So many questions about Classical Conversations (CC) come through post comments or emails. It has been a long time since I’ve given a specific update about CC—what our experience has been, what the memory work is like, how it benefits us, and how we incorporate CC into our overall homeschooling. I have sprinkled mention of CC throughout blog posts for the past two and a half years, though, so you may want to skip this post if you are weary of the topic.
For those of you still curious about the specifics of Classical Conversations, this post is for you. (And even some of you may be weary of the topic by the time you finish this epic.)
[This post breaks all the conventional blogging rules of brevity, but, after all, what are rules for? Surely my use of alliteration will serve as redemption. I prefer to live in my own little fantasy world—a world in which I decide when, where, and how. If you are new here, welcome!]
The Classical Conversations experience varies by community. It is greatly dependent upon the directors and the families involved. We happen to have a phenomenal director, excellent tutors, and fabulous families. Your mileage may vary.
The program is designed to give each family significant flexibility in how they implement the program at home and with each student. It will not fit with every family’s educational philosophy or method, however, or every season in which a family finds themselves. That’s okay. It would be a very dull world if we were all alike. One of the main benefits of homeschooling is that parents are free to eschew cookie-cutter schooling and create the education and life-atmosphere that is best for their children. Use what works for you, and don’t feel guilt or pressure about what doesn’t.
The Cultivation of a Classical Christian Culture
(Seriously, people. I’m giving myself extra points for the alliteration, which I will be sure to spend on something sugary.)
Speaking of educational philosophy, the mission of Classical Conversations is ‘to know God and to make Him known’ by combining classical learning with a biblical worldview. Much has been written about classical education (you can find a few links here), but this is my nutshell version:
A classical education emphasizes the tools of learning. A student of any age must first internalize the grammar (or vocabulary) of any subject he wishes to learn, whether it be math, photography, or archery. This grammar consists of facts such as names, dates, stories, rules, and equipment. Next, that grammar must be organized and processed logically. This is the time for why and how questions, for analyzing, reasoning, and abstract thinking. Finally, the student synthesizes what he has learned and expresses himself skillfully through words or action.
A classical education also erases the lines between subjects and emphasizes the connections between ideas and events. A Christian classical education integrates all subjects and shows their proper relationship to God the Creator.
If you are interested in reading more about the educational philosophy behind CC, I’d highly recommend The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education by Leigh Bortins, the founder of Classical Conversations. The book is informative and inspiring for anyone interested in learning more about classical education.
As an introvert who likes to do her own thing, the quality of our community took me by surprise. I cannot tell you how much I love these people and how much I look forward to seeing them each week! We have close to 50 families involved, and I truly have enjoyed getting to know many of them.
When we first began attending CC, I wasn’t very interested in staying for lunch since we didn’t attend class in the afternoon. (That and I was nine months pregnant/had a newborn and was beyond exhausted by noon). I quickly realized that the lunch hour was an important time for the kids to spend down-time with friends of all ages and for the adults to get a chance to talk and interact. I have made so many valuable friendships over the past two years, and I appreciate spending time with these women and families outside of CC as well.
In addition to the women attending with their children, we have a decent number of dads and grandparents involved on a regular basis. I love this! My mom has been there every week with us, helping in one of the boys’ classes. I appreciate having her there so much.
Not only did I not anticipate the tremendous blessing of the local community, but I had no idea what I would gain in an extended community. That is one tremendous benefit of being involved with a nation-wide program rather than a local co-op. We have a second CC community in Albany and one ‘next door’ in Corvallis due to the high demand in our area. I have friends in the nearby communities in Eugene and Salem. I have real-life and on-line friends around the state and across the country. We encourage, empathize, and inspire in emails and on Facebook. We share resources and plans.
Another benefit of the nation-wide program is the general online support and inspiration. There are many blogs sharing Classical Conversations experiences and related lesson plans and resources, most notably Half-a-Hundred Acre Wood. Or search for Classical Conversations on Pinterest. The number of YouTube videos, online lesson plans, printables, projects, and activities related to CC topics is mind-boggling—and most of them are free.
