We teach history. “Social studies” (aptly nicknamed “social stew” by one of Miss VanDamme’s favorite critics of modern education) amounts to a fragmented hodgepodge of facts and dates, crammed between the covers of a drearily written textbook, memorized and recounted in the form of filled-in bubbles on a multiple choice test, then gone, never to be recalled again. But history—history—is a captivating story of epic figures, engaged in world changing events, with monumental consequences, that imply profound lessons about life.
At VanDamme Academy, history is taught in a three-year cycle of Ancient, European, and American history, with all the students in the school studying the same period at the same time, allowing for animated discussion among siblings, facilitating school-wide history-related field trips (e.g., The King Tut exhibit at LACMA, the Getty Villa, and the Tall Ships tour), and culminating in junior high trips to such rich historical sites as Rome, Paris, Boston and Washington DC.
When the students reenact, in their Ancient History year, the Battle of Thermopylae, with 300 Spartans holding off the massive Persian army by guarding a narrow coastal pass (or, in the classroom version, a single teacher holding off a classroom of kids by defending a narrow pass between desks!); when they learn, in their European History year, about the immortal Magna Carta, passed by barons to limit the power of en evil king, and helping to limit monarchical power for all who followed; when they hear, in their American History year, a stirring recitation of the words of Patrick Henry, who inspired the Colonials to take up arms against the British government and fight for and establish freedom—they are captivated, they are motivated, and ultimately, they are deeply educated.
We teach literature. “Reading,” commonly crammed in among the spelling drills, vocabulary puzzles, and stream-of-consciousness journaling exercises that comprise “English” class, often involves no more than a novel or two a year followed up by multiple choice comprehension tests or the dread “book report,” and mundane excerpts from textbook readers accompanied by instruction in how to find the topic sentence or identify metaphors and similes. But literature is a thrilling journey to other worlds, worlds in which we meet distinctly-drawn and timelessly memorable characters and in which we are exposed to great authors’ unique insights about life.
At VanDamme Academy, students read nearly a dozen novels, plays and stories a year, engage in animated and penetrating daily discussions of plot, characters, and life lessons, learn to see the connection of those life lessons to their own personal experiences, and in doing so become intelligent, thoughtful, and avid readers.
In kindergarten, they are taught to read, seamlessly and seemingly effortlessly, using the ingenious Montessori reading curriculum, which the teacher uses to guide them step-by-enjoyable-step through the reading process. In their elementary years they enjoy such beautiful (and often overlooked) classics as Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White’s classic story of a tragically mute trumpeter swan, who, to win his beloved, must learn the art of the real brass trumpet; or The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s story of an ill-tempered orphan girl and her invalid cousin who bring a lifeless garden—and, simultaneously, themselves—back to glorious, blooming life; or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the story of siblings who join their (very distinct) talents to run away from home, live secretly at the Metropolitan museum of art, and solve the mystery of an unauthenticated Michelangelo sculpture.
In junior high, they are ready to devour adult classics like The Miracle Worker, William Gibson’s play about the feisty and determined Annie Sullivan, who fights the obstinate skepticism of Helen Keller’s family and succeeds in giving this deaf-and-blind child the miraculous gift of language; Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s epic and heart-wrenching story of the underprivileged in 19th-century France; and Cyrano de Bergerac, Rostand’s moving play about the gallant soldier, brilliant wit and ardent lover whose unyielding independence—and unsightly appearance—make him a tragic failure in life and love.
Literature is one of the cornerstones of a VanDamme Academy education. After a decade of discussing these literary classics, our graduates are not just “well read”—they are perceptive observers, incisive thinkers, and passionate valuers.
We teach science. Science—true science—is the process of systematically observing the physical world, thoughtfully and meticulously integrating those observations, and inducing ever and ever broader principles that explain those observations. Science gives the child the confidence, as he walks out of the school doors and looks at the world around him, to point and say, “I recognize that; I know something about that; I can explain that.”
Most science curricula today give the child the confidence that, “I can memorize that.”
Consider how you learned Newton’s Laws of Motion. If your education was like mine, your teacher walked into the classroom, wrote formulations of the three laws on the board for you to dutifully copy into your notebook, and then taught you the related equations so that you could slog through problems in a textbook. You were taught nothing about the long history leading to Newton’s monumental achievement, of the unanswered questions that plagued scientists and were ingeniously answered by Newton, or of the real-world, practical, meaningful application of those laws in reality.
