Ages of Grace
Ancient Faith Radio · May 12, 2011
Bobby Maddex interviews Katherine Johnson, the creator of Ages of Grace, a new homeschooling curriculum that aims to provide an authentically Orthodox Christian education.
Bobby Maddex: If you are like me, you have school aged children and no Orthodox school to send them to. Katherine Johnson, the woman behind the very popular blog, Evlogia, may have the solution for all of us: A new home schooling curriculum that aims to provide an authentically Orthodox education.
Katherine Johnson: Thank you. Christ is risen!
Bobby: Indeed He is risen! Your curriculum has the title, Ages of Grace. Let’s start with that. Why this particular name?
Katherine: Simply, it is a history-based curriculum, but it is designed around the idea that the story of the world is the story of our salvation. I think it is easy to think of school subjects as being separate and independent of one another, and it is also easy to think of the history of the world running parallel to the history of the church, but as Orthodox Christians we pray God is everywhere present, and He is filling all things.
So, when we approach history, it is important to approach it as a tale of our communion with God. It is a continuous narrative of how He has entered into our lives. And so, as I designed the curriculum, I tried to make that the emphasis running through the entire thread.
Bobby: Why did you decide to create an Orthodox home schooling curriculum?
Katherine: I would say, necessity. Honestly, I wish someone else had done it. It is what I have been looking for, so in a sense, you could say this is my dream curriculum. There is such a lack of Orthodox resources for home-schoolers. We are always having to take Protestant or Roman Catholic curricula and tweak it to make it work with our world view, with our theology. What would happen with me, is that I would make so many changes in book list, adding in books, taking things out, and by the time I finished doing that, the lesson plans didn’t even help me on a daily basis because we had a completely different set of books.
I think, also, it goes beyond the theology and world view. We have a vacuum in Western education about the Orthodox world. In most history books, you get to the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Orthodox world falls off the map. You enter into the dark middle ages and somehow this glorious golden age of Byzantium, of the triumph of Orthodoxy, the fight against iconoclasm, St. Gregory Palamas or St. Mark of Ephesus triumphing for the true faith, is completely absent from our books.
It was important to me to take the best of what was available as far as a Christian or a secular history and parallel Orthodoxy to it so that the children could make the connection: This is what is happening in our church, and in the world. This is how God is acting when I am seeing this person who we are familiar with.
It began as a bunch of scribbled notes, and it has blossomed, by God’s grace, into something organized. I pray God blesses it.
Bobby: What all is in the curriculum? Tell us a little bit about its contents.
Katherine: The core curriculum—I am not going to assume everyone knows what that means. It means that it is the core learning of history, geography, literature, math, science, and the skill-based subjects. Parents would be free to pick and choose what suits each child’s learning style, but the core curriculum is divided into six ages. Each year, you would spend the year studying each age. It takes you from the ancient world to the modern world, dividing it into six parts. Each separate year takes you through a history of the age, and it links in and parallels literature.
Let’s say you are studying the Middle Ages. That is a good time to read Robin Hood and Beowulf, and King Arthur, so it is allowing what your child is reading to help them learn more about the age they are studying.
Then we bring in geography. Obviously I am talking a lot about the Middle Ages because the first series available is on this time period, so this is what is fresh in my mind. We read about St. Brendan and Marco Polo, and St. Sava of Serbia, so for geography, we map their travels, which makes that pertinent to what we are learning. It also brings in Art History, so if you are going to study the Middle Ages, it is a good time to learn about Giotto, or as we are Orthodox, it is a beautiful time to learn about the iconography of Rublev.
It takes you through everything from faith, Bible, memory work for Bible history, literature, geography, and it breaks it down for the entire family, from 1st through 12th grade.
Bobby: It sounds amazing. Have you ever done anything like this before? I imagine that you have had to, as you said, adapt various curricula to suit your needs, but have you ever created a comprehensive curriculum before?
Katherine: No, I have been sharing curricula online since about 2007. It has always been about interesting things to do during Dormition fast, or something like that. This is the first time that I have set out to create a complete curriculum, and as I said, we have been home schooling for 11 years. I have children from infant to high school, and it is just a lot of years that it has slowly made its way into something that is sharable.
Bobby: Did you use any other curriculum that you were fond of as a kind of blueprint, and then lay this on top of it? How did you get together all of the appropriate educational materials and map it all out correctly?
Katherine: Since the time I started home schooling, I have really wrestled with the different educational philosophies, and I have gotten stuck on one particular one. Some people will be familiar with Charlotte Mason. She is a 19th-century British educator. This was the time of Charles Dickens. Think of Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield. These characters were children who were in factories and they had very, what she would call twaddly lesson books, and slates to write on, and so what she set out to do was to create a curriculum that was rich and varied, and full of what she called living books.
