Classical Conversations is a community centered program designed to equip families with the tools of the classical Trivium: Grammar, Logic/Dialectic, and Rhetoric. Classical Conversations generally follows the neoclassical model, assigning the study of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric to distinct stages in a child’s development. Classical Conversations communities may offer three distinct programs: Foundations, geared towards students in grades K4-6; Essentials, for grades 3-6; and Challenge for grades 7-12.
Classical Conversations defines their mission on their website as follows:
The purpose of education is to know God and to make Him known.
Our purpose is to lead the home-centered education movement by equipping parents and students with the classical tools of learning needed to discover the order and beauty of God’s creation and to inspire others to do the same.
We believe parents are their children’s primary teachers not because parents know everything but because each child is uniquely (and wonderfully!) made and because the people who know and love a child best are the ones most motivated to help that child succeed.
We empower and support parents not only through our Classical Conversations Communities across the country but also through our specially designed C3 online community, Parent Practicums, academic retreats, and our Certified Instructor Program. All of these services ultimately equip parents to educate their children with the classical tools of learning and a biblical worldview so that they might impact the world for God’s glory.
While students enrolled in Classical Conversations communities attend classes once per week with a tutor, the parent is supported as the primary teacher. Actually, parents typically attend class with their child/children (they may rotate among classes if they have children in different levels); this way the parent becomes familiar not only with the material taught but with teaching techniques and methods demonstrated by the tutors; They can use this information to teach and reinforce material at home.
Foundations classes are offered in the morning, for 12 weeks in the fall and 12 weeks in the winter/spring. They emphasize memory work in history, geography, science, grammar, Latin, and math. Exposure to art and music (composers and theory) and some Bible memorization are also part of the program. Class size is limited to 8 students per tutor.
Classical Conversations follows a three-year rotation, with Cycle 1 covering Old World history, Biology and Earth Science, noun endings in Latin, and verbs and prepositions in grammar. Cycle 2 emphasizes modern World History; Ecology, Astronomy, and Physical Science; verb endings in Latin; and pronouns, adverbs and conjunctions in grammar. Cycle 3 covers US History, Anatomy and Chemistry, memorization/translation of John 1:1-7 in Latin, and participles, irregular verb tenses, and clauses in grammar. In addition, a timeline based off of the Veritas Press timeline cards and covering the creation to modern America is memorized every year, along with fundamental math facts such as multiplication tables, geometric formulas, and algebraic laws.
To get a better idea of how all this works, I have outlined a sample week’s memory work and activities below. This is what would be covered in cycle 3, week 6:
History Timeline: memorize Veritas Press flashcards, Green series #11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17; Blue series #31 (the Green series covers New Testament/Ancient Greece, Blue series covers Old Testament/Ancient Egypt; Classical Conversations has combined the series in chronological order); these cards cover a time period from ca. 740 BC to C. 320 BC, and include Old Testament prophets, the beginnings of the Roman Republic, the Persian Wards, the Peloponnesian War, Greek Philosophers, Nehemiah and the Jewish Return, and Alexander the Great. These cards are part of a timeline that is covered every year over the course of the 24 week program, and include 160 cards in all from the Creation through Modern America.
History Sentence (Students memorize these more detailed sentences that relate to the history cycle being covered that year; cycle 3 is American history; a question is given as a prompt): Q. Tell me about the purchase of Louisiana. Response: In 1803, the purchase of Louisiana from France prompted westward exploration by pioneers such as Lewis and Clark and Congressman Davy Crockett.
Latin: (translation of some nouns from John 1:1-7): verbum=word; Deus, Deum, Deo= God; principio=beginning; omnia/omnes=all; nihil=nothing
English Grammar: Irregular verb tenses—infinitive: to do; present: do, does; past: did; present participle: doing; past participle: done.
Science (science memory work is in the form of question/answer): Q: What are some parts of the digestive system? A. Mouth, Esophagus, Stomach, Liver, Small Intestine, Large Intestine.
Math: Multiplication table for 11’s and 12’s (through 11×12 and 12×12)
Geography: States and Capitals: Lansing, MI; Columbus, OH; Indianapolois, IN; Frankfort, KY; Nashville, TN.
Hands On Science Activities: students will participate in experiments #79, Spinning, and #80, Change of Pattern, from the book Janice Van Cleaves 201 Awesome, Magical, Bizarre and Incredible Experiments. These experiments are from the Biology section of the book; “Spinning” involves having the students spin around several times and observe the dizzy feeling this produces—with the explanation that the dizziness is cause by the continuing motion of fluid in the inner ear; “Change of Pattern” is a variation on the “pat your head and rub your stomach” theme, demonstrating the difficulty of maintaining two different activities at the same time.
