Teacher guides students toward discovery at Naperville's Covenant Classical School

  • Covenant Classical School second-grade teacher Kim Sceggel of Elgin gets a thumb-ups from her students after recitation class in Naperville.

      Covenant Classical School second-grade teacher Kim Sceggel of Elgin gets a thumb-ups from her students after recitation class in Naperville. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 1/13/2020 9:46 AM

Kim Sceggel spends a good chunk of one Monday afternoon asking second-graders about lima beans, and a better chunk of it hearing what they've observed about the light green legumes in both dry and water-soaked varieties.

Covenant Classical School second-grade teacher Kim Sceggel of Elgin works with her students as they take a closer look at a lima bean as part of their science study of botany at the private Christian school in Naperville.
  Covenant Classical School second-grade teacher Kim Sceggel of Elgin works with her students as they take a closer look at a lima bean as part of their science study of botany at the private Christian school in Naperville. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

The beans smell like a puzzling variety of things to the 7- or 8-year-old nose: ice cream, coffee, slime, mac and cheese, garbage, wet soaked corn, peanut butter, orange juice, spoiled milk.

But when they're not sniffing the beans their teacher brought into class at Covenant Classical School in Naperville, the students make other, slightly more insightful, observations. Some beans are split, the students notice, and some are cracked. Others have visible lines.

This is what Sceggel is after as she teachers a botany lesson at the private Christian school for kindergarten through eighth grade. Exploration. Appreciation. Learning.

Ellen Fulton, 8, takes a close-up look at a lima bean during class with second-grade teacher Kim Sceggel at Covenant Classical School in Naperville.
  Ellen Fulton, 8, takes a close-up look at a lima bean during class with second-grade teacher Kim Sceggel at Covenant Classical School in Naperville. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

"A lot of this 'observe and discover' is important to try to teach them how to think instead of just feeding them facts," Sceggel said. "As much as I can, I try to have them discover things rather than me telling them stuff."

Sceggel, 63, of Elgin has been a teacher for three decades, and she's worked at Covenant Classical for eight of the 10 years the school has been in existence. Administrators enjoy how she fits in with the classical education method, which focuses on teaching students how to think, question and write, while giving them a broad base of knowledge about the history and geography of the world.

"She's very patient with little squirmy bodies," Covenant Classical Principal Lisa Eekhoff said. "She also does a good job of calling them to deeper learning, even when they're young."

Cue the lima beans.

Sceggel brought them into her classroom of 17 students to teach about the difference between a one-part seed, called a monocot, and a two-part seed, or a dicot, and to show what a cotyledon is. (Spoiler alert: it's a seed coat.)

The lesson was part of the second grade's focus on botany, and it followed a trip in the fall to a forest preserve that involved collecting seeds and nurturing them to grow.

"I especially love figuring out how to help them connect what they just learned to what they already know," Sceggel said. "It makes their learning deeper."

Building depth over time is a calling card of the classical method, at least how it's applied at Covenant Classical, Head of School Tom Stoner said.

Covenant Classical School second-grade teacher Kim Sceggel of Elgin follows along with her students during recitation class in Naperville. Students come together twice a week for recitation to practice Bible verses, a history timeline and other facts set to music and gestures to help with memorization.
  Covenant Classical School second-grade teacher Kim Sceggel of Elgin follows along with her students during recitation class in Naperville. Students come together twice a week for recitation to practice Bible verses, a history timeline and other facts set to music and gestures to help with memorization. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

The grammar school phase from kindergarten through fifth grade involves a lot of memorization -- learning things like Bible verses and a lengthy history timeline, from creation to the present, by connecting facts to songs and movements and practicing it all during recitation sessions twice a week.

"Their minds are like sponges," Stoner said of the school's younger students, including Sceggel's second-graders. "They're learning a lot of information that they'll grasp in greater depth as they get older."

During the logic phase, from sixth through eighth grade, students build upon their years of factual knowledge by questioning it.

"We want them to get a bigger picture of the world and then see their place in it," Sceggel said.

Sceggel's place in the world originally was Connecticut, but she moved to Elgin when her husband got a job there more than 30 years ago, and it has remained her home. She's taught at two other schools in Elgin and Wheaton, both Christian, one of them also following the classical mode.

Covenant Classical School second-grade teacher Kim Sceggel of Elgin says she helps her students observe and discover to make connections and gain deeper learning.
  Covenant Classical School second-grade teacher Kim Sceggel of Elgin says she helps her students observe and discover to make connections and gain deeper learning. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

She said she enjoys the way Covenant Classical lays out its curriculum, with history taught chronologically. First-graders start with learning ancient history, and Sceggel's second-graders spend the year learning about Greece and Rome.

The literature curriculum follows the phase of history, so she helps her students through children's books about the Trojan War and the Greek gods.

"Kids need to understand ideas that have shaped our culture," Stoner said. "They find the world a really interesting place and they want to understand it."

It's an hour commute each way for Sceggel to get to Covenant Classical's south Naperville location, on the second floor of Wheatland Salem Church at 1852 95th St. But she's not planning to switch to a school closer to home or retire anytime soon.

"It's so worth it," she said. "I love teaching here."

Curriculum vitae

Name: Kim Sceggel

Age: 63

Town: Elgin

Family: Married with a 35-year-old son and a 2-year-old grandson

Education: Bachelor of Science in elementary education from Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, 1978; Master of education in integrated curriculum and instruction from Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, 2007

Certifications: Illinois teaching certificate in elementary education; permanent Massachusetts teaching license for kindergarten through eighth grade; Lifetime Educator's Certificate as an elementary teacher from the Association of Christian Schools International

Teaching experience:

2012 to present: Covenant Classical School in Naperville

2007 to 2012: Clapham School in Wheaton

1994 to 2007 and 1980 to 1984: Westminster Christian School, Elgin

1978 to 1980: Christian Heritage School, Trumbull, Connecticut

Teacher tips

1. Keep learning and growing yourself! Your students will benefit, and you'll enjoy teaching more.

2. Ask questions that encourage wonder, guide discovery, and increase depth of learning. It's a delight to see students think deeply and integrate new learning with other subjects and prior learning.

3. Consider the difference between childish irresponsibility and willful disobedience in your students. You'll be better able to address student behavior this way.

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