Tag Archives: homeschool research

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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What Lucy Found There- examining the lay of the land

I married Brian in the spring of 2003, three years after having graduated from college. That fall we decided to start a family, but
found (as so many of us do) that deciding to start a family and actually being able to do so are two different things. In the fall of 2006, after the
miscarriage of our first child, Calan, and the stillbirth of our son, Anduril, we were blessed with our son, Alex.

Alex was my ‘balm of Gilead’. His person, his existence, soothed my aching soul. I live every single day in gratitude for him (and for
his sister, Fae, who joined us in 2009). After all we’d gone through to have a family, after all the heartache, pain and struggle, I held my little one in my arms. The joy, the privilege, of this child made me all the more aware of my responsibility to him. Now that Alex was here, I needed to figure out how I was going to ‘live up’ to the gift of being his mother (isn’t God so good to us!?! He blesses us from His kindness beyond what we are ever able to deserve)…  My husband and I had already determined that I would always be with our children. They would not be sent to daycare. We would make whatever sacrifices were necessary to keep one of us home. So my mind began drifting toward how we would eventually educate Alex.

See, by nature I’m a planner. I’m the person who makes lists, who goes over contingency plans, who actually made a minute-by-minute
itinerary for her wedding party because it just had to be perfect. I can be intense sometimes and can get to a point where I feel panicky if my plans begin unraveling… But I think the Lord has loosened me up a little. Kids will do that to you…

So when Alex was six months old, I began researching homeschooling. I went to Amazon and found the top rated books about it. I read (about 35 books total), began visiting websites and began reviewing curricula.

Best general description of homeschooling on the market

I felt that most books about homeschooling fell into two categories: practical know-how and philosophy. Many of the practical know-how books were out-dated. Resources lacked websites, using the internet wasn’t mentioned- but I felt they were a good peek into the genesis of homeschooling. I stumbled upon a book called “The Homeschooling Option” by Lisa Rivero. This book gives, in my opinion, the best overview of reasons to homeschool and skillfully answers the most common arguments against homeschooling. I also came across Cathy Duffy’s “100 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum” which I’ll discuss below. These two books are my ‘go to’ recommendations for anyone considering homeschooling.

On the other hand, are the ‘philosophical’ homeschooling books. These include Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s “For the Children’s Sake”, “Better
Late Than Early” by Ray & Dorothy Moore and John Gatto’s “Dumbing Us Down”. These books highlight the educational and moral whys of homeschooling instead of the practical hows and whats. The ‘philosophical’ book that had the most impact on me was “The Heart of Homeschooling” by Christopher Klicka.

Christopher Klicka is on staff at the Home School Legal Defense Association (some people love them, others- not so much). I found his “Heart
of Homeschooling” very personal and insightful. In it, Klicka discusses Biblical reasons families choose to homeschool. I’d had general beliefs about keeping my children close to shield them from negative influences, but had never considered that I may have an actual Biblical
responsibility for my children’s education. Through Klicka’s discussion of Biblical parenting, I was able to clearly see a call on my life to be my
children’s primary teacher. As Klicka wrote, we may be able to give over our authority for our children’s education to someone else, but we can never be absolved of the responsibility for that education.

Biblical discussion of homeschooling

God gave our children to us. We have been uniquely gifted not only to guide our particular children academically, but to be first in their discipleship into a saving faith in our Lord. After all, who loves our children more than we do? Who knows them better? Who has the insight about their particular history and who understands their daily struggles better than their parents? Undoubtedly, the Lord provides many ancillary teachers for our children, other adults who they encounter episodically in church, clubs, teams, family get-togethers, etc. But parents
are the constant. We are there from the time they are born until (Lord willing) they have reached adulthood.

We are called, friends, to be daily and constantly relating our faith to our children. We are called to bring their attention toward the Lord always, as life happens around us. This ‘atmosphere’ of faith in which we are to bathe our children is the ‘womb of faith’. It is where the conception of our children’s relationship with the Lord happens. This is an awesome and delightful responsibility. We get to be there with our kids as they are cognitively and spiritually encountering the world for the first time. What a joy and a gift! What blessing for the parents who have ears to hear and the eyes to see…

This responsibility weighed on me and, with my structured personality, I felt at home with boxed curricula. I wanted to make sure nothing was missed in my child’s education. But, it was about that time that some of my reading challenged the idea of a ‘perfect’ education. I began to see that there is no standard U.S. education. While there is a Department of Education both federally and on the states level, and while there are organizations like the National Education Association who offer advisory counsel about educational choices, there is absolutely NO set, standard curriculum that every child in the country will follow through school. Each school district, under the direction of its state’s requirements, sets its own educational program for their school district. This is why some kids will never read Shakespeare, why some kids will never take a keyboarding class, or driver’s ed. or home ec. or a U.S. government class. Every school district teaches their kids a bit differently than other school districts. Each state requires different things from their schools.

Now, there may be general progressions and certain things it is assumed all students know upon exiting high school (after all, U.S History
class will likely mention the discovery of the American, George Washington and the Civil War), but beyond basics, there can be wide variations. There is simply no set body of knowledge everyone agrees one must have to be considered educated. This may have been old news to
seasoned homeschoolers, but it was revolutionary to me! And this revolutionary idea freed me to think outside the box(ed curriculum) about what kind of education would really be best for my family.

Much more than a curriculum list

So that’s when I ran into Cathy Duffy and her wonderful book. This book is not only a critique of what Cathy considers the best of the best in available homeschool curricula, it also includes material on understanding the different kinds of homeschooling that exist and which materials one might use to achieve each type of homeschooling. Brilliant! I’ve never seen another resource like it. The author who writes a stand alone guide to understanding one’s own goals for one’s children’s education and helps the reader decide on an approach will make millions, I tell you…

My husband and I carefully and thoughtfully completed the sections on our own and then compared notes. We had many desires for our children in common and found there were some things that were more important to one or the other of us. And to our surprise, we’d both scored very high for preferring a Charlotte Mason type education…

Now, I’d read the words ‘Charlotte Mason’ before, but I knew next to nothing about it. Previously, when I needed to know that nothing was
going to be ‘missed’ in my children’s education, Charlotte Mason had seemed incomprehensible to me.  There were no check lists, no easily defined method to ‘Charlotte Mason’ a kid. So I’d dismissed it as some esoteric ideology that I didn’t have time for. I needed a check list, darn it! But now Cathy Duffy was telling me I was ‘Masonian’ at heart, so I had to begin researching. I turned, once again, to Amazon and eventually ordered Karen Andreola’s “A Charlotte Mason Companion“.

A wealth of inspiration & information, creepy Victorian children aside...

I will admit that the lacey doilies and Victorian children line drawings were kind of off-putting. I’m not a lacey doily kind of person. I thought that maybe Cathy was wrong. But then… then I started reading… And my heart sang. Here it was at last! After two years of research, here was the kind of education I wanted for my children! Nature, art, music, scripture, the very best literature, poetry, languages, character development and personal connections with the greatest minds and stories of the past- this, this was what I’d dreamed of!

And so I began falling down the rabbit hole into what I believe is the Lord’s calling for my family…

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