Classical Conversations: Modifications for Doing the Challenge Program with a Learning Disability

My 10th grade son started the Classical Conversations Challenge program last year–in Challenge III. This is a pretty rigorous program for any student, and it was a bit daunting for him to start there, with no previous challenge background (we have a new challenge program on our campus). Also, he has dyslexia, dysgraphia, and slow processing speed. We knew we would need to have some plans in place to make Challenge III work for him.

In making modifications, it was important to us that he would not cut things that would negatively affect the class. In Challenge 3, students have a lot of responsibility for leading some of the classes, as well as presenting and debating in several classes throughout the year. I chose to shorten the length of some of his assignments (papers or recitations) or to make accommodations on classes that don’t affect anyone else (such as chemistry) so that he and his fellow students get the most possible out of their classroom experience. I would rather see him memorize 15 lines of Shakespeare (as opposed to the 30 assigned lines) than to just skip that assignment altogether. In this way, he was able to participate with the class and gain some of the benefit of the assignment while still taking off some of the pressure.

My son plays football for a local Christian school during the fall, so he has less time for lengthy homework assignments during those months. Also, he was a little on the young side for Challenge 3, being in 10th grade (this class is for 10th-12th graders). With that in mind, I made more accommodations in the fall, with the goal of increasing his workload during the spring when he had more time and experience.

Proactive accommodations

I sent his teacher a list of the accommodations I was planning to make at the beginning of each semester, and if  my son was able to do  more work than expected, he did–but I tried to set realistic goals up front. This took some of the pressure off, and it also helped him to know exactly what he was supposed to get done. I did not want to get into a situation where we were routinely shortening or removing assignments because he was behind or couldn’t meet the deadline. It was much better to accommodate PRO-actively rather than RE-actively.

Here is a list of the types of things we did last year:

  • I gave shorter assignments at times instead of removing assignments altogether. It affects the class negatively when students do not bring something to the discussion. If I felt he could not complete a writing assignment in time, I would shorten the length of it. Some of these modifications varied from week to week, depending on how many things were due at one time. In the Challenge program there are weekly assignments due every week, as well as many larger assignments due where the student has to budget their time and do a little bit each week toward accomplishing a goal. Some weeks there were so many assignments converging at once that we chose the most important ones to prioritize and shortened the length on some of the others.
  • I made more accommodation in subjects that were done at primarily home, rather than in class. For example, since the science portion is primarily labs rather than discussion, if he was going to fall behind in a subject we make sure it was science. Because of his slow processing speed, it was inevitable that he would need to fall behind somewhere, so he caught up on science over the Christmas break and again during the summer break. With that said, we were careful to make sure he did some science every week so that he didn’t fall more than 2 or 3 chapters behind. I didn’t want him to get into a situation where it was impossible to catch up, so this was a balancing act.
  • We did some of the reading for first semester during the summer prior to starting Challenge, and some of the reading for 2nd semester during Christmas break. By getting a jump start on the reading, it was one less thing to do during the busy school year.
  • Virtually all of the challenge literature for every level is available in audio format, through the public domain (check My Audio School, which is the website our family created for classical and Charlotte Mason educators who want access to audio books in an organized, child-friendly format. Click on the Curriculum tab, then click on the appropriate Challenge level. There are more titles when you subscribe but I have put a few unblocked titles in each category that are accessible to anyone so you can get a sense of how it works). We also use Audible for some titles. We found that several of the needed textbooks for challenge 3 were available on audible. I am finding the same to be true of the other challenge levels as I am currently gathering books for my sons who will be in Challenge 2 and Challenge 4 in the fall. My Audio School only has public domain titles (classic books as well as radio theater) whereas Audible has some of the newer titles (textbooks) that we needed–as well as the classics, if you prefer to spend more to get the professional narration. We use a mix of both in our homeschool.
  • My son typically dictates his papers onto his phone and emails them to himself, then copies and pastes them into Word and does his editing on the computer, which is a big help because of his dysgraphia.
  • Some assigned tasks were difficult for him, such as creating his own study guides, so we worked through it together side-by-side. He and I worked through Brightest Heaven of Invention together, starting with the review questions at the end of the chapter before reading and discussing the chapter, with a highlighter in hand. The book progresses in a very orderly fashion, answering most of the review and thought questions in order as you progress through the chapter. We would read the first question at the end of the chapter, then page back and read through the chapter to look for the answer.
  • Instead of writing out notes by hand he learned how to take notes with a highlighter directly in the textbook. When he found the answer, it would be highlighted and a note was made beside that paragraph such as RQ1 (for Review Question 1), or the page number in the Shakespeare play where the answer could be located, in the case of the Thought Questions. In this way, he found all of the answers fairly easily and highlighted them in the book rather than writing them out on paper.
  • For his history notebook and timeline, he used a timeline app, which would allow him to type or voice dictate the relevant dates and information into his phone, then the timeline could be displayed in a variety of ways. The history book for Challenge 3 has a timeline at the beginning of each chapter, and I allowed him to look at that timeline and select the dates he felt were most important after reading the chapter, rather than trying to extrapolate the dates from the chapter paragraphs. I wanted him to do the timeline exercise, but I didn’t want him to spend too much time on it. Selecting dates from the book’s timeline allowed him to do this fairly easily.
  • Set a time budget for each strand, or for the work as a whole. CC suggests students spend about 1 hour per day per strand on the work. We decided to spend about 8 hours per day on school work this year (6 just felt like it wasn’t nearly enough to get most of the work done for my slow, methodical student). If he spent a little less time on one class that freed up some time for another class, and by sticking to our time budget he maintained a good work/life balance.
  • Students took turns reading Meno aloud in class at the end of the year. My son is able to read aloud, but he can’t understand what he is reading while doing so–he has to either read out loud OR process the content, not both. If he is reading aloud, he is focusing on pronouncing the words and not losing his place, rather than on understanding what is being read. He has been open with his teacher and class about his learning disabilities, and that was (I believe) one key to his success. He has learned to own it and not be ashamed of it, and to advocate for himself. We simply explained the situation to his teacher and asked that he be allowed to follow along in the book in class but not be required to read out loud. Problem solved!

Here are some more specific ways we accommodated within each strand:

Latin: My son had already taken two years of high school Latin with another online program before he started CC. He did not get any accommodation for Latin, and got an A in it all 4 semesters. I remember worrying about how he could possibly tackle Latin when he began studying it in 8th grade, but he did just fine. I have since heard several other parents say that their dyslexic students did well with Latin!

If you choose to make accommodations in Latin, however, you could allow open book quizzes, not count off for spelling, or reduce the workload to only what could reasonably be accomplished in one hour per day, allowing your student to fall behind the class if more time is needed. The year my son took Latin 2 he was also taking an English grammar class, and that ended up being a LOT of homework for him. He didn’t get any accommodations in Latin but I ended up pulling him out of the grammar class 2nd semester, deciding to prioritize Latin and reduce his workload in that way. He had already had several years of English grammar and while it would have been great for him to finish the course, I decided he would do better to just focus on the Latin grammar and vocabulary. If Latin is a priority, you could cut the workload elsewhere to make more time for Latin, or you could set a time budget for Latin (CC suggests one hour per day, per strand) and adjust the workload until it fits within that time budget. 

Shakespeare and Poetry: Shakespeare actually took MORE time than required, not less, especially at the beginning of the year. This was mainly because we had to do a bit more to understand it well. First we read a children’s version of the play (CC sells the Charles and Mary Lamb children’s compilation and I also really like the Edith Nesbit book Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare for Children).

Then we watched a DVD version, and then he listened to the original version on audio. Audible had the exact same Folger edition audios that his class was reading. After reading the play, students read Brightest Heaven of Invention and have many questions to “consider” each week. I read BHI aloud with him and we discussed the questions orally. Each question is answered directly and specifically, either in BHI or in the play itself. He highlighted the answer and marked it “RQ1” or “TQ3”, etc. for Review question 1 or Thought Question 3, as I explained above. In class he could go back to the text and find the highlighted answer if he needed to during the classroom discussion.

After the first couple of plays he no longer needed to listen to the children’s version, and we started saving the videos until the end, as he preferred to listen to the unabridged play first. It became much easier to understand once he got used to Shakespeare’s language and writing style, and the ability to get all the exact versions he needed through Audible was wonderful! We still had physical copies of the books, as well, so he could follow along, highlight them, and refer to them as needed in class and for the oral recitations.

