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Four Simple Steps to Classical Success

By Laura Harris
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #65, 2005.

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Laura Harris


As a homeschool educator for six years, as well as a full-time children's services programming assistant at the public library, I have had to rethink and reorganize my school schedule and educational approach many, many times.

Discovering The Well Trained Mind by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer was a blessing; but to the new homeschooler, sorting through the Bauers' suggestions for the classical framework can be overwhelming.

After working with my daughter (who has now graduated high school) and providing guidance to local homeschool families, I have whittled away all the nonessentials while retaining the top essential tasks to provide your child with a classical education.

Yes, we have to do routine tasks daily to ensure our kids are learning what they need to know. And yes, drill work using flashcards, worksheets, or computer software is unavoidable for phonics, spelling, and arithmetic. But if you find yourself overly busy with worksheets in other subject areas, there are ways to replace that busy work with other options - without feeling guilty!

Below is my list of favorite essential routine assignments that follow a classical framework and are adaptable to any curriculum.

Step 1: Stress-free Reading and Parental Read Aloud Time

The majority of the homeschool student's time is spent reading. Your child should read fiction, history, science, fairy tales etc. - yes, I said "fairy tales." These include cultural folklore and classical mythology.

Try to make the reading time as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. Read greater amounts of material with fewer assignments followed with lots of natural conversation between you and the child. This is the routine you want to establish for life.

Don't let the child feel that there is always an assignment after the reading. Don't let the child read just to get the homework questions finished on a worksheet. Questions for comprehension similar to those on standardized tests should be done with the student but should be sporadically given (few and far between) throughout the year so the student does not get used to reading just to answer your questions.

Children should be comfortable reading on their own and reading well as early as possible in their school years. If you have a solid phonics foundation, this will not be a problem. Mastering phonics might take longer for some children than others, but phonics must be mastered. So to avoid confusing a child's emotional attachment to reading, which is a joy, with the drudgery of drill and practice, I suggest you separate "reading time" from phonics instruction. Let phonics instruction be associated with language study and not with reading or literature.

If you give the child grades, then let the grade for phonics be separate from the literature grade. The idea is to let the child feel delight in reading so reading will become loved and treasured.

If your child is too young to read literature on his own, then spend "reading time" telling stories or talking about the pictures in his books.

Just as vital as teaching your child to read well on his own is taking time as a parent to read to your child. So many parents quit reading to the child once the child becomes a reader himself. I preach this every day to parents when I'm at work. Don't let this happen to your family. Make a firm commitment to read to your children daily for the rest of their childhood - yes, that means through the teen years too!

Reading opens doors for discussion. Even disturbing stories or stories that don't fit into your family's values can be useful for instruction. Reading can also be a safe and practical way for children to polish their witnessing skills. Ask them, "How would you react to this character?" or "What would you say to this person?"

In choosing books, you should choose fun popular fiction, historical novels, fantasy, science fiction, modern children's classics, older children's classics (before 1900), classical epics, and for the older child, Shakespeare and the British classics. There is such great literature to choose from; you'll never run out of ideas for your family read-aloud time. When in doubt, ask the librarian!

If you shake in your boots at the mention of Shakespeare, here's a hint: If you let your young child hear or read the Bible from the King James Version, then reading Shakespeare in high school is a snap. Why? The KJV was published in 1611 during the same time as good ole Shakespeare himself. The rhythm and flow of the language is the same. The child will be used to the poetic language and will have no trouble making the transition.

During your read-aloud time you, the parent, will be reading books of your choosing that will be slightly above the child's reading level, but that will capture his or her interest. Your reading aloud is the key factor in transitioning children from picture books and I Can Read books to novels. You will also be reading your child's favorite books over and over, such as picture books and children's classics.

If you have a child who is stuck on a particular book, don't fret. Keep reading the favorite each night, but stipulate that you get to choose one as well. If you do this, the child will phase out of that particular favorite and move on.

Also, don't let the eager reader refuse to let you read aloud. You can take turns reading with your child, but the idea is that you must continue reading aloud throughout the homeschool years.

Oh, by the way, this particular task is not to be associated with "school time." Parental read-aloud time is done during family time, usually at night. This is your chance to cuddle with your children and make them feel loved. Don't let your children associate this special connection with "school," even though it really is connected and is a vital element in their education.

Step 2: Narration

I am a strong supporter of this very simple Charlotte Mason technique. Narration can be your routine assignment for any subject requiring reading and comprehension. Let the child tell you what he or she remembers from the reading. You write down exactly what the child tells you. That's it! You may prompt the child with questions, but don't give the child too many prompts. You want the child to tell you what he can remember without a lot of additional help.

Children learn best if their routines are consistent and your administration of the child's progress is so much easier if you keep tasks at a minimum. Children do not need an ever-increasing pile of worksheets. Classroom students spend more time on worksheets than homeschooled students, because worksheets allow children to continue the learning process while the teacher is engaged teaching others. You do not have these limitations, so your student can spend most of his "school time" reading, and then narrating what he's read back to you.

A young child may only dictate a few sentences for you to write down. As the child gets older, you or the child will be writing a paragraph. The child can write his own narration when you feel he is ready.

Narrations can be frustrating for a beginner, so don't force the child to write all the narration until he is comfortable writing. If you have children of various ages and they are all writing narrations from the same story, start with the youngest and record his narration, then progress to the next child up in age. This keeps little ones from simply repeating what the other child says. The older children should be able to elaborate more on the story in turn and therefore have a longer narration.

As the student gets older, the narrations become longer. When the child reaches fourth or fifth grade, the narrations will probably be a full page in length. High school students will write 3-4 pages or more.

As narrations become longer and more detailed, the less narrations you will assign them. With very young children, you can do a narration a day; with slightly older students cut back to 2-3 times a week. For a high school student, cut back to weekly or biweekly papers.

As the student gets older the narration focus will shift from "What happened?" to "What was interesting or puzzling?" The narration will become your child's dialogue with the author - a journal entry focusing on thoughts, perceptions, and questions.

Let older children include quotes from the text on a regular basis, using proper punctuation and citation. Including cited quotes teaches the child to zoom in on key phrases or thoughts in the story or history text.

Narration is a "must" technique - it's so simple and yet it progresses naturally into book reports, analysis papers, and eventually research papers. Plus, you will never have to use a teacher's guide for literature again unless you just want to.

Step 3: Oral Recitation

Oral recitation is simply having your child stand in front of you or the family and recite verses or poetry from memory. It is important to make this recitation formal. You are teaching your children to stand in front of people and present themselves. Not only does this exercise force children to memorize and internalize verses and poetry, it forces them to develop self confidence.

Extreme shyness is not a virtue and is not something you should encourage by telling family and friends, "Oh, she is just shy." Recitation will force some children to come out of their shell, while others will jump at the chance to have the spotlight.

If you make oral recitations part of your routine, the child will think nothing of being in front of an audience or making a good presentation.

Memorizing verses, poetry, and (later) speeches is a key element in classical education and making an oral presentation is a foundational skill that will culminate at the high school or rhetorical level of education.

Step 4: Scrapbooking

Wow! What an incredible and fun way to showcase all that the child has learned. Think of scrapbooking as a weekly routine to review, collect, and visually organize all that the child has accomplished in all subjects.

I had personally been looking for a better way to present my child's academic work. With the birth of my youngest child, I realized I wanted to have a better record of his future school work than I had for my oldest son and daughter. So much of my oldest child's school work had been stuffed in drawers, thrown away, or no longer worth looking at or keeping. My daughter's high school work is slightly better but not very attractive to look through for someone other than myself. Then I came across some scrapbooking materials and I realized that this particular craft has really elevated to a modern art form. The more I looked at what was happening conceptually in creating scrapbook layouts, the more excited I became. I realized that scrapbooking can incorporate both student and parent accountability, art, creative thinking, organizational and critical thinking, writing, and design.

