Monday, May 27, 2013

If children are people, how then should we educate them?

Or, Some Random Thoughts on Charlotte Mason’s Second Principle. J
As I read the assignments for Principle #2, it seemed to me that the ideas that are being emphasized are in direct answer to Principle #1.  If children are ‘born persons’ – human beings with souls, created in the Divine Image, how then should we educate them?
In her Philosophy of Education, Charlotte contends that the point of education is moral at its base – to cultivate virtue.   This can only be done when education is kept in its ‘rightful place’ as the ‘handmaiden of religion’.  The two go hand in hand – with Biblical teaching and the work of the Holy Spirit in each individual person being of first importance with a broad, idea-filled education coming alongside.   I like how the folks over at the CiRCE Institute define education:
EDUCATION is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty. It should be distinguished from training (for a career), which is of eternal value but is not the same thing as education. CHRISTIAN EDUCATION is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty …so that, in Christ, the student is enabled to better know, glorify, and enjoy God.
I think this is what Charlotte Mason was trying to do as well.   So how does she recommend we do this?   A few ideas gleaned from my reading on this Principle:
  • Charlotte insists on a broad, idea-filled education – a feast richly spread:

This education of the feelings, moral education, is too delicate and personal a matter for a teacher to undertake trusting to his own resources. Children are not to be fed morally like young pigeons with predigested food. They must pick and eat for themselves and they do so from the conduct of others which they hear of or perceive. But they want a great quantity of the sort of food whose issue is conduct, and that is why poetry, history, romance, geography, travel, biography, science and sums must all be pressed into service. No one can tell what particular morsel a child will select for his sustenance. One small boy of eight may come down late because "I was meditating upon Plato and couldn't fasten my buttons," and another may find his meat in 'Peter Pan'! But all children must read widely, and know what they have read, for the nourishment of their complex nature. As for moral lessons, they are worse than useless; children want a great deal of fine and various moral feeding, from which they draw the 'lessons' they require…and, alas, we are aware of certain vulgar commonplace tendencies in ourselves which make us walk delicately and trust, not to our own teaching, but to the best that we have in art and literature and above all to that storehouse of example and precept, the Bible, to enable us to touch these delicate spirits to fine issues.”  (A Philosophy of Education, p.59)

  • She also speaks at length about the possibilities of ‘good and evil’ in intellectual life.  We feed the ‘good’ through feeding the mind and imagination with living, literary ideas, presented in such a way that knowledge is valued for its own sake.  We feed the ‘bad’ by the mind-numbing techniques so often seen in typical schools (in her day as well as ours): too much “talky-talky” by the teacher, questionnaires, books devoid of ideas, etc.  This leads to children who are capable and may even like school, but who are bored and lacking in original thoughts. 
  • Following on from that, another defense of a broad literary education is that it promotes the development of the ‘moral imagination’ which gives the basis for sound thinking and judgement as well as the ability to form one’s own opinion rather than being swayed by popular opinion.  (I’m still just beginning to explore this idea of the moral imagination – this is a great introduction if you are intrigued as well.  Listen to the Andrew Pudewa talk linked there if you can too!)  
  • Charlotte also talks about how education touches our souls, which she contends “long for God” – the proverbial God-shaped vacuum.  She says that our children will gain knowledge of God ‘by degrees’ and that “the great thoughts of great thinkers illuminate children and they grow in knowledge, chiefly the knowledge of God.”  (A Philosophy of Education, p.65).   In many other places, she also acknowledges the involvement of the Holy Spirit  in this process as well. 

Bottom line: Character is formed by a combination of factors: life experiences, education, the work of the Holy Spirit, etc.  As parents, we are in a special and unique position to help our children (working with, not against their natural personalities and dispositions) to go in the ‘way they should go’. We can do this by recognizing we are ALL under God’s authority, and that the Holy Spirit can and will speak to each person (adult and child alike) individually.  We should make a point to understand our children and sympathetically and wisely point them in the right direction.  The atmosphere of the home and the presentation of life-giving ideas are also part of the parent’s task in raising children.  With all of these things, we are sowing seeds and pointing our children toward the Savior.   
And ultimately, we must entrust the harvest to Him.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Quotes Worth Pondering: Children are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and evil...