Oral recitations: In the Shakespeare strand, students are asked to memorize 30 lines from each of the 5 plays they read. For the fall I shortened that assignment and he memorized 10 to 15 lines per play for the first two plays. This enabled him to participate in the assignment without the huge investment of time to memorize 30 lines. Our goal was for him to memorize longer portions as the year progressed. He thought this would be IMPOSSIBLE for him, but he surprised himself and did very well with it! We tried to find passages that were also available as You Tube videos (excerpts from movies) so he could watch those repeatedly as he worked to memorize the lines.

He also had to memorize a speech during spring semester (he chose Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech) and he did it! We did a google search of “Great speeches from history in audio” and found many audio and video links to choose from. I especially liked this list of great speeches for men from The Art of Manliness. I am so glad I encouraged (required) him to try to do the assignments, even when we had to shorten them from time to time. There were many assignments (like the memorizations) that he wanted me to remove altogether, as he didn’t think he could do it. He was stretched and he grew in confidence as he realized that he actually could do it, and although he occasionally stumbled over some of the words he recited his lines with a lot of drama and expression.

There was another student in his class who substituted some of the Shakespeare recitations with historical speeches or documents (I think one of them was the Declaration of Independence, for example). A friend of mine in another state said she would prefer her child to memorize a lengthy passage of scripture rather than a Shakespeare play. I thought there was value in memorizing the Shakespeare, but any kind of memory work has value so this would be another possible way to accommodate (by memorizing something different and presenting that instead). My son has rattled off many of the lines he memorized on various occasions in conversation where they were unexpected yet appropriate, so for him it provided a kind of cultural literacy that I am really glad he acquired.

Students are also asked to write a literary analysis paper about each play. I had my son keep the length of his first Lit paper about 5 paragraphs to keep this assignment from taking an inordinate amount of time. In the spring he was striving to write 1,000 words for each of his papers, but the 5 paragraphs seemed like a good place to start for a young 10th grader who works very slowly. Once again, I would rather have him write a short paper than no paper at all, and we worked to increase the length of the papers and their complexity as the year progressed.

There was also a poetry journal component in Challenge 3, where students wrote original poetry (sometimes following strict rhyming or metrical regulations). My son did not think he would be good at this and was resistant to trying it, but I made him do it anyway and he found out that he is pretty good at it! That was a pleasant surprise, and he was no longer resistant to writing the poems. I purchased a nice bound journal for him to write his poems in, so it would be a keepsake.

American History: I was able to get the (incredibly thick) Patriot’s History book on audio through Audible, so that was an important factor in even knowing that we could participate in CC. This book is 50 hours long in audio format, so it is a lot of reading each week. My son was capable of reading it, but the time required to do so may have become overwhelming pretty quick. A Challenge 3 director told me that some kids who aren’t ready for a book like this choose to substitute with another book covering similar topics, but I felt my son could handle it since it is available in audio, and that ended up being one of his favorite strands.

Students are to keep up a timeline and history facts notebook, choosing important dates and events from their text. It is virtually impossible for him to scan a text and pick out important names and dates while still grasping the sense of what he is reading, so he took the dates from the timeline that is conveniently placed near the beginning of each chapter, as I described above. He read the chapter first and then looked at the dates on the provided timeline and decided which ones were important enough to add to his timeline.

He made his timeline in the Beedocs app on his phone.  This app allowed him to add a lengthy note to any of the dates if he choose to, so he consolidated his timeline and history facts notebook on the app. After he decided what the significant dates were I helped him look through the text to find a few important sentences about the date and he dictated those into his phone right in the app. This was a very straightforward way for him to complete this assignment. The timeline and history facts notes are meant to help the student prepare for the end of semester Blue Book exams.

This app also allows you to put a photo with each date for a more visually pleasing timeline. He did that the first week but gave that part up as it takes a lot of time to find good images, and doesn’t add much to his understanding or memory of the actual events. It just looks nice.

He was assigned several research papers and some debates for this strand. The papers were meant to be 1,000 words and he had to abbreviate some of them, especially during the fall. For his first paper he aimed for 5 paragraphs to 2 pages, though by the end of the year (when football was over and he was a better writer) he was able to hit the 1,000 word target. For the debates he often had the accommodation of using note cards rather than memorizing his material. Once again, it just takes him so long to get his work done that I decided I wanted him to participate in the debates but not dedicate a lot of time to memorizing that part. Some of the other students in his class used notes for the debates,  so he was not alone in that.

