Category Archives: Joy of Learning

“Guide, Philosopher, and Friend”

"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

Related posts:
About all that reading
How Charlotte Mason keeps me sane
Accidental v. on-purpose learning
Do you write down your children’s narrations?
Reluctant narrators
Rose’s reading list
A CM term (Jane’s list)
CM on nourishing the mind
Big CM post

CM on habit-training

We Have a Winner!

Three of them, actually. Diane, Stephanie, and Cici all correctly guessed the answer to yesterday’s trivia question: Charlotte Tucker (Quiner Holbrook), maternal grandmother of Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Which is to say: Ma’s ma.) Charlotte was born in 1809 along with Edgar Allen Poe and a whole bunch of other notable personages, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson and Abraham Lincoln (as Ryane pointed out). Also Louis Braille, British statesman William Gladstone, Charles Darwin, and Felix Mendelssohn. Quite a year for history, I’d say.

My girls discovered the 1809 connection when we read Abraham Lincoln’s World by Genevieve Foster. (If you don’t know the Foster books, you’ll want to check them out—they are an engaging and fascinating look at various historical periods, each one digging in deep to world history during the lifetime of a key historical figure like Lincoln, Washington, William Penn, or Columbus. They make terrific read-alouds for a wide age range. I’ll be reading Augustus Caesar’s World to my gang during the upcoming year.)

We were excited to realize that Abe Lincoln was born just a few months before our good friend Charlotte Tucker. For me, Lincoln is so firmly connected to the Civil War that I had never given a moment’s thought to what was going on in the world when he was growing up. The War of 1812! Madison and Monroe! Jefferson was still alive, for decades! Do you ever think of Lincoln and Jefferson as having overlapped?

Anyway, Charlotte is the person I mentioned yesterday who is so very important to me. After writing books about her, she feels in some ways like another one of my own little girls. Same with her mother, Martha. Perhaps even more so with Martha because I’ve written about her both as a child and as a mother.

I know I said I’d give a signed book to the first person to get the right answer, but the three Charlotte answers came in so close together that what the heck, you all win. Email me your address and the name or names you’d like me to put in the book (you? your kids?), and I’ll send you each a copy. Also let me know if there’s a particular Charlotte or Martha book you’d like to receive.

Thanks to all who proffered a guess!

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Who Is This Charlotte Mason Person, Anyway?

If the name means nothing to you, you may be wondering what all the hoopla is about. Charlotte Mason was a British educator and author of the late nineteeth and early twentieth centuries. She wrote a lot of books and articles about education; she founded a teachers’ college and a correspondence school for families (the PNEU, or Parents’ National Education Union). She had a vision for a method of learning (and living) that was an antidote to dry, dumbed-down or excessively stern and rote systems of education favored by governesses and schools of her day (and still, in many cases, ours).

Her method was simple, rigorous, and lively. For each term, she (or her colleagues) drew up a list of what she called "living books," eloquent and impassioned prose for all subjects: history, literature, science, geography, civics, and poetry. No dull, committee-written textbooks for her students. All reading was to be of the highest literary quality.

The material was read slowly and thoroughly. In the early years, teachers or parents read the books aloud to their young pupils; as the students got older, they assumed more of the reading themselves.

As they read (or listened), the students narrated back the material. That is, they re-told what they had just heard in as much detail as they could possibly remember. Until age ten or so, children narrated orally; after that, they wrote out their narrations, thus developing excellent composition and retention skills.

You don’t really know something unless you can tell it back—we’ve all experienced this. Often when one of my kids says something funny I want to remember, I repeat it over to myself until it is fixed in my mind. That’s narrating, and it’s a cornerstone of a Charlotte Mason education. Such a simple idea—simply tell it back!—and yet so incredibly effective. At age eleven, Jane has a memory that frightens astounds me: she can often repeat back word for word entire passages she has read. I’d like to take credit for passing on brilliant genes (as if I had anything to do with them, ha!) but it probably has more to do with her early training in CM’s narration techniques. I therefore grudgingly give all credit to Charlotte Mason and, you know, God.

Living books, narration, exposure to a wide range of subjects and ideas—these are the chief elements of a Charlotte Mason education. She also enthusiastically encouraged firsthand study of the natural world. She wanted her teachers (including parent-teachers) to get their students outside every day for fresh air and encounters with flora and fauna. Shoot, where did I just read the funniest excerpt on someone’s blog about a person spotting a child in a tree—and then much higher up was the child’s teacher "who had been trained at Miss Mason’s college"? I’ll look for that link. It was delightful and a perfect example of the adventurous and lively attitude Charlotte Mason liked to cultivate.

When we bring Charlotte Mason’s ideas into our homes and schools, we find that education becomes—as she put it herself—a life, a lifestyle. Our children retain their eagerness for knowledge and experience, their appetite for facts and big ideas. Miss Mason didn’t want children going through the motions of learning, cramming for tests and then forgetting everything right afterward. And of course none of us want that for our children either, whether they’re in school or not.

It’s All Fun and Games: Curriculum for Unschoolers?

The Curriculum Series, Part 3
Part 1: Live and Learn.
Part 2: First How, Then What.

(Attention non-homeschoolers: big long list of Fun Stuff below! Scroll down to below the Dali painting.)

I’ve been hearing from a lot of people who took the “What kind of homeschooler are you?” quiz and came up as unschoolers, much to their surprise. It seems many of us recognize those muddy children in the first question as our own, and our families do a lot of experiential learning. To learn about Native Americans, we might try our hand at grinding corn to make our bread. Our dining-room tables are buried under “3 marbles, 2 dominoes, 5 Scrabble tiles, a 1/2-eaten jelly sandwich, 1 basket of unfolded clean laundry, 4 broken crayons, 3 markers (1 without a cap), a can of fish food, 2 screwdrivers, and a hammer.” When Life interrupts our plans with a sick relative or a cross-country move, we scrap the plans and learn what the roller coaster has to teach us.

Home education is a lifestyle as much as it is a school choice. Its rhythms and possibilities are so utterly unlike institutional education that it sometimes takes us a while, as homeschooling parents, to shake off the years of training that told us “education” was answering enough questions correctly on enough tests to earn us the grades that satisfied our parents and teachers. Whether or not we would remember the answers to those questions a year later seemed to be beside the point.

But once we do shake off that notion, we discover that there are a lot of other notions out there about what a good education is and how best to achieve it. And here we are back at the how.

Let’s look at some of the different answers to how and talk in very practical, specific terms about what stuff you can use if you want to educate your kids according to a particular how or method.

First up: Unschooling.

1086553091_cksbmgd384“Melting clocks are not a problem in your reality. You are an unschooler. You will tolerate a textbook, but only as a last resort. Mud is your friend. You prefer hands-on everything. If your school had an anthem, it would be Dont Worry, Be Happy.” (From Guilt-Free Homeschooling’s What Kind of Homeschooler Are You quiz.)

I’m laughing here, because the rest of this post has a completely oxymoronic premise. “Hi, I’m talking about curriculum! Let’s start with unschooling!” And unschooling is about learning through following your interests, not following a predetermined sequence of skill-building exercises and fact memorization. Unschoolers don’t try to recreate school at home, so who needs curriculum?

But I think of curriculum—all those books and schedules and lists and kits and guides and videos—as tools. Just because I have a good tool set, that doesn’t mean I’m a carpenter. I might just be a person who likes to make stuff, in which case a good hammer and saw come in handy.

So what are some of the tools a household of unschoolers might use? Besides the obvious, I mean, the good books, the art supplies, the kitchen, the garden, pretty much the whole wide world. Here is a list of Some Particularly Cool Stuff My Kids and I Have Learned a Ton From or Just Plain Had a Good Time With:

Settlers of Catan, the board game. Jane got this for Christmas last year. We’ve been obsessed ever since. Except when our friends hijack it and keep it for weeks because it is that great a game.

Signing Time DVDs. Catchy songs, immensely useful vocabulary in American Sign Language. I trumpet these wherever I go. We talk about Rachel like she’s one of the family.

Prismacolor colored pencils. Indispensable. I was amused to see that Jane mentioned them in the first line of her “I Am From” poem. She’s right; they have helped color the picture of her life.

Uncle Josh’s Outline Map CD-Rom. Because maps are cool, and maps you can color (with Prismacolor pencils, hey!) are even cooler. The kids are constantly asking me to print out a map of somewhere or other. You can find other outline maps available online (for free), but I like Josh’s for clarity. And once when I had a problem opening a particular map (it’s a PDF file), I called the help number and it was Uncle Josh himself, a most amiable gentleman, who quickly solved my problem.

The Global Puzzle. Big! Very big! Will take over your dinner table! (So clear off that laundry.)

Set. It may annoy you that your eight-year-old will be quicker at spotting the patterns in this card game than you will. There’s a free daily online version as well.

Quiddler. Like Scrabble, only with cards. This, too, can be played online.

Babble. Like Boggle, only online and free.

Chronology, the game. Like Trivial Pursuit, only with history.

Speaking of online games: the BBC History Game site is awfully fun.

And Jane was fairly addicted to Absurd Math for a while there. Need more free math puzzles? Nick’s got a bunch.

A Case of Red Herrings and Mind Benders. Logic and problem-solving puzzles: a fun way to pass the time on long car trips or in waiting rooms.

Zoombinis Logical Journey computer game. Stretch your brain trying to get the little Zoombinis to a village where they can bounce in peace.

Oregon Trail. The game that launched a massive wagon trail rabbit trail for my kids a couple of years ago—and they still aren’t tired of the game.

Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots : Gardening Together with Children. Plant a sunflower house! Up-end a Giant Bucket of Potatoes and dig through the dirt for your rewards! Grow lettuce in rainboots! Boots! With lettuce growing in them!

Wild Goose Science Kits. Fun experiments with a low mess factor. Best prices at Timberdoodle. Note to self: remember the Wild Goose Crime Kit come Christmastime.

