Wednesday, April 6, 2011

An interview with "Ages of Grace" author

Katherine Johnson is the popular writer of the blog evlogia and an esteemed author on the topic of homeschooling. Mrs. Johnson has developed a curriculum called Ages of Grace, and I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to interview her on what promises to be an invaluable tool for homeschooling parents.


What prompted you to start the Ages of Grace curriculum? When you started was the idea of a comprehensive and complete program in your mind or were you trying to fill the gaps in other homeschool programs?

The curriculum began as a few sheets of handwritten notes, an attempt to fill in the gaps of the curriculum we were using. I wanted to transform that curriculum, one designed from a Protestant worldview, into an authentically Orthodox education. Slowly my list of additional reading and substitute books grew until my husband pointed out that the curriculum I was augmenting was no longer recognizable. The finished plan turned out to be something completely different and unique.

How have you been able to pull together resources to build this program? Were there people instrumental in helping to move the program forward? Where did you draw from to build the framework and then flesh out the individual lessons?

Ages of Grace is the fruit of trial and error, the 11+ years of homeschooling that’s blessed our home. It was my husband, Doug, who encouraged me to put the plan on paper. His initial motivation was rooted in his concern for me. He felt that documenting our daily learning in detail would benefit our home school in the long run and keep me from reinventing the wheel. As far as sharing those plans, the encouragement to formalize the curriculum and make it widely available was motivated by my inbox, the many parents who email me every week with their frustrations about the lack of Orthodox curricula and questions about how I teach my own children.

As far as building the framework, Ages of Grace is inspired by the 19th-century British educator, Charlotte Mason, and designed around family life. Over the years I’ve found it difficult to use other curricula because it scattered our family over too many topics: one child’s studying the Civil War, a second is deep into Ancient Greece, another is learning about the Middle Ages. I needed to bring our family into a common study so that I could offer focused attention to each of my children.

So I took the fabric of world history, the story of the world, and divided it into six parts. Each year we chronologically cycle through a historical period together, while each child reads books appropriate to his or her own age level. Christine Miller’s extensive reading list, All Through the Ages and St. Michael’s Orthodox School’s three-volume timeline, Sanctity Through the Centuries, made this possible to design. Using these two resources as research tools, I was able to weave the threads of geography, literature, and the golden thread of Orthodoxy throughout the fabric of the age we're studying. It's a beautifully organic way to learn.

How does a student approach the material? For those unfamiliar with the Charlotte Mason method, what would a day of study look like? What is the eventual goal when their homeschool studies are completed?

In a nutshell, a Charlotte Mason-inspired curriculum is one that immerses a child in a world of books, the best the culture has to offer. Miss Mason did not rely on dry textbooks and workbooks, but what she termed living books. We learn best from those who are passionate about a subject, single authors not committees. Books that bring a subject to life. This means that a Charlotte Mason curriculum is all about the booklist.

Practically speaking, the lesson plans divide the week’s readings into four categories, the family read-aloud being the foundation, supported by three levels of independent reading according to grade level: beautifully illustrated picture books, retellings of classics for children in literary language, and original texts. A typical day consists of a family reading time along with separate assignments for each child. This makes the curriculum something that brings the family together, but nourishes each child individually. The family learns as one, but the content is appropriate for each child.

I’d have to say that the eventual goal is particular to the person. Ages of Grace is designed with the whole child in mind. That means that the spiritual development, the heart, is taken into account as well as the academic development, the mind. It’s my prayer that a child who works through the curriculum will be as well-prepared for the monastery as he or she is for the university. God’s will. A true education is not focused on any utilitarian product, but on forming the hearts and minds of whole persons. The goal is the Kingdom.
So how does a parent get started using your program? Is there a website, book to order, or some form of subscription?

The curriculum will be available on the Ages of Grace website, scheduled to launch some time after Pascha 2011. As we get closer to the actual date, I’ll announce the premier on my blog evlogia. The new website will offer ideas and recommendations toward an Orthodox Charlotte Mason curriculum, as well as an option for families to purchase detailed lesson plans for an entire academic year. God being my helper, there will eventually be 6 cycles of 36-week lesson plans that will make up the entire Ages of Grace curriculum. The first cycle of lesson plans is complete and will be available when the website premiers. I'm now in the middle of writing the second cycle of plans, which is scheduled for May 2012.

