Archive for the ‘Charlotte Mason’ Category

Charlotte Mason Works! But Don’t Take My Word for It!

February 20, 2007 @ 2:29 pm | Filed under:

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
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

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



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.)

It Isn’t All Sunshine and Roses (At Least Not on Paper)

February 19, 2007 @ 2:12 pm | Filed under: ,

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.


1.    Observation


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.


2.    Technique


"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.,


        seed dispersal

        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.

“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

About All That Reading

February 16, 2007 @ 2:26 pm | Filed under:

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.

How Charlotte Mason Keeps Me Sane

February 15, 2007 @ 1:21 pm | Filed under: ,

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.

I get a lot of letters from mothers wanting to know how we manage to keep up our studies during all the chaos. My answer boils down to: tidal homeschooling and Charlotte Mason.

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!

Related posts:
Reluctant narrators
Rose’s reading list
A CM term (Jane’s list)
CM on nourishing the mind
Big CM post

Accidental v. On-Purpose Learning

January 16, 2007 @ 2:10 pm | Filed under: , ,

Cheryl wrote:

This is a very helpful post. I’ve been thinking about your question –
is this important enough to make them do it if they don’t want to – and
I’m wondering if you require any math curriculum. Do you?

Great segue into my next post, thank you very much!

To answer your specific question, no, at this point I don’t have to require it because Jane and Rose both like Math-U-See so much that they ask for it. Which sounds like a huge commercial, but it’s true. Just ask Jane about MUS and be prepared for a gushing 20-minute answer.

But what’s my stance on requiring certain tasks or fields of study? As I’ve mentioned before, I’m unschoolish but not a one-hundred-percent unschooler—if, that is, your definition of unschooling (a word notoriously hard to define) involves allowing children complete freedom to choose what and how and when to learn (albeit with a great deal of dialogue with parents, and an environment richly strewn with resources).

I’m on board with most of the elements of that definition. Parental connection and involvement leading to lively discussion? Check. Allowing children a role in the selection of topics or skills to explore? Check. Taking into account the individual learning styles, temperaments, and changing interests of each child? Check. Environment richly strewn with educational resources? Check plus plus.

The only place I depart from that definition, really, is in the word "complete." I allow a great deal of freedom when it comes to learning, but complete freedom? No, I can’t say that applies to me. I do steer the ship for certain subjects and seasons. I’m sure this is apparent from our current reading lists. Charlotte Mason was most definitely not an unschooler.

Then again, I’m not a one-hundred-percent Charlotte Mason purist, either. There really isn’t a label that fits, which is fine. When it comes to people (and families), labels are useful tools, no more. They describe but do not define.

Where I connect with unschooling is in the understanding that people (of all ages) learn best when they WANT to learn, are interested in the subject, feel joy in the process, and that standard classroom educational methods are not necessarily (or even usually) the best ways to learn. Children have such an eager appetite for knowledge (it is, as Miss Mason says, the food their minds are made to live on) that it is not, in my opinion, at all necessary to turn the experience of gaining knowledge into a drudgery, conflict, or carrot-and-stick experience. 

Where I depart from unschooling is in my understanding that adults have a wider perspective than children, are (it is to be hoped) wiser than children, and that this is quite natural and proper. And just as my parental wisdom and experience directs me to provide a nutritious diet for my children, so does it direct me to provide a rich and nourishing menu of ideas and learning experiences for their growing minds.

When I think about knowledge, I see that everything I can think of falls into one of two categories: content and skills.  By content I mean facts, ideas, principles, stories. History, literature, much of science: all of this is content knowledge and can be learned quite effortlessly, naturally, one might even say accidentally—by this I mean the way kids absorb information about subjects in which they are interested.

Skill knowledge generally requires a degree of concentrated effort, practice, step-by-step progress. For many (most?) people, arithmetic falls into the skill-knowledge category; most of us have to learn it on purpose, so to speak. We progress through steps, mastering each step in turn.

Playing a musical instrument, speaking a foreign language, learning to draw—these are other skills which most (but certainly not all) people have to learn on purpose, requiring practice and diligence in order to achieve mastery. Learning to read may fall into this category for many people, but I really can’t speak to that since I’ve now had three children learn to read quite accidentally.

In any case, that’s how I draw my lines. There are certain skills I believe are exceedingly useful to possess, and those are the subjects I am inclined to require my children to persue if I perceive that "accidental" learning is not taking place.

