Submit entries here by Monday night. The first edition will appear at Jacci's blog on Tuesday, September 19. This issue's theme will be "The Great Outdoors." Hmm, I just might have an entry on that topic...
Submit entries here by Monday night. The first edition will appear at Jacci's blog on Tuesday, September 19. This issue's theme will be "The Great Outdoors." Hmm, I just might have an entry on that topic...
This is part of a (much) longer response to the comments on my "Lovely, Lovely Low Tide" post. I thought this part of my comment was relevant to the ongoing discussion here:
I am certainly not perfect and I try show my warts and all on this blog. I am constantly pondering and working with questions, and I wonder sometimes if that makes me seem inconsistent, like people must be wondering if I'm ever going to pick a lane! I am comfortable, though, with who I am (my favorite John Paul II quote was, "Families, be who you are!"), and who I am is someone who likes to mull over a wide range of ideas and see what WORKS. For me, for us, for my kids, my husband, in our unique and ever-changing situation.
I sometimes do feel an urge to "belong" to one school of thought or another, to find that label that fits me perfectly. As I said in my original Tidal Learning post, I couldn't find the label, so I made one up. It's useful mainly as a way of answering people's questions when I meet a new homeschooler.
I have written elsewhere about how some part of me seems to stick out of every niche I enjoy visiting (and that is probably true for most people). I'm a pro-life Democrat, for Pete's sake! Sort of. Ha!—I don't even fit THAT label across the board.
But still there is that desire to find the perfect label. There are times I read Charlotte Mason and think: She makes so much sense! I want to be a whole-hog CMer! And other times when I read Sandra Dodd and think YES, I grok that, I'm an unschooler! But the reality is, I have places where my understanding doesn't completely line up with either CM *or* radical unschooling. And that's fine. I can still learn from both schools (unschools?) of thought, and identify with aspects of each.
One area I'm keenly interested in is the balance between a rich unschooling environment (the kind of environment & relationships Sandra describes so vividly in her book and site) and the logistical challenges of raising a big family, especially with my special-needs son. When you've got big kids and babies in the same house, all with their own (sometimes conflicting) needs, you're probably going to have to make compromises somewhere. Tia, that's the issue you seemed to be exploring in your post on Always Learning—-how your need for a clean, uncluttered space seems to you a valid need that benefits the whole family, and how you feel able to maintain that without shortchanging your children of your time or attention. It seems like a good question to explore, but is perhaps a bit out of context on that particular list. And I saw that the reactions of experienced radical unschoolers there were coming out of a sense of concern that your vision of it being possible to maintain a tidy home while unschooling might make newbies feel like failures if they can't pull that off.
Probably some of the friction comes in the different definitions people have of unschooling. I try to consistently use "radical unschooling" when describing the lifestyle Sandra speaks of, which incorporates an approach to parenting that believes kids grow up happier and nicer if there aren't constant conflicts with parents over chores, TV, and so forth; and that the way to avoid that kind of tension is to relax control in those and other areas.
While I find much to learn from in that vision of parenting, I cannot say it totally lines up with mine. I'm completely on board with "say yes as often as possible"—but I also see myself as the leader of this crew of kids and am comfortable with the notion of parents being in authority over their children. I don't see authority as a bad thing or necessarily meaning there will be friction and discontented children.
But I digress. I was saying that as I understand it, "radical unschooling" has a specific meaning, and some discussions are not going to be relevant in a radical unschooling context.
Just plain "unschooling" is a tricky term, because to some it means radical unschooling, and to others it means "kids growing up without 'doing school' either in a schoolhouse or at home"—without necessarily applying to *parenting* style. You'll find, then, families who consider themselves unschoolers but where the parents have an authoritative (not the same as *authoritarian*, and I credit Jeanne Faulconer for writing a post years ago that first made that distinction clear to me) parenting style. That probably best describes how Scott and I are raising our kids. So while I have great respect for people like Sandra who have, by all accounts, raised some fabulous, considerate, compassionate, respectful, nice kids according to the parenting principles that accompany radical unschooling, I'm coming from another perspective, one informed by my Catholicism (the only label that truly fits me across the board), my experience, my husband's viewpoints, and the temperaments and needs of our specific children.
So yes, I think you can be both an authoritative parent and an unschooler, and there are unschooling discussion lists where it might be interesting to have that discussion, but I would naturally expect the experienced & happy radical unschoolers to speak up with strong arguments from their perspective. And if they all disagreed with my opinion, I'd have to say, well, I went to the vegetarian banquet looking for hamburger recipes!
Still, I love to hear the RU perspective, with its emphasis on JOY. Joyful parent/child relationships, joyful person/learning relationships, peace and delight and harmony in the home and with the world. It's a refreshing vision—invigorating, I think is the word I used in my Low Tide post. Sandra's work truly refreshes and empowers me, and I would hate to discourage anyone from encountering it, even if I'm not a radical unschooler myself.
One insight I had about myself during this current re-immersion in Sandra's website & list is that I was able to put my finger on why our foray into pure CM method this past winter/spring fell flat after six weeks, so that I found myself—for the first time in our homeschooling experience—with a roomful of discontented kids. (Discontented with our learning experiences, I mean. They have certainly all been discontented before, like whenever I cook dinner.)
The realization that came to me via my rethinking Sandra's philosophy is that what was different about our High Tide time this winter was that always before, while we may have been taking an excursion aboard the S.S. Charlotte Mason, I was captain of the ship, adjusting our course as needed, and pulling into port for refreshment or exploration as my young sailors required. This time around, I turned the ship's wheel over to Cap'n Mason herself—and much as I love her captain's logs, she doesn't know my crew the way I do. After six weeks, they were ready to mutiny.
So I am back where I belong: comfortable in my own shoes. I'm a Tidal Homeschooler, and it works for us, makes for fun times with my happy, pleasant children. But it was the Radical Unschoolers who taught me this lesson, and I will continue to enjoy learning from their perspective— just as I learn from the pure Charlotte Mason folks and the Real Learners and the classical-ed people and the Waldorf folks. I really, really like to learn. So do my kids, so I'm content to "be who we are."
As a final note, it occurred to me there might be others out there interested in exploring this concept of Tidal Homeschooling, so I have created a group for that purpose. I encourage you all to join me there! http://groups.yahoo.com/group/tidalhomeschooling/
The first time I posted about tidal homeschooling at Bonny Glen (in January of 2006), I said,
Our family enjoys both kinds of learning—the heady adventure of the well-planned fishing trip, with a goal and a destination in mind, and the mellower joys of undirected discovery during weeks at the metaphorical beach. Around here, the low-tide times happen much more often than the high tide times, and often I find that the children catch more fish, so to speak, when the tide is out. Beachcombing reveals many treasures.
I was talking about unschooling v. Charlotte Mason-style learning, which, as readers of this blog know, are the two philosophies/methods of education which most resonate with me—even though they are very different philosophies.
We have been unschoolish Charlotte Mason learners, and we have been Charlotte Masonish unschoolers; I described it in that post like this:
[T]he what we do—read great books, study nature, dive deeply into history, immerse ourselves in picture study and composer study—is highly influenced by Charlotte's writings and their modern counterparts (particularly Elizabeth Foss's treasure of a book, Real Learning); and the how we do it—through strewing and conversation and leisurely, child-led exploration—is influenced by the writings of John Holt, Sandra Dodd, and other advocates of unschooling. But I couldn't say we're "real CMers" because I don't carry out Miss Mason's recommendations in anything like the structured manner she prescribed; and I probably do too much behind-the-scenes nudging for us to be considered "real unschoolers."
I'd say that continues to hold true, a year and a half later. If you start looking for a definition of unschooling, you'll find there's a lot of disagreement between different people about what exactly unschooling is, and any definition I attempt to apply to it is simply my own take; but to my way of thinking, the term is most useful when applied to an approach toward childhood in which the parents do not "make" the children "learn stuff." The children are learning, constantly, enormously; and the parents are actively engaged in discussion and strewing and facilitating and offering new experiences, and at times classes or curricula may be a part of those experiences—but only as the child wishes.
And so, since there have been some studies I have required of my children (Latin, for example), I can't say I'm a full-fledged unschooler. I am very, very unschooly, most of the time.
This past winter, I veered farther off the unschooling path than ever before, with our very much by-the-book Charlotte Mason term that began after the holidays. And, as I talked about here, it started off great guns, loads of fun, a very rich and animated time of formal learning—and then we hit some rather large bumps and the fun started to spill out of the cart.
Scott's back went out; we sold our old house; there were lots of distractions. We stuck to our rhythm of morning read-alouds and narrations, but last week I noticed the kids were squabbling with each other a lot and our lesson time was turning grumpish.
(And re-reading that post, I see that a lot of what I'm writing here is a repeat of that one.)
I reassessed and saw that the year's upheaval had tangled us up quite a bit, and I turned to my favorite Waldorf resources to help us untangle: we immersed ourselves in the soothing, homey pursuits of baking, painting, making things with yarn or clay, singing, telling stories. Our CM lessons continued but at a slower pace, and mostly for Jane. Gradually, as our spring got busy with recitals and outings, I retired the CM schedule altogether. I did this without fanfare or announcement, and the children seemed scarcely to notice: they've been too busy learning.
