Archive for the ‘Methods of Home Education’ Category

Speaking of Homeschooling Labels…

June 24, 2007 @ 12:08 am | Filed under:

Karen Edmisten has very kindly posted her excellent article on the subject, "Label Me Schizophrenic," which first appeared in Home Education Magazine.

There were some good comments on the subject in yesterday’s post, too, including this from Beth:

What I have found very frustrating over the years, both in daily life
and on the internet, is the divisiveness and judgmental behavior that
are so often created — either deliberately or inadvertently — by
subscribing to specific labels. It is very important, I have found, not
to underestimate a label’s ability to shut people out, while at the
same time locking others in.

Radical Unschooling, Unschooling, Tidal Homeschooling, and the Wearing of Shoes that Fit

This is part of a (much) longer response to the comments on my "Lovely, Lovely Low Tide" post. I thought this part of my comment was relevant to the ongoing discussion here:

I am certainly not perfect
and I try show my warts and all on this blog. I am constantly pondering
and working with questions, and I wonder sometimes if that makes me
seem inconsistent, like people must be wondering if I’m ever going to
pick a lane! I am comfortable, though, with who I am (my favorite John
Paul II quote was, "Families, be who you are!"), and who I am is
someone who likes to mull over a wide range of ideas and see what
WORKS. For me, for us, for my kids, my husband, in our unique and
ever-changing situation.

I sometimes do feel an urge to "belong" to one school of thought or
another, to find that label that fits me perfectly. As I said in my
original Tidal Learning post, I couldn’t find the label, so I made one
up. It’s useful mainly as a way of answering people’s questions when I
meet a new homeschooler.

I have written elsewhere about how some part of me seems to stick out
of every niche I enjoy visiting (and that is probably true for most
people). I’m a pro-life Democrat, for Pete’s sake! Sort of. Ha!—I
don’t even fit THAT label across the board.

But still there is that desire to find the perfect label. There are
times I read Charlotte Mason and think: She makes so much sense! I want
to be a whole-hog CMer! And other times when I read Sandra Dodd and
think YES, I grok that, I’m an unschooler! But the reality is, I have
places where my understanding doesn’t completely line up with either CM
*or* radical unschooling. And that’s fine. I can still learn from both
schools (unschools?) of thought, and identify with aspects of each.

One area I’m keenly interested in is the balance between a rich
unschooling environment (the kind of environment & relationships
Sandra describes so vividly in her book and site) and the logistical challenges
of raising a big family, especially with my special-needs son. When
you’ve got big kids and babies in the same house, all with their own
(sometimes conflicting) needs, you’re probably going to have to make
compromises somewhere. Tia, that’s the issue you seemed to be exploring
in your post on Always Learning—-how your need for a clean, uncluttered
space seems to you a valid need that benefits the whole family, and how
you feel able to maintain that without shortchanging your children of
your time or attention. It seems like a good question to explore, but
is perhaps a bit out of context on that particular list. And I saw that
the reactions of experienced radical unschoolers there were coming out
of a sense of concern that your vision of it being possible to maintain
a tidy home while unschooling might make newbies feel like failures if
they can’t pull that off.

Probably some of the friction comes in the different definitions people
have of unschooling. I try to consistently use "radical unschooling"
when describing the lifestyle Sandra speaks of, which incorporates an
approach to parenting that believes kids grow up happier and nicer if
there aren’t constant conflicts with parents over chores, TV, and so
forth; and that the way to avoid that kind of tension is to relax
control in those and other areas.

While I find much to learn from in that vision of parenting, I cannot
say it totally lines up with mine. I’m completely on board with "say
yes as often as possible"—but I also see myself as the leader of this
crew of kids and am comfortable with the notion of parents being in authority
over their children. I don’t see authority as a bad thing or
necessarily meaning there will be friction and discontented children.

But I digress. I was saying that as I understand it, "radical
unschooling" has a specific meaning, and some discussions are not going
to be relevant in a radical unschooling context.

Just plain "unschooling" is a tricky term, because to some it means
radical unschooling, and to others it means "kids growing up without
‘doing school’ either in a schoolhouse or at home"—without necessarily
applying to *parenting* style. You’ll find, then, families who consider
themselves unschoolers but where the parents have an authoritative (not
the same as *authoritarian*, and I credit Jeanne Faulconer for writing
a post years ago that first made that distinction clear to me)
parenting style. That probably best describes how Scott and I are
raising our kids. So while I have great respect for people like Sandra
who have, by all accounts, raised some fabulous, considerate,
compassionate, respectful, nice kids according to the parenting
principles that accompany radical unschooling, I’m coming from another
perspective, one informed by my Catholicism (the only label that truly
fits me across the board), my experience, my husband’s viewpoints, and
the temperaments and needs of our specific children.

So yes, I think you can be both an authoritative parent and an
unschooler, and there are unschooling discussion lists where it might
be interesting to have that discussion, but I would naturally expect the
experienced & happy radical unschoolers to speak up with strong
arguments from their perspective. And if they all disagreed with my
opinion, I’d have to say, well, I went to the vegetarian banquet
looking for hamburger recipes!

Still, I love to hear the RU perspective, with its emphasis on JOY.
Joyful parent/child relationships, joyful person/learning
relationships, peace and delight and harmony in the home and with the
world. It’s a refreshing vision—invigorating, I think is the word I
used in my Low Tide post. Sandra’s work truly refreshes and empowers
me, and I would hate to discourage anyone from encountering it, even if
I’m not a radical unschooler myself.

One insight I had about myself during this current re-immersion in
Sandra’s website & list is that I was able to put my finger on why
our foray into pure CM method this past winter/spring fell flat after
six weeks, so that I found myself—for the first time in our
homeschooling experience—with a roomful of discontented kids.
(Discontented with our learning experiences, I mean. They have
certainly all been discontented before, like whenever I cook dinner.)

The realization that
came to me via my rethinking Sandra’s philosophy is that what was
different about our High Tide time this winter was that always before,
while we may have been taking an excursion aboard the S.S. Charlotte
Mason, I was captain of the ship, adjusting our course as needed, and
pulling into port for refreshment or exploration as my young sailors
required. This time around, I turned the ship’s wheel over to Cap’n
Mason herself—and much as I love her captain’s logs, she doesn’t know
my crew the way I do. After six weeks, they were ready to mutiny.

So I am back where I belong: comfortable in my own shoes. I’m a Tidal
Homeschooler, and it works for us, makes for fun times with my happy,
pleasant children. But it was the Radical Unschoolers who taught me
this lesson, and I will continue to enjoy learning from their
perspective— just as I learn from the pure Charlotte Mason folks and
the Real Learners and the classical-ed folks. I
really, really like to learn. So do my kids, so I’m content to "be who
we are."

Lovely, Lovely Low Tide

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; 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 homey activities to help us untangle: we immersed ourselves in the soothing 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!

Why I Am -Inspired

Jane wrote:

I love your approach, Lissa. Why stick to one way of teaching and learning?

You know, I can see an argument in favor of adopting one consistent methodology and sticking to it. Actually, Charlotte Mason herself makes that argument in my beloved Volume 6:

“The reader will say with truth,—’I knew all this before and have always acted more or less on these principles’; and I can only point to the unusual results we obtain through adhering, not ‘more or less,’ but strictly to the principles and practices I have indicated. I suppose the difficulties are of the sort that Lister had to contend with; every surgeon knew that his instruments and appurtenances should be kept clean, but the saving of millions of lives has resulted from the adoption of the great surgeon’s antiseptic treatment; that is, from the substitution of exact principles scrupulously applied, for the rather casual ‘more or less’ methods of earlier days.”

I admit to having sometimes read these words with a wince, feeling a pang of guilt over not having scrupulously applied any one set of principles. I am an adapter, a tweaker, a “take what works and leave the rest” sort. And here we see Miss Mason herself tsk-tsking the “casual” manner in which I have applied her ideas to my children’s education.

(It isn’t really “casual.” I’m just not going 100% by her book.)

After the wince I always remember that I am working with real people here, and real circumstances quite unlike any Miss Mason might have envisioned when designing her curriculum. She can’t have imagined a mother trying to hear narrations while a hard-of-hearing toddler chatters loudly in the background, like an old man with an ear trumpet unaware that he’s shouting, and a winsome baby steals the pupils’ attention by threatening to take her first walk across the carpet when (gasp, not permitted!) Daddy isn’t home. I doubt she envisioned her method being put to work in homes in which the bulk of the day consists of one adult having full responsibility for the care and education of multiple children, AND meal preparation, AND basic housekeeping. And our “ands” could go on, couldn’t they? AND having paid work to do, AND having to spend a lot of time traveling to doctors’ appointments, AND etc etc etc.

Which is not to say one CAN’T home-educate in complete accordance with Charlotte Mason’s principles. Many people do (check out the Ambleside webring), beautifully, happily, and with great success.

I’m just saying that for me, my family, our tastes and circumstances, CM-inspired works better than full-on CM.

Tweak Tweak

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.   

“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

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!

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!

My Rule of Six and Whence It Came

October 26, 2006 @ 7:33 am | Filed under: , , ,

It’s funny how things you post on the internet take on a life of their own. When I began this blog* last spring (*The Lilting House, where this post originally appeared), I put “Our Rule of Six” in the sidebar (see it down there on the right, near the bottom?), intending to write a post about it. I touched upon it in one of the very first posts I wrote for this blog, but I always meant to come back to it and explain how the idea developed. Now and then I’ll get a nice email from someone who has happened upon the Rule of Six and found it useful, and I’m always so thrilled by that and I’ll think, Oh that’s right, I need to write that post!

But it’s been just a wee bit busy around here these past few months.

While I was on the road last week (or the week before; it’s all a blur), my friend Mary G.—whom I had the great pleasure of meeting in person during my Denver visit—popped me a lovely note saying she’d borrowed my Rule of Six for her own blog, and lots of people had responded with their versions, and would I mind if she put together a little Rule of Six Carnival? Of course I was delighted. I’ve greatly enjoyed reading this collection of posts, seeing how some folks have chimed in with their thoughts about my Rule, and others have put together their own lists.

And I figured it’s about time I finished up that old post about what our Rule of Six is and how I came up with it! It’s something I’ve been using for four or five years, and when I think about it, I can’t believe I haven’t ever posted about it before because it is such an important and constant guideline for me.

It got its start, as so many helpful principles do, in the writings of Charlotte Mason. In A Charlotte Mason Companion, Karen Andreola wrote that Miss Mason believed children needed three things every day: something to love, something to think about, and something to do. (And if you read the other posts in the Carnival, you’ll see that the Bookworm, astute woman that she is, picked up on my source immediately!)

I remember it was shortly after we moved from New York to Virginia in 2002 that I looked at the bright faces of my three little girls in their big blue room and made a silent promise to myself to give them that good soul-food every day: something to love, to think about, to do. I thought about what that meant in practical terms, because a concept has to translate very clearly on a practical level if there is any hope of my pulling it off. It’s the logistics that get you, every time. Broad principles are like umbrellas, and you need a hand to hold the umbrella with.

And that’s how I got to our Rule of Five. (Yes, five. It was Five for the first two or three years. Item number Six didn’t join the list until later—which is why I’ve been tickled to see all these Rules of Six popping up, because ours was the Rule of Five for so long.) I thought of it as the five fingers of a hand, the five things that I strive to make a part of every day we spend together:

Good books

Imaginative play

Encounters with beauty (through art, music, and the natural world—this includes our nature walks)

Ideas to ponder and discuss (there’s Miss Mason’s “something to think about”)


When Mary borrowed my list, she put prayer at the top to reflect its overarching importance, which makes perfect sense. I have it at the bottom for the very same reason. I always figure that you’re most likely to remember the last thing you hear. If I put the most important thing at the bottom of the list, that’s the word that echoes in my consciousness afterward.

Also, when the girls were younger it worked so beautifully with a little fingerplay we would do at bedtime. We would hold up a finger for each thing on the list. “What did you play today?” I would ask, and eager stories would bubble forth. “Who remembers what books we read?” “Where did we meet beauty today?” It was such fun, at the end of the day, to listen to their reflections about what we’d done since breakfast. At the end of the list, we’d all be holding up the five fingers of a hand, and then we’d clap our hands together and that meant time to pray.

But what about the sixth item in my Rule of Six? You see, of course, what’s missing from my original list: work. That’s because when I first came up with the list, my oldest child was only six, and play WAS her work. A couple of years later, the list grew—like my children. I added “meaningful work” (as opposed to busywork) to express the importance of doing useful things cheerfully and well, with reverence and attention.

And the five-finger visual works even better now, because you can tally off the first five things on the list and then clasp your hands together for the sixth. It’s been a long time, though, since we used the fingerplay at the end of the day. I bet Beanie doesn’t even remember it. Maybe that’s something to return to now that we’re settling into a new rhythm, a new place to practice our Rule.