Living books is a term that would mean a book written by a single author who is passionate about their subject, not a textbook, or an anthology, written by a committee.
What I set out to do was to create a living books curriculum that reflected a classical curriculum and an Orthodox curriculum. There is a really wonderful tool that I used by a woman named Christine Miller. She wrote a comprehensive book called All Through the Ages. It is amazing. She took the entire history of the world and broke it down into time periods and put in books, by reading level, and by topic, so I have this beautiful resource to work from. The problem is that when I would recommend it to people, they would say, “What do I do with all this? These are great books, but what do I do with them?”
So I chose another tool. I don’t know if you are familiar with St. Michael’s Orthodox School in Santa Rosa, California.
Bobby: I have heard of it, actually, yes.
Katherine: It is beautiful what they are doing. They have this wonderful resource that is available to anyone to download. It is called Sanctity Through the Centuries. They have mapped out the history from Adam to the present, and they have footnoted where you can find the lives of these saints, and have mapped them out as a timeline, so it was very easy for me to take our history text and this timeline, to pull the right books out and make sure that it was all lined up and paralleled together.
Bobby: I think I understand now, the content here. You are bringing in art, you are bringing in literature, you are bringing in history, and as long as they are all touching on the same subject, that becomes part of this lesson. But I want to understand how it works in a practical sense. Take us through a day of study. How would a parent teach a day of curriculum in this resource?
Katherine: Each family is different, depending on the ages of their children, and their schedules. I can use my own family as an example, because that is all I really know. Four of our six kids are school-aged kids, from first grade through high school. There are certain subjects that are skill-based, like math and science and grammar, that they work on independently, and some are enrolled in online classes, like Latin and other subjects, and the little ones need my attention.
So we do have a time in the day when it is more of a tutoring time, but when we open up Ages of Grace, we are all learning about the same thing. We are all studying the same time period, but I have broken it down into four levels. We have family readings. Every day we gather together and we read. I liked the prologue and organized it chronologically so I could parallel it with the history.
We have a prologue reading that parallels with our history book. We have a scripture reading, and a memory verse from that reading that we are memorizing together. We usually read a chapter from our main history book and usually some poetry, and we usually have some kind of map drill that is related to our history studies. That is our family time together.
Some of the kids need me to read to them, and some of them can read on their own. They have their own individual reading assignments that complement what we have learned together as a family. My older kids go off on their own and they read what they are assigned, and they will come back to me and narrate what they have read. Sometimes in the lesson plans I have assigned a paper.
I have a large family. It is very hard for me to have each child working in a completely different time period, because there is just only so far I can stretch my tired mind. So, it is really beautiful, because we are all learning about the same thing, but each child is learning about it at the appropriate level.
Bobby: I want to talk for just a second here about educational standards and that sort of thing, but first, if someone decides to purchase a copy of this curriculum, what do they get? What comes to them?
Katherine: There is a core family study package, and that would be the 36 weeks of lesson plans, and that covers 1st through 12th grade. Each week is on a two-page spread, so you don’t have a lot of papers or shuffling around. That document also comes with the reading list. There are reading schedules for the Children’s Bible Reader. That is a very popular Orthodox children’s bible for the younger ones. There is a reading list for the prologue, which I mentioned is put together chronologically, that matches the time period. There are exams for the end of each term. For the younger levels they are oral, and for the older they are written as essays.
There are copy work assignments for each week for manuscript and cursive, and dictation exercises for the high school kids that are based on the writings of the saints. There is a picture study packet. That is a Charlotte Mason term. It is pretty much art appreciation. The artists that I have chosen are related to the time period, so there are prints that you can either view on screen or print out and put on the frig and have your child become acquainted with the artist.
There is also a document that is part of the hymn study. Charlotte Mason was very fond of hymn study. She was a Protestant, so whenever you find Charlotte Mason curricula, you have Protestant hymns being listed, but for Orthodox Christians, our hymns are so rich, it is amazing what you can do without a curriculum. I had a choir director record an introduction to the eight tones, each resurrectional Troparia for the Sunday, and in this PDF that you receive, the audio files are embedded in it. If you are learning tone 1, you click on the link, and you can hear them sing it. You can click on another link, and download the sheet music. All the lessons plans are internet-linked embedded. When you learn about the Emperor, Justinian, and you want to learn about Hagia Sophia, you can take a virtual tour. It is linked into the curriculum. It is really fun.
The package will run from $25 to under $50, depending on what you add on. All of the money goes to St. Maximus the Confessor Orthodox Mission in Denton, Texas. It is a local mission, and the hope is that you will help them in building their temple.
Bobby: Because it is all internet-based, then you get it right away? You purchase your copy and you have access to it immediately, is that correct?
Katherine: Yes, you do. What happens is that you place in your shopping basket what you want, and as a matter of fact, I am installing Paypal on the website this week, so the hope is that you will click purchase, and in your receipt will be the links to the PDF, and you will have them instantaneously. You can view them online and use them, or you can print them out, however you want to use them.
