Monday, February 10, 2014

An Alternative to the Grammar School Grind

An Alternative to the Grammar School Grind

     What an icy winter. Pottering around an ominously quiet house during the power outage, I kept hearing an eerie sound. Crack. Snap. Thud. The tops of trees broke under the weight of snow and ice, and fell to the forest floor – all morning. 

February sun-catcher - A homemade gift found in a friend's paper letter 

     Our prettiest maple is bowed but not broken. This is how I feel, in February too, sometimes. 

Our bowed maple iced over

     Snug indoors I’ve been turning the pages of very different sorts of books. I keep meeting coincidences. Evidently, sympathetic minds think alike.

Charles Dickens Hard Times
Some winter reading

     After wading through a tedious introduction in Hard Times, where a literary critic warns of it being dark and the weakest of Charles Dickens’ novels, I ventured forth half-heartedly. By chapter-two the pages went limp in my hand. No, I won’t put myself through the depression – not in winter, I decided.

     I closed the book. But I couldn’t ignore Mr. Thomas Gradgrind. He is worth knowing for the pride he takes in a straightforward emphasis to education. The emphasis is familiar to us today – 150 years later! Miss Charlotte Mason refers to it as the “grammar school grind.” 

Highlights of Chapter-one:

     “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to the Facts, Sir!” . . .
. . . The speaker’s obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders, - nay, this very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was, - all helped the emphasis. . .
. . . The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim. *1

Colonial blue stairway - front hall
Late afternoon sun through the transom shines on a print by Bonnie White 

Only One Kind of Food
     On the academic assembly line facts take first place. Convenient for testing, they streamline the business in big classrooms, big schools. Memorize this heap of facts and you’ve really learned something - is the claim. Would these educators find it appalling that their philosophy is akin to Mr. Gradgrind? Probably not.

A paper heart borrowed from a keepsake home school folder dated 1992

     Miss Charlotte Mason believed that knowledge is a state of being, like friendship. I found this concept to be tantalizingly interesting when I first read it. To be knowledgeable is a little like being in love.

On closer inspection you see the hall painting is a cheery winter scene

Oh, I like this red wooden clapboard house
     To become knowledgeable we must have food-for-thought. Yet school children are served meager rations of food-for-thought. What they get instead are dry facts and information. “The mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows and is nourished upon ideas only; mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body,” says Miss Mason.*2

     Along with Charles Dickens, Charlotte Mason finds the Gradgrinds to be unwitting antagonists.  She asks her readers to, “Look at any publisher’s list of school books and you will find that the books recommended are carefully . . . drained of the least suspicion of an idea, reduced to the driest statements of fact.” She sought to put children directly in touch with the best thoughts of the best minds. When is school boring? When once-curious children are left starving for something to think about.

winter chores
Will he skate with the other children after chores?

 “The mind feeds on ideas and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.”
“Varied reading “as well as human thought expressed in the forms of art, is not a luxury, a tid-bit, to be given to children now and then, but their very bread of life, which they must have in abundant portions and at regular periods.” *3

Padding the Facts
     Facts are needed. My son loves science facts – still. Yet, there are different ways of dealing with them. One is to memorize as many as possible. This is accomplished with incentives: grades, games, competition, prizes, awards, food and entertainment.
A curious rabbit lives dangerously
     There is a better way.

     Clothe facts in literary language. Living books, with their “great amount of padding,” are necessary for giving children the opportunity to dig out facts for themselves. Books of literary power have, too, a sprinkling of ideas - woven neatly and colorfully, often by way of a story-aspect. Children find them interesting.  
     Let’s delve. Let’s look into the background of the discoveries in history and science. Let’s consider the interpretations of creative minds through: prose, poetry, music, plays, painting, sculpture, or architecture. The “great amount of padding” gives us something to think - and care - about.  

nature notebook in winter
Yolanda's nature notebook when drawing subjects were scarce

Fact Detection
     In a journal entry dated November 13, 1958, the American teacher John Holt, wrote, “Kids have trouble with arithmetic, not only because they have to memorize a host of facts that seem to have no pattern, meaning, or interest, but also because they are given a host or rules for manipulating these facts, which they have to take on faith. . . .” He found the Cuisenaire rods helpful. Not only do they “enable the child to discover, by himself, how to carry out certain operations, but also that they enable him to satisfy himself that these operations really work, really describe what happens.”

     Charlotte Mason and John Holt opened their eyes to how the streamline teach-and-test method is a routine that hinders real learning. Mr. Holt saw symptoms of the grammar school grind in his classroom. “I have . . . seen children crank out right answers to problems without the faintest idea of what they were doing. They are blind recipe followers. Some can even parrot back my explanations, but again without knowing what they mean.” *4 He gives us an illustration. What good is it if a child can memorize all the names of the streets in his town – yet is not given - and cannot follow - a route from one place to another? To pile facts one on top of another doesn’t mean we are empowering children with useful knowledge. 