Learning about (to rattle off a few topics from the past week) the history of purple dye, the legends of Hercules, musical notes, how to make cookies without mom's help, how to adapt a knitting pattern for crochet, measurement, air pressure (pumping up a baby pool and watching the pressure gauge), geography, San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, ISBNs and book cataloging, ocean life (could be a long list itself), the joys of playing in the sea, snakes, turtles, goats, miniature horses, Lightning Lad and Superboy, writing and cracking codes—and that probably isn't the half of it. Just today, Rose sat down to write a story, and when it was finished, she asked me to correct it ("I want it to be like a real book"), and that led to conversation about spelling rules (slam/slamming, split/splitting, reply/replied), punctuating dialogue, indenting paragraphs and when to start a new paragraph, capitalization of titles, when to capitalize "mom" and when not to, and more grammar stuff that I can't remember.
Whenever our low-tide times come around, I laugh at myself for forgetting how true are the words I wrote above: I find that the children catch more fish, so to speak, when the tide is out.
A week or two ago, reveling in the richness of low tide, I got in the mood to read some Sandra Dodd. Sandra's website is one of the best educational resources on the 'net. She has been collecting wisdom from experienced unschoolers (including herself) for over ten years, and her site is a vast (really, I'm not using the word carelessly—there must be a hundred? pages there, at least)* repository of quotes and anecdotes to inspire and edify anyone who is interested in how people learn. Be careful; you'll lose yourself there for hours.
But you'll find yourself, too. Sandra always makes me think. She can be challenging, in the sense of 'one who challenges you to examine your assumptions.' I've lurked on her email lists on and off over the years (and not always lurking; I used to participate in the discussion, two or three younguns ago), and I sometimes found her almost painfully blunt. But now, ten years into my own home education journey, I think I understand why she doesn't mince words in conversation with other homeschooling/ unschooling parents. She doesn't want them to lose precious time to friction and tension. She wants there to be joy and delightful connectedness between parents and children, always and as soon as possible.
I don't necessarily agree with her on every topic, but I appreciate the way she gets me questioning, pushing, pondering, learning. I like her emphasis on saying yes as often as possible. That one simple idea can effect HUGE changes in your relationship with your kids. Sometimes I get so busy, so caught up in the logistics of managing this busy household, that I drift into scolding mode. Ugh. Sandra's work reminds me not to scold, but rather to listen, and to smile, and instead of barking out a kneejerk "No" to the child who proposes something, to ask myself "Why not?"
A small example. On Sunday after Mass, the three older girls and I were standing on the sidewalk outside church, waiting for Scott to pick us up. There are two entrances to the church parking lot, and I had positioned myself at the corner of a traffic lane in the lot, so that I could see both entrances. I didn't know which way he'd come in. The girls wanted to cross to the other side of the lane. I didn't want to, because then I would only be able to watch one of the entrances.
A month ago, all wrapped up in my brisk busy-ness, I might have simply said no—offering no explanation.
A week ago, with my renewed focus on saying yes and, well, being nice (the busy me is not always the nice me), I might have said, "Sorry, gang; if we cross over there, we won't be able to see Daddy coming."
A day ago, with my wits sharpened and my desire to be connected and happy with my children renewed by an immersion in unschooling belief, I asked myself, "Why shouldn't they cross the lane? I can stay here and watch for Scott. Anyway, even if I don't stand here, it's not like he won't find us. It's not a big place. Why do I need to watch for him at all? What was I thinking? Or rather, why wasn't I thinking?"
So I said, "Sure!"
And guess what? Scott found us just fine.
Oooh, that pesky auto-response! It is so easy for a mother's default setting to be NO. But truly, so unnecessary too.
About the same time I went poking around Sandra's site, I treated myself to a copy of her book, Moving a Puddle, which is a collection of essays she wrote for homeschooling publications, message boards, and other places. I'd read some of them before, but many of them were new to me and it's nice to have them all in a book I can curl up with or tuck in my bag. I got halfway through the book and had found so much I wanted to talk about that I simply had to order a copy for my pal Eileen in Virginia, Wonderboy's godmother and my crony in unschooly Charlotte Masonishness. (Or is that Charlotte Masony unschoolishness?) She received it a few days ago and we've racked up quite the tasty phone bill, discussing and enthusing every day since she opened the package.
I feel downright invigorated, and I didn't even know I needed invigorating.
