The Law of the Student

Welcome back to my blog-through of John Milton Gregory’s The Seven Laws of Teaching.

“The learner must attend with interest to the fact or truth to be learned.”

John Milton Gregory

While this second law concerns the attitude and actions of the learner, Gregory is speaking in this book to the teacher and so the chapter really addresses how the teacher is responsible for the student’s attentiveness and interest.

We cannot control our students, we can only control ourselves. The entire responsibility of learning is not on the teacher’s shoulders, but a large part of it is and since the teacher is supposed to be the mature example in all things, he must bear it well. The teacher must inspire his students to give attention to the material, not through cheap tricks but through preparation, experience, and skill.

That distinction between cheap tricks and skilled teaching is crucial and sometimes hard to discern. I can find any number of games and videos to spice up my Latin class, but they can just as easily prove a distraction as an aid in sparking interest. And, let us not forget that one of the most important parts of teaching is in helping to form the student. I want to discourage dependence on distractions and encourage their natural curiosity about interesting and beautiful things: 

“Whatever is novel and curious, beautiful, grand, or sublime in mass or motion; whatever is brilliant, strange, or charming in color or combination–the eye fastens and feeds upon these, and the mind comes at its bidding to enjoy and protract the feast.” (p. 43, Canon Press Edition)

I personally cannot compete with modern media. We live in an age of TED Talks, professional documentaries, interactive experiences. Teachers can’t and don’t have to compete with these. We have the student in front of us in our classroom (or video conference). We must only do an excellent job of providing interesting and skillful teaching. The student interacting on a personal level with a good teacher can remain engaged and interested, even if there is not a multimedia show involved.

One of the common mistakes that Gregory points out is one that I all too often make: “Little or no effort is made to discover the tastes of the pupil or to create a real interest in the subject studied.” (p. 50) Their tastes may need to be refined, but there are sure to be many things they already like that can be tied to your subject. In the Latin class, that’s going to probably look like covering topics they are already interested in, such as mythology, or getting them involved in the conversation “personally”. (Watch this video for an example for the Latin classroom.) These things are different from the cheap tricks I mentioned above. These can be used in a way that will not distract from the final goals of the class, but will be a helpful means along the way.

In the homeschool: All of this also ties into the importance of short lessons (à la Charlotte Mason). The homeschool setting is ideal for this. Give your student an interesting, engaged lesson 15 minutes every day with their full attention and they will learn. Slow and steady wins the race.

In the end, I highly recommend you go through this chapter and read Gregory’s comments on how to engage the student’s attention, especially through the use of good public speaking, gestures, and questions. They provide lots of little things for us to notice about our own teaching and to work towards improving on a very practical level.

Did you miss the first post in my blog-through of John Milton Gregory’s The Seven Laws of Teaching? You can read about the Law of the Teacher here.

The Law of the Teacher

Welcome back to my blog-through of John Milton Gregory’s The Seven Laws of Teaching.

The teacher must know that which he would teach.

John Milton Gregory

Gregory’s first law emphasizes the importance of the teacher not only mastering the knowledge of the material, but also his diligence in preparing the lesson and preparing with his particular students in mind. Too often I have fallen into the error of thinking that because I understand a fact or concept well, I will be able to teach it just fine. Ha! No. You are probably very familiar with the speed at which knowledge and eloquence can quickly abandon you in front of any audience.

Public speaking takes practice. Teaching takes similar practice, as an exercise not only in public speaking, but in a personal relationship with the audience. Every teacher, whether in a school, home, or online, needs to prepare well, practice, and leave time for refining of the lesson. Mid-year and mid-week lessons can get sloppy because we run out of ideas and energy. Ditch the expectation that every lesson needs to be fun and flashy. Prepare a simple lesson well as an act of love for your students and your God. It will be a simple meal, but it will be well-prepared and a source of peace.

If you are homeschooling, clarity of terms may help immensely here in relieving some pressure. You are not expected to be your child’s teacher in every subject. But you are their first and most important teacher. I love Brandy Vencel’s helpful distinction between being a teacher and being a facilitator in her post on “How I Teach Latin.” Once you understand this distinction, I think the quality of education you can give your child will vastly improve. 

First, identify in which things you are going to be the teacher. Master that sphere of knowledge and prepare lessons well as Gregory encourages us. This is my slight beef with so many homeschool curriculums that describe themselves as “open-and-go.” The implication is that you can teach your child with little effort. That is not true. The only things you will teach your children with little effort are your own bad habits. Your own good habits were not borne without effort – the effort of the Holy Spirit, the effort of your parents or mentors, the effort of yourself. Thought and effort are put into every good thing you will teach your children. Now, of course, your child can probably still learn many wonderful things with an “open-and-go” curriculum, especially because you will be pulling on knowledge and experience you already have. But to provide your child with an excellent, virtuous education, you will have to put in preparation time.

In the early years, preparation time may not take much time because lessons will be short and the content will be simple (from your adult perspective). Later, though, you may need to identify those things in which you are going to be the facilitator. This could be accomplished either by utilizing another teacher or by guiding your child’s independent studies.

One final thought: Is a video of a teacher, a “teacher”? I think, at least in Gregory’s definitions and framework, we could not say this is your child’s “teacher.” That will become even more clear when we get to the later laws. Recorded lessons can have a place in your child’s education, but consider carefully when choosing that route.

Gregory’s Seven Laws of Teaching: A Blog-Through

I’ve seen John Milton Gregory’s Seven Laws of Teaching recommended several times on reading lists for classical educators. I bought a copy and began reading it a year or so ago and didn’t get past the first few chapters before succumbing to major guilt: “I’m a horrible teacher!” Nothing like reading a list of all the ways I was doing things wrong to motivate me! Now, that was obviously my fixed mindset talking.

