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
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
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!
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!
I’ve been looking for the passage I know is in one of Charlotte Mason’s books about making sure children have one or two favorite nature-spots to visit on a regular basis: a park, a garden, a particular wood, a shore, that is visited over and over in all seasons, so that the children may grow familiar with the plants, birds, and beasts that live there, and see how things change throughout the course of a year.
I can’t find the quote, but I know it’s there somewhere: in Home Education, most likely. Miss Mason’s recommendation impressed itself strongly upon me as a young mother in New York, and I dutifully (a delightful duty it was) looked about for a suitable spot or two. I wound up with three, and with bitsy Jane and baby Rose I made pilgrimages to at least one of them every week for years, so that bitsy Jane became bigger Jane and baby Rose was bitsy, and Beanie became the baby.
One of our haunts was the beautiful garden you might have seen recently in the background of Alice’s Midsummer Night’s Dream pictures. And yes, on those outings Alice and her bonny clan were usually by our side—Alice, naturally, having been the person to introduce me to the garden in the first place. A weathered journal filled with Jane’s primitive sketches of flowers from that garden remains one of my most cherished mementos of those green-golden days.
This place was our other favorite spot: five minutes from home, with woods to tramp in and a long stretch of rocky, sandy shore on the Long Island Sound. Sands Point was our year-round nature spot, the place we went to crunch over snow through leafless woods, or to hunt for horseshoe crabs and bury our feet in wet sand.
In Virginia, we were so blessed as to have nature trails around the undeveloped perimeter of our neighborhood, the trailhead lying at the bottom of our very own street. On those leafy paths we learned "the green ways of growing." We met a woodchuck, several snakes, some woodpeckers, a bevy of chickadees, and, once, a terrifying dog. There was a fallen tree all the kids called a fort, and a creek for floating fairy-leaves down, and stones for skipping, and a long hike through a marshy meadow to a lake where the Canada geese congregated on October evenings. A bald eagle was rumored to live there, though we never saw him.
We also frequented Ivy Creek Natural Area, the site of Jane’s best butterfly encounters. It was there we became acquainted with the beech and the sassafras, the wingstem and the woolly aphid. I always meant to spend more time at Ivy Creek than just the once-a-month summer butterfly walks (and the annual native plant sale); but the years we lived there were dominated by Wonderboy’s medical adventures, and we didn’t make it out as often as I’d have liked.
Now here we are in San Diego. Our first six tumultuous months of settling in are behind us. We have only just begun to explore all that is new and delicious in this part of the country; before we arrived, a sweet friend sent us a two-inch-thick book of Fun Places to Go with Kids in Southern California, and though we’ve had a busy and adventure-packed six months, we’ve only made our way through the tiniest sliver of that book. (Blame the Zoo: we keep going back and back for more.) But I find myself drawing a breath and knowing it’s time to find "our spots"—a Sands Point, an Ivy Creek, a place or two we can be more than just acquainted with: a place or two to know intimately.
The quest itself is one of the great delights of moving someplace new. In New York, there was a third "our spot": a lovely garden tucked in the midst of suburbia, a quiet oasis of pond and flowered path. There, too, we often rendezvoused with Alice and her girls (we moved just weeks after Patrick’s birth), and Alice and I would sit in the shade while our little lasses counted turtles in the pond. You could drive right by this garden and have no idea it was there; I think I did drive by probably hundreds of times before I ever set foot through the gates into that little Eden.
Sometimes, as I drive around this western city, I wonder what Edens lie hidden beyond the highway.
I love knowing they’re there, waiting for us to discover them. Our places, our spots: they are waiting for us. What will they be? A ribbon of beach, where we’ll find tidepools and singing waves? A hidden garden, lush and tropical? A windy hilltop where lizards bejewel the warm stones? A place where we will learn the blue, the brown, the golden ways of growing?
