Barbara Cohen and Kenneth Welty
Many people have heard about classical education, and oftentimes classical education is linked with the study of Latin, logic, and famous literary works found in high school curriculum. At Lake Lure Classical Academy (LLCA), the classical approach to education begins in elementary school and continues throughout high school. One pillar of classical education is literacy.
Literacy is at the core of the elementary school curriculum at LLCA. As children progress through school, they go from learning to read to reading to learn. Fortunately, reading instruction has come a long way since the stories about Dick and Jane in books that were only used in schools. Today, elementary teachers are using more authentic forms of children’s literature to teach reading. They are also using a variety of teaching strategies for reading instruction to meet the diverse needs of all the students while fostering success. One of the strategies being used at the Lake Lure Classical Academy is to engage students in hands-on learning activities based on what they have read in the interest of making reading even more meaningful. In other words, they are reading, thinking, and doing.
With the help of Dr. Kenneth Welty, a retired professor of education, our reading, thinking, and doing approach starts with a children’s book about a famous problem solver that made significant contributions to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Dr. Welty identified dozens of children’s books about accomplished people in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Most of the books present stories about famous inventors, scientists, engineers, and mathematicians that solved important problems, advanced knowledge, and improved our quality of life. Thus, they feature positive role models that students can relate to, especially females and minorities. Many feature African American men and women that overcame formidable obstacles to make significant contributions to science, technology, and society. Reading their stories involves recognizing the problem being addressed, understanding the issues surrounding the problem, learning new vocabulary and concepts, and following the thought processes that led to a viable solution. This ties directly into the classical model of education. Combining biographies with hands-on learning activities enable students to experience how the heroines and heroes used their knowledge and skills to solve real problems in the recent and distant past. Students apply their new knowledge to design, make, test, and present solutions to similar problems. The following vignettes present a few samples of reading lessons and learning activities that have been implemented in the elementary school’s ongoing effort to enrich literacy instruction with STEM education while maintaining its classical curriculum.
Imagine your second grader building an Alka-Seltzer rocket and then discussing the design process while reading the book Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker. Second grade teachers incorporated the reading of this book during Black History Month, to demonstrate to students how an African-American woman, Katherine Johnson, used math to plot the flight paths of rockets for NASA at the start of the space program in the United States. Students learned that one of the big ideas in the book is how the path a rocket follows to space and back is basically a curve. Students took to observing the patterns their own Alka-Seltzer powered rockets took and compared them to NASA rockets. In the role of mission control, they graphed the curve that each rocket followed (see photo). They also celebrated each flight in a manner that rivaled the joy experienced in mission control when Apollo 13 returned safely to earth.
LLCA first grade students read Inside Your Outside by Trish Rabe and illustrated by Aristides Ruiz. The book took the children on a journey through the basic organs and systems of the human body with flowing sentences and colorful illustrations. Their tour included the brain, circulatory systems, nervous system, skeletal system, digestive system, respiratory system, and more. The students built models of the human body and learned the names of the different parts of the human body. The models were assembled one layer at a time in a manner that ran parallel to their reading. The modeling process enabled students to visualize basic anatomy in a systematic way while the book presented relevant background information in an entertaining manner.
Nikola Tesla is considered one of the most influential scientists and inventors of the 20th century. His theories and inventions shaped how electricity is generated, distributed, and used throughout the world. Much of our modern quality of life can be attributed to Nikola Tesla’s contributions to science and technology. When fourth graders read Nikola Tesla: Engineer with Electric Ideas by Emily Hudd, they discovered many of his ideas were not accepted by other famous scientists and inventors at the time. They learned energy cannot be created or destroyed — it can only be converted from one form to another. They also learned electricity is the most common form of energy because it can be transmitted across a network of conductors and then converted into light, heat, motion, and sound. LLCA’s fourth graders experienced these concepts first-hand using simple electrical components to build and test circuits featuring motors, bulbs, and buzzers that convert electrical energy into useful forms that fulfill basic needs.
Leonardo da Vinci was a great artist, scientist, architect, and inventor. He epitomized what it means to be a “Renaissance Man.” He studied a wide variety of subjects and was accomplished in each one. Students in fifth grade read Who Was Leonardo da Vinci by Roberta Edwards in conjunction with a social studies unit about the Renaissance. They learned how he recorded his observations, discoveries, and ideas in notebooks. One of his notebooks featured drawings of a parachute that looked like a hollow pyramid with a man gripping ropes that dropped down from its four corners. The notes next to his invention declared a man could jump from any height and land safely if he had a tent made of canvas that was 24 feet wide and 24 feet tall. Like most of his inventions, it was never built and tested because the technology needed to bring his design to fruition did not exist at that time. So, how did Leonardo determine the dimensions for his parachute? With this question in mind, the students made model parachutes. They conducted a series of experiments using different size parachutes and weights to determine the relationship between a parachute’s area, payload, and speed of descent. Like Leonardo da Vinci, they recorded their observations and ultimately, concluded the bigger the parachute the slower the descent. Inversely, they discovered the greater the weight the faster the descent. Thus, the size of a parachute depends on the amount of weight that needs to be carried slowly to the ground. Leonardo must have done similar experiments to determine his parachute needed to be 24 feet wide to carry a person safely to the ground. The students’ work gave credence to the saying “great minds think alike” and there are a lot of great minds in fifth grade.
Students at Lake Lure Classical Academy are embracing learning. Building upon the foundation of a classical education, the school is committed to preparing its students for the demands of adult life in a world that is constantly being reshaped by advancements in science and technology. To that end, the faculty uses rich stories and engaging, learning activities to enhance literacy, STEM, and social studies instruction without robbing precious time from each other. When students know that Dr. Welty is going to visit their classes with exciting STEM activities, the teachers are bombarded with questions about the next book they will read and the next learning activity they will do in conjunction with their reading. Dr. Welty has been volunteering at Lake Lure Classical Academy since 2021, and his knowledge of literacy instruction and STEM enable teachers to learn new ways to address curriculum standards. Dr. Welty has taken literacy instruction to the next level with his unique approach to combining reading and STEM.
If you would like to learn more about Lake Lure Classical Academy, check out our website at llcharter.org or call the school to set up a tour at (828) 625-9292. LLCA offers a classical education program that might be the right choice for your child’s education.
Kenneth D. Welty is a professor emeritus from the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Leadership in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. In addition to volunteering at Lake Lure Classical Academy, he is serving as an adjunct instructor for the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Appalachian State University.