(This is Charlotte Mason’s second principle of education.   In case this sets off theological alarms for you, I encourage you to look at the full context.   This blog post does a good job at examining the context, and she links to several other good posts that discuss the theological ramifications of CM’s statement.  I encourage you to check these articles out if you are concerned that Charlotte Mason’s ideas may not jive with your understanding of the doctrine of original sin or total depravity.)
Some of the ideas I am chewing on as we continue on with the Charlotte Mason 20 Principles Study:
Towards a Philosophy of Education (Volume 6), Charlotte Mason:
“It is our business to know of what parts and passions a child is made up, to discern the dangers that present themselves, and still more the possibilities of free-going in delightful paths.” (p.47)
“…a child’s amazing, vivifying imagination is part and parcel of his intellect.” (p.50)
“As for literature – to introduce children to literature is to install them in a very rich and glorious kingdom, to bring a continual holiday to their doors, to lay before them a feast exquisitely served.”  (p.51)
“Some spasmodic effort is the result but no vital response and, though boys and girls love school, like their teachers and even their lessons, they care not at all for knowledge, for which the school should create enthusiasm.”  (p.52)
“The only safeguard against fallacies which undermine the strength of the nation morally and economically is a liberal education which affords a wide field for reflection and comparison and abundant data upon which to found sound judgments.”  (p.56)
“It is no small part of education to have seen much beauty, to recognize it when we see it, and to keep ourselves humble in its presence.”  (p.56)
“But all children must read widely, and know what they have read, for the nourishment of their complex nature.”  (p.59)
“In such ways the great thoughts of great thinkers illuminate children and they grow in knowledge, chiefly the knowledge of God.”  (p.65)
For the Children’s Sake, Susan Schaeffer Macaulay
“ The first task of education is a moral one…” (p.43)
“Children can be helped to acquire the habit of treating others as they should.  This habit of respecting persons, thinking of them, and being polite is fostered when the child himself is used to consideration, time, and care.  It is a two-way matter.”  (p.45)
“We help children when we spend time on understanding them.” (p.46).
“Charlotte herself, though, called education the handmaid of Religion. She believed that education could offer real, tangible assistance to the progress of the work of the Gospel, but she never believed it replaced the Gospel.”
“God gives us the honor of sowing seeds and helping to prepare the ground. A child that knows grammar and logic and rhetoric will be more able to understand the Gospel when she reads it or hears it, because he is more able to understand anything he reads and hears. Education, being the handmaid of Religion, has a rightful place in preparing the ground and sowing seeds.”
Parents and Children (Volume 2), Charlotte Mason:
The child brings with him into the world, not character, but disposition. He has tendencies which may need only to be strengthened, or, again, to be diverted or even repressed. His character––the efflorescence of the man wherein the fruit of his life is a-preparing––is original disposition, modified, directed, expanded by education; by circumstances; later, by self-control and self-culture; above all, by the supreme agency of the Holy Ghost…” (p.23)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Family Reading #9

