Category Archives: Literature

The Pitfalls of Classical Homeschooling

You’ve done your homework, made your preparations, and purchased all the Great Books you plan to read during this year of Classical Homeschooling. What could possibly go wrong?

In previous blogs I lauded the merits of Classical schooling. I have worked in the Classical realm for 20 years and have watched many, many children move through their high school careers. I maintain that this is a marvelous method for educating young minds. And yet there are still some reservations to keep in mind as you go along.

glasses kidFirst, this method is not for everyone. It entails a huge amount of reading, and not every child has a natural bent toward reading. For some, reading takes a lot of work, whether from a mild to moderate learning disability, or because his mind is always on some activity he would rather be undertaking, or simply because he hates it. If the reading is just taking too much out of your child, then consider 1) testing him for a learning problem and/or 2) finding another path of learning for this one child.

Second, some in the Classical model have a tendency to overemphasize one area at the expense of others. For example, Classical is more heavy on the humanities; that’s just its nature. However, do not think that since you are “doing Classical” you can just put off math and science for another time, or minimize its importance. No, remember that all things are connected, and that we do not just separate out the subjects. All of this is part of one well-rounded, well-educated child. In fact, learning math and science helps a child to think more logically. That can help him to make connections during his Dialectic and Rhetoric stages. This is important in higher level thinking.

Third, some in Classical figure that this kind of program is only for the humanities kid, and not for the math/science student. That too is wrong. It’s not just the English major who needs to think well, to write well, and to learn history. Science and math students–yes, and engineers–need to know how to write reports and studies. All of them also need to make logical, compelling, and beautiful defenses for their faith. Don’t let your math and science kid convince you that he doesn’t need to go very far in his humanities. That’s just not correct. In fact, when Rhetoric is taught well, the math guy will like learning how to write for Rhetoric just as well as the humanities kid. (As the author of Biblical Worldview Rhetoric and the teacher of that class for many years, I can attest to the number of engineering guys who passed through my classes with flying colors. There’s something about the formulaic method in Rhetoric that they seem to love just as much as the potential English major!)

Fourth, the Classical method is not necessarily THE only way to educate. It is, in my opinion, superior in many ways. But it does not give a parent or teacher license to brag, boast, or snobbishly declare that all other ways are rubbish. That’s just irritating, unkind, and wrong. I urge all parents to educate their children WELL. Use what methods you can afford and what you have the time and inclination for. However, Classical schooling does not give you license to rub other people’s faces in it. Don’t let me catch you doing it.

In fact, in some places I have witnessed overemphasis on the METHOD of Classical and Christian education, rather than on the HEART. Once Christ has been abandoned as the center of all things, it will all fall apart quickly. Keep perspective, knowing that Christ is at the center, holding all things together. Never make Classical THE THING in your lives more than Christ is.

Fifth, some people will try to sell you on Classical models that 1) might not truly be fully Classical or 2) may be wrongly administered or 3) might just be low quality. Inspect the material well. Does it include answer keys, supply links and lists of extra reading? Does it cover enough material for 9 months of deep study? By high school, your child should be able to spend one to two hours per day on each subject. Is the curriculum providing enough rich materials for that kind of study? Or does it skip around from here to there, not focusing for very long? Does it offer opportunities for students to reflect on what they read and make connections to their studies?

One popular Classical set of studies, selling from Ancient to Modern syllabi, piles the reading on to the students but does not supply any kind of teacher guide so that the parent or tutor can help the student make connections throughout. That’s unfortunate. Some programs I have seen will provide classes for 8 weeks and then encourage parents to give their students full credit. I beg to differ; no 8-week course can give the kind of breadth and scope necessary for a full high school credit (hardly even for a half-credit). Nor should you, for example, award an English credit for some curriculum that has you read a few books and write one or two essays. Be reasonable. That’s cheating your child of valuable and necessary learning.

Sixth, and this is very important, the student in Classical all the way through high school may tend toward arrogance if not carefully balanced. existentialismAgain, some of this has to do with the exclusivity that one might feel about having done this wonderful thing called Classical. But much of it comes from knowing that you are reading and studying some very difficult material at a very high level of thinking and writing, and that just makes you superior to your peers. Arrogance has no place in Classical and Christian education. This kind of learning may cause you to think deeply, write beautifully, stand up and speak well for yourself, and you may be able to hold a conversation about existentialism with the best of them, but that does not make you even one small step better than others. Parents, do not let your teenager take that unwise step. May your child grow into a humble, patient, wise, and caring young man or woman, groomed by Classical education.