Pocketful of Pinecones
Sophia's water color of a scene from A Pocketful of Pinecones

The Art of Knowing
     In his June 20, 1960 entry, John Holt suggests a handful of unconventional ways for testing understanding. You can imagine my a-ha moment when I read what was first on the list. Most obvious to him was to “ask the student to state something in his own words.”*5 The Charlotte-Mason-minded reader is giving a nod of her head. It is by narrating that children do the work of digging out facts and ideas. The effort a student puts into forming a narration self-teaches – and it demonstrates understanding. You can see the beauty of how and why this works in the narration chapters of A Charlotte Mason Companion. 

     My children also enjoyed hands-on learning. Drawing is a kind of narration. Nature study is hands-on. So is doing a phonics lesson with movable letters and understanding math concepts with math manipulatives. This keeps the lessons light and meaningful.

     Touch, hold, move, create, build, experiment, try this out, is learning by doing. While the doing is “hands-on” the mind is “right-on”:

I wonder. . .
What does this make?
If I do this . . .
How would this work?
I’ll try this.
Will it work again if I . . ?
Oh, I see.

     "Mom. Look. I made j-e-t,” says the little boy pointing to his movable letters – a little boy who finds cause and effect - magical. The same little boy takes a measuring tape his mother gives him from out of her sewing box and bee-bops around the house with it, measuring things and calling out the number of inches to her. Can you tell I’ve been getting reports on the telephone about my grandson?

Nigel's quick pencil sketch 

Persons, Not Parrots
     Children are persons - not parrots. I can’t resist sharing one more coincidence with you from my winter reading. 

     In Jonathan and Sarah I was met with the subject of fact-swallowing yet again. Further back in time, in the mid 18th century, Jonathon Edwards was investigating the school situation within his realm of responsibility. He was concerned when he discovered that the Mohawk Indians, who were being taught to read English, had no comprehension. The children could “read words accurately but with no sense of their meaning. He was fired with a vision to start a method of teaching reading according to his own ideas . . . His logical mind balked at parrot learning. He felt more time should be spent helping the children understand thoughts.”

     In his own words Jonathan Edwards (who later became the president of Princeton University) says,

“This will be a rational way of teaching. Assisting the child’s reason enables him to see the use, and end, and result of reading, at the same time that he takes pains from day to day to read. It is the way also to accustom the child from its infancy to think and reflect, and beget in it an early taste for knowledge, and a regular increasing appetite for it.” *6

     I rejoiced in these coincidences.
foggy day, Valentine sun catcher
A corner of the parlor during the power-outage - The green is so appreciated
     Keep sauntering through your living books with their “great amount of padding” (Miss Mason’s words) and other learning experiences. It is a labor of love due by-and-by to show itself in happy consequences. 

Give us this day our daily bread.

Karen Andreola

End Notes
Click any image to enlarge. 

*1  Charles Dickens, Hard Times, 1854, Chapter One
*2  Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, 1925, page 105
*3  Ibid, page 111
*4  John Holt, How Children Fail, Dell Pub, 1964, page 107
*5  Ibid, page136
*6  Edna Gerstner, Jonathon and Sarah – An Uncommon Union - A Novel Based on the Family of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards (The Stockbridge Years, 1750-1758), Soli Deo Gloria Pub, 1995 (out-of-print) pages 45 - 46


  1. How timely this post is for me. Homeschool has lost it's luster this year, and I have been pondering if it would be best to put the kids in school. What I realize now is that we have had too much fact-work and a terrible lack of food-for-thought! Thank you for the reminder. :)

  2. Dear Karen,
    Good for you-pushing through Hard Times! I can't tell you how many times I tried and just gave up that particular read. I appreciate your sage words--narration is still our proven method here for finding out what is sticking:-) Lovely post--lots of meat to chew on. Thank you for writing.

  3. Karen, this homeschool momma needed to read this today. Thank you for sharing Miss Mason's legacy, and for encouraging those of us who are "still in the trenches" of training and educating our blessings. :)

  4. Dear Karen, We are in the midst of some very February-ish days around here too. The cold is penetrating and unrelenting. My husband and I were discussing the gloomy feeling that can sometimes pervade. We talked about embracing the special situations that February offers: snuggly blankets and bathrobes all day long, beautiful cardinals against the brown (or white), the joy of seeing the robins return, candlelight, those beautiful, lacy tracings in the frozen birdbath. This year, we have a small flock of juncos that have settled in our yard. They are a joy. My great-nieces are not schooled at home, so Snow Days are a particularly anticipated and enjoyed occurrence. To everything there is a season...

    I'm not much of a beach girl, but of late, I'm finding myself dreaming of hot sand shaped into just the right chair and warm sunshine. There is no hot sand to be found here, but the sun IS shining beautifully (if not so warmly) this morning!