Fine Arts: This is the last of a 6-week unit on drawing, children will draw a “final project”, using what they have learned. Tutors are given a lot of leaway in how they present art, although topics for each week are outlined and resources are suggested. The drawing unit teaches the basic shapes used in drawing (dots, circles, straight lines, curved lines, angle lines—this “shapes” method of seeing/drawing is presented in Mona Brookes’s book Drawing With Children, which is a recommended resource for tutors)
(Information taken from Bortins, Leigh A., Classical Conversations Foundations Curriculum Guide for Grades K4-6 Third Edition, Classical Conversations, Inc. West End, NC 2009, p. 83; a sample of the Foundations guide is available here.)
Essentials classes are offered in the afternoon, following the morning Foundation classes. The Essentials programs is designed for grades 3-6. Essentials consists of three components: a grammar program written by Leigh Bortins, called “Essentials of the English Language”; a writing component utilizing materials from Andrew Pudewa’s higly acclaimed Institute for Excellence in Writing; and a mathematical drill element using multiple games to practice addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, exponents, and radicals. The program is designed as a transition between grammar state and logic stage, reinforcing and applying the memory work of the earlier stage. As with the Foundations program, parents are expected to attend Essentials class sessions so that they can implement the language arts program at home. Essentials classes may have up to 16 students.
Essentials of the English Language takes students through the analysis of 112 sentences, from simple through complex. The sentences build on each other: for example, a simple declarative sentence is “Jesus is holy.”; a complex declarative sentence is “Jesus, who is good, is holy.”; and a compound-complex sentence is “Jesus, who is good, is holy, and He is alive.” Every week, a tutor would take the students through study of one sentence pattern, a lesson on parts of speech, a lesson on one of 6 “analytical tasks” that are at the core of the program’s methodology (these include writing a sentence from dictation, checking for proper spelling, capitalization and punctuation, diagramming a sentence, and modifying the original sentence with more complex parts of speech). Punctuation is practiced using scripture taken from the Gospel of John in the New Testament (I’m curious as to why the author chose such strongly Christian/Scriptural themes for her grammar program—I’m just not sure I want my children thinking “grammar lesson” when they see a Bible!) Memorization work includes sentence patterns, parts of speech, and lists of prepositions and irregular verbs. The same material is repeated each year of enrollment. Classical Conversations describes this program as follows:
Upon a firm foundation of memorized vocabulary, rules, and lists, students build strong language skills through the use of a series of analytical tasks. Students are taught how to thoughtfully analyze sentences and language structure, resulting in stronger language skills, which also strengthens students written and oral works.
Classical Conversations Challenge programs are designed for students ages 12 and over. Challenge classes meet once each week for 30 weeks, a typical schedule might run from 9:00-3:00. Challenge A and B are designed primarily for the junior high years, followed by Challenge I, II, III, and IV for high school—but parents are encouraged to enroll their students not by grade but according to the level of work that seems most appropriate. Challenge A and B give a gentler introduction to dialectic level skills, while the I-IV sequence focuses more heavily on critical thinking and analysis. Each level includes work in a foreign language (Latin for the earlier levels, Spanish for the last two years), literature, history/geography, science, logic, and mathematics. Apologia’s texts are used for science, and Saxon for math. Obviously this will work best if the materials and levels match up with what you want to do at home. Challenge classes are limited to 12 students, parents are not required to remain on campus as at the lower levels.
Tuition and Fees for the 2011-2012 school year (from CC website):
Foundations: $412 per student, plus any facility fees, for 24 weeks
Essentials: $382 per student, plus any facility fees, for 24 weeks
Challenge A and B: $1230 per student, plus any facility fees and a lab fee up to $50, for 30 weeks
Challenge C and D: $1295 per student, plus any facility fees and a lab fee up to $50, for 30 weeks
Necessary Resources: Foundations Guide, $50 (one-time purchase, covers all 3 cycles); 5 sets of Veritas Press timeline cards, $19.95 each; tin whistle, one per child, $10.00 each. Optional resources include audio CD’s covering memory work, $30 per cycle; Memory Work Resource CDs with animated powerpoints, also $30 per cycle; and Memory Cards (flashcards for memory work), $29.95 per cycle.
Necessary Resources: Essentials of the English Language, $45.00; IEW Theme-Based writing book corresponding to the current cycle, $29.00 each for the student text.hall
Challenge: The cost for every challenge program will be slightly different, but if you plan to buy all the resources new expect to pay in the range of $300-$500 (I priced the Challenge II resources at $440.00, not including items marked optional or supplemental). This can of course be reduced if you already own some resources (literature, Saxon Math, etc.) or if you buy used.
