Learn about Classical Schools (and Decatur and Skinner North)
Been meaning to post this forever, but here’s an interesting post written by 2 blog readers. Tattoo Mom wrote up a nice summary of the Classical Education model and how it works at Decatur. Around the same time, GreenieMom wrote about her family’s experience at Skinner North. This definitely more than I knew about the concept of the classical schools, and also interesting to hear about the 2 different schools. Thanks to both of your for taking the time to write!
What is a Classical Education/Decatur (By TattooMom)
First and foremost, the classical model is very different than a traditional ‘”gifted school” model. A classical education depends on a three-part process of training the mind. The early years of school are spent in absorbing facts, systematically laying the foundations for advanced study. In the middle grades, students learn to think through arguments. In the upper grade years, they learn to express themselves. This classical pattern is called the trivium, and at Decatur Classical School, our curriculum runs 1-2 years above grade level and follows the trivium pattern of learning.
The first years of schooling are called the “grammar stage”. In the primary years, the mind is ready to absorb information. Children at this age actually find memorization fun. So during this period, education involves not self-expression and self-discovery, but rather the learning of facts. Rules of phonics and spelling, rules of grammar, poems, the vocabulary of foreign languages, the stories of history and literature, descriptions of plants and animals and the human body, the facts of mathematics — etc. This information makes up the “grammar,” or the basic building blocks, for the second stage of education.
*At Decatur the K, 1 and 2 grades are busy learning the basics. They are honing their skills with knowledge based on facts. Math facts, measurements, geometric patterns etc, vocabulary and reading comprehension, science facts etc. Our program is enhanced with tap (which actually has been proven to enhance math skills), latin (basis of all romance languages and the best little secret in teaching sentence structure etc to our kids), computer technology, and music theory (they actually learn how to read music!). The students don’t even realize when they are doing things such as bug or dinosaur projects that they are learning facts! Decatur has also thrown in a touch of organizational learning in this early stage with projects (science, black history, etc), news related research and junior great books. This is a ton of information for a young mind to absorb. But absorbing it they are!
Intermediate students are less interested in finding out facts than in asking “Why?” The second phase of the classical education, the “Logic Stage,” is a time when the child begins to pay attention to cause and effect, to the relationships between different fields of knowledge relate, to the way facts fit together into a logical framework. A student is ready for the Logic Stage when the capacity for abstract thought begins to mature. During these years, the student begins algebra and the study of logic, and begins to apply logic to all academic subjects.
*In around the 3rd grade, the students at Decatur begin to learn more advanced skills having to do with they why things happen. They are doing creative book reports and projects, such as Pop Bottle Babies, Mobiles, etc that help them learn to organize the facts they’ve learned and these projects are followed up with “why do you think the author wrote about this subject” etc. They also begin bigger scale projects such as Science Fair, Black History, and Chicago History Fair including boards, which helps them learn to organize their information to tell a story. There is the beginning of the “find your voice” process for the students in the intermediate grades.
The final phase of a classical education, the “Rhetoric Stage,” builds on the first two. At this point, the student learns to write and speak with force and originality. The student of rhetoric applies the rules of logic learned in “middle school” (our 5/6 grade years since we work 2 years ahead) to the foundational information learned in the early grades and expresses his conclusions in clear, forceful, elegant language.
*By the time a Decatur student hits 5th grade, the rhetoric stage is in full swing. the Metro History Fair which is an intense project with thesis statements, arguments as to why something occurred and well thought out data proving your thesis argument, plus Science Olympiad and Latin Teams really help the students use their knowledge in a proficient manner. Our 5/6th grade students enter competitions with 7/8th grade students at other schools and consistently prove the classical education is a winner! Finally in 6th grade the students participate in Project Citizen which is a year long process of laying out a problem, finding a solution and arguing to their point. It is a great project-based process for the students to show their stuff. All the while learning the higher math theories and studying American History etc.
A classical education follows a specific three-part pattern: the mind must be first supplied with facts and images, then given the logical tools for organization of facts, and finally equipped to express conclusions.
*So while you can see that it is a process, if you understand the pattern and science behind it, and can allow the process to do it’s magic in your child you will see results. It is really amazing to see the 7th grade Decatur students at their next school, classical students are well spoken, disciplined, independent learners with valuable input to offer on all topics.
