Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Short Lessons

Short Lessons

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

Golden Minutes
     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.  

Ephrata Cloister

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.

End Notes
Charlotte Mason, Home Education, C.M.R.& S. Co., 1989, page 146
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

Post Script
     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 had another surprise. As I happened to be reading Still Glides the Stream by Flora Thompson I fell upon a Victorian painting in the book. This illustration is so peaceful and sweet – I planned to scan it for use in the article with the title “Ample Leisure” while I was in the midst of writing. At the end of the week I received a card from a friend who lives across the Atlantic Ocean. On her card is the same painting. Thus, this photograph instead.
     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,
Karen Andreola


  1. What a beautiful visit to your blog today! I am truly inspired! Thank you! Have a blessed week ahead ~

  2. When I read your book so many years ago now, the biggest take away that immediately blessed me was the idea of short lessons!

    I have found it to be a very positive thing. It makes them not dread their work, and they are happy to move on to something else as well!

    I see in the last photo of you, the likeness to Yolanda. Rachel started her cello lessons this past week...I think Yolanda and she are going to be a good fit!


  3. Mrs. Andreola. This is just what I needed to hear. Thanks for the encouragement and the way you presented it.



  4. Thank you for this post about the attention span. I homeschooled two boys most of their homeschooling journey with fretting and conjoling over the whole page of problems and the unfinished text which represented ghastly "holes" in my children's education. I continue today in a gentler approach to education and life in general. We are all happier for it. I am grateful to you for your leadership in giving us an answer to the question "Isn't there a better way?"

  5. Thank you so much for sharing such a helpful article! I got my copy of your "Charlotte Mason Companion" book at my first homeschool convention almost 11 years ago. I have read and re-read it through the years, and yet I am always needing new inspiration for how to make Charlotte's educational philosophies work in our home. Thank you for continuing to be an inspiration!

    I also love all the beautiful flower photos in your post. The bleeding (or weeping) hearts have always been a favorite of mine, too.

  6. Karen,
    The flowers are lovely. Lupines are a particular favorite of mine. I think of Miss Rumphius whenever I see them.

    Many a July I would begin a schooling schedule only to find that there was not time enough in a day to accomplish all the differing pieces and assignments while protecting time for recreation, play, running a household, and sitting and staring.

    Your "cadillac curriculum" warning/admonishment is timely and appropriate. It is so easy to become enamoured with what everyone else is doing/using/studying. Thank you for the reminder that God makes individuals.

    Still, though my children have moved on to college, it helps me in my daily life to try to keep bright attention and to strive for excellence. When I attempt to clean the entire house, knit an entire project, or do all the laundry for long tedious periods of time, I find that my attention to detail lags, I feel grumpy, and there is less delight in living.

    Miss Mason's principles apply to all ages and stages!


  7. "Little steps have big consequences, by and by" - I think that sums up your wise reflections very nicely, Karen. And how true that is! Not just with the idea of short and varied lessons for the schoolchild, but also for the many small acts of kindness and mercy we can perform each day for one another. You can never know what impact you may have on others who observe your "small" actions of goodness. What is very often important to God seems of small moment to us here. Your post reminds me of these truths.
    Thank you for the pretty pictures of flowers - I especially love that white weeping heart! And I also enjoyed the coincidences you shared with us - those made me smile!
    I learn so much every time you share what is on your mind and heart with us. Thank you for that!

  8. How very encouraging! Thank you for the reminder to keep lessons short. I tend to want to see the page "completed"...(I still have so much to learn!) You're blog is such a source of encouragement to me as I continue to learn and strive to implement Ms Masons techniques.

    Wishing you His richest blessings,
    Sarah in MN

  9. Thanks for reminding us also to be careful with media. Sometimes, I am scared what effect media will have on the generation just growing up - they are surrounded by it like no generation before. I notice the attention span is really suffering.
    As to the lovely coincidences: when I discovered your blog last winter and enjoyed reading your archives, I came across the picture of two ladies feeding a swan on a frozen lake. I had never seen it before and found it so very beautiful. The next day, there was a tiny advent calendar on a card in my mailbox from a friend, featuring this very picture! It was on my writing desk all December, reminding me of your lovely blog and shared favourites.

  10. AHHHHH. So refreshing. Your photos and thoughts mingled with Charlotte's are just perfect!!! I've have Larkrise to Candleford on my to-read list for awhile now. Your card with that painting is beautiful...how neat! :)

  11. What lovely photos, Karen. Not only the flowers, but yourself! I really like your outfit - it's cute and feminine, but still casual and stylish! Did you make that denim skirt, or buy it?

    As for the main topic: Thank you for all your advice, as always. This is my first year homeschooling my 7 year old son full time, and keeping his attention is a real challenge. One thing I struggle with is media - it's easy to let my 3 year old son watch a DVD to keep him occupied while I'm doing lessons with his older brother, but then the older one gets distracted because he knows the video is on and tries to sneak peeks.

    I know tv and computer should be limited, but sometimes they are just so convenient. Add to that, the children of course love them, and my husband thinks it's cruel to remove the tv from our home entirely. So I wonder sometimes exactly how I should handle the situation. If you have any more specific advice on the topic of media in the home, I would love for you to do a post in the future.

  12. Your photos of the Ephrata Cloister bring back such fond memories. I spent many a spring and summer day there in my childhood. I am far from home now, but the beautiful flowers warmed my heart!
    Speaking of coincidences, my children and I are just reading Miss Rumphius, and we were thrilled to see the lupines, since ours haven't yet blossomed.
    Thank you for the lovely inspiration, and schooling encouragement!

  13. Thank you for your wise words which I found especially apt and helpful as the school year is wearing down along with the energy and enthusiasm of this mother. Reading your lovely blog almost always brings a sense of rest and renewal. Many thanks.

  14. I needed these gentle reminders as I try to get my students to "buckle down" and finish those last lessons before a summer break, and before I launch into planning for next year. In fact, I'm off to re-request Charlotte Mason's Homeschool Companion from the library. I am needing a refresher.

  15. Karen,

    Now I know why I pull out your book, Charlotte Mason Companion from time to time. It keeps me on track. And take this from a mother that started formal homeschooling her children in 1989! ( in other words I am not a rookie) Constant reminders are still needed.

    As far as the holes, there is absolutely no education out there that does not have holes. We are not in Heaven yet! But The Lord certainly does supply. You put it so beautifully about walking faithfully in what Christ has prepared for us

  16. As an avid photographer of flowers (strictly amateur!), I really enjoyed your pictures. The owners of the house we're renting have planted lots of purple perennials of all varieties, so we are reaping the benefits of their labors.

    As a reader of your books and blog, I have certainly reaped of your (and Miss Mason's) labors also. Thank you.

  17. Mrs. Andreola,

    Would you mind doing a post on activities for older children during the summer? I have 2 teenagers that have yet to succeed to find employment and I don't want them in front of screens or hanging at the mall all day. Oh, we live in an apartment in a sprawling metropolitan city. Thank you for even considering helping me.

    I've mentioned this before, bug I would love to read a 3rd installment of Carol's family!

  18. My appreciation goes out to all who took the time to comment.

    Lupines remind me of Maine in May and of Miss Rumphius, too. The illustration of her long hair, turned white at the temples, makes me feel normal.

    Yes, I begin to feel grumpy when I'm doing something for too long - mostly on occasions when I'm in the kitchen for 4 hours at a stretch - although how doing things in "batches" saves time later on.

    Aren't coincidences fun? The two ladies with swans is one of my favorites, too. I like their muffs. I have a black muff. It came in handy once when mittens alone were not enough for a very cold day.

    At age 4 my Nigel (in the photograph) would watch Mr. Roger's Neighborhood at 11 am in a separate room at the close of the activities we did together - in between - the lessons his sisters did with me. For preschool activities please visit the website Homeschool Highlights.com. You'll see, in the "articles" one on preschool suggestions.

    A good way too keep teens busy is to involve them in service of some kind. My children played music for nursing homes and church - thus rehearsals were necessary. They helped out with crafts and painting elaborate backdrops for VBS. When we had hospitality they helped with the cooking of food, the washing of dishes, and the sweeping of floors. One teen friend saw our little kitchen (not the open one I have now) and with a smile said, "Mrs. A. you have the messiest kitchen I've ever seen." I took it as a compliment because the food was good and the piles of pots and mixing bowls were proof that someone cared enough to let it get that messy for him.

    The skill of cooking meals is a most useful skill for anyone. Let teens choose a recipe, be creative, messy, and make mistakes (safely). This is good responsibility for them. Then sit down and be served, Mom.

    Thank you all for visiting,
    Karen A.

  19. I happened to drive a car with a sun roof a couple of years ago. I was spellbound/discomfitted by the gray hair that was throughout the top of my head. Who knew there was THAT much up there already? My mother's hair began graying when she was sixteen years old. By 40, she was completely gray. She tells me that once your hair turns gray, people think you stop aging!


  20. What beautiful pictures in this post! Your house looks amazing. I thank you for your words too. As I am beginning to consider our home studies for our next school year I am reminded again that I would like to do a better job at what Miss Mason advised - a variety of subjects in shorter chunks. Don't know why that is so hard for me to do sometimes! Thank you for the encouragement on your blog.

  21. I have been intrigued by the Charlotte Mason style of education for quite sometime. I have read your books, "The Charlotte Mason Companion", and "Pocketful of Pinecones". We also used "Story Starters" this past school year and loved it!
    I am not one that has been "doing" a Charlotte Mason style education in our little homeschool consistantly. However, I am always pulled towards her ideas.
    I just started a blog about our family's homeschool, and yours was the first blog I listed as one of my favorites.
    Coming to visit your blog always inspires me. You have such a beautiful way of sharing with your readers.