The cost per family, for each cycle of core lesson plans (36-weeks for grades 1-12), is a donation of $25-$45 to St. Maximus Orthodox Mission (OCA). The donation amount will depend on the curriculum package chosen, whether the family choses to purchase only the basic core curriculum (History/Church History, Literature, Geography, and Bible) or one of the custom packages including add-ons such as Icon Study, Picture Study, or copywork and dictation pages. For families only wanting to augment their existing curriculum, the add-ons will be available separately for $10 each.

Homeschooling families enjoy talking with other homeschooling families about the programs they are using (A Well-Trained Mind, Seton, K12, and others). Is there currently a way for families to discuss the Ages of Grace program with others? Do you envision a mailing list or online forum?

My hope is the creation of a free, private online message board open to the families using Ages of Grace. A forum that will offer a means to connect, share ideas, and ask questions.

As you know, jumping into a new homeschooling program is often a difficult and sometimes expensive process. How would you recommend parents start integrating your program into what they are already doing? Should they take an individual subject and see how it goes or is there a better way to start out?

A family has the option to use the plans as they’re laid out or to integrate them into their existing curriculum, whatever best serves the family using them. But because each subject is integrated, the curriculum as a whole is greater than its parts. By integrated I mean that the history study is enhanced by the literature selections, while the readings from the lives of the saints are meant to focus on that same age of grace. Even the geography lessons are drawn from the history readings and the lives of the saints. The curriculum is meant to layer learning, helping children make connections, ultimately connecting what they're learning with their faith.

Even if a family decides to use begin using Ages of Grace that doesn’t mean that they have to completely change their home school. Since Ages of Grace is a core curriculum, parents are free to decide upon the programs they use for math, language arts, and science. Many recommendations will be offered on the website, but families can continue using the resources that they’ve already invested in.

In practice, Ages of Grace should be a relatively inexpensive way to educate a child. Since the lesson plans are based on reading a generous selection of books, a library card should be sufficient for most families. For those who do not have a wide collection of reading available from their public library or are not able to utilize inter-library loan services, there will be an Ages of Grace Amazon store where the books can be purchased.

Even for those who choose to purchase their books and build a home library, in the long run, a literature-based curriculum is less expensive because it’s non-consumable. Once you buy a level of books for one child, you’ve bought them for all subsequent children. Also, since the readings are grouped by comprehension level rather than grade level, many children will be able to share books.

Instructing children in the Bible can be a daunting task; this is especially true as Bible literacy among adults is sorely lacking. How does the program approach teaching the Bible? On a related note, how does Ages of Grace integrate instruction of the liturgical year?

I think the best way for a family to approach the Bible is to read it together. That would mean the daily readings of the church year, most importantly the Sunday Gospel. The natural environment for the Scriptures is the worship of the Church. Discussing those readings together, having older children read the commentaries of Blessed Theophylact, teaching the children to listen to the sermon each Sunday, this makes up the most authentic Orthodox Bible “study.” Because really, we don’t study the Bible. We stand and attend.

Of course, the readings within the church year are not necessarily chronological or sequential and sometimes it’s difficult for a child to understand them. I’ve found it helpful to offer my own children a greater context so that when they hear the Scriptures proclaimed in the church they have some idea of context and background. For this reason, Ages of Grace includes a 6-year Scripture study rotation using the Orthodox Study Bible. The reading plan divides the Bible into 6 cycles of study: Pentateuch, Historical Books, Gospels & Acts, Epistles & Revelation, Wisdom Books, and Prophets. Each year of the curriculum maps out a weekly reading plan so that the family can read through the Bible in its entirety. Using the Orthodox Study Bible offers parents a chance to learn right alongside their children. A parent’s level of Bible literacy doesn’t matter. Family study means exactly what it implies. We all learn together and it’s a great blessing.

The weekly lesson plans also include a reading schedule for little ones using the Children’s Bible Reader, an Orthodox story Bible beautifully illustrated with Byzantine-style iconography. Scripture memory is another feature of the weekly lesson plans. Each week a verse is chosen from the family’s reading and used for memorization, copywork, and dictation exercises. Older children may decide to take the challenge of committing the Psalter to memory using the resources for the Psalter by Heart project.

