In Classical education, the first stage (known as the Grammar stage) involves the acquisition of facts. Students simply learn as much as they can about whatever subject they're studying. The Grammar stage of history study, then, calls for students to memorize names, dates, people, and events, like the principle figures of the American Civil War, the year of the Norman invasion of Britain, and the battle in which Napoleon was finally defeated.
It's the next two stages, however, which are the culmination of this data-accumulation. The Logic, or Dialectic, stage is when students learn to make associations, to analyze, and to think logically about what they've learned, while the Rhetoric stage is the one in which they begin to hone and perfect their writing and speaking skills.
John De Gree's Take a Stand! program is primarily concerned with the Dialectic and Rhetoric stages of history instruction, though he says that the Grammar stage should never be completely over, and that even adults should constantly expand their history fact base. But all those facts without critical thinking aren't worth much, and he's constructed a course to ensure young learners are able to think about and discuss history intelligently.
At the core of Take a Stand! are a series of DVD lectures. The first two discs are simply a short introduction and a long introduction for parents and teachers, offering the philosophy behind the program, De Gree's educational and personal background, and identifying the fundamental goal of all education: the training of people who are able to think.
He doesn't spend too much time talking about the so-called "Classical approach." Instead, he shows how home learning is an organic process, and that opportunities for instruction abound all day long, sometimes in surprising places. As an example, he tells how his wife's teaching their children from the Bible each morning was really a kind of proto-literary criticism instruction.
The next several DVDs involve De Gree sitting at his kitchen table instructing two or three students directly for the benefit of the viewer. First, he covers the tools of a successful historian, then he helps kids put these tools to use through lessons about ancient civilizations and Medieval Europe, asking questions and prompting student thinking.
This emphasis on discussion and questioning is what sets De Gree's approach apart. He utilizes the Socratic Method of teaching, in which teachers guide students toward truth rather than simply presenting information and opinions and expecting the students to absorb it all as fact. Kids are taught to make statements that can be supported from evidence, and then to defend them against those who disagree.
History isn't simply a matter of fact. Every historian has a perspective, and many historians disagree with each other; the trick is to study the available sources, and make an educated conclusion from that research. Why is this important? Because history tells us about ourselves, the world we live in, the current situation and how it came about, and what we should expect in the future.
At the same time, history is comprised largely of facts, and to interact with those facts students must be familiar with them. For Grammar stage students, De Gree has developed a number of card/memory games that help elementary students (and younger) develop spatial reasoning skills that aren't word-based. So far, he offers both memory and go fish games.
Students are to watch the instructional DVDs directly. Occasionally they will be asked to pause the DVD and complete an assignment, which they will do before moving on. Putting these exercises into practice will help them internalize the information. A teacher's guide provides help for teachers to facilitate conversation, guide and evaluate written assignments and essays, and supplement the content of the video lectures. There are also reproducible sheets for completing the assignments.
A number of consumable student texts with accompanying teacher's editions walk students through each major period of world and United States history, helping them solidify their grasp of concepts and their ability to form opinions based on facts. Titles span the gamut: Ancient Civilizations, Medieval Civilizations, Modern World History, American Democracy and Economics, American History from the American Revolution to 1914, and Modern American History.
Take a Stand! isn't intended to be grade-specific, instead working well for students ages 12-18. Nor is it necessarily intended to be used by itself; De Gree suggests using a separate history text in conjunction with his course. At the same time, if students are doing all the research necessary to complete the assignments in the worktexts, these should probably be sufficient, especially for high schoolers.
It is expected kids will have some basic history knowledge and decent composition skills before beginning this program. They'll be doing a lot of research and a lot of essay-writing, and without a foundation in both they'll likely founder. After all, the great motto of Classical educators is that students need a base of facts before they can be expected to develop critical thinking skills.
The tools of good historians range from the ability to distinguish fact from opinion to the art of paraphrasing and the ability to counter an argument. All of them relate to discussion and debate in some form, and this course is best used in a classroom, co-op, or family with multiple children able to work through the material. Many of the exercises involve conversation, and are difficult to implement with just one child.
From some of his comments and stories in the introductory lectures, it's clear that De Gree is a Christian, but no religious bias of any kind makes its way into the content of the program. All religions are dealt with respectfully, and their historical context and significance is discussed, but he makes no value judgements. This means the course is adaptable to a wide range of backgrounds and ideologies.
The concept behind Take a Stand! is excellent. If kids can't think about history, they have little need to study it, but if there's any universal law of history it's that we all need to be familiar with it. De Gree offers kids the tools necessary to engage historical fact, to analyze others' interpretations, and to form valid opinions of their own.
Unfortunately, the DVD lectures are pretty unprofessional and at this point overpriced (the guides themselves are very reasonable). De Gree doesn't appear terribly comfortable in front of the camera, the editing is poor, and it's clear that none of the scenes with students were rehearsed beforehand. Sometimes it's difficult to make out what the kids are saying, and De Gree is forced at other times to spend unnecessary time guiding students through their answers. To some degree this unrehearsed method is fine because it allows watchers to see the methodology in action, but there's too much of it and it becomes distracting.
These concerns aside, Take a Stand! is a great way to introduce serious history study to mid-grade and older students. We'd probably suggest you wait till high school, and then use this course by itself, though some students may feel a bit "talked down to" in the DVD lectures. Still, the lectures aren't the entire course, and the research and writing kids are required to do should infuse this course with a motivating element of fun.
Respected reviewer Cathy Duffy says this is one of the more practical products she's seen in a long time, and we agree. Whether you use it as a history course or simply as a supplement, Take a Stand! requires students to form ideas, defend them, and if necessary revise them, in a non-threatening environment that caters to a variety of personalities and learning styles.