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Classical Homeschooling at the upper levels

In my last blog I touched on the parroting aspect of the grammar level of classical schooling. If you were to continue schooling your child this way all the way through high school, you will have failed miserably. Education runs aground if it ends in parroting. Without the growth and expansion of the dialectical and rhetoric stages of education, a student will not know how to handle the information he has learned all along, and he turns out no better than his public-schooled peers.

Dorothy Sayers, in her 1947 essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” asked her readers if they were not disturbed by certain signs of modern education:Dorothy Sayers

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?

 Sayers, in her post-World-War-II thinking, is asking how an educated people could have succumbed to the propaganda of such madmen as Hitler or Mussolini or Stalin. What would she say today about our political-correctness run amok? Where people spout empty philosophies that sound so great but are completely meaningless? Or where people spew forth ideas full of the failings of philosophies past (i.e. socialism)?

You will be easily led down the wrong path if all you can do is parrot back what you have learned. If you cannot plumb the depths of what you study, if you cannot separate emotion from fact, and analyze the information that is coming at you, if you cannot then articulate your beliefs, you run the risk of falling into the trap of whoever holds power. This is why we teach our students how to think, analyze, process, make connections, read for themselves the ideas of the past. This is why we educate classically.

Thus we begin a discussion of Classical Schooling at the upper level. The standards suddenly just got higher, didn’t they? When you look for curriculum for your teenager, you need to discern what is being taught. Is it more rote learning? Is it empty of meaning? Then discard it. Does it teach a student to make connections between disciplines? In other words, does it encourage the reader to study the philosopher and the age in which he lived, and then look at the impact of that philosophy on the age that followed? Does the curriculum walk a student through history to make a point? Does it bring in the writings of great thinkers (both good and bad) in their own words?

One very impactful part of high school Classical schooling comes when students make connections that startle them and get them thinking. I have my students read “The Communist Manifesto” and then Franklin D. Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address. They are stunned to see ideas put forth in FDR that they had just read in Marx. It’s those kinds of connections we want to see.

Some Classical curricula just piles on the work, pumping students full of learning but never encouraging them to pause and contemplate the connections they need to make during these crucial teenage years. If there is no directed learning, just a lot of reading, discard it. Does that mean there needs to be a teacher at the other end? Maybe. If there is no teacher material that helps you, the parent, to direct your child’s thinking and make significant conclusions about the material, then perhaps this isn’t the curriculum for you.

Over the years I have encountered six or seven key brands of curriculum that consider themselves classical, and perhaps a handful more of classical schooling brands that tout an online form of some sort. Evaluate them carefully. Ask questions.

If this is an online or face-to-face learning experience, ask lots of questions. Hold them to a high level of accountability, because they are probably asking for a lot of money. Will there be someone to direct my student’s thinking, to help my student break down the information he is consuming? Will someone give my student directed feedback at regular intervals so that his learning/writing will improve and grow? Is this taught from a biblical or secular worldview? Is it learning just for the sake of learning, or is this learning in order to produce a thoughtful young man or woman? What will they be reading? Will there be plenty of primary resources to read?

Focus on writing. Be sure that you begin their writing in their earlier years, and be sure to continue at a high level throughout the Dialectic and Rhetoric level. They should be done with grammar by (or including) 9th grade or so, and they should be able to focus on writing well from then on. Ensure that the student gets directed feedback on his writing from someone who can hold his feet to the flames, so that he can grow as a writer. Do not ignore his writing! A purposeful Rhetoric curriculum will improve his writing as well. By the end of his high school career he should have learned how to express his thoughts beautifully, both written and orally.

A thoughtful, purposeful Classical educator will look at the young child and envision him as a high school senior, and the parent/teacher will begin to pour into him those things that will form him into the thoughtful human being God has created him to become. Isn’t that the goal of parenting anyway?

In my next blog I will talk about the hazards of Classical schooling.

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Classical Homeschooling: A definition

Aristotle“The failure of our educational system goes beyond what they fail to teach. It includes what they do teach, or rather indoctrinate, and the graduates they send out into the world, incapable of seriously weighing alternatives for themselves or for American society.” Thomas Sowell, columnist

My visit to a recent homeschool convention showed me not only that some of the curriculum “out there” is inadequate to teach students thoroughly and well, but also that Classical Schooling must be the newest fad to follow.

