Friday, April 30, 2010

A Month with Charlotte Mason, #27

A housekeeping note: I had to decide whether to make the "month" end with April, or go for a nice round number of posts. I think I'll go for the round number.

When it comes down to personal application of Charlotte Mason's philosophy, we've done better at some things here than at others....and knowing that our homeschooling achievement isn't perfect is probably as it should be. We are human beings, after all, trying to take hold of what's offered but doing so, often, rather imperfectly.

Some people find it strange that the original PNEU programmes defined so strictly what was to be done at each level during each term, since Charlotte Mason talked so much about the individual. But was it as cookie-cutter a curriculum as that sounds? Let's look at that for a minute. Each student was assigned certain pages in certain books to read or have read to him/her. Each one had a certain number of memory assignments--though those could vary, they were things like "Two hymns by Keble." Each one was expected to keep nature journals and, when old enough, history records (century charts, books of the centuries etc.). Each one was expected to make certain handicrafts (such as "a child's dress.") Each one was to be learning arithmetic, French, etc., though it was thought more important that each one be making progress than that a particular level be reached each term.

So--yes, it was all laid out, and there was a suggested timetable of subjects, and Charlotte Mason felt that the PNEU was doing parents and teachers a favour by going through the publishers' lists and picking out the best in-print choices at the time--plus having a few books specially written by PNEU members and friends. But what wasn't spelled out in the programmes is more "suggestive," as Miss Mason might say: what the children were supposed to think about such and such a fairy tale, what ideas they were supposed to take from a passage of Plutarch, or what vocabulary and what multiple-choice-type facts they were to have learned from a science chapter. Susan Schaeffer Macaulay tells a story about her childhood visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and how she "discovered" a famous painting by Rembrandt. She points out that nobody told her to stop looking at it, or what to think about it, or even what it was about. She just absorbed what she needed from it. The freedom that was given within a PNEU term was not in the assignments (find three catkins and three tree buds) but in the ideas; in each student's "digestion" of all this material, in each one's response, and in each one's growth.

Still, I think if our own family has erred in our application of CM, it's often been on the too-relaxed end rather than in the too-rigid...the parent's and child's comfort zone pushes our own natures forward, but those laws of learning have a voice of truth that we can't ignore. I think that, for instance, often our Squirrelings go away too fast after listening to something read aloud, when according to Charlotte Mason's plan they should stick around to discuss it a bit more. For one reason and another, we've read school books aloud at an older age than is probably ideal, and we've delayed written narrations for the same reason-and-another. I've never sat under a tree with my knitting and demanded that they go look at some other tree and then give me a full description so that I can identify it--I probably wouldn't know what it was either. I thought the Squirrelings were getting a pretty good overview of what's in the Bible, and they could even sing the Old Testament and New Testament books in order, but then I realized that they still didn't know how to find even the books quickly, much less chapters and verses. (We're working on that.) I'm not sure if they know what a catkin is, or a fjord. And I sometimes think that we could have done better at cultivating habits of perfect attention from the time that they were small...although, being Squirrels, that isn't something that comes naturally.

I find the years...particularly the school years...slipping away too fast, and with them, the number of chances we have to start fresh, learn new habits, rediscover what learning is about. And, ironically, I seem to understand this education thing better as my Squirrelings get closer to leaving the nest. (Well, they're not THAT close yet, but you know what I mean.)

If I could give the Squirrelings one thing during the next homeschooling year--which will probably be Ponytails' last before high school--it would be to increase their love of learning, that sense Charlotte Mason described as "everything seems to fit into something else"--and to extend it to some of the areas that stay at the edge or just outside of their personal circle of relationships. History and geography, even with good books, are often too far away from their own world to seem real. Literature sometimes seems to have just too many pages; math is unending (I'd like to try some math journalling with them), and French verbs are just made up to pester people. Isn't the boredom of doing something because somebody's making you do it what we're trying to avoid? So do we then make our curriculum easier, drop books or subjects, expect less, if this way doesn't always cause a sort of earthquake of learning? What do you do when, after all your well-thought-out planning, your kids find more to discuss from an Arthur episode than from a history chapter?

The lesson I've had to learn myself is to be patient with both the teacher and the students; and not to take the teacher's striving for "nice lessons" too seriously. (Charlotte Mason said much the same thing--that we cannot depend too much on our own wisdom in presenting lessons.) I've come to the conclusion that some students, in some subjects, will be like lettuce, springing up quickly and obviously; others are more like carrots under the ground, that must not be yanked up before they're ready. I've also had to remember that squirrels have a habit of taking acorns but then burying them to be used much later.

These are the things I saw the younger Squirrelings doing today: catching a Red Admiral butterfly...and letting it go again after we figured out what it was. Noticing that the centres of forget-me-nots look like embroidery. Finding forget-me-not poems in two Flower Fairies books. Designing a crocheted hair scrunchie. Helping cheerfully with chores and projects. Practicing on a yard-saled recorder. Standing in the driveway singing. Playing MultiEight (online word game) and beating the grownups (I think that was yesterday). Putting together an awesome photography/Powerpoint nature assignment with music. Improvising orange-cream cheese filling for blintzes. Re-reading Magic Elizabeth (this makes several times). And yes...playing on the Stuffed Animal Site after school work was done. We celebrate our childrens' growth in the sometimes unexpected places, and trust for the rest...

Which doesn't mean that there still isn't room for teacher improvement as well. Definitely there are things in which I'd like to boost our CM-ness, without violating the uniqueness and particular gifts of these Squirrelings. But that'll keep for another post.

Where's the Month with Charlotte Mason?

It's co-op day, I have a crocheting lesson to get ready for some homeschooled girls, and we're busy here as well studying forget-me-nots (a flower Anna Comstock forgot to put in her book) and reviewing subtraction. In other words--

I'll post later! Trying to decide how to wind this all Ponytails makes crepes and Crayons hands me an EARTHWORM.

You all have a nice day too.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Month with Charlotte Mason, #26

So we were talking about the timeless aspects of what we currently call a Charlotte Mason education, but which has a history pre-dating Charlotte Mason herself. Can we get hold of the soul or spirit of this kind of education so that we can discern where to stay faithful to what CM wrote, and use what she used, and where we re-invent?

In one of Cindy's latest study posts on Norms and Nobility, she writes:
"The rest of Chapter 3, Part II may well be the heart of the chapter, the point being that we are not raising (teaching) children, we are raising adults. This is where the transformational power of ideas comes in. If we change our thinking in this one small area, we completely change our educational philosophy."
And maybe that's it.

Because when I started thinking through this post, I came up with a few basic CM ideas like these: training in the habit of observation, the habit of attention, the habit of books; emphasizing the value of the natural world (not worshipping it, but as the creation of the Heavenly Father); expecting that children can and should do small jobs perfectly and then work up, emphasizing quality over quantity. And the emphasis on facts not being presented "without their informing ideas."

I also thought about the PNEU programmes' structure, listing books and subjects rather broadly and generally, rather than trying to make sure that every hero and every concept are accounted for and categorized. There is an avoidance of time-wasting activities that no self-respecting child would choose to do without coercion and that do not advance the child's knowledge or abilities. And on the teacher's part, there is an avoidance of too much patronizing explanation.

Which brings us back to what Cindy said. We are raising young people, and while they definitely need time in their lives to be children, without being rushed, pressured, and burdened with knowledge they're not ready for (NOTE: non-family-friendly news content in that link), they also need the opportunity to grow, to be provided with mind-food according to their needs and appetites as human beings. I like seeing the little bitty plants and seeds go into the garden in spring, but I'm expecting that by the end of the summer, barring disaster and rabbits, we'll have tomatoes and beans.

In one sense we may see an afternoon's nature outing as a chance to let children to be children, to relax a bit but get moving at the same time; to drop the need for 'tween attitudes at least long enough to get interested in a newt or a garter snake; to have fun playing in the way children used to play before coaches and computers started telling them the next move. And as Charlotte Mason says, there are places in children's play where adults may not intrude. But at the same time, by giving our children that opportunity to see, to be curious, to compare and record, to tell back, to paint robins and violets with real art materials, to show us their discoveries; by giving them some space and time to play; and by not giving them a worksheet to be filled out on each detail of their afternoon, then we are treating them more as adults, as our equals in intelligence, as partners in discovery, as sharers in this journey.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Month with Charlotte Mason, #25

Where does CM advice become the most nitty and gritty?

Is it in the general comments, the principles and philosophy, given in her six volumes...which transition into the later parts of those volumes, describing specific work and practices of the PNEU schools? Or the technical details of the Form III Programme #90 for 1921? Is it only in CM's own books, or in the more diverse viewpoints given in the Parent's Review articles? Is it in Eve Anderson's video appearance (which I've never seen), or PNEU teacher Mrs. Norton's taped interview (available from Sound Word Associates)? Is it in the array of books by various parents and educators that have attempted to bring CM principles into the 20th and now the 21st centuries?

