Alternative methods of education - Catholic Courier
Meghan Hackett and her husband, Richard, work on a summer homeschooling assignment with their daughters, Emma, 16, and Kathleen, 8, at their home in Highland, Md., Aug. 15, 2012. Catholic families choose to homeschool their children for the flexibility it offers and the opportunity to hand the faith to their children in a personal, yet radical way. (CNS photo by Bob Roller) Meghan Hackett and her husband, Richard, work on a summer homeschooling assignment with their daughters, Emma, 16, and Kathleen, 8, at their home in Highland, Md., Aug. 15, 2012. Catholic families choose to homeschool their children for the flexibility it offers and the opportunity to hand the faith to their children in a personal, yet radical way. (CNS photo by Bob Roller)

Alternative methods of education

In this issue:
Growing popularity of classical education
Snapshot of two Catholic Montessori schools
Catholic homeschooling: A personal approach to Catholic education
Food for Thought

In a nutshell

Classical education, a growing trend in Catholic education, begins with the premise that there is objective truth and that faith, reason and a rigorous education lead there.

Catholic parents looking for nontraditional pedagogy might consider enrolling their children in a Montessori school.

Catholic families choose to homeschool their children for the flexibility it offers and the opportunity to hand the faith to their children in a personal, yet radical way.

Growing popularity of classical education

By Effie Caldarola/Catholic News Service

Any parent who ever grappled with the “new” math knows that education often falls victim to the latest trend.

But one growing trend in Catholic education is actually taking students back to what’s enduring and unchanging, according to Catherine Neumayr, who just completed seven years as principal of Holy Rosary Academy, an independent Catholic classical school in Anchorage, Alaska.

Classical Catholic education isn’t for everyone, and it hasn’t yet caught fire across the country. But, according to Neumayr, “there’s a resurgence in interest. Almost every major U.S. city has at least one Catholic school offering a classical education.”

Classical education begins with the premise that there is objective truth and that faith, reason and a rigorous education lead there.

There’s a heavy emphasis on classical Greek and Roman sources along with the works of ancient Fathers of the Church and theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas. Students read primarily original sources rather than a synopsis of writings.

Proponents of classical education assert that theirs is a search for “truth, goodness and beauty.”

At Holy Rosary, students are introduced to Greek and take several years of Latin, all in an effort to establish what Neumayr calls “good habits of the mind and pure mental calisthenics.”

In a K-12 environment, a classical education is divided into three stages called a “trivium”: grammar, logic and rhetoric. Younger students learn facts and definitions and do much memorization, from prayers to the Gettysburg Address.

Beginning early, said Neumayr, there is “a de-emphasis on textbooks and an emphasis on primary sources.”

Junior high ushers in the logic stage, in which students learn to argue all sides of an issue, including opposing their own views. There’s an emphasis on parts of speech and language.

High school brings the rhetorical stage, with an emphasis on elegant writing, debate and oral presentations. Students read Shakespeare and engage in drama.

While some Catholic schools broaden their curriculum to accommodate a growing number of non-Catholic students, offering religion classes with titles like “World Religions,” a classical school adheres to a very basic education in Catholic faith and doctrine.

In the case of Holy Rosary Academy, parents of non-Catholic students are made aware that their children will be expected to attend Mass and participate in Catholic education classes. But no one is encouraged to convert. On the contrary, a true classical education encourages students to think for themselves.

The popularity of classical education began among evangelical Christians and the Catholic homeschool community. But it’s been embraced increasingly by Catholic parents seeking an alternative to public education or to Catholic schools criticized as being weak on “Catholic identity” or rigorous academics.

Neumayr’s love for classical education runs in the family. Her father, John Neumayr, a philosophy professor, was a founder in 1971 of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, a leader in offering a liberal arts curriculum that promises to “strive for fidelity to the magisterium” of the church through original sources and a strong Catholic education.

While there is enthusiasm among many for classical education, others see drawbacks.

Some may chafe at all that memorization. Do we need to memorize the Gettysburg Address, for instance, to have a deep appreciation for its beauty and significance?

A similar argument might be made about reading everything in its original source. Certainly a history student should read the U.S. Constitution and its amendments. But is reading the Magna Carta in its original language really better than a textbook synopsis? Shakespeare? Yes, but how about all of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”? The argument might be made that some things are better left surveyed, if only for lack of time.