Picture Book Highlights
Jan Brett’s Honey, Honey, Lion has been frequently coming through the rotation (fantastic book for sound effects, as well as Jan Brett’s beautifully detailed artwork). Elizabeth has also discovered my pile of Golden Books (my pile, as in they were mine when I was little girl), and has especially enjoyed The Poky Little Puppy.   (Michelle has enjoyed the Mother Goose Rhymes book, and has been copying, illustrating, and singing them…especially “Georgie Porgie who kissed the girls and made them cry”.  Not sure what I should think about that!!)
Michelle’s Reading (Age 7-1/2)
In the last 2 weeks, she has read through 4 of the books in the Betsy series by Carolyn Haywood, B is for Betsy, Betsy at the Circus, Betsy’s Little Star, and Snowbound with Betsy.  These were favorites of mine as a child, and favorites of my mother’s before me.  Yes, the third generation in our family to enjoy these sweet stories.  I’d say they have a similar reading level to The Boxcar Children books.  Now she's reading Little House in the Big Woods
Featured School Book
Still loving AO Year 1.  This week we read our first selection from Parables from Nature.  Actually we listened to the audio version while following along, since I had laryngitis last week (fun, huh?)  This is one of the more challenging reading selections and I had intended to break the reading into two parts.  But she insisted we keep going until the end, and she narrated well.   We tried to read a bit of this book last year and it was still too challenging for her to really get into.  It’s exciting to see progress like this!  We have this audio version which was well done and enjoyable to listen to…even though I’ve recovered from laryngitis, I think we’ll continue to use it just to mix things up a bit.
Bedtime Reading
We’re reading The Runaway’s Revenge, part of the Trailblazer series by Dave and Neta Jackson.  This volume is historical fiction about John Newton.  When Michelle was dithering over her choice for our next read-aloud, I mentioned to her this was a story about the man who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”.   Her response:  “Well if it’s about the guy who wrote ‘Amazing Grace’, then I want to read THAT!”   We’re enjoying it. 
On Mama’s Nightstand
Too much, as usual. Notable books finished fairly recently: The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and At the Foot of the Snows.  Currently in Progress: you already know that I’m participating in the 20 Principles Study over on the AO Forum – this consists of a reading assignment every other week from Charlotte Mason’s Volume 6 A Philosophy of Education, For the Children’s Sake, and several other supporting readings from other CM Volumes or the CM blogosphere.  This will be ongoing for the rest of the year.   Really, really good stuff (follow along with some of my thoughts here).   I’m also in a book discussion group over there reading The Scarlet Pimpernel – let’s just say that I am having to exercise a lot of restraint not to read ahead of our group’s schedule (we won’t finish the book until July!).  So many twists and turns and intrigues.   When I need something in between reading assignments, I am dipping into Les Miserables (novel in English), Une Famille aux Petits Oignons (novel in French), or Family Vocation (nonfiction).

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Nature Study Monday: On Nature Journaling

Michelle has just about finished filling in her first “real”, spiral bound nature journal.  The first entry is dated August 10, 2010.   She was not quite 5 years old.
Flipping through it is like going on a journey….
Starting with the early entries that were *mostly* mine, with a little bit of input from her...
August 2010, Age Almost-5, Papua New Guinea
August 2010, Age Almost-5, Papua New Guinea
(For what it's worth, the entry above is still one of my personal favorites - she drew a connection between pine needles on the tree in the neighbor's yard with the dill plants we had growing in ours - "Mama, It's a dill tree!"  Makes me smile every time...)

 To where she started taking a little more ownership in terms of what she drew….
May 2011, Age 5-1/2, Florida, USA
…or wrote!
Fall 2011, Age 6, Michigan, USA

Her forays into poetry…
April 2012, Age 6-1/2, France

…and exploring different formats
August 2012, Age Almost 7, France
Up until now…this is her latest entry about our Spiny Flower Mantis.  She drew and wrote this by herself.
May 2013, Age 7-1/2. Cameroon
Flipping through her nature journal to me is such a wonderful record of how far we’ve come – her drawing, her handwriting, her observation skills.  There are entries that I helped her with, her Papa helped her with, her Grandma helped her with, and that she did completely on her own.   It is also a journey in a literal sense, given that our earliest entries were made when we still lived in Papua New Guinea, then through our year in the States in 2011 (we tried to get at least one entry in every State we visited!), our year in France in 2012, and now having arrived in Cameroon.   (If only we had an Australian entry or two, we’d have all the countries we’ve lived/spent a significant amount of time in represented here.  I did buy the notebook in Australia, maybe that counts?)   Looking through it is a source of sweet memories to both of us.   She truly “owns” this journal and the memories it contains.   As I was photographing pages to share with you in this post, she was fondly narrating to me where we were, what she remembered about that day, telling me “mama, take a picture of THAT one” to just about every page.
Charlotte Mason talks about keeping a nature journal as a ‘delight’ to the child, especially when the child is given ownership of that process.  We have certainly found that to be true.   And in the process of helping my daughter starting a nature journal, I have ended up starting my own.  Nature journaling has given me fresh eyes to see what is around me and a new appreciation for God’s Creation.
It wasn’t easy.  I’m not naturally a “nature lover”.  I grew up in the city and hated that my family’s choice of vacation was generally tent camping.   We had fits and starts before we found our groove.  But it has been so worth the effort.
May I encourage you to do the same?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Our School "Room"