In other words, is it more meaningful for me to track down Selfe's Work of the Prophets (used in 1921), in hopes that I can either use it as is or learn from it as a comparison...or to read suggestions from thoughtful CMers who have found new books that meet the same needs? How much should I worry if the nature notebook or Book of the Centuries doesn't get off the ground? How come we're talking about "leisurely" and then realize that, according to the Form III schedule, our twelve-year-old is supposed to be narrating Dumas in French and starting German as well? If we want to have the "whole CM package" as she described it, what stays and what goes? (I assume that relatively few of us are doing Sloyd and Swedish Drill as they were practiced a hundred years ago.) What if our circumstances or the children we're teaching are very unusual? How long will Kipling and Kingsley continue to be meaningful? Where does old CM meet new CM, and your CM meet my CM, and become timeless CM, CM without boundaries?

What, you're expecting me to have answers to all that?

I do not think it's quite as simple as saying that none of the specific books are integral to CM methods and we really don't need that emphasis on Victorian literature; or that since there was nothing particularly amazing about pulling bits of yarn through canvas with a crochet hook, we can dismiss CM's recommendation of making "Smyrna rugs" and find something else we'd rather be doing; or that since children's needs in science and math have changed so much, we have to rework the whole thing, while still trying to respect students' intelligence. Did CM herself succumb to a few late-Victorian educational fads, or was she simply selecting the best of the new ideas that had come in at that time? (Like Scouting.) Is that what we should be doing--pulling the best from our own educational time? Is there anything now worth pulling from? (Perhaps we might include computers, websites, software and DVDs when we ask that last question.)

One instructive book, that I brought as "Exhibit A" to the conference workshop, is Melissa Wiley's Down to the Bonny Glen, from the Martha Years series. (The uncut original version.) If any of you don't know, the author is a homeschooling parent with a deep understanding of Charlotte Mason's philosophy. Her "Miss Crow," Martha's new governess, anticipates CM by about a hundred years in her handling of Martha. Go through the book and you'll pick out the principles: masterly inactivity (seeming not to be watching, but aware of everything), concern for hygiene, interest in Martha's natural environment and in her wool-dying skills, bringing in new books such as Burns' poems, and showing both respect and firmness. Miss Crow fills the same needs as Anne Shirley's Miss Stacy and Clara's grandmother in Heidi. She doesn't preach or nag; she expects diligence but encourages a love of learning. She teaches Martha to care more deeply, not only about lessons but about the world, about life.

So Miss Crow, though she's created from Melissa's post-CM imagination, can serve as a model of CM principles in a pre-CM world. With that in mind, perhaps our own imaginations can create equally wise and creative educators from other time periods. What might an enlightened tutor have done in Elizabethan times? Or in Colonial America? Even Charlotte Mason did a little imaginary time-travelling, in her "dinner table a hundred years from now." What do you imagine a CM education might look like for your own great-grandchildren? Will they have found any better English plays than Shakespeare, or anything more necessary than the Bible? (Assuming Bibles are still legal.) Will they still be studying Plutarch, Mozart, Mary Cassatt? Will they still skip the first chapter of Ivanhoe, laugh at Wamba's impersonation of a priest, and sit up straight when Robin Hood makes a sudden appearance? Will they still feel the excitement of the final contest with Brian de Bois-Guilbert? Will they still learn to love the first childhood classics, the Pooh stories, the Garden of Verses, Jeremy Fisher? (What a mercy that was not a pike.)

More tomorrow.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Month with Charlotte Mason, #24

Last night I found myself deep in Charlotte Mason's School Education (the third volume in the Home Education series), because I was thinking hard about how what we do for school here does or doesn't match up with CM goals. (Sometimes it doesn't!) I did take some time out to watch the last part of Mr. Holland's Opus with Mr. Fixit and Ponytails, including the part where Mr. Holland's school cuts out all the music and drama courses because of lack of funds and because the administration does not value those things.
Vice Principal Wolters: I care about these kids just as much as you do. And if I'm forced to choose between Mozart and reading and writing and long division, I choose long division.
Glenn Holland: Well, I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren't going to have anything to read or write about.
It's hard to get away from the discussion and thinking over educational questions that have come up in Ontario over the past couple of weeks, questions about political correctness, about the school vs. the family's role in teaching anything beyond the "basic" subjects. The Toronto weekend papers were full of comments from people who would seemingly like nothing better to get their hands squeezed tightly around the minds of my children. We've also been talking about spiritual warfare as part of a study at church. It all leads me to a sense not so much of despair but of urgency, a sense that if our children are to have a chance to stand against not only systematic reprogramming of personal values but against the Vice Principal Wolters of the world, we need to give them some very strong tools to do it with and we need to do that now.

Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley, though not necessarily kindred spirits to CM, agreed on one point: that books, real books, are the strongest of those tools. Take books away from people, either physically or by taking away their ability to read them (or their belief that books are valuable, or their understanding that some books are just paper with covers while others are more than that), and you can reprogram your subjects to think any way you want. Find them again, and the winter of frozen minds starts to thaw and bud into spring. It even happened in the Bible.

That's why slaves were forbidden to read. That's why printing presses and newspapers are often damaged or closed down during times of political turmoil. Knowledge (not just information, as Charlotte Mason repeatedly said) is power. Thinking is power. Reading is power. We have the natural world, we have Mozart, we have paintings, we have so much more there to discover...but beyond that, we have books. They are still there. We can still read them. They disappear from the library shelves and from publishers' lists, but they often show up (as if in retaliation) as e-books and on used booksellers' sites. Nobody's taken away the Harvard Classics online. Nobody's yet taken away your right to buy books by David Hicks and Richard Mitchell. Or Bibles, at least for the time being and at least in this country. Or Shakespeare. Or the books that inspired Frankenstein's monster. If they humanized him, can they do less for us?

The definition proposed here for "a leisurely education" was having the freedom (time, space, opportunity) to discover what makes you fully human. Without a doubt, that freedom is being pulled away. Pull back as hard as you can, as long as you can.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Month with Charlotte Mason, #23

I'm finding myself thinking more about Charlotte Mason's principle "education is a life." Maybe because a couple of homeschoolers I know have had to put their children back in school recently, or send them for the first time...when their hearts would have preferred to keep on homeschooling if circumstances had allowed it. Why the italics?--because homeschoolers like homeschooling. If things are going well, then our day-to-day learning-related thinking isn't about whether or not we're possibly going to be able to keep up with the public school class. It's about learning itself. It's about what to teach, how to do it, how our children learn best, how this fits into our larger lives. That's the kind of enthusiasm that instantly connects people standing in line together at a homeschool conference; we find it in ourselves, and we recognize it in others. It's the reason that some of us spend our online time reading and writing about what seems to matter in education.

When homeschooling suddenly stops--or not so suddenly, because sometimes it just happens that our children grow up (they do, faster than you'd think)--for most of us there isn't a feeling of release from something we haven't wanted to do, but rather a reluctance to see it end. This may be because we, the parents, have found some or many of our social connections in the homeschool community, and we don't want to lose those just because we're no longer worrying about math curriculum; but it may also be because we've found ourselves part of something larger, a way of thinking about learning that goes beyond how many children you actually have at home every day. It's not "playing school," as a post we've linked to before criticized homeschoolers; it's looking at our own lives differently because we've had these children to teach.

About a year ago I spoke at a support group meeting, on the topic "What in your own life has inspired your approach to learning?" For instance, experiences I had (years ago) working with mentally challenged adults gave me strong impressions about each individual having something unique to offer the world, and that has always coloured my ideas about trying to meet each person's needs rather than expecting everyone to fit into a pre-determined system. But if I had the chance to give a followup talk to that one, I'd ask this: "What in your homeschooling has inspired the rest of your life?" You may have started homeschooling for all kinds of different reasons. I know people who just always wanted to teach their own children, and I know others who got bounced into it because of teachers' strikes or bullying, or because their child wasn't fitting into the classroom or the curriculum. Some of the "bounced" ones have loved homeschooling and stayed with it, others haven't. But if you started and you stuck with it for any length of time, no matter what methods or curriculum you used, there's almost no way that you could come away from it and not think of school, teachers, learning, books, words, worksheets, writing, classrooms, play, authority, motivation, memory...thinking... in a different way than you did before. Not to mention having pies and Cheerios inseparably connected with arithmetic in your mind for years to come.

We're often cautioned not to let homeschooling become our lives. Most of us have husbands, other family members, home and outside responsibilities and interests, ministries, jobs that require lots of attention. Nobody wants to get so narrow that all she can think or talk about is what's in the latest homeschool magazine. But education, in its broadest sense, does become a big part of our lives. We enjoy seeing our children learn. We figure out that we need to learn as well. We start picking up books. Some of us even pick up degrees. We don't want to have to stop doing that just because our children have reached a certain age or stage.