This both encouraged and disheartened me. As a teacher in Classical methods I was encouraged because Classical Schooling is gaining in popularity among homeschooling families. Discouraged because, from my experience as a teacher, curriculum writer, and attendee at many homeschool conventions over the years, I know that many of the offerings I saw at tables were not high enough quality to meet the stringent demands that some classicists have.

What is Classical Schooling?

The writer Dorothy Sayers sparked a flame that began to grow when she wrote an essay titled “The Lost Tools of Learning” in 1947. In that essay she expounded on the way a child learns best, and that is according to the model of classical learning from times past. She mourned the loss of such educational methods, as she was very much a classicist herself. “Is not the great defect of our education today–a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned–that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning.”

Sayers posits that a child learns best if his learning methods are addressed according to his age group. When in the Grammar level (up through 6th grade or so)–Sayers calls it “Poll-Parrot”–the student learns the components of his language and of the other subjects in school. The “grammar” of math, then, are the math facts every child can learn to parrot back to his parent. The grammar of history would be those history facts that every child learns: the presidents, the continents, the states, the names, places, and dates. And so forth. Children learn in a sing-song manner the parts of language, almost as much as you can cram into their darling little heads. They don’t need the whys; they just stuff their heads full of facts and parrot them back.

As a high school English teacher I was in tears when I first watched third graders diagram sentences. The year before, when we had not yet transitioned to Classical, those same children hardly knew the parts of grammar. Here they were a year later diagramming sentences, having fun showing off their knowledge.

Once they have their facts, and they reach  the age of argumentation (those little eyeballs start to roll around in their heads about 6th or 7th grade), they have transitioned to what Sayers calls “Pert” or Dialectical. This is when their teachers need to incorporate Logic into their thinking. This is when we take the facts they have been learning and make connections for them–or better put, we allow them to make the connections. Their writing becomes more sophisticated. Their history, math, and science understanding grows because they can begin to form hypotheses and test them out based on what they already know.

This is the time that they want to challenge authority, whom they suspect doesn’t know what they’re talking about. So they learn Logic, a new way of thinking, almost the equivalent of learning a new language. They see how arguments can be analyzed by their component parts, what makes fallacies, and why. They pick up on the fallacies of other people’s ideas–then they realize that they themselves make fallacies too.

By the time they reach 9th or 10th grade, they are ready for what Sayers calls the “Poetic” or Rhetoric stage. Here they can put all their past learning together and figure out how to make connections across the broad scope of their learning. They can look into the ideas and philosophies of the past and see how mistakes of the present day are a direct result. They can put into writing those thoughts and ideas that come flowing out, beautifully expressing themselves.

Nuts and Bolts: What gets done?

One of the hallmarks of Classical education is the integration of learning. The classical approach is known for moving through the periods of history and learning everything there is to learn at each level. So what you read in literature you are also learning in history and geography, and you’re doing art projects connected to the history and country that you’ve been studying. Science gets involved, as you can study the inventions of the ages you visit. As students get older the studying goes deeper. Delve into the religion of the age, read the philosophers, study their style of writing and their art, their music and theater. At the Rhetoric level, examine the ideas of the authors and philosophers. See how they lived out their own ideas and how well that worked. Imitate the writing of the great authors to see how their words flowed. Make your own writing soar beautifully like that. Examine your own philosophies and worldviews based on what you learn in the worldviews of others whom you study. For example, in history they may be learning about the French Revolution, while in literature they read Tale of Two Cities, and in philosophy they study the ideas of the Social Contract and  the writings of Rousseau and other Enlightenment philosophers, while in Rhetoric they study and analyze the speeches of Robespierre and Desmoulins. These students can reach across the disciplines of study to make connections and conclusions, and they can amaze their teacher by what comes out of this kind of thinking.

What material works best?

I am not going to recommend particular curriculum. That’s the job for other people. But I will give you criteria to use when examining curriculum.

For the grammar level, find curriculum that will teach grammar facts in a sing-song manner, just the same way you might teach them Bible verses through song. But don’t just go for the singing; aim for the breadth of what is covered. Are all the grammar facts–are all the math facts–covered in an age-appropriate manner, and is it achievable in a span of 9 months (the length of a school year)? Make sure to expose your children to lots of age-appropriate literature. Give them plenty to read. Choose their history, literature, geography, and science in a complementary fashion that goes along with their literature. Start simply and add more complicated information as they get older. Give them great books to read, not just simple junk you pick up at the Christian book store.

Some parents think that makes their job easier, to know they will be studying all one age in history and focusing everything around it. Some science curricula break up a year of science into four sections: earth, biology, physical, and chemical. Those sciences get more and more complex until the student can take a full year of general and then a full year of physical science in the dialectical stage, then moving up to Biology in 9th.

Should they take Latin? Most classical schooling does include Latin. Some have done that so by a certain point the child would be ready to read some of the philosophers and poets in the original language. The rote method helps a student to organize his thoughts, to learn English grammar, and to expand his English vocabulary. At the grammar stage Latin is simply just rote learning: repeating sounds back to the teacher. Look for early Latin grammar that focuses on rote (sing-song) learning. Those mechanical memories get attached to meaning once they move along into vocabulary-building. The acquirement of this second language will help aid in the learning of yet another language–Spanish or French–when they get older as well. You’ll be amazed, when you learn with them, how similar much of the vocabulary is.

At the high school level there is much to be had for the teaching at the Classical level. Some of it is good. In another blog I will provide some more thoughts on what to look for. Just be careful to find high school curriculum that doesn’t simplify but includes readings from primary sources all through history. Read the great thinkers (authors and philosophers) in their own words, and connect that with what’s going on in their time of history.

Can Classical Schooling be done at home? For years it was thought that no, this was too difficult, too wide and too deep. However, as they sometimes prove to be pioneers, homeschoolers met that challenge and decided to climb Mount Olympus.

However, don’t be drawn in by all the flashy offerings that call themselves “classical” just because it carries the name. It needs to have certain criteria to be considered good enough for your classically-schooled child. Look for more helpful information on classical schooling in the Dialectical and Rhetoric level in my next blog.

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Homeschooling with a Biblical Worldview: How?

If you are like me, you grew up in public schooling, because “back then” Christian or home schools were not very popular or widespread. There, we learned to separate out our course work. This is math, and this is science, and so forth. Nothing had anything to do with the other.

Schooling with a secular mindset is just like that. I don’t mean to criticize; it just is that way. Subjects are subjects, and their relation to the world at large might be addressed in some fashion, but there is something distinctly missing: how it all connects.

When we look at the world through biblical glasses, we see a universe that is governed and held together by one Creator God through his Son, Jesus Christ. “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17, emphasis mine). When we see the universe in that light, we begin to have a different perspective on all sorts of areas.

Education, for example, is one institution that can never be the same again–at least for me–when seeing with those biblical worldview glasses. Our children need to know that all things came about by God’s hand. When we say “all things,” we can no longer wonder what that means. “All,” we teach our children, “means all.” No single thing has come about without the hand of God overseeing, maintaining, and holding it together.

stars and planetsThat makes us look at science differently, doesn’t it? Certainly a God who governs all things also governs science, because He is the author of it all. So since science belongs to Him, how can we teach it with a biblical worldview? We study the elements, the basic units of life, the way they react and interact, with a sense of wonder about the One who made it all.

Science is not anti-God, nor is God anti-science. There are scientists who have pitted themselves against the biblical worldview, so we allow them to speak, we examine their worldviews, and we arrive at our conclusions based on the fulness of what we study. If God is the author of all things, we should not fear man’s schemes to eliminate God from the practice of science. Rather, we should hold up what they say, balance it against a biblical worldview, and make reasoned hypotheses, testing them out. What cannot be tested remains an item of faith on both sides.

On to mathematics. Did you know that there is a biblical worldview to math? Again, if God is the center of all things, and all things come together in Him, it stands to reason that He created the elements of math. Numbers have patterns; they fall together according to those patterns. “Why can a few basic equations predict the motions of planets, the paths of projectiles, and so on? If mathematics is man-made, merely a product of human thought, why does it reflect the way the universe works?” (James Nance, Repairing the Ruins 62). The work of God’s hands is evident everywhere in the study of mathematics. James Nance states it well:

Applied mathematics is the process of discovering and using the laws by which God governs (rules and sustains) His creation. Jesus Christ is Lord of all. In Him all things hold together (Col. 1:17). The mathematical laws which describe how things are held together are consistent laws because Christ Himself is consistent and unchanging (Heb. 13:8). When we discover laws in astronomy, we are discovering the laws which describe how God sustains the heavens (Ps. 33:6-9). When we discover the laws of atomic physics, we discover how God sustains matter, “upholding all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3). (66)

Biblical worldview instruction in math should teach that it recognizes the invisible attributes of God. It should “show students how mathematics relates to physical reality because God is the Creator both of the workings of men’s minds and the workings of the universe” (Nance 70).