A couple of weeks ago, we met some young women who are running a nature studies camp for children this summer. I got to chatting with them, and before I knew it, I had booked one of them to come out to our neighborhood for a guided nature walk sometime soon. One must be on a first name basis with the trees and shrubs one sees every day! This young woman is just our sort of person; she’s into "urban foraging," aka "picking weeds to eat on your salad"—aka "Jane’s kind of person." (My Virginia friends are reading this and laughing, recalling how Jane taught their children to nibble chickweed for iron and violets for vitamin C. Playing in our yard generally meant going home with green teeth.)
After this nice urban forager introduces us to our leafy green neighbors, I’m going to have her take us farther afield, perhaps to Mission Trails Park, where Father Serra, our family’s new patron saint, once trod.
I still can’t find the Charlotte Mason quote I want. Here, though, is what she has to say about "Out-of-Door Life for the Children":
Meals out of Doors.––People who live in the country know the value of fresh air very well, and their children live out of doors, with intervals within for sleeping and eating. As to the latter, even country people do not make full use of their opportunities. On fine days when it is warm enough to sit out with wraps, why should not tea and breakfast, everything but a hot dinner, be served out of doors? For we are an overwrought generation, running to nerves as a cabbage runs to seed; and every hour spent in the open is a clear gain, tending to the increase of brain power and bodily vigour, and to the lengthening of life itself. They who know what it is to have fevered skin and throbbing brain deliciously soothed by the cool touch of the air are inclined to make a new rule of life, Never be within doors when you can rightly be without.
Besides, the gain of an hour or two in the open air, there is this to be considered: meals taken al fresco are usually joyous, and there is nothing like gladness for converting meat and drink into healthy blood and tissue. All the time, too, the children are storing up memories of a happy childhood. Fifty years hence they will see the shadows of the boughs making patterns on the white tablecloth; and sunshine, children’s laughter, hum of bees, and scent of flowers are being bottled up for after refreshment.
For Dwellers in Towns and Suburbs.––But it is only the people who live, so to speak, in their own gardens who can make a practice of giving their children tea out of doors. For the rest of us, and the most of us, who live in towns or the suburbs of towns, that is included in the larger question––How much time daily in the open air should the children have? And how is it possible to secure this for them? In this time of extraordinary pressure, educational and social, perhaps a mothers first duty to her children is to secure for them a quiet growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it spent for the most part out in the fresh air. And this, not for the gain in bodily health alone––body and soul, heart and mind, are nourished with food convenient for them when the children are let alone, let to live without friction and without stimulus amongst happy influences which incline them to be good.
Possibilities of a Day in the Open.––I make a point, says a judicious mother, of sending my children out, weather permitting, for an hour in the winter, and two hours a day in the summer months. That is well; but it is not enough. In the first place, do not send them; if it is anyway possible, take them; for, although the children should be left much to themselves, there is a great deal to be done and a great deal to be prevented during these long hours in the open air. And long hours they should be not two, but four, five, or six hours they should have on every tolerably fine day, from April till October. Impossible! Says an overwrought mother who sees her way to no more for her children than a daily hour or so on the pavements of the neighbouring London squares. Let me repeat, that I venture to suggest, not what is practicable in any household, but what seems to me absolutely best for the children; and that, in the faith that mothers work wonders once they are convinced that wonders are demanded of them. A journey of twenty minutes by rail or omnibus, and a luncheon basket, will make a day in the country possible to most town dwellers; and if one day, why not many, even every suitable day?
Oh, Charlotte, Charlotte, how I love you. You are, I suppose, assuming I have a cheery, red-cheeked housemaid to keep my home in order while I spend not two, but four, five, or six hours a day outside with my children…and of course in this particular book you are speaking of my youngest children only, the six-and-under crowd. What you do not realize, my dear, is that I’m a devotee of your later writings, and my days are therefore arranged so as to allow for lengthy reading sessions replete with narration. But, please, do go on.
