Category Archives: Masonian Educational Methods

Alex’s Year 0 In Review- Geography

Yesterday I sat down to look at our schedule to see where exactly we are in our school year. Imagine my surprise when I discovered we actually aren’t behind (regardless of how I felt about the schedule the night before). We’re currently in week 34 of our 36 week ‘regular’ school year.

So now I’m reflecting on the work that we’ve done this year- how far we’ve come, what worked and what didn’t. Since this was a kind of ‘practice’ year of the Ambleside Online curriculum (as will be next year- Year .5), it’s so nice to be able to sit back and think everything through so I can make adjustments for next year (even though we’re schooling year-round and will beginning a summer term soon)…

Geography is exciting to me personally. I enjoy learning the topography of countries and regions and about the culture of the people who live there. I’ve been excited to introduce geography/cultures/social studies to my son (and daughter- Fae always follows along).

This year, I decided to slowly read through Jane Andrews’ ‘The Seven Little Sisters Who Live on the Round Ball That Floats in the Air’. Yeah, it’s a mouthful. Seven Sisters contains stories of little girls & their families who live in different regions of the world. The regions covered include those belonging to:

  • The Little Brown Baby- South America OR South East Asia/jungles (we chose South America)
  • Agoonak- the Arctic circle
  • Gemela- Arabian desert
  • Jeanette- Switzerland/mountains
  • Pense- China/rivers
  • Maneko- Africa/grasslands, and;
  • Louise- Germany/river valley

We would begin each section by looking at a huge map of the area. We’d discuss the physical characteristics of that area (climate, flora, fauna, natural resources which are all conveniently pictured in our atlas) and we’d compare the location to where we live on the little globe we own (I’d use words like ‘moving east’ or ‘south of where we live’). This generally took about ten minutes, but the kids enjoyed looking at the maps and talking about what animals could be found in the area. Then I’d begin reading about that Little Sister- each section begins with a short description of the Sister herself. After the first reading, I’d print out a picture from the internet of a girl in cultural dress that could be the Sister we were discussing.

This picture was placed in a manila file folder- we wrote the Sister’s name and her region next to the picture. This is the beginning of a Charlotte Mason-friendly ‘lap book’ (my apologies to those who create *real* lapbooks. *Real* lapbooks are beautiful, detailed and very directed. Ours is none of those things.)

Our first ‘lapbook’

We’d read for about 5 minutes twice a week. When we finished, I’d ask Alex what he remembered from the reading (proto-narration) and we’d jot down words around the picture. The next time we would read, we’d look at our picture of the Sister and would read/discuss the words we’d selected thus far.

I supplemented/supported geography lessons by selecting story books from the library about or from each region. I genuinely enjoyed some of these books and will have to write more about them later. We also have a world folk tale treasury- I would select a few folk tales from each region and would read those as well. This worked well as these picture books became our ‘Free Reading’ for the year. Sometimes, we’d watch a cooking or travel show that focuses on cuisine from a particular region (the cooking and travel shows on CREATE/PBS were wonderful for this purpose!)

What did I like about Seven Sisters? It’s written beautifully directly TO the child and my kids began talking about each Sister as if she were a real child they know. Used as I described above, I found this book a good ‘spine’ upon which to begin discussing world cultures with my kids.

However… I do not think I will be using this resource the next time around with Fae. In my opinion, the book stereotypes each region/culture and is, in some places, blatantly racist (for example foot-binding of little girls is discussed in the China section and in the African section, the narrator says that ‘we’ should not consider Maneko’s “wooly” hair beautiful. In fact, if Maneko knew any better, she’d want to be just like us). Yikes. It’s even worse when I write it out like that… And yet, that’s how the book reads. I found myself editing SO much and being genuinely disturbed by the way other cultures are presented by the narrator.

If I had it to do over again (and I do with Fae), I am going to use the supporting resources as the main resources. We’ll select a region, look at the map/atlas and will read lots of picture books and folk tales from that region. For Year 0, that’s plenty as far as geography is concerned.

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Poetry Surprise

As you know, we are currently doing an informal Year 0 since Alex is in Kindergarten. One of the topics I’ve been so excited to broach with my kiddos is poetry. As suggested, we began Term I with Poems and Prayers for the Very Young by Martha Alexander. The kids seemed… tolerant… of the poems. Sometimes they expressed enjoyment, but mostly the words seemed to wash over them and- as Alex is too young to require narration- I’d just let it lie. I knew the words, the rhythm and some of the images were working their way into his mind…

Term II brought us A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. The children did not connect *at all* with the poems in this book. I’d find one that seemed really delightful and would read it several times over a few days hoping for a spark of interest- nuthin’.