Of course this begs the question: if low tide is so fabulous, why not stay there forever? Why have high-tide times at all? That's the question I am continually examining (see this post: Accidental v. On-Purpose Learning), and will be pondering again this summer.
*Turns out there are over FIVE hundred pages at Sandra's site, and that's just the unschooling arm of it; she's got other sections, too. 500! I told you it was vast!
The nice thing about what I call "tidal homeschooling" is that it keeps the pressure off me. By now, I have learned that our family's life seldom maintains a consistent rhythm longer than, say, four to six weeks. I have learned to enjoy the ebb and flow, the seasonal change. When monkeys toss their fabled wrenches into our works, as those naughty little monkeys are wont to do, I know it's time to do a little tweaking.
Our "high tide" Charlotte Mason term chugged along nicely during February, but this month we went a bit off kilter. Scott's back went out; we sold our old house; there were lots of distractions. We stuck to our rhythm of morning read-alouds and narrations, but last week I noticed the kids were squabbling with each other a lot and our lesson time was turning grumpish. That is always, always, a cue for me to shift gears. (And mix metaphors. Good heavens, I am haphazard with the metaphors today. Metaphor soup!)
I've mentioned before that my introduction to the idea of homeschooling was through the writings of John Holt and Sandra Dodd. Sandra is the guru of radical unschooling, and though I don't agree with her take on everything, I have learned a great deal from her writings. Jane was a babe in arms when I began to ponder Sandra's ideas about children learning naturally, through life experience, apart from school; and truth be told, it was Sandra who sold me on the lifestyle, way back when I was lurking on the homeschooling boards at AOL.
Now you know that while I have a big streak of unschoolishness in me, I'm not an unschooler per se; the Charlotte Mason method, applied according to her principles, is not unschooling. But Charlotte, too, envisioned the kind of happy and eager childhood that you hear about in the writings of the unschoolers. And that's my main answer to the question, "Why do you homeschool your kids?" I say, "Because I think it's a way to give kids a great education and a joyful childhood."
During our low-tide times, which occupy the larger portion of the year, we are like unschoolers. We live and play; we take care of our home together, the children and I; we have adventures and read lots of great books.
During our high-tide times, we keep doing all of the above, but I'm the one picking out the books, and I have the kids narrate a lot of the reading back to me, and we work more deliberately on mastering skills that take practice, like piano and math and Latin.
After the big adventure of moving to California, quickly followed by the big adventure that is Christmas, all of us were ready for some structure, some predictability. Hence our current lineup of studies a la Miss Mason. And as I said, our "term" (the term amuses us, ba dum bum) got off to a terrific start. Last week, when the fun started to fizzle, I gave some thought to what might need tweaking.
The first question I always ask myself when I'm assessing our family rhythm is "What would we be doing if we weren't doing this?" If, for example, we weren't spending three mornings a week reading and narrating, how would we spend them? We already have activities the kids love which take us out of the house twice a week, sometimes more; plus I've tried to be good about making spontaneous outings to the zoo or the park, exploring this vast new land we've moved to. I find that an important ingredient for family harmony is having plenty of mellow time at home. I am not, therefore, inclined to add any more activities to the mix right now.
Home time, then. The kids want to do more painting. Check. I can make that happen. They want to do more baking, and Easter is around the corner...Check. Jane has a flat of herb seedlings going, and all of us are in the mood to do some gardening ("all of us" as in the entire Northern hemisphere), so: Check.
Thus far in my ponderings, I have found nothing that really requires a tweak. We can do all those things any afternoon of the week; I just need to remember to DO them. (Check.)
But the grumpishness of the last week or so, that's got to go. That's where the tweaking comes in. What jumped out at me when I gave some thought to the question was that it has everything to do with the challenge of keeping five small people happy at once. (Make that four small people and one medium-sized person; Jane is really getting to be such a big kid.)
I decided I was trying to do too much all together. After traveling in a pack (both literally and figuratively) for the past nine months, my kids are ready for some one-on-one time with me. This can be as simple as making sure Beanie gets to help me wash dishes, or Jane gets me for a few screens of Absurd Math, her favorite online pastime. Rose wants to stretch out on my bed and chatter; she is my most introverted child, and I think she soaks up a lot of observations during the big group activities and wants my ear in which to pour them later on.
This morning I gave Rose a stack of books and helped her set up camp on my bed. She beamed. While Jane read a picture book to Beanie, I spent some one-on-one with Rose. Then I grabbed Bean for some cozy couch time, and we rediscovered Eric Carle's Animals Animals together. Jane went off to her favorite corner of the craft room and read the books I'd given her; later she came back and narrated to me while I changed a few diapers, nursed the baby, unloaded the dishwasher. It was a good morning. The house is a mess but our moods are tweaky clean.
The Simply Charlotte Mason folks have just debuted a new record-keeping tool designed specifically for Charlotte Mason homeschoolers. You enter the books you plan to use for each student, and the CM Organizer schedules the readings over the span of time you indicate. Then it generates daily schedules with clickboxes for you to check off. Another feature creates reports showing your progress.
The website has video demos of all the nifty features, and SCM is offering a free 30-day trial period so you can live with the organizer for a month and decide if it's worth the $9.95/month subscription fee.
I am currently reading the Simply Charlotte Mason habits book, Laying Down the Rails, and will write more about that when I'm finished. Which, judging from the state of Scott's back, might be a while.
Got this delightful note from my dear friend Joann:
I have been gobbling up the Charlotte Mason books and each one is so full of gems!You know we have just not gotten to the "click" point with Daniel and reading, right? Well, I read Home Education, specifically the chapters on reading. I've read the method as interpreted by Karen Andreola and Elizabeth Foss, but really needed to see it for myself.So I chose a nursery rhyme for Daniel that I thought he would like and printed it out and cut it up and did just exactly what she said in the book.
And I cannot believe it, but the child LOVED his reading lesson. And he learned to read. About 12 words! And he is picking up every piece of printed matter in the house and trying to find words he knows and trying to sound out other words. He's known the sounds for ages it seems, but we couldn't find what was the hold up. I could see that he was having a hard time with seeing where one word stopped and the next started. So I think that cutting the words apart really, really was the turning point. Like a light bulb, "OH! That's a WORD!" He's is beyond excited.What a gift this woman is to homeschoolers and what a shame her principles cannot be implemented more widely.
Hear, hear. And not just among homeschoolers. School-schoolers, too. Here's a lovely account of one woman's memories of her experience in a PNEU school (thanks to Mater Amabilis for the link).
And Willa recently posted a link to this Parents Review article about a family who enrolled in a PNEU correspondence school. I love this:
Now, nearly four years later, things have changed. The children's clothes are patched, their feet encased in cheap canvas shoes. Meals consist largely of fruit and vegetables gathered from the orchard and garden, dairy produce from our two cows, and eggs from the hens. They cut and cart cattle bedding; they wash vegetables for market; they take turns in milking the cows, and generally take on any job that arisesmore or less cheerfully. A pretty poor little lot, you might think.
You could not be more wrong. Our bookshelves are full of good books, recommended in the programmes; and conversation is sometimes baffling to outsiders. For the children talk about John Masefield, Granny, Monet, our next-door-neighbour and Socrates with the same degree of familiarity.
They have retained their sense of delight and wonder. These four average children, who find some subjects easy and some difficult, are full of curiosity about everything that goes on about them, and everything that has happened since the world began. They chant poetry in the bath (in English or French); they quarrel in the words of Agamemnon and Achilles; they give our cows and calves Greek names. They observe closely the possible colour changes of a chameleon, and argue over the components of a certain rock specimen. They pester the curator of the museum, and any experts we happen to meet, for information about their various specimens. People fascinate them, be it Pithecanthropus Erectus, Elizabeth Fry or General de Gaulle.
Children whose epithets four years ago seemed limited to 'pretty,' 'quite nice' and 'sooper,' now yell when flying a kite, 'Mum, come and look at that "bewildered" swallow! It can't think what this kite is!' Or I find my best pyrex dish used for a 'suffering' tadpole that must be isolated from the rest. I am called to watch a 'quivering' Siamese cat as she lies in wait for a bird, or a 'baffled' puppy trying to walk through a glass door.
Charlotte Mason's statement about the 'twaddle' has proved to be absolutely true. The most worn books on our shelves are not the Annuals sent at Christmas; but 'Heroes of Greece and Troy,' 'The Odyssey,' 'Stories from the History of Rome,' Stevenson, Kipling, and all our poetry anthologies. Robert's favourite book at the moment is 'Memory Hold the Door'; Charles is deep in 'Children of the Archbishop,' and Colin is reading 'Puck of Pook's Hill' again while he is waiting for 'Jock of the Bushveld' to be available from the library. Just last night, as I switched off her light, Alison chided me sleepily, 'Mummy, I can't understand why you didn't recommend me to read your Somerset Maugham books. Gosh, that man can tell a story!'
The warm, lively, happy, eager, rich life depicted in this article: that is exactly what speaks to me in the CM method; that's why we're doing what we're doing. (Minus the cows.)