At VanDamme Academy, science is taught hierarchically, meaning that is taught from the ground up, or from the simplest observations to the broadest abstractions that are entirely accessible to the student (i.e., that he can understand fully for himself). Science, like history, is taught in a three-year cycle, in this case of Earth Science, Life Science, and Physical Science, so that all students are studying the same subject at the same time (allowing for school-wide, shared field trips like astronomy nights, visits from exotic animal trainers, and nature hikes), and so that each of these topics is revisited at least once at a more abstract level, with those abstractions solidly grounded in the knowledge already acquired.
The great physicist Richard Feynman said, “I learned early on the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.” Our goal is that all VanDamme Academy students learn that lesson.
We teach writing. The skill of writing is at once supremely important, profoundly difficult, and, in most schools - woefully neglected.
At VanDamme Academy, the skills of writing, reading, vocabulary, spelling and grammar are not all crammed together and cursorily taught under the heading of “English.” Instead, each of those subjects is its own class, giving these vital skills their due.
Over the course of their education in writing, students learn, step-by-careful step, how to form a complete a meaningful sentence, how to write a clear and articulate paragraph, and how to generate a logical and engaging essay. Additionally, the students write sentences, paragraphs, and essays not just in writing class but in all their classes. I relish the opportunity to tell new students who ask, “Will the test be multiple choice?” that they will never, ever, in their whole time at VanDamme Academy, have a test that is multiple choice. The only meaningful test of their knowledge is to discover whether they can communicate it, clearly, in complete, individually-generated thoughts.
We do not hand students a sheet of blank paper and tell them to write, the most paralyzing instruction you can give a young student. Our students learn to always follow a definite process, of brainstorming, ordering their thoughts, determining a theme or main idea, outlining, writing a rough draft, and editing, editing, editing. This process is done at school, under the supervision of the writing teacher, who can offer guidance and support. After nearly a decade of going through this writing process again and again, our students emerge as clear, confident, eloquent writers; this is one of the most notable qualities of our graduates. One graduate, when visiting from high school, shared with VDA parents how intimidated his peers from other schools were by writing, whereas his attitude was, “Give me an essay test and I will knock it out of the park.”
Writing is a crucial and empowering skill for everyone to have, no matter what their interests or career ambitions. Most adults feel it is a skill they are lacking. For VDA students, it becomes second nature.
Across the globe, most math classes revolve around one goal: getting the right answer. If a student can do this, they are said to “get math.” Students pour over stacks of problem sets memorizing and automatizing the steps they need to follow to get the right answer. Too often, these students memorize the steps without understanding why those steps work and where they came from in the first place. The knowledge gained in this way is often brittle and inflexible; it fails the student when he faces a problem worded slightly differently. Many students, uninspired by memorization, conclude that they are “bad at math” and give up.
Our approach at VDA is entirely different. We teach math conceptually, i.e., we teach math as a set of principles that can be applied to a variety of situations. To put this approach into practice, our math teachers lecture: not describing the process by which a problem is solved, but walking students through the logic of the problems, showing the connection between new challenges and old concepts, and discussing the problem with students rather than talking at them. What is noteworthy about a typical VDA math class is how much the students talk about math rather than listening to the teaching and copying the steps from the practice problem. We teach students the vocabulary of math and ask them to explain verbally how they solve problems. And, of course, we prioritize story problems, even requiring students write their own story problems to illustrate the concepts we are learning about.
Why do we take this approach? One benefit is that it is far more motivating to students when mathematics is learned as a logically connected set of principles and when each new concept is something they can investigate with the skills they have learned in previous lessons. But this is actually a side benefit. The VDA approach to mathematics is the only way a student can gain the true value of mathematics. This value is not in gaining the ability to calculate. If that was all mathematics had to offer, it would be a poor use of the students’ time.
Consider a bit of ancient history. Above the entrance to Plato’s Academy in Athens was the inscription, “Let no man ignorant of geometry enter here.” What an odd admissions requirement to have for a school of philosophy. But when one considers that mathematics is the subject that best teaches a child to think abstractly and logically, it is clear why Plato would demand this. Not every child will need to know the quadratic equation in their adult life, but every person — mathematician, philosopher, ballerina, entrepreneur, etc. — needs to be able to think logically and abstractly. A class that prepares a student to be a human calculator is a wretched waste of time, but a class that can teach a child to be a logical and abstract thinker is an amazing gift.