If you are in the habit of reading homeschooling blogs at all, you’ve probably seen articles in which people document their beautiful, dedicated “school rooms”.   Bright, sunshiny, filled with Ikea furniture.  And while I enjoy seeing how others organize their things, I’ve never had the luxury of having a dedicated room for school.  We’ve varied from a plastic tub that traveled around with us to a closet next to our dining room table to a dedicated table in the living room.  But never a whole ROOM just for school.     Where DO you put all that stuff when you live in a small house?   So I thought I’d share what our school area looks like at the moment – how we make it work in our space.
I don’t know the exact dimensions of our current home, but I doubt it is more than 1000 sq. feet.   We have 1 bath, 3 bedrooms, a kitchen, and a fairly large open plan living/dining room.   It is part of a row of three identical houses all attached together – more like an apartment, but single level and with a yard.  It’s enough space for us, we don’t feel cramped, but if it was any smaller we would.
I should also mention that because we embrace a simple method of homeschooling, we really don’t have a ton of stuff.  Other than books that is.  Ahem.  (Yes, I do have Kindle.  Believe me when I say it would be MUCH MUCH WORSE if I didn't!  But I digress.)
We’ve sort of commandeered one end of the living room for our “school room”:
I took this photo standing in our front doorway.  The table in the foreground is our dining room table, and the kitchen off to the left.  Our school table is the one by the sunny window at the far end.  The sunny window overlooks our fenced in backyard, which is considerably less distracting than the playground out the front window.  The low shelf unit on the left of the living room contains the kid's toys, drawing stuff, and picture books.
Our school table doubles as a kids’ project table when we aren’t doing school, or overflow seating for guests.   
All of our “table” materials are stored on this shelf unit in the corner.  On the top shelf, each child has a magazine-holder to contain their particular books and papers as well as my purple lesson planning folder, a box of Kleenex, and our Scripture memory box, a Bible, and a hymnal.   The second shelf has activities to keep preschoolers occupied on the left, and math manipulative items on the right.  The bottom shelf has a few teacher’s reference items (such as the Math U See books), nature journals,  and Michelle’s history timeline book and portfolio for the year.
Over on this side, we have our whiteboard, which we proudly shipped over to Africa all the way from the good ol’ US of A so I could use it with magnetic letter tiles for word-building type lessons.  At least,  that was the idea.  Until we finally unpacked and mounted the thing on the wall to find out it’s not magnetic after all.  SIGH. So, it’s being used for drawing fun at the moment….(anyone have a good suggestion for something upon which to stick magnetic letter tiles that DOESN'T involve shipping another whiteboard over from the States?)
The rest of our “school stuff” is on this shelf over by the couch.  The top shelf is all of the current books we are reading that aren't on the Kindle (we usually do this type of reading on the couch).  The second shelf contains history/geography related reference and picture books, and the bottom contains science and nature related reference and picture books.  This makes them easy to grab if we want to look something up, and often the kids will pick them up and flip through them in their spare time just because they are accessible.  (In fact, this is what my three-year-old is doing as I type.  It makes my Mama-Teacher-Heart happy.)  The globe, world map and flag charts are also over here for quick reference as we read about various places.
All of the rest of our books and school materials live are in our “library” – aka, the great big bookshelf that lines one wall in James’ bedroom.   The girls share a room with each other, James shares a room with my books. And the laundry drying racks.  It  all works out, right?  ;-)
And that’s it folks, how we keep our “school” organized in a fairly small space. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Little Ones Deserve the Good Stuff, too.