I've been writing a lot lately about the aspects of the Charlotte Mason method that work so very well for us here in the Lilting House. Today I thought I would balance that by talking about the pieces that aren't exactly clicking perfectly here at the moment.
You know what isn't happening? Nature notebooks. One of my new California friends, upon hearing that I'm this huge CM enthusiast, said she can't wait to see our nature journals. I had to laugh. There isn't much to see. Jane and I started off great guns when she was, oh, maybe four years old. Her first journal contains charming if barely decipherable drawings of garden flowers, beach treasures, and neighborhood leaves. We glued in some pressed pansies, which are now crumbling out of the book.
It was a fine beginning, and a beginning is all it was. Fully half of the pages are blank.
A year or two later, we started afresh, this time in the manner described in Karen Andreola's Pocketful of Pinecones. We got one of those composition books with the black-and-white covers, and Jane began carrying a clipboard with drawing paper on our walks. Her drawings were cut to size and pasted into the book, labeled, and then (if I made her) she might copy a short poem on the facing page. Again, charming pages—all six of them.
Oh, we have started afresh a time or two since then. I am a great one for fresh starts. And of course Beanie and Rose acquired their own journals along the way. I found the latest batch yesterday, the ones we were working on in Virginia, before we moved. Way before. The most recent drawings were labeled "April 2005."
Despite this inconsistent and unimpressive record, I have spent some six years now blithely thinking of "nature journals" as one of the defining factors of our family experience. Living books, narrations, deep discussions, and nature journals: I am sure I have rattled this list off a thousand times when people ask questions about how we homeschool. I didn't mean to be deceptive. Mainly I was fooling myself: that comfy knowledge that we have done it sometimes translated into an airy conception of this is something we do.
(We really DO do the rest of the list, I am relieved to be able to say!)
What was happening was the muddling-together in my mind of nature study and nature journaling. Nature study is a regular daily occurrence around here. Hardly a day passes in which we are not observing and discussing and looking up various flora and fauna. We are passionately interested in birds; we get giddy about growing things; we run for the magnifying glass when a strange six-legged beastie shows up in the backyard, the butterfly net, or (in a shuddersome stretch of days some time ago, which I do not ever care to revisit) on someone's head.
But here we are, in a new environment, making the freshest of fresh starts; and this time, we're going to get serious about our nature journals. We are all agreed upon this. Yesterday we hunted up all our supplies and arranged them neatly in the patio room where they can be snatched up on a daily basis. Daily! All right, every-other-day-ly! Or weekly! I'll settle for "often"!
We are all excited, the girls and I. But enthusiasm does not equal perseverance, so I shall rely upon my gentle readers for some accountability-assistance. Ask me in a month or two how our nature notebooks are coming along, and if I don't answer, you may interpret that as a blush.
To aid us in our new endeavor, we shall keep in mind the guidelines for nature journaling which Miss Mason herself laid out. At the extremely useful website called Charlotte's Daughters, a generous CM enthusiast has typed out some actual PNEU syllabi. These make fascinating reads for a number of reasons, and I will be referring to them often in days to come. For now, I want simply to focus on the nature-journaling aspect of these programmes. The science section of each level includes instructions for students to "find and describe" various natural objects and creatures: for example, six-year-olds are to find
6 wild fruits
6 twigs of trees
6 wild flowers
Watch, if possible, and describe 30 birds and 15 other animals.
and to "keep a nature notebook." The syllabus does not elaborate on what that means (presumably it was explained in other accompanying materials), but farther down the page we find instructions for the year's drawing lessons:
Drawing and painting
Pencils should not be much used.
In season, in brush painting or in pastel, draw
6 wild fruits or berries, and autumn leaves
6 twigs of trees, especially with buds or catkins
6 wild flowers
Draw or paint 18 animals that the child has been able to watch.
Draw and paint occasionally from memory.
"Children should have exercises in brush strokes and should paint freely on large sheets of ... paper ... They should draw with brush, crayon, charcoal, or blackboard chalks. ... Avoid pencil outlines filled in with colour."
Simple flat color washes of shapes or clouds, sunsets, the sea, etc.
3. Imaginative work
Pictures of people or scenes read about in Literature
Christmas, Easter, birthday, and other greeting cards
This is for the first-year students, remember, about age six, and is an overview of the goals for the whole school year. I imagine a great deal of this happens spontaneously in most homeschools...but it is nice to have as a frame of reference, don't you think? Especially in regard to the nature journals.
Drawing goals for eleven-year-old PNEU students (Year 6) were similar: over the course of the year, draw
6 wild fruits or berries, and autumn leaves
6 twigs of trees, especially with buds or catkins
6 wild flowers
18 studies of animals that the child has been able to watch.
