Thursday, August 11, 2011

Yielding the Chair to Miss Charlotte Mason

Yielding the Chair to Miss Charlotte Mason

When a mother takes on the responsibility of home educating she is thrown upon her own resources. It can be daunting. Naturally she seeks practical advice. How-to articles and curriculum guides meet immediate needs. Here is something else a home teacher will find helpful.

Education is something to understand as much as it is something to do.

When I ran my new slogan by my pen-friend in a paper letter she responded sturdily, “Yes, I don’t do school like I do the laundry or do dishes.” I smiled at her analogy. Having been pen-friends for nearly twenty years we don’t saunter across our stationary as softly as we once did. I appreciate her blunt truth because . . .only with an understanding of education will “how to” take on perspective.

Victorian Schoolmaster Model
Let’s look at how teachers secure attention and get work done. In one chair we have the intimidating Victorian Schoolmaster Model. It relies on subtle threats, grades, place, the classroom lecture, textbooks with facts mainly to be memorized, continual testing, after-hours homework, and competition – shamelessly. Today’s schoolmaster is a character that may not be as recognizably villainous as those portrayed for us in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens or in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. The force, however, of this underlining Victorian method lingers with us today. It is all too common.  

The Play Way
In another chair we have the “play way.” Miss Mason says, “We give them a ‘play way’ and play is altogether necessary and desirable but it is not the avenue which leads to mind.” *1 Well meaning teachers use puppets, jokes, flashy DVDs with second by second interludes of information brightly clothed in slap-stick or song-and-dance. Praise, prizes, fun-and-games also are used to lure, trick and entertain a student into paying attention. But these interrupt a child’s train of thought.

The Way of Interest
Enter Miss Charlotte Mason with a method she initiated more than one hundred years ago. She quickly concluded that the Victorian method and the “play way” both presume that children have little curiosity. Yet, as a young woman curiosity was the first quality Miss Mason observed in children. Therefore, how do we secure a child’s attention to do his lessons? It’s simple. We put into his hands and heart books that are interesting. Isn’t it the simplest things in life that get overlooked?

Interest is a little pearl of great value in education.

Living Books
Miss Mason noted that Great Britain could boast a wealth of literary genius yet the schoolbooks were as dry as dust. Rather than lecture, a teacher who followed her method read aloud from books of literary quality, books that were alive with ideas, books whose authors had a passion for their subject, some with a story aspect to them. “Mind must come into contact with mind through the medium of ideas,” she says.*2 Ideas are found in living books. With a step of faith she made these living books the children’s schoolbooks.

The Kind of Book
Placing into a curriculum the exact titles of the old books mentioned as examples by Miss Mason in her original writings isn’t necessary. It seems to be a safe choice made by teachers new to her philosophy. I started this way. As my understanding grew, however, and as I later learned that Miss Mason herself was often replacing books and always keeping an eye out for newly written books, I confidently ventured out to choose books that fit her description of the kind of book she recommends. I believe that confident “venturing out” is what she is imploring us to do. 

I still remember a certain summer afternoon when my children were little. I was resting in a lawn chair (sigh) under a shade tree turning the pages of a book catalog, making a wish list. My children were busily occupied before me. They were kneeling beside a large plastic tub of sand with the garden hose nearby making sand cities. It crossed my mind what a wonderful wealth of choices even a discriminating educator has compared to yester-year. How joyfully amazed Charlotte Mason would be, I was thinking, to see the array of children’s books and audio available. Years later, as I write this post (and the catalogs are many times larger) I wonder if such an array of resources would ever have been imagined in the wildest dreams of a 19th century educator. Choices need not be overwhelming but rather a pleasure, when we know the kind of book to look for.

The Art of Knowing
Such vivifying books enabled Miss Mason’s students to narrate what was read (after a single reading). By their narration they were putting the reading in their own words, “giving it forth again with just that little touch that comes from one’s own mind” said Miss Parrish, one of Miss Mason’s teachers.*3 Children narrated from their lovely books, rather than exclusively recite from memorization, cram for tests or stay up late with homework. Miss Mason called narration “the act of knowing.” *4 Her aim was knowledge for its own sake - not information crammed the night before for a test and soon forgotten.

