21 October 2014

Myth: CM doesn't work for high school.


The reasons mostly commonly given for not using the Charlotte Mason method in high school are variations of the following:

  1. It is not rigorous enough. It is too laid back and casual and doesn't stretch the student
  2. I'll need to put together my own curriculum
  3. A traditional textbook method is needed to prepare students for exams and higher education.

These three reasons overlap in my mind and say something to this effect:

"CM is not rigorous enough for high school so I'll have to use textbooks because I haven't the time {knowledge, experience, confidence, etc.} to make my own curriculum."

The number one reason for abandoning a CM education after using it with younger children, or for not considering using CM in high school, is a lack of understanding of CM's methods. This is usually because we've only read what others have said about a CM education and have not gone to the original source.

My first introduction to the educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason was when I read For the Children's Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay in 1988 before our first child was born.

The ideas presented in this book inspired me and I thought, "This is the kind of education I want my children to have!"

There was very little available in Australia at the time for home educators but the ideas shared by Macaulay in her book stayed with me as I later began to teach our children.

By the year 2000, books on the Charlotte Mason method began to be available here. I bought them all and read and re-read them.

By this time my eldest child was 12 and she was familiar with narration, kept a nature notebook, worked on her handicrafts, enjoyed listening to classical music and loved Shakespeare. I continued in this way teaching our three eldest children with the knowledge I'd gleaned from my readings of other people’s interpretations of CM's words up until they graduated.

Fast forward to sometime around 2010 when our fourth child was 16 years old. He was my late reader and I'd been panicking for nearly two years over what on earth I was going to do with him.

It wasn't until he was around the age of twelve that reading really clicked. He began to love reading historical fiction but he seemed unable to absorb anything presented in a remotely factual form and he baulked at any kind of writing. I came to the conclusion that a CM approach was unsuitable for him.

So off I went on the rigorous route.

Facts! I needed to get some facts into him! I tried a variety of comprehension type books, drill, vocabulary workbooks, memory work and writing programmes but I didn't see much progress and I felt I was short-changing my son.

Was a liberal education unattainable for him?

Was it only for the elite, the high achievers?

These thoughts troubled me.

Then one day - and I know this was an answer to prayer - I began to look closely at Ambleside Online for my nearly seven year old daughter and I knew right away that she would love the books so I started her in Year 1 shortly afterwards.

It was at this time that I began to read Charlotte Mason's own words starting with A Philosophy of Education:

Stability of mind and magnanimity of character...are the proper outcome and the unfailing test of a liberal education. {p. 248}

...We owe it to every child to put him in communication with great minds that he may get at great thoughts. {p. 12}

Like the body...the mind rejects insipid, dry, and unsavoury food...it is nourished upon ideas and absorbs facts only as these are connected with the living ideas upon which they hang. Children educated upon some such lines as these respond in a surprising way, developing capacity, character, countenance, initiative and a sense of responsibility. {p. 20}

Within couple of months I took a step of faith and also started my boys in Ambleside Online. I placed my 16, going on 17 year old in Year 8 where he was exposed to such books as The Faerie Queene, Utopia, the essays of Francis Bacon and Plutarch's Lives. He developed in a surprising way. He developed capacity. It was like watching a miracle unfold.

Those who think a Charlotte Mason education is not rigorous are correct in one sense. The dictionary defines 'rigorous' as severe, strict, hard and mortifying. A CM education is more accurately described as vital, liberal or vigorous.

I've seen high school-aged children pressed by the rigours of their studies into giving up life-giving interests, exchanging them for deadening and insipid facts and exam preparation. Exams have their place but they are not meant to be the goal of education. A CM education is wide and generous and its ultimate aim is the development of virtue or character. It isn't about filling up on facts.

...in the end we shall find that only those ideas which have fed his life are taken into the being of a child; all the rest is thrown away, or worse, is like sawdust in the system, an impediment and an injury… {Parents and Children, p. 38}

A CM education is not casual or laid back. Even a cursory look at the upper levels of Ambleside Online {a curriculum that's as close as possible to the curriculum that Charlotte Mason used in her own schools} will reveal this.