Thus far, however, my experience has been that almost all of the skills I think important enough to require are things the children are keenly interested in, anyway. They want to learn to play piano and to draw well; they want to be able to answer the math problems their daddy fires at them on family drives. Usually, my role is to gently (and once in a while, firmly) nudge them along when the first flare of enthusiasm for a pursuit wears out. I "make" them practice piano, but that really just means reminding them to sit down on the bench. From there, their own interest takes over.

Rose’s enthusiasm for Latin ebbs and flows, but there again my nudging is usually only a matter of getting her over the hump. Often she will grumble about having to begin, but then she’ll grumble again when I say it is time to do something else. I think this really has more to do with her innate resistance to change than a reluctance toward the subject, if you see what I mean. Transitions of any kind are difficult for this child.

So far the only skill-learning my kids really dislike is just plain housework, and I certainly have no qualms about requiring that anyway!

Do You Write Down Your Children’s Narrations?

January 12, 2007 @ 3:09 pm | Filed under: , ,

Ha! I knew I was being optimistic when I talked about continuing my narration post "tomorrow." My poor little Bean. Still running a highish fever, now on antibiotics. So no long post today, but a kind reader wrote in with a very good question, which I can answer quickly:

When your children narrate to you and you want to write
it down for them, how do you go about it?  My computer with at printer
is busted right now so no typing…  They just narrate so quickly I
hate to slow them down and have them lose their ideas… any thoughts?

Also, how often are you writing it down for them?


Answer: I’m not. I don’t write down their narrations, pretty much ever. Here’s my explanation of that from a Bonny Glen post I wrote last year:

Charlotte Mason recommends waiting until age ten or so to begin
asking the child for written narrations. Until that point, all
narration is oral. When Jane was little, I did (as many homeschooling
moms do) a lot of transcribing the narrations she dictated to me; I
printed them out, got her to illustrate them, put them together in a
notebook. I know this works beautifully for a lot of people, and I
don’t want to discourage anyone from doing it if it brings joy to you
and your child.

But I’ll say this: don’t feel obligated to
write down your child’s oral narrations. Don’t feel like you have to
make a notebook or else you’re not doing it properly. After a year or
two of compiling Jane’s narration notebook, I realized the whole
process had become for us an exercise in creating a product.
Jane was beginning to be proud of her notebook, or perhaps "prideful"
is a better word; she had seen me show it off enough times that she too
began to view her work as something to be shown off, something done for
the purposes of impressing one’s friends and relations. I was horrified
by this little epiphany. Of course it was completely my fault. I
ditched the habit of typing out her oral narrations; for a time, I
ditched narrating altogether. When we returned to it, it was to the
simple Charlotte Mason method of asking the child to "tell it back"—no
notebook, no product to display.

What I found that was that in addition to curing our mild show-off
problem, this took away the pressure that had turned narration into a
burden. No longer was it necessary for me to be prepared to scribble
down her words as fast as she said them: I could listen to her narrate
with a baby in my arms. And instead of the type—print—illustrate—bind
production line, narration could lead to discussion. The whole
experience became warmer, richer, and her narrations improved. Her
memory improved; her appetite for ideas increased. I’d read aloud, she’d tell it back, we’d chat about the people in the stories and the problems they encountered.

So this is how narration works in our house today. Rose is narrating
now, too, and Beanie frequently chimes in, unsolicited. When Jane
turned ten I began asking for occasional written narrations.

She is 11 1/2 now, and I ask for about three written narrations a week.

Hope that helps!

Related posts:
Reluctant narrators
Rose’s reading list
A CM term (Jane’s list)
CM on nourishing the mind
Big CM post

Reluctant Narrators

January 9, 2007 @ 3:46 pm | Filed under:

Jennifer asked:

Here’s our problem. I ask "Can you tell me about what we just read?"
She answers, "No, I don’t remember anything." but when I ask her
questions, she CAN answer everything. When are they supposed to do this
without prompting?

"How do I handle a reluctant narrator?" is a common question in Charlotte Mason circles. For me, the answer involves two strands of discussion. I’ll tackle the more practical strand (the "how") first, and tomorrow I want to talk about the "why."

See, coming at homeschooling the way I did, via the writings of unschoolers—John Holt, Sandra Dodd, and others—any time I decide to require a schoolish task of my children, I have to give a lot of thought to the question, "Do I think this is important enough to make them do it even if they don’t want to?"

