|Sisters' House at Ephrata Cloister constructed 1743|
This article is decorated with spring flowers spotted at the Ephrata Cloister and our house. I hope they are worth the extra minutes it may take to come up on your computer. April showers bring May flowers. This year, however, it’s been strangely the reverse. Our May flowers bloomed early, in the sunshine of April. The rain has waited until May.
“Whatever the natural gifts of the child it is only in so far as the habit of attention is cultivated in him that is he is able to make use of them.” *1 Charlotte Mason
In Miss Charlotte Mason’s book, Home Education originally published in 1886 she explains how to develop the power of attention in children. All children regardless of what century they were born, need to be trained to fixing their attention to the task at hand. But because children in the 1880s were not surrounded by screens and had no portable gadgets at their fingertips, their attention was not lulled or lured as it is today. Therefore my first recommendation for those interested in what I call the “Gentle Art of Learning” is to keep media to a bare minimum.
|Conrad Beissel's Study at Ephrata Cloister. House contructed late 1740's|
Bright & Pleasant
To discourage dawdling Miss Mason urges the home teacher to aim to keep each lesson “bright and pleasant.” Short lessons help secure full attention. The child learns to bring to his work his full mind to bear, whether it is arithmetic, penmanship, phonics, listening to a history story, or drawing something from the nature table. If a lesson goes stale and he does dawdle his teacher moves him onto the next lesson in the timetable - a lesson that as unlike the last as possible. Then he is brought back with “freshened wits to his unfinished task.”
|Pink azalea at the edge of our woods|
When a young student understands that definite work is to be finished in a given time it will help train him in habits of diligence. If ample leisure is to be enjoyed later in the day then there is “no time like the present” to do our lessons. Most subjects for a child under age nine need not be any longer than twenty minutes. Some lessons will be less. The habit of fixing his attention is a valuable one. He will carry the strength of this habit all through his school years.
“The teacher herself must be alert . . . The tortoise will lag behind the hare, but the tortoise must be trained to move, every day, a trifle quicker. Aim steadily at securing quickness of apprehension and execution and that goes far towards getting it.” *2
|Nigel Andreola, age 3 on his grandparent's porch in 1992|
|Yellow tulips at Ephrata Cloister|
Parents want their children to have the “best” curriculum. This is admirable. But the same parents can also be haunted by fears that their children will have “holes.” Consequently the biggest courses are chosen. I call them Cadillac courses. With a Cadillac course it isn’t unusual for a second grader to be spending more than an hour on math problems, for instance. Those who design Cadillac courses apparently consider their subject to be top importance. When a whole collection of “top important” subjects fill the day a teacher can’t help but feel weighed down. Subjects drag on.
Very soon, September’s sparkling enthusiasm is replaced with a sense of weariness. A teacher who misunderstands how a child’s power of attention develops, that it strengthens over years, may become agitated and impatient. It is then that she sees no other choice but to resort to an educational method that relies heavily on reward and punishment. What else can be done to get her student through his schoolwork? Mom is miserable. No one is having a good time.
“The child must not be allowed to get into the mood in which he says, Oh, I am so tired of sums, or of history.’ His zeal must be stimulated; there must always be a pleasing vista before him; and steady, untiring application to work should be held up as honorable, while fitful attention and effort are scouted.” *3
|Purple phlox, Ephrata Cloister|
An alternative to the Cadillac course is to try something new, something flexible, something accommodating to short lessons. If this is out of the question cut a big course down to size. In spite of the command in the teacher’s guide to “do every problem,” in spite of a conscientious inclination to do every correlating activity, trust in the power of short and bright lessons. Your child’s close attention to half the problems on a page, for example, during those first ten to twenty golden minutes, is time better spent than a wandering attention on a whole page of problems. Although a chapter of history, for instance, may be concise, if it is intriguing, presented with a careful rendering of detail, it will, indeed, invite a student to be thorough. And the carefully chosen words of an author who loves his subject will inspirer a narration. Knowledge is the goal over how many problems are completed on the page, how many pages are read in a chapter.