Foundations is a three hour morning class for children ages 4-12 that meets weekly for 24 weeks. (I wrote about what our CC morning looks like in detail back when we first began.)
The Foundations classes are divided roughly by age, with no more than 8 students per tutor. Parents are required to be in class with their children and to participate in the learning experience, and also to help out with some of the hands-on activities. Parents with more than one child usually rotate through the classes (spending a whole morning in each class so as not to be disruptive). Children under the age of four may sit quietly with a parent, but most communities have baby/toddler care. (I can’t tell you how much I appreciate not having Lola in class with me. That might work for quiet, self-entertaining children, but never with her. Our community hired a couple young ladies to watch the littles for a very reasonable cost—so worth it to me.)
The class atmosphere and expectations are tailored to the age and abilities of the students. Some context is given at an appropriate level. The younger classes may move and sing more often.
Many people would suggest not starting CC until one’s oldest child is at least six—especially if one has a few younger children. Leif started CC when he was four, and it was a good choice for us. He was excited to be learning the same content as his older brothers and happy to participate in review time at home. He enjoyed having his own tutor and his own classmates; it made him feel special. He didn’t understand as much as his brothers and had a more difficult time in the classroom—and we didn’t spend as much time on context at home with him—but I was astonished at what he did remember and how excited he was by certain things. I don’t know if I would have had the fortitude to commit to CC, however, if he were my only child in class and I was dragging littles along.
Essentials is the afternoon language arts class designed for students in grades 4-6. Parents are again expected to be in class with their children. Class runs from 1pm to about 3:15. This is Levi’s first year in Essentials, and I’m glad I waited until 5th grade for him. (More about that when we get to content.) Forty-five minutes are spent on grammar, another forty-five on writing, and about a half hour on challenging math games (with extra time for break).
Our community has someone to watch the younger kids play in the gym or they play quietly at the back of the classroom. My mom has been taking Lola and Leif to her house so that Lola can take a nap and Leif can play with his cousin Ivy. Have I mentioned how thankful I am for my mom? Luke either plays in the gym or reads in the classroom.
During Foundations each week the students are introduced to memory work in timeline, history, geography, science, math, English grammar, Latin, and Bible (Bible is integrated with Latin or history for two of the cycles). (All students in all classes learn the same material.) Each student gives a presentation—similar to show-and-tell, especially for the younger classes—to practice their public speaking skills. Students work with maps (pointing, tracing, and/or drawing) to practice their geography memory work and prepare them for drawing the whole world by memory in the Challenge level (7th grade and above). Classes also complete a science project or experiment (with emphasis on the scientific method) and a fine arts project weekly.
CC Foundations is not meant to be a comprehensive curriculum. You will have to supplement. What that means will be different for each family. Make it what you want it to be.
Every year, Foundations students memorize all of the Classical Acts and Facts History Cards representing 161 people, cultures, and world events from ancient history to modern times. There is now a song for the timeline, which makes it easy for children to memorize. (My eight year old memorized it within a couple months.) The gorgeously visual laminated cards have a couple paragraphs of context information for each event. 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 common squares and cubes, basic geometry formulas, unit conversions, and mathematical laws.
Students memorize a HUGE amount of geography (new material each of 3 cycles): 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 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 (such as 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 grammar (such as parts of speech, participles, parts of a sentence, and lists of prepositions, irregular verb, and helping verbs), 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).
The memory work serves to solidify and anchor all our other studies. Yes, it is a supplement, but it is what we remember—what serves as pegs on which to hang details, stories, ideas. It is the oh, yeah! factor. The I know this! factor. Even the I can do this! factor. It often takes the trepidation out of a subject. It provides a tremendous sense of accomplishment. And, as such, is invaluable to our family.
[If a child can already chant ‘amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant,’ and say the words conjugation and declension, and know that the noun cases are nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and ablative (which is, incidentally, no more difficult than singing Ring Around the Rosie and saying Tyrannosaurus Rex as my four year old has proved), how can the subject of Latin be intimidating to them when they encounter it later on?]
