Monday, August 7, 2017

Love and Justice: Charlotte Mason on Character Training

Charlotte Mason had a thing or two to say about what we would call "character training". A thing or two. Actually, reading her books, you will quickly see that there is far more material devoted to principles, attitudes, and child training then practical how-to of educating as we think of it. There is comparatively little on how to teach sums or physics, for example, and much on how to teach CHILDREN.

In Mason's sixth book, A Philosophy of Education, where she "sums up" so to speak, all her years of experience and work, she has a little section titled "Misdirected Affections", which, if I was presumptuous enough to re-title, I would call "Love and Justice". In it, she speaks of not only how character training should be approached, (and NOT approached) she has some great things to say about human nature in general.

Love and Justice. 

How do you train a child in love and justice? And what are they? Perhaps you should buy one of those handy curriculum packages for character training. The ones with crafts, activities, comprehension questions, and insipid stories designed to illustrate one moral, and one moral only.

Or you could do it Charlotte's way. She is pretty blunt:

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.  

She doesn't, however, neglect to tell us what to do instead.

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. 

So forget those annoying and patronizing character studies. Instead, Mason tells us that our school books, including poetry, history, science, and even math are all training in character. She also tells us that we can't plan for a certain moral lesson from any particular reading. The child takes what he needs from his books, including what he needs to develop his character. Again, she compares gaining knowledge with acquiring nourishment- the mind, like the body, takes what it needs.

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. 

So what about Justice? 

Justice is, at it's heart, a sense of fairness. 

Everyone has Justice in his heart; a cry for 'fair play' reaches the most lawless mob, and we all know how children torment us with their 'It's not fair.' It is much to know that as regards justice as well as love there exists in everyone an adequate provision for the conduct of life:...
When reading this section, I had my reservations. How can character be simplified into just two things, love and justice? But she goes on to explain how justice contains many different ideas.

 Justice in Word: Truth

Young people should leave school knowing that their thoughts are not their own; that what we think of other people is a matter of justice or injustice...
You have a responsibility to think right thoughts about your neighbors. You also have a responsibility to say right things: 

... a certain manner of words is due from them to all manner of persons with whom they have to deal; and that not to speak those words is to be unjust to their neighbours. They should know that truth, that is, JUSTICE IN WORD, is their due and that of all other persons...

Justice in Action: Integrity

Integrity, I have heard, is how you act when no one else sees you. Charlotte mentions that, as well as working well and being trustworthy, and doing your best in everything.

JUSTICE IN ACTION; integrity in work, which disallows ca'canny methods, whether those of the artisan who does as little as he can in the time, or of the schoolboy ... Therefore he may not scamp, dawdle over, postpone, crib, or otherwise shirk his work. He learns that "my duty towards my neighbour" is "to keep my hands from picking and stealing," and... he must know that justice requires from him the integrity in material which we call honesty;

Justice in Thought: Opinions

We also owe our neighbors justice in thought: It is our duty to form opinions wisely and carefully. This seems to be something usually disregarded when we think about character, and sorely needed in our modern world.

There is another form in which the magnanimous citizen of the future must be taught the sense of justice. Our opinions show our INTEGRITY OF THOUGHT. Every person has many opinions whether his own honestly thought out, or notions picked up from his pet newspaper or his companions. The person who thinks out his opinions modestly and carefully is doing his duty as truly as if he saved a life because there is no more or less about duty.

Justice in Motive: Principles

Principles seem to be related to our opinions. They both need to be created consciously in order to be doing our duty, and yet seldom are. Conscious thought in opinions will lead naturally into conscious thought in principles. One births the other.

If a schoolboy is to be guided into the justice of thought from which sound opinions emanate, how much more does he need guidance in arriving at that JUSTICE IN MOTIVE which we call sound principles. For what, after all, are principles but those motives of first importance which govern us, move us in thought and action? We appear to pick up these in a casual way and are seldom able to render an account of them and yet our lives are ordered by our principles, good or bad.

Just like love, the formation of justice comes from a spread feast. Wide reading, and opening your heart to beauty and virtue. We are not reading books ABOUT character, or studying art and music designed to teach virtue. Rather we read books about people. Books exploring what it is to be human, living in this world. Art, nature, and music. Beauty and virtue are not taught, they are given. A door that is opened, a feast that is spread.

Here, again, we have a reason for wide and wisely ordered reading; for there are always catch-words floating in the air, as,––'What's the good?' 'It's all rot,' and the like, which the vacant mind catches up for use as the basis of thought and conduct, as, in fact, paltry principles for the guidance of a life.  Here we have one more reason why there is nothing in all those spiritual stores in the world's treasury too good for the education of all children. Every lovely tale, illuminating poem, instructive history, every unfolding of travel and revelation of science exists for children..... 
Children of a poor school in the slums are eager to tell the whole story of Waverly, ...They talk about the Rosetta Stone and about treasures in their local museum; they discuss Coriolanus....They know by heart every detail of a picture by La Hooch, Rembrandt, Botticelli, and not only is no evolution of history or drama, no subtle sweetness, no inspiration of a poet, beyond them, but they decline to know that which does not reach them in literary form.