Narrating “demands a conscious mental effort from the scholar” Miss Mason said.*5 With this method a child’s mind follows a train of thought, develops powers of imagination, exercises verbal skills. It does the sorting, arranging, sequencing for itself – those things a teacher’s lecture or a workbook page typically take responsibility for. 

Questions and Concerns
Is it okay for young students to gain skill in the three Rs with puppets, games, songs etc, as a light treat? Yes. I treated my children lightly. Supplementary games and songs can serve as review, which in the nature of its repetition is less interesting.

Is it okay to give a student a workbook page or grades? Freely incorporate what you decide are your family’s “musts.” It is when either the Victorian Model or the Play Way dominate that learning suffers. It can be a bit of a balancing act to preserve the way of interest. But when it is preserved it draws both teacher and student pleasantly and gently forward. This is one reason I call it “The Gentle Art of Learning.”

What do you find of interest in your home school, my friend?

End Notes: 
1. A Philosophy of Education by Charlotte Mason, Charlotte Mason Research & Supply,    Quarryville, PA, page 38 - volume six of The Original Home Schooling Series.
2. Phil of Ed, pg 39
3. The Story of Charlotte Mason by Essex Cholmondeley* PNEU, London, 1960, page 125.
4. Phil of Ed, pg 99
5. Phil of Ed, Pg 159

*The Story of Charlotte Mason by Esssex Cholmodeley is an account of the work of the PNEU (Parent’s National Educational Union) with an emphasis on its founder. Click to enlarge. 

Thank you, Nigel, for fixing up the "chairs" on photoshop. 

Composed with the desire of offering you a revitalizing nugget to start your school year,
Karen Andreola


  1. Although, ever since discovering Charlotte Mason (through your Companion) so many years ago I fully embraced and understood the philosophy of the gentle art of learning, there have been times when I have done a pendulum swing for a season. Because of weariness or business I've allowed the workbooks and timed drills to master a moment. Then we would swing the other direction (out of guilt maybe) and spend a bit of time in play mode. Truthfully, if you really understand in the deepest heart of you, why you teach the gentle way, These swings are easily brought back on track and are even peppered in the midst of the moment with a proper philosophy and lot's of 'good' reading.

    I love learning and recognized immediately that despite many of my teachers different methods, this was how I had learned best as a young person and still do now. So, I love your new quote... Because it really is about 'understanding' as much as it is 'doing'.

    Blessings, Debbie

  2. Thank you. I am revitalized now and must go back and incorporate more of Miss Mason's ideas. I was going with mostly textbooks this year with our unit study but I have been feeling out of sorts and rushed for time with all of this Victorian school, no play and no Charlotte Mason as of yet.

    Thank you.
    I will be writing a post soon, is it okay to quote you and send a link to here? Please let me know.


  3. A friend's five year old child is scheduled to begin kindergarden today. My friend thinks she wants to homeschool, but is filled with fears and doubts. I have given her directions to your blog, Karen.

    Fear is certainly paralyzing. Miss Mason's methods helped me to overcome my fears. I'm hoping my friend will find the same relief.


  4. Last week I started rereading one of the volumes--just a few pages at a time to help me keep the right focus this year. Reading it slowly during the school year keeps me inspired when my enthusiasm starts to flag. And I learn something, too.

    Your memory of the shady tree also reminds me to enjoy the last weeks of the summer.


  5. well said and wonderfully written Karen.

    {love the chairs:)

    I love the first quote you shared and I'm bookmarking it.

    btw,I'm almost finished with Lessons at Blackberry Inn.

    I just have one thing...

    I do hope you are planning on writing again...I would be in a tissy if it all ended here:)

    Much Love,

  6. Karen,thanks for your prompt and much appreciated response to my email. I did read your article about narration, and I am sold on the idea. I can't wait to put it to use. However, I have a few questions: Should the book be read aloud to the child before he/she narrates, or is narration also used after independent reading? My almost-nine-year-old is read to for storytime, but he also reads independently. With the Charlotte Mason approach to learning, are 9 year olds read to during school lessons?

    Also, thanks for recommending your book. I plan to purchase it soon.

    And one more thing. How old are your children? I'm just curious because it seems like you have a wealth of information about homeschooling, and I could learn a lot from you.

