One morning a welcoming cohort gathered with me around a seminar table for the course “Difference and Human Dignity in the Great Tradition” at Templeton Honors College at Eastern University in Philadelphia. A cohort, I had learned prior to my arrival, is “a group of people who are banded together.” The intelligent faces around me belonged to educators banded together to ponder important questions while earning master’s degrees in classical teaching.
Honored to serve as guest lecturer that morning, I shared my children’s story and spoke on themes of humility, hope, and humanity. After sharing my thoughts, I then asked each person to consider the most challenging student he or she had seen successfully integrated within classical education. Backgrounds around the table ranged from large schools to small, charter to Christian, Florida to Phoenix—yet everyone had a story. As they spoke, I jotted notes. With apologies to the cohort for any errors in the transcription, I share my summaries here:
“One year a male student in our upper school struggled far more than most with following directions, planning his assignments, and fitting in. His parents hired an aide who helped with assignments. The aide stayed by the student’s side, but at times the student seemed unnecessarily isolated and lonely. Three girls in the class noticed. They began inviting the student into their conversations. The girls gave the struggling student organizational tips. As any good aide will do, the hired aide retreated to the background more and more. Acceptance spread. The young man brightened. When speaking of himself he began using the word ‘belonging.'”
“I remember a thirteen-year-old girl with severe reading disabilities who found reading our literature selections and completing the written work beyond her capabilities. I noticed that when allowed to listen to passages and discuss them, she had thoughtful insights. She shared these insights in class. We began generating the student’s answers orally—the manner in which the student excelled. Sometimes I wrote the answers she generated on the board for students to copy directly into the literature guide. Through this method usually reserved for younger children, I taught and reviewed punctuation, grammar, style, and spelling rules to benefit not only the young girl but also everyone in the class.”
“An energetic five-year-old burst upon the scene of my half-day kindergarten with unrivaled, impulsive physical commotion. I relied on a shared aide to corral the boy, calm him, and keep him focused. When the aide was not available, I learned to harness the boy’s physicality. He loved to build impressive structures independently, so whenever he finished his work well I allowed him to occupy himself with a physical activity.
“New to our small classical school, a fifteen-year-old student with dyslexia and dysgraphia had been ‘accommodated’ in other settings, but largely the accommodations resulted in his being expected neither to read nor write! Living under a cloud of low expectations, his slumped shoulders indicated that he had given up. I determined to help him improve his reading and writing. I insisted that he participate in our Latin class. Several weeks into the year, the student seemed to notice words as if for the first time. With only three students in the Latin class, this student began to score highest in Latin contests. He spelled his Latin words correctly! Standing taller than when he had arrived, the student stated unexpectedly, ‘I love languages. I hope to learn more languages one day.'”
“In class discussions, one strident female student frequently shared both her strong opinions and her disdain for writing. Her teacher uncovered severe weaknesses in the student’s writing abilities and began providing one-on-one support for outlining, stylistic touches, and the mechanics of composition. She provided word banks for tests. After several months and armed with new tools, the student became a more capable, appreciative writer. This allowed her to express her strong opinions with greater clarity and grace.”
“A sullen, miserable boy came to our classical school as a last resort. Accustomed to relentless teasing for symptoms of his severe dyslexia and autism, he berated others with the same intensity with which he had been berated. One day he loudly called himself names. I finally said, ‘Enough.’ I created a code of conduct and established higher standards. Initial enforcement required vigilant fortitude, but the boy gradually relaxed his critical demeanor, began focusing on the tasks at hand, and settled into the nurturing limits established for him within the context of his classical Christian education.”
“In our classical school a girl came to the first day with no formal diagnosis but with clear struggles in academics and behavior. Her parents did not intend to pursue a formal evaluation, so through dogged trial and error I identified some approaches that worked better for the girl than others. Throughout the year I compiled tidy notes for next year to avoid successive years of wasted time and allow the next teacher to begin with greater success.”
“With multiple learning disabilities and a tendency toward simple, factual thinking, a junior in conceptual physics found himself overwhelmed by abstractions but eager to learn. Rather than deem the student unfit to partake in such studies, I tutored him after school and adjusted expectations from ‘complete mastery’ to ‘purposeful exposure with mastery to the greatest extent possible.’ With my expressed confidence in his ability to comprehend at least a portion of what was taught in each lesson, he continued participating in the class all year.”
“My headmaster and I learned of a boy with autism who would be in my class. We knew he was coming to our school weighed down by failure. I was not sure what to do for the boy. My headmaster told me: ‘Do what he needs.’ With permission to adapt, I thought to myself, what does he need? I knew the boy seemed unaware of how to follow rules or do much besides get himself into trouble. I knew his academics had floundered in the past and that his intense anxiety diverted his attention span. What did he need? I began envisioning lifting the heavy backpack of failure from his shoulders. With the blessing of two years to work with him in our seventh and eighth grade combined class, I determined that the first year we would work primarily on three things: that he learn and follow the rules, relax in everyone’s presence, and show his strengths. Before long I discovered that he loved to write plays. With flexibility granted by the headmaster and with a little extra help, by the second year this student had written a competent play. Not only this, but with the student’s ability to visualize this play, he designed the costumes and worked diligently behind the scenes. The crowning achievement of his young life occurred when the seventh and eighth grade classes acted onstage before the budding playwright’s beaming face.”
Each of these vignettes may help us begin to ponder an essential question posed by the course’s creator, Dr. Amy Richards: How can we extend hospitality to all students in classical education, and what might we gain by doing so?