And we don't have to.

Book sale finds

This weekend was the big University Women's book sale. We didn't make it there yesterday--we had a really busy day between homeschool co-op in the afternoon and the Apprentice's choir coffeehouse in the evening. But we dropped in this morning when things were a little quieter.

This is what we brought home:

Two videos: Grammar Rocks and Miracle on 34th Street (1947 version) . Mr. Fixit found some videos as well.

A whole boxful of children's books for $4:

Making Simple Clocks, by Marjorie Stapleton

Sing a Song of People, by Roberta McLaughlin and Lucille Wood

Prières dans l'Arche, by Carmen Bernos de Gasztold (Prayers from the Ark, in French)

The Glass Mermaid, because Crayons requested it

Bored of the Rings, as a joke for The Apprentice

The Jungle Book II, by Rudyard Kipling

Soup, by Robert Newton Peck

The Light Beyond the Forest, by Rosemary Sutcliff

Did you carry the flag today, Charley?, by Rebecca Caudill

A Jean Little bindup of Different Dragons, Lost and Found, One to Grow On

Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia McLachlan

Justin Morgan had a Horse, by Marguerite Henry

Amy and Laura, by Marilyn Sachs

The Painted Garden, by Noel Streatfeild (the story that features grown-up Posy and Pauline from Ballet Shoes)

Celebrating Children's Books, edited by Betsy Hearne and Marilyn Kaye

Some "schoolish" stuff in the same box:

Insects Activity book (word searches and things like that)

Nature's Wonderful Family, edited by Jack Mysers, Ph.D. (a Highlights for Children book)

Les Insectes, by Marie-Claude Ouellet--a workbook in French

Ma grammaire d'observation, by Daniel Poulin/Claude Simard--kind of a junior French grammar-at-a-glance

Jouer avec le français--a workbook meant for older children whose first language is French, but still interesting for French class

Six small French books in the same series by Lise Bernard--some "real life French" stuff again meant for French-speaking students, but with possibilities for learning French as well.

Some for the vintage Scholastic shelf: Two on an Island, Magnets and How to Use Them, Codes and Secret Writing, If You Lived in Colonial Times, and a couple of others

Four $1 books from the main room at the booksale:

Step Into Patchwork (I'll Teach Myself #3)

Collected Poems of Karol Wojtyla

Robertson Davies: Man of Myth, by Judith Skelton Grant

Flower Fairies of the Wayside

Three $1 books from the library discard rack later in the morning:

Living a Beautiful Life, by Alexandra Stoddard

How to Talk Dinosaur with Your Child, by Q.L. Pearce

Glenn Gould, by Peter F. Ostwald

Friday, April 23, 2010

More vintage books online (A Month with CM #22)

Just nostalgia today: on the same site where I found Aunt Mai's Annual, there are other books mentioned in Charlotte Mason's books or in Parent's Review articles. Here are some I found:

John Aikin's Evenings at Home (more info here)

"The method of this sort of instruction is shown in Evenings at Home, where 'Eyes and No-eyes' go for a walk. No-eyes come home bored; he has seen nothing, been interested in nothing: while Eyes is all agog to discuss a hundred things that have interested him.--Charlotte Mason"

Author: Furneaux, William S
Title: The out-door world, or, Young collector's handbook

"There are many very helpful handbooks, but those mentioned below have been found the most useful. Warne's or any other large Natural History; Furneaux' Out-of-Door World (very useful to beginners, as it tells how and where to collect); Wood's Common Objects of the Country; Wood's Common Objects of the Seashore (Geo. Routledge & Sones, 3/6, coloured plates; or 1/-); any of the Natural History Rambles Series (S.P.C.K., 2/6) (others in the series are here); Geike's Geology (Macmillan, 3/6); John's Flowers of the Field (S.P.C.K., 7/6)."--G.M. Bernau in The Parent's Review, Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 603-605

From Programme 94, for Form IV. (The 94th term of work set since the Parents' Union School began.) September to December, 1922. January to March, 1922, in the Dominions.):

Do some definite house or garden work. Make Christmas (gifts?) and provide a Christmas entertainment with (?) poor children. Cooking: Tried Favourites Cookery Book (Marshall, 2/6). Heaton's Cardboard Modelling (Newman, 6/-); make six models. (Materials from Arnold & Son, Butterley Street, Hunslet, Leeds.) Simple Garments for Children, by Synge (Longmans, 7/6). Constructive and Decorative Stitchery, by L.G. Foster, 3/6): design and make a garment. Darn and mend garments from the wash each week: First Lessons in Darning and Mending (P.N.E.U. Office. 2d.) be used. Teacher will find useful What shall we make? by M. La Trobe Foster (C.M.S.,1/-). See also (unless working as Girl Guides) tests under Scouting (Parents' Review, May, 1920): all girls should take First Aid (No.10) and Housecraft (No. 7) Tests. Make a garment for the "Save the Children Fund"; for particulars apply to 29 Golden Square, Regent Street, W.1.

Sorry that most of these last are just links to titles and authors, not whole books. Back to "real" CM posts tomorrow.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

I've got it, I've got it! (Aunt Mai for real)

Aunt Mai's 1894 Annual, online and readable. Do a search-this-page for "Mai's." They've misspelled Mrs. Steinthal's name as author, but it doesn't matter. Smyrna rugs (called Door Mats) on page 119. Also the Japanese curtains etc. etc.

And the key to the whole question is...LATCH HOOKING. Yep. No knitting, no weaving...the PNEU programme specifically recommended this particular set of instructions, so the official CM "Smyrna rugs" were short pieces of yarn pulled through canvas with a crochet hook. That's it, that's all.

As for materials, Aunt Mai recommends the following for one door-mat: 1/2 yard of canvas, a yard wide; 1 1/2 pound of "thrums, or the leavings of carpets"; 8 lengths of wood, 7 or 8 inches long and 1/4 inch wide ("The lid of a cigar-box furnishes the best wood"); a crochet-hook; pair of scissors.

Oh, what the hey, might as well write the whole thing:

"Let the pupil wind each piece of wool separately round the wood, and cut through one end, leaving each piece of wool 2 1/2 inches long. Place the canvas on a table and draw the chief lines of the pattern in pen and ink, or with a brush and sepia. Choose the colour to begin with; put the two ends of the piece of wool together; put the crochet hook through the first hole, draw the wool through, loop it, and pull it to make it quite firm. The wool is put in and drawn tight, exactly as the fringe used to be put on to antimacassars. It is the best plan to begin with the border, and then decide what pattern will look best in the centre, and last of all, to choose the background....Dark blue is effective, also a very dark terra cotta.

"Cross-stitch patterns can easily be copied, but after one or two attempts the children find a keen pleasure in inventing thei rown designs.

"When the mat is finished, brush the back with glue and a little flour added, which stiffens the rug and prevents any wool getting loose. Then seam on a strong piece of canvas, and a strong, beautiful mat is produced, which will last for years."

There you go.

Charlotte Mason #21: A Lovely Thought

"[People need] the cultivation of the power to appreciate, to enjoy, whatever is just, true, and beautiful in thought and expression. For instance, one man reads--

'...He lay along,
Under an oak, whose antique root peeps out
Upon the brook that brawls along this wood;
To the which place a poor sequester'd stag,
That from the hunter's aim had ta'en a hurt,
Did come to languish;'--

"and gets no more out of it than the four facts of the reclining man, the oak, the brook, and the wounded stag. Another reads, and gets these and something over--a delicious mental image, and a sense of exquisite pleasure in the putting of the thought, the mere ordering of the words....If people are to live in order to get rich, rather than to enjoy satisfaction in the living, they can do very well without intellectural culture; but if we are to make the most of life as the days go on, then it is a duty to put this power of getting enjoyment into the hands of the young....But the press and hurry of our times and the clamour for useful knowledge are driving classical culture out of the field; and parents will have to make up their minds, not only that they must supplement the moral training of the school, but must supply the intellectual culture, without which knowledge may be power, but is not pleasure, nor the means of pleasure." -- Charlotte Mason, Formation of Character

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

April 22nd is God's Earth Day

I am not the only one to think of calling April 22nd "God's Earth Day," but it did come into my head as I contemplated one of my least favourite "holidays," on which it's demanded that we bow down not only to the Bunny but to the Asian Elephant, the Blue Whale, the Hybrid Spider Monkey, and every other endangered species, not to mention the Dandelion and the Recyclable Plastic Bag. Homeschooling means little when you're trying to be politically incorrect: it's all over TVOntario, even all over the Stuffed Animal Site (you didn't know that April 22nd is That Site's official holiday?).
"On April 22nd, over six million Canadians will join one billion people worldwide in celebrating Earth Day. Nearly every school across Canada will also participate in Earth Day events and festivities. Everyone is looking to make a difference – one that will heal our planet."--TVOntario website
So how are we reclaiming this homeschooling day without using the words green, environment, recycle, or eco-anything? (Some of these things were already on our schedule, some I'm adding in.)