All this adds up, but some mothers are able to offset their children’s tuition by becoming tutors for the program. As I understand it, each tutor is an independent contractor, and pay will vary according to the numbers of students in a class, the level tutored, etc. I have heard from some Foundations tutors who say they earn enough for 2 children’s tuition and then some, if you want a ballpark idea.
My thoughts on the Classical Conversations:
I have tried to present this program as accurately as possible. If you are considering enrolling your children in the program, I recommend attending an open house if at all possible so you can see how your local community actually functions. I also recommend reading Leigh Bortin’s book The Core, in which she elaborates on the educational philosophy that underpins her CC communities. Because of tuition costs, Classical Conversations represents a significant commitment for homeschool families and deserves a careful analysis of the costs and benefits of enrolling. My personal analysis is below:
The first consideration in choosing to join a Classical Conversations community should be studying the underlying educational philosophy and determining how it matches up with your own family’s goals and plans. In many places Classical Conversations hold free Parent Practicums—if you have a chance to attend this would be a good opportunity to learn more about CC’s version of Classical education. In addition, I recommend reading Leigh Bortins book The Core. This book is not about Classical Conversations per se, but rather about classical education as understood by CC’s founder. It will give you a good idea of what the communities are trying to accomplish and why.
The support of a community seems to be the greatest benefit of Classical Conversations. Families I know who have had a positive experience in this program appreciate the peer support—for both parents and children—of a group of homeschoolers sharing similar values and educational goals. Because Classical Conversations is based within the Protestant Christian community, people who share that worldview will find it easiest to assimilate into a group. Those coming from different religious traditions (such as Catholic or Mormon) have had a mixed experience—some local groups are more welcoming than others. In addition, local groups vary in their level of organization and in the competency of the director and tutors. Even physical facilities will play a significant role in the community experience—I attended a CC open house once where the church facilities used were somewhat run down and lacking in natural light—making the rooms feel claustrophobic. Environment definitely plays a role in learning, so pay attention when you visit your local community.
In terms of materials used, the Foundations program seems to provide a strong framework for memorization of history, math and science facts. The disadvantage is that you don’t get to choose which facts. My personal preference when it comes to memorization is to focus on scripture, poems, and songs—although I am intrigued by the idea of memorizing a timeline. Classical Conversations does use music and chants to help with memorization, which helps immensely with retaining information. I’m not convinced that memorizing facts without much contextual understanding is really an effective learning strategy for children. The idea is that the memorized facts form a framework from which the web of knowledge can grow. I personally believe that young children especially build knowledge more effectively by their experience in the world and by repeated exposure to stories that put the information in context. Studies in how children learn show that memorization ability actually increases with age, so a child who would take two years to memorize a timeline starting at age 5 might be able to do it in two weeks at age 10—something to consider before committing to several years of the same memory work for young children. Leigh Bortins actually discusses this in her book The Core in her section on studying geography—the older the child is when beginning memorization of maps, the more quickly they will master the material. That being said, personal experience suggests to me that things we learn as children (versus adult learning) have greater sticking power, so choosing a few critical things to start teaching our children at a young age does have merit. Materials used in the Foundations program may be purchased and used at home, which provides an alternative to joining a CC community. You could even choose to get together once a week with like-minded families to present and review the material.
At the Essentials and Challenge levels, the knowledge, teaching ability, and enthusiasm of the tutor will play an increasingly important role. The materials themselves are not exceptional, so benefit will depend on the community experience. If the writing component of the Essentials program is well-presented, and if parents follow up with teaching and assignments at home, students can learn writing skills and habits that will serve them well in their advanced studies. I’m not convinced that the intensive grammar component is necessary—especially for three years in a row. Leigh Bortins is a huge proponent of grammar, claiming that it is study of grammar that produces good writers. I suspect that she has chosen the strategy that works best for her—she seems analytically minded, and I have read enough of her work to know that she is not a natural writer. I’m concerned that students who don’t share this analytical bent would not benefit significantly from such intensive grammar and may instead develop a distaste for language arts.
At the Challenge level, Classical Conversations seeks to provide the framework for a complete, classically oriented curriculum. It would be difficult to keep up with the work being presented in class and to follow a different educational model or curriculum at home, so a student enrolled in the Challenge program will have limited flexibility in their studies. This program will probably be most appealing to those who don’t feel confident tackling high school without support and/or who place high value on discussion and group interactions at this level. Some students will probably be motivated by group accountability, others may feel constrained by a program that does not leave a lot of room for moving at their own pace and following their own interests. Challenge tend to take time to develop, so there is limited availability compared to other CC levels.