Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Narration in the Charlotte Mason Method

My father-in-law has been a public school teacher for 30 years now. It's always interesting to me to hear his opinions on education and the public school system. What does he think has worked best with his students over the years? What does he think are the biggest time wasters? What have the kids always been drawn toward? What seems to really hit home with them? In general, what has he learned in the last three decades about children and how they learn?

Just a couple of weeks ago, another one of these conversations came up. It was short and sweet, like many of them are, but I've been thinking about it ever since. We were talking about the problem that arises when a teacher knows a particular student "gets" the material, but for some reason does poorly on the test. He said that was one of the more frustrating parts of teaching. In cases like those, it's the test that has really failed, not the child. Then, there are children who are naturally good at taking tests, ace them regularly, and then cannot tell you anything about the information a week later. That would be frustrating.

Then came the part I've been mulling over for the last two weeks. My father-in-law, veteran public school teacher, to whom the name Charlotte Mason means nothing, said the following:

"If we could just sit down one on one with each kid and just ask them to tell us all they knew about the topic, not what they didn't know, not what they sort of knew, but all that they really knew about it, that would be the absolute best measure of their actual knowledge of the material".

My husband and I literally stood there with mouths agape. He had just described narration to a tee.

I had already been completely sold on the idea of narration replacing tests and questioning, but this little testimonial from my father-in-law was certainly reassuring. In a classroom situation, where the state expects certain forms of evaluation, "the absolute best measure of knowledge" may not be feasible. But, it is feasible for us! How thankful I am to have the freedom to use this tool in our homeschool :)

Charlotte Mason wrote extensively on the subject of narration. It is meant to be a core component of her method. You may be able to "do" CM without handicrafts or without French Songs, but there is no way you can truly do CM without narration. It's a cornerstone of the entire CM philosophy.

Narration is not merely a tool to evaluate what a child has learned, however. In fact, I would say that evaluation is one of its lesser functions. Narration serves to actually impress the ideas of a book or lesson upon the child's mind. It is, in actuality, an exercise in learning. I like to tell my daughter that we use narration because it helps her mind gather the book in and keep it. It is a powerful learning tool. Narration is also the Charlotte Mason precursor to composition. In effect, the child is "writing" an oral composition when he begins narrating. He is choosing content, sentence structure, and vocabulary. He is (hopefully)imitating style, as well. The benefit that narration has over written composition in the early years is that the young student does not need to get hung up on spelling, handwriting, and punctuation. He is free to focus on content, and the oral narration flows without the distractions of mechanical limitations. Later, as the child matures and his skills develop in these areas, he begins writing his narrations. The child's narrations continue to grow and improve. At this point, narration and composition are one and the same.

So how does one get started in narration?

Many experienced Charlotte Mason moms suggest beginning narration with Aesop's Fables. The fables are concise and fairly straight-forward, making them ideal for a first time narrator. We began with the tale of Tom Thumb, which is told as a collection of short incidents in the main character's life. Each incident occupies only a paragraph or two, and is independent of the other parts of the tale. This worked well for us, and my daughter enjoyed the story very much. The keys are to choose a living book, a concise book, and to start small. Many moms expect the first narrations to be a bit skimpy, at best. Charlotte Mason maintained that children who narrate regularly will eventually develop this skill and be able to narrate easily, even if they had a rocky start.

In addition to the traditional oral approach, Charlotte Mason offered suggestions for "creative" ways to present narration to young children. My daughter is really just beginning narrations, so we're still mainly focusing on the oral road, but we have done drawing narrations for Aesop's Fables. She likes to draw a little scene depicting the main characters in the fable, write the title, and write the moral. I let her use a black permanent pen to trace over her writing when she is finished. We hope to make a little book out of these drawn narrations when we've finished the fables. We also did one narration (of Sleeping Beauty) where I asked her to tell the story as though it were a book for very little children. She enjoyed this and I think it helped her summarize the content better than she usually does. She tends to be rather detail oriented ;)

I'm excited to continue learning about narration as we go through Year One and as I read more of Charlotte Mason's volumes. If you would like to read more of what I post concerning narrations, please click on the "narration" tag at the bottom of this entry. I hope something you read here was a blessing to you today!