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All interviews are presented to stimulate thought and assist Christian families in homeschooling their children. Interviews may or may not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the management of

Designing Your Own Classical Christian Curriculum

An Interview With Laura Berquist

August 2001

Interview by Martha Robinson.

Please tell us about how you came to write the book, Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum.

Mrs. Berquist: When I began homeschooling in 1984, I read Dorothy Sayers' article on The Lost Tools of Learning. I agreed with her wholeheartedly that education should be directed toward acquiring the art of learning. My children were then quite young: Margaret had just turned eight, Theresa was five, John was four, and Rachel was one, while James (1985) and Richard (1988) had not yet been born.

Miss Sayers' proposal for the education of children seemed natural to me; that is, it clearly followed the natural development of the intellect. As soon as I read "The Lost Tools of Learning," I knew that this was the kind of education I wanted for my children. But I didn't know enough about teaching or the development of children to understand how the method of the Trivium should fit into my curriculum. I set aside "The Lost Tools of Learning" and proceeded to develop my own curriculum by trial and error, using what worked with my children over a ten year period.

I reread Miss Sayers' essay at the end of that period while preparing a talk for a homeschooling conference, and I discovered that my 'trial and error' curriculum fit very well into her three stage classical curriculum. What I came to by using what worked, she proposed from a knowledge of medieval education.

So, in a sense I wrote Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum over the course of the first ten years of homeschooling. Each year I would pick out the best materials I could for each particular child. With six children there was enough variation among them to allow me to try a number of different texts and approaches.

In that first ten years I found certain materials that were "winners;" that is, they worked well for all of my children, in spite of their different learning styles and personalities. I also found, even more importantly, that there were patterns of intellectual development, or levels of ability at certain stages, that were consistent among the children, even though they differed significantly in other ways.

For example, everyone was good at analytic grammar in sixth grade and beyond, but not very good at it in fifth grade and earlier. Any of the children seemed able to learn the grammar at any stage, but before sixth grade the effort involved in teaching it didn't seem to match the gain in understanding. By sixth grade, on the other hand, the children seemed to grasp the content quite quickly, and enjoy it.

In general, when my oldest children were little I was always trying to move them into analysis, because that's what I like. I wanted them to tell me what the main point of a paragraph was, or summarize rather than retell a story. When they couldn't do it, I thought sadly, "Poor children, they're just mentally deficient. What on earth will they do with their lives?" Then they got older. The things that had been so hard for them to do were suddenly easy, and fun.

It was that sort of experience that Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum developed from. Now, this was really exciting for me, because of the light my experience threw on my own intellectual formation.

I graduated in the first class of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, CA. The program at Thomas Aquinas is a four year liberal arts course, with an emphasis on philosophy and theology. It is the closest program I know to the "Classical Curriculum" of the Middle Ages. The Trivium, Quadrivium and the disciplines to which they are ordered, philosophy and theology, are undertaken formally at Thomas Aquinas College.

One enters as a freshman, no matter how many degrees one might have. The program is tailored in such a way that the courses undertaken freshman year are necessary for sophomore year, and those of sophomore year are necessary for junior year, etc. One has to start at the beginning and move through to the end to achieve the desired formation.

In the sophomore year of philosophy the students read the "De Anima" of Aristotle. This text is about the soul, how it functions, what its operations are, and its objects. I learned a great deal theoretically about how learning takes place. I learned that the external sense receives the form of the object to be known. This form is transferred to the internal senses, notably the common sense (the faculty that puts together the information from the various external senses), and the form is then received into the imagination.

The form in the imagination is acted upon by the light of the agent intellect and is then impressed on the possible intellect. It is in this last activity that thinking takes place. Now, we really worked on understanding this doctrine. I think it is true now, and I thought it was true then. What I have now that I didn't have in college is an experience of watching children learn. Everything I have seen in my children and in others I have worked with bears out the teaching of Aristotle with regard to the operations of the soul.

So, Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum is the product of my education at Thomas Aquinas College, and my experience working with my six children over a ten year period.

My children are now older: Margaret is 25, Theresa is 22, John is 21, Rachel is 18, James is 16 and Richard is 13. Margaret, Theresa and John have all graduated from Thomas Aquinas College. They were all very good students, who wrote and thought well. I would say that they are a good indication of the efficacy of the education presented in Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum.

I could say, because it is true, that some of my children were National Merit Scholarship finalists and semifinalists, or that everyone has had an excellent grade point average in college. I could say that their SAT scores were excellent, and I could try to impress you with the numbers. I prefer to say that my children are good companions, good thinkers, and, most importantly, good Christians, who have done well in every walk of life they have entered.

How did you select the products that you recommend in your syllabi and book? What makes a product Classical?

Mrs. Berquist: As you can tell from the answer above, the products I recommend are selected because they work with children, and because they fit the appropriate stage of intellectual development. For example, for years when somebody asked me what their fourth grade child should do for English, I would explain that this period of formation should be given to developing "patterns of language." There are five areas that I target in writing development during the early years. They are copying, dictation, conversation, usage and vocabulary, and creative writing.

I would tell the families that they could use one text for the copying and dictation, another for the conversation starters, a third for usage and vocabulary and another for creative writing exercises. It was clear to me that these were the activities that little children need to do to prepare for the next stage of formation, but I didn't know a text that included all of the activities. Then a friend brought the Emma Serl texts, Primary Language Lessons and Intermediate Language Lessons,to my attention. These books contain all of the appropriate activities. The text immediately went into my curriculum.

As to what makes a product classical, the answer is anything that helps the student do what is appropriate to his stage of learning. Classical education is a particular formation which can be achieved with a variety of texts. What is essential in teaching is that the student do what is appropriate at each period of learning. He should memorize at the grammatical stage. This strengthens and makes docile his imagination, so that in the next stage of learning, the analytical (sometimes called the logical or dialectical), he will have the help of a trained imagination in following and constructing arguments. In turn, it is essential to this education that when the student is capable of grasping and marshaling arguments, he should practice doing so. If he does, then the last stage, the rhetorical, can be given to articulating those arguments elegantly, in the service of the truly noble. The student should, at these various stages, have the opportunity to consider much of the same material in a different light, based on his ability, interest, and level of formation. If you ask your student to analyze before he is ready, or write persuasively before he recognizes an argument, both of you are going to be unhappy. Further, you may actually impede the formation of the intellectual habits your child needs to develop first of all.

It's worth noticing that these stages are not only related chronologically, that is, the grammatical comes before the analytical, or the analytical before the rhetorical, but they are also related in another way. Each stage involves gathering the material that the next stage will form in a particular way. If you have your student learn to recognize various birds during the grammatical stage, which fits with his abilities and interests at that time, he has the material to group birds according to common characteristics during the analytic stage, which will appeal to him then. If your student studies well-written speeches, spending time identifying the arguments in each, during the analytic stage, he has the matter, that is, the particular arguments, to use in writing or discussing persuasively during the rhetorical stage. Further, if he has the ability to recognize an argument, and has worked on presenting it, then, when he is in college and encounters formal logic, the terms and examples won't be empty words. He will recognize them because he has already worked with arguments, even though he didn't know them as examples of the figures and moods of the syllogism.

There is a natural order in learning, both in general and in each specific discipline. Addition precedes subtraction and multiplication precedes division. Recognizing the characteristics of various birds precedes grouping the birds according to those characteristics. Learning the answers to the questions in the Catechism prepares the way to reading the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas.

So a product is classical if it forms the intellect of the student in such a way that he becomes a better thinker. Sometimes people think that classical education has to consist of reading ancient authors. They think that that is classical education. But they are wrong. If you have a student read the ancient authors at the wrong time, without sufficient preparation, you are actually working in opposition to your goal. You will 'deform' the intellect, rather than form it.

There is an appendix in Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum (3rd edition) that addresses this issue in greater detail.

How should a family implement the Christian part of Classical Christian Education?

Mrs. Berquist: As I said above, I am a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College. It is a four year liberal arts program in which the great books of Western Civilization are studied under the light of the faith. Thus, unlike other "classical" programs, there is a principle of organization in the curriculum beyond the chronological.

Mortimer Adler, who, by the way, converted just before his death, was an advocate of reading the Great Books on their own merits, that is, without that organizing principle. He talked, as other "classical" programs do, of "the Great Conversation," and advocated one's participation in that conversation by reading the texts themselves which were produced by the primary participants in that discussion. He was an interesting man, and an educator who saw that the human person should be challenged to think about the highest things, and do so not through the filter of secondary sources. It's better to read what St. Thomas says, than to read someone else's version of what St. Thomas says, and Mortimer Adler knew that.