A few months ago I picked it back up again in my desire to get better. This time, with just a change in attitude, I loved the book. My copy is now full of book-darted quotes and passages. Now, to further my gleaning of the material and to work out how to apply the material to my teaching practice, I plan to work back through these marked passages here in some blog posts.

In going back through the material, I’m particularly interested in considering how these laws apply to:

  1. Teaching Latin (my main discipline),
  2. Teaching in the homeschool, and
  3. Teaching online (as so many teachers are having to do in this moment in time).

Join me as I blog through these chapters and wrestle with these ideas. I personally prefer to read hard copies and have the Canon Press edition, but you can also find a free digital copy here.

Latin Isn’t Just for Your Child

When we plan our child’s education, we are often trying to give them the education we wish we had. Even if we had a good education, there are inevitably particular subjects that we either never learned or never learned well. For the parent interested in giving their child a classical education, Latin or Greek is probably on that list of subjects. Whether you want your child to learn Latin or Greek because that’s just the “classical” way or because you sincerely wish you had learned them, I want to challenge your thinking a little bit.

If you think your child should learn a classical language, then you should too

Unless or until your child is pursuing highly specialized training in trade school or college, this should apply to everything your child learns. This will be obvious for the things you already know or mastered. You know you and your child should learn to read, write, speak, and compute – and you probably already did. You know you and your child should learn American history – and you probably already did. You may still be unsure why you had to learn so much Geometry or Trigonometry in high school, but you did, and so accepting that your child should is not too challenging.

But what about those things we tend to think of as “electives” – music, art, languages, etc.? For me personally, I think my children should learn to play a musical instrument, but excepting those two years of recorder in my elementary years, I haven’t (yet). So I understand your hesitation to accept my claim.

Now, I am not claiming you have to start today. Or that you even have to learn a classical language before your child does – even though that would be ideal.

These are important questions to consider, though: If you value the classical languages for your child, then why wouldn’t you value them for yourself? And if the reasons for learning classical languages aren’t strong enough for you personally, why are they sufficient for your child? 

We should be teaching our children valuable, permanent things – things that we wish everyone could learn, even if they learn them late. If something is not worth learning late, is it really worth learning at all?

2 Great Pep Talks for Latin

Every Latin educator has their “elevator speech” for why someone would want to study Latin. And with the growth of classical Christian education and its marketing there have been lots of articles, blog posts, and videos posted about why Latin is important. These are valuable to read if you are just starting to consider Latin as a subject for yourself or your child, but they are also helpful for motivation when the task of learning gets challenging. Here are two I’ve really appreciated:

1. The serious:

At The Imaginative Conservative, Michael De Sapio sums up the most significant reasons for learning Latin with emphasis on what, in my opinion, is one of the most compelling reasons to learn Latin:

Even if the more arcane, classical culture is forgotten, Latin still has an indelible connection with Christian thought and worship, and Christians live by the divine promise that the church will not be destroyed.

Amen! Latin has been a key method of communication through so much of the Western Church’s history, so let’s be vigilant in not losing this key to our heritage.

2. The serious, yet not-so-serious:

This video squeezes in all of the normal talking points about the value of Latin while focusing on some of the key things that I know I personally gained from Latin study.

Note: This is not meant as an endorsement of Classical Conversations (the creator of this video).

Do you have any go-to articles or videos that you recommend for those considering Latin? If you do, share them with me!

Latin Can Be for Anyone

We tend to forget that every natural language, even a dead one, is natural – common, everyday, used by all layers of society.

In an interview with CBS This Morning, Fr. Reginald Foster, a unique and prominent Latinist of our day, makes an important point (somewhat cheekily), starting at 1:43:

Every poor person, derelict, prostitute, anyone else in Rome spoke Latin… when the Romans said to their dogs… Veni huc, conside, et cenam tuam sume…. the dog picked it up.

Fr. Reginald Foster

That may not be a flattering way to think of your Latin study, and may even be downright frustrating: “Even the Roman dogs knew Latin better than I do!” Clearly, that is not the point. The point is that Latin, like any language, can be learned by anyone with the proper context, tools, and effort. Latin is like any other language in its nature – a common means of communication for normal people, including you and me.

What’s a “Dead” Language?

“Latin is a dead language.”

Everyone who has ever heard of Latin knows that. You’ve probably heard that. And unless you are already fully convinced of the value of learning Latin, this may be one of the key issues you have with choosing to learn Latin over a modern foreign language.

I won’t spend time here trying to convince you of the value of Latin, that will come later. Before we can tackle that question, we should define our terms and hopefully put you at ease. “Dead” is not as ominous a term as it sounds. “Dead” sounds, well, dead.

Silent, irrelevant, incapable of anything.

Psst… here’s the secret. “Dead” just means there are no native speakers of the language. Did you catch that? Let me repeat, no native speakers. There are no longer living communities of native Latin-speaking adults who raise children to speak Latin as their first and primary language. There are speakers. There are even fluent speakers. There are books, videos, podcasts, etc. produced in Latin. There are classes taught exclusively in Latin. And, of course, Latin is the official language of the Roman Catholic Church.

I’m ready to concede that Latin is very different from the modern languages you’ll find spoken and taught in your local communities. And if “dead” is the term we want to ascribe to that distinction, I’m okay with that. After all, Cicero is dead. Virgil is dead. Augustine is dead. Aquinas is dead. Newton is dead. But they still have something to say to us, and they say it in Latin.