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ILLA Blogs

Commentary and reviews by classical Lutheran education commentators.

The Case for One-Room School Houses

The numbers of LCMS schools which have closed their doors in the last 20 years is alarming -- if anyone cares to take notice. Generally, I suspect that the issue is economics: congregations cannot afford to maintain the school budget. But can we afford to be without Lutheran schools?

I think it's time for an old paradigm to become redivivus among LCMS schools: the one-room school house.

Granted, people might have to begin thinking a little bit differently about education -- and that's something rather difficult for many LCMS folk to do. (I won't put a smiling face emoji here, but I could . . .)

In the first place, families in the LCMS need to be awakened to the idea of classical Lutheran education in contrast to what education has become in our society today. I think it's possible. And secondly, I think the success of LCMS home school families has trailblazed the way so that more people might be open to the idea. (By this, I don't necessarily mean homeschoolers, but rather others might consider one-room schools in light of the success which classical Lutheran home school families have had.)

It's not just a novel idea for LCMS elementary education. Other schools are doing it, too. See this article: The Case for One-Room School Houses. I believe some teacher colleges in our western states currently train teachers for this sort of experience. Even here in Chicago, we have a few members in our congregation who attended one-room school houses in rural areas when they were children, and they grew up to have very sucessful lives in the big city.

This year, our school has been "right-sizing." Everything has been going as well as one might expect at our school without any major contentious controversies, but due to budget issues and a demographically-typical decline in enrollment, we are moving toward three grades per classroom where we have had two.

One of the major concerns of parents (a few of which withdrew their children to enroll them in public school) was whether it was humanly possible to teach three levels of math and other subjects in the same length of school day when only two were taught. If they thought back for a moment, however, they would have realized that some people may have thought the same thing when the decision was made to go from one grade per classroom to two. Notwithstanding, our school has shown that academic accomplishment has by no means diminished. I believe the same could be said of a one-room school -- especially given the technological advances available today.

Perhaps a more detailed description of how this can be done is the subject for another blog -- this one is too long already. But if you have other anecdotes or resources about one-room school house experiences, please share them in the comments! 

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Direct Instruction

Some 20 years ago, when I first embarked on my classical Lutheran education trek, I followed many leads. One of them led to "Direct Instruction" (capital D, capital I) for a number of reasons which appealed to me.

1) They emphasized the mastery of material.

2) They promoted a direct, highly orchestrated method of instruction utilizing hand signals and scripted lessons rather than "discovery learning" wherein students were permitted to self-discover material or to work in groups. (To be sure, not the best approach for every subject, but it was wonderful in making certain each and every student was engaged in the lesson.)

3) They had done quite a bit of research on Project Follow-Through, a little-known, highly-documented government program which followed on the heels of the Head Start program.

4) It was through this program that I was introduced to the Orton-Gillingham approach to teaching phonics which was language-based, multisensory, structured, sequential, cumulative, cognitive, and flexible -- the most widely used and familiar version is Romalda Spalding's method, The Writing Road to Reading produced by Spalding Education International.

5) It really showed its strength with children in inner-city schools (one of which I was serving at the time), but also worked well with children in other socio-economic environments.

6) It led me to learn about the Baltimore Curriculum Project, a curriculum which, in form if not in fact, has elements worth emulating in classical Lutheran schools.

While I don't know that I would endorse any of their materials without qualification for classical Lutheran education, I think it would be worth one's while to become familiar with the organization and history of The National Institute for Direct Instruction which still seems to be going strong in some parts of the country.

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Grammar vis-a-vis Style

One is hard-pressed to find a curriculum better than the Shurley Grammar Method for teaching the principal parts of speech and the basic mechanics of grammar. The art of writing well, however, consists in something more than learning the rules of grammar and punctuation.

At the risk of minimalizing a couple of noteworthy programs, I believe Andrew Pudewa's Institute for Excellence in Writing does well in teaching students how to summarize what they read and to be economical in the use of words (unlike this sentence). I think the strength of Andrew Kern's The Lost Tools of Writing does as much for getting students to think as it does to write.

Now it may be that I am not sufficiently acquainted with those programs -- and for that reason I do not mean by this brief blog to give them short-shrift -- but so far, they do not seem to address writing style in the way that I imagine it. The problem is, at this point, I do not have any other comprehensive program to recommend. I have a full-shelf-a-half of books and texts from which I pick this and that.

I like a number of the exercises in Holt, Rhinehart and Winston's "Elements of Language" (there are several levels -- for the sake of discussion, check out Sentences and Paragraphs, ISBN 0030563143 and Combining Sentences ISBN 0030563062). If you are on a budget, check out a used textbook company like Follett.

I also like Richard Nordquist's work in Passages: a Writer's Guide (ISBN 9780312101176) and Writing Exercises: Building, Combining, and Revising (ISBN 9780023882203). Again, if on a tight budget, these can be acquired as used copies from Amazon or alibris. I have enjoyed his grammar website for years, though he stopped serving as the site's editor in 2016.

Ever on the lookout for helpful material, I just ordered June Casagrande's It Was the Best of Sentences; It Was the Worst of Sentences: a Writer's Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences (ISBN 978-1580087407). Check out her website: Grammar Underground.

There are, of course, those who want to throw out grammar rules and stylistic conventions altogether -- and one can find their "creative" approaches in many places. It is not a bad idea to become familiar with them as long as one does so without swalloing hook, line, and sinker.

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College Entrance Exams and Classical Education

CNN recently reported that there are several hundred classical schools in the United States:

Classical schools are less concerned about whether students can handle iPads than if they grasp Plato. They generally aim to cultivate wisdom and virtue through teaching students Latin, exposing them to great books of Western civilization and focusing on appreciation of “truth, goodness and beauty.” Students are typically held to strict behavioral standards in terms of conduct and politeness, and given examples of characters from history to copy, ranging from the Roman nobleman Cincinnatus to St. Augustine of Hippo.

There is such a revival in classical education that there is a new college entry examination, intended as an alternative to the SATs. A dozen colleges are now accepting the results of the Classic Learning Test (CLT).

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Gentlemen vis-a-vis Saints

An excerpt from The Genteel Imposter: Newman's Social Criticism

Newman remarks in his Idea of a University that it is far easier to find examples of gentlemen than saints. The reason should be obvious: “The world is content with setting right the surface of things; the Church aims at regenerating the very depths of the heart” [Idea, p. 203]. So Newman sees the gentleman as superficial. In this he has many literary precedents from Horace to Moliere; but Newman’s objection does not vent itself in high satire and then depart with good-fellow handshakes all around.

There is genuine danger; in Newman’s view, something is being disguised: “The splendours of a’ court, and the charms of good society, wit, imagination, taste, and high breeding, the prestige of rank, and the resources of wealth, are a screen, an instrument, and an apology for vice and irreligion” [Idea, p. 202]. What is being hidden by the fine ways of genteel society is original sin: “What, indeed, is the very function of society, as it is at present, but a rude attempt to cover the degradation of the fall, and to make men feel respect for themselves, and enjoy it in the eyes of others, without returning to God” [P.S. VIII, p.266].

What is missing is virtue which comes with holiness; and any attempt to supplant the role of virtue with that of liberal education is futile: “Quarry the granite rocks with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and pride of man” [Idea, p. 121]

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