History is sometimes easy to see and study from a biblical worldview. But are we handling it well? Students come into my class saying something their parents probably told them: “History is His-story.” That’s cute, and it comes close to what we really mean. But do they know why we study history? Do they realize that God commanded the preservation of the stories of what He had done in the past (Deut. 6:20-25; Josh. 4:5-7; 1 Ch. 16:7; Luke 17:32, and more)? Do they know that the term history came to be understood during Greek times as “a systematic inquiry into past events and their relations to one another” (Chris Schlect, Repairing the Ruins 148)?

Why do we study history? Teaching it from a biblical worldview provides the framework for students, and for ourselves as we read. God instructed men to record histories so that people could learn from the experiences of those who have gone before. If the only way to learn something is by your own experience, then you have no need of history. But if we intend to teach the errors and majesties of history, we need to be ready to learn from them. We need to use as our foundation the fact that we as Christians believe in the history of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who lived and walked among men at one point in history, a history that was recorded by other people. Our faith is not nebulous or manufactured; it is based on events that truly happened and were witnessed by others. This fact alone serves as foundation to our faith.

Somewhere at the turn of the 20th Century some people began to conjecture that Christianity was not based on some historical person but on some subjective idea of Jesus based on the experience of the Christian himself. If we cannot point to the historical fact of our faith, then it is nothing more than a collection of morals and fables, like many other religions. So we study history to know the truth about our faith, but also about mankind.

As with the study of history, we learn about man and his yearnings, his ambitions, his errors and failings, when we study literature. We can see the sweeping beauty of a mind that can create such classics as Les Miserables or Macbeth. We can see the depths of horrors to which man can stoop as well. We study literature to study the nature of man.

And we cannot easily study man, through literature, if we only choose Christian novels. I can say with assurance that, short of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, there are not many pieces of excellent Christian literature out there. You can try to name some, but I will argue that they are not classical literature, not able to stand the test of time, not able to even depart far from the stagnant formula of most secular romance or historical romance novels. See my blog on the value of those Christian novels as compared to great classical literature, as well as my blog on reading literature with a biblical worldview.

bonnetsIf we only teach our children from Christian “literature,” they only get exposed to those super-sweet, falsely presented dilemmas with formulaic endings. They will not experience great writing, only so-so handling of the pen. With formulaic stories, we don’t see the pain and anxiety of a dark, fallen, and sinful world. I am always disappointed when a Christian homeschooled teen tells me her favorite novel is one of those horribly written Christian romances with bonnets and farms on the cover. It shows the shallowness of what her family considers good literature.

But I digress. Teaching literature with a biblical worldview allows discussions of the depravity of man, about his yearning to find a savior, about the way he sets up idols that will always disappoint. Have you ever discussed Frankenstein with a teenager? That novel tells the story of a man who made himself a god, created a human creature, abandoned it, and lived the rest of his life pursuing the creature’s death. It is also the story of the author, Mary Shelley, who never felt the real love of another person, who probably felt like God had created and then abandoned her. What a horrible way to live–and then we see her pain poured out on the pages of her novel.

This is reading literature from a biblical worldview. This is teaching with a biblical worldview. Not simply plopping a Bible verse down at the beginning of a lesson and calling it good (while that can be quite good, because God’s word will never return void). Instead, it is taking the view that if God is the center of all things, so must be what we study. All of it. Because all means all.

(Some of this article was inspired by essays within the book Repairing the Ruins, edited by Douglas Wilson. Canon Press, Moscow, ID, 1996.)

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Biblical Worldview for Teens: Watching, Reading, Listening

“That’s my online stuff. It has nothing to do with school or with church.”

So goes the teenage (and the adult) mind. A wide gulf separates churchy stuff from school stuff and from media. Never they will meet, in the teenage mind. In other words, the teen things, what I do in school has nothing to do with the movies I watch. What I say and do in Youth Group has nothing to do with my online activities or the songs I choose to listen to.

Unfortunately, God does not see it that way. If all things belong to God–and they do–then everything under the sun is His. All my time, all my thoughts, all my goals, and all my media belong to Him.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!  You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.  (ESV Ps 139:1-6)

We think about God in the appropriate places: in class if we are in Christian or home school. In church and Youth Group. With our Bible study friends. But walk out the door and that gets left behind.

Teach  your teenager to think biblically about all things, whether school or church or home. Teach him that whatever goes into his mind is subject to worldly thoughts or biblical thoughts. Teach him to filter all things through his biblical worldview. And that includes media. Teach him that to love God is to love Him “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).

Do not allow him to separate the secular from the sacred. If media is out there, it is being watched, read, listened to, and discussed. Talk with your teen about the media he uses. Don’t be afraid of it!

kid on computerBe purposeful with your teenager about media. Talk about his social media: what he does online. Who does he follow on Twitter? What does he say on Twitter? Follow him to find out! If it looks sketchy, like he is taking risks talking to people who have uncertain reputations or followings, then take action to block your internet service on all of his devices. Ask your phone provider how to block his internet use on his phone. Talk to your service provider about parental controls. Load Covenant Eyes onto your computers. It is impossible to disable and sends a report to you about his internet activity. We have used it for years. Your job is to guard their hearts, and to teach them how to guard their own hearts, by guarding their media. See Ps. 139:23-24 and Prov. 4:23.

And honestly, what might you lose by taking away an electronic device or two while you wait for his behavior to improve? Does he really need it all? Don’t be afraid to be a parent to your teen.

If your child doesn’t want to be your FaceBook friend, then he is not old enough or mature enough to have an account. Your child–this may seem shocking to you–does not have a right to privacy in your home since you are his parent and he is a minor. If he is secretive about his social media, there is probably a reason.

Watch TV and movies together with your teen, if you allow television. Even if you do not watch regular TV, you should be getting together to watch movies and discuss them, just like it is part of a class activity. Get out a sheet of paper and write down the following questions about the movie. Take notes during the movie. As a family, discuss everyone’s notes. Ask these questions about what is contained/portrayed in any piece of media you read or watch together.

The Seven Worldview Questions (thanks to David Quine, Cornerstone Curriculum):

  1. What is the nature of God as displayed in this (movie, book, TV show)?
  2. What is the nature of man?
  3. What is the nature of the universe?
  4. What is basis of morality and ethics?
  5. What is the cause of evil and suffering?
  6. What happens to man at death?
  7. What is the meaning of history?

Do the same thing with books that your teenager reads, either for class or for leisure. Choose classics, and choose contemporary books that other kids are reading. Don’t be afraid of them. Kids are reading them, and you bet they are talking about them, so you might want to examine, from a biblical worldview, what they are talking about so that your teen has an answer for the faith that lies within him. So that he is not taken captive by empty philosophy because no one talked with him about it.

True story: I was afraid of the Harry Potter books and forbade my children to read them. They argued with me. “Mom,” they reasoned, “how do you know they’re bad if you haven’t read them?” I just asked them to trust me. And then a few years later a student’s mother told me that she wouldn’t let her son read a horror novel like Frankenstein for my class. We read that book from a biblical worldview, and it produces some great a-ha moments for my teenage students. I argued with the mom. “How do you know it’s a horrible book if you haven’t opened it to read it?” I went home fuming to my family. My oldest son just looked at me, and I read his mind. I had given my son the same answer to the Harry Potter series without even having cracked them open.

Once I read the books, I could see the beautiful worldview depicted in JK Rowling’s world, and I highly recommend it to every parent. The sacrificial love, forgiveness, redemption, and friendship in that book are incredibly poignant. I apologized to my son.

Fearlessly view and review your teen’s media together. Talk about it from a biblical worldview. You will learn something as well as he does. And neither of you will be able to view media the same way again. I called that “spoiled for good.”

watching moviesMovies to ponder from a biblical worldview.

(Remember, I am not limiting this list to Christian media, or to “safe” movies. We live in the world and are not of the world. We view media and discuss it biblically. Examine it for truths and for lies. Spot them and discuss them. With the above discussion guide, it should get easier to discuss.)

  • Pocahontas
  • The Island
  • The Village
  • Star Wars
  • The Hunger Games
  • Lord of the Rings
  • Mulan
  • The Truman Show
  • Brave
  • The Lion King
  • Avatar
  • The Dark Knight
  • Signs
  • Life of Pi
  • I, Robot
  • Surrogates
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Star Trek: Wrath of Khan
  • Les Miserables

Books to discuss from a biblical worldview.

You can do the same with books, using the seven worldview questions.