A classical education leaves little room for special education, and because of its emphasis on intense reading it can be tough for anyone with dyslexia. It also leaves less time for what many kids see as a pillar of high school — sports.

Small class size offers room for individual attention but sometimes makes socialization difficult.

“Some kids never find a friend,” Neumayr admits.

Another aspect of a classical education that may deter some Catholic parents is that the educational philosophy sometimes attracts a niche community.

A message of the Second Vatican Council was that the church should engage with the modern world, or as Pope Francis has phrased it, act as a “field hospital” to society’s pain. As such, many Catholic parents may hope that their children are exposed to the writings of the 20th century’s liberation theologians as well as St. Thomas Aquinas. Will classical education provide that?

And although Catholic parents want their children well-schooled in their faith, a look at world religions might offer a welcome bromide to the divides we face.

On the other hand, parents have seen schools — public and private — increasingly teaching far from their original mandate: think sex education, balancing your checkbook or an overemphasis on popular current events. Many parents want schools to get back to the basics and feel classical education makes that promise.

One way or the other, the growing popularity of classical education presents an opportunity to look critically at Catholic education as it’s offered in the U.S. today.

(Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.)

Snapshot of two Catholic Montessori schools 

By Anna Capizzi/Catholic News Service

When lessons are first taught at Our Lady’s Montessori School in Kansas, City, Kansas, they’re given without words.

Near the classroom’s water source in the “practical life area,” a teacher pours quietly and offers the child a turn, “Would you like to try?”

Individualized, self-paced, blended-age learning are hallmarks of Montessori education.

Catholic parents looking for nontraditional pedagogy might consider enrolling their children in a Montessori school, and if they can find one, a Catholic Montessori school.

“The goal of a Montessori directoress (teacher) is to be in the classroom as if she didn’t exist, so that the children are moving according to the Spirit and according to their desires and gifts,” said Laurel Sharpe, interim program director and advancement director of Our Lady’s Montessori School.

However instruction is not entirely silent. “When it gets into the more advanced science and math work, words are limited but there are ways that the teacher must guide the child to see and to know the work,” Sharpe said.

In the early 1900s, Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor and a Catholic, developed a child-centered approach with unique learning materials and a classroom setting that fostered students’ innate desires to learn.

Montessori classrooms are “warm, well-organized and inviting, with couches, rugs and flowers to help children and youth feel calm and at home,” the American Montessori Society website explains.

The open design and flow accommodates student choice where students can work in groups or independently, on the floor with mats or at tables.

At Our Lady’s Montessori School, a mission of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, each classroom has four areas: practical life, sensorial, math and language.

While most Montessori schools are not Catholic, a “Catholic identity” can be blended easily into Montessori methods.

St. Pius X School in Baltimore is the only Catholic Montessori school in Maryland. The school has a primary, lower and upper elementary Montessori school, and a traditional Catholic middle school.

“Part of what we do at Pius is called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and it is the religious component that goes along with the Montessori teaching, philosophy and method. We have a special environment called an atrium,” said Jennifer Ripley, principal of St. Pius X.

In 1954, Scripture scholar Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi, a former assistant to Maria Montessori, developed the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a hands-on religious education program that functions within an “atrium,” symbolic of where early Christians gathered for instruction.

“The atrium is a very peaceful and calming place,” Ripley said. “We have table lights around the room to soften the experience for the children. It’s really inviting them into a relationship with the Good Shepherd, instead of the workbooks that we used in the past and other traditional Catholic schools use.”

St. Pius X’s atrium has three levels of instruction, she said. Level one is rooted in the Gospel, level two starts to get into morality as part of sacramental preparation and level three, when it is more “developmentally appropriate” introduces the concept of sin. The story the great flood, she said, is a level three work.

Our Lady’s Montessori School, which serves 1 to 6-year-olds, has a level one atrium with a prayer table, candle, a simple prayer card and the “Good Shepherd work” — wooden, handmade and painted figures of the Good Shepherd and his sheep.

Students learn about the parts of the Mass and the parables, and the lessons follow the liturgical year, Sharpe said.

