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Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum

by Laura Berquist

Review by Martha Robinson

Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum by Laura Berquist, 3d edition, 1998. 265 pages, Ignatius Press. $14.95. Please support this site by buying this book from our affiliate links to Amazon and Christian Book Distributors.

Originally released in 1994, Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum blazed a path for classical education "how-to" books. A pioneer in the homeschooling movement, Laura Berquist had been teaching her children for several years when people began to ask her to speak publicly about curriculum. As she was preparing for these talks she found that she had been using the classical method for years without realizing it. In this book Mrs. Berquist shares her extensive experience in classical Christian education and offers many suggestions and explanations of what products to use. She truly speaks from experience as several of her children are now grown, having been homeschooled their entire lives. Written from a Catholic perspective, this book offers outstanding advice and valuable counsel to ALL Christians who are interested in training up children with faith and wisdom.

Laura Berquist makes it clear that she is helping you to design your own curriculum rather than attempting to force hers upon you. She suggests some initial reading such as Dorothy Sayers' Lost Tools of Learning and For the Children's Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay. Mrs. Berquist also recommends that you gather the lists of other people's curricula to give you a starting point in your efforts. Next, you should set goals for your homeschool. The goals for the Berquist family are the eternal salvation of their children, a thorough knowledge of and devotion to the Catholic faith, a lifelong love of learning, and the tools to accomplish that learning. Mrs. Berquist then breaks down these goals a bit further. "Spiritual formation" is foremost. Developing an interest in all of God's creation is crucial and a plan of study that is rigorous enough to be stimulating is also necessary. Preparation for college is also an important item for the Berquists.

After an overview of the Trivium and Quadrivium in the introductory section, Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum has very detailed sections for each grade. The kindergarten through third grade years are termed the "Pre-Grammar" stage in which reading and phonics are the most important topics. The "Grammar" stage is composed of the third through sixth grade years. During this time, Mrs. Berquist recommends the "training of the mind by observation and the imagination by memorization" by studying Bible and religion, Latin, American history, geography, mathematics, language arts (poetry, reading and discussion, writing), science (observation and memorization of facts), arts and crafts, and music. The book includes suggested dates, Scripture, speeches, and poems to memorize, all of which are found in Mrs. Berquist's The Harp and the Laurel Wreath.

While there is overlap and flexibility in the levels, the "Dialectic" stage is usually the seventh through ninth grades. Reasoning and analysis are the focus of this stage. Studying famous persuasive speeches and the reasons for actions and positions in history and religion are appropriate, for example. Typing, reference skills, world history, and specific sciences (geology, oceanography, meteorology, astronomy) are added. Studies in all other topics continue with a focus on causes or the "why" of any discipline.

Mrs. Berquist includes a lengthy section on the high school years before starting into the particular recommendations to look for in curricula in the "Rhetorical" stage. During the "Rhetorical" stage, the student begins to be able to pull together thoughts and express them both in written and oral form. He has an appreciation of beauty and should be encouraged to seek enjoyment in literature, poetry, art, and music. This stage is the proper time for apologetics. Parents should engage their children in stimulating conversation and give them a chance to express themselves with discussions on literature and how a particular work relates to the faith. The "Rhetoric" stage is also the time for parents to reevaluate and tailor the curriculum to the young adult's current needs. The parent should work on difficulties and allow the further research into topics of interest.

Mrs. Berquist offers encouragement to parents about homeschooling through high school by stating that some of her most rewarding years have been with her children in the high school years. She gives specific suggestions on how to handle time management and feelings of the unfairness of life that teenagers sometimes exhibit. Mrs. Berquist also strongly cautions about sending the child back to regular school during the "raging hormone" years. Specific suggestions for credits and grades are also detailed.

The "Rhetorical" stage lasts from tenth grade to twelfth grade. Study of Latin, mathematics (geometry, Algebra II, advanced math/physics), English, history and literature, science (biology, chemistry), and of course, religion is in order for this period. Mrs. Berquist recommends a study of Christian marriage as the "health" unit required for graduation and she suggests that time should be spent on preparation for the college entrance exams (PSAT, SAT).

In the appendix of the latest edition of Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum, Laura Berquist offers valuable advice to those considering the classical approach with their children. Study of the "great books" of western civilization has become very popular in recent times. Mrs. Berquist explains the danger of exposing young minds to material before they have the knowledge and experience to understand these works fully. Using herself as an example, she explains how she THOUGHT she understood Anna Karenina when she read it as a thirteen year old, but when she read it again in her twenties found that her impression of it was incorrect. Studying these works too early will actually be a detriment to the student in college. Mrs. Berquist recommends that we should keep our focus on laying the foundation of classical studies by teaching the three stages of the Trivium appropriately and saving Roman and Greek literature for later. She suggests that patience with both our children and their curriculum is the best course.

Recommendation: Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum is an outstanding book written by someone who is a graduate of a classical Christian college and who has many years of homeschooling experience. The presentation is concise, and each topic is presented in a way to get the parent started thinking rather than to persuade the parent to the author's point of view. While it does include specific curriculum suggestions, the book offers a step-by-step method to help the parent plan a curriculum tailored to her child, using curriculum consistent with the family's needs and beliefs. Christian faith is emphasized as a crucial component of a true classical education.

With the increasing number of books available on classical education, one must make sure that the author has the same goals in education before implementing the plans in that book. While attending college is a goal for her children, Mrs. Berquist's primary interest is for her children's souls rather than their future careers. Read all the books out there on classical education, but plan on keeping this one to refer to for years.

Other HomeschoolChristian resources related to this review:'s Classical Homeschooling Section with resources, links, and ideas for implementing the Christian Trivium
Interview with Laura Berquist
Question and Answer Session with Laura Berquist
Review of The Harp and Laurel Wreath by Laura Berquist
Review of Mother of Divine Grace Syllabi by Laura Berquist
Review of Laura Berquist's Syllabus for Henle Latin
Review of A Thomas Jefferson Education, Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the Twenty-First Century by Oliver Van DeMille
Review of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Supplemental Materials by Oliver and Rachel Van DeMille
Review of Introduction to Classical Studies
Review of Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning and Classical Education and the Home School by Douglas Wilson
Review of Teaching the Trivium by the Bluedorns
Review of The Latin Centered Curriculum
Review of The Trivium, The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric by Sister Miriam Joseph, C.S.C., Ph.D.

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