    God's Blessings,

  7. Sounds like Mrs.Mason was a very wise woman...thanks for sharing...blessings

  8. Thank you, Karen, for the reminder of the simplicity of a CM approach! As a former public school teacher, I struggle especially at the beginning of the school year with making things so official. I so feel the Lord's leading with this post and a couple of articles from your other site I printed off and reread. I thought you'd like to know that this is the SECOND time my husband read one of your articles and said, "You should read this every week." Enough said. :) Thank you! Claudia

  9. Oh Karen, after seventeen years of this attempt at gentle learning, I still feel like a failure. Nonetheless, "real life" on the farm has been a tremendous way to learn, but I am forever ashamed at my lack of reading good literature, even though I KNOW we ought to be reading more. Funny, in a household of ten, it is my seventeen yo son reading aloud books like Freckles and Jane Erye. If it weren't for him...
    thanks for the "revitalizing nugget"!
    Farmhouse blessings~

  10. Christi,
    Please feel free to quote me favorably. I am honored by your request. It is good to know that my post gave you some revitalizing ideas for your home teaching - ideas that you may wish to share with others.
    Karen A.

  11. Ladies, Good questions are being sent to my email. This gives me a nudge to create a post on the topic of narration.

    Narrating begins by reading aloud to a child (a page or two) for him to give an oral narration. This would be recommended for a new narrator who is age 9. The children should begin narrating no younger than six.
    After a time you may take dictation of his narration. He will like very much to hear you read it aloud to him. Passages that increase in length a little can eventually be read from a history lesson or from science or a good piece of fiction. I would ask for a narration from all three of these, rotating.
    At some stage you can write out neatly what was dictated to you so that your student can copy his little narration into his notebook and add illustrations.

    My book "Story Starters" outlines the use of narration - oral and written - on four skill levels. What I outlined for creative writing is applicable to narrating from any well-written schoolbook.

    Reading from good books and narrating may not seem like "schoolwork" but it is immeasurably more educational than we are apt to give it credit for.

    Time to step outside for some sunshine,
    Karen A.

  12. How fun to find Christi and Debbie here!

    Karen, as always you are so encouraging. I am enjoying so immensely the time I have with Rachel, Sarah and Kyle - a chance to "do" this method again...hopefully better than with my older students. I have always felt my children had a tremendous foundation because of Charlotte Mason and because of you, and your wonderful book.

    Are you up to tea sometime soon?


  13. Karen,
    A wonderful and inspiring post! We love our "Charlotte Mason kind" of books and are thankful for those who put together wonderful lists from which to choose. Interestingly, I was working through Simply Grammar with my son today and mentioned that Story Starters was also written by you and, remembering it from years past, he exclaimed, "I love that book!" We will revisit it again soon I'm sure!

  14. Thank you for this encouraging post Karen. I love the idea of "gently learning" and I love how you "gently lead" us in that direction. Your faith is inspiring! Your blog is like sitting in an Adirondack chair in the shade with a sweet breeze of fresh air blowing by!

  15. Dear Karen,

    Thanks so much for your blog and sharing your friendship with your readers. I've been enjoying your blog over the past year. The insights on both homeschooling and homemaking have been both inspiring, encouraging, and relaxing! Due to one of your past blogs, our family now has sprouted lentils or sprouted quinoa on our menu regularly! And a long winter in bed due to a chronic illness was made much brighter when you introduced me to the delightful inhabitants of Lark Rise and Candleford. Although I don't knit (yet), an old desire to crochet has been re-awakened, resulting in a soon to be completed blanket. Your books are often read treasures, giving a little guidance here, a little redirection there. Thanks for the refreshment and encouragement, for sharing yourself with others, and for the moments with Mother Culture!
    Blessings, Denise

  16. Karen,

    Thank you for this post. I am new to homeschooling my children. We spent the last year trying to find our way and have settled closer to Charlotte Mason's methods. They just feel right to me. This was exactly what I needed to remind me why I'm doing what I am doing.


  17. Karen~
    Just received my copy of "Lessons at Blackberry Inn", today. I love the beautiful style in which you wrote it...and I am afraid to admit...I may have been born at the wrong time!
    Just found your blog and the book through my sweet friend Amanda over at Homegrown and Beyoutiful.
    Looking forward to reading your blog and being encouraged.
    Love, Kristin