24 October 2014

Myth: CM is only for perfect kids. Or bookish kids.


Some people believe that a Charlotte Mason education is wonderful, but not for their student. Because their child doesn't live and breathe books, their child needs more hands-on projects than a CM education provides. Or, maybe their child won’t sit and listen to a book, period, because he is busy climbing the walls pretending to be a dinosaur.

In fact, a Charlotte Mason education is for the "average" child, as well as the bright child and the less academic or even learning disabled child. CM will work for your child.

A CM education is comprised of books and things. The books, many of us are familiar with. I dare say a few of us were the "nose stuck in a book" variety of children. And while Ambleside Online has a great list of books, there is so much more to a CM education. There are the "things":

Children should have relationships with earth and water. They should run, jump, ride, swim, and establish the relationship that a maker has with material resources, and they should do this with as many kinds of material resources as possible. They should have treasured intimate relationships with people, through face to face talking, through reading stories or poems, seeing pictures or sculpture, through finding flinthead arrows and being around cars. They should be familiar with animals, birds, plants and trees. Foreign people and their languages shouldn't be something unknown to them. And, most important of all, they should discover that the most intimate and highest of all relationships -- the relationship to God -- fulfills their entire being. {School Education, Modern English Version, p. 209}

So what things should a Charlotte Mason education include? Here is a list, inspired by one of the CM’s own programs of instruction:

  • Younger children paced and made plans for roads with distances and directions. They also made valleys, rivers, hills, villages in the sand.
  • All students kept a Nature Note-Book.
  • Middle school ages and older made daily nature notes, kept flower and bird lists, and chose a special study each term, such as leaf-buds.
  • Primary children practiced painting natural objects from memory as well as animals they had observed.
  • All children illustrated, with watercolors, scenes in books from their literature books.
  • Middle school students studied, described, and drew details from memory of pictures by known artists.
  • Older students kept a Book of Centuries, illustrating it from their history studies. They also made a chart of the period studied and kept a calendar of current events.
  • All ages memorized poems, hymns, psalms and Bible passages. The lengths varied with the age of the student. Year 4 and up also learned scenes from Shakespeare.
  • Students learned piano and listened to music from great composers.
  • They sang multiple songs in both English and in their foreign language(s). They also had lessons in sight-singing or sol-fa.
  • All students participated in physical exercises, singing games, dances, marches, ball games and/or breathing exercises.
  • All students helped around the house or garden, taking on more tasks as they got older, including cooking.
  • Younger children did Sloyd {making useful objects out of paper, this also taught geometry and math as well as the habit of precision}.
  • Elementary ages and up made a garment for the "Save the Children Fund", older children would also design the garment.
  • Older children would darn and mend garments from the wash each week. {Perhaps today it would be good to learn to change the oil in the car?} They were also expected to learn First Aid.

This is the variety of work over a single, 12-week term. And none of it is busy work. Your non-bookish, hands-on child will flourish with Charlotte Mason.

But what about the child who won’t focus? The one who looks at “Girls at the Piano” by Renoir and says "it's two girls at a piano," and then runs off. The mere sight of a pencil results in protests or tears. He can’t even remember what math question you asked because he’s too busy jumping from the couch to the chair. And we still haven’t opened a book!

Charlotte Mason will work with this child too. Actually, she will work where others will fail. First, her standards are age appropriate. Younger children had specific instructions for their nature journals, such as "find and draw six twigs" {over the term}, while older children had the freedom to choose their own special topic for nature study. Lessons for a young child were short: ten to twenty minutes, those for the oldest students where up to forty-five minutes.

Second, she alternated between many types of tasks. For example, Bible was followed by the physical task of writing, then the mental task of recitation, next French lessons, then math. All ages had a break for singing, dancing, drill and/or play everyday. Younger children spent a lot of time doing handicrafts and painting, developing fine motor control. CM also kept the school day short, giving students time for their own interests, contemplation, and play.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, she knew the power of habits. Perhaps the most important habit for my hyper boy is the habit of attention. CM understood that this, and other habits, formed the rails our lives run on. And she is full of ways to teach it. I’ll share one of her many examples, from a day in the countryside,

[The mother] sends [the children] on an exploring expedition to see who can spot the most, and tell the most, about a farther hill or brook or thicket. This game delights children and endless variations can be used. It's a fun way to teach exactness and attention to detail. {Home Education, Modern English Version, pp. 45-46}

When the children return, they happily report to their mother what they have seen. She, having watched from afar, asks them questions and draws more details out. Perhaps she even sends the child back for a closer look! CM notes that:

This is just a game to the children, but the mother is actually doing some very valuable teaching, training the children's powers of observation and their ability to articulate precise details. She is increasing their vocabulary… She is also training them to be accurately truthful…. {Home Education, Modern English Version, pp. 46-47}

If you have a child who flits from thing to thing without focus, I highly recommend reading the section of Home Education about Outdoor Life for Children.