That's good, but it is not enough. The faith is not a principle that narrows - it widens. Having a framework, which the faith provides, allows the mind to delve more deeply into the material within that framework. The mind is released from doubt and indecision and can move forward with confidence. A serious scholar who is a serious Christian will never waste his time on trivialities, or organize his studies so that the most important truths are neglected.

As homeschooling parents we need to keep this truth in mind. The Christian formation we have been given is the light under which we see all that we see.

I highly recommend that you get "A Proposal for the Fulfillment of a Catholic Liberal Education" from the admissions office of Thomas Aquinas College. This is the founding document of TAC and a brilliant exposition of the right position about the Great Books in a liberal education.

The Trivium and the Quadrivium are preparations for philosophy and theology. If you have done those disciplines(grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy) you will be prepared to intelligently put your trained mind on the matter of philosophy and theology. Then you could read the "Great Books," which are mostly philosophical and theological. Some of the texts that would be used in the fullness of the Trivium - the "Prior and Posterior Analytics" of Aristotle, the "Rhetoric" of Aristotle, maybe even the scholastic grammarians - are numbered among the "Great Books," but most of them are the texts that come later, after the mind has been trained.

One of problems with a notion of Classical Education that makes content central from the beginning is the failure to see that the Trivium is about the formation of the mind. Dorothy Sayers got that part really right. Until the mind is formed, most of the ancient authors shouldn't be read. They were intended to be read by trained minds, and the mind is not trained by reading them. I will again mention the appendix of Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum. I put it in the later version of my book because I got worried about what I was seeing in "classical" curricula. I don't think most people who advocate an ancient authors curriculum for young children have had a classical education themselves.

Please explain why you have a pre-grammar and a grammar stage.

Mrs. Berquist: I have both stages because children exhibit both stages. They need to develop the first tools of learning: reading, some mastery of the physical act of writing, and simple calculation before they are ready to undertake the study of subjects.

Your book is set up by grade level. How do you know when your child moves from one stage to the next? Is that strictly a grade issue?

Mrs. Berquist: You know that is child is moving in to the next stage by the behavior and ability of the child. Little children love to observe and memorize. They are fascinated by detail. If you ask them about a story, they will give you a blow by blow account, including every action performed by every person in the story. But they can't tell you the main point, because that concept has no meaning for them. To recognize the main point of a story, or an argument, requires analysis, and little children are not good at analysis.

However, they get to be good at it, usually at the same time they develop an interest in argument. When your child is interested in arguing about whether something is true, and when he can isolate the main point of a paragraph, it is time to move on to the dialectic, or analytic, stage of formation.

Usually, it is the sixth or seventh through ninth grade student that is ready to analyze, sort and categorize. At this point you direct the student's attention to the argument present in the materials he is using for his school subjects. Does this follow from that? Where is this said? Is there an implication here? What are the four major sentences in this four paragraph essay? Asking these kinds of questions in every subject is the way to form the intelligence. The subjects provide material for that formation, and discussion and analysis form the heart of the curriculum.

I find that the 'analytic' student is very interested in truth, and in clarity. On the other hand, his papers are often not yet elegant, and the kind of understanding required for in depth poetry analysis, or mature reflection on works of literature and music, is still missing.

In tenth and subsequent grades, students should continue to look for the reasons given in their texts and work on formulating their own discourses, but now they should concentrate on saying it well. We never stop analyzing the positions that are presented to us. There are always questions that need answers, and thoughtful consideration, separation, and categorization are required to bring those answers to light, but we also need to learn how to persuasively present to others the answers we come to.

The art of rhetoric, the third part of the classical Trivium, begins with an ability to assemble thoughts and ideas and present them well, both orally and in writing. The high schooler is able to pay particular attention to this kind of formation, so his stage of intellectual development can be called the rhetorical. It is characterized in the student by a discovery that he needs to know more, and a resulting interest in and capacity for acquiring information. His imagination is active; there is a budding enjoyment, which should be fostered, of the poetical, in literature, art and music. The combination of poetical interests and recognition of his need for information gives the student of this age an ability to express himself well.

