Saturday, July 26, 2014

Charlotte's Lean and Mean Curriculum (School Education)

Charlotte Mason frequently refers to the Parents' Review School curriculum as wide and generous, but, paradoxically, it achieves some of its power by what it does NOT include.  There is a certain spareness to its subjects and its presentation that may not have been as noticeable at the time, but in comparison to many educational plans now, seems like a streamlined racing bike set up against one of these.

As I said in the last post, both school administrators and homeschooling parents can still be frightened off by a lack of detailed instruction, especially for difficult or unfamiliar books.  But there seemed to be (at least) two reassurances in this area:  first, if you weren't up to choosing your own books in 1903, you could join the Parents' Union and take advantage of experienced teachers recommending books that had, often, been used successfully for many terms already. Second, if you had at least that much confidence in the books, and some awareness of the "Charlotte Mason" philosophy and methods, you could feel free, in most cases, to jump in and read.

In The Art of Reading, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch gives a wonderful lecture to his English Literature students about "Children's Reading." Here's an excerpt, and please notice that he follows both the careful choosing and to the just-go-ahead, don't-interrupt style of reading also favoured by the P.U.S.:

If, then, you consent with me thus far in theory, let us now drive at practice. You have (we will say) a class of thirty or forty in front of you. We will assume that they know their a—b, ab, can at least spell out their words. You will choose a passage for them, and you will not (if you are wise) choose a passage from Paradise Lost: your knowledge telling you that Paradise Lost was written, late in his life, by a great virtuoso, and older men (of whom I, sad to say, am one) assuring you that to taste the Milton of Paradise Lost a man must have passed his thirtieth year. You take the early Milton: you read out this, for instance, from L’Allegro:
        Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee
Jest and youthful Jollity,
Quips, and Cranks, and wanton wiles,
Nods and Becks, and wreathed Smiles
Such as hang on Hebe’s cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek;
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides….
Go on: just read it to them. They won’t know who Hebe was, but you can tell them later. The metre is taking hold of them (in my experience the metre of L’Allegro can be relied upon to grip children) and anyway they can see ‘Laughter holding both his sides’: they recognise it as if they saw the picture. Go on steadily...

So if Charlotte's curriculum is generous but not weighed down, what does it not include?  As already seen, verbose instructions to either the teacher or the students. Word-by-word scripts to follow.  Complicated methods of evaluation. But also, without constant dependence on readers and textbooks that include chapter questions and end-of-unit tests, there is a lightening of the expectation to teach the book rather than the child (Ruth Beechick's phrase).  If it's there to be used, you can feel very guilty about not using it. You paid for the program, you want your money's worth.

Last year I looked (briefly) at a contemporary grade 7 language-arts-and-literature textbook, which was basically a reader but with assignments included.  I kind of liked some of the assignments, but this is where I got stuck: if we spent all year working through those relatively few poems, short stories, and pieces of non-fiction writing, when would we have time to get through the Shakespeare play, the novels, and the rest that I expected would make up the meat of our grade 7 literature course?  So here's the crux: which approach is "leaner and meaner?"  Cutting down what the students get to read to a few poems and stories (and not particularly amazing ones), and a couple of newspaper articles?  Or cutting out the weight of the assigned projects, the chapter questions and so on, and just spending that time reading and narrating?

I guess it depends on whether you define "lean and mean" as skimpy and lacking, or as classic and powerful.

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