Well, I deviated from the recommended Year 0 selections for Term III. But, as a dear friend reminded me when I dithered about using an ‘unapproved’ book, this is *our* education we’re giving to *our* children. It’s ok to make a substitution to include a selection that is particularly meaningful to us.

And so we began Term III Poetry using Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. I don’t know what others think of this poetry collection as far as meeting dear Charlotte’s criteria for living books. It is written by a single author who is passionate about his subjects. But his tone is markedly different from the other poetry we’ve read. It’s… saucy. It’s clever. It explores the magic of the everyday and reveals the character of children in a way I haven’t seen in any other poetry.

But my favorite- my absolute favorite- thing about the poems in WTSE is the way they promote the endless possibilities that are available to us in life.

Consider the poem my kiddos are memorizing this Term:

 The Invitation

If you’re a dreamer, come in.

If you’re a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a hoper, a prayer, a magic-bean buyer

If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire.

For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.

Come in! Come in!

Ok folks, when I read this poem to Alex and Fae, their eyes grew round as saucers and they held stock-still. My whispery, conspiratal delivery invited them into to the world Silverstein has created that delights in children and understands both their wonder of the world and their sometimes less-than-perfect behaviors. It’s been only a few weeks and we reread this poem every day. The kids enjoy it so much, that even Fae- who is TWO- almost has it memorized. She recites it to me before she falls to sleep at night.

A few days later, we read this selection:

Listen to the Mustn’ts

Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the dont’s.

Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts.

Listen to the never haves, and then listen close to me…

Anything can happen, child, anything can be.

This is poetry to inspire and to amuse. Yesterday, we read The Farmer and the Queen:

“She’s coming,” the farmer said to the owl.

“Oh, what shall I, what shall I do?

Shall I bow when she comes?

Shall I twiddle my thumbs?”

The owl asked, “Who?”

“The Queen, the Queen, the royal Queen,

She’ll pass the farm today.

Shall I salute?” he asked the horse.

The horse said, “Nay.”

“Shall I give her a gift?” he asked the wren.

“A lovely memento for her to keep?

An egg or a peach or an ear of corn?”

The wren said, “Cheap.”

“But should I curtsy or should I cheer?

Oh, here’s her carriage now.

What should I do?” he asked the dog.

The dog said, “Bow.”

And so he did, and so she passed,

Oh, tra lala lala,

“She smiled, she did!” he told the sheep.

The sheep said, “Bah.”

Alex is IN LOVE with this poem. He asked me to read it to him about eight times yesterday. He does all the animal responses (in funny voices, of course) while I read the main text.

And this is what makes me love WTSE most of all. My kids are anxious to hear the next poem. They are engaged with the images, the stories, the ideas. They are having a conversation with Silverstein himself and are sharing a view of the world. I couldn’t have asked for a better response to any poetry we will read in the future.

My kids beg for poetry. That’s pretty awesome.

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Family Reading: Lions and Spiders and Bears, Oh My!

Ok, so this is a quickie post. Between the holidays, my computer breaking (fie on you, fan motor!) and being on call for my job (as a doula) I’ve had almost no time to work on the second part of my 20 Principals post as I’d wanted. But that’s coming soon! (Really!)

I thought I’d quickly share the books that my family has used as read alouds since last summer. We just began ‘formally’ schooling Alex in September, but we’ve been doing family read alouds… well, forever! However, we transferred to real chapter books which have a story that is carried between chapters in August or so- so I’ll count these.

1. Edgrr, The Bear Who Wanted to be Real, by Alexandra Kurland.

This was cute. The story tells of a toy shop group of bears who find themselves out on an adventure. The father-figure bear, Kenyon, tries to take an unruly bear, Edgrr, in hand. Edgrr has a harrowing experience in the woods when he attempts to be a real bear and he learns the value of being ‘home’.  My kiddos enjoyed this and it certainly qualifies as a living book in my eyes as the language is not at all dumbed down.

2. Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, by A.A. Milne.

