Before we officially took the kids out of school to home educate, I had read and read and read all things homeschool. I’m sure it’s not surprising that I still do.
I’d read about classical homeschooling, child-led schooling, eclectic homeschooling, even the confounding unschooling. The list goes on and on. I’d heard of Charlotte Mason and enjoyed her ideas about drawing in nature, and pursuing some old fashioned topics, like nature study. From Susan Wise-Bauer to John Holt to Raymond Moore to David Albert to John Taylor-Gatto, I think I’ve read a little from everyone.
Until a recent homeschool conference I hadn’t done an extensive amount of reading on the Charlotte Mason approach. A representative of the Charlotte Mason approach, Catherine Levinson, spoke. The more she shared, the more I realized I was already doing most of what Charlotte Mason had led her private school students in doing back in the day. I’d come by her ideas on my own accord, by watching my children’s needs and rhythms. As the wise King Solomon once said, there is no new thing under the sun. But when we don’t ponder the things that have happened under the sun, we tend not to learn from them, and we must figure them out for ourselves.
Underlying Charlotte Mason’s approach, she is quoted in saying, “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life. Education is a discipline–that is, the discipline of the good habits in which the child is trained. Education is a life, nourished upon ideas; and education is an atmosphere–that is, the child breathes the atmosphere emanating from his parents; that of the ideas which rule his own life”.
1. Education is a discipline. There is as much, or more, value in teaching the child character than sifting through ideas or knowledge. This surprised me in the first year home educating. I knew that children needed a lot of guidance and that sometimes their natural inclinations weren’t helping them, or others. I could see the value in character training, but wouldn’t have thought it would be so profoundly necessary and beneficial.
If the kiddos could pay attention to me when I asked them to do something, they would also be more fully present in their studies. If they didn’t dilly dally with their chores, they were also more likely to focus on their math problems. If they didn’t stir up trouble with their sister, they had a peaceful, happy day that also contributed to the happiness of those around them. Now I see that character is the baseline of happiness.
“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny“. Not from Charlotte Mason, but she’d have surely agreed.
2. Education is a life, nourished upon ideas. Practically speaking, Charlotte Mason is a fond proponent of short lessons. The child should be fully engaged, but not unrealistically engaged for extended periods. An hour of math worksheets might sound clever, but might also be encouraging your own self-induced torture. As the kid flails about, pokes their sibling next to them, or whines until you’re crying, she’s come to learn little math. Get her to work against a timer for a reasonable period, and expect her best work, and she’ll increasingly be attentively present, well, most days. To engage a child in ideas and knowledge, the child must be fully present. Overload anyone with too much activity, and they’ll want to go fetal, or at the very least, not be fully present.
Real books are used as curriculum choices, rather than standard textbooks. Books written by a character from history are an effective history teaching approach, attaching the mind’s-eye to a story and its details. When studying Canadian history, we’ve read from the Dear Canada or Our Canadian Girl series. Rather than singularly reading dull and abbreviated excerpts from textbooks, these books are written from a young girls’ perspective during a short time frame in history. Get the kids something to do with their hands while they read, and I most always have their rapt attention.
In this method, loads of different topics are covered, such as the old stand-bys: reading, writing, arithmetic. Also, poetry, geography, nature study, grammar, music and art appreciation, and even Latin: often neglected aspects of culture. Expose the child to tonnes of ideas and ask them to share what they’ve heard, and they will come to think for themselves.
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” William Butler Yeats
3. An education is in the atmosphere. An even more striking aspect that Charlotte Mason teaches is that an education is in the atmosphere. See mommy be gentle, the child will be gentle. See mommy yell, the child will yell. See mommy snap, the child will snap. Now I don’t want to take all responsibility for my child’s behaviour; I think there’s much more to this discussion. But what we value, they will come to value. What we really believe, they will come to believe. Value osmosis is a hard-earned benefit of parenting, or a hard and painful reality of parenting (probably a little of both for us less-than-superhuman parents). Either way, it will be inevitable: the values we value, not the values we necessarily teach or preach, are the ones they will truly value. An education is definitely in the atmosphere.
The charming Charlotte Mason…
Besides the fact that Charlotte’s Mason’s values are similar to my own, I just enjoy this method. It’s just plain fun. Pursuing the interests of the kiddos, and myself, occurs naturally in this approach. Charlotte Mason has certainly charmed me, so she fits well in my attempt to capture the charmed life.