Lake Forest Author Endorses Learning As ‘Back To Basics’ As It Gets For Special Needs

Author Cheryl Swope (second from left) recently chatted about her new book, Simply Classical, at Stella & Me Cafe with (left to right) Diann Loida, Sheila Roth, Natalie Colvis, Ali Cavanaugh, Kristen Chibitty and Patti Naeger.

In an era swamped with instant “classics,” local writer Cheryl Swope hopes to restore integrity to that term with a new book, Simply Classical.

“Classical” once almost exclusively meant “of or relating to ancient Greek or Latin literature, art or culture,” and that meaning infuses the Lake Forest resident’s 278-page offering from Louisville, Kentucky’s Memoria Press.

Also infusing Simply Classical, which the Show-Me Shop is selling locally, is Swope’s background both as an educator and as a mother.

By focusing on history, music, literature and Latin, the May release seeks to increase a child’s academic success and restore his or her love of learning, among other things.

It also seeks to build an educator’s confidence in teaching any child and to renew a parent’s hope for a special-needs child.

Swope, who holds a master’s degree in special education and state certification in behavioral disorders and learning disabilities, has worked with special-needs individuals of all ages for more than three decades.

Over time, the professional and the personal dovetailed for her.

Swope and her husband, Joseph Swope Jr., have raised 18-year-old adoptive special-needs twins, Michael and Michelle, from infancy.

After a St. Louis classical school long ago declined to admit the twins because of their special needs, the Swopes chose to home-school them.

“When we knew that we were going to home-school anyway and it didn’t really matter where we lived,” Swope recalled, “then that’s when we moved down here.”

That said, Swope called Ste. Genevieve “a great place to raise our kids.”

Her husband has a familial background in the county in general and in Lake Forest (where the Swopes have lived for the past 14 years or so) in particular.

Appropriately enough, Michelle Swope directly inspired the creation of Simply Classical.

“My daughter has done very well with the classical approach,” Swope recalled. “And she came to me a couple of years ago and said, ‘I want my story to help other children.’

“That’s kind of how the book came about — that and I had been asked to speak at conferences the last several summers on the topic.”

Writing the book took roughly three years, a process which intensified during the third year, when Memoria Press embraced the project.

Their classical education has served the twins well, according to their mother, with Michelle volunteering at the Ste. Genevieve Care Center under Jill Roth, the facility’s activities director.

“My son now works at the Bolduc House on Main Street, with Lesley [Barker, the Bolduc’s executive director],” Swope continued. “Because she has experience with special needs, she has been fabulous with him — he loves working there. She’s just been the best.

“He started by volunteering, and now he has a part-time job there. And his background in the liberal arts, with history and languages, has really benefited him for that, suited him well.”

Latin, in particular, has earned Swope’s admiration for its effectiveness and efficiency, especially as an aid to mastering English.

“It’s ordered, it’s structured, it teaches parts of speech, and of course, it links to so many of our own English words that it’s a study in English vocabulary all at the same time,” she said.

“It fell out of use because of the shift in educational theory to one of a utilitarian, pragmatic approach, where everything has to be practical, everything has to be used in daily life, otherwise we throw it out of the curriculum — not realizing that when we’re strengthening a person’s mind, we’re helping them no matter what field they go into.”

Especially at early ages, Swope similarly praised another educational practice that lately has fallen from favor.

“Rote learning has its place in terms of strengthening the child’s ability to memorize, to recite,” she said.

“So the rote learning of facts, the rote learning of even Latin conjugations and declensions, all of those things — that’s sort of a foundational part of classical education. And from there, you move on to the analytic sorts of elements.”

Today’s entertainment-based culture and often shallow curricula incurred criticism from her.

“I think we have to call our kids back,” Swope said. “They’re not wise enough to do that on their own. That’s part of the other thing with the classical tradition is that the academics were chosen for them.

“Now we have such a push on electives that we’re asking 13-, 14-, 15-year-olds to choose what they want to study. They’re not going to choose Latin and higher-level mathematics. And it did not used to be that way.

“The [traditional] curriculum was designed to strengthen their minds, and it was imposed upon them, heaven forbid. But that’s because the tradition was wiser than they were.”

Simply Classical cites the “most helpful, most beautiful, easiest to use” educational materials, in Swope’s view.

“There are fabulous resources for bringing this sort of education to a school or to a home school, even if you didn’t have the privilege of having this sort of education yourself,” she said.

In that respect, Swope praised Memoria Press for offering easily purchasable curriculum packages that, she said, “really emphasize simplicity and beauty.”

Swope likewise emphasized both the flexibility of her book and the educational approach it espouses.

“It does not have to be that you start at age 1 like we did and go all the way through 18,” she said. “You can start late — it’s not too late.

“You can integrate some of the ideas into your classroom if you’re a classroom teacher. A principal can read the book and integrate some things. Grandparents can do more with their grandchildren than they did with their children.

“So it really is something that can be done in small amounts or in large amounts, and it’s going to benefit any child.”

Favorable reviews have greeted Simply Classical across the educational spectrum.

“It has resonated with a lot of different groups,” Swope said. “You have these academic people … who are saying that it’s one of the best treatments of classical education in print. And yet, you have the home-schooling mom saying, ‘I feel like somebody took me by the hand and helped me realize that I can do this or sat down with a cup of tea with me.’”

Calling herself “very satisfied,” Swope added, “That’s what we hoped to accomplish, was to bring difficult concepts to everyone so that any child, truly, with significant special needs or gifted, but any child can benefit from this. And that it’s an encouragement to people who were not educated this way, so that they say, ‘OK, I can do this.’”

In writing Simply Classical, Swope credited as a mentor Dr. Gene Edward Veith, her colleague on the Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education.

Veith, who holds a doctorate in English, serves as both the provost and a professor of literature at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia.

“His influence is throughout the book,” she said. “He nudged me to write it several years ago.”

In fact, Swope still retains two notes from Veith that bookended the project.

“The first one was ‘You must, indeed, write this book,’” she said. “I had presented a draft to him — that was about three years ago.

“And then I had another note from him that said, ‘I blogged about your book today.’ And those are my three-years-apart bookends.”

Among all its other virtues, Swope said she values the classical tradition for its humility.

“You’re looking at minds like Plato and Aristotle and Socrates or Augustine if you include the Christian tradition,” she remarked. “And it is so humbling to read what those minds thought.

“There’s no way to be arrogant inside of the classical education … Even Socrates himself said, the more he knows, the more he knows he doesn’t know.”