At Home in a World of Books
Home teachers are most free to provide an education that makes children at home in a world of books. In the Gentle Art of Learning the books are the teachers. Parents need not be especially talented or skilled in any one subject because we who take the step of faith are gifted the moment we put one foot in front of the other. God gifts willing hearts. Those who seek, shall find. We can learn along side our children what we might have missed in our own childhood. This is how Dean and I did it.
Reading the 19th century writings of Charlotte Mason who can miss her ardent plea for better schoolbooks? She repeats her theme that children ought to have “living books.” How do we recognize a living book? “A single page will elicit a verdict,” she claims. Thus, my suggestion in A Charlotte Mason Companion for at least a “one page test.” Watch whether or not the writing opens or closes the door of a child’s mind.
Varied Relationships with Books and Things
My search for living books was a quiet but constant quest and experiment. I couldn’t help but be wary of the typical textbook after reading Miss Mason’s plea. Even though it is more than one hundred years later, schoolbooks haven’t changed much. We are still faced with their devitalizing effect. But “a book serves the end of education only as it is vital,” Miss Mason observed.
Classrooms haven’t changed much, either. A flood of talk from a teacher’s paraphrasing – put together from hasty notes - cannot possibly do what the carefully chosen words of an author can do. “Ideas must reach us directly from the thinker,” Miss Mason says, “and it is chiefly by means of the books that they have written that we get in touch with the best minds.” A teacher must talk to give a lesson but this talk “must be subordinate to the book,” she insists. When education is predominately long lecture, commentary, note taking, test taking, after-hours homework, cramming to memorize, the result is that students leave twelve years of school blasé.
Where are These Living books?
Miss Mason uses the phrase “large room” figuratively when she says that we are to set children in a large room of varied relationships. In her country of England, really large rooms are only found in the manor houses. I’ve taken a tour of one or two and I can assure you that such rooms are well and finely furnished. But where are the books that draw a child to establish relationships in many directions – take an interest - be impressed – inspired – delighted – become absorbed – books that satisfy the efforts of attention that he must give to the reading - whether it is listening to a chapter read aloud or something he reads silently – in solitude? (In solitude one can be meditative.)
Please Miss Mason, will you choose the books for us?
Ahh, but alas, she tells us she will not. “I should not like to play [the part of] Sir Oracle. The One Hundred Best Books for the Schoolroom may be put down on a list, but not by me.” Instead, she lays out the principles for selecting books while she leaves “the far more difficult part, the application of those principles” to us.
Something to Think About
Firstly, “The children must enjoy the book,” she simply states. Look for signs in your child that the book is making a delightful impact or in some small way is giving some intellectual stir to the mind. Living books are alive with ideas that spark interest – that give us something to think about. Their characteristics create an atmosphere of learning that is pleasantly satisfying.
Endowed with Detail
The book needn’t always be a first-hand source. And we needn’t get hung up on whether it’s a short book or a long book, whether it is published in the 19th, 20th, or 21st century. The book is suitable providing it isn’t facts-only, that it is endowed with detail, that it is of literary language, is touched with emotion. It should carry away in the reader a feeling that “I’ve learned something new.” In the case of books let’s do get carried away. Maybe not today, but down the road, the student may by impulse pass on what he’s learned with a “guess what?”
A Prized Possession
Secondly Miss Mason thinks “we owe it to children to let them dig their knowledge . . . for themselves . . . for two reasons: What a child digs for is his own possession; what is poured into his ear, like an idle song of a pleasant singer, floats out as lightly as it came in, and is rarely assimilated.” A teacher needs only “give impulse and to order knowledge;” not to convey it. Teachers can “rouse their students with a appreciative look or word” but beware of a flood of talk. “Intellectual sympathy,” Miss Mason says, can be stimulating “but we have all been in the case of the little girl who said, ‘Mother, I think I would understand if you did not explain quite so much.’ ”
Knowledge is Personal
Here is where the value of narration enters the room – where a child puts the reading in his own words – orally or in writing. (This could fill another post.) With narration the child does the digging. The freedom to dig and delve makes knowledge a personal thing. (Chapters are dedicated to the art of narration in my purple book, A Charlotte Mason Companion.)
As a blogger I am always glad to hop by where children are being set in large rooms and are feeling at home in a world of books.
Over the last twenty years home teachers have expressed a desire for better schoolbooks. Better texts are being published. Three cheers. There is goodness and progress in the world, after all. Shall I tell you about some of them in future posts?
Miss Mason says a child is “in the world to lay hold of all that he can of those relationships proper to him so that he may live a full, happy, resourceful life with initiative and serviceableness.” Isn’t this what our educating efforts are about?
Happy New Year
During the holidays I spent time in School Education by Charlotte Mason (Charlotte Mason Research and Supply Co.) highlighting passages on pages 177, 228, 229, 231 in preparation for writing you this article. Those who are keen may visit these pages to read what surrounds my quotations. If I post less-often it is because it takes me awhile to carefully say what I think you will be encouraged by. I write by inches when it comes to Charlotte Mason.
You can tell that we took the photographs through the seasons over the last year or so. The snowy ones are recent. So are the ones Sophia emailed to me of our grandsons. Thanks for all your help with the photographs, Dean.
In order of appearance:
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
The Biggest Bear by Lynd Ward
Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and CD by Anna Harwell Cekenza
Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare for Children by E. Nesbitt
Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare for Children by E. Nesbitt
Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin