Tuesday, March 31, 2015

On young children and ancient history (quote from Parents' Review)

"If the education of the citizen is to be our aim at all, it must be our aim from the beginning, and if we are going to do our deliberate work through lessons, it must begin with the lessons. To insure the acceptance of the ideas we offer, we must take care that they are served attractively, and not only to be found, if ever found, after a long and painful search. For this reason it might be better not to begin by taking modern history with the young child. We are a little too close to it. Looking at a picture from a near point of view, we see so clearly all the details that we find it difficult to see the broad lines and the meaning of the whole. If we go further off, however, the details cease to distract our attention, and we see clearly the whole plan. So it is with history. The nearer the history comes to our own time, the fuller it becomes of political and constitutional details, and the more we are involved in questions of statecraft. If, however, we go back to the early history, we find it moves on broader, simpler lines, and the statesmanship, so far as it exists at all, only shows how a resourceful mind attempts to cope with circumstances.

"The early histories also are practically biographies, written about great men by men of their own time. With the child, a biography is of greater use than a number of detached history stories, because in the latter it is difficult to make the characters real living men and women, whereas if he drops leisurely into some biography, he begins to think the thoughts and take the point of view of the man whose life he is studying, and he becomes accustomed to the dress and habits of his time. In this way, he is living not only in the life of one man, but in his period."

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Narration Helps

I'd like to suggest some some specific Parents' Review articles as wonderfully helpful tools for broadening our understanding of narration. I've given links directly to four articles below.  But you can also search through all the PR articles to see what they say about narration.

Back to these especially helpful narration articles:

 http://amblesideonline.org/PR/PR35p610SomeNotesNarration.shtml  610 Some Notes on Narration by G.F. Husband 

We Narrate and then we Know by E.K. Manders

p 058 Concerning Repeated Narration by Elsie Kitching

 http://amblesideonline.org/PR/PR68p061ThoughtsonNarration.shtml p. 061 Some Thoughts on Narration by Helen E. Wix

 Here's an excerpt from that last article, the one by Helen Wix:

 "But is narration, even at this age, always merely "telling back'? It must be, we know, the child's answer to "What comes next?' It can be acted, with good speaking parts and plenty of criticism from actors and onlookers; nothing may be added or left out. Map drawing can be an excellent narration, or, maybe, clay modelling will supply the means to answer that question, or paper and poster paints, or chalks, even a paper model with scissors and paste pot. Always, however, there should be talk as well, the answer expressed in words; that is, the picture painted, the clay model, etc., will be described and fully described, because, with few exceptions, only words are really satisfying. When children reach the middle school other types of narration may be used; they can offer headings to cover the lesson and then narrate by filling in the details under each heading or the class may be divided into small groups with a leader in each one and narrate part of or all the lesson. The responsible teacher should be keenly aware of everything that is going on. Shy children will often narrate in a group or a specially "mute' child may be given his chance alone with the mistress or a friendly class-mate. There are children and grown- ups too who do not willingly talk; often they will narrate well on paper.

 "At about this stage a lesson should often end with some serious discussion arising from questions asked by the children or by the teacher. One has to be careful not to allow opinions to be formed on too little knowledge; it is an opportunity to show children how dangerous such carelessly formed opinions can be. This teaching develops as the children move up through the school.

" ....By the time children reach the top of the school narration has become an ingrained habit, has led to observation and thought, to an ability to relate what was learnt last term, last week, yesterday, with "this' that we are now considering. Such co- ordination grows from remembered past narrations over a wide field. Some note in to-day's reading awakes an echo in some other subject or lesson and so the power to compare and contrast and illustrate by example is developed. This should lead to a valuable use of analogy, and application of past history to modern times and modern problems."

   See also volume III. There is a section where Miss Mason says there are 'Other Ways of Using Books':

" -But this is only one way to use books: others are to enumerate the statements in a given paragraph or chapter; to analyze a chapter, to divide it into paragraphs under proper headings, to tabulate and classify series; to trace cause to consequence and consequence to cause; to discern character and perceive how character and circumstance interact; to get lessons of life and conduct, or the living knowledge which makes for science, out of books; all this is possible for school boys and girls, and until they have begun to use books for themselves in such ways, they can hardly be said to have begun their education."