Bobby: Most parents, of course, want to know about the degree to which this curriculum meets state national education requirements. I am assuming that they do. How do you make sure that what you have created lives up to the standards that are set by the state and federal government?
Katherine: That is tough, because each state has different requirements. I was in Texas, which is a very home school friendly state. I have friends in California and I hear their stories and think that by comparison I am so blessed. What I recommend people do is to go to the website of Home School Legal Defense and join, because they list out, specifically, what your state requires as far as record-keeping and portfolios and standardized testing. Most home-school curriculums don’t claim to meet every state’s requirements because I don’t know, really, how anyone could claim that.
Also, we have had problems with this curriculum accrediting in California. That means absolutely nothing to the school in Texas, so I would say that for a parent who is home-schooling their child, research what your state requires. This curriculum will fulfill all of the history, geography, literature, government, any of those types of subjects. And I would have to say, it would exceed what the requirements would be. It is not teaching to a test. It is a very classical way to learn, and I think as long as you do your research and make sure that you are not missing what your state requires, this will fill what you need.
Bobby: And I would imagine that you, as the creator of the curriculum, have some goals of your own in mind. Where do you hope students are at the end of the program, by the time that they finish the entire curriculum, both in terms of knowledge and devotion to the Orthodox Church?
Katherine: I think of education as a matter of educating the whole person via the mind and heart. As for education of the mind, I would hope that a child who finished this curriculum would have a lifetime love of learning. I don’t think education is anything that is ever complete. The goal is for the children to encounter the best books a culture has to offer, and to encounter timeless ideas and to wrestle with the minds behind them, to meet them in the pages of these books. And my hope would be that when they go on to the university they will be literate and able to enter into the conversation immediately in the classroom.
More importantly, obviously, as an Orthodox curriculum, it is about the heart, and the goal is the Kingdom. That is the goal. I have to admit, the curriculum is a tool. The nave of the church is our school, the hymnology, the iconography. I think the goal of the curriculum is that they can encounter Orthodoxy through the ages. It might be nice to be able to rattle off all the ecumenical councils, and who were the heretics, who were the heroes, and what saint lived when. But really, to encounter a saint is to be given the hope that salvation is possible.
These are living examples of the gospel. This is about relationships, introducing our children to Orthodoxy through people whose hearts have been made whole. They lived in a particular time, they have encountered particular problems. This is real world stuff, these are not long ago things that don’t apply to us. My hope is that it will give them hope as they live their own spiritual lives.
Bobby: From what I can tell from what I have read about the curriculum, it is pan orthodox, and I am wondering, how did you make sure that this would be the case?
Katherine: That is hard, because a living books-based curriculum is limited by the books that are available, and I really feel like it is just recently that we are seeing a large amount of Orthodox literature in English. There is still so much that hasn’t been translated. Oftentimes my teenagers will say, “Oh, I’m sure there is a book on that, it is just probably not in English.”
I think that will only improve over time. We have amazing children’s writers like Dr. Chrissi Hart and Jane Meyer, and Potomitis, and people who are just offering beauty to our children’s lives through their work. In this first round of the curriculum, I did my best, from the books that are available, about many different saints from different places. I think in the first year we include Serbia, Ethiopia, Russia, Greece, Syria, the British Isles, so it is broad.
Another thing I think will be helpful, is that I am working right now with subdeacon Anthony Stokes. He leads a men’s chanters group called Chantus Maximus. He is putting together a list of hymns that they hope to record for the curriculum that will be a beautiful representation of the different styles of Orthodox hymnology throughout all the traditions. I am hoping that by next year that CD will be available.
Little by little, I am hoping that people will be able to find their own experience within it, and then to be exposed to things that they might not otherwise be exposed to.
Bobby: When will this curriculum be available, and how can interested parents get their hands on it? Where should they go?
Katherine: I am hoping in the next week or two. We are doing the very final little tweaks on the website, so it is very close—by the end of the month. I have been making regular updates on my facebook page, and I will announce the premiere of it on my blog, Evlogia. I am hoping that in the next week or two it will be available.
Bobby: Why don’t you give the address of your blog, and also, the address of the upcoming website?
Katherine: The blog is evlogiaonline.com. The website address is secret. (laughter) It’s not ready for visitors yet, but I will announce that web address on Evlogia in the next week or two when it is ready. For people who want more real-time updates, I have my Facebook page and a little widget on my sidebar. If anyone wants to send a friend request, I will accept it, and that way you can have the pulse of what is going on. Hopefully, by the prayers of others, it will be available very, very soon.
Bobby: I appreciate so much you talking with me today, Katherine. Thank you for joining me.
Katherine: Thank you. It was a blessing.