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Why Teach Classically?

April 15, 2011

The reason for teaching classically is that it attends to the nature of the child and the nature of learning. When we teach this way we appropriately honor both the child and the subject.

Classical instruction accomplishes this by making use of two modes of instruction: Socratic, and what is called Mimetic, which I will touch on briefly below.

My big question early on when I found myself in a classical school was, “If I am teaching students in the “dialectic” phase of their learning, how should I teach them?”

This eventually, through various resources, led me to the CiRCE Institute where I discovered the Apprenticeship Program—a mentoring program for 12 teachers/home educators led by Andrew Kern. I immediately applied and discovered principles that have forever changed my teaching.

The first principle of any classroom is that the teacher’s speech and acts are formed out of what has first been impressed into the teacher. The teacher can only breathe out, exhale, what he has first breathed in, inhaled. Likewise, the student will inhale what the teacher exhales.

Breathing is the principle that occurs between a teacher and student.

This dynamic principle, that outlines the process of receiving, absorbing (both inhaling exercises), and re-presenting (the exhaling exercise), also takes place within the individual learner. As the pupil inhales, he proceeds toward a definite goal. The goal, surprisingly, is not to soak up and store an unlimited amount of knowledge. I do not wish to teach my students to “hold their breath,” and consequently, pass out. Rather, I want my students to breathe, I want them to live.

The inhaling act (perception) leads toward apprehension, which in turn leads toward the exhaling act (re-presentation), the final act. This progression outlines the stages of imitation, and is the second principle of the classical classroom.

By nature we learn through the process of imitation. The Mimetic mode of instruction is simply a mode of instruction that leads the student through five stages of imitation.

In short, they are:

1. Pre-perception: assessing what is already known about the idea or truth

2. Perception: looking at types of the idea or truth

3. Contemplative: comparing the types

4. Apprehension: point of understanding the idea or truth taught

5. Re-presentation: embody and imitate the idea or truth taught

As an example, here is a glimpse of what I did when my daughter read the Odyssey earlier this year. We focused on the idea of a home.

Pre-perception: What do you consider a home to be? Have you ever been away from home? Have you ever missed someone?

Perception: Cave of Calypso, House of Circe, House of Nestor, House of Zeus, House of Agamemnon, House of Menelaus, House Alkinoos, House of Polyphemus, House of Skylla, House of Swineherd, House of Odysseus

Contemplative: compare any number of houses, including our own.

Apprehension: can you summarize, explain, or describe what a home is? What must a home be? What makes a home?

Re-presentation: for literature I require my children and students to write an essay. The essay is one way for them to re-present the idea. They imitate the idea through their writing. Another way, which is far more difficult to assess in the classroom, is to observe their daily habits. This, of course, cannot be done in a 45-minute block of time. It requires days, months, or even years.


From → Education, Literature

  1. Hello Buck,
    Great article! Your blog has been very helpful to me in many, many ways, and I am very excited to meet you in person in August.

    I have a few questions:

    1. When your daughter read the Odyssey, did she come up with the question, “What do you consider a home to be?” or did you?

    2. Did you ask the question before or after the reading of the Odyssey?

    The reason I’m asking is because I’m trying to understand if I should ask my boys, who are 9 and 11, to focus on a specific question before they read a work of literature, or should I wait until after.

    From your last post, How To Teach Literature, it seems like I should wait until after.

    Also, does the length and genre of the literature matter? In other words, would my “teaching strategy” (this must be the wrong phrase) change if I am teaching an epic poem, novel, or an Aesop’s Fable?

    Thank you for considering my questions.

    • I started by asking her the questions. The questions I use are from the five common topics, which I think were listed in the prior post.

      But, and I believe this is important, I assess as I ask the questions. In other words, I am not just asking questions without regard to the answers. So my daughter, without realizing it, determines the kind of questions I will ask her by the kind of answers she gives.

      I will also say that, I usually begin every literature discussion with a couple of specific questions, and it does not necessarily matter how far into the reading my child or student is.

      So let’s say we have only read book 1 in the “Odyssey.” We have briefly been introduced to each of the main characters. We know that Odysseus is stranded on an island because of Poseidon’s anger; Penelope is locked in at home with suitors; Telemakhos is “a boy daydreaming;” and Athena is working to bring Odysseus home. Now I will ask:

      1. Who most rightly acts? –sometimes children do not like this question because they think no one is acting rightly, but the question is who is most rightly acting.

      2. Pick a character. Tell me some things that character did. Why did he do this? (relation question) When did he do this? (circumstance) Should he have done this?

      After this initial introduction into the story, I will proceed with the five topics, but very slowly and probably not in one sitting.

      The question, character, or action that a child focuses on really does not matter. Any question they ask will lead them to the central idea of the story. For example, I went through this exercise with my 7th grade students before I told them they were going to write on the should question they constructed. One student was trying to be funny, and she asked, “Should Athena have put on her sandals?” “Great,” I said. “Now you are going to write an essay on that question.” She begged not to write on this issue, but in the end, she drew on reasons that focused on saving Odysseus and his family. It brought her back to the heart of the story. It has to do this if it is indeed a good story, because everything is related.

      I would, at least initially, begin every genera of literature in this way. I mean, by asking questions. The kind of questions you ask may be different when approaching Aesop as opposed to a poem by Coleridge. I try to draw the questions from the text. I try to ask myself what questions this particular text is evoking from me.

  2. Buck,

    Thank you for answering my questions so thoroughly.

    Here is what I understand from what you have said:

    When I read literature with my student, I should first

    Read the literature with my student, then, once the student is familiar with each of the main characters, I can begin by

    1. Asking a specific question, which is determined from the form of literature we are reading. For example, “Who most rightly acts?”
    2. Then,
    Ask the student to name 2-3 characters (Wilber, Charlotte, Templeton)
    Ask the student to list 3-5 actions each character did
    Pick one character and select one action. (Should Charlotte help Wilber)
    3. Discuss “Should Charlotte help Wilber” (Create ANI chart)
    4. Proceed slowly, over many sittings, into the 5 topics, which are
    Definition: What is X?
    Comparison: How does X compare with/to Y?
    Circumstance: What are the circumstances surrounding X?
    Relation: How is X related to Y?
    Authority: Who says what about X?

    After I read your previous post, How to Read Literature, I successfully completed steps 2 and 3 with my two boys, and then we wrote a very short essay. It was wonderful!

    But last week I tried to add step 4 and got stuck. I got stuck between steps 3 and 4 (between finishing the ANI and trying to talk about the 5 Common topics of Invention).

    But now I know why.

    I got stuck between the ANI chart and the 5 Topics because I haven’t read The Lost Tools of Writing in its entirety, and I began the 5 topics too soon, without understanding them. I went too fast and didn’t read closely enough. It looks like the five topics are introduced over 32-34 weeks. So, I guess I should just slow down. In order to understand how to incorporate the 5 topics into my teaching, I need to follow the lesson plans in The Lost Tools of Writing and proceed slowly.

    I was just doing too much too fast and that is why I got confused!

    Thank you again for answering my questions.

    And I’m sorry I got off topic on this comment section.

    After rereading this blog post, Why Teach Classically, and watching Andrew Kern’s talk The Five Paths to Great Writing on The Two Andrews DVD, I have been inspired to keep taking the next step as I learn to teach classically.

    Your writing encourages me.

    Thank you!


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