These stages are not dictated by the grade or age of the student, but by his level of intellectual maturity. I do find that most students develop along a pattern. The earliest tools of learning are acquired in kindergarten through second grade, third through fifth is the grammatical stage, sixth through ninth is the analytic, and tenth through twelfth is the rhetorical. But any given student may develop more quickly or more slowly.

Some Classical educators consider "critical thinking" skills books to be crucial during the grammar stage years. What are your thoughts on that?

Mrs. Berquist: In my family the "critical thinking" skills books are used for fun. We all enjoy them, and I have the children do them as they have time. I don't think they are crucial. I think, again, that the method you use on the materials you choose is far more crucial than that you use this or that text. I also think that quality literature is better for the perfecting of the skills of all three levels of formation than a workbook, however much fun it might be.

In every work of literature there is a kind of argument. The author intends to move you to an understanding of reality that he has. (This is true of works of art as well, so I'm not talking about 'preachy' books. I'm simply talking about excellent children's literature.) For children to comprehend the action of the story, and assimilate the author's understanding of reality, is a much better exercise than to do figural analogies, or to work with a sequence of figures.

A sentence has meaning because the verb is predicated of the subject. It immediately partakes of the true or the false. It requires an intellectual judgment. A paragraph has a number of sentences, related to each other in a way that either follows or doesn't. Again the mind must make a judgment. This encourages the child, just by the nature of the sentence and paragraph, to do the proper intellectual exercises for forming the intelligence.

Could you explain your philosophy in studying history? Why do you start with American history and not until your grammar stage? What about the Ancients?

Mrs. Berquist: There are two general principles of education that I apply to the study of history. The first is to begin with the known and move to the unknown. I'd like to spend a little time with this notion.

We must always meet the student where he is, intellectually speaking, and lead him from what he knows to what he doesn't know. Don't start talking about the passive periphrastic in Latin if your student isn't able to find the direct object in English. Instead, find out what he knows grammatically and then move him to the next step. If he doesn't know about nouns and verbs, that's where you start.

Additionally, as I said earlier, there is a natural order in learning, both in general and in each specific discipline. Addition precedes subtraction and multiplication precedes division. Recognizing the characteristics of various birds precedes grouping the birds according to those characteristics. Learning the answers to the Baltimore Catechism questions paves the way to reading the Summa of St. Thomas. In all of these areas, the nature of the material demands that certain concepts be learned before others. Make sure you don't ask your students to learn something they don't have the background to understand.

The second principle I'd like to consider is the principle of repetition, which applies to the overall plan of learning as well. When students first study something they begin to understand it, and learn about the matter according to their capacity at the time. Later, with added experience and formation, they are in a position to understand the same matter on a deeper level. For this reason, one should be sure to plan one's curriculum so that the various subject matters will come up more than once.

In my history curriculum, the children study American history first. Actually, they study their family history first, then early American history presented in the light of important personalities. I find that little children need to develop a sense of chronology, but that they immediately respond to the people involved in the founding of our nation. In fourth and fifth grade we move to an event driven study of history, but still work with the known, that is, with American history. Ancient history is studied in sixth and seventh grades, the Middle Ages in eighth grade, and then we come back to American history in ninth grade. This allows the student to do two things: come in a chronological sequence to the history of our country, and consider that history in the light of his added maturity. We then proceed to study ancient history again in tenth grade, and the Middle Ages (emphasizing the English Reformation and the Spanish Inquisition) in eleventh grade. In twelfth grade we consider the founding of our country one more time, with a much fuller experience being brought to bear on the central questions considered.

This cyclical consideration of the various time periods enables the students to learn far more about each of them then an attempt to study each only once could possibly do.

Is it possible to begin using the Classical approach with an older child? What sort of transition is necessary? Is there any age at which a transition is no longer possible?

Mrs. Berquist: It is absolutely possible to begin this kind of education with an older child. Since the education is natural, that is, since it follows the natural development of the child, everyone is doing it anyway. By consciously encouraging the appropriate method at the appropriate time, you can nurture your child's intellectual development. But if you don't encourage him to memorize and observe at the grammatical stage, he will still do it. He may memorize television commercials instead of Latin paradigms, but he will memorize. And when he is ready to argue, he will argue. I prefer to give my children something to argue about other than the house rules, but if I don't, they will find the house rules to argue about, because they are ready to argue.

