HS 174: The Other Classical Homeschooling with Jennifer Dow


The fourth interview in the Ultimate Guide to Homeschool Methods I got to chat with one of my very favorite people, Jennifer Dow from Expanding Wisdom. Jennifer is a joy, because she makes me think about life, education, and being a more virtuous person every single time we talk.

In this episode we talk about the day-in-the-life of a classical homeschool and about a version of classical homeschooling that is outside the norm of what most people assume about classical homeschooling.

Different than neo-classicism and tons of memory work, the classical homeschool Jennifer describes focuses on virture.

Thank you for sharing this homeschooling podcast


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Classical homeschooling podcast transcript

Pam: Hi everyone. It’s Pam from Edsnapshots.com and I am back today with the fourth interview in our series, The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling Methods. Now, today I had the pleasure to speak with Jennifer Dow. Jennifer homeschools, her children classically and she blogs at expandingwisdom.com. In today’s interview, I learned so much. Jennifer and I spoke about the mimetic teaching, Socratic questioning and giving yourself a little bit of grace as a classical educator. There’s a lot of great stuff in this one, so I’m so happy you’re joining me. Hi, Jennifer. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Jennifer: Hi. My pleasure to be here, Pam.

Pam: I’m so glad. Well, could you tell me a little bit about your kids and what ages they are before we kind of get into the nitty gritty?

Jennifer: Sure. My children, I have three of them and they are 6, 10 and almost 13.

Pam: Okay. Great range there. Very good range. I bet it keeps you busy.

Jennifer: Yeah. Definitely.

Pam: Well, have you always been a classical homeschooler? Tell me a little bit about your journey.

Jennifer: Okay. Well, from the time I started homeschooling, I was very attracted to the classical tradition and I started, when we decided I was going to homeschool, I picked up Mary Pride’s book where it gives you the little assessment in the beginning to tell you what would be a good fit for you and your kids and Charlotte Mason and classical, and I think it was unit studies, were the three top choices. And then I did the little learning style quiz. You know, I had no idea what I was doing. So I’m like, “I need somebody to tell me” and so classical won after I thought about each kid and their tendencies. And so that’s why I chose it in the beginning. Plus, I was excited about the idea of it because of the book I had read in college by Mortimer Adler called How to Speak How to Listen, and he described a liberal arts education and that made me jealous. I wanted to be educated that way. And so those are the two big things that caused me to choose classical homeschooling.

Pam: Okay. And so then once you had made this decision about how old was your oldest at the time?

Jennifer: Josiah was going into second grade and so he was the only one being homeschooled at that point. And he was in public school the first two years. I was never going to homeschool. So he was in second grade fresh out of public school.

Pam: And so you decided to bring him home and at that time you started doing your research and those two things kind of steered you in the direction of classical homeschooling.

Jennifer: Yes.

Pam: So then what path did the journey take from that point once you kind of had this idea in your head, “Hey, I’m classical.” Where did you go with it from there?

Jennifer: In Mary Pride’s book, the main suggestion she gave was Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well Trained Mind. And then of course I searched online and I found Christine Miller’s old site that’s still out there, the Classical-homeschooling.com. She had a bunch of information and resource suggestions. And so I did a combination of those two things for the first year and just did it at home. And then we found Classical Conversations for a couple of years and then things started to turn a little bit. But you didn’t ask me that yet.

Pam: No, no, no, that’s okay. We can go ahead and talk about that. So you started out following kind of The Well Trained Mind model, and I’ve never heard of Christine Miller, so I’m going to have to go and check out that site. So you started off kind of following that and then you found your way into Classical Conversations and then you said things started to change a little bit. So tell me a little bit about what started changing for you.

Jennifer: I found out about the CiRCE Institute and started going to some of Andrew Kern’s talks at the homeschool convention. And after speaking with him, he told me about the apprenticeship and it just sounded like the most exciting thing ever. And so I signed up and went and then I encountered the idea of classical education in a different light. I started to get a bigger understanding of what it was, the ideals of it, what its purpose and goals were. And after beginning to learn these things, I realized that Susan Wise Bauer, while she has a lot of great ideas, that it was incomplete, and understandably so. The Christian classical tradition is something that is being recovered, so anything that’s being recovered takes time to understand and get a full view of it. And so I just started getting a fuller view of what it was, what the Trivium really is, with the Quadrivium is and then started making changes in that direction.