But we’ll tackle that question tomorrow. Um, you know, if all goes according to plan. Which it never does. Beanie has a 102 degree fever today, so there’s no telling what tomorrow will hold. Let’s just say I’ll tackle that question next.

Today, let’s tackle Jennifer’s question. I do have a bit of experience with a reluctant narrator. I don’t think Rose would object to my telling you that she was none too keen on the idea when I reintroduced it recently. Now, she was narrating enthusiastically a year ago, but this year, not so much.

I treat it the way I treat anything my children aren’t super-keen on doing but which I believe is important. Brushing teeth, say, or tidying their room. I expect compliance.  There are consequences for non-compliance.

Now, the last thing I want is for narration—or anything related to learning—to involve a power struggle. My whole platform about education is that it should be a joy. I emphatically do not want to find myself in the position of sternly insisting upon a narration. When I found myself in exactly that position with young Rose, I had to step back and look at what was behind her reluctance. (Answer: We’ve just uprooted our whole lives. She’s always had a hard time adjusting to change. Not only did we leave her beloved friends behind, but also our whole lifestyle was radically altered. Daddy works in an office now. Big changes all around. New people for this introvert to get used to. New activities, new house, new rhythm.)

Okay, so I’ve rooted out the reasons. None of it, you note, has anything to do with the actual process of narration. I mention this because my course of action was directed by the needs I perceived at the root of the conflict. In this specific case, I believed that Rose very much needed the comfort of some structure and expectation. She needed also to understand that although the walls are different here, the boundaries are the same.

So while under other circumstances I might have set aside my CM plans for a long "breathing-out" or "low-tide" period, in this specific case, for this particular child, I deemed it best to persevere through her reluctance. Since the rocky period only lasted a few days, I think I made the right call.

Once it’s established that "we are going to do this; your participation is expected"—and I think a bright, light, cheerful attitude is extremely important here—then comes the nitty-gritty of doing it.

Start small. Read a sentence, and ask the child to tell it back to you. Sometimes the child will say she can’t even do that, not one whole sentence. So break it down further: a phrase, a clause. Now she’s just parroting, sure, but this is a baby step on the way to real narration. Have her narrate a phrase at a time for two or three sentences, slowly lengthening the phrases. Think of yourself as a labor coach, rooting her on.

Spend no more than, say, five minutes on the exercise the first day. She might be surprised when you shut the book and announce, "All right, time to go for our walk!" right in the middle of the paragraph. That’s great. If she asks to keep going, use your own judgment about what would suit her best. A little teasing anticipation? Or continued immediate success?

From phrases work up to sentences, to paragraphs, to passages. This may take several days, but will probably NOT take weeks. I think that a firm, cheerful sense of expectation combined with a patient, steady approach will bear fruit in a very short time.

Something that worked for my Rose (but I don’t think this would work for every single kid): Once, when she said she couldn’t remember ANYTHING, Beanie (two years her junior) piped up, "I do!" and proceeded to chatter off the whole passage in perfect detail, oooh did that get Rose’s goat. Her narrations got noticeably better after that.

A shy child might prefer to be alone with mom for narration. Another child might feel too on the spot for that and be more open to it with her siblings around.

I try to follow Charlotte Mason’s advice about not asking questions—not detailed ones, at least. For example, I wouldn’t ask, "What happened when the woodsman killed the king’s pet wolf?"  But I might say, "Tell me the story of St. Brigid and the wolf."

Most often, though, I simply read something and then say, "Tell it back to me!"

It took some nurturing, but Rose is past the hurdle now and narrating in articulate and vivid detail. That’s not to say we won’t hit the stumbling block of reluctance again. Tomorrow, as I’ve said, is anyone’s guess.

But I know (and she knows, which is more important) that she can do it. She knows I think this is worth doing, or we wouldn’t be doing it. Most days, just knowing that is enough, because the heart of our homeschool is relationship. I strive for a sense of camaraderie and fun. I let her know I’m on her side, and that she is capable of anything.

I keep these CM lessons short and finite, and we spend the rest of our day keeping house, playing games, making things, and having adventures. Narration is one thread of the fabric of our family life, as is cuddling, singing, baking, praying, and going for long drives. 

Gearing Up for a Charlotte Mason Term

December 29, 2006 @ 2:35 pm | Filed under: , ,

Life in this house has been more tilting than lilting during our settling-in time, but now the new year is almost upon us, and we are all ready to shift from settling-in to settling-down. Starting next week, it’s "high tide" time. We are going to begin a twelve-week Charlotte Mason-style term. I have assembled reading lists for Jane (age 11 1/2, Year Six) and Rose (age 8 1/2, Year Three), drawing ideas from Ambleside, Mater Amabilis, and my own overcrowded bookshelves.

As described in A Philosophy of Education, the Charlotte Mason method is quite simple—so simple that I think many homeschoolers, including me at various times, can’t resist the urge to make it more complicated. When Jane was younger, I monkeyed with the narration concept, and I wound up turning narration into something that was more about product (nice neat notebook of history narrations) than process.

Says Miss Mason:

Oral teaching was
to a great extent ruled out; a large number of books on many subjects
were set for reading in morning school-hours; so much work was set that
there was only time for a single reading; all reading was tested by a
narration of the whole or a given passage, whether orally or in
writing. Children working on these lines know months after that which
they have read and are remarkable for their power of concentration
(attention); they have little trouble with spelling or composition and
become well-informed, intelligent persons.

Vol 6 pg 15

Read it, narrate it. That’s 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.
This is not memory work. In order to
memorise, we repeat over and over a passage or a series of points or
names with the aid of such clues as we can invent; we do memorise a
string of facts or words, and the new possession serves its purpose for
a time, but it is not assimilated; its purpose being served, we know it
no more.

Vol 6 pg 16 

Here are the books Jane will be reading and narrating this term. Some of them, she has already begun; others are new to her. Most of them will be continued through the spring and into the fall.

School of the Woods by William Long.

Augustus Caesar’s World by Genevieve Foster.

Story of the Greeks by H. A. Guerber.

The Story Book of Science by Jean Henri Fabre. (We loved Fabre’s Insects.)

Ivanhoe by Walter Scott. (We may read this one together, reading parts out loud. Jane and I feel affectionate about this book, although she has never read it and it took me forever to get through, because Charlotte Tucker reads it in one of my Little House books. I came across a news item in a period newspaper announcing the publication of the book, and it seemed like fun to have the family read it together. Ivanhoe also plays a key role in one of the Betsy-Tacy high school books, which are great favorites of ours. So Jane has a lot of context for this famous novel, and I think it will be great fun for her to actually read it.)

The Gospel of Luke.

I am still deciding upon a biography related to geography or science. I had thought to use Albert Einstein and the Story of Relativity as suggested by Ambleside, but Jane spied it on the shelf and wolfed it down (quite in opposition to Charlotte Mason’s recommendation to take it slow when reading meaty books—this post at Higher Up and Farther In makes an excellent case for slowing the pace of a child’s reading). She has already read and enjoyed biographies of Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie, as well as the well-known Jeanne Bendick books about Archimedes and Galen. Got any other suggestions?

I am also considering Story of a Soul, but I may hold off on that until Lent.

In addition to the six books listed above, we shall read (together) Plutarch’s life of Marcus Brutus, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and (with her sisters) finish Holling’s Tree in the Trail, mapping the latter. We’ll also keep doing our usual thing with poetry, picture study, nature study, and music—which is to say, pegging those pursuits to other parts of our day.

For math, she is working in the Harold Jacobs Algebra book this year. (In part because I can’t find the Math-U-See Algebra materials I ordered before we moved—and here I thought I was being so clever! Sales tax is much higher in California, so I bought them in Virginia and put them on the moving truck. I have not seen them since. Argh.)

And that just leaves Latin and piano. She continues to enjoy Latin for Children, interspersed with lessons from Latin Book One. (We found a cheap used copy of this book last year, and both of us like its format. It’s fun to be reading simple paragraphs in Latin right from the first lesson.)

That’s about it. It sounds like a lot, but broken down into weekly or twice-weekly readings (remember, the point is to take these books slowly), it’s quite manageable. We began gently easing into the routine during the weeks before Christmas. I’ll let you know how it goes once we begin in earnest; if the booklist is a flop, I’ll say so! But I don’t think it will be.

I can share Rose’s reading list as well (most of which I’ll be reading to her) if you’d like to see it. I’ve also got a big long post underway about narration (addressing some very good questions raised in the comments, such as what to do with a reluctant narrator like my 8-year-old). There’s also so much more to say about Charlotte Mason!