Field Trip: At Mars Hill Academy, kids learn through songs and chants

October 7, 2014

Roxanna Swift, WCPO Contributor

School: Mars Hill Academy
Where: Mason, Ohio
Grades: Kindergarten through 12th

Walking through the halls of Mars Hill Academy, chanting, singing and recitation can be heard from classrooms. These are the sounds of learning at the private Christian school in Mason, where teachers use what is known as the classical education model.

Mars Hill Academy is the only classical Christian school in Greater Cincinnati. The private kindergarten through 12th-grade school serves about 345 students, drawing from all over the region, with students coming from as far north as Dayton and as far south as Covington. The school was founded 18 years ago by Tom and Linda Thistleton, who, having researched the method, felt it fit with their vision for their family and community.

The academy is one of only 30 schools in the nation fully accredited by the Association of Classical & Christian Schools.

Classical education is split into three grade groups, each with its own instructional methods and learning goals.

“It’s a transition that matches the developmental stage of the child,” said Michaux Merhout, advancement manager of outreach and public relations.

Learning in stages
The first of the three groups is grammar school, kindergarten through sixth grade. During this stage, students learn through music, chanting, movement and repetition. Whether the lesson is on geography, history, grammar or another subject, students take in the information through rhythms and motions.

“I think it’s so effective because they’re able to take in those facts and foundational information and retain them,” said Traci DeBra, who teaches third and fifth grades.

The grammar school stage “accesses every type of learning style” and engages the students’ senses, helping them transition to higher levels of thinking, she said.

“When they are young, and they like the business of rote and recitation and chants and songs, we take advantage of that,” said James Waldy, grammar school principal.

Singing and chanting taper off in fifth and sixth grades. Students continue to sing hymns, but singing and chanting are not used for learning in seventh through 12th grades. However, the foundation of facts and information from the grammar stage stays with them.

Learning Latin chants at a young age helped teach eighth-grader Drew Deister how to spell and deduce the meaning of words.

“It helps me read books faster and learn more through what I read,” he said.

The second stage focuses on logic. During this stage, geared toward seventh- and eighth-graders, students develop their critical thinking and argumentation skills.

An innovative way of teaching

“We teach them to do it from a perspective of love for your neighbor, so they‘re not just out to catch people and deconstruct them” Waldy said. “It’s more of a ‘Come, let us reason together’ approach to communicating with one another.”

Logic is followed by the rhetoric stage, which lasts from ninth through 12th grade. In that stage, students gain public speaking and persuasion skills.

“High schoolers feel very knowledgeable, so we work with that,” Merhout said. “We want them to be able to stand up and stand for what they believe.”

The ability to communicate helps builds confidence and improves the way they interact with others, DeBra said.

“Students are not only able to acquire facts and information, but they are able to articulate it,” she said.

Many students from Mars Hill Academy also become National Merit Scholars, participate in national spelling bees, and achieve perfect scores on national Latin exams.

Despite the achievements, a common misperception persists that students are only learning from the classical era.

“What they’re learning is so applicable to today’s world,” Merhout said. “We do go back to the classics, but it’s not an old-fashioned type of thing. It’s really innovative.”

Although innovative, staffers do believe “there is a tried and true way of teaching young people,” Waldy said. While many schools are geared toward teaching students to meet state testing requirements, classical education is not focused on teaching students specifically for these requirements. However, they tend to perform well on standardized tests, Merhout said.

The average SAT composite critical reading and math score for Mars Hill Academy 2014 graduates was 1,270 (with 660 for critical reading and 610 for math). The national average for college-bound students was 1,010 (with 496 for critical reading and 514 for math

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Photo: Mars Hill Academy Grammar School students recite a chant with hand motions