It's Here! Access 500+ hours of talks with the CiRCE Audio Subscription.

Break the Mold?!

What do classical and Christian schools overwhelmingly share in common with public schools? There isn’t much to distinguish us in our approach to time management and measurement. Intriguingly, our academic calendars are quite similar: thirty-six weeks, 180 days, with Monday through Friday schedules the norm for many locales. On the whole, we share a lengthy summer break, which has roots dating back to the late nineteenth century when there was a push by policy makers to standardize schooling across urban and rural America. Before this, children in agrarian communities actually attended school during the winter and summer seasons as their help was needed during the planting and harvesting times of spring and autumn. It was the wealthy city dwellers who fled their sweltering neighborhoods, pulling their children temporarily away from school during retreats to country residences (this was before the invention of air conditioning at the turn of the twentieth century). Now for nine seemingly arbitrarily chosen months, children both in classical and public schools rotate through a timetable of classes that feels more mechanical (especially if there are bells) than humane. Boys and girls are grouped together primarily with others whose birthdays fall within the same twelve-month span, their learning progress branded with letter or number grades, the efficacy of which is never questioned. Graduating secondary school roughly around age eighteen, after twelve to thirteen years of formal education, with likely several more years to come given the idolization of college, classical and public-school students are all on the bandwagon of prolonged adolescence. Does this bode well for the future, especially given the rise in worldwide declining fertility rates? Amazingly, schools are closing in Japan due to its plummeting population crisis. Are we setting ourselves up to propagate the rich legacy of classical education for generations to come? 

Why are classical institutions conforming to a mold similar to our public-school brethren? We are striving to nurture our students on the true, the good, and the beautiful but will the benefits of our curriculum be obscured by the model and forms we are imitating from the supposedly less enlightened federally funded schools? Perhaps this is a case of unquestioned acceptance: this is how school has been done for as long as living memory can recall. There may be many school leaders and board members who genuinely believe the current system is good for our students. Or maybe no one has time to question means and methods due to our modern lifestyle of perpetual busyness, urgency, and exhaustion that leaves little leisure for contemplation. There could be an unspoken obligation that we are catering to parental work schedules, so school becomes a sort of childcare service regardless of educational philosophy. One wonders, too, if classical schools are driven by fear of being “too different” or “out there” if they truly broke the mold, and thus lose precious income from having their services rejected by too many potential families and donors, so staying in operation becomes a domineering value. As one who is tempted and attracted by efficiency and controlled procedures (I have shared with my students that if I wasn’t a teacher, I’d be a flight attendant—I love the routines that are inherent to the job—so gloriously predictable and polished!), I can sympathize with those who crave a way to do things tidily, and the industrial plan of the school year provides an attractive option.  

But how could or should classical schools be different? Each of these musings could be its own article topic, but my goal is to instigate a more widespread conversation around these questions: 

  • What would it look like if the academic calendar was driven by the physical location of the school and whether the school ascribed to any liturgical calendar? For example, one idea that was tossed around while I was in graduate school was whether it would be better for students in Arizona to prioritize learning in the summer months when everyone is indoors anyway to escape the heat? Or if one lives in an area that has significant shifts in daylight depending on the season, why are school hours not adjusted to better serve the body’s natural rhythms? Could there be a vacation around the Easter season (six weeks) instead of taking three months off in the summer? What about taking a winter break from Christmas to Candlemas 
  • What would it look like if there were multi-age students combined into one cohort or class? What is a reasonable number of students per cohort? Should students be separated by gender? At a certain age? For certain classes? For example, at the school where I teach, P.E. and music classes are divided by gender by middle school. 
  • How could school time be scheduled so that it nurtures and benefits the teacher’s creative and intellectual powers as well as the maturing student? Should there be a range of time given for pursuing a certain subject instead of a fixed number of minutes with a hard stop? The latter may pressure the teacher either to unnecessarily edit or expand the content area, as when you must “do” literature forty-five minutes per day because it’s on the bell schedule. What if you need more or less time to contemplate the story? This might imply fewer classes taught, or more self-contained cohorts led by one or more designated teachers for that group. 
  • How could we rethink the assessment process? Should we keep grades? Why or why not? What do they mean? How else could student ability be determined? 
  • Why does it take so long to complete formal schooling? Is it wise to keep children in such a system? Is it serving their developmental, intellectual, and spiritual needs, or is it a reflection on us adults and our lack of potent preparation for our youth, whereby we constantly and consistently evaluate what we ought to provide for their maturation, so that they have the potential to begin living “the good life” classical education promises by age fifteen or sixteen? Could the final four or five teen years be dedicated to learning or apprenticing to a particular trade, occupation, or skill while also continuing to read and think deeply? Would this help young people enter adulthood in their early twenties and feel ready to marry earlier and establish a family? Or join a religious order? Or simply love and serve their neighbors more broadly and capably? 