Pam: Okay. So like for many people, Susan Wise Bauer was kind of your intro into classical education and then it kind of spread from there. You mentioned the CiRCE Apprenticeship Program. Tell me a little bit more about what that’s about.

Jennifer: Okay. Well it’s a three year program where in each year you are studying the Christian classical tradition. You’re asking a lot of questions about the nature of people and the nature of education, what it means for how we teach and what we teach. You also are learning classical rhetoric, which is through The Lost Tools of Writing, of course, since it’s the CiRCE Institute. But in that you’re learning more how to think, how to write, also how to talk with people, how to ask questions, and then you also study great literature. So each year you study a selection of Plato and Shakespeare and either Homer or Virgil. And in the course of that you’re also reading David Hicks book Norms and Nobility, and there may be a few other support resources that you read regarding classical education and that sort of thing. And so that’s the basic outline of it. But it’s online and then you get together twice a year for a week long educational retreat sort of thing, where you’re in class all day each day but it’s incredibly life giving and really made me a, not just a better teacher, but a better wife, a better mother, a better friend, because I began to understand who man was at a deeper level and how that impacts my daily interactions with him, not just with my kids homeschooling, but every day with everyone. And it was very transformational for me.

Pam: So this is almost like a three year distance learning course on classical education and the liberal arts tradition.

Jennifer: I think you could say that, for sure.

Pam: What has most influenced your decision to teach your children classically? Of all the things that you’ve told me so far that kind of had a part in your journey towards this kind of education that you’re giving your children, which one do you think has influenced your decision the most?

Jennifer: In the beginning I didn’t really understand it, so the things that influenced me in the beginning maybe influenced me a little bit, but there’s ideas now that influenced me even more now that I understand it more. So I think the thing that keeps me going when I want to quit, when those hard days have you up against the wall and you’re like, “Oh my gosh,” is what the goal is, what are we trying to do? And that is cultivate wisdom and virtue. The idea that I can actually, that we can encounter education in a way that take captive even math for the glory of God and allows us to behold Him even in the study of history and the study of grammar, that is just exciting to me and it just feels fitting being that you know, we’re supposed to seek first the Kingdom of God. I just never understood how you do that in stuff like school. Well I really believe the classical tradition is a way that you can do that in school. And so that is the number one thing that keeps me going when it’s really hard and why I continue.

Pam: You gave me a great segue into my next question. What makes it hard sometimes? What do you think is one of the more difficult things about teaching your children classically?

Jennifer: I don’t know if this is just a classical thing or if it’s just a homeschooling thing, but sometimes I’m just tired and I don’t get a lesson plan break or get to send my kids to the lunch room with the assistant teacher or I don’t get to be off at three o’clock and be refreshed. I’m on all the time and I have to be really intentional about having some time off so I can recharge or getting up early to have some quiet time or things like that. So I think that is the number one thing that makes it hard. And that’s a homeschooling thing. And then the other thing, and maybe this is unique to classical, I don’t know, so if I’m wrong, please forgive me. Sometimes, because the main modes of teaching classically are Mimetic and Socratic and they’re just ways to teach subjects. Memetic meaning just imitation and the Socratic is like a discussion based where you’re leading somebody to an idea or a truth, your questions when they’ve gotten it wrong. And so my son especially, he has a really hard time with anything that’s not verbal. He has to process everything verbally. And so I had to spend a lot more time with him and that Socratic mode, which I do because I love him and I know that’s what he needs, but sometimes it’s exhausting and maybe if he was more typical it wouldn’t be as exhausting. I mean, he’s amazing. I love him. And he has incredible gifts. But it’s just where he’s at right now. And so that’s probably also a special needs kind of thing too, so I don’t know if it’s just a problem. Maybe it’s not just the classical problem. I don’t know.