Bible Sword Drills using the word Earth

Our current Bible memory song: Psalm 100, that begins "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands..."

Favourite hymns: All Creatures of Our God and King, This is My Father's World, any others...and ending with Isaiah 6:3: "....Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory."

A chapter of Eleanor Doorly's The Insect Man (biography of Jean Henri Fabre)

Nature notebook time in the backyard--lots of dandelions to sketch, and our lone tulip that hasn't yet been eaten by The Bunny...

A game of Beaver Ed's Nature Cards, or maybe a round of Animal, Vegetable or Mineral (Twenty Questions)

A lesson for Crayons from Munro Leaf's book Geography Can Be Fun (which is about the earth too)

Watering the cucumber and pepper plants we've started indoors, and remembering to rinse the lentil sprouts in the cupboard

Usborne Map of the World Jigsaw

Making something good to eat...just haven't decided what yet...

Want more? Christian Earth Day Printables (colouring pages and such)

O LORD, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!....Psalm 8:1

What's a Japanese curtain?, and other fun CM things (A Month with Charlotte Mason, #20)

UPDATE on Aunt Mai and the Smyrna Rugs

"The Handicrafts best fitted for children under nine seem to me to be chair-caning, carton-work, basket-work, Smyrna rugs, Japanese curtains, carving in cork, samplers on coarse canvas showing a variety of stitches, easy needlework, knitting (big needles and wool), etc."--Charlotte Mason, Home Education

One of the original PNEU programmes for Form 1A (second- and third-graders) recommends these (vintage) books on handicrafts: "Carton Work, by G.C. Hewitt (King, Halifax, 2/-); make a pin tray, a salt-cellar, a book-mark, and a table. Japanese Curtains (see Aunt Mai's Annual, 1894, Glaisher, 2/8). Self-Teaching Needlework Manual (Longmans, 9d.) : children to be exercised in stitches, pages 1-6. Use coarse canvas and wool, then coloured cotton and coarse linen." For the youngest class that same year, these handicrafts were recommended: "Attend to garden (see Aunt Mai's Annual, 1894, Glaisher, 2/6). Smyrna rugs (Aunt Mai's Annual, 1894, Glaisher, 2/6). Carton Work, by G. C. Hewitt (King, Halifax, 2/-): make a pillar-box, a match box, a pen tray, and a vase. Self-Teaching Needlework Manual (Longmans, 9d.): children to be exercised in stitches, pages 1-15. Use coarse canvas and wool, then coloured cotton and coarse linen. Make a pair of cuffs."

What's carton-work? I think it's like Paper Sloyd--making models and useful things with cardboard. Besides the PNEU-recommended book above, here's another vintage title you might look up: The 'A.L.' carton-work, by Joseph Henry Judd, 1909. "Being a combined scheme of planning, drawing, folding, cutting, supermounting, and constructing in paper and cardboard, for lower forms, junior elementary, and secondary schools."

What's a Japanese curtain? If you don't have Aunt Mai's Annual, The Boy Mechanic Volume 1 has full instructions for you.

What's a Smyrna rug? More complicated, because there are real Smyrna rugs, and there is a kind of Smyrna weaving, and there are Smyrna embroidery stitches, but I think I have the answer. According to Charles Dickens' Household Words, an old-fashioned method of knitting rugs was re-popularized by Paul Schulze, author of Designs for the home-knit oriental (Smyrna) rugs", 1884. From the same article on this hot new craft:
"A revival of a very old-fashioned kind of knitting is finding favour amongst ladies who want something easy to work, and that entails but little trouble. It has been registered by Mr. Paul Schulze, and is known as Smyrna rug-knitting, but it is an adaption of the old rug-knitting that used to be done with odds and ends of worsteds, and without any design. Mr. Schulze has patented a quantity of patterns of decidedly Eastern design, and has elevated a rather ugly accomplishment into something decorative and really useful. All people are now familiar with the peculiarly soft colouring and intricate design of the carpets and mats that come from the East, and also with the soft, imperceptible way the patterns melt into each other, and are not cut and marked out like our European workmanship. This blending of colour with colour is seized upon in the Smyrna rug-knitting, and mats of all shapes and sizes, for drawing-room, carriage, or bedroom use, and even strips for the sides of beds, or to place upon polished floors, are made in this way.

The materials required are the Smyrna wools, which are of very soft shades and of six-strand make; steel knitting-pins, No. 13; a wooden stick with a groove down it upon which to wind the wool and cut it to its proper length; the pattern, and the fine twine or cotton upon which to knit the tufts. The strips are made as wide as possible, but it is better to try a short length first. The work is done as follows: Cut up the wool on the stick and arrange it in little heaps as to colour, cast on the number of stitches required—say twenty or forty, two stitches for one stitch on the pattern—knit the first stitch plain, take up the piece of wool required, put it across the work, one end on each side of the knitting, and knit the second stitch, pass the end of the wool on the wrong side of the work round the knitted stitch to the front of the work; knit the next plain, and put wool between the third and fourth stitch, knit the fourth stitch, pass the end of the wool on the wrong side across it and to the front, and knit the fifth stitch; and so on to the end of the row, always consulting the pattern as to the colour of the wool. Work a perfectly plain row between each wool row. Always work the row in which the wool is inserted with the back of the knitting towards the worker, and the plain knitting row with the right side of the work towards the worker. By this arrangement the dots made by inserting the wool can easily be counted, and the pattern followed, as each dot represents one stitch of the design. The design will not be seen until a good length of the work is done: it will then be found that the various colours amalgamate very prettily, and that the Eastern appearance is rather heightened than not by the irregularities in the length of the wood inserted, it being impossible to knit every piece in quite evenly. Messrs. Fandel and Phillips keep the material for this new work. The rugs and carpets so made will cost less than real Smyrna articles, although cheap imitations can be had at a less price; but ladies will find their own rug-work lasts much longer than the latter, and will also have the pleasure of doing it. Very little eyesight is required, and the strips can be joined together by overcasting when finished so as to make carpets."
The Book of the Home: An Encyclopaedia of All Matters Relating to the House and Household Management, by H. C. Davidson (1905) promises that "As the rugs are formed of strips, to be sewn together afterwards, they are not difficult to hold, and even an indifferent worker, with practice, can make sure of good results." And Varied Occupations in String Work, by Louisa Walker, calls the same kind of knitting “String Rugs,” and says that "This occupation is particularly suitable for the boys, because the work is rather firm and needs strong little fingers to hold a large piece." Walker's book (you can Google-Books it) gives clearer directions than does the first article, and uses bits of cloth and string rather than fancy wools. I'm not sure which version Charlotte Mason had in mind for children's handicrafts, but I'm guessing that it was something closer to Varied Occupations in String Work.

What does all this come down to? Lifetime skills...hobbies...making useful and decorative things...and looking for crafts that adults like to do as well as children. Forty years ago that might have been making macrame plant hangers. For my Squirrelings the big fad a few years ago was embroidery-floss friendship bracelets and bead jewelery. ..which they still enjoy doing, along with knitting and crocheting. Pick out something you all like, and enjoy working together!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Month with Charlotte Mason, #19: Beyond Us

I said yesterday that I was going to go in a certain direction with this...but I changed my mind.
"I think of a young woman I met at the corner store once who was toting a little one; I asked her if she knew about the mom-and-tot play programs and drop-ins that our community centre offered. She just looked at me without much interest and said, "He'd rather play in the toilet." Maybe she was joking? I've never been sure."--2005 post here about poverty
If there's anything I feel apologetic about in Charlotte Mason, it's a way...homeschoolers have appropriated her ideas, made them our own, and turned Charlotte Mason into...well, Charlotte Mason. Something that takes us an hour to explain (including the necessary biographical details) and causes people to wonder (as one lady asked plaintively at a support group meeting), "um...are there any OTHER ways to homeschool?"

It's true that Miss Mason warned even school principals not to take up her methods too "lightly," and if it was a danger for them, surely it is for us as well...a lot of what online CMers have worked at over the past decade or so has been meant to balance the proliferation of "Charlotte Mason Lite." It's also true that if you want to know what all this is/was about, you cannot do better than to read Charlotte Mason's books. Forty years of experience packed into a few paperbacks..."the best thoughts of the best minds" and all that.