Up until I started using Ambleside Online a few years ago, I'd put together my own curriculum. It was a great deal of work but I thought that was what you had to do. Now that I use AO, I only have to make substitutions to fit our Australian situation or if a specific book is too difficult to get here.

Using a curriculum has been freeing for me in that it provides a framework to build on. Brandy has written an article called Why I Don't Design My Own CM Curriculum which addresses this more thoroughly.

The more of a person we succeed in making a child, the better will he both fulfil his own life and serve society. {Philosophy of Education, p. 3}

Carol and her husband live in Australia and have seven children {girl, boy, girl, boy, boy, boy, girl}. They have always educated their children at home. As of this year their first five children have graduated, and their two oldest children have been married in the past year. The two youngest children are still being educated at home. Carol is a moderator on the AO forum and blogs about AO, home education and books at Journey and Destination.

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20 October 2014

Myth: CM math can only be done with living books.


One more thing is of vital importance; children must have books, living books...

-- Charlotte Mason {Parents and Children, p 279}

You have probably heard it said that one of the most important parts of a Charlotte Mason education is the use of living books. Textbooks are dry, dull, and uninspiring. Real education is done through a connection with the ideas in living books, which inspire children to love learning. You have probably also seen math curricula with a literary approach described as Charlotte Mason math.

It may surprise you to learn that Charlotte Mason did not recommend taking a literary approach to math, and actually used textbooks with her own students. She stressed the importance of first teaching with concrete examples and manipulatives, and once the concepts were firmly in the child’s head to then move on to problems. She also stressed the importance of the teacher. Consider this quote from Philosophy of Education:

Mathematics depend upon the teacher rather than upon the text-book and few subjects are worse taught; chiefly because teachers have seldom time to give the inspiring ideas, what Coleridge calls, the ‘Captain’ ideas, which should quicken imagination. {p. 233}

Unlike other subjects where the great ideas are coming from the living books, in math the inspiring ideas are to come from the teacher.

But, you may say, surely if living math books had been available in her time, Charlotte Mason would have used them? The truth is that Miss Mason believed that math was fundamentally different from other subjects like history, science, geography, and literature, and therefore did not benefit from a literary approach.

I have so far urged that knowledge is necessary to men and that, in the initial stages, it must be conveyed through a literary medium, whether it be knowledge of physics or of Letters, because there would seem to be some inherent quality in mind which prepares it to respond to this form of appeal and no other. I say in the initial stages, because possibly, when the mind becomes conversant with knowledge of a given type, it unconsciously translates the driest formulae into living speech; perhaps it is for some such reason that mathematics seem to fall outside this rule of literary presentation; mathematics, like music, is a speech in itself, a speech irrefragibly logical, of exquisite clarity, meeting the requirements of mind. {Philosophy of Education, p 334, emphasis mine}

In a sense, she is saying that the mind is able to convert the dry language of math into living speech. Math, its logic and clarity, speaks to the mind on its own, and does not need a literary presentation to engage the student.

But what is it about math that makes it a subject that does not respond well to a literary approach? As she says, other subjects are best taught in a literary way until the student reaches mastery, the point at which the mind is fluent in the subject and can translate dry speech into living ideas.

It seems to me that the difference comes from math being its own language. The literary approach can be distracting from learning the language of math. In fact, I would go so far as to say that no new language is ever learned best by a chiefly literary approach.

When children are learning to read, we do not read them beautiful, literary stories about the alphabet and how the letters work together to form words. No, the teacher works with the student with concrete manipulatives to learn the shapes, the sounds they make, and ways to combine them to form ideas.

No one would teach French by telling a literary story in English. No, French must be acquired through the speaking of French.

The same can be said of English grammar {Charlotte Mason did not teach grammar through living books about the adventures of nouns and verbs, for example}, music, and higher level science.

In the same way, math is best learned not through a literary presentation, but through speaking the language of math. Charlotte Mason understood this, and her approach to math reflects it. In fact, her approach to teaching math in many ways mirrors her approach to teaching reading: the use of manipulatives and concrete examples, gradually giving way to more abstract applications of those concepts.

Now this is not to say that you cannot use living books in math. A well-written, engaging literary math book can certainly have a place in your child’s study of math. I would, however, give two cautions: first, that most of the literary math books out there suffer from a common failing that Charlotte Mason recognized: people who excel at math are usually not also people who excel at beautiful writing, and vice versa.

When a mathematically-minded person tries to write a literary story, it often falls flat, and likewise when a literary-minded person sets out to write a mathematical story, it often suffers from a lack of mathematical ideas. A truly living literary math book is a rare find. Be choosy with your living math books.

The other caution would be to ensure that the bulk of the math instruction is actual math. A French course where the majority of the instruction is in English would be wasted time, no matter how inspiring and beautiful the English part of the course. So it is with math. The bulk of math instruction should be in the language of math. In a Charlotte Mason education, lessons are short. Make your time teaching math count by not drowning out the math in flowery language.

In short, math is the most notable exception to the golden rule of a Charlotte Mason education that living books are better than textbooks. Miss Mason was wise enough to realize that the usefulness of living books had a limit, and I think we would be wise to listen to her advice.

Harmony is a wife and mother of a five-year-old girl and almost-two-year-old boy. Math was always her favorite subject in school. In college she studied engineering, and after school she tutored high school and college math and sciences until her oldest was six months old. Charlotte Mason has been her favorite educational philosopher since before her children were born.

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19 October 2014

Myth: CM isn't Christian enough.


Some would question whether or not CM is Christian enough. This question often stems from parents who take seriously the Biblical calling to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. I too take this calling seriously and when considering homeschooling felt the appeal of popular Christian boxed curriculum that had "Christian" words sprinkled through the spelling lists and snippets of verses and moralizations scattered throughout the workbook pages. I would argue that a CM education provides more.

Charlotte Mason was a devout Christian whose beliefs permeate her writings. In Philosophy of Education, page 158 we read,

Of the three sorts of knowledge proper to a child, the knowledge of God, of man, and of the universe,––the knowledge of God ranks first in importance, is indispensable, and most happy-making.

She devotes large chunks of all her volumes to instructions regarding the child and his relationship with God, which she views as a parent’s highest calling and the child's right.

Mason believed the Holy Spirit is the Supreme Teacher, and as parents we are to work in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. Her Principle #20 says we are to "teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life." I find this reassuring. I do not have to know it all. Instead, I can rely on the Holy Spirit to know what my children need and when. I can trust that He who started a good work will be faithful to complete it.

She goes on to say,

We do not merely give a religious education, because that would seem to imply the possibility of some other education, a secular education, for example. But we hold that all education is divine, that every good gift of knowledge and insight comes from above, that the Lord the Holy Spirit is the supreme educator of mankind, and that the culmination of all education {which may, at the same time, be reached by a little child} is that personal knowledge of and intimacy with God in which our being finds its fullest perfection. {School Education, p. 96}.

Those who utilize a CM education will indeed find their days filled with the methodical reading of scripture and church history, devotionals, memorization, Hymns, as well as the reading of Christian classics such as Pilgrim's Progress and poetical works such as Milton's Paradise Lost.

A CM education provides more than these worthy activities; a CM education presents living ideas and teaches the child to think. One of the primary tasks of the student is to accept or reject ideas. In addition, we learn that our reason has limitations, and we learn how to enlist our will to do what is right. CM exhorts us using the words of Christ himself,

Choose you this day whom you will serve. There are two services open to us all, the service of God or the service of self. ..But if we serve God and our neighbor, we have always to be on guard to choose between ideas that present themselves. {Philosophy of Education, p. 134-135}

How do our children know which ideas to accept and which to reject? I believe this comes from being grounded in the Word of God. It will not matter how "Christian" our curriculum appears if there is not habitual examination of everything through the lens of scripture. We must weigh all against the Living Word of God which needs to become an actual living part of our lives.

So rather than examine my curriculum, I have decided I need to examine myself. What example do I set before my children? Do I accept or reject ideas based on the truth of scripture? What are my values? To what do I devote my time and resources? Do I love the Lord my God with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my mind, and with all my strength? This is the heart of the matter.

When I thus examine myself, I find I fall short….quite short. I begin to feel inadequate and overwhelmed. Then I remember the encouragement I have received from Dear Charlotte. I am not alone in this endeavor to bring my children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, to teach them to love the Lord their God with all their hearts, souls, minds and strength. I am to work in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, letting Him lead. As I remember that He is the Great Teacher, the Great Helper, I rest in the arms of the One who also teaches and helps me. I find peace.

I would like to conclude with Charlotte's own words from Home Education, pages 343-344, as she encourages parents in their efforts to bring their children into the knowledge of God, though their attempts are no more than that of the bumbling bee.

The Parent must present the idea of God to the Soul of the Child.––But this holy mystery, this union and communion of God and the soul, how may human parents presume to meddle with it? What can they do? How can they promote it? and is there not every risk that they may lay rude hands upon the ark? In the first place, it does not rest with the parent to choose whether he will or will not attempt to quicken and nourish this divine life in his child. To do so this is his bounden duty and service. If he neglect or fail in this, I am not sure how much it matters that he has fulfilled his duties in the physical, moral and mental culture of his child, except in so far as the child is the fitter for the divine service should the divine life be awakened in him. But what can the parent do? Just this, and no more: he can present the idea of God to the soul of the child. Here, as throughout his universe, Almighty God works by apparently inadequate means. Who would say that a bee can produce apple trees? Yet a bee flies from an apple tree laden with the pollen of its flowers: this it unwittingly deposits on the stigmas of the flowers of the next tree it comes to. The bee goes, but the pollen remains, but with all the length of the style between it and the immature ovule below. That does not matter; the ovule has no power to reach the pollen grain, but the latter sends forth a slender tube, within the tube of the style; the ovule is reached; behold, then, the fruit, with its seed, and, if you like, future apple trees! Accept the parable: the parent is little better in this matter than the witless bee; it is his part to deposit, so to speak, within reach of the soul of the child some fruitful idea of God; the immature soul makes no effort towards that idea, but the living Word reaches down, touches the soul,––and there is life; growth and beauty, flower and fruit.

Joy Shannon is a homeschooling mom who is extremely thankful to have found Charlotte Mason six years ago at the outset of her family's homeschooling journey. Along with her husband, Wes, Joy is learning to "spread the feast" before her three children, ages 15, 13 and 9. Her goal is to implement Charlotte Mason's educational approach more fully each year. She enjoys spending time reading, gardening, hanging out on the AO Forum and talking about Dear Charlotte.

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18 October 2014

Myth: CM uses a sight-word approach to reading instruction.


Charlotte Mason's reading instruction recommendations seem deceptively simple.  Home Education takes 23 pages to lay out the process, with examples of lessons given.  Right there on page 204 is an example of a "reading at sight" lesson using "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" as the text.  But this sample lesson is not given as a model for all reading lessons, nor is it meant to be the beginning of reading lessons or the end of them.

Reading instruction begins with letter play in the preschool years, informally playing with 3-D letters, "air writing," and writing in sand to learn letter names and sounds and later to play with constructing simple CVC {consonant-vowel-consonant} words.  This type of instruction should be a fun diversion, only done when the child has an interest.

The baby of two will often be able to name half a dozen letters; and there is nothing against it so long as the finding and naming of letters is a game to him. But he must not be urged, required to show off, teased to find letters when his heart is set on other play. {Home Education, p. 202}

This already has begun phonics instruction, as the child is learning the sounds of each letter as well as the way those sounds are used in words.  CM suggests helping the child learn to recognize each letter as the initial sound in a word.

Let him say d for duck, dog, doll, thus: d-uck, d-og, prolonging the sound of the initial consonant, and at last sounding d alone, not dee, but d', the mere sound of the consonant separated as far as possible from the following vowel. {Home Education, p. 201}

And when the sounds have been mastered, the child will begin building words, learning how to vary the first letter to change one word into another.

Take up two of his letters and make the syllable 'at': tell him it is the word we use when we say 'at home,' 'at school.' Then put b to 'at'--bat; c to 'at'--cat; fat, hat, mat, sat, rat, and so on. First, let the child say what the word becomes with each initial consonant to 'at,' in order to make hat, pat, cat. Let the syllables all be actual words which he knows. {Home Education, p. 202}

Word building, followed by practice reading the words built, continues until the child has achieved facility with building and reading a host of words using short vowel sounds.  Then the same sort of work is done with long vowel sounds and finally with words ending with 'ng'.

Already a solid phonics foundation has been laid.  The child who has reached this stage will be comfortable working with many of the common sounds and letter combinations.

During this process, work has also been done on spelling.

Accustom him from the first to shut his eyes and spell the word he has made. This is important. Reading is not spelling, nor is it necessary to spell in order to read well; but the good speller is the child whose eye is quick enough to take in the letters which compose it, in the act of reading off a word, and this is a habit to be acquired from the first: accustom him to see the letters in the word, and he will do without effort. {Home Education, p. 203}

This practice in visualizing words starts with the early word building lessons and continues as lessons increase in complexity.

Only after this extensive foundation has been laid {which for some children proceeds quickly but often takes months or sometimes years} do we proceed to the "reading at sight" lessons, which still involve phonics.  The words in the lesson are learned as words, so they are learned by sight, but then they are taken apart and played with as phonetic pieces through word building.

He makes the word 'coat' with his letters, from memory if he can; if not, with the pattern word. Say 'coat' slowly; give the sound of the c. 'Take away c, and what have we left?' A little help will get 'oat' from him. How would you make 'boat' {say the word very slowly, bringing out the sound of b}. He knows the sounds of the letters, and says b-oat readily; fl-oat, two added sounds, which you lead him to find out; g-oat, he will give you the g, and find goat a charming new word to know; m-oat, he easily decides on the sound of m; a little talk about moat; the other words are too familiar to need explanation. Tommy will, no doubt, offer 'note' and we must make a clean breast of it and say, 'No, note is spelt with other letters'; but what other letters we do not tell him now. Thus he comes to learn incidentally and very gradually that different groups of letters may stand for the same sounds. {Home Education, p. 219}

This approach reaches children who face reading challenges. The emphasis on training in visualization, on connecting letters with real concepts, on using the body as part of the learning process, on providing plenty of opportunity for review and practice allows children to build up their areas of struggle. The thoughtful teacher will observe and notice where a student needs more help and focus on those areas, implementing more intentional lessons when those are needed and moving on quickly when that focus is unnecessary.

These steps have been spelled out in more detail by Jennifer at Joyful Shepherdess. With these instructions, anyone can put together a customized reading instruction plan using materials on hand or easily gathered. I myself like to use the McGuffey Primer when we get to the "reading at sight" stage, but many other resources will work as well or better for a particular student.

What appears at first glance to be a simple, unsophisticated reading lesson turns out to be a deliberate, multi-faceted campaign that approaches reading from various directions using kinesthetic and tactile activities as well as visualizing and phonetic work, in small scaffolded steps, in a format that is low cost and easy to implement. What more could we ask for? As Charlotte Mason said,

I believe that this is a practical common-sense way to teach reading in English. {Home Education, p. 222}

Kathy Livingston lives in Texas and blogs sporadically at Piney Woods Homeschool. She's an admin of her local homeschooling support group and a member of AO's Auxiliary board. Long ago, Kathy taught English and programmed computers {not usually at the same time}. Nowadays she wrangles five quirky children, and is thankful for her husband’s immense patience, Charlotte Mason’s wise insights, and the helpful resources at Ambleside Online.

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