When Is a Catholic School Curriculum a Finished Product? "Never," Says an Experienced Headmaster
At the start of the fall 2022 semester, Catholic School Playbook interviewed Dr. Mark Newcomb, Headmaster of Holy Rosary Academy in Anchorage, Alaska to discuss how Catholic schools can cultivate a culture of virtue in their school communities. We followed up with Dr. Newcomb at the end of the term to discuss a related topic: how curricular renewal can strengthen a school’s culture and mission. We are delighted to share the interview in full.
Catholic School Playbook: Dr. Newcomb, you have had a lot of experience in developing Catholic curricula for different institutions over the years. What do you think are the most important elements for ongoing curriculum development in Catholic schools?
Dr. Newcomb: Thanks so much for asking. I think that there are at least a couple of essential concepts to keep in mind. One is that it is crucial for a Catholic institution to constantly review how it can be more authentically Catholic and draw from the Church's rich education tradition. So, it’s important to realize that you never reach a point of perfection where you can say you’re done with curriculum refinements. Faculty and administrators should have ongoing conversations about ways to enrich what they offer students and families.
Beyond that, the goal is to enable students to encounter their faith and the sources of their Western Intellectual heritage directly through all their academic, social, service, and athletic activities. This means asking how we can connect the students’ present with the past—through the study of literature, art, prayers, architecture, relics, liturgy, and documents, of different time periods and cultures. With these goals in mind, since last spring, we have renewed our focus on how we teach History at Holy Rosary Academy.
The idea of leading students “to the sources” of their faith and the history of the West has a long intellectual pedigree. In the Renaissance, for example, often dated from the early 1400s to the late 1500s, there was a renewed interest in the philosophy and languages of ancient Greece and Rome. Erasmus, the famous friend of Saint Thomas More, promoted the Renaissance ideal of rediscovering the ancient past. Writing about the true interpretation of ancient Greek and Roman texts, he argued that it is essential to go to the sources themselves, to the ‘Greeks and the ancient ones,’ to understand our Western intellectual and spiritual heritage.
The idea of going “to the sources” has been the inspiration for the faculty’s ongoing work in curriculum renewal this past year. This process started last December with informal conversations among some faculty members with an interest in History and Classical Languages. Those conversations culminated in a series of collaborative meetings and in-service trainings last spring discussing how we could acquaint our students with the original sources more often in their explorations of History. Our aim is to help our students deepen their roots in the Western and Catholic Intellectual Tradition whether from ancient Greece and Rome or in the founding documents of the American Republic. Consequently, even our young students read passages from age-appropriate adaptations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, rather than merely reading about Homer. Upper Elementary students read George Washington’s “Second Inaugural” speech and “Farewell Address” rather than simply learning about the life of America’s First President from a textbook.
Catholic School Playbook: Thanks for outlining some of the important aspects of curriculum renewal and how the process works at HRA. What would you say to those who ask, "Why does my child need to study the original works and art of the past and how will this help him or her in the present?"
Dr. Newcomb: That’s an important question—especially in a world so often fixated on the “latest and greatest” fads or devices in education. I would say that nourishing our children on original sources is essential in an age where news outlets, politicians, and public schools frequently try to sell all of us a counterfeit view of our American heritage and our Christian past. Through our familiarity with the founding documents of our nation and our history, we can recognize false, partial, and misleading narratives and prevent ourselves from being victimized by them. For this reason, our students read not only about the ratification of the Constitution, but actually study the Constitution itself—the source of the American ideal of limited government for, by, and of the People. Likewise, our students study the Christian scriptures—in the original Greek in some of our classes—so that they can go “to the source” of God’s written revelation to us. This approach forms students who are knowledgeable about the past, as well as engaged with and excited by what they are learning.
Following this model, our students are introduced to classical history and culture in grades 2-3, and encounter the full sweep of Western Civilization in an ordered sequence from grades 4-8. This approach enables students to see that the life, self-sacrificial death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, are the center of human history.