The academic benefits of scrapbooking are similar to oral recitation. It forces your student to put his "best" foot forward for public display, outside of his immediate circle. "Public" in this sense could mean Dad, outside relatives, or friends. This can create a sense of accountability in both child and parent and create a healthy "stress" point to force the child and teacher to consistently review academic work in the sense of "What do I have to show for my child's work?"

Scrapbooking can be your way of creating your own "open house." Then showcase your accomplishments by having a formal celebration at the end of each school year, graduation from each level (grammar, logic, and high school), or birthday and have a beautiful display of all projects and scrapbooks.

Make a goal at the beginning of each school year to have a set number of two-page-spread layouts for each unit, school week, or two weeks. You should have a layout for each month at the very minimum. Some type of goal will allow you to stay accountable to yourself and on track for collecting, organizing, and presenting what your child is learning.

You can create a scrapbook for each subject and continue to add through a four-year period as suggested for notebooking in The Well Trained Mind or you can make one scrapbook for each school year and create layouts that incorporate all the school work done over the course of a week or two weeks. If you are not sure how you want to eventually organize the schoolwork, here's a hint: If you keep your layouts distinct for each subject, you can always reorganize all the scrapbook pages later. After several years of keeping work together, you will have the option of separating the layouts by subject and then creating a unique scrapbook for each subject so you can see the progress your child has made.

Scrapbooking can replace "notebooking" and other forms of keeping school work. Jessie Wise, the author of The Well Trained Mind, suggests notebooking for each subject, but you can simplify that process by using scrapbooking and you will reap a wider range of benefits as well. Notebooking confines you to using normal school paper and three-ring binders. Scrapbooking blows away the boundaries of traditional homework assignments. You can use folded books, accordion books, artistic lettering on the computer, drawings, paintings, photos of projects, journaling templates, assignments on scraps of vellum, etc.

Make sure your child does a huge portion of the layout design, including lettering and selecting photos and school work. This is an important part of his education.

To further share my idea of what this can do for your child, I want you to think of scrapbooking not in the sense of collecting photos and memorabilia, but in the sense of collecting and organizing concepts. As you look at your child's current paperwork, ask yourself, What about have been written in a miniature book? What about a folded flap book (you can find out how to do this in Dinah Zike's Big Book of Books and Activities)? How about vocabulary words written artistically across a layout? As you look at samples of a scrapbook layout (usually two 12x12 sheets of paper side by side), in place of the suggested photographs put in examples of assignments: mini-books or photos of historical figures, for example. Children love to print out images of historical figures or animal pictures that they are studying from the Internet. Accordion books can include timelines of science or history (again, Zike's book explains how to make these). Create and bind your high-school student's 3+-page paper with artistic paper and fabric embellishments.

Lapbooking is the same idea; you just use folded file folders instead of scrapbooks to hold your layouts. Both offer the same benefits for your child. However, scrapbooking has greater creative potential and the 12x12 page size allows for more artistic layouts.

Photographs can include your child working on projects, close-ups of large 3-D projects, or play presentations. All narrations can be creatively incorporated into the scrapbook layouts. Poetry or verses that your child has memorized can be typed on the computer and artistically placed in the layout or handwritten on archival paper. Young children can do vocabulary work, sentence work, and so on in small minibooks that can be added to the layout.

What excites me the most is that by setting a scrapbook goal, I can become more accountable to myself and my child and my goal will keep me on my toes. If I know that I want to create a scrapbook page for every unit or every two weeks, then that means I have to have a lot of school work to go through to choose which items are going to be included. This is a shared accountability chore between myself and the child. The child will have to get the work done and I will need to be able to review, analyze, and help him put his "best face forward" for public presentation. Knowing that someone else will see the child's school work will let him be excited about what he is doing. Showing the work to other family members lets the child know that his school work is serious stuff! Children will certainly take great pride in their work and learn how to present themselves.

Recently I discovered the importance of this simple activity. At a small group session, I noticed how difficult if was for some of the children (middle elementary) to do a creative project where they had to follow simple instructions, create headings and titles, and decide what would be included. This became an impossible task because they had never experienced it before. Scrapbooking puts them higher up the learning curve.