Charlotte Mason coined a fantastic word: “twaddle”.   Twaddle  is the “mentally inferior and useless stuff produced or written for children by adults.”  (For the Children’s Sake, p.15)  It is the stuff that talks down to children and tells them what to think.  It is the stuff that is meant simply to entertain without any kind of redeeming value.    It is the mental equivalent of “candy” – sugar-coated and visually appealing with no true nutritional value.
As part of our discussion of the principle that “children are born persons”, the question of twaddle came up:  how does twaddle disrespect our children’s minds?
Immediately, I thought of an experience we had at a library preschool storytime once.   The librarian held up a copy of Beatrix Potter’s  The Tale of Peter Rabbit and said that they “weren’t old enough yet” for this story, so she was going to read them the board book version instead.   On another occasion she read an “easy reader” version of The Little Engine that Could, despite the fact that the original of this book is a perennial preschooler favorite (at least at my house it is!).
I thought about my college roommate.  She wanted to go into children’s ministry, but decided to major in Biblical Studies rather than Christian Education so that she would have the foundation to be able to write Biblically accurate children’s Bible curriculum.   She was dismayed by the way many major Christian children’s publishers simplified their Sunday School curriculums in the name of making them “fun” and “accessible” to the point they were no longer doctrinally correct.
I thought of the piles and piles of completely inane children’s ‘literature’ out there…books based on movies and cartoons, books like “Captain Underpants”.  The same thing can be seen in music, art, videos, games, etc. targeted to children.
Twaddle disrespects a child’s mind because it assumes that they can’t appreciate or understand that which is truly good and beautiful.   It assumes that children’s minds can’t handle “big” ideas, at least not until they’re older.   So we feed them candy because they like it rather than nourishing them with good food.
This saddens me.   It saddens me because the fact is that even little ones CAN handle solid food.   I see it every day in my home.  My children argue every morning over who is going to choose a hymn to sing over breakfast, and belt various hymns out randomly as they go throughout their day.   It’s my 4 year old who reminds me that we listen to Mozart (our composer-of-the-term) at lunchtime, and asks me to go put it on if I forget.   My 6 year old was fascinated by the paintings in the great art museums in Paris, especially the impressionist paintings of Monet and Manet that she had seen before in books we had at home.    Books like the Beatrix Potter series and Winnie the Pooh read in the original have been loved by all of our preschoolers.  
Little ones do have the capacity to appreciate and understand far more than we give them credit for.  Perhaps they don’t understand everything, but at the very least their minds are being opened.  Their tastes and appetites are being developed so they will continue to seek goodness, truth, and beauty as they mature.   Their minds are stretched and over time they gain the ability to handle richer and more challenging material.  If we feed them a steady diet of “fluff” when they are young, their tastes aren’t magically going to change when they reach a certain age.  If we haven’t laid the groundwork from the beginning, they will miss out on so many wonderful and beautiful ideas because the literature (or art or music or whatever) that contains them will be dismissed as “too hard” or “not my thing”.
“Charlotte Mason enjoyed sharing the good things in life with the eager minds of children…She dealt with them on an eye-to-eye level.  She never felt they weren’t old enough to appreciate and think about things which she knew were good.  She delighted in introducing them to all aspects of reality, with a positive joy.”  (For the Children’s Sake, p. 16)
Little ones deserve the good stuff, too.   Let’s not shortchange them.
A little end note:
Last week, I read a book called  At the Foot of the Snows by David Watters, a missionary who brought the gospel to and translated the New Testament for a remote people group in Nepal.  This quote stood out to me:
"Too many literacy programs, especially those for tribal societies, fail to take these principles beyond superficial levels. Everyone knows that motivation is the biggest obstacle to a reading program, but few such programs hold out to their readers anything more than health pamphlets or better agricultural methods. These are good things, God knows, but how will such technical tracts inspire people to want to read? Any attempt, no matter how well-intentioned, to create a new-and-improved citizen through milk-and-water platitudes masks a vulgar condescension. It assumes that because people are new to literacy, they are new to the most important questions of life - that they are incapable of serious inquiry. To use a modern term, it 'dumbs down' where it should inspire. How much better a literacy effort that treats people in preliterate societies as full adults, and their language as capable of expressing the best philosophical and religious notions of the ages. If we want to preserve people's languages, and if we want them to be literate in those languages, how about giving them somehting worth reading - something ennobling, something that stirs the emotions and fires the passions?"
It's not just our little ones who deserve the good stuff: everyone does.  It is part of our inheritance as human beings.


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Children are born persons: what does that mean anyhow?