Introduction to Greek and Roman Mythology
Introduction to Greek and Roman History
Dawn of Civilization through the end of the Roman Republic
Roman Empire to the High Middle Ages (44 BC -1000 AD)
High Middle Ages through the Age of Exploration (1000 AD to around 1700 AD)
Renaissance, Reformation, and Revolution (1500-1900, overlaps temporally in part with 6th, but not topically)
20th Century and Modern Era
Deepening their appreciation of their Western heritage, students in Grade 5, for example, are now reading selections from the Roman historian, Suetonius, who chronicles the reigns of several Roman Emperors and describes the monuments they built in Rome. The class is also studying the architecture and art of those monuments, touching the living fabric of history.
Catholic School Playbook: That sounds exciting—and ambitious! Practically speaking, how does this all work, with faculty and students?
Dr. Newcomb: Our faculty are introducing more original documents and artifacts—primary sources—by stages and as they—and the students—get more comfortable moving beyond textbooks. So, it’s perfectly fine for a teacher to use a textbook to frame his or her outline for a History lesson, but if the lesson is on Charlemagne for example, our students also read a portion of The Song of Roland, look at images of armor and weapons of that period, and study maps that show the borders of the Frankish kingdom. To supplement the textbook, students learn about art, poetry, and everyday artifacts from the era they are studying. This approach can help teachers become content experts by stages, as they delve deeper into a particular time period—enabling them to share with their students a treasury of information that a textbook may not even mention.
The main thing is at least to start the process of connecting students with objects and documents beyond the textbook. This is vitally important in many areas—especially when you consider that our main student text for early modern history for Middle School offers less than nine pages on the Renaissance, cites no original documents, and includes no photographs of art or architecture from the period.
On that score, we added a number of Art History books last spring to our faculty resource list and we are continuing to expand the resource materials available. In our efforts to connect students more directly with the past, we have also been greatly blessed to have the advice of Mr. Rick Ford and Mrs. Chrissie Ford, professional historical reenactors and researchers, assisting us with everything from presentations on the Battle of Agincourt (A.D. 1415) that showcased period weapons, to considerations of 17th Century music to accompany our upcoming production of Cyrano de Bergerac. Mrs. Renée Morhain, Art Teacher at HRA, has also done an impressive job of connecting weekly projects with the themes studied in Lower and Middle School History, Religion, and Literature classes. We are experiencing something of a Renaissance of our own at HRA, as these elements come together to give students a more detailed and colorful picture of their past.
Mr. Rick Ford drills high school students in the finer points of choreographed fencing during rehearsals for Cyrano de Bergerac, HFA's spring play.
Catholic School Playbook: Are you and your team focused only on refining the curriculum in the Elementary and Middle School at HRA?
Dr. Newcomb: No, actually the same spirit of going “to the sources” has inspired our efforts for Upper School, where we are focused on providing students with greater historical context for the literature they read in seminar courses. Almost every part of the curriculum renewal process for Upper School aims at furnishing students with the tools they need to make an excellent showing for the senior capstone Thomistic Thesis project, the jewel in the HRA crown of achievement.
One part of that initiative is having students encounter Euclid by 9th Grade, or even earlier for advanced students—until recently we were primarily teaching Euclid in 11th Grade. Ensuring that students have Euclidean Geometry by 9th Grade or earlier gives us many options to support students seeking advanced study—the number and kind of classes in Mathematics remains unchanged—we have simply shifted their order.
Catholic School Playbook: As a Catholic school, what is the purpose of focusing on the sequencing of Mathematics classes? Does this process have implications for the rest of the high school curriculum?