Draw from memory.
And (under Science)
Make special studies for the season with drawings and notes, e.g.,
twigs, seedlings, etc.
learn the songs of 6 birds
visits of insects to plants
wild flowers that grow together.
Our pencils are sharpened. (Never mind that "pencils should not be much used.") Our most recent half-filled notebooks are ready and waiting. Our trusty Prismacolor pencils are handily arranged. We have the will; we have the way; now all that remains is to do.
"In urging a method of self-education for children in lieu of the vicarious education which prevails, I should like to dwell on the enormous relief to teachers, a self-sacrificing and greatly overburdened class; the difference is just that between driving a horse that is light and a horse that is heavy in hand; the former covers the ground of his own gay will and the driver goes merrily. The teacher who allows his scholars the freedom of the city of books is at liberty to be their guide, philosopher and friend; and is no longer the mere instrument of forcible intellectual feeding."
—Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education (CM Series Vol. 6), p. 32.
By "method of self-education," Charlotte means, of course, the method she developed and had seen in practice for some thirty years, the method we have been discussing here during the past several weeks.
Guide, philosopher, and friend. I was thinking about this quote and it struck me that my whole experience of motherhood has been shaped, since my oldest child was tiny, by Charlotte Mason's ideas about how people learn and grow. I read Home Education when Jane was four years old, and my heart soared at the lovely vision of early childhood laid out in that book. We were coming out of her chemo years then and the immuno- compromised isolation that entailed, and although John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, and Sandra Dodd had sold me on homeschooling long before Jane got sick, it was Charlotte Mason who showed me in concrete images the kind of childhood I wanted to give this beloved child and her baby sister.
The other day I was writing about how well suited the CM method is to the roller-coaster ride of life with many children. The plain truth is that the more monkey wrenches are thrown into our works, the more grateful I am for the simplicity of a Charlotte Mason-style education. I am excited every single morning, honestly!, to spend another CM-inspired day with my children. On Friday afternoons I am actually sorry to put our books away for a couple of days. (The feeling is quickly swallowed by the joy of knowing we'll have Scott home for two whole days. You know this Daddy-goes-away-to-work business is still new to us.)
I love that my children are eager to pull the books back out first thing Monday morning; I love that they actually beg me to read Homer and Shakespeare. You understand that there is no boasting in this statement; this is not a proclamation of my own merits as mother or teacher, nor of unusual virtue or genius in my children. Charlotte Mason believed her method produced similar results in all children, regardless of social class, family background, or natural ability. "Let me try to indicate some of the advantages of the theory I am urging," she writes, "It fits all ages, even the seven ages of man! It satisfies brilliant children and discovers intelligence in the dull. It secures attention, interest, concentration, without effort on the part of teacher or taught."
Alice sent me a note this morning about her favorite quotes from Towards a Philosophy chapter 1. (I have implored her to turn them into a post for Cottage Blessings, and if she so treats us, I'll let you know.) She included this gem, and I won't add my commentary on it because I am hoping she will grace us with hers. I will only say that I agree, one hundred percent.
"I have attempted to unfold (in various volumes ) a system of educational theory which seems to me able to meet any rational demand, even that severest criterion set up by Plato; it is able to 'run the gauntlet of objections, and is ready to disprove them, not by appeals to opinion, but to absolute truth.' Some of it is new, much of it is old. Like the quality of mercy, it is not strained; certainly it is twice blessed, it blesses him that gives and him that takes, and a sort of radiancy of look distinguishes both scholar and teacher engaged in this manner of education..."
About all that reading
How Charlotte Mason keeps me sane
Accidental v. on-purpose learning
Do you write down your children's narrations?
Rose's reading list
A CM term (Jane's list)
CM on nourishing the mind
Big CM post
CM on habit-training
Yesterday when I was talking about reading aloud to the girls during our Charlotte Mason-style lessons, I forgot to mention that of course Jane (age 11) does most of her own reading. Every Monday, I print out her booklist, and we aim for a chapter or two in each, spread out over the course of the week. She reads from two or three of her books each day and narrates all of these readings either orally or in writing.
Her reading list has been tweaked a little since I posted it in December: we never did find our copy of Ivanhoe. She is reading Great Expectations instead. Unlike the dozens of books she wolfs down in her free time, I am making her take Dickens (and the rest of her CM list) slowly, for the reasons Linda Fay lays out in this excellent post:
Years ago, when my children were young, we devoured several books a week. It was a point of pride for all of us. "Wow! I thought, my children must be learning a lot. They have covered so many ideas this year." My daughter could finish a book a day.
