Wednesday, February 01, 2012

On Becoming Rhetorical


Some have asked me what Classical Conversations' Challenge program is and how it is different from other homeschool enrichment programs. The best way to distinguish Challenge from anything else we have experienced, is its focus on challenging high school students to become rhetorical.

The rhetoric stage of learning is the culmination of the other two stages of learning, the grammar and the dialectic stage. The desire for students to become rhetorical is what dictates the type of learning in the first two stages. And what does it mean to be rhetorical? Being rhetorical is understanding something well enough that you can explain it to others. In Challenge I, we give students the opportunity to become rhetorical in all of their subjects by allowing them time to present in front of their peers.

Let me give you an example from math. The Challenge Tutor-Mom does not lecture like in a traditional setting, but uses the socratic method to get the students to think. So, I will write a difficult algebra problem on the board and ask for a student to show the rest of the class how this is done. At the beginning of the year, the presenting student would simply scrawl out some numbers and sit down, with no explanation of why he did what he did. But I am not content with that, even though the correct answer was often produced. My common refrain, which the students have come to memorize, is: I don't want to know that you can do the problem, I want to know why you did what you did. The student has to return to the board and explain their strategy. Furthermore, they must know the math laws that allow them to perform the operations. Basically, I'm requiring my students to become rhetorical in math. The reason why Challenge has been such a blessing to my daughter is because it's so much easier to develop these skills with peers. She has always been extremely strong in math, scoring straight A's, but it wasn't until joining Challenge that I realized she was not truly rhetorical. She did not have the necessary skills to explain to her peers the "why" behind what she is doing. Becoming rhetorical assumes a certain level of mastery of the material. It is so exciting to see all my students becoming rhetorical in math.

I have seen all my students grow by leaps and bounds this year as a result of being pushed to become rhetorical with their peers one day a week. Last week, the students were required to rewrite The Constitution and The Bill of Rights in their own words, and in class we took turns reading aloud the articles they had rewritten. If I had given my daughter that assignment for just me to read, I don't believe she would have put the same emphasis on it as she does knowing she has to read it to her peers. In Latin, the students model for one another how to analyze texts for translation. As anyone who has worked with translation knows, this is more of an art than an exact science, and the students greatly benefit from having to explain their translation decisions for peers. In debate class, the students learn to argue two sides of a policy issue, so to understand the other side's best ideas.

We have really enjoyed how the program is designed in that the students are together all day with the same teacher. There is no disjointed switching that can disrupt the students' relationships with one another and the tutor.

So I just wanted to share with you all what a unique blessing Challenge has been to our home school, as opposed to trying to do high school all on our own. I know it's not for everyone, but I'd hate for families to miss out on it who would otherwise have really enjoyed it for their student.

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