Charlotte Mason has a lot to say about forming character and virtue in children (and ourselves). In fact, she has far more to say about creating better humans then she does about practical applications of school lessons. She has one whole book called "Formation of Character", after all, so this is only scratching the surface.

I feel like many times we get it backward. We want to know all the nuts and bolts, we want the how-tos, the step-by-step guide, the factual bits. But what if giving a Charlotte Mason education... what if imparting a living education... what if spreading a feast of beauty and richness... what if all that is a lot more about the impractical, the intangible, the spiritual, then it is about how long your math lesson should be? It sure seems that was how Ms. Mason thought anyway, given that more then half of her books are about things like "the way of the will" rather then about how to implement copywork.

All quotes from A Philosophy of Education, chapter III, by Charlotte Mason. Emphasis added. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

School Planning Season- Four Tips for Successful Homeschool Planning

Four Tips for Successful Homeschool Planning

Summer is here, that lovely time of year when everyone relaxes, enjoys the weather, and spends months not thinking about lessons. Everyone, that is, except teachers. In fact, during this time of year we get a lot this type of question on the AmblesideOnline Forum and Facebook page: How do you do plan? Can I see your schedule? What does it look like for you?

Of course, as soon as one year ends you are planning the next year. So summer is really just "getting ready for fall" for many people, and I thought this would be a great time to write a blog post I have been thinking about, which, as it goes, ended up REALLY long, (like this sentence) so it will be a blog series instead.

Tip One: Change Happens

One thing I think is often overlooked in planning a home school year is the changing life we all live. From big changes like new babies and new houses, to smaller changes like the seasonal differences in the year and the phases our children (and us!) all go through, one-size-fits-all schedules just don't work well- even within our own family! So the first tip I have for figuring out a plan for your family is Don't Be Afraid to Change.

Change is good and the ability to be flexible within your plan is important. How flexible you need to be will depend on your lifestyle, personality, and your kids. But we all need the ability to move things around, take a day off, fix the toilet, or find the band aids without ruining our plan. So plan margin into your day.

Tip Two: Start Small

It's inevitable. The year is planned perfectly. Every math lesson has it's 15 minute block, every composer study is on the list, and all the books are arranged each day, with just enough time to read and narrate each lovely selection. I have everything printed and bound neatly, with encouraging Bible verses on the cover of my planner. I can tell you what I will be reading to each child next November 18th.  I am super excited to begin. And then by the second week the entire thing will be scrapped. Maybe we had an unexpected field trip, or we found out that child needs twice as long to read that book as the last child did. Maybe the Librivox book I planned to use is incomprehensible for one child, while math needs to happen independently and later in the day for another.

While it's nice to have some things planned ahead, if you go out too far there's simply no way to know what life will throw in your path that will force changes into your plan. Sometimes we make our lovely plans and then force ourselves and our kids to keep using them out of guilt, even when it's clear something else is badly needed.

Tip Three: Stick to the Principles

Mason's principles are important to keep in mind while scheduling. We need to remember the overarching goals to avoid stuffing ourselves into little boxes, while at the same time neglecting other aspects of her method. The PNEU timetables we have are excellent examples of how she implemented her curriculum and how she guided her schools into following those principles, but the timetables are not themselves principles. We can't expect them to work in every circumstance.  In fact we have reason to understand that even Mason's schools were not always able to follow them perfectly, and our homes are even more variable then schools.

On the other hand, there is no reason to throw the timetables out completely. They are a great practical example of HOW principles such as short, varied lessons worked in a school setting. What should you take away from them? Lessons are short, but grow as the child gets older. Lessons are varied- don't stick all the readings in a two-hour session. Lessons don't have to be all in the morning- if you need to make some time in the afternoon or evening or weekend, that's okay. For older kids especially, there was time in the afternoon for those things that tend to take longer or drag out because they are enjoyable, such as nature study and handicrafts.

Use the timetables as a reference, but make your schedule fit your life, not the other way around.

Tip Four: Be Creative

School in the morning might not be best for every family at every time. Many times people try to fit their lives into the "school in the morning" model, and for whatever reason it just doesn't work for them. Do you have little ones? Sometimes the only quiet time of day is during naps. That's a great time to do math. Baby feeding time with mom in the rocking chair? That's a great time to sneak in a reading or an older child's narration.