I have three school-aged children. All boys. All different. One is my language guy, one is my hands-on guy, and one is swinging from the trees. And our Charlotte Mason education is working for all of them, meeting them where they are, but not leaving them there. A CM education is full of life.

Life should be all living, and not merely a tedious passing of time; not all doing or all feeling or all thinking -- the strain would be too great -- but, all living; that is to say, we should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest. {School Education, p. 170}

Amy Hines lives with her husband, four children and more than one critter in the wilds of Montana. She moderates the Form III and Book Discussion forums at Ambleside Online, and keeps a blog at Crossing the Brandywine. She is secretly a hobbit who loves nature and hates shoes. Someday she wants to visit Middle Earth.

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23 October 2014

Myth: Masterly inactivity is something children do.


I must say that this is a common myth, one that I myself believed for nigh on two years. I believed that afternoons, when schoolwork was done, were for the children to be masterfully inactive – which I thought meant to play elsewhere, preferably outside, and leave me alone so I could decompress. Or maybe it was to sit quietly doing creative things…without my help. Can you relate?

The problem is that masterly inactivity means nothing of the sort. On Ambleside Online’s topical index, there is a note stating: "'masterly inactivity' was a term used in CM's time to describe a 'wait and see' attitude by legislators in response to political incidents, or, as one British letter puts it, 'trusting to the helping influences of time.'"

Hmmm. If we apply that to family, it doesn't fit children at all, as they are not the "wait and see" type. Therefore, Ms. Mason was talking about the mother!

The notion of doing all for the child with which the parents began gradually recedes. So soon as he shows that he has a way of his own he is encouraged to take it. Father and mother have no greater delight than to watch the individuality of their child unfold as a flower unfolds.

They let their children alone, allowing human nature to develop on its own lines, modified by facts of environment and descent.

Nothing could be better for the child than this 'masterly inactivity,' so far as it goes. It is well he should be let grow and helped to grow according to his nature; and so long as the parents do not step in to spoil him, much good and no very evident harm comes of letting him alone. But this philosophy of 'let him be,' while it covers a part, does not cover the serious part of the parents' calling; does not touch the strenuous incessant efforts upon lines of law which go to the producing of a human being at his best. {Home Education, pp. 4-5}

Ahh, it begins to clear. As I begin to do less for my child, I am using masterly inactivity. I guide as needed, but am careful to let him alone as much as possible, allowing him to explore and grow as he needs, not as I expect him to. However, note that last bit – "let him be" doesn't begin to cover the difficulties involved in raising him right {can I get an amen?}. It is part of parenting, not the whole.

They must be let alone, left to themselves a great deal, to take in what they can of the beauty of earth and heavens; for of the evils of modern education few are worse than this––that the perpetual cackle of his elders leaves the poor child not a moment of time, nor an inch of space, wherein to wonder––and grow. At the same time, here is the mother's opportunity to train the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and to drop seeds of truth into the open soul of the child, which shall germinate, blossom, and bear fruit, without further help or knowledge of hers. {Home Education, p. 44}

BE QUIET, mothers!

Isn't that so hard?? We feel like we must be in control, leading actively, instead of letting our lives quietly lead our children in the way they should go. {Assuming our own lives are going in the right direction. Ahem.}

We have many ingenious, not to say affectionate, ways of [squashing the personhood of the child], all of them more or less based upon that egoism which persuades us that in proportion to a child's dependence is our superiority, that all we do for him is of our grace and favour, and that we have a right, whether as parents or teachers, to do what we will with our own. Have we considered that in the Divine estimate the child's estate is higher than ours; that it is ours to "become as little children," rather than theirs to become as grown men and women; that the rules we receive for the bringing up of children are for the most part negative? We may not despise them, or hinder them, ("suffer little children"), or offend them by our brutish clumsiness of action and want of serious thought; while the one positive precept afforded to us is "feed" {which should be rendered 'pasture'} "my lambs," place them in the midst of abundant food. {Philosophy of Education, pp. 80-81}

That's rough. God and Ms. Mason, shooting straight, as always! We must not let our egos convince us that our children are nothing without us. It's simply not true. We must learn when to intervene, and when to let them be. I'm no expert in this area – a bit of a control-freak, to be honest – and prayers for patience and wisdom are my daily fare. If you also struggle with letting your children be, I suggest reading more of CM's works, more Bible, more prayer, and a side of patience and humble pie.