Then, I read this:
"We hear of 'three books a week' as a usual thing and rather a matter of pride. But this, again, comes of our tendency to depreciate knowledge, and to lose sight of its alimentary character. If we perceive that knowledge, like bread, is necessary food, we see also that it must be taken in set portions, fitly combined, duly served, and at due intervals, in order to induce the digestive processes without which, knowledge, like meat, gives us labour rather than strength." (vol. 5 of CM's educ. volumes)
Now, I probably would have never listened to such advice, but living in Turkey has its drawbacks. I had no library and no bookstore with books available in the English language. My children, out of necessity, were going to have to spread out their books. I could never keep the supply up with the demand. I decided to try this with their most important books, the books that I considered ' the cream of the crop', over a several week period. So, instead of reading a book or two a week and then going on to the next one, my children started several books at the same time but read them slowly over a 10 week period or longer.
Slow reading was a novel concept (ba dum bum) for my young book-glutton, but I am seeing results very similar to those Linda Fay describes in the rest of her post.
Charlotte Mason discusses the difference between pleasure-reading and reading-for-knowledge in her Volume 6, Towards a Philosophy of Education:
"In the first place we all know that desultory reading is delightful and incidentally profitable but is not education whose concern is knowledge. That is, the mind of the desultory reader only rarely makes the act of appropriation which is necessary before the matter we read becomes personal knowledge. We must read in order to know or we do not know by reading."
Now, I have certainly seen my kids learn an awful lot from their desultory reading, and if you want to know whether any of that knowledge has stuck, just ask Miss Jane what she recalls from All About Weeds (and then settle in for a looong answer). But I think Miss Mason is correct in describing this kind of knowledge as "incidentally profitable." It's like the distinction I make between "accidental" and "on-purpose" learning.
I trust that my kids, all kids, will "learn an awful lot" from devouring the books strewn in their path during our low-tide times. But Charlotte Mason convinced me that a slow-and-steady diet of carefully chosen literature, narrated back, leads to something more than an encyclopedic collection of facts. The CM method promises a relationship with knowledge, not just the memorization of it.
But, it will be said, reading or hearing various books read, chapter by chapter, and then narrating or writing what has been read or some part of it,—all this is mere memory work. The value of this criticism may be readily tested; will the critic read before turning off his light a leading article from a newspaper, say, or a chapter from Boswell or Jane Austen, or one of Lamb's Essays; then, will he put himself to sleep by narrating silently what he has read. He will not be satisfied with the result but he will find that in the act of narrating every power of his mind comes into play, that points and bearings which he had not observed are brought out; that the whole is visualized and brought into relief in an extraordinary way; in fact, that scene or argument has become a part of his personal experience; he knows, he has assimilated what he has read.
—Vol. 6, p. 16.
When I look back at the last ten years of my life, it seems as if my family has been catapulted from one major life change or crisis to the next with hardly a lull. And yet, these tumultuous years have been good and happy and productive. I think almost by definition, the life of a young and growing family is bound to be full of surprises and chaos. Babies are delicious disruptions to order; and if you throw some medical issues, interstate moves, and job changes into the mix, you've got a roller-coaster ride, all right.
The lovely thing about a Charlotte Mason education is that you get a lot of bang for your buck. Simply put, it doesn't take much time. Right now I've got three "school-aged" kids in the house, plus the special-needs three-year-old and the baby. The girls and I spend about three mornings a week on our Charlotte Mason-style lessons. This couch time, though often interrupted by diaper changes and toddler crankiness, is a gentle and truly delightful way to live and learn.
I am not the mother who sews gorgeous clothes, or paints rooms and furniture, or makes pancakes for breakfast on a weekday. If you know me in person, you quickly find out that my closets are always a disaster and my dinners are nothing to write home about. But by golly, I can cuddle up on the couch and read aloud with the best of 'em. I am the read-aloud queen. Give me a living book and a comfy cushion, and I'll give you a well-educated child.
Around here, evenings are dicey. Come 5 p.m., I'm fighting the urge to sack out in front of Good Eats with the younguns. If only Rachael Ray would waltz in and whip up a 30-minute meal while the gang and I are learning about enzymes and lipids from Alton Brown, I'd be a happy camper. Dinnertime is not my forte, no sirree-bob. I'll take the couch over the kitchen any day.
And that's my answer to the "how do you do it" question. I pick out good books—and even there, most of the work has been done for me by my heroes at Ambleside Online—and I gather my brood, and we nestle in and read. Read them good books, let them tell everything back to you, and voila! It's the simplest recipe for education I know, and truly, it's a nourishing meal plan for mind and spirit. Now that's good eats!