Pam: Well, it sounds to me that if you’re using these classical methods of teaching this, mimetic teaching or this Socratic teaching, this is not something that you’re just able to hand over to your child with a checklist and say, “Okay, go do this and come back to me and let’s see if you did it right”

Jennifer: Yes, that is correct. It’s definitely, it’s a little more teacher intensive because you’re mentoring them. You’re leading them and that’s the interactive process. Whether it’s, I find another teacher and hire someone else to do it or I’m doing it, the teacher has to be involved. There’s some things they can do on their own, but it is more teacher intensive then I would say some other philosophies.

Pam: Well, what does a typical day look like in your home?

Jennifer: I have three kids. And so the way that I’ve structured it is, and I got this idea from Mystie at Simply Convivial, we do sections. So each kid, we have morning time, where we do a bunch of things together, and then each kid has their day split up into three sections, independent work, tutoring time and personal time. And so there’s only one person in their tutoring time at a time, so that whoever’s in tutoring time, that’s when they have access to me. And we’ll do everything that they need me for. And that’s different for each child. My fourth grade girl can do a lot more by herself than my seventh grade son. And then of course my first grade daughter, she needs a lot of help because she’s still learning to read. And so then morning time we do things like devotion. We also are learning the Greek alphabet right now and so, that’s when we do that, in the Morning Time. And we also have some sort of, and we do it on a loop routine, Shakespeare and stories of the saints and Christian heroes and tin whistle. And so we rotate all of that stuff during morning time because there are things we want to do, we just don’t have time to do everything every day. So those kinds of things we put in morning time and move them. The rest of the day, each kid has math and Latin, spelling, and whatever their form of writing is. For Josiah he’s doing a light version of The Lost Tools of Writing. Sierra’s doing IEW. But math, Latin and writing and the literature and all that, and the history all goes together with that are the main parts of our day. That’s the biggest. Yeah, their personal time is when they exercise and do their chores and then they each have chosen a fine art that they love and want to develop in their life. And so my son really likes cooking and so he does stuff with cooking and sometimes photography. My daughter loves musical theater so she works on her lines. She may do some painting. And Katie, she’s still young so I haven’t made her choose one yet, but honestly, just plays. And so, all that happens during their personal time. So it helps give structure when other people are getting tutored and so there’s not as many interruptions.

Pam: Okay. So they’re rotating through this series. Now remind me again, you said there was Morning Tme, which are all of the subjects you do together as a family and then there is their tutoring time where you’re working one on one with a student on mostly their academic subjects. Then there is their personal time where they’re working on the fine arts or more PE aspects of their day. Was there…

Jennifer: And chores.

Pam: Chores, okay. And was there another one?

Jennifer: The independent work. So that’s the academics that they can do on their own. Like Sierra, she just popped her Latin DVD in. We do DVD based Latin curriculum. That’s one thing that I hand off to somebody else and she pops it in and listens and does her worksheet and I just give her her quiz at the end of the week. So that’s something that would be an independent work. She also, once I’ve given them their spelling lists, they don’t need me for that. They know how to practice their spelling list. And then there are certain books she can, they can read on their own. And then Josiah, he from, I think it was Ambleside Online, they’re just doing the current events and looking at the weather. So he has a weather and current events journal and he does that on his own. So all of those kinds of things.

Pam: Okay. And so they’re just cycling through those various periods of time throughout the day and you’re working with one child at a time?

Jennifer: Yes.

Pam: Okay. Well that’s a great way to set things up. And you said that was Mystie at Simply Convivial?

Jennifer: It was a combination of Mystie and then Sarah Mackenzie, she talked about the loop scheduling too. I can’t remember which parts were, I think the loop scheduling came from Amongstlovelythings.com and then the way that I section it off was inspired by Mystie and I actually think I learned it in her course.

Pam: Well we can definitely get links. I know both of those ladies well. You said that you felt like your fourth-grader was able to do things more independently than obviously your first-grader or your seventh-grader. Do you think that’s because of the particular personality and abilities of your seventh-grader or do you think it’s because he’s entering into a different stage where he actually needs more of that mentoring and Socratic questioning?

Pam: Yeah, that is a great question and I had never thought about that. I mean up until now, the way I’ve viewed it is that he just needs to process things orally and he’s always been that way. And so you have to do that with a person for the most part until you get my age and you just talk to yourself anyway.

Pam: And you don’t care.

Jennifer: And you don’t care. But he cares. But he also does things really fast. And so, his temptation is to speed through things and not give it enough time. And so I also am kind of there as, “okay, I’m going to kind of lead you in the flow of this and how much time we’re going to spend on it and how we should…”, because I’m really modeling for him how he needs to be thinking about the subjects and how he needs to be asking questions and what it looks like when he asks a question about something. Well, I won’t say he’s not naturally contemplative. I think all people are contemplative, but it’s just different. My daughter is like mini-me. She’ll just pull Plutarch off the shelf that’s in Greek and English and just lay on the floor and look at it because it delights her. I know that’s odd. That’s not normal.

Pam: No, that’s not.

Jennifer: I know that’s not.

Pam: Okay. And yeah, and so that could be another difference too. Well, I didn’t know, because I know that having those kinds of Socratic discussions, especially with the older kids, well I mean, but you would have Socratic discussions with your fourth-grader as well, correct?

Jennifer: Yeah. And my six year old. They just look a little bit differently. The questions I ask will be different. But yeah, and there is more of that, especially when they get older. I have more Socratic discussion in more subjects with Josiah now that he’s older than I do with Sierra or Katie ’cause he’s studying logic now. And so there’s a ton that happened there. And then math a lot, because he’s dealing with bigger ideas and as his perspective of reality is being formed, he’s really wrestling through a lot. Like, he doesn’t know what’s true or you think something is true that’s just not, and in order to form him in a way that he views it correctly, and the only gentle and humane way that I can think of to do it is through the Socratic inquiry.

Pam: You mentioned a couple of times, this has come up a few different times where you talked about modeling. Do you think that classical education is tough on a mother because they’ve constantly have to be aware of what they’re modeling to their students?

Jennifer: I think it opens a door that makes us be really hard on ourselves, but I think one of the big tenants of classical education is teaching from rest, that it’s a restful thing, and so it’s a tension, for sure. And as Moms, we’re hard on ourselves anyway, and so with the subjects and the great ideal that classical education sets before us, I think I’m more tempted to be hard on myself, but then that just gives me more opportunity for penance because it’s not about that. It’s not about me making it happen, but I just have to constantly remind myself of that. So I don’t think it really makes it harder on a mom. I think we do it to ourselves because we see this ideal. It’s this, I like to describe it as the tension between the real and ideals. With classical education we’re saying there is an ideal to reach and we are going to go for it. But then we also have to say we are on this side of eternity and we can only reach that ideal when we see Jesus face to face. And so we’re going to give grace as well. And so there’s this tension. I think we look at the ideal, a lot but forget to give ourselves grace. And I think that’s where the biggest hardships come in. Some of the ways I give myself grace is having a video based Latin curriculum or only worrying about learning the Greek Alphabet right now. Ideally we would be doing a Greek course as well, but that’s just not possible right now. And so I’m gonna give myself grace and say that’s okay. Even if I’m taking baby steps along the path, that’s good, that’s good enough. And so I’m gonna give myself grace. I also give myself grace by just being willing to repeat subjects. Not putting myself under the pressure of having to get through a book in a certain amount of time. And I just make that okay in the culture of our home. There’s not this pressure to perform and make it happen. And so that’s another way we give grace.

Pam: Okay. But when you say that you’re not trying to get through a certain book in a certain amount of time, it’s not for lack of effort?

Jennifer: No. I mean, it’s just like, my son, math is one of the hardest subjects for him and it just takes longer to get through the math book. We’re still gonna finish it or we’re still gonna do it. But it may just take a year and a half and that’s okay.

Pam: Is there ever a point where a classical educator would be worried that, because I know this isn’t the true aim of classical education, I know that doing a good job on the SATs or having a child who gets into a top university is not the aim of a classical education. But is there ever a worry that a child who has reached an age where they’re trying to do these things is going to turn and look at you and say, “Look at how many times you let me take a year and a half to do the math book and now I’m not prepared to meet this challenge?”

Jennifer: Yeah, I mean they may. I don’t know if they will or not. I mean, all I can say is the one time that I got really worried is when I was, and this is not me comparing my kid to somebody else, so when I was observing Josiah and he wasn’t growing that much and it became obvious when he hit sixth or seventh-grade and I got concerned because there were things, and I really took on this assessment, I was like, “Okay Lord, if I’m comparing to others or just trying to push him through, please help me.” I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just being afraid for no reason. He wasn’t really growing and I couldn’t understand why. Well, we learned that he had some learning disability, but it was only through observing him and saying, “Oh, there’s something not right. He should be growing more than he’s growing. He should be progressing further in his understanding of mathematics than he is right now. What’s going on?” And so it’s led us to ask questions and do some research and understand him more. And now he’s doing great. I mean he’s still a little bit slower, but he’s doing great now. So in that sense, there was a time that I was worried. But honestly, if I push him to go through a book in one year, he won’t understand it. Sure, I’ll be able to put on the transcript, we finished the book. Mark complete. There is a credit here. But if he doesn’t really understand it, have I really helped him? How will he be able to use the ideas and the concepts in that math program, in the Algebra or whatever he’s been studying if he doesn’t understand them? So then he’ll be handicapped in the future and think homeschooling doesn’t work, or classical education doesn’t work and say, “Oh, I’m never gonna do that to my kids because I can’t, I don’t understand math.” But even if he doesn’t progress as far, if he truly understands it, he can say, “Yeah, we did things slower, but I really get this.” And he’ll know how to learn. And again, it’s a tension between the real and the ideal. And you’re always worried that you’re judging wrong. I mean, on this side of eternity, the possibility that I judge something wrong, it’s pretty big. You know, we’re just human, you know? And so it’s a tension we have to learn to live in, but I know the ideal is worth fighting for. You know, developing, cultivating three human beings to love God and serve others who can perceive reality correctly, that is far more important. I like C.S. Lewis’s quote, he says, “If you reach for heaven, you’ll get the world along the way, but if you reach for the world, you’ll lose both.” And I just believe that. I believe that if I reached for the ideals of the classical tradition, that my kids will have everything they need for life and godliness, for getting into college, for getting a job, all of that. I’m not worried about that. I’m not worried about it. I really believe C.S. Lewis’s statement. And so that’s another thing that gives me comfort. I just believe that the principle, that it’s true.

Pam: Well, Jennifer, why do you think that your chosen method, classical education, is the best way for children to learn?

Jennifer: Because it attends to the nature of who they are. It allows them to be where they’re at and not ask them to change for a system of education, but grows them within that system or grows them within that tradition. For example, when I am reading a book to my child and we read it and talk about it, we ask questions about it, I may give them specific questions. So that’s one option. The other option would be for me to read the story and then give them a worksheet and have them answer multiple choice questions. Or I could just read it to them and not discuss it with them at all. But there’s something about the nature of a human, the nature of teaching and the nature of the subjects, they just do better with certain kinds of methods. A human, they have a soul. And so, when they take in a story, it becomes a part of them. It starts connecting with other ideas that they’ve had, experiences that they’ve had. And so, the discussion is a way to honor that. Like why’s the teacher is a leader, a mentor? They have authority in the life of the child. So when I am trusted enough to be given authority to lead my child to truth, they’re honoring the nature of a teacher and the relationship of a teacher and a student. And then the stuff that’s in literature, it’s a living organism. It contains truth embodied in this. They’ll want to be pulled out and talked about and discussed. And so in operating that way, you’re honoring the nature of that subject, that thing that you’re dealing with. A work of literature was not meant to be divided up and asked multiple choice questions on a page. It resists the nature of it. It doesn’t honor it for art that it really is. And so the reason I believe that it is right, in summary, is the best way that we can do this, because it honors the nature of the teacher and the students and the thing being studied.

Pam: Well, I never thought about it like that. That’s very interesting that that’s the difference between the methods of teaching classically and the idea of just handing a student a multiple choice tests about something that they’ve read. But that’s huge. That’s a huge difference. So Jennifer, I love so much about what you’ve been saying today. If I’m a homeschooling mom and I’m listening and what you’ve been talking about is really resonating with me, but I might be a little intimidated by some of the things that you’ve been saying, how can I start? I have maybe a child, I’m pulling out of school or I have a kindergartener or first-grader who’s going to be starting school next year. How can I begin my classical education journey in a way that’s just not absolutely overwhelming to me?

Jennifer: That’s a great question and I think the answer is two parts. No, I’m convinced the answer is two parts. There’s always two paths that you’re going to be walking and they intermingle quite a bit and as you grow they’ll be even closer. But that is the principles and the particulars. If I was just starting out and somebody told me about this, I think the most helpful thing would be to give some suggestions about a curriculum that you could trust that attends the principles while you’re learning about the principles. And so, and I can give a few suggestions if you would like. At this point there’s a lot of principles you don’t understand and there’s still a lot of principles I don’t understand. So knowing that, there’s a few companies out there, some curriculum companies, that are seeking after these same ideals and you can trust them to just buy their curriculum and maybe buy the DVDs and…

HS 174: The Other Classical Homeschooling with Jennifer DowPin

Pam: And give yourself grace.

Jennifer: Yeah. And just give yourself grace. Just start. And so I think that’s one. Do that. And then buy your first book about the principles of classical education and start reading and doing both always. And as you read more principles and you’re inspired to maybe change things up a little bit, maybe not have the DVD for this subject or that subject, then just begin taking a step as your led. But don’t overwhelm yourself because then everyone’s just gonna be stressed and we’re not going to be reaching for virtue and wisdom. If we’re stressed we’re going to be putting our kids in therapy.

Pam: So, what you’re telling me is as a new homeschooler who is interested in this, is I can start the practice before I have, well I hesitate to say before I completely understand the principles because I have a feeling that that is a totally lifelong journey, but I can start the practices and my children are still going to benefit from the practices of a classical education even as I’m taking baby steps towards learning the principles.

Jennifer: Yes, absolutely. I mean there’s a couple skills I think each mom should learn initially. There’s some principles that I think are important to read about before you get started, but they can just be some simple, like, how to teach. They should be familiar with narration, mimetic and Socratic. And there’s some resources I can recommend for that as well. And so those would be an idea of inquiry, what the classical tradition means by that love of wonder and curiosity. I think those are the most important principles to be aware of before you start or principle skills because that will help you weed out how do I approach this? How do I approach that? Fairly easily, I think.

Pam: Okay. And we will put links to a number of different resources, curriculum companies and books that Jennifer recommends. And the notes for this audio here. But let me just go ahead and ask you, if you’re recommending maybe one or two favorite books or resources about classical homeschooling, what would get me started?

Jennifer: The principle side of it, you mean?

Pam: Either. Both. Could you give me one of each?

Jennifer: Sure. On the principle side of it, I really like, can I give you two? I’m having a hard time deciding which one.

Pam: Sure, go ahead.

Jennifer: Okay. Clark and Jain’s book The Liberal Arts Tradition, and it’s published by Classical Academic Press and Karen Glasses book, Consider This. I think both of those are two great introductory, I mean Clark and Jain’s book can be kind of, you know, you might want to read it slowly, but it’s still pretty basic in terms of what it’s saying. So those are two good books for the principle side of it. And there’s lots of practical in Clark and Jain’s book as well. And then for the practical, anything by Classical Academic Press, Memoria Press, CiRCE Institute, I would completely trust just to buy and use. I wouldn’t think twice about it. If I didn’t know what to do, I would be totally comfortable buying any of their stuff and just starting to use it with my kids. Oh, and Ambleside Online too.

Pam: Ambleside Online. Well Jennifer, thank you so much for joining me today and really just teaching me so much about the classical tradition and what it means to be a classical homeschooler.

Jennifer: My pleasure. Thank you for having me. It’s been a joy.

Pam: Well, I just want to thank Jennifer one more time for agreeing to come on and chat with me today about classical education. Be sure to check out Jennifer’s blog, Expandingwisdom.com where she has that free classical teaching guide plus all sorts of resources there for you about learning about the principles and the practices of classical education. Also, don’t forget to check out the show notes for this interview. There we link to all of the books and curriculum companies that Jennifer and I chatted about, and you can also leave a question there for either one of us. Thanks so much for joining us today and have a great one.

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  • Jennifer says:

    Thank you so much Pam, for this opportunity! I had such a great time talking with you!!

  • Luciana says:

    I enjoyed the interview

  • Great resources shared in the blog! the blog has a complete set of resources which are really useful for homeschooling parents and children.

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