  • Frankenstein
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • Heart of Darkness
  • Macbeth
  • Hamlet
  • Tale of Two Cities
  • Hunger Games
  • Harry Potter series
  • Lord of the Rings series
  • Narnia series
  • Lord of the Flies
  • Animal Farm
  • 1984
  • Anthem
  • Ender’s Game
  • Last of the Mohicans
  • Les Miserables
  • Moby Dick
  • Count of Monte Cristo
  • Brothers Karamazov
  • The Iliad
  • To Kill a Mockingbird

Be wise, and don’t fear. Together you and your teen will survive these years, and with prayer and wisdom, he will come out the other side holding onto his faith more strongly than before. And he will be armed with information and ideas to take out into the world to his friends as an apologetic tool (1 Pet. 3:13-17). See my next blog on apologetics for teenagers.

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Slouching mediocrity: I already KNOW how to write…

broken pencilParental angst about writing instruction for their homeschooled children fills my email inbox. Somehow parents know that math and science and history are SO much easier to deal with: Answers are either right or wrong.

Children take personal offense, though, when mommy tells them that their paragraphs were wrong.

As a writing teacher, I totally get it. In order to maintain a good relationship with their children, some moms who are not as sure about teaching writing will hire someone else, go to some other source, for help. That’s wise, for parents who just are not comfortable. I maintain that there is a right attitude and a wrong attitude about teaching good writing skills. Let’s take a look at some who misunderstand.

Some parents exhibit a lack of understanding of just how important good writing can be. I wish I had a dollar for every time a parent told me, “We believe a good reader will turn out to be a good writer, so we just expose our child to good books, and we know that when he is ready to write, he will be great.” This is like learning how to cook by eating at gourmet restaurants. Surely you know a lot about good food, right? So cooking like a chef will be a breeze.

Reading a lot of great books will help you in countless ways (see a previous blog about that). Exposure to the timeless classics expands the vocabulary, broadens the reader’s world, allows him to make connections to literary allusions in other works, enhances critical thinking skills, and more. It may also help improve one’s writing simply because his vocabulary is so greatly increased. The practice of imitation in Rhetoric uses pieces of great literature so that the student copies, by hand, the words and thoughts of great writers. Doing so will enhance a student’s grasp of the grammatical flow and thought process of the writer.

However, just absorbing the words in a great book will not translate to making a good writer. It’s not as if he will read and read and then suddenly *poof!* he is automatically a good writer. Not at all.

Similarly, other parents have told me that writing and writing week after week has improved their children’s writing skills. Does he get feedback on his writing, I ask? Well, no, but he is writing. But then how do you know he is improving if he has no guidance, no direction, no correction in his writing?

So there are two elements in growing a good writer: the practice of writing, and guidance in writing. If parents are not comfortable doing that at their own kitchen table, I advise them to find someone who is able to do that for them. Interview that person: what are his or her qualifications? What standards does he use? What experience does he have? I often suggest finding an English major currently in college who wants to earn some extra money, or an English teacher who is retired or a mom at home now.

There is a plethora of online writing classes these days; if you go that route make sure you are getting what you pay for. Will your child get regular, guided, personal feedback on every piece of writing, aiming him toward better writing on his next assignment? Some online organizations just don’t offer that kind of personal service. They are good at assigning but not so good at grading. Remember: no feedback = no growth. Since I teach at an online school I can recommend a very good one to you–just email me and we’ll chat. 🙂

I’ve encountered other kinds of misunderstanding about writing from homeschooling parents. One is that parent who had a bad experience back in third grade with a writing curriculum and was then afraid to try anything again. My advice: don’t give up. (See my post about schooling with excellence.) Keep trying to find that next writing curriculum. Find someone who can help you if you feel lost. Don’t just pass that off as something your child will never be able to do well. Short of a learning disability–and often even with one your child can do well–there is no reason he cannot learn to write at a college level while in high school.

Another comment comes from the parent who tells me that her high school child has joined a “write a novel in a year” club. Someone hands out information on how to write dialog and how to create a good couple of characters, and off the child goes to write a novel. The instruction is vague at best, and the product may be a sweet little story, but this child has not learned college-ready writing skills.

Or the parent who wants to make sure her child is doing “every kind of writing.” Somewhere someone told a parent that her child will be a good writer if she learns every kind of writing. By that I assume they mean journalism, poetry, compare/contrast, opinion, persuasive, short story, and whatever else I may have left out. Let me get you straight on this one: All that is great to know. However, the one basic skill a high school (and even a junior high) student needs in his tool box is Expository Writing: the essay that proves a thesis. College-level writing.