A no-brainer. These books are whimsical, funny and gentle. My son laughed out loud several times and both of my children now have a special place in their hearts for the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood. My advice is to read the first few stories to yourself first so you can get an idea of the pacing and sentance structure. It threw me for a loop for the first couple of stories, but once I understood the cadence of the language and syntax, it made for wonderful, lively reading. If you are anything like me, you WILL cry at the end of The House at Pooh Corner when Christopher Robin gets ready to leave for boarding school (sniff!!)

3. Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White.

Another excellent book. My son loved this and was able to remember details from the book much more clearly than we expected. Funny and sad all at once- wonderful coming-of-age, circle-of-life feel.

4. A Bear Called Paddington, by Michael Bond.

This one I purchased at my local library’s ongoing book sale and then searched around Ambleside to see if it was recommended. I turned up nothing so decided I’d best just plunge ahead- and it was wonderful! Again, intelligent language and humorous adventures of an adorable, marmalade-loving bear from darkest Peru (who knew!). The way Paddington misinterprets everyday circumstances had me in stitches and I was totally delighted whenever Paddington gave someone a ‘hard stare’. Great book- can’t wait to read it again when Fae is older.

5. The Little Bear Treasury, by Else Minarik.

Lovely drawings, whimsical stories, but in all honesty it was a step down for us. By this summer, I expect that Alex will be able to read this book on his own, so it just felt too simplistic for our read alouds. The children both listened intently, but the chapters ended so quickly and with such little drama, I think they, too, wanted ‘more’. Ah well, a lesson for me- stick to books that are labeled for children aged 8 to 12 and we’ll have just the right level for my 5 and 2 year old for our read alouds (lol!).

6. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis.

Yes, dear Reader, I have initiated my children into the wonder that is Narnia. I sat in my bed with my children snuggled around me and read the first line: “Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.” and immediately started crying and couldn’t continue reading for a few minutes (grin). You see, the Chronicles embody everything I hope to pass on to my children- imagination, intelligence, adventure, goodness, justice and a heart that longs after Aslan/Jesus (to me, Aslan is a fictional Jesus in Lion form). I deocrated my childrens’ nursery in the Chronicles complete with full-sized lamppost nightlight and pencil drawn/pastel colored reproductions of the pictures from the original books. I hung a banner with a picture of a castle and underneath I hand-stenciled ‘Cair Paravel’. A framed parchment map of Narnia set on one wall and a framed pencil drawing of Aslan’s face rests above a reminder that ‘he’s not a tame lion’… Sigh… So much of my soul resonates with the simplicty of Narnia and I’m now sharing this beautiful story with my children. If you haven’t read them, start with LWW- read them in the order they were published (not in Narnia-chronological order). You have to discover Narnia just as Lewis himself did!

So it’s been about four days that we’ve been reading LWW and both kids simply love it. My son has already been making comments (unsolicited!) about how the witch was tricking Edmund and how he wasn’t nice to his sister, Lucy. He’s listening and the ‘moral’ of this story is going to deeply impress him (thank you, Lord!!) He will hear the gospel message here- sin has us frozen, sin corrupts us, but JESUS is our hope and our salvation and He has a wonderful plan for us!

A note: we actually own this Easton Press copy of The Chronicles of Narnia. This is also the first time my kiddos are getting to read from one of our ‘fancy’ books. How nice to have a special set of books as we share this special story!

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The Wonders of the Last Sea- exploring ‘narration’

A few weeks ago, we started our discussion of dear Charlotte’s teaching methods in a discussion about living books. To continue, let’s turn our attention to the second of Wikipedia’s methodologies- narration.

One of the most attractive attributes of a Masonian education is the lack of ‘busy work’. Busy work consists of all the many trifles that modern education insists upon to better drill a fact into a child’s head. A child reads a passage and then completes comprehension questions to show whether or not the child has understood. A math fact is learned and then is repeated ad nauseam in various ways just to be sure the child has really mastered the lesson. Busywork is all the things that the child is ‘put to’ to prove that the child has, indeed, ‘got it’.

Charlotte found this kind of repetition unnecessary and insulting to the child’s intelligence. Instead, she advocated narration as the only reinforcement of the lesson. What is narration? Simply put, narration is the act of retelling in one’s own words exactly what one remembers. Narration is a powerful tool in a child’s education.

Think about the times you have learned something. The information was received and taken into your mind. But if you later had to teach someone that same information, your understanding, your relationship with the material changed. It went from being a surface fact (something you remembered until the test and then tossed away), to being something your mind had really chewed, mulled over, and synthesized so it could be communicated to someone else.