However... there are two points, two big ones anyway, that get missed in this. One is that Charlotte Mason headed the Parents National Educational Union, which was a nation-wide group. In other words, it wasn't just CM and her best and closest friends; this was a large iron-sharpening-iron community. You can call her the inspiration, the head, even the heart behind this educational movement...but she didn't do it alone. She edited the Parent's Review, but she didn't write it alone. She headed the House of Education training college, but she didn't teach it alone. She wouldn't have called her philosophy and methods "Charlotte Mason Education." I'm not even sure what she did call it. In the books she refers to "this method," "PNEU methods" and so on, but "it" doesn't even seem to have a more official name...and perhaps that's the reason we've fallen back on referring to it as "Charlotte Mason" or CM, just like "Montessori schools." But perhaps if we started saying that we homeschool using PNEU methods, it would get even worse...people would do Google searches and come up with travel guides. Or we'd get people asking about how you homeschool using that pneu-monia method. Without trying to discredit Charlotte Mason, I wonder if someday we'll come up with a name for her method that nails it without requiring an entire workshop's worth of explanation.

The second issue is this, and it's why I pasted that quote at the top: there is a need for the wisdom-made-practical that we have benefited from ourselves, even if it's not labelled CM or packaged the way we expect. Charlotte Mason appreciated excellent educators, even if they'd never heard of her methods (or they had lived before her time). She particularly mentioned a teacher in a mining community who taught his students what they really wanted and needed to know, helped them find answers to the things they wondered about, and (I think) showed them that they were intelligent enough to learn those things. It reminds me of Marva Collins teaching inner-city kids stuff that was way off the expected-results charts. It reminds me of some of the books on the website Learner's Library, like Richard B. Gregg's Preparation for Science, published in 1928, endorsed by Mahatma Gandhi, and meant to give rural students in India a strong start in science...which also reminds me of George Washington Carver and his college students scrounging stuff to make their own lab equipment. It reminds me of some of the points in For the Children's Sake, that CM's methods can be used in the most unlikely settings.

And those unlikely settings...perhaps...are where we should be setting our hearts, using our creativity. The unlikely children, even the ones with the "play in the toilet" parents. Especially those ones. Many of us have cultivated our creative frugal homeschooling...and yet it's not even our children, necessarily, who need that creativity the most. I live on a somewhat limited budget, but I could go out and buy a math game if I needed to; I just prefer to make my own, or to use what we already have, or to scrounge a used one. For some parents, using any available materials would be necessity, not choice...but even more important, for some of those same parents, the materials may be there but the motivation and the knowledge to use them are not. Simplest example: many homeschoolers know how to use a deck of cards to teach math count the spots, you learn the numerals, you play simple games...and don't most people have cards around the house, or pencil and paper, or Cheerios? Using Cheerios, or beans or raisins or pennies, you could exactly duplicate the very detailed early math lessons that Charlotte Mason gives in Home Education. We have this information...we have used it, we've expanded on it, we've created games, we've taught our children... but to a lot of people, a deck of cards is just a deck of cards.

So where to from here? Literally, where to?

Who to?

I greatly admire our online friend the Deputy Headmistress, and I've often drawn on her CM ideas myself. She's been one of the driving forces behind Ambleside Online for years. What has impressed me lately, though, is how she's...reinvented isn't the right word, but I'm searching for a better one...retooled how she does CM/AO, to work well under special circumstances, for two children of a different cultural, different economic/family background. She and her family are giving them the atmosphere and the discipline (sorry about the tulips), the ideas and the living books. What Blynken does for school when he's there doesn't have to look exactly like AO Year 1 (well, he's only in kindergarten anyway). It couldn't, because he isn't there all the time.

But this is the whole point...that this thing is based, according to Charlotte Mason, on a few principles and truths about the way our minds work, about who we are, about what we need. It's not a Victorian/Edwardian/George the Fifthian, English, one-old-woman-in-black movement. It has roots going back to Comenius and Plutarch and classical education as a whole (see some of Krakovianka's posts for discussion on that). It resonated with twentieth-century Christians working at L'Abri. It can reach forward into a time when it's most needed...a time that's already here when we're forgetting so much of even our own past century's history, when people don't want to read anything longer than Twitter, when we don't know how to survive without our plug-ins, or how to cook food that comes without a package and directions. Mr. Fixit has a young German-raised co-worker who didn't recognize the term "Austro-Hungary" (where Mr. Fixit's grandparents were born), and who knows almost nothing about the Third Reich. As another example, when the Apprentice started public high school she was somewhat surprised to find that she knew more about women's history issues (such as the right of a woman to be recognized as co-owner of a family farm) than some of her friends did. And we are hardly militant feminists here.

I don't think the answer, somehow, is going to be in hosting scare-you-off CM workshops, even basic ones. The world is full of Blynkens, and toilet kids, and teenagers who could still find a bigger room to step into if they had some encouragement. Not all of us can handle weekend (or two-week) unofficial foster kids. But some of us can find...need to find...other ways to reach out beyond our own few lucky homeschooled children. The world may not need (or think it needs) more "CM," but it does need more magnanimity, more imagination, more story, more humanness, more connection points, more wonder. If that's what we're able to give our own children, that's good. But if we can find a way to pass it on even further...wouldn't that be amazing?

Something to think about, anyway.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Month with Charlotte Mason, #18

In which we continue our interview with Charlotte Mason. Tomorrow: Mama Squirrel asks (nicely) for some curriculum makeover tips.

Mama Squirrel: Your philosophy of education seems to warn against both too much teaching and too much teacher.

Charlotte Mason: The Herbartian philosophy of education lays the stress of education––the preparation of knowledge in enticing morsels, presented in due order––upon the teacher.

Mama Squirrel: Wikipedia says that Herbart advocated five formal steps in teaching: “Using this structure a teacher prepared a topic of interest to the children, presented that topic, and questioned them inductively, so that they reached new knowledge based on what they had already known, looked back, and deductively summed up the lesson’s achievements, then related them to moral precepts for daily living.” (E.J. Miller, 2003.)

Charlotte Mason: Children taught upon this principle are in danger of receiving much teaching with little knowledge; and the teacher's axiom is, 'What a child learns matters less than how he learns it.' It is not that teachers are not eminently capable, but because information does not become knowledge unless a child perform the ‘act of knowing’ without the intervention of another personality. We do not try to drop one isolated idea at a time into a child’s brain.

Mama Squirrel: So you are not putting down teachers themselves, but saying only that a teacher's teaching can get in the way.

Charlotte Mason: We are, perhaps, opposed to oral lessons or lectures except by way of occasional review or introduction. For actual education children must do their own work out of their own books under the sympathetic guidance of an intelligent teacher.

Mama Squirrel: But how can the teacher teach or guide intelligently without getting in the way? And how does your method of education make it possible for parents to teach their own children? Many of us are somewhat unsure of our own ability to pull out the ideas that our children should know, much less know how to guide just enough and not too much.

Charlotte Mason: We teachers are also modest and diffident and are not prepared to say that we are more capable of handling a subject than is a carefully chosen author who writes especially upon that subject.

Young and Able Teacher: Yes, but professional teachers have been trained to understand children’s minds, and we know when to introduce the proper age-appropriate content and vocabulary. We know better how to reach the minds of children than does the most eloquent author speaking through the dull pages of a book.

Charlotte Mason: We have proven that idea to be completely wrong. The mass of knowledge, evoking vivid imagination and sound judgment, acquired in a term from the proper books, is many times as great, many times more thoroughly visualised by the scholars, than had they waited upon the words of the most able and effective teacher. This is why we insist upon the use of books.

Principal: We tried using a great-books list at our school, but it didn’t work. Maybe we just need better teachers.

Charlotte Mason: No, the failure came because you ignored the principles and their faithful practice. I feel strongly that to attempt to work this method without a firm adherence to the few principles laid down would be not only idle but disastrous.

Deputy Headmistress: It could also be that you used excellent works of literature as mere delivery systems for things like vocabulary, critical thinking skills. If those books are merely delivery systems, then it no longer matters exactly what the children are reading- any book will do, after all, the children are at least reading, some will say, or others will insist it doesn't matter what they learn as long as we teach them how to learn.

Principal: Well, we didn’t get enough parent co-operation either. We asked parents to buy good books for their children but they said they couldn’t afford them.

Charlotte Mason: It is our part to see to it that books take root in the homes of our scholars and we must make parents understand that it is impossible to give a liberal education to children who have not a due provision of very various books.

Cindy: “And now for my LOST tie-in. This week we saw in Illana's tent the book Notes from the Underground by Dostoevsky. “Leave us to ourselves, without our books, and at once we get into a muddle and lose our way–we don’t know whose side to be on or where to give our allegiance, what to love and what to hate, what to respect and what to despise. We even find it difficult to be human beings with real flesh and blood of our own…”

Charlotte Mason: We find, I may add, that once parents recognize how necessary a considerable supply of books is, they make no difficulty about getting those set in our programmes.

Mama Squirrel: What were the principles that seemed to be missing, even if the books were good ones?

Charlotte Mason: First, the somewhat obvious fact that the child is a person; and the object of a person's education is to put him or her in living touch as much as may be of the life of Nature and of thought. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum, taking care, only, that the knowledge offered to him is vital—that is, the facts are not presented without their informing ideas.

Mama Squirrel: I have never totally understood what “without their informing ideas” means. But I think it means that the facts are not pulled apart from their original state, kind of like the nutrients issue that the Deputy Headmistress posted about, from the Michael Pollan food article. Food is often seen today only as a collection of particular nutrients so that it doesn’t matter exactly what food you’re eating, it is more important whether it’s low sodium or high fibre than whether it’s chicken or fish. You can also apply that to facts being presented in kind of a naked way, like the students in Dickens who were giving facts about horses without knowing anything about horses.

Charlotte Mason: I believe I have used that example myself. Yes, that is what “informing ideas” are. And once the habit of reading his lesson-book with delight is set up in a child, his education is--not completed, but--ensured; he will go on for himself....

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Month With Charlotte Mason, #17

In which we set aside the interview for today (will pick it up on Monday)

Yesterday afternoon I was sitting at the community centre waiting for the Squirrelings to be done a co-op class, and not having one of my own to teach, I started browsing through the bookshelf there. I picked up Super Crunchers, by Ian Ayres, and had time to read through the forward and the first chapter before the kids switched classes.

This book gives new meaning to "[oops] lies and statistics." It's written by a Yale law professor who's also an economist, and the book is about how our culture is, more or less, becoming run by algorithms and formulas. Which are right more often than they're wrong, to the discomfiture of those who have been dethroned by mathematical ways of doing things...but whether that's a good thing or not is another question. Particularly in the area of education, although that isn't a main focus of the book. Isn't that what the DHM, Cindy and others have been saying lately too? That what our culture wants is to measure everything, predict everything, get everything possible down to a quantifiable science rather than depend on less-dependable human instincts? And when you're predicting wine vintages (as in the forward to the book) or whether an anti-car-theft device will reduce crime, that's fine--but when you're predicting people, it's frightening.

Because, to paraphrase Cindy, we now have those tools and we're using them on ourselves instead of for ourselves.

And it makes me think of the whole CM idea "for the children's sake." For whose sake do the schools spend so much money developing programmed reading instruction that says now, today, you will be able to take this step, read these new words, understand this and this concept...but don't ask questions that aren't covered in this step, this lesson. The computer (I'm guessing) may even be able to predict that you may have periods of faster or slower learning, and adjust for that...but in the end, who is this all for? For the student, or for the system? In Understood Betsy, Dorothy Canfield Fisher ends her chapter on Betsy's country school by pointing out that it was only a poky little school with a few children, that no city school superintendent would bother with. My response is, now they should be so lucky.

For whose sake are we becoming only more numbers in huge databases? Have you tried getting any kind of insurance lately? The goal of reducing human error sounds like a good one, until you realize that we're the humans in question...


Friday, April 16, 2010

On books, for Sarah

Sarah asked in a previous comment:

"Please forgive me if I'm missing something key--there have been so many wonderful posts and I haven't read them as slowly as I wanted to. But if I may ask for a little clarification, what is the difference between a 'living' book and a book that is considered a 'classic'? Or a book that is simply of high quality, but lacking true meat? What are the qualities we should look to when evaluating books for our children?

"I usually put an audiobook on when I am in the car with my children. I spent the half hour to my parents house listening the the Francis audiobooks and wondering if it qualified as 'twaddle' or not. Also, my children are 6, 4, and a toddler. We enjoy many books together in the evenings, including The Boxcar Children, My Father's Dragon, etc. Again, twaddle? Classics, but not living? I'd appreciate any clarification you might have to offer!" "classic" I don't think you mean classical, right? In other words, something that is considered "classic literature" but not Herodotus? I don't know if there is one definitive list, although there are some children's classics that spring to mind, those that are usually included in sets of children's classic novels--the obvious ones, Heidi, Tom Sawyer, Robin Hood (in a literary version like Pyle's), Little Women, Alice in Wonderland, and the others of that type, along with fairy tales, Mother Goose, and some "classic" children's poetry like A Child's Garden of Verses. If we're talking about children's classics, of course a lot of the older ones weren't meant necessarily to be children's books, but were taken up by children anyway. And sometimes you wonder how certain books get put on a "children's classics" list--for instance, the much-maligned Great Illustrated Classics series (which I don't like either) includes abridged versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Pride and Prejudice, neither of which I consider of any great interest to children still at the Heidi stage. (Although I do remember one of my preschoolers taking a great interest in "That grumpy man" (Mr. Darcy) when we watched P&P years ago.) Anyway, in that sense I think a "classic" is just an excellent book that has stood the test of time, and one that's probably well known. Something that you're missing out on if you never get around to reading.

Living books? I think that comes out of Charlotte Mason's stand against textbooks that were all dry facts, tables, lists, reigns of one king after another without any interesting details. Originally the only antidote to those that she could think of, at least for history, was to go back as far as possible to the medieval chroniclers, who, she felt, at least intended to tell a good story. Later in her school programmes she did include more books that were written for children, but she still looked for writing that did not talk either down to them or over their heads. Often that would mean a book maybe on birds that had been written by someone who actually spent a lot of time watching birds and could tell you all the interesting things about them--not just which species have certain kinds of beaks, but what they do with those beaks. I think the idea of "living books" leaves a lot of room for undiscovered treasures and newer books, ones that may not be considered classics but that are interesting, useful, written with good literary style, and that give you the sort of details that will help you remember what's being taught--the "meat," as you said. They might be fiction, but don't have to be.

Does that answer the question?

A Month with Charlotte Mason, #16

[Update: this has been somewhat shortened from its original posting.]

I promised something slightly different I have invited Charlotte Mason and some online friends to participate in an online discussion. Watch out, you may find yourself quoted.

Mama Squirrel: Miss Mason, there are some principles discussed at the end of Home Education that I had to skip over in my description of your methods. Could you please tell us about those?

Charlotte Mason: There are two secrets of moral and intellectual self management which should be offered to children; these we may call the Way of the Will and the Way of the Reason. The Way of the Will is that children should be taught to distinguish between 'I want' and 'I will.' They should be taught that the way to will effectively is to turn our thoughts from that which we desire but do not will; that the best way to turn our thoughts is to think of or do some quite different thing, entertaining or interesting; and that, after a little rest in this way, the will returns to its work with new vigour.

Mama Squirrel: So we are to will ourselves not to will something?

Charlotte Mason: No, the aim of diversion is to ease us for a time from will effort, that we may 'will' again with added power.

Mama Squirrel: So this is a method that we can give to children to use?

Charlotte Mason: No; in the first place, the Will is something that is developed as the children mature; before they are ready to use it fully, they must make more use of Habit. While the child has no character to speak of, but only natural disposition, who is to keep humming-tops out of a geography lesson, or a doll's sofa out of a French verb? And where is the harm? In this: not merely that the children are wasting time, though that is a pity; but that they are forming a habit of never focusing fully on anything, and reducing their own capacity for mental effort. The help, then, is not the will of the child but in the habit of attention, a habit to be cultivated even in the infant.

Second, the Way of the Will is not a tool of behavioural change such as hypnosis. The use of suggestion––even self suggestion––as an aid to the will, is to be condemned, as tending to stultify and stereotype character.

Mama Squirrel: I don’t quite understand that. You are saying that by repeating something like “I will not have another chocolate” or “No, I really don’t want to do that” even if you really do, you are misdirecting the power of the will by treating yourself like a robot?

Charlotte Mason: Yes. It is better to stop trying to force the will, to think of something different, and then to put it back to work after a short break.

Mama Squirrel: If something very systematic, on the order of self-hypnosis, would be more effective in teaching you to want something or to change a habit, why would it not be a better idea to use it? Perhaps it would be even less of an effort for us, if we could just have that little voice talking to our subconscious. Like those motivational tapes that say, “Yes, I really am a good housekeeper. I always wash dirty dishes whenever I see them. Dust bunnies make me cringe. I attack clutter viciously. I love housework.”

Charlotte Mason: It would seem that spontaneity is a condition of development, and that human nature needs the discipline of failure as well as of success.

Mama Squirrel: So if I changed my dusting habits through suggestion, then I might have a cleaner house but I would have not have developed my Will?

Charlotte Mason: Yes. This also applies more generally to education. A System is easier than a Method. A 'system of education' is an alluring fancy; more so, on some counts, than a method, because it is pledged to more definite calculable results. By means of a system certain developments may be brought about through the observance of given rules. It is so successful in achieving precise results, that it is no wonder there should be endless attempts to confine the whole field of education to the limits of a system.

Cindy: This exactness is so appealing. It gives us a feeling of accomplishment and success. It allows us to focus on classroom management rather than ideas. We use the tools of learning as weapons against our students. We don't give them the tools, we use the tools on them.

Charlotte Mason: If a human being were a machine, education could do no more for him than to set him in action in prescribed ways, and the work of the educator would be simply to adopt a good working system or set of systems.

Mama Squirrel: All right--what about the Way of the Reason?

