It’s nine o’clock on Tuesday. First into the classroom today are my Advanced Placement European History students. I begin the class, as I always do, with a prayer, and then deliver a lecture on such Enlightenment luminaries as Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot. (Given the irreligious beliefs of these figures, the irony of prayer is not lost on me.) We next examine information on this same historical period in one of our textbooks, the Advanced Placement Achiever. In the second hour, after a five-minute break, the students divide into groups of three and four to discuss and answer 20 multiple-choice questions from an Advanced Placement test preparation booklet. When they finish, we review the correct answers to these questions, after which I return last week’s essays, ask for any reactions to the remarks I’ve made on their compositions, and go over the syllabus for the following week.
After a short break, the English History and Literature students file into the room. To them I assign new vocabulary words in preparation for the SATs they will one day face. I introduce Macbeth, which we will begin reading the following week, and we read through two of Shakespeare’s sonnets, one of which they will memorize in the next two weeks. Switching to history, we review the main achievements of the monarchs of England from William I to Henry III. We next briefly discuss writing tips—this time the emphasis is on cutting out unnecessary qualifiers like “very.” The class ends with the students writing a 25-minute essay on the theme of loyalty and betrayal in Ellis Peters’s One Corpse Too Many, a detective novel set in the civil war between Stephen and Matilda in mid-12th-century England. We amend the syllabus for the coming week, and they return home for further studies.
Finally, the Latin I students come into the classroom. We spend the next two hours learning about adjectives and how they fit the gender, case, and number of Latin nouns. I give examples on the whiteboard, and we look at how these adjectives are declined and used in sentences. Between these discussions, the students translate passages from their Henle textbooks. After assigning various exercises and memorizations, I dismiss the class and go home myself.
From Monday through Thursday during the academic year, I offer such courses to home-educated students in the Asheville area. Students who attend these seminars typically come to class for two hours per week and then return to their homes with three to seven hours of additional work, depending on the class. To succeed, students must be self-disciplined at home in the completion of their assignments and arrive at the next seminar prepared for the work at hand. In all classes, with the exception of the first three years of Latin, students write many essays, take frequent tests, and participate in small-group discussions.
Fifteen years ago, I began Asheville Latin Seminars with a section of 20 first-year Latin students. With each passing year, I added more courses, some because of my own interests, some at the request of parents. For the past ten years, the number of students attending these classes has ranged from 100 to 120. Because so many of them take two and even three of the seminars, I generally fill 175-200 seats per year. This year the number is 176 seats.
This year I am teaching two middle-school writing courses, a beginning Latin course for elementary-school students, high-school Latin I through AP Latin, two courses in British History and Literature, AP English Language and Composition, AP English Literature and Composition, and two sections of AP European History. (I run on a three-year cycle with the history classes: world history, U.S. history, and European history, with British history offered to younger students).
In addition to my job as teacher, I am the principal and sole administrator of Asheville Latin Seminars. The parents of the students pay me directly to teach their children. Some of that money allows me to rent the two rooms we occupy in a local Presbyterian church. Some goes for copies of tests and study sheets I distribute in class. Every year I also spend some of the money on books for the classroom, though students generally buy the bulk of their textbooks. Finally, some of the money I spend on student graders and tutors, Advanced Placement students who mark the papers of younger students for me.
I work hard for this money. This year, for example, in addition to my weekly 24 hours in the classroom, I spend about 30 hours per week outside of the classroom grading papers, responding to emails, talking to parents, and planning lessons. In the first three months of this fall semester of 2015, with the help of my graders, I have marked over 700 papers, graded another 600 to 700 quizzes and tests, and read 68 journals. During the summer I spend many hours planning for the fall and writing out the syllabi for the various classes.
With the exception of the Latin classes, one key component to all these seminars is writing. In the belief that any student can become a competent writer, I teach the basics of grammar and syntax, the arts of the essay, and the advantages of editing those essays. I do put grades on the papers, but the grades, as I explain to the students, are not the point. The point is to become writers.