Do you have young kids close together? Maybe consider combining some subjects. Maybe something like a block schedule would help, where each child works with you for one hour. Perhaps one longer reading a day can be saved for the afternoon.

Are your kids farther apart, in different stages? Maybe an older child needs some science experiment time or a younger one needs a longer literature chapter read- those are things that maybe the other parent can do in the evenings, or even on Saturday. An independent reader can narrate at creative times. I often have someone telling me back stories while I wash dishes or cook.

These are all things that I have learned, some painfully, through the last six years of changes and homeschool lesson planning. Most important, have grace with your children and yourself, accept that you will mess up, and move on with hugs and chocolate.

What great scheduling tips have helped you make Charlotte Mason schooling work in your family?

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Weekly Wrap-up: A Few of our Favorite Things in July

Every year I say I'm going to spend the summers getting outside more. Every winter I spend all winter wishing I had focused on outdoor time. Every summer passes before I notice I am not outside.

I think we still spend more time in nature then the average American family, but that is not a satisfactory comparison to me! So a few weeks ago I really determined to make it a priority this year, and have been trying to get out at least once a week. I don't mean an our outside in the backyard, I mean a whole day away from home, in the mountains, with a picnic lunch and school books.
We've been successful so far (one week we went two days!) and I can say it's both rewarding and exhausting. 

A few of our favorite things this week:

Math: Caiden's math on Khan academy is going great. He made the switch from MEP (temporarily) to give our relationship a break, as it had become an area of contention between us. He's doing much better, welcoming my help, and we'll move back to MEP later this year. The other two are doing MEP and it's going well. Even when we have a bad day, it's still a great program and I don't want to use anything else!

The Garden: In the never-ending battle between weeds, bugs, and edible plants, I think we are winning (for now). Tomatoes are huge, squashes are growing, and the beans are taking over. We are hoping to have beans and tomatoes to can, so it's great to see them doing so well.

Hiking: we had a great mountain day on Wednesday. We took our school books but the kids ended up swimming and exploring the whole time, so we did some reading after we got back home and everyone was too tired to play much anyway. The kids are so focused on nature study after all these years that the older ones need no guidance anymore, they discover and observe so well and always see things I haven't noticed. Abby found a pocket knife in the woods and was so happy, she's been asking for a knife for a couple of years and we didn't think she was quite ready.


Hailey: Reading about Phyrrus and the elephants in Plutarch's Lives (Such a mommy pride moment there.)
Caiden: Everything. Getting the net. (He got a fishing net to hunt for specimens in water, and found a crawdad among other treasures.)
Abby: Going in the mountains.
Colby: The mountains. I liked sitting on the rocks.

Favorite Photo: 

So there you have it, a few of our favorite things for this week! 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

How Do I Pick an AmblesideOnline Year?

One of the most common questions on the AmblesideOnline forums and Facebook page is some variation of, "I am switching to AO with older children.... where do I start?"

Although there are always variables in everyone's life, and sometimes they lead to out-of-the-ordinary suggestions, for most people the question usually gets a standard answer. This is my usual answer.

Because Charlotte Mason wanted children's minds to be fed, I always recommend starting with your child's ability to understand, not their ability to read. The books in AO are well above modern "grade level" and are not expected to be read completely by the child, especially in the early years. Instead of going by reading level, I always recommend going by comprehension level.

Recognizing that the AO years were not designed as strict grade levels (although Year One does match up with grade one if a child starts it at age six) the usual suggestion is to pick a year or two lower then your child's "grade" and look at them for comprehension first, and then content.

Start with comprehension: One suggestion that I like is to pick a couple books from the years you are considering, and read a passage from the middle somewhere. Can your child narrate it? (If he's new at narrating, this might not be very good- just ask for three things he remembers.) If that went well, consider the other books- what are they about? What subjects are covered? Do they sound like they are too hard for your kids? If it comes down to a choice between a couple of years and you can't decide, consider the history chronology last. If your child just learned all about the middle ages, you might not want to do Year 2. But that's the last thing to consider because it's of less importance then placing your child where they are challenged, but not overwhelmed.

If you are new you need to watch this video. Watch it. There is a lot of information here that is easily missed, and a lot of explanations about the different parts of the site and the options you will see.

Useful Links: 

If you would like more information on the AmblesideOnline books and grade levels, here is a short post addressing that.

Some advice from experienced moms on placing in Ambleside. (I think these are from the old yahoo groups, you can find tons of similar advice on the forum.)

Here is the AmblesideOnline history chronology, which is really helpful as a broad picture view of AO.


The GORY DETAILS from Afterthoughts (This is very helpful if you are getting started.)

And maybe most important, the Forum. This is where you can get free personalized advice on implementing the curriculum in your own family, from experienced AO users, including the Advisory/Auxiliary.

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