Math:My son continued taking his math through a different local co op that I have used for many years with all my older kids. He does not receive accommodations for that. At CC the students can bring problems they are struggling with and discuss math and mathematical concepts together. Some students are at a lower (or higher) level than others but it works. Everyone can review or preview material, depending on what they are discussing. My son is great at math, but slow. His teacher does allow the class to solve problems using a graphing calculator. Without this accommodation I cannot imagine how long it would take him to do the work.

Logic: My son watched the  Logic (Memoria Press) material on DVD before looking at it in the book and answering the daily homework. One thing I am loving about CC Challenge is that a lot of the required resources are available on DVD or in audio book format. He was able to answer the logic questions in the book, using pencil.

He could, however, have used an app like One Note or Snap Type to take a photograph of the questions and then edit it on the computer to input his answers. He didn’t need to use this type of accommodation much last year, but I would like him to learn how to use some of the technology tools that are out there before he heads to college, so he has more options should the need arise. I love the Whiteboard feature on One Note and I use it a lot myself. It allows you to take a photo of a whiteboard, and it converts the photo so look just like a whiteboard, plus you can search within One Note and it will pull up words that are on the photos (whether they are white board photos or business cards!), as well as any notes you have typed in.

Philosophy: For Philosophy, the students read and discussed The Consequence of Ideas by R. C. Sproul. This book is also available in audio format from Audible, so my son was able to listen to it. We started the year by watching a video of R. C. Sproul by the same title, which covered some of the same material. The video was not identical to the book (they are designed to go together, as companions). The video is “extra” so it is not required. When we were able to get to it, I think it gave my son more thoughts to contribute to the discussions and a greater understanding of a very difficult subject, but eventually we let that go rather than add more work/time.

Sproul has a free study guide to accompany the Consequences of Ideas videos, so we discussed Sproul’s study guide as we worked together on creating a study guide he could take to class, including some questions he could contribute to keep the discussion going and help elucidate the material. I had originally thought he could USE Sproul’s study guide instead of creating his own, but the material on the videos is too different from the book for that to be useful. He could pull about 1/3 of the material from Sproul’s outline but had to add the rest directly from the reading.


The Challenge program is helping him learn HOW to study and prepare for a class, and the Philosophy study guide is one example. I wanted him to learn the Philosophy–but I also wanted him to learn HOW to make a study guide, how to prepare for a class discussion, how to outline a chapter, etc. This is a challenging skill area for him which took a lot of work. It was a balancing act, as I didn’t want him putting too much time into any one strand but this particular skill will serve him well in college if he can learn how to do it. So for most of the first semester, we worked through it together (preserving his time) with the goal of him learning how to eventually do it on his own (spending some extra time in order to gain a new skill). Also, the Philosophy material was some of the most challenging for him, so he listened to each chapter twice before working on the study guide with me.

Chemistry: Completing experiments together was the main focus on Community day, and kids could ask any questions they have about the text or assignments. For the daily work, my son used an audio book version of the Apologia Chemistry text (also from Audible) as well as the CD Rom version of the text (it is easier for my son to work on the computer than from a physical book, when possible). In some ways he wished he would have had the physical book, however, as he couldn’t take the CD Rom book to class since he didn’t have a laptop.

Another chemistry accommodation I made relates to the lab reports. Students are asked to turn in one formal lab report per module (16 modules altogether). I had my son write one formal lab report per semester (2 total). In addition, he wrote some informal lab reports, and for some labs he did not write a report at all. My son is not planning to go into a science field, and this was another area where we could accommodate to buy him some extra time without affecting the class.

Since community day was primarily for doing labs together, it did not affect anyone else if my son fell behind in his chemistry work. Therefore, this was the strand where I gave him the most leeway to fall behind if he had a busy week with a lot of deadlines. In return he had to sacrifice some of his Christmas/summer break to catch up again, but he took care not to fall too far behind so it wasn’t too burdensome for him.

Now we are starting to get ready for Challenge IV. I am planning to do many of the same kinds of things to enable him to succeed. He will be in 11th grade next year and we are beginning to look toward college. Therefore, as we plan accommodations we will be trying to prioritize two things: learning to use tech tools and learning to work in the way he is most likely to be able to work at college. We will be looking for a college that offers good accommodations to students with diagnosed learning disabilities, but we also recognize that some kinds of help may be hard to come by.

Do you have suggestions that have helped your child succeed in CC Challenge or another high school program? Can you suggest any tech tools we should investigate? If you have a child with learning disabilities in college I would love to hear what accommodations have been available and how your child has been able to survive and thrive in college!