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A Classical Education: For the Mind—and the Heart

For the last eight years, Naperville, a southwest suburb of Chicago, has been home. My husband and I moved here when our son, Noah, was 6 months old. We picked Naperville because of its reputation: it’s built around families, and the schools are excellent.

My K-12 education was in the Ohio public schools. My husband, Matt, studied in France’s K-12 system. We didn’t consider a private school for Noah until he was on the brink of kindergarten.

First we toured the public school he’d attend, interviewed the principal, and filled out registration forms. One asked for the parents’ countries of origin and languages spoken. French was on Matt’s list, though we made it clear he only spoke English with Noah.

Soon after we registered, the school asked if Noah could take a test. It was a standard exam all new students take, a receptionist explained. We agreed. A teacher greeted us the day of the test. She said it would be verbal and written, and ushered Noah into a glass-enclosed room. I watched through the wall of windows. It lasted nearly an hour. When it was over, the teacher approached me, Noah alongside her.

“Well, he did fine. He had to take a bathroom break, which interrupted us, but it wasn’t too distracting,” she said.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“Since your registration forms say your husband was born in France, and he speaks French fluently, Noah will have to enroll in our ELL program,” she said, as if it made perfect sense.

Confused, I said, “But Noah doesn’t speak or know French. On the forms we explained that Matt has never spoken with him in anything but English.”

“Yes, I know. But state law requires us to enroll him in the ELL (English Language Learners) program. It’ll be fine.”

We left, confounded. Why would they blindly shuffle my little boy—who by then had a solid, kindergarten-level command of writing and speaking English, his first language—into a program that wouldn’t suit him? When Matt called the principal to contest it, she offered two choices: to shred our original form and claim no French connection, or just deal with ELL.

Despite our experience, I still believe public schools achieve great things. Those in our area turn out some of the best, brightest students in the country. They’re filled with hardworking teachers who love children. Yet that particular school didn’t feel like a match for us.

So we looked for another option.

That’s when we landed on Covenant Classical School. A private Christian school with rigorous academics, it was only a few years old at the time, and minutes from our house. One of Matt’s business associates suggested it as an alternative. It was late July when we inquired about kindergarten. Noah took an entry exam a few days later. Within two weeks of classes starting, Covenant accepted him—for the last spot in kindergarten.

Initially we were relieved to find educators focused on our child, without the influence of state law. In the time since, Covenant has come to mean far more.

My son has flourished thanks to the classical-Christian model.

Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric

This marks Noah’s fourth year at Covenant. He’s in third grade, now joined by his sister, Syma, who started kindergarten last fall.

As they dart out the door each morning, we know their hearts and minds are loved, guarded, and guided by faculty and staff with an unparalleled dedication to children and learning. They benefit from a wide-and-deep education that’s not just readying them for college and careers. It’s equipping them for life.

How does this happen? In a three-part process that’s the bedrock of all classical-Christian education. It’s both simple and complex.

During the youngest years, children study and memorize facts. In middle school, they ask questions about what they’ve learned, focus on cause and effect, and think through arguments. Once in high school, students practice persuasive self-expression, building on everything they’ve learned.

These three stages are a classical pattern called the trivium. Rooted in ancient Greece, the classical model is the basis for the liberal-arts tradition of schools and colleges, where students study all academic disciplines in pursuit of a broad education. In K-12 classical schools, academics are organized according to the first three of the seven liberal arts: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These also correspond to stages of human development.

As a child moves through each stage, they possess different strengths and learning abilities. The classical-Christian model develops those strengths to the fullest. At its core, the curriculum is based on what’s best for the students. Teaching isn’t centered on simply helping them perform well on exams.

Grades K-5 are called grammar school. Not because, as Susan Wise Bauer points out, children spend that time learning English. “Grammar” refers to these as foundational years. Whatever students learn in the future will be built on them, just as language is built on good grammar.

Memorization is fun for kids at this stage. They meander through math facts and the rules of phonics, spelling, grammar, and poems; vocabulary of foreign languages, including Latin, which begins in 3rd grade; stories of history and literature; descriptions of animals and the human body, and more.

My daughter has grown academically, socially, and spiritually in kindergarten.

At Covenant, singing, chanting, and hands-on activities have all helped my children with memorization. I’ve watched their knowledge base grow by the week. If I need to know the date of a far-flung event in history, asking my son is faster than Google.

The strong fabric of these years isn’t just woven with recall. Each day teachers pose challenging questions, spurring students to deeper thought. Along the way, children learn the fine art of asking thoughtful questions—an invaluable skill.

In grades 6-8, students think more abstractly. They’re curious about how everything fits together in a logical framework. During these years—aptly called logic school—they wrestle with those questions and find answers, applying logic to all subjects.

