Two aims govern the curricular choices in our elementary grades—first, the student’s formation in godliness, and second, his mastery of the fundamental facts and skills of learning.
We recognize that elementary students, with an ease not available to them in later years, absorb information and are shaped in their habits and loves. Indeed, many essential facts, skills, and habits, if not mastered in the elementary grades, cannot be acquired later in a classroom setting. Thus, a certain seriousness and urgency mark our teachers’ management of class time.
Mastery of Fundamental Facts and Skills
Because reading, writing, and reckoning are fundamental to a student’s later learning, the elementary student at St. Mark’s Academy, before advancing to middle school, must attain literacy—facility in the use of words and numbers. Literacy is a multi-year project requiring a curriculum that flows sensibly from year to year. Successive teachers must provide students a smooth transition and an effective escalation in difficulty. Students must master masses of information and verbal and numeric sub-skills requiring years of practice. Unlike the college student, who can later forget much of the specialized information to which he is exposed, the elementary student must retain the skills and information in which he is instructed, coached, and drilled, or he will be seriously hampered later on.
At our school, a student prepared for seventh grade material has mastered complete courses in phonics and in basic English grammar, usage, and mechanics. He writes in a legible hand in both manuscript and cursive. He composes correct, well-structured paragraphs. He reads aloud with correct phrasing and good expression. He has instantaneous recall of the math facts for addition and subtraction up through the eighteen family, and for multiplication and division through the twelve family. He has automated all the arithmetic processes for working with whole numbers, fractions, decimals, and percents. He sings, plays the recorder, and reads music at an intermediate level.
In addition, this student has memorized a great deal of useful material: much Scripture, including the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments; the historic creeds and hymns of the Church; the noun and verb inflections of Latin; classic poems and portions of historic documents; a framework of seventy key events and dates in Western civilization as well as the fundamental facts of political and physical geography; the names and characteristics of flora and fauna.
But all this, and much else that could be listed (to the exhaustion of the reader), proves of small value if it is not joined to godly character and a growing love for what is good, true, and beautiful.
the Formation of Habits
Habit training gains both its importance and power from the very nature of human beings. God created human beings as body and soul. Students are not merely physical bodies—arrangements of atoms and molecules humming with chemical and electrical activity. Nor are they best described as non-material souls, waiting to escape the physical prison of their bodies. As humans, they are embodied souls, and the workings of both aspects of their humanity flow indistinguishably through all their activity. The soul expresses itself through bodily behavior, giving shape to that behavior by its desires and aspirations. Thus, Jesus said, “Out of the heart the mouth speaks”; and also, “By their fruits (behavior) you shall know them,” indicating that while another person’s heart or mind cannot directly be known, his true intentions and feelings will eventually reveal themselves in his speech and behavior.
Similarly, the body influences the soul, especially through habituated behavior. We may speak of spinach as an “acquired taste,” meaning that one can even grow to enjoy eating spinach if it is made a regular part of the diet. Scripture places great importance on habit training, especially for children. “Train up a child in the way he should go,” says Solomon, “even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Over time, each person’s deepest desires and his habits converge.
Since they do not have direct access to their students’ motivations, our teachers intentionally use the formative power of habit training. They realize that the behavior they model, and the classroom structure and student habits they establish, powerfully influence student motivations. Good habits do not guarantee great learning or godly character, but they do provide an essential pathway toward those goals.
Therefore, throughout the day, whether instructing or supervising, in both formal and informal contexts, our teachers shape the habits of their students.
Our students absorb the patterns of historic worship, learning to show reverence in God’s presence. They respond to their teachers and other adults with “Yes, ma’am/sir”, rise in the presence of visitors, and learn the other courtesies of respect and social interaction, including appropriate body language and facial expression. They learn to organize their materials and manage their class time efficiently. They learn to complete assignments neatly, carefully, and punctually. They become resourceful in resolving questions, and so gradually take on responsibility for their own learning.
the Shaping of Loves
Regularly in Chapel, as students begin and close the academic day in worship, they pray, Lord, open our minds to know what is true, our eyes to see what is beautiful, and our hearts to love what is good, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The True, the Beautiful, the Good—these three adjectives describe what should be at the center of every human pursuit and aspiration. The Apostle Paul commends such things to us as the very stuff of thinking and meditation: Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Such things nourish the soul. They cultivate a student’s moral imagination—the ability to see that life transcends the bounds of the physical senses, to perceive in the sacrament of Creation a glimpse of the glory of God, and to draw from the achievements of human culture a stimulus toward wisdom and virtue.
Since Truth, Beauty, and Goodness are rooted in God’s very nature, they cannot be completely described in human words. Nor are they subject to the preferences of the individual. How then do we access them, and how do we make them the stuff of thinking here at St. Mark’s Academy?
We believe God has given three lines of profitable study for doing so—His Word, His world, and those cultural achievements whose value is time-tested. What does this mean for our elementary students?
It means that our elementary students absorb all the narratives, Psalms, Proverbs, and parables of Scripture. It means they listen to classical music, sing the historic hymns of the Church, view and imitate great art. It means they read myth, fable, fairy tales, selections from classic literature, and memorize well-loved poetry. It means their history comes alive in stories of men and women of courage and conviction, not in the accumulation of pallid statistics or in endless complaints about social injustice. It means they come to appreciate math as much for its order and elegance as for its functionality. It means that their science is meant to evoke wonder in its explanations of the workings of the world.
The Larger Purpose of Schooling
Mastery and formation do not end with the elementary grades. They remain important throughout formal schooling; in fact, throughout the rest of life. But in a special way they must characterize elementary education. The entire educational project of the day school (built upon the elementary years) is well summarized by the educator Mortimer Adler: