31 October 2014

Myth: CM's philosophy can be well understood through secondary sources.

Can you believe this is the last day of October? This series has turned out to be an amazing gift to the Charlotte Mason community, and I am so incredibly grateful to the fantastic team of guest posters. I cannot tell you how much fun it was to read each post as it arrived in my inbox, and to stay up at night formatting them, all the while knowing how much you all were going to love them.

Today's myth brings us full circle to where we started. On the first day, I wrote this:

[I]f we all made it a point to really study the philosophy and read original sources, there would be far fewer myths floating around out there.

I firmly believe this.

When I came up with the idea for this series, I asked a few friends to list the CM myths that they regularly encountered, and we only made it up to about 20. I knew that if I was really going to pull off a 31 Days series, I needed to have a complete list before we began.

Want to know how I discovered the other myths?

By reading some popular CM blog posts that I found on Pinterest.

I know, I know. I probably shouldn't say this. In my defense, I went there hoping to discover myths and misconceptions that these posts were refuting, thinking I could cover them, too. Instead, I found posts that were propagating myths about all sorts of Charlotte Mason topics.

I'm a big picture person {an INTP, if you're into MBTI}, and so when I stepped back and looked at my final list, I realized that almost every single myth had one of two origins: reading secondary sources without knowledge of Charlotte Mason's original writings, or taking a passage of an original writing out of the context of the whole of Charlotte Mason's work.

Does this mean secondary sources are bad?

Good heavens, no! But it does mean that they are incomplete. My very, very favorite secondary source is Susan Schaeffer Macauley's For the Children's Sake, but even she does not make it thoroughly through all of Charlotte Mason's 20 Principles.

Secondary sources are often good introductions. Or they can be an encouragement in hard times. They inspire us with contemporary application. They have many uses, and I, personally, am very much in favor of them. And I suppose I am a secondary source, seeing as I just published an entire series about Charlotte Mason!

But I think we need to understand the limitations.

Let's use a Biblical analogy. If all I ever did was read secondary sources about the Bible, without reading the Bible itself, I wouldn't be able to separate Biblical fact from an author's opinion. We can only distinguish truth from opinion or elaboration when we are very familiar with the original.

And that is a passion I have: that we know the original. I think it's important for any subject that is dear to our hearts -- for the Bible as Christians, and for educational philosophy as teachers and tutors for our children.

I love to write and think about Charlotte Mason's philosophy. But I don't want you to just take my word for it. Read her for yourself.

Which brings me to my formerly Top Secret project.

Off and on during the summer, I mentioned I was "working on things." One of the "things" is a study guide called Start Here: A Journey Through Charlotte Mason's 20 Principles. Right before we started the series, I realized that it would perfectly dovetail with where I wanted this series to lead us: to the original.

So when I say 31 Days has worn. me. out. {and it has}, it's not just the series itself, but it's the entire process of getting this study guide ready for the last day.

There are other ways to read the original Charlotte Mason, of course. You could grab one of her volumes and read it from cover to cover. That is how I started, and it was certainly beneficial.

It took me years to realize that the 20 Principles were Charlotte Mason's way of distilling her entire, beautiful philosophy into its 20 most important aspects. These aren't small things -- they are some of the greatest thoughts we can think about the education of children.

Using Susan Schaeffer Macauley's wonderful book, For the Children's Sake, along with Miss Mason's volumes, articles that appeared in Miss Mason's magazine The Parents' Review, the best blog posts on these subjects, and discussion questions meant to help you dig deeply, you'll find that Start Here is a comprehensive guide to the big ideas governing Charlotte Mason's philosophy. While there are a handful of blog posts in each lesson, the emphasis is upon the primary sources. Because it includes required reading assignments, as well as optional, and also sample discussion questions, the guide will work for groups as well as individuals wanting to study more on their own.

And I'm giving away two free copies this weekend! You can enter to win today {10/31/14} or tomorrow {11/1/14} and I will choose and contact two winners by Monday. {Winners must reply to my email within 24 hours or new winners will be chosen.} The winners should appear in the contest widget in this post once the contest is over, and they'll also be announced on my Facebook page as well.

And for those of you wanting to buy a copy, use the code LAUNCH2014 from now until 11/10/14 to get a $2 discount.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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30 October 2014

Myth: CM history completely ignores events in favor of focusing on an individual person.

This myth, like a lot of the other myths in this series, originates from taking Charlotte Mason's words out of context. So, let's look first at what she said.

The fatal mistake is in the notion that he must learn 'outlines,' or a baby edition of the whole history of England, or of Rome, just as he must cover the geography of all the world. Let him, on the contrary, linger pleasantly over the history of a single man, a short period, until he thinks the thoughts of that man, is at home in the ways of that period. {Home Education, pp. 280-281}

This, from Miss Mason's first volume. Unfortunately, individual families, and even curricula, run with this quote and design entire history courses made up of nothing but biographies {and sometimes poorly written ones at that}.

The key to understanding what Miss Mason was trying to do, however, is to keep in mind the whole. This idea of "lingering pleasantly over the history of a single man" is one of many ideas Miss Mason had about history. In this same chapter of the volume, for example, she also suggests the use of primary sources:

...the principle being, that, whenever practicable, the child should get his first notions of a given period, not from the modern historian, the commentator and reviewer, but from the original sources of history, the writings of contemporaries. The mother must, however, exercise discrimination in her choice of early 'Chronicles,' as all are not equally reliable. {Home Education, pp. 285-286}

Miss Mason names, among other works, the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England  and Asser's Life of King Alfred {both of which, incidentally, are assigned in Ambleside Online's Year Seven}.

As Miss Mason goes on to discuss the choosing of history books, it is interesting that biographies are not first on her list. Instead, her emphasis is upon tales:

Mr York Powell has, perhaps more than others, hit upon the right teaching for the young children I have in view. In the preface to his Old Stories from British History, he says:––"The writer has chosen such stories as he thought would amuse and please his readers, and give them at the same time some knowledge of the lives and thoughts of their forefathers. To this end he has not written solely of great folk––kings and queens and generals––but also of plain people and children, ay, and birds and beasts too"; and we get the tale of King Lear and of Cuculain, and of King Canute and the poet Otter, of Havelock and Ubba, and many more, all brave and glorious stories; indeed, Mr York Powell gives us a perfect treasure-trove in his two little volumes of Old Stories and Sketches from British History, which are the better for our purpose, because children can read them for themselves so soon as they are able to read at all. These tales, written in good and simple English, and with a certain charm of style, lend themselves admirably to narration. {Home Education, p. 288}

This is all fine and well, but Miss Mason's first volume, Home Education, is about educating young children. Perhaps building a history curriculum around biographies is for older children?

Again, we must look at what Miss Mason actually wrote. In her final volume, Philosophy of Education, Miss Mason explains what students were actually doing in her schools. Her Form II {grades 4-6} students, for example:

They use a more difficult book than in IA, an interesting and well-written history of England of which they read some fifty pages or so in a term. IIA read in addition and by way of illustration the chapters dealing with the social life of the period in a volume, treating of social life in England. We introduce children as early as possible to the contemporary history of other countries as the study of English history alone is apt to lead to a certain insular and arrogant habit of mind. {Philosophy of Education, pp. 174-175}

In Form III {about grades 7-8}:

In Form III children continue the same history of England as in II, the same French history and the same British Museum Book, going on with their 'Book of Centuries.' To this they add about twenty to thirty pages a term from a little book on Indian History, a subject which interests them greatly.

Slight studies of the history of other parts of the British Empire are included under 'Geography.' {Philosophy of Education, p. 176}

In Form IV {about grades 8-9}:

In Form IV the children are promoted to Gardiner's Student's History of England, clear and able, but somewhat stiffer than that they have hitherto been engaged upon, together with Mr. and Mrs. Quennell's History of Everyday Things in England {which is used in Form III also}. Form IV is introduced to outlines of European history. The British Museum for Children and 'Book of Centuries' are continued. {Philosophy of Education, p. 176}

And in forms V and VI {about grades 10-12}:

The history studies of Forms V and VI {ages 15 to 18} are more advanced and more copious and depend for illustration upon readings in the literature of the period. Green's Shorter History of the English People is the textbook in English history, amplified, for example, by Macaulay's Essays on Frederick the Great and the Austrian Succession, on Pitt and Clive. For the same period we use an American history of Western Europe and a very admirable history of France, well-translated from the original of M. Duruy. Possibly Madame de Staël's L'Allemagne or some other historical work of equal calibre may occur in their reading of French. It is not possible to continue the study of Greek and Roman history in detail but an admirably written survey informed with enthusiasm is afforded by Professor de Burgh's The Legacy of the Ancient World. {Philosophy of Education, pp. 176-177}

Does all of this diminish the importance of biographies? Of course not! The continuous use of Plutarch starting in Year Four definitely "lingers pleasantly over the history of a single man" and acts as a sort of biography. In looking through the PNEU Programmes, we see the occasional biography assigned, as well as history books that, like the wonderful books by Genevieve Foster, use the life and times of one man as the doorway to an entire era.

But to say that biographies -- a focus on an individual person -- is the primary means of teaching and learning history in a Charlotte Mason education is inaccurate. We do not see this in Miss Mason's writings, nor in the records of her practices.

And this, by the way, is a good thing. Miss Mason prided herself on having a history program that was more efficient than others, and therefore graduated students with superior history knowledge:

Now the method I am advocating has this advantage; it multiplies time. Each school period is quadrupled in time value and we find that we get through a surprising amount of history in a thorough way, in about the same time that in most schools affords no more than a skeleton of English History only. We know that young people are enormously interested in the subject and give concentrated attention if we give them the right books. We are aware that our own discursive talk is usually a waste of time and a strain on the scholars' attention, so we {of the P.N.E.U.} confine ourselves to affording two things,––knowledge, and a keen sympathy in the interest roused by that knowledge. {Philosophy of Education, p. 171}

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29 October 2014

Myth: CM isn't hands on like other curricula.


Charlotte Mason's educational prescriptions for young children are well-known: delayed academics, plenty of time outdoors and training in good habits, lots of opportunities for "hands-on learning." But once formal schoolwork begins at age six or so, it's all reading and narration, right?

Not quite. As Anne mentioned earlier this month, there is much more to a Charlotte Mason education than books and narration. And much of it is hands-on.

Before we get into that, though, let's briefly define hands-on learning. Usually, the phrase refers to incorporating craft projects, field trips, manipulatives, and other tactile activities into lessons. The goal is to engage kinesthetic learners and make learning more fun or memorable.

I think we might first consider whether these kinds of hands-on practices are even beneficial. Because let's be honest: much busywork can be added to lessons in the name of "hands-on learning." Lapbooking across America, constructing dioramas of the life cycle of a butterfly, making sugar cube models of the pyramids, throwing a pioneer festival for the neighborhood...these are the kinds of projects educators add in the quest to be more hands-on. And Charlotte Mason schools weren't scheduling such activities into the programme.

So when I hear "CM isn't 'hands on' like other curricula," I actually might agree: "Yes, CM isn't hands-on like other curricula." But that doesn't mean a Charlotte Mason education isn't hands-on. Rather, Miss Mason proposes a way of being hands-on that complements her vision for education, respects the child, encourages the science of relations, maintains efficiency in lesson time, and has the student doing the mind-work rather than the educator.

What does that look like in practice? Charlotte Mason said her students were "fitly educated" by Things and by Books {School Education, p. 214}. Those two categories provide a guide to her version of hands-on learning, which involves {1} the inherently hands-on subjects she included in her schools, and {2} the hands-on modes she employed for the reading-and-narration subjects.

First, the inherently hands-on subjects. Charlotte Mason believed in offering students a "generous feast," including education by Things:

He must stand and walk and run and jump with ease and grace. He must skate and swim and ride and drive, dance and row and sail a boat. ... Every child makes sand castles, mud-pies, paper boats, and he or she should go on to work in clay, wood, brass, iron, leather, dress-stuffs, food-stuffs, furnishing-stuffs. He should be able to make with his hands and should take delight in making. {School Education, p. 80}

Her schools included physical education and instructed in handicrafts. The goal for the latter was beauty, usefulness, and quality -- this is not crafting for the sake of crafting, as so many educational supplements seem to be. There were also lessons in singing, dancing, drawing, piano, and dry-brush painting. Far from being extras in a Charlotte Mason education, these hands-on subjects both developed valuable skills and, through alternation with bookish subjects, acted in the service of other learning by keeping the mind fresh and attentive.

Miss Mason classes science under the heading of "Things" too, since the goal of such study was to learn from "natural objects in situ -- birds, plants, streams, stones, etc." and "scientific apparatus" {School Education, p. 214}. Of course, she also assigned living books in science, but, as she put it, "our main dependence is on books as an adjunct to out-of-door work." {School Education, p. 239, emphasis mine}

And out-of-door work they did: weekly field trips to the country for close observation and journaling en plein air, even a Natural History Club. These practices joined further scientific inquiry later on: biology and ecology through "special projects" in the field and object lessons in the classroom, chemistry and physics in the lab with careful scientific illustration and note-keeping. Science is a natural match for hands-on learning, and Charlotte Mason leveraged that.

But what of the subjects taught chiefly through Books? When we look at the practices that flow from her principles, we see a pattern of hands-on modes that Miss Mason utilized across disciplines.

Narration. Admittedly, "tell me all you remember," though strikingly efficient as a learning method, doesn't sound all that exciting. But a peek at PNEU exam questions hints at variety in narrative forms:

Write a short letter to The Times on the coal strike from a), a mine owner, b), a miner.
Write, as you would set, a scene from Julius Caesar, in which Caesar and Casca appear.
Make a chart of a) Perseus, or b) of a constellation you have watched this term, and its neighbouring stars.
Describe Corot's "Evening on the Lake," with a rough sketch of the composition.

The Parents' Review includes lively scenes such as this one by G.F. Husband:

A class of very young boys had been reading of the incident between Bruce and De Bohun at Bannockburn. They were told that some boys were to be chosen to act it. A short time was allowed for each scholar to think out how it should be done, but no conversation was allowed. Then De Bohun and Bruce were chosen from a host of eager volunteers. They selected, one a "horse," the other a "palfrey." The lance was a short map pole; the battle axe, a rolled up newspaper. There were some very candid criticisms of the performance. The whole affair did not take five minutes, but there had been a sure sifting of facts in the mind of every boy.

Another lists acting, map drawing, clay modelling, drawing in paint or chalk, and even cut-and-pasted models as narration opportunities. Dry brush drawings of scenes from literature or history were common as well.

Field work. Learning beyond the classroom was not confined to nature walks. History studies involved field trips to museums and other places of historical import, and students sketched what they saw in their history notebooks. Geography lessons relied on map tracing, compass work, city walks, out-of-doors observation, clay modelling, story-telling, and even holiday travels with family.

Keeping. I borrow the term from Laurie Bestvater's wonderful book, The Living Page, in which she uses "Keeping" to refer to the many iterations of notebook-keeping that Charlotte Mason's students were assigned. Notebooks were an integral part of every subject, from lab notebooks in chemistry, to phrase books in French, to the three lifelong pillars of Keeping--the Book of Centuries, the Commonplace, and the Nature Journal. Whether a math notebook for an older student or a My First Words book for an emerging reader, Miss Mason's notebooks share a common goal: they express the relationship a child has formed with knowledge gained, not the relationship an educator thinks he should form. This Keeping serves as not just a record of learning but an instrument of learning -- just what hands-on learning is meant to be.

Free time. I'm sure it sounds like a bit of a cop-out; after all, should the way a child spends his leisure hours even "count"? But I actually think this category might be the most important. Charlotte Mason had quite a lot to say about free time and suggested plenty of it. My children spend much of their afternoons penning new verses to old folk songs, building bows and arrows to fight the sheriff's army in Sherwood, constructing paper ships to fight the Armada...

Is valuable learning happening in those moments? Absolutely. And part of its value is that it's not directed by me.

And that's the goal, isn't it? Self-education, relationships with Things and Books past and present. Miss Mason's style of hands-on learning aims for efficient, relevant, idea-rich, lifelong learning practices. Because "education is a life," after all.

Celeste is the mother of seven children under age nine. Her perfect homeschool day would involve a long run, lots of coffee, time at the coast with her nature journal, and a stack of books to read to the kids. She is a moderator for the Ambleside Online Forums, and she shares the joys of a Catholic Charlotte Mason home education at Joyous Lessons.

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28 October 2014

Myth: CM means you never use a textbook ... ever.


If you were to ask for the distinguishing features of a Charlotte Mason education, the use of 'living books' would be high on the list. If you were to ask what makes a book living, you would no doubt hear numerous and perhaps conflicting opinions. But if you asked for an example of a living book, I'd be surprised if a textbook was among the offerings.

In fact, Charlotte Mason believed that there are four ways to destroy the desire for knowledge, one of them being:

Text-books compressed and re-compressed from the big book of the big man. {School Education, p. 214}

Her belief was that the whole of a child's instruction should be conveyed through the best literary medium available, that a child needs sufficient mind food and that it should be varied.

However, from the record of the programmes used for the various levels of Charlotte Mason's PNEU schools we learn that she did use textbooks, not only for Mathematics but for other subjects such as English, History and Science as well. Obviously these choices would have been in keeping with Charlotte Mason's views on how children learn and would certainly have been books of a literary nature.

Some examples I found were:

English Lessons for English People, by Abbott & Seeley
Geikie's Physical Geography
A Text Book of Geology, by C. Lapworth
A School Geometry, by H. Huli and F. Stevens
A Survey of Modern History by H.W. Hodges
Ancient Times: A History of the Early World, by J. H. Breasted

Charlotte Mason admitted the difficulty in choosing books but she also gave us ways to help identify living books; ways which also apply to textbooks:

...children's requirements in the matter seem to be quantity, quality and variety: but the question of books is one of much delicacy and difficulty. {Philosophy of Education, p. 248}

We cannot make any hard or fast rule ....we need to have in us the ability to discern a living book. {School Education, p. 178}

Discernment is something you grow into and develop over time and when you have been in the habit of using living books it is much easier to spot an imitation.

The advantage I've found in using a resource such as Ambleside Online is that it has been thought through with discernment and adjusted over time. The fact that there is a large pool of families using the curriculum helps in the discerning process:

The completeness with which hundreds of children reject the wrong book is a curious and instructive experience, not less so than the avidity and joy with which they drain the right book to the dregs. {Philosophy of Education, p. 248}

The book should written in such a way that the child is able to narrate from it:

Because knowledge is power, the child who has got knowledge will certainly show power in dealing with it. He will recast, condense, illustrate, or narrate with vividness and with freedom the arrangement of his words. {School Education, p. 225}

Just because a child doesn't like a book doesn't mean it is not suitable:

Children cannot answer questions set on the wrong book; and the difficulty of selection is increased by the fact that what they like in books is no more a guide than what they like in food. {Philosophy of Education, p. 248}

We are all capable of liking mental food of a poor quality...but our spiritual life is sustained on other stuff, whether we be boys or girls, men or women... {School Education, p. 168}

The book needs to be challenging enough to stimulate the mind to receive nourishment, in the same way the body being stimulated by the smell of food, is prepared to digest it. If the book is too easy or direct the knowledge will just brush the surface of his mind and leave no impression.

...we owe it to children to let them dig their knowledge...what a child digs for is his own possession... {School Education, p. 177}

Digging is hard work and requires a level of fitness. Often when we start with a certain book it may seem too difficult for our student. This has happened in our home a number of times but the problem was usually resolved by taking things slowly for a time and persevering until their 'fitness level' increased.

There are textbooks which have been written by committees, drained of any nourishment, abridged to death. They offer only dry bones without flesh, sawdust, a list of facts - an unsuitable substance posing as food.

There are other textbooks written by someone who loves their subject. The writing is appealing, fresh and living, full of ideas. Children narrate them with vigour and interest and we know their intellects have been stirred.

These books are not just full of facts and extracts. The author has taken ideas, made them his own and in presenting them 'with a great deal of padding,' has made them more accessible. {Philosophy of Education, p. 109}

Again, we need not always insist that a book should be written by the original thinker. It sometimes happens that second-rate minds have assimilated the matter in hand, and are able to give out what is their own thought (only because they have made it their own) in a form more suitable for our purposes than that of the first-hand thinkers. {School Education, p.178}

Charlotte Mason Education believed that 'Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.' It isn't a book list and she declined to make one:

The 'hundred best books for the schoolroom' may be put down on a list, but not by me. {School Education, p. 177}

Her aim was that the child would have a wide outlook, that he would be marked by virtue and have intimate relationships with many things. {School Education, p. 162}

The curriculum we use is really a means to this end.

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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