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Starting with Older Children
It is possible to begin classical education with older children--I did with mine. When we switched from Charlotte Mason educational theory to Classical Education in 1997, my children were in 7th, 4th, and 3rd grades. A few guidelines before we get into specifics: begin where your children are, and not where they should be. It is not as important for your children to be caught up as it is for them to progress solidly through the subjects, line upon line, precept upon precept, mastering each level before going on to the next. There are some further considerations that must be taken into account at the dialectic and rhetoric stages, which will be addressed in their turn.
The Foundation of Grammar
For children still in the grammar stage, evaluate their knowledge base of facts, and begin building from there. I find that many other educational theories are weak in grammar instruction for younger children, and grammar is foundational to classical education, because it is foundational to learning language, the medium in which we think and communicate. It is important to really dig into grammar, and progress through the orthography, etymology, and syntax stages of grammar instruction systematically and thoroughly. An older child (late grammar, dialectic or rhetoric stage) can assimilate grammatical knowledge faster than a 2nd or 3rd grader, so it is not necessary to stretch instruction over six years. What is necessary is that the material to be learned is mastered, regardless of how long it takes. Emphasis should also be placed on correct spelling, no matter how old the child. Correct spelling can be learned, even by adults. The ABCs and All Their Tricks by Margaret Bishop is an excellent guide to the phonics of spelling, and can be used to teach remedial spelling to teenagers as well as adults.
Loving Worthy Literature
If your child is not used to reading excellent literature for themselves, this is the next area to develop. If they have been brought up on a steady diet of The American Girls or The Hardy Boys, then you must lead them into reading better literature. If you try to have them read Twain or Dickens straight from mediocre childrens literature, you may have a revolt on your hands. We want our children to love good literature because it is worthy and lovable, and we can woo them into that love. I have seen it happen, so take heart!
First, begin by reading aloud in the evenings instead of going to activities or watching TV. It is easier for a child to get used to a different language style after hearing it, rather than by reading it with no preparation. Read anything wonderful for family read-aloud: choose excellent childrens literature, such as Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne, as well as adult literature: Dickens, Homer, Scott; poetry, histories, epics, fiction. Then give them their own carefully chosen literature to read. The 1000 Good Books List will help you begin to find good literature for children. Take it to the library and choose a book from the reading level you think your child might be: if he is in junior high, choose a book from the 7-9 Literature section. Have your child read a few pages aloud. If he stumbles very much, pauses, needs to re-read sentences several times to get the meaning, and is doing this consistently, then drop down to the next lower section. If, however, he reads it easily, go up to the next higher section. You should ocassionally throw in a more difficult book, and over time weed out the easier choices.
There are several important things to remember in helping your children read better literature fluently: first of all, they may complain because it may be difficult, at first. Do not cave in! They will get used to it by reading it. It may take several years to help them develop their taste for better and better literature. Stick with it, remembering that we develop tastes for those things that we eat over and over again, and the same is true of reading. Secondly, there is a reason this literature is good: the language is beautiful, the wit and humor is sharp and subtle, the arguments are elegant; they are simply delightful to read. Dont allow our societys subtle bias against these classics influence you into thinking that reading them will be about as much fun as a trip to the dentist: it isnt true!
History of Western Civilization
History is another vital subject that should be covered chronologically, if possible. History is vital because through it we learn of the experiences of men who have lived before us. When we learn the stories of history, we have the benefit of learning the choices and consequences of hundreds of people, and in so doing, can learn from their example, not making the same foolish mistakes that have already once been made. In short, history teaches us to judge wisely.
We have two history classes every year, because we began classical education with our children when they were older: World History and American History. I did this so that my oldest would have an adequate knowledge of history by the time she graduated. We covered World History in six years: 1) Old Testament and Ancient Civilizations (Sumeria, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia), 2) Ancient Greece and Rome, 3) Dark and Middle Ages, 4) Renaissance and Reformation, 5) Modern European History, and 6) Twentieth Century. And we also covered American History in six years: 1) Exploration and Colonization, 2) French and Indian Wars, 3) War for Independence, 4) Westward Expansion and the 19th Century, the 5) Civil War and Reconstruction, and 6) Twentieth Century. There is so much to history that we can really only scratch the surface, even with twelve years to cover it all, and especially with six or fewer years. If you have fewer than six years to cover history, or you dont want to have two history classes per year, you will have to condense and combine somewhere. If a child has already had lots and lots of American History, you can then concentrate on World History.
Dialectic & Rhetoric Stage Students
Dialectic and rhetoric stage students will be learning the facts of history at the same time they are discussing it and writing about it. The same is true with Latin or Greek study: they will be memorizing the vocabulary and paradigms as they are learning the syntax and translating. Dialectic and rhetoric stage students should also be strong in English grammar and writing mechanics, and this subject should be covered as thoroughly as necessary for as long as necessary. (I strongly urge everyone to visit the Underground Grammarian and read some of Richard Mitchells works there if you desire help in understanding just why grammar is so important to true education: begin with Why Good Grammar?, then proceed to Less Than Words Can Say and go on from there.) Older students must also study formal logic, even if they are already in the rhetoric stage. It is not ideal, but it still will work; and logic is the next stone in language study, after grammar mastery.
And yes, our school day generally runs from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm, with an hour to hour and a half lunch break: this is the time in their lives that is set aside for learning and study; they will not have an opportunity like this again in their entire lives. They play in late afternoon, evenings, and weekends, when their homework and chores are completed. Our school days were shorter when they were younger. I have found longer school days common among classical educators with older children.