 And, of course, Ambleside's own webpage has a goodly array of narration ideas, suggestions, and information.

The above gives an overview of many different types of narration, through many different ages.  It is well to have some idea of where you're headed, so you can make any course adjustments you need to along the way.  From the beginning, narration is an essential part of a Charlotte Mason curriculum.  It is not enough to read the excellent books- the children need the mind work necessary that goes into narrations. They need to think about what they have read, to go over it in their minds and think about what it is they are going to say about it.

In Charlotte Mason's classroom, every reading was narrated, but every child did not narrate every reading.  However, every child listened to the reading with focused attention because each child knew that he could be called upon to narrate at any time.

volume 6, page 17:
Another point should be borne in mind; the intellect requires a moral impulse, and we all stir our minds into action the better if there is an implied 'must' in the background; for children in class the 'must' acts through the certainty that they will be required to narrate or write from what they have read with no opportunity of 'looking 'up,' or other devices of the idle. 
It can be a little exhausting in our homeschools if one child has to give the same sort of narration for each and every reading.  But they do need that implied 'must', knowing as they read, that at any given time they could be called to narrate that reading.  Every narration does not have to be the same, however. We can vary the narrations styles. Here are some ideas of other ways to do this:

Beads: I came up with this idea by accident some sixteen years ago.  I had two children in year 3 or 4, two teenagers, as well as a profoundly disabled child, a very busy toddler, and a baby.  One morning as I swept through the living room trying to put it in the kind of order that is about two steps up from being delared a national disaster, I scooped up a couple of beads off the floor so Baby wouldn't swallow them, and popped them in my pocket.

Up to that point, my usual method with narrations was to pick a number between one and ten, and have my two grade school students pick a number to see who would narrate.  It worked, except it was taking longer and longer as they spent too much time trying to figure out the magic number, and sometimes the children demanded more transparency in the process.  This particular day, I absentmindedly put my hand in my pocket, found the beads, and a lightbulb flickered.
"R," I said, "You are the red bead.  K, You're the blue.  After the reading I'll put my hand in my pocket and whichever bead I pull out, that's the child who narrates."
So that's what we did.  It saved little bits of time that added up over the day.  It prevented arguments from suspicious children who always doubted that they really had chosen the number closest to mine four times in a row- we could all see the bead was what it was.

But here's an important part of this method- I did not draw the bead before the reading.  I didn't even pull it from my pocket immediately after the reading.  I waited for perhaps just half a minute- in this way, I found that each of my girls was sharpening her wits, readying her narration- which is the most important part of the exercise.  Although only one of them actually narrated, both of them had done the preparatory mind work for a narration.

Obviously, it needn't be a bead.  It could be legos, cuisenaire rods or other math manipulatives, pennies with different dates, different bottle-caps, any items that feel exactly the same but are visually different.

Here's something else we started- the narration jar.  Based on the ideas in the readings I linked above, I wrote different types of narration down on strips of paper- one for each strip.  The children pulled a strip of paper out of the jar, did what it said, and then put it back in the jar.  Here are some ideas:

  1. Draw a picture from your reading.
  2.  Set up a scene from the story with your blocks or other toys. 
  3. Model something from the story using Play-dough.
  4. Narrate into the tape recorder. 
  5. Write down five sentences about what you read. 
  6. Think about another story or event that reminds you of what you just read about. Tell Mama about it.
  7. Write down three sentences about what you read. 
  8. Set the timer. You have 10 minutes to plan a short skit from what you read. 
  9. If you were giving a test on this reading, what are three questions you would ask? 
  10. Call Grandma and tell her what we read about.
  11. Call Daddy and tell him what we read about.
  12. Draw a picture of one of the people from the reading today.
  13. Make paper dolls of the people from the reading today (use index cards)
  14. Narrate to Mama.
  15. Skip the narration today. 

I did not have the same number of each--there was only one 'skip this narration' and only two play dough and skit suggestions.  

The ideas for the narration jar are obviously best for younger children. We do need to gradually lead younger children into narration:
Children in lB require a quantity of matter to be read to them, graduated, not according to their powers which are always present, but they require a little time to employ their power of fixed attention and that other power which they possess of fluent narration. So probably young children should be allowed to narrate paragraph by paragraph, while children of seven or eight will 'tell' chapter by chapter. Corrections must not be made during the act of narration, nor must any interruption be allowed.

 If you have older children, you may also find the narration cube helpful at other times when you want to shake things up a bit and ask for more than just, "Tell me what we read about," although that is also an excellent narration question.

A reading without this mindwork is a wasted reading- which is why even if the children don't end up delivering a narration, they must know that they have every chance of being called up to deliver one.  You might even, from time to time, pause at the end of the reading, count to ten under your breath, and then point to one of the children to choose who narrates, or say, "No narration this time" if that is what you need to do.  Those few seconds give the children time for what matters most- to go over the reading in their own minds.

With narration done as Miss Mason represented it, the mind puts a series of questions to itself, and then answers them.  And that is how children learn.  

Whatever a child or grown-up person can tell, that we may be sure he knows, and what he cannot tell, he does not know.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Behind the Scenes

Some seventeen years or so ago, the ladies collectively known as the Advisory 'met' via a couple of email groups and AOL groups created to discuss homeschooling with Charlotte Mason's methods.  There was no CM curriculum at that time.  There were Miss Mason's books- only the six volumes on education were in print- and a scant handful of other books published about her and her work (two, I think, perhaps three).  There was a newsletter one could buy- printed on coloured paper and stapled together.  There was a shortlived magazine.  And there was the email list.

Charlotte Mason was growing in popularity, but there was a lot of confusion about what her methods would look like in practice.  Plenty of people who owned the six volumes never read them, or read the one devoted to the education of children from birth to 9 and then thought that's what you did in high school, too.  We started reading the series together and discussing it, and we were often surprised to discover that some practice long understood to be 'Charlotte Mason' actually wasn't much in keeping with her standards at all, and that she had actually written a curriculum she required those who claimed to be following her methods to use, that she said it wasn't enough to just use the books she used if you didn't understand and apply her principles.  We discovered so much more- it was an exciting journey.

We became increasingly enthusiastic about sorting out exactly what was and what was not accurately 'Charlotte Mason's method.'  We found that every time we doubted her, if we put her method to the test in our homes it actually worked, and much better than we thought it would.  Her ideas were not made up in her head while she spun silk in some ivory covered tower with windows and no doors- she worked them out through decades of in depth study and readings that spanned centuries (see Karen Glass's book Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition for more about this) and testing them on hundreds and thousands of children taught with her methods.   With each new successful application of her philosophy and method in our homes, it grew more important  to us to know, as accurately as possible, what Miss Mason actually said and did, what her methods and principles actually looked like.  Repeatedly, those of her methods we tried, we found true. So we started posting more and more about our discoveries to the emails lists, and eagerly read to find out what others were discovering- which is where our friendship began, but that is another story.

'I have my children use their writing for copywork,' somebody would say.  But we had learned the purpose of copywork was to expose children in a focused way to models of  great literature with excellent prose and perfect punctuation. This is an integral part of CM's approach to grammar and punctuation.  Using their own work for copywork removes an important plank from her language arts program.

'We do unit studies, but we do them the Charlotte Mason way,' somebody else (at one time, possibly one of us) might say. But we had learned that Miss Mason had serious objections to unit studies, that she felt they were often artificial and involved the adults doing more of the work of making connections that the children should be doing for themselves, and she felt they were disrespectful of the children's minds.

'I don't see the point of reading through a book slowly- it's so artificial to stop if your child is still interested and clamoring for more.  Isn't this why we homeschool, so we are free from such constraints?' Probably said by one of us, but I plead the fifth. When we tried it, you see, we learned it actually increased the child's interest, helped them give better narrations, gave them better retention, and they spent more of their free time thinking about the book and processing the information in a deeper, more meaningful way.  Can you imagine the heady excitement and joy a mother experiences when her child comes to her several times over the course of a week to talk about her schoolbooks, to share what she's been thinking about the stories and how they are going to turn out, and the characters and mistakes they might be making, and things they should think about- "Mother, is the Artful Dodger really a good friend to Oliver?  I thought he was, but now I think he might be using him."   "Mama, I just can't believe what Pinnochio is doing right now!  Why doesn't he listen to Gepetto? I think he's going to find out that place is not as much fun as he thinks it will be."   Oh, how we want for others to discover this loveliness.

'There's no such thing as CM in a box,' more than a few somebodies said (and are still saying).  But we had discovered that actually, Charlotte Mason assigned the curriculum for each of her schools and families using her programme (and they were all over the world) to use each term- even required that the exams be sent back to her where she and her teachers corrected them.   You could write your curriculum, she acknowledged, but you could make your own shoes, too, but you don't, because the product isn't the same and it's not as efficient.

The more we tried it, the more we read, the more we applied, the more excited we became.  This was working, and it was fun!  We loved the fruit.  We didn't want to keep it to ourselves.  We were excited about what we were discovering, and we wanted to share it with others.

And one day, one of us wondered, "What if you could make a Charlotte Mason curriculum today?  What would it look like?  What are the best books, and how could one fit them in over the course of a school career."

Out of that list, and those purposes, the curriculum that would become AO was born.

Once the curriculum was created, we could have just walked away, and left just the website there for anybody to use while we went about our lives.  But we wanted to continue to provide support to our fellow homeschoolers, to create a community for all of us who wanted to apply Charlotte Mason's methods with their children.  We loved the results we saw so much that we wanted to share them, to help others, and, in turn, to be helped by their ideas, encouragement, and discoveries.  So many homeschool groups were textbook oriented. We wanted to provide a Charlotte Mason community.

So we had the email list, and now the forum, our Facebook page and group, and soon, an AO Conference, and then another one, and then....?

And always, our goals are the same- what do Charlotte Mason's methods really look like, what are her reasons, her ideas, and how do we implement them at home?  How do we help others do the same? Since we have found this philosophy such a blessing, how to share it with others?

For these goals, we are often called purists, and sometimes snobs, and from time to time, 'CM Police' (which is funny, as that is a term I think I first coined back in the cmason list days), and occasionally worse.  Sometimes it's a joke, some good natured ribbing, and sometimes, not so much.

Those who want to do whatever they want and call it Charlotte Mason can do that pretty much anywhere and everywhere else (and do).   Those who want to substitute methods and materials that don't match up with Charlotte Mason's philosophy are completely free to do so.   We won't go to their homes and picket. We won't publish their names in the newspaper and shame them. We won't call them names and slander them on our blog, website, or forum, (although sometimes we will say this or that practice or claim is not found in Charlotte Mason's work).

But we assume that if you are on our forum, our Facebook group or pages, you are there for the unique support that we offer.  And on our blog, in our forum, on our Facebook pages, we believe we have a responsibility to provide our guests and members with the most accurate information possible so that those who want to can implement the Charlotte Mason gold standard, the best CM practices possible as determined by measuring them against her own writings and programmes.  That's what we wanted for ourselves when we started.  We won't give our members less than we wanted for ourselves.  That's who we have been from the start.  That's one of the promise we make to our members.

I shared some of our back story at the beginning of this post. Here's some more:  we're also still working on the curriculum.  I could write several paragraphs about all the work that goes on behind the scenes, some of it quite exciting and we can't wait to unveil it, and some of it just the basic drudgery of maintaining the website, keeping our links updated, keeping our areas free of spam, etc.  Literally, hours and hours of every day are devoted to helping our online members and doing the behind the scenes work that keeps AO going.

We are cooking dinner, grocery shopping, trying to find time to get the dusting done (well, I gave up on that one), giving the kids their baths and bedtime stories or taking them driver's ed and praying hard, helping them work through The Little Duke, Plutarch, This Country of Ours, or Richard Feynman's Six Easy Pieces and Latin, cleaning the fridge (or suffering because we don't have time to do that)- you know.

In other words- we're just like all of you, with more combined experience and years spent reading and discussing Charlotte Mason and the AO curriculum (although I know quite a few of our regular members have spent just as many years and hours studying CM as we have).  Again, none of us is perfect.  There is that ideal that we shoot for, and a reality that sometimes we have to substitute in its place.  We don't want to be discouraging to those moms who are doing the best they can while dealing with circumstances that mean second, or even a distant third best is the best for that family at this time.

 However, other times, we've tried the substitutions and found that they brought on some complications we hadn't thought of, and we want to help other mothers avoid the mistakes we made.

So, our goals include helping people know precisely and accurately what Miss Mason's best practices and philosophy are based on the standard of her own writings and being a blessing and encouragement to our fellow homeschooling moms.

Those two goals- accuracy and encouragement- may seem at odds with one another, and sometimes there is tension between them. There is an ideal we all strive for, and the best we can do at the time compromises all of us have had to make. But the more closely we adhere to those principles, we have discovered, the more smoothly things go.  We are a Charlotte Mason curriculum.  Our program works best when married to the principles that created it, rather than divorced from them.

We want to help others use AO while applying Charlotte Mason's principles as closely as possible because the results are beautiful!  AO was created out of those principles.  Trying to use AO without being grounded in and infusing it with those principles is kind of like trying to drive a car without fuel. You can get out and push it along for a while, but that gets exhausting quickly.  Those principles are the fuel as well as the oil that keeps things running smoothly, and we want to help people implement the curriculum smoothly.

  We do recognize- we have experienced ourselves- that life does not always permit us to meet our ideals in homeschooling.  During a very hard period in my life, I relied overmuch on audio books, and now I've found out the hard way that this means two of my children missed out on the years of exposure to the printed page which is vital for the rest of Miss Mason's approach to language arts work.  Keeping quiet about that because sharing it might annoy somebody, or hurt their feelings, or make me sound like a snobby purist - well, that seems counter to the whole spirit of AO to me- we're here because we want to help, to warn people if the bridge ahead of them is weak, not to stand by and cheerlead people who are unknowingly headed for a rickety bridge that takes them a direction they may not even wish to go.  If I'd been warned about it by somebody who was learning from her mistakes, I might still have needed to use audio books, but I could have made other adjustments to make up for what we were losing.  And that's just one example.  I think all of us could share others.

 Every day we strive to communicate support without enabling, to encourage those who need it,  andto stay true to Charlotte Mason's principles  as the ideal best practice- because we have found that they are.
We don't want to be enabling bad habits or providing space for negativity and undermining the ideal, while at the same time, it's very important for us that we be a constant presence to support the harried.  We know our replies are being read by people at all ends of that spectrum.

There are those who really are just looking for the easiest way and don't want to challenge themselves or their children and want to call whatever they do "CM" no matter how much it isn't.  There are those who have created something they want to sell and they call it CM because that will attract customers.  There are those who reduce CM down to something much less than the wide, generous, and also rigorous curriculum she envisioned.  And then there's that harried mom at the end of her tether, struggling to balance all kinds of issues,  what she most needs is encouragement, not discouragement.

So somehow it feels like everything we say needs to be calculated to address multiple issues both spoken and unspoken.  We want to offer support, encouragement, and sympathy for those who desire to do more but really can't.  We want to offer the most Charlotte Mason compatible tools, resources, and information to moms like we were 20 years ago - starting their journey, needing to pick up some basic information as fast as possible.  We want to be supportive of those who would kind of like to do more, but are hesitant for whatever reason and just need a little nudge, or a corrective suggestion.  We want to provide the most accurate information possible about Miss Mason and her principles, because, as I said earlier, that's what we wanted when we started, and we won't give our members less than that.
And all because Leslie had an idea, all those years ago.

Of course, we are all very, very human.  Those are all a lot of things to try and do at once as graciously as possible.  Sometimes we fail. But those are the stars we use to set our course.  We thought that you, who are sharing this journey with us, might like to know.  We're glad you are on this journey with us.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Defining Charlotte Mason

I wrote in a previous post about trying to come up with a definition of the Charlotte Mason method by boiling it down to its principle components, and then wording those components without using any CM lingo so that even someone who never heard of CM would be able to understand it. This is what I came up with:

A Charlotte Mason education is distinct at its very core because it respects that the child is an individual made in the image of God, and he has a right to know and experience a variety of things, not for the purpose of making him suitable for some future employment, but simply because he is a Person, and is therefore entitled to a full life that includes knowing about everything that is good that the world has to offer that might help him to reach the potential that God designed him for.

This kind of education attempts to expose the child to a rich variety of knowledge in order for him to make meaningful connections with the world around him and develop authentic relationships with God, and with people both in his own direct environment, and from different times and places.

Because the child is entitled to learn about whatever the universe has to offer, his curriculum is carefully arranged for him with a goal of offering variety, much like a delicious, bountiful feast. Science, literature, the arts and practical skills are some of the mandatory dishes offered at this mental banquet. The teacher's role is to provide this well-planned feast, but the responsibility for partaking and digesting this food for the mind rests on the child. The teacher acts as a guide and fellow-partaker of the feast rather than as the authority dispensing knowledge, trying to lecture facts into the child's mind.

Training the child to maintain focused attention allows lessons to be kept short enough to keep his mind fresh and alert and still leave much of the day free to pursue his personal interests.

Ideas that encourage wonder and reflection from the greatest minds of all time are transferred through interesting, narrative books that spark life in the mind, instead of dry, dull textbooks. These books are so vital to this kind of education that the term "living books" is sometimes used synonymously with Charlotte Mason.

Rather than answering stock comprehension questions or outlining wearisome lists of facts, the child considers and clarifies for himself what he read and tells it back in his own words in order to make that knowledge his own. This is called narration, and, as a major part of the child's work in his own learning, is key to making this kind of education successful.

Language arts is learned, not through isolated workbooks and practice sheets, but integrated with his reading through role modeling by studying and copying well-written passages from the school books being used in other subjects.

Science begins with an emphasis on first-hand experience with the wonders of God's world. This direct observation and sensory participation in nature continues even after more focused science is added to the curriculum.

There is an emphasis on moral training, which includes putting oneself in someone else's shoes, and doing one's duty even when that's not the easiest or most convenient choice. Much of this is done through vicariously experiencing the consequences of right and wrong choices through classic books with substantial characters of depth rather than shallow, sentimental stories.

Students educated this way tend to be well prepared to pursue whatever path they choose, whether that be college, job, military or family. The AmblesideOnline homeschool community has many alumni who have graduated and gone on to successful adulthood. What makes a Charlotte Mason education distinct is that these students continue to pursue learning because their schooling has taught them that learning isn't a thing that ends with high school graduation, but something that adds vitality and meaning to their existence.

How Do You Define CM in 100 Words?

A few months ago, while I was waiting for my daughter's piano lesson, I thought it would be fun to challenge myself to get a definitional synopsis of CM squeezed into 100 words.

I was quite pleased with myself -- I got as close as 101 words:

"In a Charlotte Mason education, the child's dignity as an individual made in God's image is respected. His education connects him to the world around him, building relationships with God and people from various places and times. Outdoor life is emphasized. Focused attention at short lessons keep the mind fresh and leave free time for personal interests. Living books put the child in touch with vital ideas, and narration teaches him to process those ideas. Copywork and dictation are the bulk of language arts instruction. The educational course of study is teacher-directed, but learning is the responsibility of the student."

It's admittedly a bit choppy. One of the other AO AA (Ambleside Advisory/Auxiliary members) made an improvement that was not only smoother, but weighed in at only 97 words -- less than 100. Maybe I can convince her to share hers in the comments!

Not totally happy with my failure to get under 100 words, I wondered if I could do any better, squeeze it any further. And I did! This one is 63 words:

"The child's dignity as an individual made in God's image is respected. Education means connection between the child and the world around him. Outdoor life is emphasized. Focused attention at short lessons provide free time for personal pursuits. Living books and narration allow the child to process ideas. Copywork teaches handwriting. Course of study is teacher-directed, but learning is the student's job."

Still not satisfied, I pared it down to 27 words that would fit on a Post-It note:

"The child's personhood is respected. His education connects him to the world and ideas. The method includes outdoor life, focused attention, short lessons, living books, narration, copywork."

Nine months later, I'm revisiting this. Now that I had boiled down Charlotte Mason to its most crucial aspects, could I put it all back together without using any CM lingo? Could I explain CM thoroughly, yet in a way that even someone outside of the Charlotte Mason world could understand? I'll post what I came up with in a separate post. It's 599 words. :-)

I think this is a good exercise for anyone. What better way is there to prepare to answer questions about your homeschool method than by getting to its bare bones and then re-assembling those bones in your own words?

How would YOU define a Charlotte Mason education? If you take up the challenge, I would love to see what you come up with!