Supposing we have got them, what is to be done with these golden hours, so that every one shall be delightful? They must be spent with some method, or the mother will be taxed and the children bored. There is a great deal to be accomplished in this large fraction of the children’s day. They must be kept in a joyous temper all the time, or they will miss some of the strengthening and refreshing held in charge for them by the blessed air. They must be let alone, left to themselves a great deal, to take in what they can of the beauty of earth and heavens; for of the evils of modern education few are worse than this––that the perpetual cackle of his elders leaves the poor child not a moment of time, nor an inch of space, wherein to wonder––and grow. At the same time, here is the mother’s opportunity to train the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and to drop seeds of truth into the open soul of the child, which shall germinate, blossom, and bear fruit, without further help or knowledge of hers. Then, there is much to be got by perching in a tree or nestling in heather, but muscular development comes of more active ways, and an hour or two should be spent in vigorous play; and last, and truly least, a lesson or two must be got in.
No Story-Books.––Let us suppose mother and children arrived at some breezy open wherein it seemeth always afternoon. In the first place, it is not her business to entertain the little people: there should be no story-books, no telling of tales, as little talk as possible, and that to some purpose. Who thinks to amuse children with tale or talk at a circus or pantomime? And here, is there not infinitely more displayed for their delectation? Our wise mother, arrived, first sends the children to let off their spirits in a wild scamper, with cry, hallo, and hullaballo, and any extravagance that comes into their young heads. There is no distinction between big and little; the latter love to follow in the wake of their elders, and, in lessons or play, to pick up and do according to their little might. As for the baby, he is in bliss: divested of his garments, he kicks and crawls, and clutches the grass, laughs soft baby laughter, and takes in his little knowledge of shapes and properties in his own wonderful fashion––clothed in a woollen gown, long and loose, which is none the worse for the worst usage it may get.
By-and-by the others come back to their mother, and, while wits are fresh and eyes are keen, she sends them off on an exploring expedition––Who can see the most, and tell the most, about yonder hillock or brook, hedge, or copse. This is an exercise that delights children, and may be endlessly varied, carried on in the spirit of a game, and yet with the exactness and carefulness of a lesson.
How to See.––Find out all you can about that cottage at the foot of the hill; but do not pry about too much. Soon they are back, and there is a crowd of excited faces, and a hubbub of tongues, and random observations are shot breathlessly into the mother’s ear. ‘There are bee-hives.’ ‘We saw a lot of bees going into one.’ ‘There is a long garden.’ ‘Yes, and there are sunflowers in it.’ ‘And hen-and-chicken daisies and pansies.’ ‘And there’s a great deal of pretty blue flowers with rough leaves, mother; what do you suppose it is?’ ‘Borage for the bees, most likely; they are very fond of it.’ ‘Oh, and there are apple and pear and plum trees on one side; there’s a little path up the middle, you know.’ ‘On which hand side are the fruit trees?’ ‘The right––no, the left; let me see, which is my thimble-hand? Yes, it is the right-hand side.’ ‘And there are potatoes and cabbages, and mint and things on the other side.’ ‘Where are the flowers, then?’ ‘Oh, they are just the borders, running down each side of the path.’ ‘But we have not told mother about the wonderful apple tree; I should think there are a million apples on it, all ripe and rosy!’ ‘A million, Fanny?’ ‘Well, a great many, mother; I don’t know how many.’ And so on, indefinitely; the mother getting by degrees a complete description of the cottage and its garden.
Educational Uses of Sight-Seeing.––This is all play to the children, but the mother is doing invaluable work; she is training their powers of observation and expression, increasing their vocabulary and their range of ideas by giving them the name and the uses of an object at the right moment,––when they ask, ‘What is it?’ and ‘What is it for?’ And she is training her children in truthful habits, by making them careful to see the fact and to state it exactly, without omission or exaggeration. The child who describes, ‘A tall tree, going up into a point, with rather roundish leaves; not a pleasant tree for shade, because the branches all go up,’ deserves to learn the name of the tree, and anything her mother has to tell her about it. But the little bungler, who fails to make it clear whether he is describing an elm or a beech, should get no encouragement; not a foot should his mother move to see his tree, no coaxing should draw her into talk about it, until, in despair, he goes off, and comes back with some more certain note––rough or smooth bark, rough or smooth leaves,––then the mother considers, pronounces, and, full of glee, he carries her off to see for himself.