  5. This kind of writing is why your books were always near and dear when we were homeschooling. :)

    I hadn't heard of that novel about Jonathon and Sarah. One of my all time favorite biographies is Marriage to a Difficult Man, about their family.

  6. Karen,

    I love this post! I so long to encourage mothers to let their children learn in real and natural ways!

    I am thankful for the Lord bringing your 'purple' book my way so many years ago now. It was just what we needed to be set on the path of real education.

    Love to you all!

  7. I would consider it an honor if you would be my friend. I live in Canada and have followed your blog for some years now. I just started a blog about my journey implementing the philosophy of Charlotte Mason in our homeschooling. Thankyou for your encouragement.

  8. Hi Karen, I have loved and lived this beautiful philosophy of education, very awkardly, for many years. I wonder if you could write again an article that would give some concrete way to apply it in the day-to-day? I still feel pulled by the curriculum and the internal fear that I am not 'teaching' enough for them to 'learn'! After 32 years wouldn't you think I wouldn't be threatened by things like tests or subjects or an organized syllabus :) ... and of course, the school system in the US the way it is - so much pressure to conform. Only yesterday, I discovered my 10 year old had been trying to grasp an algebra problem in Saxon 54. 10 + x = 20 (or something like it!)... How can a young child think abstractly yet? She looked at the problem and asked me what the value of 'x' is thinking all the letters are a certain number - ugh! There was also a trig problem with shapes as the unknown. How do we moms let go and let ourselves be the teachers who serve our children who are all unique and really are children first of all. I think the joy goes out of schooling when we try to keep up with someone else's criteria, yes? My daughter and I have been trying to memorize this poem from Emma Serl's Intermediate Language Lessons ~ perhaps this is an answer ...

    True worth is in being, not seeming; In doing each day that goes by .. Some little good; not in the dreaming .. Of great things to do by and by. For whatever men say in their blindness,.. And spite of the fancies of youth,.. There's nothing so kingly as kindness, .. and nothing so royal as truth. (Nobility by Alice Cary)

    With love, Mary Lou

  9. What a LOVELY, colorful post!!! It made me smile!! I'm currently reading Bleak House S-L-O-W-L-Y after seeing the BBC movie series...


  10. Hi Karen...your poor tree. :( Our snow is mostly melted. We had only ten hours without power; I understand many in PA have been without for extended days. I pray you have kept warm. The winter rains we're used to here in the PNW have returned, and today was 56 degrees. Wow! I wore a t-shirt and light sweater while driving my son to piano lessons this afternoon.

    Thank you for the encouragement your posts always provide, such a balm to this mom.


    Lisa :)

  11. It is a joy to know that the subject of this post encouraged you. Thank you.

    Speaking of robins. They usually do not arrive here until mid-March. (I annually make note of the first day I spot one). So I was surprised to see a whole flock of robins at the post office. Deep snow covers the ground so the birds hopped about the roof and from branch to branch on a nearby cedar hedge - where - I have to report I spied a WHITE ROBIN. He's back - or his relative is. Fun.

    Making a Canadian friend would be a pleasure.

    If the method or our efforts is much different than what we were accustomed to experienced in our formative years, we are bound to feel awkward. A strange haunting feeling may even linger through the years as we continue to do things one way while a myriad of others around us are doing things another way.

    Traditional schooling claims to be "the norm". It finds security in a paper trail. We know that we are accomplishing far more in the souls of our children than any paper trail can show - such as the example of "nobility". Sweet.

    I give a peek (small window indeed) of how one family manages the CM method in Lessons at Blackberry Inn.

    Glad for your visit,
    Karen A.

  12. Hooray! A white robin! I have never seen one with my own two eyes...


  13. A lovely and intersting post ,and I think you know how much I enjoy getting the little peeks into your beautiful home.....blessings

  14. Your sun catcher is festive, and darling hanging from your window:-)

    I'm very sad to hear about your tree. I spotted the cardinals here this past Sunday. I will try to send them your way;-)

    This post contains a lot of food for thought for the home teaching mama.

    First, I enjoyed the shot of your winter reading.

    Your right. To become knowledgeable, we must have food for thought. Which explains why the mind feeds off new ideas.

    And speaking of new ideas, it was interesting to learn of Mr. Holts ideas on children and arithmetic. It seems like Mr. Holt and Miss Mason share plenty in common.

    Yes, I can tell you are a proud grandmother. And if I won't offend Mr. Andreola, I will go as far to say that it's rather "cute". :-) Along with all the sketches you share.

    Children are persons. How often we forget this in the grind of not only grammar, but sadly, life.

    Just a moment of Mother Culture today here seems to have given me a hushed whisper and rest for my home educating soul. Praying for your well being.

    Love from the backwoods,