Tuesday, December 12, 2006

No Workbooks Required!

"A sense of beauty in their writing and in the lines they copy should carry them over this stage of their work with pleasure. Not more than ten minutes or a quarter of an hour should be given to the early writing lessons. If they are longer the children get tired and slovenly."

- Charlotte Mason Home Education

We are, admittedly, still in the early stages of handwriting within our little homeschool. I, by no means, profess to be an expert on the topic. I share what we have been doing only as an example of what may be done simply, beautifully, and without a workbook.

Firstly, I'd like to put in a quick word about methodology. When the time comes to introduce letters, strokes are important and there are different strokes for different handwriting styles. Ball-and-stick writing is currently out of favor and continuous stroke methods are preferred due to their faster and easier execution. However, I like ball and stick and think it makes very attractive print. It seems like everyone is talking about Italic, though. Charlotte Mason liked it, too! Personally, I'm not impressed with the look of italic print or cursive. Individual letters look lovely, but words and sentences seem "off" and jagged to me. That's merely an aesthetic issue and nothing more than my opinion. I seriously doubt that it matters much which style you choose for a capable student. Students having difficulty may be a different story, though, requiring simple and friendly instruction like in Handwriting Without Tears - regardless of how lovely it is.

Having little concern about readiness, I just chose what appealed to me the most visually. The whole point of handwriting is that it be readable and attractive, right? A Reason for Handwriting uses a font similar to Zaner Bloser - one of the most common prints taught in schools. When someone comments that I have "kindergarten teacher" print, they mean I print in Zaner Bloser. I think it's exceptionally readable and pleasing. Again, just a preference.

Purchasing a workbook last year clarified the teaching process for me, but now I know the strokes well and handwriting paper is all we need for the CM method. I show my daughter the strokes for one letter at a time on a dry erase board, too. It's small, blank on one side and lined on the other. We begin on the blank side and graduate to the lines when skills are developed enough. I talk her through the letters. For example, I might say, "Start just below the top line - here - good, now up to the top line, around, slowly now, pass the dotted line, down to the bottom, back up to where you started. Good!" We've made a capital O :) She makes the letter five to eight times or so on the dry erase board and that's it! The next day we do the same thing, stressing carefulness and attention to detail until the letters are neat and I'm convinced she is really giving her best work. We move on a few days later, keeping previous letters in review by writing them two or three times. Another perk to the dry erase board - besides fun - is that mistakes or sloppy work can be erased quickly, a CM principle:

"At this stage the chalk and blackboard are better than pen and paper, as it is well that the child should rub out and rub out until his own eye is satisfied with the word or letter he has written."

Once letter formation is down, copywork begins :) Perfect execution and careful attention to detail are still strongly encouraged, and "lessons" remain short. Miss Mason wrote, "I can only offer a few hints on the teaching of writing, though much might be said. First, let the child accomplish something perfectly in every lesson––a stroke, a pothook, a letter. Let the writing lesson be short; it should not last more than five or ten minutes. Ease in writing comes by practice; but that must be secured later. In the meantime, the thing to be avoided is the habit of careless work––humpy 'm's, angular o's." It sounds more severe than it is in practice. Basically, if it's sloppy or careless, we erase it right away to keep the poor example from remaining in front of the child too long. No crossing out with a line. No marking with a red checkmark. It must be completely erased, and quickly too. If a child is truly doing his best, though, and writing "slowly and beautifully" to the best of his ability, that's our goal. He should be encouraged and regular, short practice sessions should be continued.

At times, although copywork should really be from the work of the best authors, we do lessons by making cards for others. I write a few words they'd like to say on a sticky note or scrap piece of paper and the girls copy it onto their card. Gradually, we work up to a longer line, a short note, a letter. For more official lessons, we begin with a Bible verse or a sentence or two from one of our readings and slowly graduate to an excerpt from a book, and then longer poems and passages to keep in notebooks or give away. Always, the handwriting must be their best. They quickly learn that there is no use in trying to cut corners, they will only have to erase the word and write it over again. It pays to write carefully and well the first time.

"Of the further stages, little need be said. Secure that the child begins by making perfect letters and is never allowed to make faulty ones, and the rest he will do for himself..." - C. Mason


Handwriting Overview (great for comparing styles!)

Another Good Style Comparison

The Great Handwriting Debate (continuous stroke vs. ball-and-stick, my bias may be showing)

Ball-and-stick lowercase print strokes REALLY NEAT SITE!!!

Uppercase print strokes

Traditional cursive lowercase strokes

Traditional cursive uppercase strokes

Isn't Charlotte Mason Attractive?

Well, I have finished the reading I wanted to get through before the New Year. With Christmas coming up fast, I won't likely be blogging much this weekend. I just wanted to take a moment to "recap" my experience this fall with Charlotte Mason and her teaching method. Before I say anything else, I just want to say that I already feel extremely blessed by the wisdom that the Lord shared with Charlotte over a hundred years ago. I have no doubt that she was a sister in Christ, and one uncommonly blessed with insight into children and their upbringing.

The most attractive thing to me about a Charlotte Mason education is that it seeks to teach the whole child. Wise parenting coupled with many different educational approaches could produce the same result, but how wonderful to have such a kind, thoughtful guide to help the young mother through such a potentially overwhelming task as that of educating her own children at home. Charlotte Mason was a homeschooler at heart, encouraging parents with the firmly held belief that a loving, nurturing home and family provide the best learning environment for a child.

I am also deeply encouraged by the purpose behind her method. Education is not pursued for education's sake. Charlotte Mason believed that a proper education must be sought out for the children's sake. And to what end? That they be well-educated and live successful lives on the earth? Certainly, those are benefits. But, Charlotte again and again reminds us that children must be well-educated and well 'brought up' for the good of others - that they may be useful in the kingdom, a blessing to others, and glorifying to the Lord Jesus Christ. Character is highlighted. The knowledge of Jesus Christ is paramount. Education strives toward these ends. Not that they speak 5 languages or even that they score such and such on their SAT, but that others maybe be blessed and that the Lord may be glorified. What a vision for noble, God-honoring parenting!

Now that I have passed over into the Charlotte Mason recruitment ranks, let me stop there, LOL :) The following are some highlights of what I find to be The Best of Charlotte Mason in the practical, teaching sense (as much for my own notes as for the benefit of anyone reading):

Time Out-of-Doors:

I think this is a critical component for a healthy childhood - especially for the pre-school and early elementary grades. With this priority, the "whole child" is considered, not just the child's academics. Children must run, skip, holler, imagine, observe, feel, see, and smell outside. Here is the time for a child to "consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air"...

Short Lessons:

This one is a bit more controversial, and there are many convincing arguments for and against short lessons. Simply put, it makes good sense to me. The idea is NOT to make school overly easy for the children, nor is it stemming from the belief that children cannot be expected to sit still for long periods or attend for more than a few minutes. Basically, the idea of short lessons is to ensure that the child gives the whole of his attention, energy, and effort to the task at hand. Everything is to be done to the very best of his ability. Sloppy carelessness is not tolerated. Half-hearted work is not acceptable. He must give his best. Here's a good illustration to explain the idea: Charlotte asserted that a child who writes only six or so "h"s in his very best writing with careful attention is better off than the child who writes 30 letters, becoming tired and sloppy by the last line - allowing him to write part of his lesson without neatness, without the desired outcome. What good is a row of sloppy "h"s from a tired, distracted child? At this point he is learning little more than how to slack off and make sloppy letters. Better to never let his hand make the sloppy letters at all, and to keep his energy fresh. There is also bound to be less conflict between the mother and her children as the children are kept positive and interested in short lessons. As the child matures, his lessons gradually increase in length. Never so long, though, in the early years that plenty of time outdoors would be prevented.

Living Books:

I don't think I've mentioned the idea of living books, yet. Sometimes they are also referred to as "whole books". This is a central idea in CM's method. Basically, dry textbooks are to be avoided. They are written by scholarly committees usually far removed from actual children as well as from a true love for their subject matter. Whole books are written (usually) by one author, an author who has a passion for his topic. They are filled with information, yet personal and engaging. I've been looking over some "real books" for first grade science. Here's the dedication written inside one of the books I plan to use on Birds:

"To the children and the birds of America - that the bonds of love

and friendship between them may be strengthened..."

Isn't that beautiful? This author wants children to have more than just a memorized list of birds in this family and that family, more even than the ability to name a bird on a flashcard. He wants the children to learn to love the birds, to become friends with them. This book is a living book. Textbooks are not going to give the same response. Whether we do an official Charlotte Mason education or not, real books are a must for our family.


This is a bit harder to explain. For brevity's sake, I'll just say that narration is a child's verbal response to something that has been read in a book, either alone or as a read-aloud with the rest of the family. It is "telling" a short book report, or verbally answering a leading question about a passage. Sometimes it can be accompanied by an illustration. Sometimes Mama writes down the child's narration for him; he may or may not copy it afterward. Narration begins in first grade, and completely takes the place of written tests or reports until the second half of elementary school. The idea is that asking a young child to write down an original composition concerning a book or passage requires him to not only organize his thoughts, but pay attention to his still fledgling spelling, handwriting, grammar, and punctuation. He is not able to fully give his mind to any of it. By verbally "telling", the child is allowed to focus in on the content of his words and the content of the passage. He is composing verbally, without the distractions of mechanics he has not yet mastered. Mama knows if he "got it" when she read to him or when he read in the living room for ten minutes, because he is able to verbally tell her all about it - often with a great deal of detail and enthusiasm.

The Humanities:

This is purely my preference. I love how much Charlotte Mason focuses on literature, poetry, music, and art. Certainly, the more mainstream subjects are not ignored. CM students follow a rigorous science, history, and mathematics "curriculum" in their school years. How often, though, is a school-aged child exposed to the beauty and great thought in the humanities? The best art, music, poetry can only add beauty to a child's life - a real sense of God's gifts in all things good.

There's much more, really, but these are my closing thoughts on a wonderful Charlotte Mason semester. The 'method' that can lift my mind and thoughts higher is certainly welcomed to do so.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

What is Narration?

What's Narration?

"Narration is the child telling back what they read, hear, see, and let this action of the mind be habitual. The small ones go over in their minds their pictures, their tales, their geography, and other readings. As they do so, they use their own words, they 'tell back' aloud, giving each incident, each point in their own way. If there are several children, they take turns, until the whole is told back." - Charlotte Mason

In the simplest terms, narration is the child "telling back" to his mother the events in a story or a section of a book. The material may have been read aloud together or read by the child independently, but it must only be read once. The child must learn to attend completely the first time. Charlotte Mason recommended that the children begin narrating their lessons at age 6, but she advised mothers to allow a year or two for the child to really become a strong narrator.

Young children often have a difficult time composing their own writing. Somehow the process is just too cumbersome. Not only does the child have to think of what they want to say, they also have to think of how to spell, punctuate, and form the letters. Composition is quite a lot to master all at once. In Charlotte Mason's method, narration is the beginning of composition. Telling comes - more or less - naturally to children. In oral telling, the difficulties of spelling, grammar, handwriting, and the like are left out of the business. All the child needs to focus on is the content of the book or lesson at hand. In narration, ideas are his main concern. The child is learning how to deal with real knowledge firsthand.

When Charlotte tested her students at the end of each term, the tests were in the form of narration - oral for the younger students and then written for students over age 9 or 10 (after overall years of oral practice). The directions prompting narration are similar to what we would think of today as essay questions. Aren't these the questions you always dreaded? They are generally considered to be the hardest kind. Multiple choice questions give you suggestions, true or false give you a 50/50 chance, fill in the blank provide contextual clues - essay leaves you all alone. All you can tell is what you know. In CM's schools, children did not pass or fail, nor were they compared to other students. Grades, as we know them, were not given for narrations. Each child was simply instructed to tell to his best ability. Attention to detail, truthfulness, and completeness were encouraged. The exams at the end of the term were an assessment largely meant to test the teacher's success, not merely the student's.

In our home, we have noticed that when my husband and I enthusiastically "tell" about something we have read, the children are eager to listen. When I am reading through a book with the children, I like to tell Sam about it at dinner. Frequently, one of the children chimes in to add this part or that. There is the beginning of narration.

Example often helps clarify where instruction fails, so here are a few sample narrations from Charlotte's own writings (appendix to Volume 3):

Q. Tell the story of Naaman.

A. (aged 6 3/4):––

"Naaman had something the matter with him, and his master sent a letter to the King of Israel, and the king was very unhappy and did not know what to do because he thought that he wanted to come and fight against him, and he rent his clothes. And he said, 'I can't cure him,' so he sent him to Elisha, and he told him to take a lot of presents and a lot of things with him. And when Naaman came to Elisha's door, Elisha sent Gehazi to tell him to dip himself seven times in the waters of Jordan, and he said to himself, 'I surely thought he would have come out, and I thought a lot of people would come out and make a fuss'; and he went back in a rage. And his servant said to him, 'Why didn't you go?' And he said, 'My rivers are much the best.' So his servants said, 'If he had asked you to do some great thing, wouldst thou have done it?' So he went and dipped himself seven times in the water, and when he came out he was quite all right again. And when he was coming home they saw Gehazi coming, so Naaman told them to stop the horses, and so they stopped, and Gehazi said, 'There are some people come to see me, please give me some money and some cloaks,' and they were very heavy, so Naaman sent some of his men to carry them, and when he came near the house he said to his servants, 'You can go now.' Elisha said, 'Because you have done this you shall have the leprosy that Naaman had.'"

Q. What have you noticed (yourself) about a spider?
C. (aged 7 3/4):––

"We have found out the name of one spider, and often have seen spiders under the microscope––they were all very hairy. We have often noticed a lot of spiders running about the ground––quantities. Last term we saw a spider's web up in the corner of the window with a spider sucking out the juice of a fly; and we have often touched a web to try and make the spider come out, and we never could, because she saw it wasn't a fly, before she came out.

"I saw the claw of a spider under the microscope, with its little teeth; we saw her spinnerets and her great eyes. There were the two big eyes in one row, four little ones in the next row, and two little ones in the next row. We have often found eggs of the spiders; we have some now that we have got in a little box, and we want to hatch them out, so we have put them on the mantelpiece to force them.

"Once we saw a spider on a leaf, and we tried to catch it, but we couldn't; he immediately let himself down on to the ground with a thread.

"We saw the circulation in the leg of another spider under the microscope; it looked like a little line going up and down."

Q. Tell about the North-West Passage. (Book studied, The World at Home.)

E. (aged 7):––

"People in England are very fond of finding things out, and they wanted to find out the North-West Passage. If people wanted to go to the Pacific Ocean, they had to go round Africa, by the Cape of Good Hope, or else round South America by Cape Horn. This was a very long way. They thought they might find out a shorter way by going along the North Coast by America, and they would come out in the Pacific Ocean. They would call this way the North-West Passage. First one man and then another tried to find a way. They found a lot of straits and bays which they called after themselves. The enemy they met which made them turn back was the cold. It was in the frozen zone, and the sea was all ice, and the ice lumps were as big as mountains, and when they came against a ship they crashed it to pieces. Once a man named Captain Franklin tried over and over again to find the North-West Passage, and once he went and never came back again, for he got stuck fast in the ice, and the ice did not break, and he had not much food with him, and what he had was soon eaten up, and he could not get any more, for all the animals in that country had gone away, for it was winter, and he could not wait for the summer, when they would return. A ship went out from England called the Fox to look for him, but all they found was a boat, a Bible, a watch, and a pair of slippers near each other. After looking a lot they found the North-West Passage, but because there is so much ice there the ships can't use it."

For Year One, our planned narrations will cover Bible, history, nature study, missionary biography, and geography. We may require narrations for a few of our literature selections as well, particularly if I think the book is harder to follow than is average.

Hope this post has been a blessing to you :) For more on narration, just click the tab below this post.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Trusting Charlotte Mason (teaching reading with CM methods)

Update: Two years after writing this post, I took the plunge and began full-fledged CM reading lessons with our 3rd daughter in January 2009. If you'd like to read more, here's more about our first lessons.

I'm almost finished reading Home Education! I cheated and read A Pocketful of Pinecones as a little "break" of sorts. Very good. Quick read. I also cheated a bit more and started A Charlotte Mason Companion already, too :) Anyway, the last few chapters of Home Education have been very practical. They deal mainly with how to approach the various school subjects. I've enjoyed these chapters a ton, and I have been really encouraged by the gentle, yet challenging methods she suggests. One topic that really took a few reads and rereads, though, was that of teaching a child to read. I just kept thinking it seemed scary. LOL, not that I thought CM's way of teaching reading wouldn't or couldn't work; I just didn't want to make Shug my guinea pig.

The "scary" thing about CM's reading method is that she utilizes both phonics and sight words - equally. At first I thought she meant from the get go. After further reading, I understand that she introduces sight words after a decent amount of headway has been made phonetically. For instance, the child would most likely be able to decode simple short vowel, four letter words before the introduction of sight words. I felt better after that was clearer to me. But still...

We've been using Phonics Pathways (PP) for our phonics/reading. In PP, the child learns a sight word only after three letter short vowel words are thoroughly learned. Even then, only a few sight words are introduced at a time. I gradually introduced sight words with SweetP, ending up with about 60 sight words after the first year. She caught on really quickly. Many of the words are technically decodable, but were words that PP wasn't going to get to for quite a while. Considering the frequency of these words in children's books, it seemed like a good idea to familiarize her with them. Again, this is after her phonics were already well underway, without trouble.

In Charlotte Mason's method, a child begins with short vowel sounds and the beginning hard consonants. Learning at this stage is often done in the way of a game. "Can you bring Mother the card that says 'ah'? Very good!" After a certain amount of success, the child is introduced to "real word" 2-letter blends like "at", "am", "an", etc. Then, the three letter words that can be made from them. The focus here is on the blending of the sounds and the smooth "sounding out" from left to right. Then word families are learned, still largely by games, until the child is skilled at beginning phonics.

Then, out of nowhere, she advises alternating days of continued word family/phonics lessons with days of sight word reading. Her reasoning is that learning to read interesting, whole sentences is motivating to the child at this stage. He may still get the phonics training for all of these words later, but at this point, sight words offer a sense of accomplishment and an element of pleasure. It seemed precarious to me to add so many sight words at what I considered a fairly early stage of reading . We hear so much these days (especially in homeschool resources) about the dangers of sight word reading instruction. Sight word = scary! ;)

Well, Shug is well underway in early phonics. She's able to read words like "best" and "pulp" - short vowel, single syllable, 4 letter words. Charlotte says it's time for some significant sight word vocabulary building. Eek! I took a gulp on Friday morning, made note cards, and began. Within 10 minutes Shug could confidently read (both in and out of context) "Away in a manger no crib for a bed". She was beyond excited! She was thrilled! Ecstatic even. She was able to read not only a whole "real" sentence, but a sentence that she knew and loved. When I first taught her the words, she didn't realize how they were all going to go together. I wish y'all could've seen her face when I lined the cards up in order. She read them aloud to me, and I literally got teary eyed from her sweet, childish joy.


We are still continuing to go through Phonics Pathways, of course. We will now be adding a degree of sight word sentences to our lessons. Although, they hardly feel like lessons :) I am truly looking forward to teaching her to read the next line of the children's hymn. Nothing scary or educationally devastating ;)

I am so glad I trusted Charlotte on this one.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

"Teaching" Punkin

I remember when SweetP was 25 months old. I am not at all exaggerating when I say that I easily read fifteen books a day to her, all cuddly on the couch. With Shug only nine months old at the time and napping two long naps each day, SweetP had so much of my undivided attention. Sometimes the idea of a large family intimidates me - if only for the weight of wanting to give each of my dear children that precious one on one time with Mama. It won't be like it was with SweetP, though. Each new little one will have a completely 'different' family than the one before. Punkin has two big sisters to love on her all day, teach her wonderful little games, read to her, hug her, dress her up. My oldest never had that. And, of course, Punkin still has time with me. Admittedly, it's far less individual time than SweetP had as a toddler. Necessarily so. I have to be purposeful about making those sweet moments happen with Punkin.

Every weekday morning, sometime around 10:30 or 11am, Punkin goes up to her crib for "cribtime". She sleeps in a toddler bed in a room with the older girls, but her crib is still useful for this planned playtime. She has a few board books, puzzles, a babydoll, a Leap Frog ABC ball, etc. All safe and not too much to crowd her. I do reading lessons with SweetP and Shug downstairs during this time. Before Punkin heads upstairs, though, I make a point of sitting down with just her (the older two know not to interrupt us) and I take my time reading two or three little books with her. Sometimes I read each one more than once. Mornings can be busy with chores and teaching the older two, even though it's just Pre-K and Kindergarten. It's a sweet time with just my 'baby' and me.

I had noticed a few months ago that Punkin didn't seem to be developing relationships with particular books like her sisters had at her age. I came to the conclusion that there was simply too much variety in what I read to her. All you mothers of toddlers know how much they adore repetition. She wasn't hearing any single book read often enough, even though she heard me reading aloud to all of them often each day. So, I put just a few - five or six - board books in a basket in the living room. These select books have been the only thing we've read during our alone time for almost three weeks now. Now, with the same books each day, I'm hearing familiar talk from her like "Baa Baa Back Seep - pees, Mama?" She's filling in missing words, pointing out details in pictures, even quoting short lines. She's not only having an intimate moment with me, these are now books she is really getting to know. I love that.

Here's a little confession: I rocked Punkin to sleep for the first ten months of her life :) I've always been fond of a routine, a flexible schedule, and babies learning to sleep on their own. But, I wanted to rock my baby. So I did. A lot. I have nothing but the fondest memories of those times - she made it so easy! None of that waking as soon as she was in the crib business. She'd fall asleep after about ten minutes of rocking, then I'd rock her for as long as I wanted. I laid her down and she was peacefully sleeping til morning. I know the next baby may not be like that - but I'm glad she was :)

She has learned her shapes by doing puzzles with me, and her colors are coming along from reading Brown Bear, Brown Bear together each morning. Her vocabulary and language ability are growing by leaps and bounds just from talking to me and the girls so much. I try to have a ready, patient ear for her. It can take a while to get things out sometimes ;) Today we made pretend muffins together, counted to twelve as we walked up the stairs (what an easy way to help them learn to recite their numbers!), read books, sang 'I'm a Little Teapot', and basically just shared time. She enjoys being with me, whether she has me all to herself or not ;) I enjoy being with her more than I can say.

My little Punkin may not be my youngest child for much longer, but each of my children will always be my baby.