I am so thankful for the hands-on science and fine arts. Those are two things I am not consistent with at home. I also cannot believe that we are now covering our third cycle of memory work, which means that all three boys will have at least been exposed to an astounding amount of information—and memorized much of it. They all will have a second run through the cycles to solidify the memorization (except for Levi—he’ll only have hit cycle 3 once before entering Challenge if we stick to this road).
It is recommended that families at least supplement with math, handwriting, and phonics/spelling programs at home. (More about that when we get to context.)
Essentials content includes grammar, writing, and challenging math games. Again, parents are free to adjust their expectations according to the needs and abilities of their children.
The grammar portion is where one begins to see the memory work hit the pavement. A student who comes to Essentials able to define the parts of speech, list parts/purposes/structures/patterns of sentences, and chant pronouns and irregular verbs is way ahead of the game. They don’t have to wrestle with learning the vocabulary and applying it at the same time.
Using Essentials of the English Language, students learn how to analyze every word in a sentence and identify parts of speech in detail: number and type for nouns; case, person, number, gender, and type for pronouns; descriptive-degree or limiting for adjectives; type, tense, form, number, person, voice, and mood for verbs; simple-degree, flexional-degree, or affirmative/negative for adverbs; coordinating, subordinating, correlative, or conjunctive for conjunctions; adverbial or adjectival for prepositions; and gerund, participle, or infinitive for verbals…gasp!). Students identify parts of the sentence and label structure, purpose, and pattern. And then they diagram each sentence. Oh, and students also learn to rewrite sentences by purpose and structure as well as with modifiers. (Have I mentioned that I love grammar? Swoon.)
The same material is covered each year so students have the opportunity to go deeper into the analysis and understanding each time they encounter the lessons. Parents are again encouraged to tailor the weekly assignments and expectations to their child’s age and ability. We have two Essentials classes in our community so there is one class for students new to Essentials and one class for students who have previous experience, and the tutors are able to tailor class time, as well. Most of the first-year students will be simply skimming the surface.
Essentials of the English Language includes instruction in punctuation, spelling rules, and editing exercises that can be used at home in addition to the weekly grammar assignments to complete the language arts program.
Essentials classes use IEW themed-based writing programs that correspond with the general historical time period of the Foundations history sentences for each cycle. This year we are using the Ancient History-Based Writing Lessons. The tutor gives instruction for the lessons during class with student participation, and students complete weekly writing assignments at home. In our Essentials class, students have the opportunity to read their papers aloud to a group of other students each week. Parents complete the grading check-list for each assignment.
The class ends with various challenging math games.
As I mentioned, each tutor gives varying degrees of context during their class time depending on the ages and abilities of the students and as time allows. This context is brief even in the older classes, however, and the parents have complete flexibility over how the memory work plays out at home over the week and the year.
I do provide my boys with context at home, but the memory work in general aligns with the subjects we study so context is not hard to come by. I’ve found that even if the context comes months (or even years later), the boys are more excited and have a better retention of stories and facts if they have some memory work under their belt. They enjoy learning the memory work (with songs, hand motions, and/or visual aids—the classes are not grueling!) whether or not they have context right away, so I’ve learned not to sweat it.
Context can be as simple as reading the back of the timeline cards for the corresponding historical event or reading the corresponding science card. History and science encyclopedias are handy references. We like both Kingfisher and Usborne. There are many online sources with links for corresponding YouTube videos. Schoolhouse Rock and Magic School Bus are favorites around here. Khan Academy is another great resource.
The skip counting songs revolutionized math for my number-challenged son. Context? All 3 of my boys use the math memory daily. Even a young child can understand the associative law for addition when you show them an apple, banana, and cookie.
We use our new vocabulary at home in our discussions. Did you know that it is so much easier to talk about something when you can name it? Don’t minimize the importance of simply talking about facts and ideas!
We have done things differently at home each year of Foundations, now. The first year we used the history encyclopedia and a few extra picture or chapter books on the subjects (particularly for history and science).