Digital Scrapbooking

I want to say a few words about digital scrapbooking. As your child gets older and approaches the high school age, then I highly recommend that you require your student to create digital scrapbooking pages. First, this will enable your child to become comfortable with advanced computer skills before he or she leaves school. Your child can easily become familiar with word processors or spreadsheets while doing his other school work; however, a digital scrapbooking routine can take care of the rest of the computer skills.

When you use the computer for scrapbooking you will need three things: a digital camera, good software (example: Adobe Photoshop Elements), and a color printer. The benefits will be more than you can imagine. Your child will learn

  • Communication between software (camera to PC, uploading files, file exchange, software to email, etc.)
  • Importing and exporting functions
  • Advanced file management skills
  • High-level tool bar navigation skills
  • Digital photography
  • Artistic design
  • Graphic design and its software

Plus making conceptual connections for layout designs increases critical and creative thinking.

If you explore digital scrapbooking, your older child will gain a wide range of computer literacy skills, plus an awareness of artistic elements and color play.

Digital photography and scrapbooking can carry over into 4-H projects, various academic contests, and science fair exhibits. Regular scrapbooking and digital scrapbooking also make portfolio preparation much easier. Writing resumes requires the same discernment skills. This is a set of skills that opens many doors.

Academic Benefits of the Four Tasks at a Glance

Reading is the heart of education. Parents reading aloud is the oxygen that fuels it. Reading is and always will be the student's primary task. The more you read, the better you will read. The more fiction you read, the deeper your understanding of metaphors and the depth of your child's intelligence is greatly affected. The quality of your child's writing is also directly related to the amount of literature read.

An additional benefit is protection from outside criticism regarding biased instruction. Sometimes homeschoolers are asked, "Aren't you afraid of having just one teacher, one bias for everything your child is learning?" A good response to this concern is that reading - especially a wide range of fiction (again I stress to please include folklore, fantasy, and science fiction) - dramatically increases the child's shared experiences and actually gives the child more exposure than the average classroom child due to the increase in reading. By reading, he or she can experience a whole world of cultures, time periods, and perspectives. A child that is well read, especially in fiction, will never lack a variety of "teachers."

Narration is the memorization, writing, and comprehension tool. The benefits of narration cannot be over-emphasized. Remember the motto; only add work that will create the maximum level of academic benefit! Narration forces the student to think through what he has read or heard and then to assimilate, organize, internalize, and make the story his own. The only way a child can retell the story or describe back to you by oral communication is to go through a wide variety of mental acts to process the information. A lot happens during this process, much more so than answering specific questions by you or pre-written on worksheets, and then after the child retells what he has learned, the narration is recorded by you or the child on paper which gives the child writing practice. Narration forces children to come up with their own questions and mentally visualize what has happened or what was said. It improves comprehension and creates great original thinking and imagination.

Oral recitation is the memorization and public speaking tool. Benefits of formal recitation include powerful memory development, public presentation, oral communication, and preparation for speeches and professional presentations. It is the means of internalizing the rhythm of great literature. It lays the foundation for powerful recall of history of thoughts and quotes. The child becomes intimate with past authors. Remember, Cicero was Rome's "Great Orator" because he could cite all the great thinkers from memory and use his knowledge as a powerful debate weapon. This improved memory carries over into all other subjects.

Scrapbooking is the writing, art, and presentation tool. It can be the catalyst for art instruction, organization, and collection of valuable school work. It can also incorporate those photographs and memories of the child growing up. It gives the child the means to make paper projects, learn design, and make decisions about his best work. Scrapbooking can greatly increase motivation for completing tasks and provide a healthy stress point for deadlines and completing assignments. Digital scrapbooking gives fluency in a wide range of computer skills and artistic design and can generate interests in career exploration at the high school level due to the increase in computer literacy.

With these four key tasks, you can effectively streamline your classical education routine and effectively build your child's skills in reading, writing, speaking and presentation.


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