Schools everywhere have abandoned grammar either as unnecessary or as incompatible with the principles they hold most sacred. Educational theorists insist that the fundamental goal of education is to socialize the child, not to force upon him so rigid and academic a skill as grammar. Prominent linguists tell teachers that grammar is an innate faculty and cannot be taught. The self-esteem movement calls for teachers to encourage and praise, not to correct. The diversity movement grants equality to all forms of speech and rejects the notion of a universal standard. Lending support to the myriad of reasons for expelling grammar from the curriculum is the often-repeated and self-contradictory view, “You don’t need grammar; you just have to make yourself understood.”
At VanDamme Academy, we believe that the power to make yourself understood – and to understand - depends critically on a knowledge of grammar.
First and foremost, a study of grammar provides the student with a conceptual vocabulary for talking about language. A literature teacher cannot refer to the adjectives woven into Charlotte’s web unless the students know about adjectives. A writing teacher can’t impress upon students the importance of parallelism in grammatical structure unless the students know grammatical structures. A French teacher can’t explain how to conjugate a verb in past tense unless the students know the concepts of “conjugating,” and “verb,” and “tense.” Developing the ability to use words to talk about words, and to use complex sentences to talk about the complexity of sentences, is fascinating, and powerful, and fulfilling.
We equip our students with the ability to talk about language, and with the rules of standard English that govern it. Whether inherent in language itself or conventions of culture, there are rules – and if a student masters them, he has both the ability to communicate clearly and the confidence that he knows how. From parts of speech, to mechanics, to usage, to the lost art of diagramming and more, we help our students to build a rich and functional understanding of grammar.
Click below to see an excerpt from Grammar Revolution, a documentary produced by two former VDA teachers which features an interview with Miss VanDamme:
Our art appreciation curriculum is a program unique to VanDamme Academy. It is not an art production class where students create their own art, nor is it an art history class where students study the technique, biographies, and historical context of great artists and their works. Rather, we teach students to understand and connect with great works of art with the same depth and meaning as they would novels in literature class. Our goal is to make art, primarily European and American art from the renaissance to the mid-20th century, speak to the child’s experience, ambitions, and character.
To accomplish this, the typical art appreciation class begins with students being shown an artwork with no prior knowledge of its content. Students make careful observations in writing of the details of the painting. From these details they draw small inferences about the painting, e.g. those two are in love, he is trying to hide, they are from different classes. The inferences are then integrated together into the student’s best guess of the narrative of the painting. The teacher then reveals the real story behind the painting and students attempt to identify an abstract theme and connect it to their own lives, to novels they’ve read, to events they’ve learned about in history, etc.
This process strengthens the student’s mind and nurtures their soul. Their mind is strengthened by practicing detailed observation and articulating those observations in precise language, the inferences they draw require both intuition and logic, and the discovery of an artwork’s theme calls on students to perform challenging acts of abstraction.
Art appreciation class nurtures the child’s soul by having them confront the drama of human life in the beauty and clarity of great art. Sometimes they will see a work of art that gives meaning to their own life, such as when a second grader studies Norman Rockwell’s New Man on the Team and thinks of his first day at a new school. Other times great art will call on students to contemplate ideals they can aspire to (or reject) in their future, such as when an 8th grader studies Jacques Louis David’s The Death of Socrates and considers the principles Socrates was willing to die for.
VanDamme Academy has partnered with the Pacific Symphony of Orange County to introduce our students to classical music. Each year, the Pacific Symphony features a composer and a theme, such as Vivaldi and “Forces of Nature.” Throughout the year, students listen to the music of the featured composer and to other works that reflect the year's theme. They do activities that help them to better understand and connect with classical music. At some point in the year, a musician from the Pacific Symphony visits the school and teaches the students about his instrument, his life as a musician, and the life and works of the composer of the year. The program culminates in the school's "Bravo Assembly," a performance in which the students create and present art, dances, skits, and other dramatic presentations to reflect what they have learned from the Class Act music curriculum. They also have the honor of attending a performance at the Segerstom Concert Hall, where they see a live orchestra perform the music of the year’s composer.