This year we are studying ancient history using The Story of the World as our spine, which corresponds to some of the history sentences (though we aren’t using the CC weekly schedule to organize our history topics) and dove-tails nicely with the writing in Essentials. We are creating our first timeline, writing in the timeline card events and history sentences. We are sticking more closely to the topics in science using Real Science 4 Kids Biology and The Kingfisher Science Encyclopedia. We are using Teaching Textbooks as our main math curriculum. Latina Christiana is the Latin curriculum we are using at home. We use Telling God’s Story for our Bible lessons in addition to reading through The Children’s Illustrated Bible (which has great visuals and context information).
The main curricula we use to supplement language arts are Handwriting Without Tears, The Complete Writer: Writing With Ease, All About Spelling, and Michael Clay Thompson’s Language Arts. Using the MCT books the past two years created an excellent grammar foundation for Levi and is going to make his first year of Essentials a breeze. They are so delightful without sacrificing rigor in any way. Waiting until after finishing the first two levels and also going through two cycles of Foundations (and being a little more mature in general) before entering Essentials has set Levi up for success. I’m glad we waited until 5th grade. (The younger boys will have gone through both Foundations and MCT at an earlier age, so they may start Essentials earlier, as well.)
(I posted a detailed list of all our resources here.)
We are working towards mastery of all the memory work this year for both of the older boys (it is Luke’s choice to work toward mastery). We are still in the introductory stage with Leif.
The important things to remember: The parent decides whether to treat the memory work as an introduction or work toward mastery. The parent decides how much time to spend on review. The parent decides whether to memorize all subjects equally, put emphasis on one or more subjects, or ignore other subjects all together. The parent decides how deeply to dive into context for each piece of memory work and when. The parent decides whether the memory work is enough for each subject, or whether they wish to supplement with an additional program.
It is also important to note that the CC year runs only 24 weeks for Foundations and Essentials. Our CC year begins the week after labor day, breaks for a week in the middle of the semester, and gives us 4-5 weeks of time off over Christmas. Our second semester begins after the new year (thankfully not in the first week) and ends in April with two weeks off in between. Every community sets their own schedule, but a 24-week year allows plenty of time for adding in extras around the edges.
"Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty... I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” ~Theodore Roosevelt
I spend Sunday evenings gathering things for our Monday morning. This often includes a frantic pulling-together (or review, if we’re lucky) of each child’s presentation for the next day. I have a love-hate relationships with presentations—usually more hate than love. We also occasionally find ourselves finishing writing assignments at inconvenient times.
That’s the thing about accountability. Why would we need it if we don’t find a thing difficult? But why would we want it if we don’t think a thing is worth having or doing?
It is not an easy thing to get this family put together, supplied for the day, and out the door on Monday mornings—and classes don’t even begin until 9 am! I try to remember that we could be doing that every morning.
There is no slacking for the parent at CC. We are
supposed to be attentive and involved. My boys don’t always have the easiest time in classroom situations. Sometimes there are growing pains for both child and parent as we learn what is expected of us in group settings.
When I arrive home after a day of CC, children are sent some place to sit still and silently (yes, that often means in front of the television) while I fall face-first on my bed and stay there for some time. CC days exhaust me. And I’m not even tutoring. Part of that is the reality of being introverted. Part of that is manning four extroverted children in public. Part of that is me being lazy.
CC consumes a full day of our school week, as well as the time spent on review and any prep for the next week’s class, so we have less time for field trips and days off. I give up some control over what memory work my children learn (and when) in exchange for the social learning experience and accountability.
There is the financial cost, of course. CC isn’t free. But we often value what comes with sacrifice. And there is an expectation and accountability when one is being paid. We don’t miss classes—because we’ve paid for them. Our tutors work their tails off with tutor meetings, weekly prep work at home, lugging materials to class, set-up and clean-up, and leadership and engaging non-stop with students as they pour their heart into teaching. Every tutor we’ve had has more than earned every penny (and spent more than a few of their own). Our director works tirelessly to keep our community organized, prepared, inspired, growing, and gracious.
[Many parents tutor to help off-set tuition fees, which is similar to being in a co-op setting.]
In the end, Classical Conversations is well-worth what we are investing in time, money, and effort.