Dr. Newcomb: Realigning our Mathematics sequence so that students take up Geometry earlier in their high school studies offers them several major advantages. Exploring the works of an ancient Greek Mathematician in 9th Grade or earlier, will deepen and reinforce their understanding of antiquity in Ancient Seminar that same year. This move will also help Holy Rosary Academy’s students make a stronger showing on the PSAT and SAT, since most American students have Geometry before their junior year of high school. Ninth-grade Geometry is also standard for a number of classical schools and academies, including Chesterton Academies, Great Hearts Schools, and the Hillsdale Classical Academy curriculum. Classical education is experiencing its own Renaissance across America, and since we attract teachers and families from other, similar institutions, it benefits them and us to have a structure that facilitates the integration of new faculty and students to our educational plan.
Beyond these considerations, however, the primary aim in the resequencing of Mathematics classes is to provide a strong foundation in Logic at the very start of high school studies at HRA. We think that it is vitally important for freshmen to explore postulates, theorems, proofs and other elements of deductive logic, including basic “if, then” statements, well before they are wrestling with syllogisms as juniors and seniors.
Catholic School Playbook: Is your Upper School team focused on other areas besides providing more historical contexts for Literature and re-sequencing Mathematics classes?
Dr. Newcomb: Yes, we have also been doing some fine tuning with our high school seminars. We have the same number of them as before—the only adjustment has been including a fuller consideration of the Reformation in our Renaissance and the Reformation course. It is essential for our students to better understand what happened leading up to and during the early emergence of Protestantism. In this way, we hope to help all of our students better understand what the Catholic Church teaches about herself, and why.
In addition to those adjustments, the other element of curriculum renewal currently underway at HRA is having juniors complete an Oration as their capstone project in Composition. As with the Thomistic Thesis senior composition project, they will make a public presentation and attempt to persuade an audience on a topic of interest to the student.
Catholic School Playbook: With the Oration, it sounds like you and the faculty are clearly focused on Rhetoric as well as Logic for Upper School curriculum renewal. Can you tell us more about what has inspired this initiative?
Dr. Newcomb:Yes, absolutely! In the Summa Theologiae and Summa Contra Gentiles, Saint Thomas Aquinas deploys a whole array of strategies to present an argument. Many of these tools are not rooted in the formal structure of a syllogism—this is especially true in the way that Saint Thomas frames objections to his thesis and offers responses to those objections. We want to give these same tools to our juniors, as they look ahead to the Thesis project in their senior year. The Oration gives students a chance to study Aristotle’s ideas about how to build persuasive arguments based on appeals to human ethics, emotions, and reason (ethos, pathos, and logos) as well as different kinds of classical rhetoric. This is also important for our students’ success in life outside of HRA, where attempts to persuade peers, co-workers, and friends of the truths of our Christian faith or an important matter of morality, will not usually take the form of a Thomistic syllogism. We are always striving to give our students a Catholic education that also enables them to succeed in their current historical and cultural setting.
Catholic School Playbook: Overall, it sounds as if the HRA team is working to go deeper in the areas of Catholic faith and identity. What would you say to those who might wonder if these refinements are consistent with the educational philosophy of the school?
I would say that, in all of these efforts, our Holy Rosary Renaissance is truly a return “to the sources.” This is an authentic and exciting renewal—a strengthening and deepening of the educational mission of Holy Rosary Academy—not a deviation or divergence. We have always taught History, Literature, Seminars, Composition, and Mathematics. We continue to do so, but are refining a few things here and there. In the whole process, no new classes have been added and none removed. We are emphasizing original sources, adjusting the order of some topics, deepening the historical context of seminars, and expanding the focus of the junior writing project. In so doing, we are more fully embracing the classical learning and Catholic formation that have always been the hallmarks of an HRA education.
Dr. Mark Newcomb is the headmaster of Holy Rosary Academy (HRA), a PK-12 independent school in Anchorage, Alaska that “assists parents, the primary educators, to form students in faith, reason, and virtue through a classical education in the Roman Catholic Tradition.” He previously served as principal of St. Theresa Catholic School, a PK-8 classical parochial school in Sugar Land, Texas for six years. Under his leadership, St. Theresa received the highest honor from Ruah Woods Institute as a Theology of the Body campus, won a 2020 National Blue Ribbon award, and celebrated record enrollment.