Because many students attend these seminars for four, five, and six years, I have the great joy of watching them mature, not only as writers and readers but as human beings. Our time together brings me into contact with their families, and I am well acquainted with many of their parents. I come to learn some of their strengths and weaknesses as students, and together we reinforce the strengths and attack the weaknesses.
Does it work? Does this education conducted in a makeshift classroom benefit these adolescents? Does a curriculum centered on writing and rhetoric, on poetry memorization, on reading the Aeneid, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Great Gatsby, and Crime and Punishment help students develop both their academic prowess and their humanity?
Yes to all these questions—though a qualified yes, because every year there are students in my classes unwilling to do the work. Some of them eventually come round, while others continue to fail themselves by not living up to their potential. Yet the great majority of these young people succeed. They leave home and go to colleges up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Several have attended Ivy League schools, two have enrolled in military academies, and scores have entered public and private universities closer to home. Others dive into the workplace or, in a few cases, join our Armed Forces.
From time to time, some of these same students return to the classroom and tell me how much my teaching helped their writing. Their compliments make me smile, partly because I am happy to have rendered them a service, but mostly because they often fail to see that they themselves, by dint of their hard work, are the architects of their writing skill. My favorite story has to do with a young man who enlisted in the Marines after high school, joined Marine Recon, and received sniper training. One of his sergeants asked Will to write a report. After Will had delivered the report, the sergeant read it and called him back to his office.
“Your girlfriend wrote this, didn’t she?” he said.
“No, sergeant,” Will replied. “In fact, I help her with her papers.”
My students have gone on to become car mechanics and welders, lawyers, nurses, and teachers, soldiers, massage therapists, and computer programmers, successful salesmen, political activists of several stripes, government workers, mothers and fathers. One of them even became a poet.
I am old enough and wise enough to realize that my own part in their success was limited. Other factors far more important than my teaching have contributed to their success. Long ago, I taught for two years in an adult basic-education program in a state prison in Hazelwood, North Carolina, and then for two years in a public high school in nearby Waynesville. The contrast between the prisoners and high-school students, on one hand, and the homeschooled students, on the other, is glaring.
First, nearly all of these homeschooled students come from intact homes. They have mothers and fathers who care for them. They haven’t suffered the trauma caused by the breakdown of the family over the last 50 years, an ongoing train wreck that has damaged our schools and the children learning in them.
Moreover, the students’ parents clearly take an interest in their academic studies. They are, after all, teaching their children at home. Some of the students have never attended any other school. Others attended public or private schools, but then decided to homeschool to gain a better education or to pursue some outside interest with greater intensity. One young man, for instance, who is now at the Naval Academy, was homeschooled for his last two years in high school to devote more hours to his swimming. Whatever the case, home education has benefited them.
In addition, the majority of the students who attend these classes also belong to churches or synagogues. Some back away from their faith in college, while others more fully embrace their belief in God. Whatever the case, in high school this faith helps to keep them grounded and skeptical about the outside culture in which we are immersed.
Fourth, the students who achieve the greatest success are the ones who understand the value of diligence and self-discipline. They must complete most of the work without my help. They come to see that they are responsible for their education and their success. In a real sense, in my classes and others like mine, they are gaining work skills that will stand them in good stead in life and in college.
Finally, the students correctly sense that I am in their corner. They’re the ones in the ring taking the shots, but they know that I want them to succeed and that I believe in them. They know that their parents, coaches, youth leaders, and others also want the same for them. They also know that they are far more capable of excellence than many adults suppose them to be. By pushing them, I demonstrate my respect for their intelligence and their potential.
An education grounded in Christian humanism, the support of a mother and father, participation in a faith-based community, an emphasis on self-reliance and self-discipline: This is the formula for the success of these students. The past 15 years have given me proof that these combined virtues produce young adults ready to take their place in the world.
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