Other information about the classical education model:
- The classical model of education has been around for over two millennia and has produced, among others, Archimedes, St. Paul, St. Patrick and Columba, Dante, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, Christopher Columbus, Shakespeare, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.
- This “retro” approach is used in many charter schools because it is so successful in providing an in-depth, comprehensive education. “Great Books” programs are also based in part on the classical model.
- Classical education enjoyed a rebirth primarily due to an essay by Dorothy Sayers in 1947 entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Among other things, she pointed out that the study of Latin is an essential part of this model, because “even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least fifty percent. It is the key to the vocabulary and structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences and to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilization, together with all its historical documents.” The essay is very interesting (though long) and can be found at http://www.gbt.org/text/sayers.html.
- Many people associate the classical model with christian schooling, but the educational model itself has parallels in Hinduism (Vedanga) and Confucianism (the Four Books and Five Classics); to me, it is a diverse, living model for preparing citizens of the world!
In 2010 when our son was accepted to Skinner North, we were anxious. Needless to say, sending him to a previously shut-down school building located in the middle of Cabrini Green wasn’t exactly our ideal place for him to begin his education. At the time, Skinner North had only been open for seven months when we got his letter of acceptance and we did not know anyone who had a kid there. He has now been there for nearly an entire year and we are happy to report it has been a success.
As of May 2011, the school is still growing. Grades K-3 only, with another grade added every year until they reach 8th grade.
As of today, May 24, 2011 not one Cabrini Green high-rise is standing. The area has been leveled. I understand the large plot of land will be turned into mixed-use, but I am not sure exactly what that will be.
The halls of the school are warm with both sunlight and colorful art. I had imagined the school would look institutional – considering its location and how institutional the Cabrini high rises looked – but the school is clean and inviting.
The staff: Ethan Netterstrom is by far an extremely supportive, informative, and understanding principal. He provides honest answers and never once gave out “working-parent guilt-trips,” which some of my friends have experienced from principals or teachers at their child’s school. When we met Ethan, the Cabrini buildings were still standing. He was fully aware and honest when answering questions about the buildings, as well as before and after-school care, safety concerns in the area in which the school is located, and school performance (remember, not one ISAT test had been taken when we accepted our spot).
To this day we are very happy with our decision to send our son there. He is receiving the exact education he needs and the teachers and staff are receptive. As a kindergartener, he has computer lab three-days a week, library visits once-a-week, gym and recess, music and a language. The homework can be extensive, but there is a reason kids get accepted to classical programs – the homework is suited to their pre-tested abilities and, in my opinion, it is what they can handle (what the parents can handle is a different story).
The PTA is very involved with fundraising, development and teacher assistance. There are also other committees – the Healthy Bodies committee helped raise the nutritional content of the food served in the cafeteria.
Alas, there are some things that are not perfect about Skinner North – because, let’s face it, nothing in this world is perfect. The following are not complaints, but rather items that could improve, and may improve over time.
*The one security/school guard has an IT degree. He is looking to get an IT job in a middle or high school. So, while he may be very good at teaching computers to kids grade 6 and up, I feel his knowledge on how to interact with kids age 5-10 is heavily lacking – as is his disciplinary style. Don’t get me wrong, security at the school is good – the building is covered in cameras and no one can get in without being buzzed in – at least this aspect covered. But internally, five year-olds can be rambunctious at times and I feel any in-school disciplinarian should have the knowledge on how to work with kids in that age group.
*Packed classrooms. Yes, this issue is happening all over the city – and SN is doing its best educate the kids while still keeping order in the classroom. Still, 31 kids in a kindergarten class is high, but, like I said, my son is still receiving a great education.
*After-care program. In the two-years the school has been open, SN has not secured a consistent aftercare program. They either offer up a Chicago Park District program (away from the school) and offer up one internally. The one internally has changed hands several times. On the positive, the admin admitted when the programs were not working and quickly moved on to find new solutions. As a negative, this constant change effects kids caught in the middle. Again, this is a 2-year old school – growing pains are inevitable. Next year we plan on finding a different after school program for him – but he’s staying throughout 8th grade there for school.
Entry filed under: Classical Schools.