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Tools & Treasures: Categories for More Meaningful Lesson-Planning

As summer days speed by, and a new year’s round of classes draws nearer, teachers have the leisure—so often pressed out amidst the demands of the school year!—to think more broadly and deeply about the content, method, and objectives of their courses and teaching practices. And although I find that even the summer affords less time for this kind of thinking than I had hoped, I relish each opportunity for it that I can snatch: one afternoon in a busy week spent at a table full of textbooks and tea, one morning reading that store of articles accumulated over the past school year with ideas to try in the new one, one lunch with other teachers sharing insights gained and lesson plans tweaked, one conference from which I harvest ideas enough to feed contemplation for months afterward.

This summer, these thinking-sessions have clarified for me the following truth to embody in my planning for the coming year’s teaching: Classical education that enriches one’s life must both impart the tools of learning and furnish the treasury of ideas.

It’s an almost-simplistic dictum, and any good teacher will already be applying it by mere instinct. But as with anything, recognizing and naming what is already known allows one to practice it more faithfully, as well as to rejoice in the bit of truth it reveals. So what importance lies within this twofold distinction?

Many of the most easily-recognized titles and principles of the modern classical education movement are concerned with the tools of learning, from Dorothy Sayers’s flagship essay introducing that phrase, to Douglas Wilson’s book on recovering the same, to CiRCE’s own “Lost Tools of Writing” curriculum. Voices such as these emphasize that classical education (mainly identified with its trivium component) should focus on training students in how to learn by rigorous practice in the grammar (memorized knowledge), logic (disciplined analysis), and rhetoric (persuasive communication) of particular subjects and/or of the mind itself. Specific “tools of learning” across the grades and disciplines might include a grasp of phonics or grammar; competency in basic arithmetic; memory of history timelines; ability to create a syllogism, balance a chemistry equation, scan a sonnet, write an essay. Many teachers and advocates of classical education emphasize the tools as the distinctive that sets their methodology apart from that of standard education, where storing information to pass tests too often replaces honing intellectual skills as education’s goal.

At the same time, the element of classical education that most often captivates teachers and students alike is the centrality it gives to contemplation—to questing for gems to fill a whole treasury of ideas in the storehouse of memory. When I was a high school student, I told people that what I loved about my classical curriculum was the way it pushed me to delve into the great works of literature, history, and philosophy across the ages, and to trace the connections amongst them. My high school students speak similarly of their love for the books we read and the conversations they provoke. They are furnishing their soul’s treasuries with ideas about truth, goodness, beauty, justice, the imago dei, the nature of God, transcendence, immortality—ideas which they will neither exhaust nor outgrow through all the rest of their lives. It’s this thrill of pondering paradoxes, internalizing ideas, and then striving to embody the insights thus gained that draws and devotes all of us to the classical approach.

Clearly, these two strands are complementary, not contradictory. I have had the opportunity to see them spun through the lives of my parents, who, though not classically educated, embraced the similar training of their liberal arts education in college. Each of them emphasizes one of the two strands: My mom has dexterously employed the tools of learning without intermission through the past several decades as a teacher and homeschooling parent, while my dad continually references ideas gleaned from texts read nearly forty years ago to illustrate or evaluate the situations he encounters in the present. In both cases, my parents’ examples have shown me that these two strands, spun well at the outset, will stretch through the weave of a whole tapestry of life.

So what does this mean for summer lesson planning—as well as thick-of-the-school-year teaching? It can help to clarify what is needful amidst the dizzying array of “things that would be great to do” in any given class: sort through the lists of ideas with an eye to those that will most effectively help students master the tools of learning on the one hand, and those that will most readily intrigue, excite, or exacerbate them into contemplation of ideas that they will treasure fifty years from now on the other.

And try to balance the two categories. Some disciplines lend themselves more easily to one than the other, but the duty and joy of the teacher is to unite both. In literature class, for example, the teacher must be sure to train in the skills of the discipline—recognizing literary form and devices, for example, or even habituating the use of present tense and proper MLA citation in literature essays—when it’s almost too easy to walk into class, toss out a tantalizing question, and run short of time before the ideas it raises are satisfactorily hashed out. A math teacher, on the other hand, gives his students one of the greatest gifts at his disposal when he not only trains them to add, subtract, multiply, divide, find unknowns, and take integrals, but when he speaks to them of the greater truths these operations reveal: proportion, elegance, harmony, simplicity, infinity, and so on.

With these goals guiding her, the teacher will, as the school year gets underway, have the joy of watching students progress in skills that lead them towards more and more fascinating ideas, which in turn send them back to hone their skills that they may follow the ideas further. Without either of these elements, classical education quickly dead-ends; but with them both, it opens a path that stretches lifelong.

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