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Catholic Home Education

         -Which Approach to Choose?

by Dr. Mary Kay Clark, Director of Seton Home Study

One of the topics buzzing around homeschooling groups is the issue of structure vs. nonstructure for the homeschooling families. Looking through the homeschooling literature, some programs advertise freedom and independence; others advertise high academics; some advertise character education and the unit study approach, some advertise basic skills and content.

The programs which are unstructured, using the unit approach, claim that the structured programs are trying to bring the classroom into the living room. Those promoting programs that are structured are often heard to say that the lack of structure could result in the possibility of basic skills or areas of knowledge "falling through the cracks."

Differences In Thoughts and Approaches

The unstructured programs or unit study approach build the various subject lessons around an idea or concept. Most unit study programs, for instance, will take a concept of a virtue, such as patriotism or loyalty. The lessons may start with characters from the bible who practice this virtue. From this, historical characters are studies who many emulated this virtue. Spelling words and vocabulary words are taken from the Bible and historical readings. Grammar lessons, such as the study of nouns, would be based on sentences from the Bible or historical readings.

Unstructured programs tend to emphasize hands-on experiences, field trips, and child-initiated lessons. Sometimes the children pick their own "unit" to study, such as the Revolutionary War. Mother and children work together to plan lessons in other subject areas which can be derived from the Revolutionary War studies.

 Proponents of this approach believe that children's interest level and motivation are high because the program is more child-directed. Because the motivation is high, even the spelling, vocabulary, and English are learned better - they say - than in a structured approach.

There is also a claim among the non-structured parents that they have a warm and loving responsive approach to their children's interests and needs. These proponents should realize that all of us homeschooling mothers want what is best for our children, that we all love our children very deeply or we would not have made this full-time commitment in the first place were it otherwise.

Most of the well-known curriculum programs are structured, including the non-Catholic programs like Pensacola Christian, Christian Liberty Home, Calvert, and, of course, our own Catholic Seton Home Study. These schools all have certain criteria for study, require tests periodically, provide reports cards and standardized testing, offer teacher-counseling service, etc.

Obviously, in the unstructured program in which the studies are child-directed or child-initiated, the child will be more motivated because he is more interested. The conclusion is that high motivation results in good education. However, there is no question that many children have received excellent education through the structured programs as well.

 Certain homeschoolers and home school leaders believe that the burnout experienced by homeschooling mothers is due to structured programs or the structured classroom approach. This is too simplistic.

 Burnout can be caused by lack of organization, lack of discipline, lack of support by the husband, antagonism by family and friends, or personal and family problems.

Close Look at Structure

There are advantages to both approaches that we Catholics should not forget. Formalized Catholic education was begun by the Catholic church with the cathedral schools in Europe. From those schools came such great scientists like St. Albert, not to mention St. Thomas Aquinas, and so on. Down through the centuries, we can list thousands of highly educated Catholics, many doctors of the Church, as well as professional and scientific experts who were taught by the formal and structured Catholic schools.

It would be a denial of history - a denial of the achievements of the western world, in fact - to deny the great education provided by the structured curriculums of the Catholic schools and universities.

However, within the structure of the programs was an encouragement of creativity, creative thinking, and flexibility of methods.

Consider the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas had certain truths to teach, but he encouraged his students to ask questions. He first restated the questions and then gave his basic teaching, such as the proofs of the existence of God. Then he answered the questions. He encouraged questions and discussions among his students.

Think about the convent schools in the United States. From such schools came great Catholic women leaders, women who volunteered their services for the community, in schools and hospitals, and established Catholic charities for the poor, the sick and the elderly. Some became doctors and lawyers. The schools that taught them facts also taught them thinking skills, how to be creative, how to initiate projects, and, perhaps most importantly, how to serve their fellow man.


What is the Answer?

The answer is a between structure and non-structure. This blend must be reached after a consideration of factors. These factors include the age of the student, the learning ability and the best learning style for the student, the parent's ability, and the subject matter itself.

For instance, a kindergarten child does not need formal structure at all, unless kindergarten is required in a state. If so, probably there would need to be some structure in math and phonics, though the schedule might consist of 20 minutes a day in the morning for each subject, and another 20 minutes in the afternoon.

Older children need more structure because certain skills and basic content should be learned. Every day the student should be reading, practicing the handwriting, phonics and math drills, and nearly every day spelling and vocabulary.

The teaching of English grammar needs to proceed more cautiously according to the maturity of the student, since this involves a higher degree of logical thinking. Composition exercises, however, should be started as early as first grade, with creative sentences and even short creative paragraphs. The structure involved would be the daily formal practice, the amount of time which would tend to be regular, and the time of day which should be regular.

Children want a certain amount of structure. It gives them stability and a sense of things being in order. How would we feel if some days Father had Mass at 8 a.m., sometimes 9 a.m., and sometimes 10 a.m.? We would quickly become frustrated and stop attending Mass!

In the same way, children need to get up at a certain time, eat at a certain time, and rest at a certain time. This promotes mental and physical health.