|Red azalea, Our house|
Here is another principle that discourages inattentiveness. It is one that Charlotte Mason says will help keep students “wits on the alert.” Place lessons in order. There are advantages for the child’s developing mind when lessons are “judiciously alternated.” When we vary the kind of lessons one part of the brain is at rest renewing itself, while another part is engaged. For example, a new math concept is welcome while the mind is fresh. A lesson of observation may follow - such as a student looking closely at a new art print for art appreciation – describing it with eyes closed. After some memory work a thinking lesson might follow - such as reading and narration. Fifteen minutes of nature drawing may precede a painstaking lesson.
|Red lupine, Our house|
Short lessons are a legitimate “short cut.” They invite concentrated effort. (The fact that they seem like short cuts at all could be because we are used to the normality of conventional school classroom periods.) Let each effort be toward excellence. Whether it is writing a sentence or paragraph in his copybook, a row of arithmetic problems, reading aloud a poem or literature, the child should accomplish these things with his best work.
Determine the right skill level first (irrespective of grade level) and do not allow the work to be “slip-shod.” (The horseshoe needs to fit snugly to the hoof.) Better six neat, unhurried, deliberate letter “Es” for penmanship than two rows of “Es” that drift off to be messier down the page. Better several long division problems accomplished with fastidious attention to each step and a good attitude of “I can do this” - than a student who greets a crowded page of problems with pessimism. An “I can’t ” in frustration, or even tears, might be coming from the repeated experience of making careless mistakes as a lesson drags on in tedium.
A Full & Tidy Schedule
Even older students (through eigth grade) will benefit from short lessons of sorts. Short lessons make possible a tidy schedule of interesting subjects beyond the 3Rs – doable with a smile. For when it comes to paying attention, the interesting things to think about are the strongest attraction of all.
|My pot of flowering thyme|
A wide curriculum is Miss Mason’s concern when she says,
“For it is a mistake to suppose that the greater the number of ‘subjects’ the greater the scholar’s labour; the contrary is the case as the variety in itself affords refreshment. . . .
Not the number of subjects but the hours of work bring fatigue to the scholar; and bearing this in mind we have short lessons and no evening preparation [no homework].” *4
|Hyacinth, Our house|
My dear readers, Christ tells us that the Father has gifted His children with differing talents. We grow in wisdom and love when we faithfully walk in what He has prepared for us. Little steps, for the faithful, have big consequences by and by. (Mathew 25:21)
What is your experience? Discussion is invited.
1 Charlotte Mason, Home Education, C.M.R.& S. Co., 1989, page 146
2 Ibid., page 149
3 Ibid., page 150
4 Charlotte Mason, Philosophy of Education, C.M.R.&S. Co., 1989, page 158
|Zinnia at the kitchen door needing planting|
Last week I worked on this article in response to a question I received from a young mother. This week I polished it. Thank you for your letters. They give me ideas to write about and a way to minister. I hope you have enjoyed seeing the flowers. This solitary twig of white bleeding hearts was a lovely surprise. It is already a favorite flower of mine but this gave me further joy. My German friend says they are called weeping hearts in her country. I like this name better. Aren't they the sweetest flower?
|Weeping hearts, Our house|
I have found (over my years) that coincidences aren’t rare among the like-minded. Therefore I shouldn’t really be surprised anymore. But I will always be delighted. For I know that someday it will happen again.
|A like-minded coincidence|
Another notable point. Did you know that the May chapter in Mrs. Sharp’s Traditions begins with an old country song from Flora Thompson’s childhood as preserved in her book, Lark Rise to Candleford? The reference is in the finest of print – too small for our camera to show you – although I did try.
|Mrs. Sharp's Traditions open to "May"|
A of review Flora Thompson’s book is in “Goodbye to Lark Rise” posted September 2010. A mention of Mrs. Sharp’s Traditions is in “A Victorian Spark” posted October 2010.
|My weeping hearts have gotten billowy, photographed just before we headed off to Ephrata Cloister|
Thank you for visiting,