Thursday, April 01, 2010

A Month with Charlotte Mason #5: Only Three Tools

...and studying the subjects we do cover with books, Real Books—with Real Things as well, but largely with Real Books, inspiring real ideas and real questions, modeling real vocabulary, awakening real curiosity, offering real mind-food.

Real Things are important. A Charlotte Mason education can and should have lots of hands-on, feet-on, five-senses activity. It should have maps and globes, dominoes and math beans, coins, CDs, paint boxes, animals, games of tag, costumes and sets, physical exercises, field trips, singing, building, household skills, outdoor play, clay, magnifying glasses, caterpillars, shells, even tea parties.

But the one indispensable factor is books—lots of books, and the right kind of books, a rich, varied, generous serving that makes them want more. And using those books in a way that makes use of all the habits and skills, intelligence and imagination, powers of attention and observation, that are already in our children and that are being built up by the training we have been giving them.

We want whole books, and real books—not cut apart, rewritten, and sugar coated, but with their ideas intact. Even the more difficult books can be a vital part of the children’s education, without our worrying too much about whether they’re totally understood by 21st-century children.

Recently I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which is about a wartime book club and how each person in the group formed a relationship with one author or another in his or her own way, just by reading that person’s book, whether it was an ancient Roman or a 19th-century essayist. They were just plain people, some with more education than others, but they heard those voices speaking into their own minds, without anybody else telling them what they should think about the books; and they understood them, argued with them, loved or hated them. The books fed them, in the midst of a literal time of famine.

In the children’s classic Understood Betsy, the main character is surprised, during her first day in a country school, to be not only allowed but expected to read more than a line at a time out loud--just as she is surprised, in another scene, to be invited to drink all the milk she wants. The teacher tests her further by having her read “Barbara Frietchie,” and all the other children stop their work to listen (and are not scolded for listening). That evening as Betsy recounts her day to the supposedly ignorant old “Putney cousins” with whom she has come to stay, they suggest that she read to them from one of the books on their shelf: Scott’s Lady of the Lake. Their mutual enjoyment of “The Stag at Eve” creates the first real bond between Betsy and her new family.

Third--we're still talking about the three questions parents should ask themselves--how should the students learn? Charlotte Mason wrote about her early days of teaching, which she said were often frustrating because each year the children seemed able to do harder sums, and read harder books, but they did not really grow, in the sense of having minds more awake, or in gaining moral power to overcome problems like habitual lying or dawdling at lessons. She wanted to help them more, but wasn’t sure how. Over many years of experience teaching children, and then training teachers herself, several ideas seemed to come together for her.

She knew of many things that certainly might change behaviour, but most of them were not allowable if you started out by viewing each child as a person made in God’s image, who “must not be encroached upon whether by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire,” like competition for marks. In other words, fear could certainly affect someone's behaviour; but that wasn't a route she wanted to take. The personal influence of a strong teacher could definitely change someone's behaviour, and probably for the better in some respects; but what would happen when that teacher was gone and the student did not know how to think for himself? None of these options were respectful of a young human being's moral rights. (Hm, so much for accusations of homeschool brainwashing.)

So that left only three valid, allowable instruments or tools that an educator could use to go beyond the "horse in a mill" school routine of endless recitations and sums. Those three were:

"the Atmosphere of Environment,
the Discipline of Habit,
and the Presentation of Living Ideas.”

This is sometimes cut down to “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” I'll go through those in the next post.

A Month With Charlotte Mason will be taking a break for the holidays this weekend.

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