Discriminating Observation.––By degrees the children will learn discriminatingly every feature of the landscapes with which they are familiar; and think what a delightful possession for old age and middle life is a series of pictures imaged, feature by feature, in the sunny glow of the child’s mind! The miserable thing about the childish recollections of most persons is that they are blurred, distorted, incomplete, no more pleasant to look upon than a fractured cup or a torn garment; and the reason is, not that the old scenes are forgotten, but that they were never fully seen. At the time, there was no more than a hazy impression that such and such objects were present, and naturally, after a lapse of years those features can rarely be recalled of which the child was not cognisant when he saw them before him.
Method of.––So exceedingly delightful is this faculty of taking mental photographs, exact images, of the beauties of Nature we go about the world for the refreshment of seeing, that it is worth while to exercise children in another way towards this end, bearing in mind, however, that they see the near and the minute, but can only be made with an effort to look at the wide and the distant. Get the children to look well at some patch of landscape, and then to shut their eyes and call up the picture before them, if any bit of it is blurred, they had better look again. When they have a perfect image before their eyes, let them say what they see. Thus: ‘I see a pond; it is shallow on this side, but deep on the other; trees come to the waters edge on that side, and you can see their green leaves and branches so plainly in the water that you would think there was a wood underneath. Almost touching the trees in the water is a bit of blue sky with a soft white cloud; and when you look up you see that same little cloud, but with a great deal of sky instead of a patch, because there are no trees up there. There are lovely little water-lilies round the far edge of the pond, and two or three of the big round leaves are turned up like sails. Near where I am standing three cows have come to drink, and one has got far into the water, nearly up to her neck,’ etc.
Strain on the Attention.––This, too, is an exercise children delight in, but, as it involves some strain on the attention, it is fatiguing, and should only be employed now and then. It is, however, well worth while to give children the habit of getting a bit of landscape by heart in this way, because it is the effort of recalling and reproducing that is fatiguing; while the altogether pleasurable act of seeing, fully and in detail, is likely to be repeated unconsciously until it becomes a habit by the child who is required now and then to reproduce what he sees.
Seeing Fully and in Detail.––At first the children will want a little help in the art of seeing. The mother will say, ‘Look at the reflection of the trees! There might be a wood under the water. What do those standing up leaves remind you of?’ And so on, until the children have noticed the salient points of the scene. She will even herself learn off two or three scenes, and describe them with closed eyes for the children’s amusement; and such little mimics are they, and at the same time so sympathetic, that any graceful fanciful touch which she throws into her descriptions will be reproduced with variations in theirs.
The children will delight in this game of picture-painting all the more if the mother introduce it by describing some great picture gallery she has seen––pictures of mountains, of moors, of stormy seas, of ploughed fields, of little children at play, of an old woman knitting,––and goes on to say, that though she does not paint her pictures on canvas and have them put in frames, she carries about with her just such a picture gallery; for whenever she sees anything lovely or interesting, she looks at it until she has the picture in her mind’s eye; and then she carries it away with her, her own for ever, a picture on view just when she wants it.
It’s good to revisit the books that formed you as a young mother. Eight years ago, Charlotte Mason was my Dr. Spock, and I carried out her recommendations as faithfully as our circumstances allowed. Now my little people are beginning to be bigger people, and it would be quite easy to forget this vision of what life can be like for little ones. I can’t promise four to six hours a day, of course! But one long afternoon a week? That I can aim for, and we’ll all be the better for it.
Now to find our "breezy opens"!
Images courtesy of AntiqueClipart.com.
So have you checked out CafeMom yet? It’s a sister site to ClubMom, and it’s pretty nifty. It’s a social networking site for moms. You can set up a profile, join discussion groups, share pictures, and keep a journal of your own. I’ve been poking around over there for the past few weeks, and there is much to enjoy.
Including! I’ve set up a Charlotte Mason discussion group at CafeMom. If you’d like to come ask questions, share insights, and basically dish with me about CM-inspired home education, click the link below and join the fun!
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.
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!
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
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:
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:
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)
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.