Charlotte Mason’s first principle of education is the idea that “children are born persons”.   I think most of us would agree with that idea in theory – of course they’re ‘persons’ – they’re not rainbows or puppies or trees, right?   But how many of us put that idea into practice?   I know I never really thought through the implications of it until I started really digging in to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy.   And as we are discovering in our reading and discussion of this principle over on the Forum, the implications of this principle are HUGE.     If we TRULY believe our children are “persons”, it will have huge implications for the way that we talk to them, the way that we train and discipline them, the way that we educate them, and so on.  
What does that mean anyhow, “children are born persons?”    Children are already “persons” from the time they are born – they don’t become “persons” when they grow up .   They aren’t empty pitchers or blank slates that are waiting to be filled.   They have value because they are made in the image of God.  They have minds that they are able to use from day one.  (Charlotte supports this idea by reminding us that infants learn more in the first two years of life than in any other 2 year period from then on.  I think anyone who has spent time with young children can attest to how true this is!)  And they have great potential.  In her article on this subject, Megan Hoyt uses the example that children are like acorns – young, small, and immature – but possessing all that they need to someday become trees.   And they are their OWN persons.   They aren’t our property to do with what we would like.   We certainly have a great responsibility to guide them and train them along the path of life, but ultimately they are responsible for their own decisions, ideas, and opinions.  Ultimately, we have to get out of the way and let the Holy Spirit work directly in our children’s hearts.
Just a few of the possible implications of fully embracing this idea:
  • We feed them ideas and true knowledge, not just information.  Ideas are the food of the mind, and lead to the growth of the ‘person’.  This must be held more important than the tricks and “facts” that are testable.
  • We don’t brainwash him or tell him what to think – no matter how well intentioned we might be.
  • We serve the child where he is – we don’t compare him to others or try to force him into an arbitrary mold.
  • We make space in our lives to give the child the time and room and space he needs to grow.
  • We seek to keep wonder and delight alive.
  • We let him experience life and learn from those experiences…even the hard ones.
  • We show them respect in the words, tone and attention we use when we speak with them.
There’s probably more.  In fact I’m quite sure there is.   This is really only the tip of the iceberg .   I couldn’t possibly begin to explore all the implications here, but as I am inspired, some of my thoughts will very likely spill over into this space.  Stay tuned.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Children Are Born Persons: Quotes Worth Pondering

Some of the ideas I am chewing on as I savor the readings that are part of the Charlotte Mason 20 Principles Study
Towards a Philosophy of Education (Volume 6), Charlotte Mason:
“…his mind is the instrument of his education…his education does not produce his mind.” (p.36)
“I say ‘experience’ advisedly, for the word denotes the process by which children get to know.  They experience all the things they hear and read of; these enter into them and are their life; and thus it is that ideas feed the mind in the most literal sense of the word ‘feed’.” (p.40)
“Children hunger for knowledge, not for information.” (p.44)
For the Children’s Sake, Susan Schaeffer Macaulay
“We can only love and serve him and be his friend.  We cannot own him.  He is not ours.” (p.13)
“One aspect of life is not more Christian than another.” (p.20)
“Grown-ups need time if their life is to support this kind of play.”  (p.23)
“…if we try to organize perfection, we fail the child.” (p.25)
“A child should never be made to feel that he is lagging behind others of his age…A high standard was expected, but at a level appropriate to the child’s ability.  It was like climbing one’s own private ladder…It was not to be like a race…The Bible teaches that we are like parts of the body.   In other words, we are different from each other, we all have different gifts.  How immoral to apply an arbitrary yardstick to the little child and expect him to progress at some ‘normal’ speed!  We take form him the joy of accomplishing new skills which should be part of growing up.”  (p.36)
“It is a challenge to us to keep alive the eagerness the 9 month old child displays when a cupboard is left open.” (p.41)
School Education (Volume 3), Charlotte Mason:
“…our non-success in education is a good deal due to the fact that we carry children through their school work and do not let them feel their feet.” (p.38)
“…we should train children so that we should be able to honour them with a generous confidence, and if we give them such confidence we shall find that they justify it.” (p.40)
“But Charlotte Mason doesn’t advise us to “produce” anything.  Our job is to present ideas, then step out of the way.”
“Children are image-bearers of God.  Human being with souls.  The acorn bursts open, roots seize at the earth, digging ferociously for nutrition, gasping breathlessly for water.  And what that child, newly formed and hungry, finds on his desperate quest is of the utmost importance.   And we are their guides.”