As far as the church year, Ages of Grace is a history-based curriculum, so the church year does not necessarily fit into the weekly lesson plan. However, each year will offer a “special study” in Orthodoxy, the first being iconography. I’m currently writing a second family study on the feasts of our Lord for the 2012 issue of Ages of Grace. Subsequent years will include family studies that focus on the feasts of the Theotokos and the daily and weekly cycle of services.
Even though these special studies don’t follow the chronology of the core curriculum, they offer the family an opportunity to deepen their understanding of the feasts and life of the Orthodox Church. In the end, I’m a strong believer that the nave is the best school for our children. Orthodoxy is not something you can learn from a book. You have to live it. It’s all about experience. The best way to teach the Orthodox Faith to children is to take them to church.

Orthodoxy, while sharing "one faith" (Ephesians 4:4-6), also has a surprising diversity due to its multi-ethnic make-up and emphasis on missionary efforts integrating within the cultures and not simply replacing indigenous practices. To what degree would you call this program pan-Orthodox? Would a Greek believer feel at home in this program as, say, a Georgian family?

I pray that all Orthodox Christian families will feel at home in Ages of Grace and I’ve tried to draw widely from the resources available to me. The first year of plans includes stories of the saints from many cultures: Ethiopia, Greece, Russia, Serbia, Italy, Ireland, etc... Of course, a literature-based curriculum is limited by the books that are actually available and we’re just beginning to see a wide offering of Orthodox books in the English language. By God’s grace, as more become available, they will be added to the curriculum. That’s the beauty of a website. You can always improve it and add new resources as they become available.

Of course culture itself is something outside the scope of a curriculum. It’s something that’s lived. Just as the Orthodox Faith is most authentically handed down in the nave of the church, the best way to hand down Orthodox culture is through experiencing it. It’s the life of the family lived in the church family, celebrated at the family table, and extended to the trapeza. Curriculum is only a tool and will always be limited. It’s my hope that the message board will offer families a chance to share the details of their local traditions, how those traditions help draw them closer to Christ.

Would you speak to the Music History family studies part of the curriculum? Do you have an example of what that might look like?

Each year the family is exposed to the works of three different composers, one composer per term. The composer study rotation will be available on the website and will include links to suggested recordings and recommended biographies of the composers. A Charlotte Mason education also focuses on hymn study and there’s no greater wealth of hymnology than the music of the Orthodox Church. I’m currently discussing a project with a parish choir, the possibility of having a CD recorded for the curriculum, one that will teach the 8 tones, festal hymns, and sung prayers of the Orthodox Church. In the meantime, the website will include links to recordings from different traditions, exposing the family to the many beautiful styles of Orthodox hymnology.

I thank you sincerely for your time in answering these questions and look forward to seeing the fruit of your labors when the website is up and running. I pray your family has a blessed Lent and hope to revisit the Ages of Grace program in 2012 when the second cycle is scheduled for completion.

Thank you for so generously giving me the opportunity to share this project with your readers. It’s been a blessing. And I ask your prayers for the work left to do and for the families who will use the curriculum.

10 comments:

  1. This is so wonderful, and so needed! Congratulations, Katherine!

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  2. I am so interested in seeing this!

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  3. This sounds so wonderful! It's just what I've been looking for. We are really looking forward to using it.
    Marcella

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  4. Katherine,
    As part of the wider cultural integration, especially regarding hymnology and saints, do you have plans to include traditions from Coptic Egypt?

    Ages of Grace seems to be exactly what I'm looking for, but I'm afraid that the liturgical readings, and consequently festal cycles, will not match with our calendar. Our St. Mary's Fast, for example starts on August 7! And we celebrate St. Nicholas' feast Dec. 20. And Nativity Feast is Jan. 7 (old calendar)

    Any insight you might have on this would be helpful! Thank you for your labor of love for His glory.

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  5. Cecile,

    This is a great question and I'm going to add it those I will be answering this week on an Ages of Grace Q&A post. Short answer is that I think the curriculum will work for your family, but I'll go into more depth in the Q&A on evlogia.

    http://evlogiaonline.com/

    With much love in Christ,
    katherine

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