A microscope. Sonlight sells a nifty set of prepared slides with paramecium and other fun stuff for the kids to peer at.

If the scope sparks an interest in dissection, there’s a way to do it online with no actual innards involved: Froguts! The site has a couple of free demos to occupy you while you save up for the full version. (Which I haven’t seen yet, but it does look cool.) HT: Karen Edmisten.

Klutz kits. Over the years, we’ve explored: knitting, embroidery, origami, magic, Sculpey, paper collage, paper dolls, beadlings, and foam shapes. Look under any piece of furniture in my house and you will find remnants of all of the above.

Which reminds me: Sculpey clay. Is it possible to get through a day without some? My children think not.

Usborne’s calligraphy book and markers. I think Anne-Marie sells Usborne so she probably has more information if you’re interested.

But while I’m on Usborne, my kids also love and use at least weekly: Usborne Science Experiments Volumes 1, 2, and 3.

Muse magazine. The highlight of Jane’s month. From the publishers of Cricket.

Classical Kids CDs. Beanie’s favorite is the Vivaldi. Alice’s daughter Theresa does a fabulous Queen of the Night impersonation from the Mozart.

Refrigerator poetry magnets. I gave Scott the Shakespearean set a couple of Christmases ago. Note to self: You are not as brilliant as you think! You were an English major, for Pete’s sake, with a minor in drama. Thou knowest full well old William was a bawdy lad. If you don’t want your little ones writing poems about codpieces, stick to the basic version. But oh how I enjoy the messages Scott leaves for me to find and then pretends he doesn’t know who wrote them:

I am
in love
with my

And of course of course of course, Jim Weiss story CDs. I rave about these every chance I get because they have added such riches to my children’s imaginations. For years, they have listened to Jim’s stories after lights-out. Greek myths, Sherlock Holmes, Shakespeare, folk and fairy tales, the Arabian Nights, the Jungle Book: of such stuff are dreams woven.

A good source for much of the above (and lots more): FUN Books.

I’ll continue to add to this list as more good stuff occurs to me. Your suggestions are welcome and encouraged!

Coming up next: Charlotte Mason. But bear with me: these linky posts take a while.

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The Trick Is Keeping My Mouth Shut

I remember a time when Jane, then five years old, was playing with odds and ends in the kitchen while I made dinner. She had pulled out a big plastic container from the Tupperware cabinet and begged to fill it with water. I had oh-so-amiably assented and then immediately regretted it as water splashed all over the counter, the hot pads, my feet. I had to bite back sharp words and remind myself that it was only water. She chirped a sorry and got a towel and patted my bare feet dry, which was very sweet and was probably why I said, “Sure,” when she asked if she could “Mix some stuff” in the water.

Every one of my kids so far has adored “mixing” from about age three on. Rose and Beanie are always asking me if they can “make a mixture.” They don’t care what: Mixing requires simply a bowl full of something wet, and some dry stuff to sprinkle and stir into it. Flour, corn grits, rice, spices…they’ll take whatever I give them. Sprinkle, sprinkle, stir. Maybe taste, depending. (Rose: “There. Cayenne pepper, sugar, and nutmeg. Will that taste good?” Me, innocently: “Hmm, I don’t know. You tell me!” Rose, who is no fool: “Here, Beanie, you can have the first taste!”)

On this day I’m remembering, Jane decided that the perfect mixing ingredients were, and don’t ask me why, lentils and tiny bits of paper. She must have stood there for half an hour shredding a piece of paper into her bowl. This stretched my patience to the limit, even though she was being extremely careful not to splash my feet anymore. When her fingers went into the bowl, I’d had it. This was bound to end in disaster, soggy paper everywhere. I drew breath to scold her—just as she laughed with delight and said, “Look, mommy, my fingers are the whale’s baleen!”

“Um, wha huh?” I asked, ever eloquent.

“The whale’s baleen! You know, it’s—” and she proceeded to explain to me about the rows of thick, stiff hairs in the back of a baleen whale’s mouth that serve as filters when it eats, sieving out its food (microorganisms like plankton) from great gulps of water. “Like in ‘How the Whale Got His Throat,’ remember?”

“Oh, yes, Best Beloved!” I said, and this earned me a belly laugh. She has ever been a child who appreciates an allusion, no matter how obvious.

We stood there giggling while the pasta overcooked behind me, and she told me all about the baleen whales she’d seen in a library book and recognized from Kipling’s Just So Stories, which I had read to her not long before. Using her fingers to scoop out the waterlogged paper bits, she chattered away about plankton and krill and all sorts of whale facts I didn’t know she knew.

Later I thought about how nearly I missed that moment. If that one scolding word had come out of my mouth, how differently would the scene have played out! It can be so hard to be patient, to stand back and allow children freedom to explore—hard to find the ground between reasonable expectations (no, dear, you may not pour a whole cup of sugar into your Mixture) and irritable adult busy-ness (no, dear, it’s vitally important that my ziti be perfectly al dente so for heaven’s sake don’t distract me). Sometimes I think the hardest thing about motherhood is retaining the presence of mind to think before speaking—or not to speak at all.