Classical education looks back to move forward

Kristie Wooten, sitting with her 4-month-old son Tuck, reviews school lessons with her children, 8-year-old Noah and 10-year-old Mary Beth. Wooten is starting a group focused on classical education for home-schooling families like hers.
Kristie Wooten, sitting with her 4-month-old son Tuck, reviews school lessons with her children, 8-year-old Noah and 10-year-old Mary Beth. Wooten is starting a group focused on classical education for home-schooling families like hers.

SALISBURY — While the Common Core moves public schools toward something new, a growing “classical education” movement wants to bring back something old.

North Hills Christian School is already changing to a classical curriculum, and now a Salisbury woman is starting a “Classical Conversations” group for home-schooling families.


As the name suggests, this type of education usually includes the study of “classics” of art and literature. From an early age, students learn about the Greek poet Homer and read (or listen to) abridged versions of the Iliad or the Odyssey. Some take classes in Latin in elementary school.

But that’s not what the modern classical movement is about. It also addresses how children should be taught in school, modeled loosely on medieval structures and principles.

Kristie Wooten says she is looking for local parents to join her in classical homeschooling this fall. There are a handful of families signed up for this coming school year, which starts Sept. 11. Workshops will be held in August to help parents prepare for the year.

In Classical Conversations, parents are their children’s teachers and lead the bulk of their schooling at home. Once a week, they meet for group lessons led by “tutors.”

As the children work together on drills, projects and activities, their parents compare lesson plans and learn about what’s coming up next. The adults are often surprised at how much they’re learning, Wooten said.

“It’s educating the parents as they educate the students,” she said.

Interested parents can email Wooten for more information at krisyoursis@gmail.com

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Classical education approaches a child’s learning in three stages.

The first stage, grammar, focuses on the basic knowledge and “building blocks” of each subject. Students memorize familiar lists like state capitals and U.S. presidents.

They also commit mathematical formulas and scientific facts to memory, as well as sentences about topics that might be foreign to the average student their age.

“Taxes, slavery, unemployment and disease all contributed to the fall of Rome,” said Mary Beth, Wooten’s 10-year-old daughter, during a recent review session.

Wooten’s son Noah, 8, struggled with that one but quickly listed the different parts of the human digestive system.

After setting a foundation of these building blocks, the students enter the logic stage. This is where they learn to connect what they’ve learned, reason with it and apply it to solve problems.

Finally, in the rhetoric stage, students delve deeper into their research and understanding, communicate what they’ve learned and develop their speech and writing skills.

Wooten, her husband, Chad, and their three children just moved to Salisbury in December.

“I was part of Classical Conversations in south Georgia and the greater Cincinnati area,” Wooten said. “I never wanted to teach my children at home without it. It’s just so helpful.”

When she looked for classical education groups nearby, she found groups in Clemmons, Winston-Salem, Concord and Mooresville, but none in Rowan County.

So she decided to start one.

“I taught public school in south Georgia, where I grew up,” Wooten said. “I believed that so much of what was wrong in public education was because students weren’t coming from home ready to learn.”

Teachers have to spend too much time parenting, she said, and not enough time teaching. Wooten decided to homeschool her children and was impressed when she found out about classical education.

“There’s a huge focus on the skills of learning, probably even more so than the content itself. Not that the content isn’t important,” Wooten said. “They can’t move on to dialectic (logic) or rhetoric until the grammar is firmly established.”

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The new Common Core standards, which were just introduced in North Carolina last year, have lessened public schools’ focus on rote learning like memorization and repetition.

Maria Pitre-Martin, the state’s director of K-12 curriculum and instruction, said that focus is moving toward learning and thinking skills that students will need throughout their lives.

“In Common Core, students are asked to use evidence to support their thoughts and opinions, consistent throughout all grade levels of English language arts and literacy,” Pitre-Martin said.

In mathematics, she said, students need to be able to not only solve a problem but also explain how they solved it and why they did it that way.

Common Core is part of an effort to create a consistent set of standards for students throughout the country. Combined with the North Carolina Essential Standards, it details the knowledge and skills that students should have at the end of each grade level.

Local school systems then choose “maps” that provide the best way, in their view, to reach each goal.

The chosen curriculum can have pieces in common with classical education, like classic novels and memorization of vocabulary. But Julie Morrow, assistant superintendent of curriculum for the Rowan-Salisbury School System, said their focus is on helping the students meet the state and national standards.

“We’re preparing students for jobs we don’t even know will exist,” Morrow said. “We have to teach them to be learners, researchers and collaborators. These standards prepare our students to be truly future-ready.”

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Supporters of classical education say it encourages critical thinking, creativity, reasoning and understanding. The teaching of grammar, logic or rhetoric isn’t strictly confined to one age group.

Leslie Pullen, interim head of North Hills Christian School in Salisbury, said the three stages follow a child’s natural development.

“Little children are wonderful at memorizing songs and reciting things,” Pullen said. “In middle school, that’s much more of an age where they want to question and even argue and debate.”

North Hills began moving to a classical model last year. The school implemented a new classical history curriculum in its elementary grades, and it will be doing the same in the middle school grades this year.

Rather than a social studies curriculum based on certain themes or locations, students follow a linear timeline from first through fourth grades. They then repeat it in grades five through eight and eventually nine through 12, building on what they had learned before.

They still learn about those topics, she said, but they now start their study of history much sooner and on a much broader scale.

“It has been wonderful,” Pullen said. “The elementary students that have been exposed to Latin and learned this chronology of history have not only enjoyed it but have excelled.”

Pullen said students study the same topics and themes in different ways in all of their class subjects.

“When they’re reading Egyptian history, they study the life of Moses in Bible class,” she said.

The students also might study the mathematics of pyramids, learn about art from the same period or read a literary work written at the time.

Both Classical Conversations and North Hills use what they call a “classical Christian” curriculum, incorporating religion and religious themes into a child’s schoolwork. Classical education can also be taught in a secular context.

In an effort to prepare students for the jobs of the future, public education in North Carolina is increasingly focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

The classical approach promotes a broader liberal arts education.

Pullen, who used to be a science teacher, said math and science are still important parts of classical education. She said the skills students learn in other subjects help them think through experiments when they get to the lab.

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Amy Foote, who has two children attending North Hills, said she’s pleased with the changes at the school so far.

“It took a while to digest,” Foote said. “It’s a step backwards, in a way... but the more we thought about it, and the more it was explained to us, the more it made sense for us.”

Her older son, 10-year-old Nicholas, is about to enter the fourth grade.

“He knows more about history than I do, at this point,” Foote said.

Recently, Nicholas started talking while waiting at the doctor’s office about various medical problems, including gangrene.

Naturally, this led to a conversation about King Louis XIV of France.

“He died of gangrene,” Nicholas said. “He thought he was the best person ever. He nicknamed himself the Sun King.”

When the doctor arrived, they started talking about Versailles, the lavish palace where Louis XIV lived and died.

Nicholas is fascinated by architecture and history, but he says he wants to be a missionary when he grows up.

When asked what he thinks about his school, he quickly answered, “I love it.”

Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.

Twitter: twitter.com/posteducation

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