What are those college writing skills of which I speak? The expository essay presents an idea in a thesis and then proceeds to argue that thesis–prove it–with support through an essay. Call it a five-paragraph, ten-paragraph, or twelve-page paper, that is the writing skill your child will need to be ready for those college-assessment tests. Teach him how to incorporate and cite quotes, how to prove his thesis with argumentation, to introduce and conclude well. Teach him to do it in a paper or in an essay. Teach him to do it in a timed format (40 minutes and then 25 minutes, for example), because those college-assessment test writing portions are timed. If you can’t do it, then ask someone to do this for you.

Think of it this way: Your child wants to be a musician and picks up an instrument to play beautiful music. Instead, out come horrid sounds. Give that child lessons and theory; teach him how to play scales and chords; teach him the classics of the masters on that instrument. Then he can go and play all sorts of other types of music on that instrument to his heart’s content. Just as in writing. Teach that expository essay, and that child will be able to do all sorts of other kinds of writing as well, with practice.

See related blogs here and here.

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Filed under Biblical Worldview, Education, Grammar, Homeschooling, Literature, Parenting, Rhetoric

Moving away from mediocre: Read good books

Kids-sitting-on-booksThe only time I watched “19 Kids and Counting,” that TV show about the Duggars, I nearly choked. My daughter was interested in it, so I sat down with her and turned it on. They are a home school family, and they are Christians, and I will not criticize them too much for any of their choices, because–God bless them–they are doing what they believe God has called them to do, raising that big bunch of kids.

But (you knew there would be a “but, didn’t you?) this one episode had the family visiting a public elementary school and talking to kids about their big family. Essentially they had become ambassadors for homeschooling. A student asked one of the older girls about her favorite book of all time. She smiled and named something that made me groan. Honestly, I don’t remember which book she named, but it was not a classic by any stretch of the imagination. When I had looked it up, I found it was some sort of Christian fiction novel that oozes romance, bonnets, and formulaic simplicity. (See my blog on those silly books here.) I had SO wanted to see someone stand up and tell the world that she was a well-read homeschooler by announcing that her favorite book of all time was something like Les Miserables or The Scarlet Letter. Instead, she showed the shallowness of so many parents who just don’t reach beyond their comfort level and challenge their children with excellent literature.

So why the groan? Need you ask? (Please read my post on the need for excellence in home education here.) Let’s think of good literature like we think about food for just a moment. And in many ways, we can do that because literature is food for the brain. Consider what happens when you consume a steady diet of junk food for very long.

fat-kits-eating-mcdonalds

Not very attractive, is it? (Poor kids.) The same can be said about literature. Consuming mushy, senseless literature creates mushy thinking. There is no challenge for the mind to hang on to, no deep thinking to draw upon, no great themes to puzzle over. Mindless reading may be good for a day at the beach, but a steady diet of it will stultify the brain just like empty calories and high sugar content will create sluggish little bodies.

Challenge  your child to read great literature. I have all sorts of good suggestions here. Give your child the wonderful struggle of good over evil, the theme that every conscience dwells on daily. Give them deep subjects to wrestle with, reaching slightly over their age level once in a while. Read to them from the non-abridged versions of classic literature and let their little imaginations soar. Once they get accustomed to a diet of rich literature, that junky, formulaic romance will no longer hold any sway.

Just like a good diet, though, you certainly don’t want to slip into old habits of sugary, fatty nonsense. Fill your bookshelf with classics that fire the imagination. Start them early with great selections from AA Milne, Shel Silverstein, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lucy Maud Montgomery, CS Lewis, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and more. Keep them going on that once they can read on their own. When they’re older, tantalize them with JK Rowling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters. And once they have consumed all of this, they are ready for the really big guns: Victor Hugo, Ayn Rand, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Herman Melville, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, and more.

Why challenge their sweet little minds? Why not let them just read what they want? Because, left to their own devices, they will slink away to a corner and eat french fries and chocolate bars all day long. Left to their own devices, they will read Captain Underpants until their minds turn to fat, sweaty mush. Left to their own devices, they are suddenly age 17, wondering why they can’t pass their SAT tests.

Some moms have sweetly told me that while challenging their kids to work hard and well on their schoolwork is a good thing, raising them to be good people in a loving environment is much more important. I will always look those parents in the eye (figuratively, since I am speaking to them from the blogosphere) and remind them that one of the most loving things they can do is to teach their children hard work done well–a skill that will last them a lifetime, no matter what they do in their lives.

See related posts here and here.

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