Charlotte Mason: The Way of the Reason means that we should teach children not to 'lean' (too confidently) 'unto their own understanding,' because of the function of reason is, to give logical demonstration (a) of mathematical truth; and (b) of an initial idea, accepted by the will. In the former case reason is, perhaps, an infallible guide, but in the second it is not always a safe one, for whether that initial idea be right or wrong, reason will confirm it by irrefragable proofs.

Mama Squirrel: I find that easier to understand than the Way of the Will. Most people would probably agree that we can rationalize even our irrational beliefs and behaviour.

Charlotte Mason: Children should be taught, as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of initial ideas. To help them in this choice we should give them principles of conduct and a wide range of the knowledge fitted for them. This should save children from some of the loose thinking and heedless action which cause most of us to live at a lower level than we need.

Mama Squirrel: Some Christians reading this may feel that we are putting undue emphasis on our own abilities to reason and to will. Does that mean we are not depending on God to guide us or to make us willing to do certain things?

Charlotte Mason: We should allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and 'spiritual' life of children; but should 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.

Mama Squirrel: You mention duty…but you also speak of not encroaching on children. Aren’t we encroaching by imposing our demands on them, likely with the thought that they will be punished if they don’t obey us?

Charlotte Mason: The principles of authority on the one hand and obedience on the other are natural, necessary and, of course, by the respect that is due to the child’s personality. The mother who takes pains to endow her children with good habits secures for herself smooth and easy days; while she who lets their habits take care of themselves has a weary life of endless friction with the children. All day she is crying out, 'Do this!' and they do it not; 'Do that!' and they do the other. In fact it is less tiring for everyone when good habits are in place. The mother herself acquires the habit of training her children in a given habit, so that by-and-by it becomes, not only no trouble, but a pleasure to her.

More tomorrow.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Month with Charlotte Mason, #15

"One gets the impression that real poetry would be a distraction."--Deputy Headmistress at The Common Room, "Of Food and Education, Part III"

I am coming close to the end of my workshop notes, although we're only halfway through the month. That's all right--there are still more places we can go with this, although at that point in the actual workshop I was running out of time and the listeners were starting to get that spun look on their faces.

What I ended up talking about at the end was one of the really good things I remember from my sixth grade class. That was the year that "they" decided that our curriculum needed a boost of “culchah,” especially Canadian “culchah.” So every couple of weeks that year, the grade sixes had artists and musicians come to visit. Or we visited them. We walked downtown to a big church to hear a pipe organ, and got to see how it worked; the organist (reminiscent of Mr. Pipes) just happened to be one of the best around and a composer as well. We had someone show us Group of Seven paintings, and a commercial artist brought in his own work. A folk musician named Merrick Jarrett sang and danced his limberjack man for us. Besides getting us out of Environmental Studies for the afternoon, this "culchah" program turned out to be a real gift to us. It was one of the "realest" things we ever did in school. How else do you think I've remembered all that for thirty years?

By comparison, I barely remember what we did in science that year, or in math, although I did learn my times tables perfectly due to the fact that the teacher wouldn’t let us go out for recess until we had answered a sufficient number of questions. I remember reading one chapter of The Witch of Blackbird Pond (in a reader), and—oh yes—watching the obligatory “your changing body” film. So: one chapter from a novel, twelve times tables, a health lesson, and a handful of fine arts memories. Would the teacher be surprised to know which of those sixth-grade lessons are still clear, and how much of the rest has been forgotten?

What will our homeschooled children remember of their school years? Likely not the grammar books, and perhaps not even the geography lessons; “who remembers the scraps of knowledge?” Charlotte Mason asked (although she was not speaking particularly of her own methods). Cindy Rollins said once that if she had to choose between overemphasis on “basics” or “poetics,” she’d rather err towards “poetics,” because you can always catch up on grammar but it takes a lifetime to build an appreciation of art and literature.

Now, while the workshoppers are running for a coffee or the vendor hall, we have some time to go in a different direction. Those of you looking for a few more practical ideas, stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A quick math dice game

Crayons and I have been playing this game (for two players) from Low-Cost, No-Cost Teaching Aids by Mary Ann Dasgupta. She calls it "Tables Dice." You could also play it to teach addition, but we're using it for times tables.

We use four dice, but you could play it with two. You shake two dice, then the other two (or shake two, remember the sum and shake them again). Multiply the sum of the first two dice by the sum of the second two. So you roll a 3 and a 4 with the first two dice, then a 5 and a 6 with the second two; you multiply 7 x 11 and get 77. The other person does the same thing. Whoever gets the greater product gets one point. Ten points wins the game.

Simple, frugal, and very good practice.

A Month with Charlotte Mason, #14

"For people who want to do the "living books" thing that Susan Macaulay has popularized, here is the kindergarten program all worked out for them.""--Dr. Ruth Beechick, review of a preschool-K curriculum
I use some of Ruth Beechick's books in our homeschool, and she has many good, practical ideas, especially (perhaps ironically) in using real books to teach language skills. However, I also think this comment is typical of the general misunderstanding around Charlotte Mason and "living books" in particular. In both fiction and non-fiction, the term “living books” has been overused, abused and confused, to the point that almost any chapter book set in some other era is now considered quality historical fiction...and, in the review above, "classic" picture books also suddenly join the list. Some people may take offense at that, and please understand that I am not discouraging the reading of picture books in general--only saying that these were not "living books" in the way that Charlotte Mason used the word.

If we’re going to be faithful to Charlotte Mason’s literary standards, we need to understand that she wasn’t exaggerating when she talked about little children playing Robinson Crusoe, or a schoolboy spending his whole Easter break reading Southey’s poems. It wasn’t so strange that Anne of Green Gables and her friends chose to act out "The Lily Maid" in 1908. Authors like Scott, Pyle, Kipling, Bunyan, Defoe, Kingsley, even George Eliot, were just considered The Books That There Were. They were the standards of the time, and children in "literate" households grew up familiar with Those Books, along with the Bible. If you look at the books Charlotte Mason refers to in the second half of Ourselves, which is meant to be read by older high school students, there are casual references to George Eliot's novels and other books that most of us are lucky even to get around to reading in college. For her students, they were common currency.

Now there must have been hundreds or thousands of books published over the last century, and most of us have gotten much worse at reading and at making time for reading. We’re hesitant, like Joyce McGechan, to put this kind of meal in front of our children because we’re not even sure we’d want to eat it ourselves. We’re in an era where, in a lesson plan for fourth graders, it’s expected that you should define words like “average” and “develop” before reading a book to them—and the lesson plan I found that in is for a picture book.

So I’m very aware in saying this, that the verbal and cultural gap between CM’s students and ours can seem insurmountable. But the fact is that there’s very little being published now, especially for children, that has both the literary power and the idea power of the books from the earlier eras, so we will often find ourselves turning back to them, not exclusively, but as a solid foundation.

Remember this from the third post? "Despising children is not doing the good that we should do in loving them or teaching them, because we undervalue their intelligence, their value as persons, their capacity for good, or even their capacity for bad."

And why are we using these hard books again? Is it because children develop character by chewing on gristle?
"Let us imagine an author at his craft, say, Herman Melville while writing Moby Dick, or Jane Austen working on Pride and Prejudice. Now assuredly what these literary artists hoped above all else was that a century or two from their own time students in high schools would be using their great works not better to understand love or honor or revenge or nobility or happiness, but to “analyze how multiple themes or central ideas in a text interact, build on, and, in some cases, conflict with one another”; as well as to “analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).""--Terrence Moore, "Dressing up Standards, Dumbing Down Schools," quoted by the Deputy Headmistress
Children, if they’re exposed to rich language from an early age, even if we find ourselves stumbling through some of the books, will get it, and will want more. Remember the little girl at Bending the Twigs who threw a sentence about Cerberus into her grammar lesson?

A leisurely education means having the freedom (time, space, opportunity) to discover what makes us fully human.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Month with Charlotte Mason, #13 (Updated)

As far as textbooks go, there are textbooks and then there are textbooks. Some of the books that Charlotte Mason called living books, especially ones she used for high school, look a lot like textbooks. And there are certainly subjects that are most efficiently taught with some kind of a textbook, like geometry or Latin or grammar. Just watch out for the ones that are obviously produced by textbook committees, the dumbed-down books or the ones that try to cover way too many topics without any real sequence. Some textbooks are toaster pastries, some are gruel; look for something that’s nourishing but still appetizing.

Look for science, history and geography materials that are fairly consecutive, that build on knowledge rather than presenting choppy bits and pieces, and that give you a chance to get really into a time, place or topic. Anything that can get you all excited about the walls of an old fort, a statue in a museum, or what’s going to come out of a chrysalis, is probably good material. Anything that leads to children asking more good questions on their own, like “what’s fire?” is probably good material.

