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Ask and See: Hope for the Fledgling Classical Educator

My first year teaching at a classical school was a uniquely challenging year. I knew very little about classical education. Though I had years of experience teaching English as a second language overseas, neither this experience nor my degree in Russian prepared me to teach classically. When the school year began my firstborn was not yet one; by midyear, I was pregnant. The headmaster announced his resignation, and the school threatened to close. I was just trying to keep my head above water. Though I read and studied “The Lost Tools of Learning”, I sensed that there were things that I was missing about classical education. Turns out my intuition was only partly correct. I was not just missing some things; I was missing almost everything.

After reading books on classical education, the inception of deeper understanding was Circe’s motto: Cultivating Wisdom and Virtue. For years I have lingered, trying to understand what it means to cultivate wisdom and virtue. What is virtue, anyway? Is it one or many? How does it relate to wisdom? What does it have to do with faith, hope, and charity or the fruits of the spirit? The questions have evolved; often the answers were simply new and better questions.

You may now be thinking that we do not enjoy a shared definition of hope. Over a decade in and you have not yet understood a motto? Great. Alternatively, you could see the richness and beauty of a vocation that transforms the soul, heart, and body through a lifelong process of learning. Even so, you must teach grammar on Monday. What do you do? I propose that you begin by incorporating two questions into your lessons, and for that matter, your life. What do you notice? What do you wonder? Any teacher would do well to teach herself and her student to see and to question.

In the introduction to his translation of Purgatory, Anthony Esolen writes: “Hence it is that along with moral crookedness comes blindness, and along with rectitude comes vision, the vision man had been created for all along.” Dante echoes Scripture in emphasizing the spiritual power of sight, without which he could not behold the Beatific vision. When he reaches Empyrean, he says, “and ever kindled was my wish to see. Before that Light one’s will to turn is spent.” Consider how many times Christ, the light of the world, healed the blind. Consider the many Scriptures commanding us to see. Teaching our students to see is not merely good pedagogy – it is critical for the salvation of their souls.

What do you notice? I initially started using this question in my Sunday school class to teach a simplified method to study Scripture. I discovered that it is comprehensive whether contemplating poetry, artwork, or the natural world. It is effective when teaching a student to self-edit his writing. It is a powerful tool to discover patterns in a series of numbers or equations. Teaching and requiring students to see moves the student into an active role in learning. The student is not merely sitting back in his chair, waiting for the teacher to perform her next content dump. Through both ideas and artifacts, he is learning to engage directly with the world around him.

Keen sight leads to wonder. Learning to ask good questions is a vital skill. My favorite compliment to receive is, “That was a great question!” It is easy to fall into the mental trap of the paradigm of teacher-as-mediator-of-all-knowledge. We often unwittingly think of knowledge as a thing to masticate and regurgitate for students. It is easy to believe that you have really taught only after you have droned on for an hour, occasionally drawing inscrutably upon a whiteboard. Students do not need ideas to be sliced and served up on worksheets. This has naught to do with wisdom and virtue.

What do you wonder? What questions do you have? Questioning, like seeing, engages students actively. It lessens the temptation for a teacher to reduce a lesson to a “moral of the story” or a correct answer on a test. Instead, it also allows students to participate receptively and orients both teacher and student towards a posture of humility. The teacher is then pointing towards knowledge, not herself. Students desperately need teachers humble enough not to let a teacherly performance get in the way of actual learning.

I do not posit that these two questions are all that you need for skilled pedagogy. Instead, it is a wise starting place that I wish I had known as a beginner. It is a starting place where the teacher can model learning with humility. Imagine, for a moment, the new teacher. She enters her grammar school classroom early in the year. Let’s say that she is great at language arts. She can get by in math but has also been assigned science, which she hates, and Latin, which she does not know. Or imagine the homeschool mother. She, in some respects, is almost always a new teacher, at least with her oldest child. Her children grow and every year her oldest moves to a grade or to content areas that she has never taught. She can remain clenched and shrill, fearful someone will notice that she is faking it. Or she can exhale. She can model humility and the arts of learning. She, with her students, can say: What do we notice? What do we wonder?

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