Overview: My own Classical Conversations review as I evaluate at the midyear what things are working for our family and what things are not.
After years of eclectic homeschooling, where I hand-picked every curriculum for every subject, this year we decided to go with a packaged curriculum — Classical Conversations. (I discussed my reasons for making this switch in the post Why We’re Doing Classical Conversations for Homeschool This Year.) Now that we’ve reached the midyear point, I thought it would be helpful to do a Classical Conversations review, pointing out specific areas that are working and not working for us.
As a bit of a spoiler, I will say on the front end that Classical Conversations has been GREAT for us in many ways, some of which I’m not able to be really succinct about; although I will give it a try. :-) But that doesn’t mean I don’t have some beefs with it, because I do. Read on to see what they are.
Classical Conversations Review: What’s Working
I can’t say enough about how much the frequent writing has been good for my kids. Neither one had much formal writing experience going into this year — I have always been afraid of teaching and grading writing, as I detail here: Homeschool High School Writing Help. But my #5 kid, who is in Challenge A, has been getting GREAT instruction about writing a five-paragraph essay from the ground up, and my #4, who is in Challenge 2, has been forced to learn it for himself by having to employ it so much. Each of them writes at least one essay a week, and sometimes two. I have seen their writing get better and better every week. I am really happy to have this difficult subject made easier by having accountability and objective judgment outside of my own.
The reading, too, has been phenomenal. Both kids are reading many great books and being held accountable for that through discussions and papers. I do want to encourage a love of reading in my kids by letting them read many books without any expectation of evaluation, but I also like to see them thinking through characterization and plot, theme and setting, etc. and verbalizing their thoughts either aloud or on paper. I think this is appropriate for the junior high and high school years — teenagers have deep and profound thoughts, believe it or not; but sometimes we don’t give them an opportunity to express them. Reading great literature and discussing it or writing about it gives them that opportunity. I feel like I know the inner workings of my kids better now.
Classical Conversations is aptly named; the kids participate in discussions A LOT. This has been really neat to see. What kid will naturally discuss Renaissance art (for example) with the neighbor kids or his church friends? But in class on community day, my kids are learning to verbalize their thoughts and to express themselves efficiently yet effectively. They are learning how to listen and then speak. They are learning how to debate, how to give speeches, and also how to keep the conversational ball rolling. This is something we do a little bit as a family anyway (have deep discussions, that is), but at CC the kids can do it with their peers.
And yes, community day is tons of fun for us all. I get to chat with other homeschool moms, which I haven’t had the opportunity to do regularly for YEARS. The kids have made friends that they now spend time with outside of class. Lunchtime is a chance for socialization with kids about whom I don’t worry what their influence will be on the character development of my children. Laughter, sports outside until class starts again, giggling trips to the restroom… YES.
Another benefit is that my kids are exposed to adults besides their parents. They’re learning that other adults have close to the same value system as we do. They are receiving feedback from an objective source whom they hold in respect. Gotta love that.
Most of the curriculum is really beefy and yet age-appropriate. It tackles larger subjects than I probably would on my own. I like that my kids are challenged a bit to think beyond their own little world, to stretch their skill level, to try new things.
It is forcing us to stay on our homeschool schedule, because there is accountability to get the assignments done each week so as to be prepared to participate in class discussions. This means I might very well have a REAL summer break for the first time, like, ever!! This makes me happy. :-)
Classical Conversations Review: What’s NOT Working — for us, anyway…
There’s a caveat here, before I get into the nitty-gritty: CC never claims that students must follow their curriculum or lesson plans to the letter. A main concept when using CC is that the parent is the ultimate teacher and authority about what is and is not required for their homeschool. CC and its teachers just provide guidance and support; it is the parents’ job to set requirements and give grades. So if something is not working for a particular child, the parents have full rein to modify the curriculum as necessary to better meet their child’s needs.
With that said, I’ve found that we do need to make adjustments to fit our family. For instance, the sheer volume of work given can be overwhelming. Part of the reason for that is that one day each week is taken up by community day, so you only have four days left to complete all of the assigned work. In some subjects that’s not a huge deal, but in math and science it can become an issue — they are subjects in which comprehending each succeeding lesson is very important. It usually means doing them on Saturday (in addition to the rest of the week), which is kind of a drag. In other subjects we’ve sometimes chosen to modify or omit assignments altogether — especially around the holidays, lol.
For the high school levels, (Challenge 1-4), the six assigned subjects are ones which would be considered core subjects. And six credits per year is pretty much all the credits you’re gonna need. But that means there’s not much room for other electives or exploration of personal interests — unless you want to add more school time to your day. My son takes guitar lessons, and I have counted that for credit in the past. In order for him to keep doing it this year, I’ve made the decision to not do all the subjects that CC does.
One specific beef about the curriculum: in Challenge A (equivalent to 7th or 8th grade), the kids are learning world geography. They are doing that in classic classical fashion, lol — they are drawing maps and filling in countries, capitals, and features by memory. I do understand that both drawing and memorization are integral to a classical education. But in this particular case, I think combining the two is not a good idea. My daughter is so concerned about getting the shapes and relational positions right while drawing the map that she is unable to finish memorizing all the locations. I’m told the maps don’t have to look great — the students can use blobs if they want to — but at this age the kids are concerned about detail; and I know many of the kids in her class are frustrated that they can’t draw the maps right and it takes so much time to do so. By the end of the year they are supposed to draw the ENTIRE WORLD freehand from memory, down to the detail of each country and its capital (EUROPE, people, and what about all those little islands near Australia??) and all the rivers and mountain ranges and major lakes and oceans… I think it’s too much. I am contemplating giving her blackline maps this second semester and just asking her to label everything; except then at the final exam when everyone else is drawing on butcher paper, she will feel out of place. I think this is one course that CC should consider modifying.
I also think CC is unrealistic when it comes to the pace of the Latin curriculum. In Challenge 1 (9th grade or so), they expect the child to learn in one semester what even Fra Henle himself said could take the whole year (see the preface in First Year Latin for confirmation of this). Other big names in Classical Ed (such as Martin Cochran, with Memoria Press, and Mother of Divine Grace, an accredited Catholic homeschool organization) suggest giving two credits for completing all of the Henle Latin 1 textbook; CC only gives one. I wonder if the kids are really learning Latin at that frenetic pace or are just getting a quick survey with no hope of retention. I know many of the students in my son’s class are falling behind and getting frustrated.
And my other big beef is still the cost. Wow, it was hard to write that second semester check for two kids in Challenge. Tuition works out to a little more than $200/month over the course of a full calendar year. PLUS the cost of the books. With my husband’s recent job change, he won’t be able to get overtime — which is what we used to pay for this year. So I’m still trying to work out where it will come from if we enroll in CC for next year.
On the whole, though, our experience with Classical Conversations this year has been very positive. If I can figure out the money thing, we do want to re-enroll. Is it a bit pricey? Yes. But at this time in our family’s life, it is a good fit. And that’s worth a lot. Despite my beefs, I’ll say that my Classical Conversations review is a two thumbs up! For families that can afford it, CC is a GREAT homeschool option.