You want children to be able to make connections, see how things fit into each other, see how familiar things can be compared with less familiar ones—to find reasons to care about what they’re learning, and make it their own. At the beginning of Home Education, Charlotte Mason talks about actual meals, and offers the advice that you shouldn’t always serve exactly the same thing for every breakfast or every lunch—that every meal should have at least some little surprise. A good lesson is like that—if the children always know exactly what to expect, they may not mind it too much, but if there’s the possibility of some new, unexpected thing, that’s even better. But the cool thing (the leisurely thing) for parents it that we do not have to set these discoveries up, or hammer the morals home; the children will make their own connections, and sometimes draw out points that we never even thought of. More leisure for us. More for them, because they’re not being hammered.

CM-RELATED UPDATE: Hard thoughts on the issue of education without understanding (or, as C.S. Lewis and Cindy have it, creating "men without chests"): today's post at The Common Room). And check out this quote from the same article the DHM is referencing:
"The secret was breathtakingly simple. The way to teach literacy for the twenty-first century turns out to be the same way it has been done in the last thirty centuries of civilization: to hire the brightest and best-educated teachers (usually not those coming out of a school of education considered “certified”), to put in their hands the best works of literature and history and philosophy, to invite young people to have a conversation about what it means to be a human being [emphasis mine], and to require those students to work hard and demonstrate good character while doing so. When all the Mickey-Mouse language of plot graphs and “standards” is abandoned, it’s just you and some students talking about love, hate, war, peace, liberty, slavery, happiness, life, and death. And the students know when you’re faking it.

"Oh, and it helps to throw in a little Latin."

Monday, April 12, 2010

Cruise Question: Love of learning through planning and purpose

This week's question: "How do you instill a love of learning in your child?" (Click on the ship to see more responses--they will be posted on Tuesday.)

Thoughts as I repost this: "How do you instill a love of learning in your child?" Seems that's all I've been posting about lately. But as we get to the end of an enjoyable school day which included, among other things, a field trip to the back yard for violet and crow observation; an impromptu game of Twenty Questions in response to a geography lesson about Kinds Of Things; several pages of Kim; a spelling lesson where we learned that the "friendly vowel suffix" has a bad habit of running off with the consonant from the first syllable (causing us to have to double the consonant to protect the short vowel); and an imitation of the Hairstyling Skills Competition using Barbie beauty heads...some of which "educational activities" were planned, and some of which weren't...I think we're getting closer to actually FINDING that pot-of-loving-learning-gold that sometimes seems the elusive prize for getting through many days of math drills and history lessons on dead kings. Anyway, the girls' school day is done but they're now making stationery in the kitchen (their idea), using coffee to age the paper, giving me a few minutes here to browse for "love of learning" in past posts--and this almost five-year-old post is what I came up with.

Repost from 2005: A Response to Laura D. Bush

There’s an article online that's been reprinted here and there, called “It’s Not About School,” by Laura D. Bush. Since I first read it, a couple of points from the article have been bothering me and, at the risk of seeming rude or maybe out of date (the article is five ten years old), I would like to address them.

Overall, I think Mrs. Bush does have something important to say: that the “heart of homeschooling is in the home we build for our children.” As someone who started homeschooling with Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s For the Children’s Sake fresh in my mind, I agree very much with that point! And I would like very much to think that any family that reads together, that talks about important things (including how those things fit into God’s world) around the dinner table, and that learns to wonder and find out about what that big bug is or how things work, is going to be a learning family no matter what curriculum is chosen; maybe even no matter what school the children attend. I notice, for instance, that theologian Francis Schaeffer’s children (including Susan) and grandchildren were not exclusively homeschooled, although some Christians insist that homeschooling is the only Scriptural choice parents can make.

However, I have to take exception to her criticism that much talk of “books and lesson plans, classical homeschooling and unit studies....obscures the heart of homeschooling” and becomes just an enjoyable hobby of “playing school.” When Mr. Fixit reads the Wheels section of the paper and posts to a station wagon e-group, I don’t call it “playing car”; he enjoys cars, but he’s also taking care of our transportation needs. I enjoy talking about homeschooling and childrens’ books, but I’m also taking care of my family’s school needs. I am the one trying to read between the lines in product reviews, going to workshops, and joining online math groups. I don’t plan everything we do from scratch, but I am responsible for choosing which plan we will follow, which books we will study, and figuring out our longterm academic goals.

If I didn’t do those things and told my children that because the heart of homeschooling is a loving home, I’m not going to spend any extra time working out what we’ll study next school year, they would (rightly) look at me as if I had two heads. Homeschooling is no more just a hobby for them than it is for me; it is how they spend a good part of their days; it means, to some extent, their futures; and it is important that they understand how seriously I do take that responsibility.

To be fair to Mrs. Bush, I don’t think that her purpose in writing was to discourage anyone from comparing curriculum or enjoying “shop talk.” (Even the Proverbs 31 woman considered a field before she bought it.) However, she does tend to wander into the rather romantic ideal that a supportive, literate household will automatically produce educated children. She states that “no child in a home with books and magazines and the welcoming lap of a reading adult will fail to learn to read”; actually, I know at least one child in exactly such a household who has had great difficulty with reading. “No child in a healthy home will fail to learn all the arithmetic he or she needs to succeed as an adult.” Unschoolers may agree with that idea, but for most children (including mine), regular math work is necessary in addition to all the “teachable moments” and real-life learning we’ve made use of. (Cutting pies into fractions goes only so far.) “Homes full of love for one another, love of learning, interest in and concern for the world will almost surely produce well-educated young people, regardless of the methods or materials we choose to use in our homeschool.” Sewing a dress or cooking a meal using wrong methods and poor materials will result in failure, regardless of the good intentions of the sewer or cook; why should the teaching of children be viewed differently?

It’s true that God’s people can have widely varying needs in education, and some families may find they need to supplement their very full “real life” with only small amounts of “school.” Others will need to spend much more time and energy providing learning opportunities for their children. My concern is that, while we can agree with the “heart of homeschooling” philosophy and don’t put prideful over-emphasis on academic achivement, we risk creating a reverse tendency to sneer at method and structure, as if they are somehow less than spiritual. (I think that reflects the same spiritual tension that causes some people to view savings accounts and insurance as prudent, and others to say they show lack of faith in God’s provision.) The “love of learning” Mrs. Bush describes does not happen, for most of us, without at least some deliberate plan and purpose.

A Month with Charlotte Mason, #12

The last part of Home Education is about the role that our wills and our reason should have, and how we teach that to our children; but I think it’s more practical at this point to ask a fourth question on education: What should we use? Or to put it another way, "what shall we then buy?"

There was an idea going around awhile back that it didn’t matter at all what you used, that any curriculum could be used in a CM style, and so you had people trying to use basal readers for narration, and so on, usually with a lot of frustration. It was like serving popsicles with forks and knives and calling it dinner--it just didn't work. There is a lot of flexibility in Charlotte Mason, and there is no one perfect, comprehensive booklist (or schedule) that is going to be suitable for every family in every circumstance; but it is important to choose quality books and other resources that will meet the objectives of a leisurely education. Just as it matters what children eat, it does matter what mind food we provide, what books we read, what music we play, what kinds of craft materials we choose. So how do you know what to use?

This is where the booklists from Ambleside Online and other CM websites (like Simply Charlotte Mason, Mater Amabilis and so on) can be very useful. You don't have to start right from scratch; you can look at what other CM homeschoolers recommend, see which classics are still being used, and get a sense of what newer materials seem to fit. Even then you need to be discerning, but when the same material comes up repeatedly, that’s probably a good sign that it’s worth checking out.

Let’s start with the very obvious, what not to use. We can rule out a large portion of most public school teacher catalogues, including "Guided Reading Beach Balls." "Great Graph Art Around the Year." "Picture Sorting for Phonemic Awareness." And "40 Wonderful Blend and Digraph Poems." We don't want study guides that are just long lists of questions to answer and definitions to copy. And unit studies loaded with fill-in-the-blank reproducibles, colouring pages, and word searches. Actually a lot of commercial unit studies can be crossed out, unless they’re limited, say, to correlating history and literature, and maybe tied to appropriate music or art of the particular era. Charlotte Mason used that tying-together approach in her teaching, but she didn’t think of that as unit studies, more just a correlation of things that naturally went together. It was when teachers started trying to get too clever and drag in all the subject areas that she had a problem, especially when the topic chosen was something insubstantial like apples; or even a better topic like Robinson Crusoe, that would just make the kids hate the book by the time you’d done Robinson Crusoe math, Robinson Crusoe songs, Robinson Crusoe copywork, Robinson Crusoe geography, Robinson Crusoe recipes and so on.

It’s kind of like when my mom first got a wok back in the ‘80’s and enthusiastically started stir-frying things. First she made stir-fried chicken and that was fine, then she made stir-fried beef and that was good too, but by the time she got to stir-fried hot dogs, we had had just about enough stir-fried anything for a long time. Easy to overdo.

More do's and don't tomorrow.