Similarly, the older child is ready to be moved by the emotional appeal of the arts, by literature and music. If you don't provide the better subject matter of great literature and classical music, the child will still be moved, but probably by inferior material.

I don't think there is ever an age after which a classical education is not possible, but the older the child is the more likely he is to have bad habits, both intellectual and moral, which will make it harder to form his mind correctly. I encourage parents to opt for the best from the beginning, but if they did not, to make the effort to introduce their older children to the finest works man has to offer.

All of us are moved by the true, the good and the beautiful, because these are by their nature desirable. Persist in your efforts to acquaint your children with good literature, good music, beautiful art and clear reasoning. If you persist, with love, your children will usually respond.

How does the Classical approach work during the high school years with dual enrollment at a college?

Mrs. Berquist: When children are at the stage of high school with dual enrollment at a college, they should be working on communications skills, and they can get plenty of practice in their college classes. They will be writing, and should work on writing elegantly and persuasively; they will probably have opportunities to defend their faith, so they can work on doing that eloquently.

How do parents who were not classically schooled teach high school students?

Mrs. Berquist: I suggest that they first think about what they want to achieve. They should think about formation first and texts second. What are the traits or qualities they hope to instill? Intellectually? Morally? Academically? Then they should do some reading. I, not surprisingly, recommend my book, Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum. I think they would find it helpful. I also recommend the book, Teaching the Trivium: Christian Homeschooling in a Classical Style by the Bluedorns. It has some very helpful resources and an understanding of formation as opposed to exposure to ancient texts. As they read, they should keep their goals for their children in mind, and note the recommended texts and methods that will help them achieve their goals.

Lastly, they should look for help from someone who has done this before, preferably someone they respect, to whom they can turn for particular advice. I'd like to speak about the services my school Mother of Divine Grace offers.

Mother of Divine Grace is a fully accredited school, currently serving about 1400 students. Our program differs from other homeschooling programs not only by the curriculum, which is able to be individualized as to content, while remaining faithful to the stages of formation, but by setting each enrolled family up with an experienced and trained homeschooling consultant.

There are three mandatory meetings each year. The first meeting, usually by phone, is to help set up the curriculum for the year. Upon enrollment, each child is sent an assessment that he takes and returns to his consultant. The consultant reviews the assessment prior to the initial consultation. The assessment and the mother's own knowledge of her children, coupled with the consultant's experience and training, are brought into play in determining the best course of studies for each child.

Many of our enrolled families choose to use the syllabi we sell, which are based on the recommendations in my book, but there is no obligation to do so. If they want to use the syllabi, the consultant will help them tailor the courses to the child.

In the middle of the year there is another meeting, where the curriculum is fine tuned, and each area for each child is discussed. This provides a valuable time of reflection for the mom, who can then identify areas needing more work and ways to address these areas.

The third mandatory meeting is at the end of the year. The whole year is reviewed and the course for next year set, based on the successes and failures of the current year.

In between these mandatory meetings, the family is free to call their consultant whenever needed. When the call is made, it is made to someone who knows that family and their situation, and who is herself experienced with the situations that arise in homeschooling.

I think it is a unique program, and it is based on what I wanted myself, when I began homeschooling. It has been quite successful; this past year we had a 94% re-enrollment rate.

Because of the nature of the program, we do not have unlimited enrollment. We only accept families as we have qualified consultants with whom to pair them. We do have a waiting list, and for the current year (2001-2002) we were able to accept everyone who was on our waiting list and wanted to enroll. We are now full for this year, but have started the waiting list for the next school year.

Though our program is Catholic, we do have some families in our program who are not Catholic. They usually use a different religion text (but not when we use Scripture as our main text), and sometimes a different history text. They still find the consultations and the training in methodology very helpful.

What benefits does a Classical Christian Education offer a young person during college?

The benefits are immense. A child who has learned how to think is truly equipped for life, for he can think about any subject he chooses, when he chooses, because he has the tools with which to think well. All men think, but thinking can be done well or badly, and one can be taught to do it well. That's what our homeschooling curricula should aim for.

Many thanks to Laura Berquist for sharing her thoughts with us here at! Resources Related to This Interview:

Question and Answer Session with Mrs. Berquist's Classical and Charlotte Mason Resource Section
Review of Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum
Review of Mother of Divine Grace Syllabi
Review of The Harp and Laurel Wreath