The logic of writing, for instance, focuses on constructing paragraphs and supporting a thesis. When it comes to the logic of reading, students learn to analyze and critique different literature.

High school, also known as rhetoric school, is when students apply the rules of logic to everything they learned in their early years. They form conclusions and express them in well-developed, convincing prose, both written and spoken.

Because Covenant is still a new school, we’re focused on building our K-8 program. Within the next two years, our goal is to launch a rhetoric school. I’m thankful for the slow-and-steady approach—it affords excellence.

From start to finish, classical educators help their students examine links between the different fields they study. It’s hard work, but the payoff is great. To accomplish these connections, the curriculum centers on history. Starting with the ancient world and progressing to the modern day, students memorize key events in history, science, literature, art, and music. Each week at Covenant, students gather to recite different parts of the history timeline, in a verbal practice called recitation. 

Why Language-Focused Education Matters

Classical-Christian education is language-focused, instead of image-driven. This is key, Bauer says, because the two demand vastly different habits of thought:

Language requires the mind to work harder; in reading, the brain is forced to translate a symbol (words on the page) into a concept. Images, such as those on videos and television, allow the mind to be passive. In front of a video screen, the brain can ‘sit back’ and relax; faced with the written page, the mind is required to roll its sleeves up and get back to work.

What could be more important to the rising generation, surrounded by our image-driven, internet-saturated world? They’ve not known a time without technology at their fingertips, without Google and Minecraft and social media. If we don’t hold the bar high for them, and require their minds to work harder, we run great risks.

Author Nicholas Carr’s research has shown that our increased reliance on the internet rewires the way our brains work. For all of its conveniences, the web distracts us and saps our creativity. We have less time to read printed books, and even if we start them, our depleted attention spans often prevent us from finishing. Though we’ve learned how to skim for information online, we’re losing the ability to dive deep into great literature and do the critical thinking life demands.

This is not what I want for my children.

Thankfully, Covenant doesn’t want that, either. My grammar-aged children don’t use devices in class. They won’t for a while. I don’t worry about their technological dexterity, because they get ample screen time at home.

Technology is useful, to be sure. As adults, our children will face even greater advances than we’ve seen. Some will rely on it heavily for their livelihoods. It’s our job, then, to teach them to use it wisely, with smart intent.

Studies at Covenant are rigorous. They demand time, critical thinking, and effort. The children rise to the challenges, and often find great joy in meeting them. It’s as if the work they do builds on their curiosity, and makes them even more curious.

My son recently finished his first oral presentation, on emperor penguins. For several weeks in class, he labored over research, developing an outline, a rough draft, and a final. He learned the fun of peer reviews, and how to design a visual aid that corresponds to a report.

The weekend before his presentation, he practiced his delivery several times, admitting he was nervous. When he received his grade and his teacher’s remarks, he was pleased.

“All that work was worth it, Mom. I’m so glad!” he said.

Building What They Know, and Who They Are

Because of Covenant, my children are learning to think creatively, independently, analytically; to push the envelope in the right ways.

Their teachers model social and emotional intelligence—and spiritual wisdom. Their faith is stronger because of the instruction they receive in scripture. More than just Bible verses, the teaching examines the work and life of Christ, and considers how it should influence our daily lives.

As they study different subjects, students have the freedom to examine what they’re learning through the prism of their faith. The ancient Greeks, for instance, worshipped a variety of Gods. Second graders learn all about them. How is this worship similar to or different from the beliefs of someone who follows Christs? These types of instruction help students better understand what they believe—and how to explain it to others.

Class sizes are between 15 and 18 students. The intimate numbers foster strong connections between teachers and students. Teachers can pay close attention to each child. They discover where each student’s strengths lie, and what challenges them.

Though standardized tests aren’t the coin of the classical realm, our students outperform their peers. According to 2015 data from the Association of Classical Christian Schools (ACCS) and the College Board, the average SAT scores of ACCS students in reading, math, and writing were 608, 588, and 591, respectively—well beyond the scores of their peers at independent, religious, and public schools.

More important than test scores is how our students fare in everyday life.

Our grammar school principal, Lisa Eekhoff, put it best:

We’ve found they do very well regardless of their next step. [T]his is an education that’s not just meant to prepare you for college or even a job, but for life in general. We’ve found that all of our graduates who have come through the program are able to accomplish our goals, which are to think well, and to analyze well, to speak well, and be able to show their beliefs and what they think. They’re wrestling with big ideas all the time in school, so when they come upon a problem later on in life, they are able to wrestle with it well—logically and critically, and also to be respectful, and intellectually humble as they go into life.

3 Comments
  1. This article is written beautifully! I wish I could go back in time and have my children attend this school.

  2. What an excellent description, explanation and representation of the Classical Education model! Your writing brings the reader into the classroom at Covenant. Thank you!

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