Sunday, December 2, 2007

Charlotte Mason Distinctives: What Really Reeled Me In

What are the distinctives of a Charlotte Mason education? What makes the CM method so unique and why are so many homeschoolers choosing this route for their children?

When I first began reading about Charlotte Mason and her educational philosophy, I was already implementing some of her methods unknowingly. For instance, I knew I had a strong preference for using living books instead of textbooks in the areas of history, science, and literature. I had never heard the term "living book", but I knew that there were some wonderfully well written books available for children, and textbooks seemed unnecessarily dull and dry to me. I was interested when I heard there was a whole approach to homeschooling that used nothing but books likes these.

I took my first steps toward CM, and barely even knew it ;)

So, what exactly is a living book? In Miss Mason's third volume, School Education, she illustrates how a child's enjoyment of a book may be one measure of whether or not the book is living: "The children must enjoy the book. The ideas it holds must each make that sudden, delightful impact upon their minds, must cause that intellectual stir, which mark the inception of an idea" (p. 178). Here, I think, we find what we are trying to get at with living books. Impact. Ideas. Intellectual stir. There is no yawning and glum turning of page after page. These books are interesting. The thoughts that they stir up both feed and exercise the young minds of their readers. They must also be challenging, well-written, and able to be narrated. This is what is meant by a "living book".

Before I began reading Charlotte Mason, I was already beginning to see the benefit of short lessons in our home. My older two girls were learning to read early and well by means of just ten minutes a day. They were, similarly, learning to write their letters in just as little time. When I read that Charlotte Mason advocated short lessons for all of the school subjects, I was immediately intrigued. After reading more, her method made so much sense to me! With short lessons, children remain fresh, attentive, and engaged. Time is not wasted on dawdling, wandering thoughts, and discipline issues that arise from fatigue. Lessons are crisp, focused, and - short. The result is plenty of free time for playing outdoors and pursuing other interests, as well as a positive attitude about school work in general. Who wouldn't want that?

Around the same time that I was looking more carefully at CM, I was also reading Teaching the Trivium, which actually references Charlotte Mason here and there. I was initially confused when I read Laurie Bluedorn refer to Charlotte Mason as the Habitual Method. Why would she call it that? I had just started reading Home Education for the first time, and it did not take me long to find out why the CM method could easily be just what Bluedorn suggested. Charlotte Mason focuses a great deal on the importance of training our children in positive habits. In the same vein, she writes about preventing the formation of negative habits. We are all creatures of habit, she writes, everyday tracing the paths of habit more and more deeply into our minds. Habits are critical in the proper raising of children and they are foundational to a proper education. Miss Mason's advise regarding habits has been every bit as valuable to me as the best child training books on the market today. I have been continually challenged and encouraged by her writings on this topic. Habits are the backbone of the CM method in our home. As I read more of Volume One, I was beginning to really get hooked.

Then, with my interest peaked by living books, habit training, and short lessons, I read Miss Mason's thoughts on the out of doors life for my children. I know it sounds dramatic, but every page I read left me so joyful, so thankful that I had found this woman so early on in our home education! Miss Mason writes in Volume One, "The chief function of the child- his business in the world during the first six or seven years of his life- is to find out all he can, about whatever comes under his notice, by means of his five senses; that he has an insatiable appetite for knowledge got in this way; and that, therefore, the endeavor of his parents should be to put him in the way of making acquaintance freely with Nature and natural objects" (p. 96). I cannot tell you how much these words resonated with me. In my heart of hearts I knew that true education in the early years could not be divorced from the natural world, and here was Charlotte Mason encouraging me to let long hours in nature be a purposeful component in the education of my children! "Never," she writes, "be indoors when you can rightly be without."


Now, before you think that I was ready to just read a living book for fifteen minutes a day and then go run around in the woods all afternoon, let me assure you - there is a final distinctive that really drew me to a Charlotte Mason education. Charlotte Mason's method is academically rigorous. If anyone doubts that statement, one look at the average PNEU curriculum puts all concern to rest. Second graders read Pilgrim's Progress, fourth graders read Shakespeare and Tennyson, and sixth grade children are delving into Don Quixote! Unabridged! There is poetry, nature study, classical music and composer study, challenging history accounts, and more. This is no slacker curriculum. In fact, for some mothers, it can be rather intimidating. I am so thankful for the wonderful women who have collaborated and put together the free CM curriculum resources at Ambleside Online. They have taken so much of the potential stress and confusion out of applying Charlotte Mason's methods in the 21st century. What a tremendous blessing!

There are, of course, many other wonderful aspects of Charlotte Mason's approach. I have left out narration, copywork, dictation, drawing, handicrafts, and foreign languages. This entry is long already, though, and I couldn't possibly touch on all of them. If you have more interest in learning about these and other distinctives of the CM method, please click on the buttons in the sidebars of my homepage. I hope to be continually adding to my store of posts on these subjects.

I hope you have been blessed by something you have read here :)