By Jacob Baynham
This year, Kailyn Cripe has her class reading The Count of Monte Cristo, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Odyssey, among other works of literature. A good dose of the classics—just what every high school student needs, right? Except this: Cripe’s students are sixth graders.
Cripe, a 2008 middle childhood education graduate, has spent the last two years teaching at Renaissance Public Academy, a small charter school in rural Oregon whose curriculum is rooted in the classics. “What we believe is that through the ancient teachings, the classical writings, we can actually use these people as the teachers,” she says. “We can use these characters and their flaws and traits to teach what it is to be morally just.”
When her students read Julius Caesar, for example, Cripe asks them whether a moral argument can be made for killing Caesar. And on the matter of valor, Cripe’s students debate whether Odysseus or Achilles was the greater hero. (“The boys love Achilles, just because he’s a warrior,” Cripe says.) It doesn’t matter to Cripe which character her students pick, as long as they are talking. “If I can pull moral questions from the book and we can have discussions about them, that, to me, is where the learning takes place,” she says.
Renaissance Public Academy is a small school, 15 minutes from a farming community called Molalla that grows Christmas trees. “It’s in the middle of nowhere,” she says. “We’re 1,800 feet up in the mountains. We get a lot of snow. We get a lot of wild animals: the occasional bear, the occasional wild mountain cat warning. Definitely deer. It’s very beautiful. Cows wander through the parking lot.”
Cripe commutes two and a half hours roundtrip every day from Portland, a city she moved to on a whim after a stint at an international school in Panama. She found the teaching position on Craigslist and despite the commute, it appealed to her immediately.
Cripe attended a high school in Maryland with a similar classical education. The school instilled in her a love for writers like Charles Dickens and Herman Melville, and philosophers like St. Augustine and Cicero.
Renaissance is only 2 years old but is growing. Cripe’s sixth-grade class grew from 13 to 24 students this year. That means even better discussions, and a happier Ms. Cripe. “The curriculum and the classical philosophy, I just love them,” she says. “I don’t know that I could teach at a school that doesn’t implement something similar.”