The child listens, absorbing the story into himself...

Narration is not used to test a child’s knowledge. It isn’t used to discover how much the child forgot about the passage, rather narration is used to help the child reinforce the connections she has made with the material on her own. The teacher is not enforcing an agenda of comprehension- that is, that the child will remember what the teacher/adult thinks is important about a passage- instead the teacher is helping the child deepen her own connections and think through what has just been read. Leading questions should be avoided, as should correcting the child during the act of narration. If a child doesn’t mention a fact or seems to have misunderstood it, the parent may simply do a short ‘recap’ of the story immediately prior to the next reading (the next day, etc). If a child is simply lost, put the book aside for a month or two and try again later; the child may not be ready for that particular work.

I often think of professional wine tasters and how they differ from the casual drinker. The casual drinker tosses back the wine, notes how it tasted and if he liked it or not and then it is forgotten. The experience has left no lasting impression on him and an hour later he couldn’t tell you much about it. But the professional sommelier first looks at and smells the wine, chews it, interacts with it before rendering an opinion. And the professional is able to remember the experience, the nuance of the drink- it has become part of his overall wine experience. If it is an especially good glass of wine, he may be able to recall it years later.

The child can express her connection in many valid ways...

Narration can be accomplished in many ways- orally (where the child retells what he knows), in drawing/painting/sculpting, through play acting with figures or as actual play, and, after the age of 10 or so, in written composition (indeed, narration is the basis for fine essay writing in the future). Any way in which the child expresses a connection with the material is valid narration.

But what about evaluation? How can you be assured that your child has actually understood the material? Well, how do you know an adult understands the materials she’s teaching to you? As the person is speaking, you can hear an internal consistency of information. A clarity of reasoning that makes sense in context. A teacher in a classroom full of students may need worksheets and tests to ascertain if each student has understood the material, but a parent in a home with a limited amount of children will certainly know if a child truly understands what she is retelling.

My son is only five, so I am not requiring narration from him yet- dear Charlotte recommended that a child have no formal schooling until age 6, so I am holding off on asking for narration. However, even in our ‘informal’ schooling, Alex retells parts of his day. It’s interesting to me to see what he remembers hours later, which ideas and facts he connected with.

A Young Girl Reading- our current picture study

Narration seems simple- too simple to be an effective learning tool. But over a hundred years of history and many parents of graduates attest to the effectiveness of this method. As a child grows into adolescence, narration takes on more of a conversational tone. The child still retells, but then the parent may ask questions to draw the child deeper, may correct and challenge what a child has shared- as the student becomes an adult and has much practice forming a viewpoint, an opinion- the conversation becomes more like adult conversation. The teacher has simply refrained from usurping the child’s own mind prior to her learning how to use it.

I look forward to many conversations about books, politics, morality, science, literature on and on and on as my children grow…

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The Wonders of the Last Sea- exploring “living books”

So what is a Charlotte Mason education, anyway? This is one of those questions newly seeking parents will ask and they will get a different answer from each person who responds. I can only answer based on my own interpretation… Much of what I know has come from reading around the Ambleside Online site, from reading Karen Andreola’s “A Charlotte Mason Companion” and visiting her website Charlotte Mason Supply and Research and from many years of ‘discussion’ on the Ambleside Online Yahoo Groups (there are many, but I mostly read the main AO List, AmbleRamble, and the AO YR 0 list).

I believe that the Wikipedia page on Charlotte does a good job introducing who she was and what the main tenets of her educational philosophy are. I do plan to write more about her philosophy, but I wanted to first write about the methodology that set a Charlotte Mason education apart from other styles of homeschooling.

The first- and maybe most basic- method of a ‘Masonian’ education is the use of the ‘Living Book’. As the Wikipedia article describes, a living book is a book that is written by one author, someone with a passion for the topic and who shares his/her enthusiasm about the topic with the reader. These books can be novels, biographies, travelogues, histories, etc. These books will transport the child/reader into the topic so the child has a genuine experience with the wonderful ideas behind the words.

In my own life, books have long been a passion. I started reading for pleasure in the 5th grade (much later than other bibliophiles, I know). I’d noticed this girl reading a book during recess each day and I thought if I had a book maybe I could strike up a conversation with her and maybe we could be friends. So I borrowed “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” by dear old C.S. Lewis from the school library and soon enough, I was in Narnia during recess.

I still have the paperback box set purchased for me at age 11

The connection I made with the Chronicles is hard to describe. I know that God was speaking to me through the Pevensies and I know that I longed to be a Narnian long before I knew what a Christian actually was. The goodness of the characters in the books, along with their need for Aslan resonated within my soul and left an indelible imprint on me. I discovered a need within myself to be better, to live up to the goodness my Narnian friends displayed. Their courage, their devotion to Aslan and to one another, their courtliness, their sense of adventure- I began to long for all these traits in myself.

When a child is welcomed into a different world- or into a different time in our own world- and is introduced to a topic by the author/narrator, the child is given a personal tour of the new topic. By spending copious amounts to time with worthy characters and worthy teachers, children soak into their being and consciousness all the lessons and goodness those teachers have to offer. This is one reason Charlotte Mason advocated short readings over a long period of time. Imagine enjoying a fine meal- one may bolt the food down and the enjoyment will soon be over. But if one takes one’s time, savors the delights before him, then new flavors or subtle textures may be discerned. When a child lives with a character or an idea, the child has time to roll it around in his mind, to ponder and question. The topic or character becomes a friend to the child- familiar, comfortable, known. And that is why it is so important to savor living books, so one may have the time to linger over worthy ideas and beautiful thoughts, so these thoughts may become a part of us.

Charlotte also wanted to be sure that each child was reading real books- not dumbed-down, abridged versions of books that had been ‘processed’ for the child’s consumption. Charlotte- and I- believe that children are capable of much more than we give them credit for. Children can understand and synthesize thoughts and emotions at a much higher level than is generally appreciated. While there is a difference between a child and an adult, it isn’t so drastic as we sometimes think. Children are capable of listening, of imagining, of being raised up to the level of the literature/books we give them. No, we don’t read ‘War and Peace’ to a seven-year-old, but we do give that child the BEST of children’s literature, in the original language and without abridgement. We allow the child to read (or to hear) the author for himself and we allow the child to make his own connections with the material. This is his experience with this book and this author. It is his to hear and to hold on to.

I’ve been reading to my 5-year-old son from Edward Eggleston’s “Great Americans for Little Americans”. It’s American history in story form for children. We read about Marquette and Joliet and their adventures on the Mississippi River as they meet the Iowa indians and brave the monsters that supposedly lurk down river. This is my take on the story. My son? He remembers that the Iowa indians fed the explorers like babies (I suppose it was part of their hospitality rituals) and that they shared a peace pipe, “like in Peter Pan,” he said today.

You see, not only has Alex made is own connection with this story, remembering those parts which are important and impactful to him, but he also made a connection between stories. He remembered the indians from ‘Peter Pan’ and has now added his knowledge of the Iowa indians. His knowledge of indians has grown based on his own experiences with the material without my interference as a ‘translator’. I believe that my son is a person in his own right- that God is shaping him and is creating a history for my son. That history includes his interactions with the materials I give him. The Lord will use the sources to shape and mold Alex (and eventually Fae) into a person who will be responsive to Him, who will come to love and serve Him and who ultimately can be shaped into the image of His dear Son, Jesus.

The idea of using ‘living books’ is not unique to Charlotte Mason, however. In college, this is how many classes are organized. We underclassmen were set to read complete books, unabridged versions of Chaucer, Joyce, Rabelais, Derrida, and the list goes on. Why is this method of education used in college, but is thought to be ‘too much’ when educating younger students? How does it educate a child to read an excerpt of ‘Charlotte’s Web’ or of ‘Cinderella’, or- worse yet- someone’s watered-down translation of those brilliant works? Haven’t these excerpts been selected by someone else as the most meaningful and important section of the story? The child’s autonomy in making the connection has been lost because someone has come between them and the material. Now, the child’s only job is to understand what the adult believed was so important. No, when a parent had carefully and prayerfully selected materials to bring to her children, she must then stand aside and allow the child to nibble at the meal. He must be allowed to roll the ideas around on his tongue without interference. Just as a parent cannot digest a bite of a meal for her child and expect him to derive the nutritional benefit, neither should she pre-digest the ideas presented by an author. Leave the meal to the child, the author and the Lord.

Because I believe my children deserve to interact with the greatest minds and the best ideas I can offer, and because I believe they are capable of forming their own opinions and their own connections, I use ‘living books’ in my child’s education. God is using these materials- using the conversation my children are having with the authors- to bring them into relationship with Himself as they learn about the world around them.

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