3 thoughts on “Break the Mold?!”

  1. Claudia, you are asking important questions here. These, and a few more, were at the forefront of my mind when I designed Sundial Classical Farmstead. I created in in response to mounting frustration 25 years into a career as a public school special education teacher. I could see that the systems and structure of how we “did” school were a far greater barrier to good teaching than any curriculum or assessment methods.

    To answer your excellent questions, yes, making these shifts is possible, very popular with parents, and deeply beneficial to students. Here are some we made:

    1. We offer a unique calendar – 30 or 33 weeks. We are in session Sept-Dec, Jan, and Feb-May. January is optional. So, parents may choose a 3-week or 6-week break over Christmas (exactly the Christmas to Candlemas break you described!). 2. We have a unique weekly schedule with 1, 4, or 5-day options. Children can attend Mon-Fri, Mon-Thur, or only Friday. Our Friday program is a stand-alone Arts & Trades Program offering common and fine arts classes very popular with homeschooling families.

    2. We have multi-age classes and form ability-based instructional groups to address differentiation needs. We cap the whole class student to teacher ratio at 12:1 and those small-groups only have 2-4 students in them.

    3. We have no bells and we focus on giving teachers freedom to design their classes. I know that a happy, engaged, creative teacher is a good teacher! Our only stipulation is that academics are completed in the morning so that the afternoons are free for a new set of part-time teachers who come in to teach the arts, dance, and music. That’s another perk we are intentionally designed to offer: all our staff are part-time. We can’t offer a lot in pay but we make up for it by offering flexiblity in designing their working day.

    4. We give no letter grades. We do give curriculum-based assessments. Progress is reported to parents in lengthy conferences (each ranges from 1-2 hrs per child). We hold these conferences three times a year. All the time teachers in traditional schools spend on grading papers, collecting points, then computing a letter grade we have chosen to put into in-person conversation with parents. Far more meaningful! And, freeing students from grades is having a clear effect on student motivation. Last week nearly all my students opted for harder spelling words for the joy of challenging themselves because it was risk free. No fear of losing points meant they were willing to learn for the joy of learning!

    Thanks for this post. I’ve said from the beginning that finding the classical ethos was so freeing to me as an educator – here was strong content and time-honed pedagogical methods that focused on forming children. Then, I was surprised and saddened to find “classical” schools that operated just like the same old public schools I’d left. It is confusing to me that schools with passionate beliefs about curricular content can then be so blase about the systems and structure which, after all, are the prime factors in a child’s daily experience of school.

    I hope this article inspires other schools to reflect on the questions you’ve asked here.

  2. Stop beating around the bush!! Our US education system is BROKEN from preschool to university. The monetary cost is exorbitant compared to the results. It is definitely time to rethink the status quo.
    Your thoughts and comments are a great outline to begin the process of a total redo of American education.
    I would make the argument that 80% of a student’s time is a total waste. Many of our students spend two or more hours per day just getting to school. Zero productivity time. Changing classes, more wasted minutes that add up quickly. Teaching subjects that may be interesting, but ultimately of no value to the majority. Personally I passed three years of high school Spanish classes without being able to have a conversation in Spanish.

  3. It is so sad to see children institutionalized for so many hours a day so both parents can join in the rat race. Seems like they are being conditioned to be a cog in the wheel. Classical education is better but it seems hard to do it well. Our priorities are off. Our children deserve better.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles