The whole world opened to me when I learned to read.
Mary McLeod Bethune
Be warned that this won’t be a how-to on Charlotte Mason’s approach to education. There are plenty of websites and wonderful blogs that elaborate on her methods and practical application. I am writing to remind myself of where we started in our journey, and to bless anyone who reads this at this time of year when so many are making decisions about homeschooling, curriculum choices and transitions, and how to facilitate learning in the home.
Every now and then I’ll hear parents speak of how they are reading books to their children, almost as punishment. “They’re on a restriction from television, and so we’re reading books to them.” Though I know the intent is good, I find myself cringing at the thought—when did reading a book become something you do when you’re in trouble? The conversation continues. “I quiz them to make sure that they’ve been listening, and they actually enjoy the books.” I’m thinking, are you surprised?
Because reading of good books—living books, to use the appropriate terminology—is so fundamental to everything else we do, I take it very much for granted. What would our school day be without rich literature? Sadly enough, it wasn’t always this way. I remember how we started, and where we were when we embraced Charlotte Mason’s approach.
Planted seeds are amazing. We had never heard of homeschooling, but while visiting friends with our oldest child, then a baby, our unwitting mentors shared with us their homeschooling journey with their own children. For some strange reason, they also “loaned” us a couple of books, and we became, equally unwitting, fertile ground. For various reasons, we’ve never seen them again. Talk about people being in your life for a season and a reason. Fastforwarding seven years, I remember us making the decision to homeschool, while I was still working and we hadn’t “formally” begun. Back then, our daughter used a homeschool curriculum that is fairly common in Christian schools, and she had monumental success with it. In fact, she was successful and bored. After completing her work within 10-15 minutes, she’d leave the table and watch television for hours, if left unchecked. As an aside, one of our biggest homeschooling challenges was, and sometimes is, getting her to press in when school isn’t easy. Those early successes, I sometimes think, hurt perhaps more than they helped. Anyway, in those years spent in traditional school, we read to our children typical preschool reading—Dr. Seuss, First Steps to Reading, etc. Though fun to share, this time together was still lacking, although I didn’t think so then.
A student by nature, I began to read more and more about homeschooling. One of the books the couple shared with us was Sally Clarkson’s Educating the Whole Hearted Child. I would return to this resource many times, but after turning only a few pages, I began to grasp the idea of a living book. One day I had the children turn off the TV and come and read with me. They were accustomed to reading their favorite “twaddle;” I, on the other hand, was a bit nervous because this time I pulled out one of my childhood favorites, Little House in the Big Woods, a bit thicker than they were accustomed to sitting still for. I didn’t read this series myself until I was in 3rd grade. As I read, I noticed them sitting still, being introduced to Laura as a new friend, and listening intently. When I stopped that day, and over the next several days, they would ask for more. This was what I thought school should be—not boring worksheets, not forced time at the table or anywhere else, but excitement, anticipation, and curiosity. I also remember one of our son’s first narrations as he told his dad about the bugs that came through Laura’s house and ‘ate every green thing.’ Less than five years old, he was quoting the book exactly on this part. I became an instant believer in Miss Mason’s educational approach.
Fastforwarding a few more years, the one constant amidst whatever changes we make is great literature. Our kids haven’t memorized every important date in history, nor can they quote phonics rules. They are learning how to learn, a lost art in today’s educational process. The kids love to read, and instinctively take books with them everywhere. Their thoughts and conversations are full of those things that are noble, trustworthy and of good report, in large part because of the ideas that come from living books. I also love hearing them recall stories and lessons learned from books they’ve read years ago—another mark of quality literature. I have more on living books in this post, also listed as a favorite, in response to an African-American mom’s questioning whether a Charlotte Mason education was appropriate for African-American children.
We are still challenged with some of Miss Mason’s ideas. We don’t get outside as often as she prescribes, and we certainly don’t stay outside as long as she prescribes; laying the same groundwork of a 19th century countryside mentality is not without its challenges living in a 21st century metropolitan area. Our art studies could stand more focused effort. There are still places where we use curriculum that are in disagreement with her teachings. Our masterly inactivity is sometimes not so masterly and too inactive (translation: we could all stand more discipline from the television). Yet overall, my task is much simpler having gone this route. There isn’t as much curriculum to buy, and I can free myself from the teacher’s guides and limitations of the traditional school environment that I know from my own educational experience. My primary job, with the good Lord’s help, is to shape the environment such that the kids’ minds can feast on ideas. From where I sit, this is learning. It’s not always fun and games, but it sticks. Ideas are chewed upon, digested, and revisited years later. Those things that are noble, trustworthy and of good report are the outpouring their hearts and minds, and I couldn’t ask for more.