Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Classical Conversations for High School ( A Schoolhouse Crew Review)

Classical Conversations for High School (A Schoolhouse Crew Review) on Homeschool Coffee Break @  Our review of "The Conversation" by Leigh A. Bortins - a guide to challenging high school students with a classical education, using the canons of rhetoric in every subject

Although I don't usually identify our homeschool as following the classical education model, I am familiar with the philosophy of that model and like to think that we make use of many of those ideas. Now that I'll have two high school students for this coming year, it seemed like great timing when I had the opportunity to read the newest book from Classical Conversations. The Conversation by Leigh A. Bortins focuses on classical education during the high school years.

Classical Conversations Review

Classical Conversations is a Christian community that believes parents are the best educators, and their mission is to support parents and students in homeschooling using the classical education philosophy. A little background here, if you're not exactly sure what a "classical education" means - the classical model divides learning into three stages: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. Although all three stages are involved any time we learn something new, as a whole the stages roughly correspond with the more familiar stages of elementary, middle school, and high school grades. We often think of classical education as having an emphasis on the study of Latin, and being based on principles taught by Socrates, Plato, and other ancient philosophers, but Classical Conversations is founded on the Bible as the Word of God and the belief that all subjects we study teach us more about God and that a deeper understanding of God helps us learn more about each subject. 

The Conversation is the newest book by Classical Conversations founder Leigh A. Bortins, and it focuses on the rhetoric stage of learning, or the high school years. This book encourages parents to continue homeschooling all the way through high school, and shows how the rhetoric stage of learning can lead to rich and meaningful conversations.

During the grammar stage, children are learning and memorizing facts. They learn to read, they learn their multiplication tables, and they memorize  information such as the capitals of the states. During the dialectic stage, children ask more questions as they evaluate the facts they've learned. And during the rhetoric stage, or the high school years, teens can pull all that knowledge together, apply it practically, and communicate with others and to others about what they are learning. I would not classify myself as a classical style homeschooler, but these stages of learning are certainly evident in my own children, and apply no matter what homeschool style we adhere to. In The Conversation, Bortins makes a compelling case for this interaction and dialogue approach throughout high school education, and shows how these conversations benefit students as they move towards independence.

The book opens with a chapter called "Confident Parents" in which Bortins encourages parents to take the role of coach with their students, and answers many of the concerns parents may have about homeschooling in high school - such as maintaining authority, time management, relationships with teens, preparing for college, choosing content, and even socialization. Chapter Two defines the rhetoric stage in detail and offers an overview of how to apply rhetoric in education. She explains the five canons of rhetoric, which are:
  1. Invention (discovering ideas, researching, and planning)
  2. Arrangement (putting ideas into a logical and organized framework)
  3. Elocution or Style (expressing ideas in the manner that is most persuasive or appealing)
  4. Memory (making the presentation memorable, and committing more ideas to memory)
  5. Delivery (delivering ideas in oral or written form)
If you wonder - as I did - how on earth that process can be used in reading or math, or any other subject, Part Two of The Conversation answers all those questions, giving detail and example for applying the canon in each of the Rhetorical Arts (or subject areas) that high school students study. These are:
  • Reading
  • Speech and Debate
  • Writing
  • Science
  • Math
  • Government and Economics
  • History
  • Latin and Foreign Languages
  • Fine Arts
I especially enjoyed the chapter about Reading. Having conversations about Literature seems like it should be easy and enjoyable, but in practice we sometimes have trouble getting past "Did you like the book?" and retelling the basic plot. By following the rhetoric canon, we can talk about what main argument the author is making with his story and how the arrangement and style he chose contributes to the reader's understanding of that argument. We can talk about how the author adds to the conversation about the book's topic and other books that have been written on the same topic. There's a possibility that we will be leading a book discussion group this coming school year, and if so, this chapter will provide framework for the kinds of conversations we'd like to have about the novels students are reading.

The chapters explaining how to apply the rhetoric process to the study of math, government, and economics were fascinating and I think will prove very helpful as we tackle those subjects in the coming school year. I also enjoyed the chapter on the fine arts, explaining the importance of discerning what is being communicated through music and visual arts, and discussing it intelligently. Bortins suggests beginning with a novel rich in metaphor and descriptive language, which eases us into seeing how images (produced by our imagination when we read) are an essential way to communicate ideas. We can then appreciate the composition (Arrangement) of a piece of art or music, and the medium and technique (Style) used communicate a concept. Examples of studying an artistic masterpiece and musical performances are also presented.

The closing chapter on graduation and moving on to college or a career is also particularly helpful and encouraging. I highlighted this paragraph:
I want to take a moment to encourage those of you who are already homeschooling in the high school years. Like me, you probably learn something new about home education every week. Like me, you probably wish you could have applied that knowledge to your child's education when they were small. It is never too late for those students who are willing to set a goal and work hard to achieve it.

What I liked best:
  • the overall encouraging and conversational (<---- see what I did there?) tone of the book. There is a lot of information and detail presented, and it is challenging and thought-provoking; but I had a sense of the author saying, "You can do this!" throughout.
  • the detailed walk-through examples of exactly how the canon of rhetoric can be applied to every subject during high school - the study of The Scarlet Letter; writing a research paper; working through algebra; studying science and history; learning a language; and listening intelligently to Handel's Water Music.

What I need to mention:
  • the only chapter/subject area that I felt I might not be practical to all homeschoolers was the one addressing Speech and Debate. Many students do not participate in anything like Mock Trial or Debate Clubs or have the kinds of public speaking opportunities that students in a Classical Conversations community would have. That said, I am glad that I read the chapter despite my misgivings, because it pointed out that being able to evaluate speeches effectively is a skill we all need if we are to be informed and discerning. 

My bottom line: I've marked many passages in The Conversation already as those that are particularly helpful and enlightening for my homeschool; and I suspect that on subsequent readings (because I will be reading this more than once!) I will find more ideas that I want to make practical use of as I homeschool my own students through high school. 

Classical Conversations Review

Would you like to join in the conversation? Here's what you need to know:
For more information about Classical Conversations, their philosophy, and what they offer, see the page "What is Classical Conversations?" on the website.

Pricing: The Conversation is a paperback book, available through the Classical Conversations Bookstore for $16. At the time of this review, it is on sale for $12. A sample chapter is available, and you may also want to look at The Core and The Question, the previous books by Leigh A. Bortins which address the classical education approach during the elementary (grammar) and middle school (dialectic) years.

You can follow Classical Conversations on Facebook, on Twitter, on Pinterest, on Google+, and on YouTube.

Visit the Schoolhouse Review Crew blog for more information and to read other reviews.
Classical Conversations Review

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