Structure regarding time of classes, the amount of time for the class, and possibly even a pattern for the class (such as the study of spelling and vocabulary) will result in security and healthy progress in learning the material.


The Flexibility Factor

On the other hand, some classes lend themselves naturally to what we at Seton call the flexibility factor. These are the subjects of science and history, and sometimes religion. In these subjects, the lessons may be closely followed, or there may be more creativity and ingenuity.

The science program at Seton, for instance, has daily and weekly lessons with the textbook, but projects and experiments are encouraged. Some families don't use the textbook at all. We have farm families whose children become involved in various projects at home which become their science projects. Some raise animals, some grow experimental vegetables, some work with Dad on hobby type projects, such as photography. My own children, due to my working mother hours, have watched the Mr. Wizard programs and have done many of the science experiments.

While Seton's history courses include a textbook and daily lesson assignments, field trips to historical museums or famous battlefields are encouraged. These days, historical or biographical films or videos are available. These activities can enrich and supplement the courses, and sometimes actually replace lessons or chapters in a text.

In religion, especially with the large family, we encourage flexibility by having two or more children learn the same subject matter at the same time. The children may all discuss the eighth commandment with mother or father, but perhaps the older children should read more details in their text. The youngest may draw a color picture of a child returning his library book on time, and the middle child may need to work on memorizing a catechism answer.

Most parents, whether using a structured or non-structured approach, group the children for art, music and physical education. In addition, Seton encourages families to consider local art, music or physical education classes as they may be available. Needless to say, we need to monitor any group classes. Some homeschooling support groups are working toward join arts and crafts classes, gym days, or science classes.

At Seton, while we have a structured program, we also give credit to a child who is involved in a support group class. For instance, in science, we simply ask that a description of the course is sent to us, along with evidence of work done, and a grade based on the parent's evaluation.

The above flexible arrangements offer our families and benefits of the structured program as well as the advantages of the instructed courses.


Pros and Cons of Testing and Grading

One of the reasons I heard that parents don't like a structured program is what they consider its excessive emphasis on testing and grades. There are advantages and disadvantages to both.

Advantages include helping mothers and students stay on a fairly regular schedule and having "proof" of consistent progress. It some states, formal testing and a report card are either required or serve as a protection against hassling by local or state educational authorities.

The advantage of no testing and grades is a lack of pressure on mothers and students not to perform in a certain way or by a certain time. Of course, families enrolled in Seton who choose not to test or have grades on a report card are free to choose this option. They still have the benefits of counseling from our priests and teachers, the learning disability specialists, and our attorney.


The High School Years

Parents of high school students who are being homeschooled, however, need to seriously consider the benefits of a structured program. While children up to eighth grade need to concentrate on basic language arts and math skills, at the high school level, certain knowledge content is expected by colleges for their entering freshmen.

High school students enrolled in a structured program can and should still have some flexibility within the course work. Seton highly encourages field trips and hands-on projects. Requests for alternative books for analysis in English class or for alternative science projects are almost always accepted. The bottom line, of course, is that certain tests or papers need to be done in order to obtain a report card or transcript or dimploma with the Seton School name on it.

It is commonly thought that Seton's high school program is challenging and demanding, programmed for the college-bound student. While this is true to some extent, Seton has introduced courses which are meant to accomodate the non-college bound student. While these may not be as accademically demanding, neverthless, they are the best texts we could find.


Look Ahead

If a parent chooses not to enroll in a program for the high school yeras, we recommend that the parent come fully informed about what is expected by the college or vocational school, not only in the way of curriculum but also for report cards and standardized testing. The military and related academies are almost impossible to enter without being enrolled in a formal program.

In conclusion, it is most important for all of us to reemmber that God gives each parents the graces to make the decisions for their own children. It is not for any of us to judge an individual couple's decision about the method or program chosen for their children.

However, we at Seton believe that, given the teachings and documents of the Church, parents need to take the responsibility to teach their own children at home. We encourage all Catholic parents to homeschool, no matter what program nor method. Our primary goal is not facts and figures, but Faith and Family.

-From "The Catholic Family's Magnificat!" Premiere Issue 1994


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"The Keeping It Catholic Home Education Guides"  
by Marianna Bartold

Volume I:
The Foundations of Catholic (Home) Education

Volume II:
(Teaching) History with a Catholic Conscience

-Written  especially for the parents who want to "Keep It Catholic" in their homes and homeschools!

Featuring educational tips, details, review of products, programs, publishers & other homeschool suppliers, the Home Education Guides create a complete Catholic family resource guide that helps you:

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-Select a Catholic home study program or service
-Learn over 12 points about parents as educators
-Locate the best materials for your family
-Get the scoop & find out more before you buy!
-Mix and match the main educational methods
-Set goals & keep records
-Reference handy Catholic reading lists
-Know your family's character traits
-Discover how temperament affects teaching and learning styles
-Create your own Catholic unit studies
-Use the Internet to supplement your homeschool with screened links
-Provide a Catholic education in your home
-Recognize "Red Flags" in Resources

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