Illustrating how Montessori principles are applied, Sharpe explained that the catechist allows children to come to their own realizations, guiding the students by saying, “I wonder who the sheep is, I wonder who he’s calling by name.”

“As the child gets older, they’ll recognize that’s me, I’m a sheep” and that’s a beautiful moment, Sharpe said.

While a Montessori education may not be for everyone, it should still be investigated by everyone, Ripley said.

“I do really encourage parents to think about it, learn about it and come and observe,” she said.

(Capizzi is special projects editor at Catholic News Service.)

Catholic homeschooling: A personal approach to Catholic education

By Josephine von Dohlen/Catholic News Service

Sitting in eucharistic adoration at Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, Linda Fahnlander asked God one question, “Do you want us to homeschool?”

 She heard an immediate “yes.”

Catholic families choose to homeschool their children for the flexibility it offers and the opportunity to hand the faith to their children in a personal, yet radical way.

 Homeschooling allowed Fahnlander to cultivate strong, close-knit relationships with her six children, ranging from grades three to 11, and for them to spend time with each other.

“They’re able to build close relationships and become each other’s best friends,” Fahnlander said.

The Fahnlander family uses Seton Home Study School, a program that builds a Catholic curriculum for families to use in their homes. From textbooks adorned with religious artwork to writing prayers to practice handwriting, the curriculum provides a Catholic homeschool experience.

Fahnlander said she appreciates the thorough education Seton has given her children, and the Catholicism that it teaches. Her family is also involved in co-op programs throughout the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The outlets provide an opportunity for her children to experience situations similar to classrooms, she said.

 “They’re exposed to teachers who are excited about their faith and the subjects that they’re teaching,” Fahnlander said.

Maria Navedo-Merkt, a homeschooling mother of four from Floral City, Florida, also uses the Seton curriculum, alongside co-ops. While she loves the rich Catholicism taught throughout the subjects, she admitted to not wanting to use Seton at first, thinking it was too Catholic.

“My husband said that if we were going to do this, we were going to do it all the way,” Navedo-Merkt said.

Catholic homeschooling influenced Navedo-Merkt’s faith life, she said. She recalled her children talking with their parish priest about Scripture.

“They have conversations that are so deep,” Navedo-Merkt said. “That came with homeschooling, and that also came with Seton. It has been a gift, a blessing, truly.”

Homeschooling has allowed Fahnlander’s family to have more prayer time together. When her children were younger, she said, they started each day in their family room, discussing a saint. At lunch, they pray the Angelus. They also attend daily Mass.

Homeschooling does come with its own challenges. “My job description includes a lot, and homeschooling is at the center of it all,” Fahnlander said.

Navedo-Merkt said the only negative thing about homeschooling is the exhaustion that comes from the job.

“Those things are not the end of the world,” she said. “God gave us the opportunity for sacrifice. We pray and find a way.”

While battling cancer in 2013, Navedo-Merkt sent her oldest child to a Catholic high school. Her son performed well and received several academic recognitions during that year. She said that’s when she knew she was doing it right at home.

Fahnlander said she loves the doors that homeschooling opened for her family in the community, from taking nature classes to volunteering.

“There are lots of ways to school,” Fahnlander said. “We did one way, and through all of this imperfection, we really did enjoy each other and learn. We know families who have had beautiful Catholic school experiences, and great public schools as well. I hope my children are open to whatever the Lord might lead them to in parenting.”

(von Dohlen is a freelance journalist from Minnesota).

Food for Thought

A May 2018 study conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that Catholic school students are less disruptive and exhibit more self-control than students in private or public schools.

The study’s report noted that Catholic school teachers told researchers that their students “argued, fought, got angry, acted impulsively and disturbed ongoing activities less frequently.”

Additionally, teachers reported that their students “were more likely to control their temper, respect others’ property, accept their fellow students’ ideas and handle peer pressure.”

Looking at demographics, “prior research suggests that Catholic schools do a particularly good job of boosting the achievement of low-income and minority students,” the report stated.

Three key takeaways from the report include: 

— Schools that devote time to cultivating self-discipline are likely to do a better job of fostering it in students.

 — Non-Catholic schools might consider explicit and implicate methods to replicate a “Catholic schools effect.”

— The power of religion can positively influence a child’s behavior. However, secular schools can adopt character education, ethics classes and civics to foster self-discipline.

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