Classical Conversations Challenge Program with a Learning Disability

After a year of Classical Conversations with my younger set we decided to take the plunge and enroll two of our older boys in the Challenge Program, which was new on our campus last fall. Our 10th grader was in Challenge III and our 8th grader was in Challenge A. Challenge A and B are for 7th-9th graders and there are 4 senior high levels (Challenge I-IV).

Why I was drawn to Classical Conversations for my older kids

I was drawn to Classical Conversations Challenge program because of the academic rigor and the opportunity for my children to interact with other teens and another adult (besides myself and my husband) on a weekly basis. In our busy home school (with 5 kids still at home) I haven’t had the time to discuss history and literature and worldview and philosophy with my teens as much as I did with their oldest brother (now in college).

Surviving–or thriving–in High School with learning disabilities?

I wasn’t sure how my older son would handle the Challenge Program in light of his learning disabilities. He has dyslexia, dysgraphia, and a slow processing speed, which means that completing all his schoolwork takes quite a bit of time. We have used some accommodations over the years, primarily audio books and various technical helps…but we struggled with other co-op style classes because I didn’t have any control over his workload and many times he felt completely under water trying to get everything done.

Last year (9th grade)  we were definitely in survival mode. He took two local co op classes and 3 online co op classes, plus two classes with me (6 credits). I ended up putting my two classes on hold and doing the majority of the work with him over the summer, after all his local and online co op classes ended. Even so, he was often the first one up during the school year, in order to hit the ground running, and frequently he was the last one in bed at night, just trying to get everything done. We didn’t have much in the way of Christmas, fall, spring, or summer break as he had to spend his breaks trying to catch up where he had fallen behind or doing the work for my two classes (Government and American Literature), which had been put on hold.

The Classical Conversations model keeps the parent as the primary teacher. On community day the kids go to class and their tutor leads them through their six strands (subjects), facilitating discussions and checking on their assigned work, helping with math and chemistry questions, listening to their speeches and debates and critiquing their recitations and papers. But the standards by which the student will be graded and the scope of the workload–as well as the final grade–rest with the parent. This gave me a lot of freedom to tweak my child’s workload and assignments to fit his needs. It was a huge relief to know that I am in control, yet he still has the benefit of the classroom environment and the great discussions and opportunity to learn from others. Even with the modifications we made this past year he benefitted from a rigorous, college-preparatory, stimulating course of study, and  even with some modifications it was no walk in the park–believe me. The Challenge courses are just that–extremely challenging, especially at the higher levels.

After 4 weeks in the program, I had not yet had to change any of the standards and he had done everything his classmates had done, yet the sense of panic was gone. He knew that I was in control and he was able to rest in that. We already had a sense of peace that things were not going to get crazy like last year. We put a plan in place and we committed to work the plan as needed.

As the year progressed, we did have to make some modifications, as we knew we would. I will write more about that in the next post. Although we modified some of the CC work, he ended up accomplishing an incredible amount of rigorous, college preparatory work, and he felt more in control of his schedule and his life. And that was so freeing.

Work/Life Balance

Classical Conversations suggests that kids in the Challenge program spend 1 hour per day on each of the 6 strands. My son had spent about 10 to 12 hours per day the previous year (in 9th grade) on homework (or about 2 hours per subject), because he works so slowly and his workload was quite heavy with a college preparatory classical curriculum. This past year in CC the curriculum was even more rigorous–yet we had some freedom to treat it like a buffet and glean from it as much as we could without feeling like we had to stuff ourselves with every dish.

We generally tried to use the “1 hour per strand per day” as a guideline and go from there. He still had to work more than 6 hours on some days–and sometimes he had to do some work on Saturdays–but he definitely did not work 12 hour days. Once the workload started creeping beyond the guideline, we had a plan in place to start making some accommodations. Our goal was not–and will never be–working just 6 hours per day. That is not realistic for him, sadly, if he wants to pursue this type of an academic load. And he does! But even an 8 hour day was so much better than what my son did the previous year, and he seemed to have more “work/life balance”.

*NOTE: I have seen it recommended (from CC) to offer as much accommodation as necessary to try and keep that “1 hour of work per day, per strand” model, so that is definitely a valid choice. We have chosen to use that as a guideline, while stretching it some to enable my son to get more of the assigned work done. This is a personal choice that he and I made together, and we felt it gave us the best of both worlds–he got the majority of the work completed but without the intense stress he felt his freshman year.

Accommodating for age as well as disability:

My son was a young student for Challenge 3. He was a sophomore, not a junior or senior as some of his classmates were. Some of the curriculum requirements would have been a jump for him even without a learning disability. So we modified some of the standards for the fall (shortened the required length of research papers and memorized recitations, for example) with the goal of being able to increase the length during the spring when he would have more experience.

In my next post I talk about the specific modifications we made last year for Classical Conversations Challenge III.