Q. Your school’s vision statement speaks of educating children “in the truest and fullest sense by giving them the necessary tools of learning and by fostering wonder and love for all that is genuinely true, good, and beautiful.” How has this emphasis on transcendent themes helped alert students to deeper truths?
A. Directly: This has manifested itself most directly through our Theology of the Body course. The students really go into a thorough examination of God and Man, and begin a quest to discover who they are as a person. They have really grasped the reality that God is the Creator and we are the created, that we are made in his image and likeness, and that this has life-altering implications. The Church’s teaching on the dignity of the human person is a central theme in all of our literature (I, Juan de Pareja, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Killer Angels, To Kill a Mockingbird and even several of our shorts stories, poems and speeches.) We also analyze C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, where these questions are put to the test. This further defines the role of God and Man for them through a poetic mode in great literature. The other area in which I really try to have the kids examine these questions is during our time in Adoration every Friday.
Indirectly: Since my curriculum year focuses on the modern and postmodern eras we begin the year talking about how scientists nullified these questions and how that affected the culture at large. I also have them examine today’s culture for any signs of these questions prevalent in our modern world. This is usually pretty easy for them to identify.
Q. When St. Jerome’s transitioned to a classical curriculum, the teachers were trained in mimetic instruction, which is based on the idea that we learn by imitation, and that we grasp ideas by seeing and reflecting upon models or types of them. How has this approach to teaching shaped the search for truth in your classroom?
A. I truly believe it has allowed the students to hone in on discovering the truth on their own. They have really resisted the urge to just run straight to a dictionary, Wikipedia/Google or their parents for an answer. They sense that there is an absolute truth, that it must be pondered, debated, and often times you have to go home and sit on it for awhile. I have witnessed how mimetic discussions expand one's own thought process within the midst of others. As a group, they offer differing opinions, they challenge each other, and they learn what mature healthy debates and disagreements look like. It offers great space for students who may be contrarians, for the more reserved student who thinks metaphorically, and it can even help outspoken students grow in humility when their comments do not match with the truth. The great part about teaching with this method is that often times you just set up the discussion with a terrific question, type, or argument. Then you merely guide them to the truth without getting in the way or giving them the answer outright.
Informal: Students are assessed orally at the start of class when covering reading assignments outside of class. It gives the class a chance to vocalize their reading comprehension and the teacher a chance to see if everyone read and understood before moving on. Additionally, nearly every other class begins with warm up questions posted on the board or projector. These questions are meant to draw the student into the theme for the class and give them a window into the truth they will discover without giving away the end of the story. These questions usually draw from prior knowledge crossing over various subject matters and can have more than one correct answer.
Formal: Often times the class will have to address quotations, statements, or questions already considered during class on an assessment. For example, this is a typical type of question found on a quiz: explain the origin and symbolism of Lincoln's statement, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Or compare and contrast freedom and equality. Or agree or disagree with the following statement "Ignorance is a cure for nothing" and give at least two supporting points to prove your case. We have really moved away from fact-based responses in the logic stage, such as multiple choice, fill in the blank and matching, which can be solved by cramming or guessing. Instead, we ask deeper questions that ask the students to judge actions, explain the truth, and describe virtues displayed. The vast majority of my formal assessments are short answer, compare and contrast, and essay questions.
Q. What do they write? How often do they write?
In addition to the reflections and essays I’ve already described, students have at least one formal writing assignment each month. This comes in the form of creative writing, formal research essays, position papers, or plot analysis. There is always a historical or literary component to be addressed in their writing. I begin the brainstorming step with them in class, we use graphic organizers and from there, they continue the process independently while seeking advice from me or from their parents. Parents must read, make suggestions/corrections and sign the rough draft. This keeps the parents plugged into their writing and lets the students catch many of their mistakes before their final draft, where it is graded.
I use a mimetic discussion lesson taught by the Circe Institute once a week. This is where we reflect on a quotation, comment, or question from a primary source. The students always have at least two nights to work on this so they have adequate time to ponder their true answer(s) in written form.
Once or twice a week, we also pose a philosophical type of question for morning work when the first enter the room. For instance, we began today with "Does anything ever really happen by chance?"
Following this interview, Mr. Flynn sent us a sample of a middle school student's essay written last year in his class. When we read it, we realized that probably nothing speaks better for the work we are trying to do than to show what is happening in the minds and hearts of the students themselves. With permission from Miss Anya Trudeau and her parents, we have included her paper below.