A blessed thing in our mental constitution is, that once we receive an idea, it will work itself out, in thought and act, without much after-effort on our part; and, if we admit the idea of 'masterly inactivity' as a factor in education, we shall find ourselves framing our dealings with children from this standpoint, without much conscious effort. But we must get clearly into our heads what we mean by masterly inactivity. Carlyle's happy phrase has nothing in common with the laisser allez attitude that comes of thinking 'what's the good?' and still further is it removed from the sheer indolence of mind that lets things go their way rather than take the trouble to lead them to any issue. It indicates a fine healthy moral pose which it is worth while for us to analyse. Perhaps the idea is nearly that conveyed in Wordsworth's even more happy phrase, 'wise passiveness'. It indicates the power to act, the desire to act, and the insight and self-restraint which forbid action. But there is, from our point of view at any rate, a further idea conveyed in 'masterly inactivity.' The mastery is not over ourselves only; there is also a sense of authority, which our children should be as much aware of when it is inactive as when they are doing our bidding. The sense of authority is the sine quâ non of the parental relationship, and I am not sure that without that our activities or our inactivity will produce any great results. This element of strength is the backbone of our position. 'We could an' if we would' and the children know it––They are free under authority, which is liberty; to be free without authority is license. {School Education, p. 28}

Laura Witten has been a CM homeschool mom since 2010, using Ambleside Online's curriculum. She is a moderator on AO's forum, and enjoys furthering her own education by participating in discussions there. She has an entrepreneurial husband, one son, 4 cats, 2 dogs, 1 horse and 1 blog.

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22 October 2014

Myth: CM's schools were for a rich elite.


Eight years ago the 'soul' of a class of children in a mining village school awoke simultaneously at this magic touch and has remained awake. We know that religion can awaken souls, that love makes a new man, that the call of a vocation may do it, and in the age of the Renaissance, men's souls, the general soul, awoke to knowledge: but this appeal rarely reaches the modern soul; and, notwithstanding the pleasantness attending lessons and marks in all our schools, I believe the ardour for knowledge in the children of this mining village is a phenomenon that indicates new possibilities. Already many thousands of the children of the Empire had experienced this intellectual conversion, but they were the children of educated persons. To find that the children of a mining population were equally responsive seemed to open a new hope for the world. It may be that the souls of all children are waiting for the call of knowledge to awaken them to delightful living.

-- Charlotte Mason {Philosophy of Education, p. xxv}

Hoity-toity tea times. Children sitting in straight-backed chairs, dressed up and hair perfectly done, listening to Bach in the drawing room. A governess striding about, lecturing about a piece of art or the virtues of a literary figure in the library. The mother ordering servants about while reclining on a chaise lounge. When I think the education of a rich elite in England, this is what I picture in my mind.

From the pictures some use on some book covers and blogs, you might think that this is what Charlotte Mason was aiming for with her educational philosophy. But to my relief, it simply isn't so!

[A]ll classes must be educated and sit down to these things of the mind as they do to their daily bread. History must afford its pageants, science its wonders, literature its intimacies, philosophy its speculations, religion its assurances to every man, and his education must have prepared him for wanderings in these realms of gold. {Philosophy of Education, p. 43}

Charlotte believed in education for every person, both genders and all ages. She was the leader of the Liberal Education for All movement of her day. In fact, the original title of Volume 6 was An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education: a liberal education for all.  None excluded due to lack of funds or the atrocious child-labor laws of her day.

Bringing her philosophy of education into the present day should not lose this essential belief! Sure, elite private schools and boarding schools could {and should, in my humble opinion} follow the CM way. So can cottage schools, home schools, church-based schools, and inner city schools.

What?! Yes, inner city schools. I believe that would be her radical stance in today's world. Even those from broken homes with older siblings in a gang, the foster children in group-homes, those with learning challenges, can benefit from a Charlotte Mason education.

We do not talk about developing his faculties, training his moral nature, guiding his religious feelings, educating him with a view to his social standing or his future calling. The joys of  'child-study' are not for us. We take the child for granted, or rather, we take him as we find him -- a person with an enormous number of healthy affinities, embryo attachments; and we think it is our chief business to give him a chance to make the largest possible number of these attachments valid [by exposing him to as many things as possible]. {School Education, pg 186}

Each person will take what he is able from the feast spread before him. She will grow with the living thoughts presented in books and from nature itself. Doesn't it sound heavenly? {And it really is!}

The beauty of a CM school isn't in the system. Systems are restrictive and rule-bound, and ignore the person. The beauty is in the method, the wholeness, the respecting of the persons in each class. The Charlotte Mason way allows each child to develop at his own pace, yet doesn't restrict his access to great thoughts.

Children's aptitude for knowledge and their eagerness for it made for the conclusion that the field of a child's knowledge may not be artificially restricted, that he has a right to and necessity for as much and as varied knowledge as he is able to receive; and that the limitations in his curriculum should depend only upon the age at which he must leave school; in a word, a common curriculum (up to the age of say, fourteen or fifteen) appears to be due to all children.

We have left behind the feudal notion that intellect is a class prerogative, that intelligence is a matter of inheritance and environment; inheritance, no doubt, means much but everyone has a very mixed inheritance; environment makes for satisfaction or uneasiness, but education is of the spirit and is not to be taken in by the eye or effected by the hand; mind appeals to mind and thought begets thought and that is how we become educated. {Philosophy of Education, p. 12}

How does CM look in my non-rich, non-elite home? I use Ambleside Online for my starting point, and the PUS time-tables. I use copywork and math programs that are on his level -- challenging but {hopefully} not tear-inducing. My son has learning difficulties -- sensory processing disorder, possible dyslexia and eye tracking issues.

At home, he is allowed to be himself. I do my best to respect his personhood while challenging him to grow, bit by bit. I read everything aloud at this point {4th grade, using AO 3.5}. He is doing math below grade level, just a little each day. In copywork, he is learning cursive and not nearly as much as others his age. Should I not read him the best books that AO has selected because they are "too hard" for him to read on his own, and he might not understand every sentence? No!!!

His narration and listening skills can continue to improve at one pace, while the other skills can grow at another pace. No holding him back until his reading is up to par. Instead of easy readers, he hears the beautiful classics that will fill his mind with adventure and virtues.

It is about respecting who he is. I don't quit on the hard stuff, but I don't act like his life is a failure until he hits certain milestones, either.

We must have some measure of a child's requirements, not based upon his uses to society, nor upon the standard of the world he lives in, but upon his own capacity and needs. We would not willingly educate him towards what is called 'self-expression'; he has little to express except what he has received as knowledge, whether by way of record or impression; what he can do is to assimilate and give this forth in a form which is original because it is modified, re-created, by the action of his own mind; and this originality is produced by the common bread and milk which is food for everyone, acting upon the mind which is peculiar to each individual child. {Philosophy of Education, pp. 65-66}

Not to say that a CM education full of the riches wouldn't be easier if we were monetarily rich as well! There are opportunities we must miss, places we can't go, things we just can't do due to time or money constraints. But with a CM education, we can make the most of the resources we do have -- cheap, free or local!

If the masses know 'Sancho Panza,' Elsinore, 'Excalibur,' 'Rosinante,' 'Mrs. Jellaby,' redstart, 'Bevis,' bogbean, the classes must know these things too with easy intimacy. ... What we want is a common basis of thought, such a ground work as we get from having read the same books, grown familiar with the same pictures, the same musical compositions, the same interests; when we have such a fundamental basis, we shall be able to speak to each other whether in public speaking or common talk; we shall "all hear in our own tongue the wonderful works of God" because we have learned a common speech through those who in their books have lived to educate the race. And how persuasively shall we speak to those who know, and therefore do not present the dead front of opposition the natural resource of ignorance! {Philosophy of Education, pp. 264-265}

If you are interested in reading more about Miss Mason's work with poor children, please read the article Charlotte Mason and the Nation's Children by H.W. Household.

Laura Witten has been a CM homeschool mom since 2010, using Ambleside Online's curriculum. She is a moderator on AO's forum, and enjoys furthering her own education by participating in discussions there. She has an entrepreneurial husband, one son, 4 cats, 2 dogs, 1 horse and 1 blog.

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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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