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Saturday, July 6, 2013

Teaching the Classics, a review

Does the idea of teaching literary analysis to your kiddos send you running from the room and wondering why, oh why, did you think you could homeschool on up into and through high school anyway?  You know what?  High school teachers are not gods.  Yes, it is absolutely possible for you (and me) to learn how to share the wonders of great literature with our kids.  And we can do it without a myriad of literature study guides overtaking our bookshelves.  You can do it just by talking with them.  Adam Andrews is going to give you the help you need in the DVD seminar Teaching the Classics, available from Institute for Excellence in Writing.

I have a confession:  I’ve been drooling over this one a while, and was totally thrilled to get the chance to review it.

teaching classics-001

The Teaching the Classics Set includes:

4 DVDs (Aprox. viewing time:  5-1/2 hours)

90+ page workbook (referred to as the “syllabus” in the seminar)

Price:  $89

Additional workbooks are available (each participant will need their own).

This is what I would call a “professional development” product.  While high schoolers and possibly middle schoolers could view and learn from it, it is really designed to teach the teacher.  I viewed it alone, but it would work even better viewed by a group (more on that in a bit).

What is Teaching the Classics?

Written by Adam and Missy Andrews, Teaching the Classics is subtitled “A Socratic Method for Literary Education.”  Oh, that sounds scary doesn’t it?  All philosophical and stuff?  What does that mean?

This is about engaging your students through the give and take of Socratic dialog.  Socrates, at least as he is depicted by his student, Plato, was not a lecturer.  He didn’t stand up in front of a group of students and tell them what they were supposed to think. 

He talked with them.

He argued with them.

Pretty revolutionary stuff, really.  Not really the stuff that school as we know it is made of. 

As a homeschooler, as a gal who has a background in philosophy, and as a former student who knows how painful it is to sit through lecture after lecture without being able to get a word in edgewise, I can tell you that YES, it works! 

If you want your children to think for themselves, arrive at their own conclusions about what they are reading, sharpen their critical thinking skills, and embrace worthwhile books---learn how to discuss literature with them using this method. 

You can see a sample of the Teaching the Classics workbook here, a video intro here, and an excerpt from the seminar here.

Adam Andrews will give you a reusable story chart and a list of “Socratic questions” (this is your crutch until you get confident to wing it).  And he’ll teach you about the common elements of fiction:  context, structure, and style.  He’ll teach you about the different types of conflicts, about characters, setting, and plotting the story.  And theme.  That’s always the scary bit---what was the author trying to say?

He’ll show you how to teach all these things using storybooks. 

That’s right, pull out the Beatrix Potter (in fact, The Tale of Peter Rabbit is one of the stories used in the course)!  As Mr. Andrews rightly points out, it is much easier to understand the elements of a story and how they work together in a story written for children.  Eventually, you will work your way up to more complex works. 

The beauty of it is that you can start this method with your children when they are young and work your way up to more complex works together.

What did I think of Teaching the Classics?

The content of this course is solid.  I have a degree in English, but my literary analysis muscles were a little stiff with disuse and this was just the thing I needed to limber up. 

I was fortunate to have a few teachers who believed in the Socratic Method and remember fondly those discussions.  I’m looking forward to discussing literature with my children without worksheets or banal one-correct-answer-comprehension-questions.

Mr. Andrews doesn’t just take you through a few examples of literature by lecturing at you, but actually tries to engage you in Socratic dialog right on the DVDs---and this really is why this needs to be a seminar course rather than a book you read.  The only way to learn the Socratic method is by doing it.

It would work even better to view it with a group of other homeschoolers---the last DVD is a “practicum” where you put to work what you’ve learned.  The participants on the DVD were split into groups and discussed their answers---it would have been great to have been able to do this myself.

Sounds great, but…?

I found the format to be lacking in terms of production quality and this does make it more difficult to learn from Teaching the Classics

The DVDs were recorded during a live conference/class situation and the format is Adam Andrews standing at the front of the room with a whiteboard.  You can hear the class when they ask questions, but you can’t see them.  The lighting is poor. The sound fades in and out.  Some of the questions from participants are inaudible unless you turn it up really loud. 

The production quality of the DVDs varies somewhat---the 1st one was the worst (this one was apparently recorded during a different session from the others) with poor sound, poor lighting, poor contrast (it was filmed with a  plain white wall as a background) and someone constantly coughing in the background.

The others were much better, but there were still some sound issues and things like this:


During the videos, Mr. Andrews uses a whiteboard and it’s very hard to read what he’s writing on it (fortunately, most of those things are in the workbook). 

There is so much more that can be done with the video medium these days---I can envision power-point style slides on the screen and other great things, rather than fuzzy shots of a whiteboard.   I really do hope they one day update these materials, because I think this is a valuable resource that could be even better.

Overall recommendations:

So, if I’m honest, it was really hard to get through these DVDs, but totally worth it.    As the method can be used with any age child, you’ll get many years of value out of it.   I highly recommend the content in this course.

Given the format, I recommend using Teaching the Classics with a group so that you can get the full benefit of the practicum portion, but it is still worth it for an individual…got a local homeschool group that might be interested?  You could share the cost of the DVDs and each participant could buy a workbook.

The Crew also reviewed IEW’s Teaching Writing with Structure and Style, head over to read about it:


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  1. Hey this is random, but I have a question. How do you get the top thing on your blog? (home, learn, love, etc.)

  2. Each of those buttons is a graphic that I created. You would create your buttons, upload them to a hosting site (like photobucket), then you create the html code so that when someone clicks one it takes them to the page you want.
    You just put it into a gadget/widget under your header and you're done.

  3. I'm so excited about this seminar! I agree that the production quality of the videos wasn't fantastic, but the content is phenomenal. This is exactly what I've been looking for so that I can create my own "literature program" for each of my kids using the books that I want them to read instead of someone else's list.

  4. I really love your perspective on this. I have been a home school father for about 6 years now. I think the pros outweigh the cons in monumental ways. Recently i have been sort of “giving in to technology” so to speak. It’s my belief that we should use the technology which is so available to us, and implement that in the home school environment. I have found it to be very effective. With a multitude of online school activities you can not go wrong. The kids think its just games, but I know they are getting so much more out of it. Thanks for the post! I think you have inspired me to write an article on my blog on this subject.


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