This is our last night in the nursery. Next year my daughter enters Challenge. But unlike Wendy, we aren’t distraught or anxious. While we both have a healthy respect for the rigors of the Challenge program, we are excited by our new adventure and we are already chatting over ways to make it uniquely our own. The program is new, but our approach is not.
As we think back fondly on our time with Classical Conversations, each year of Foundations and Essentials we have made adjustments to the pattern laid out for us in the guides and in community in order to make it fit my daughter and our family perfectly. In some seasons, we have added frills and embellishments; in others, we have cut things down to the bare minimum. I’m grateful that the original pattern was so thoughtfully designed that our alterations did not harm the integrity of the garment. Instead, we have found that thoughtfully and prayerfully tailoring a classical education only improves the final fit.
My daughter and I love language, so we both expected to love Essentials. We did—with modifications. While reading came easily for her at a young age, writing did not. Writing was still incredibly laborious and exhausting for her during her first tour of Essentials, and I quickly realized we would need to change something. She had begun to live in dread of copying the mastery charts. I thought about setting a timer each day and asking her to copy whatever she could in ten minutes, an amount of time that felt manageable to her. But I also knew she was capable of mastering much more of the material than that system would allow. And I knew one of the primary reasons she loves language is the value she places on relationship and conversation. I wasn’t sure quite what the solution was, but one afternoon when we were both tired and really didn’t want to work on charts but felt that duty called, I challenged her in a stroke of inspiration, “I bet you can’t tell me Chart A while I’m tickling you!” It turned out that, through peals of laughter, she could. After that we began working through the charts verbally, conversationally, playfully. Essentials never felt so good.
Over the next two years her ease with writing increased, and now she is perfectly capable of quickly copying the charts. But often we still choose to recite them instead. It provides a perfect opportunity for me to pose questions about connections between charts or ask her to give me examples of the grammar concept covered; even better, it offers an opportunity for great, relationship-building conversations. We often create fun example sentences and discuss them in the car as we run errands. It was during one of these free-flowing conversations that, inspired by an interrogative sentence inquiring whether pearls come from clams or oysters, she gave our wonderful partnership a name. We are the Grammar Clams (who are fabulously glam, who don’t eat ham, and who have to send telegrams to our good old Gram who sadly still isn’t great on Instagram). Since then she has given me cards with slogans like, “Grammar Clams Forever!” and the two of us depicted as little clams chatting through text bubbles. What a reward for tailoring her work to better fit her needs and aptitudes!
We have also tailored our approach to Foundations at times to make it suit us well. Our very first year my daughter was so excited about the idea of becoming a memory master that she dove enthusiastically into the memory work and hardly came up for air until she had achieved her goal at the end of the year. It was a picture-perfect finish to a stellar year of strong academic and personal progress. A few years later we went through a difficult time of upheaval for our family that required frequent travel and often found us physically and emotionally exhausted. That year we added nothing extra, and leaned heavily on the memory work CD, aiming more for familiarity than mastery. My daughter was learning other important life lessons, and giving her down time was more important than a perfect recitation of the memory work or adding enrichment projects or activities. Foundations offered us some continuity during that time—we were even warmly welcomed at a community far from home for a few weeks during our travels—and I love that we were able to participate in the same program both years but adapt it to fit our vastly different needs and goals for each year.
Most years aren’t quite so dramatic, and few require such wholesale alterations. Often we tailor our approach to a specific subject or unit rather than the whole school year. For example, unlike many families we know whose children learned to play Christmas carols, duets, and rounds together during the tin whistle unit, we have incorporated little to no tin whistle practice outside of community day. My daughter plays the cello, and her cello lessons have been our primary source for music theory and instruction. While the tin whistle portion of class provided an excellent review of terms and concepts, it wasn’t something we chose to emphasize at home. However, this year she has elected to make the tin whistle a priority because she has a personal goal of beginning piano lessons next summer and she realized the tin whistle unit would help her become more familiar with the treble clef, something she’s encountered very little as a cellist.
Presentations is another area where we have made some adjustments to suit our varying needs. One year I required her to follow the suggested topics offered by her tutor because at the time we were working hard on following instructions, and I believe it’s important for her to be able to speak engagingly and well even on topics that don’t necessarily excite her. This year, with other areas becoming more regimented in preparation for Challenge, I have given her free reign with her presentation topics and they have provided a wonderful incentive to explore interests and share passions with her class. Interestingly, two presentations this year have been inspired by her copywork from the Classical Conversations poetry PreScripts book. One presentation, suggested by the “General Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales, discussed the death of Thomas Becket and his relationship to King Henry II, husband to Eleanor of Aquitaine and father of Richard the Lionhearted and the King John who signed the Magna Carta. The other, inspired by George Herbert’s “Easter,” featured shaped poems, and she even chose to write her own shaped poem to share with the class.
One frill that we are adding this year, on our second pass through Cycle 2, is the goal that she be able to not only recite but also correctly spell the memory work. She has enthusiastically tackled the task, and now spells Mycenaeans and Peloponnesian with relish. To make this project a little more enjoyable, in the spring we will be hosting a spelling bee for students from our Foundations community who chose to join us in the challenge. We cut the pattern down though in September when our new little guy was born; I was grateful for the ability to decide that the proud big sister had higher priorities that week than labeling dress-ups!
What a gift Classical Conversations has given us—both a pattern to follow and the freedom to tailor it as needed. How beautiful to model academic excellence, yet to properly value character and relationships over any particular academic achievement. I treasure this freedom to adjust our approach, our focus, and specific assignments to best fit my daughter and our family. I am looking forward to trying the Challenge program on for size, and once again—no matter what difficulties or opportunities come up— the Grammar Clams will work together to fashion the perfect fit.