass through them, and then we're done.  Just how it's supposed to be.   But as we come out the other side of a phase, we always carry something permanent away.

This is one of the beauties of the Trivium, both for us and our children.  Here's why:

1. In the Grammar Stage, students learn by repetition and singing in class because . . . they love repetition and singing at home ("Mommy? Mommy?  Mommy?" or three-hour loops of a single chorus from Frozen).  It's a phase.  But even though they leave the Grammar Phase in 6th Grade, we want them to carry its basic outlook into adulthood -- like God.  As Chesterton said, "It is possible that God says every morning, 'Do it again' to the sun; and every evening, 'Do it again' to the moon . . . [He] has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

2. In the Logic Stage, students learn how to think neatly in all their classes.  Why not theistic Evolution?  Why did Rome fall?  Why is this story in your history text and not that one?  Why are you right and they wrong?  Who says?  Kids like being argumentative just because at this age.  It's a phase.  But we want them to carry Logic's basic outlook permanently -- like God.  "Come, let us reason together, says the Lord" (Is. 1:18), and "In the beginning was the Word" (John 1:1).

3. In the Rhetoric Stage, students learn how to make their knowledge persuasive and beautiful.  They're interested in making people believe them (especially college admissions officers).  It's a phase.  But we want them to carry Rhetoric's basic 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).

What we put into our kids doesn't easily come out -- and when it comes to the Trivium, that's a very good thing.

Grace and Peace, Nate Ahern