Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Charlotte Mason Institute 2013

     Last week, I drove down to beautiful, rural Ferrum, Virginia to attend the Charlotte Mason Institute.  The Institute was a four-day feast of presentations, demonstrations, and conversations that all supported and encouraged teachers who are applying Charlotte Mason's pedagogy either at home or in a school setting.  I had a great time, learned a lot, and really delighted in getting to know a few friends whom I had only known online before this Institute!  I wanted to share a little bit of what I experienced, but I can't go into too much detail, as the organizers admonished us that much of the information was proprietary.  So here's a brief overview, which I hope only offers information generally available and nothing proprietary!
   Before the "official" start of the Institute, two immersion groups were offered: multi-age homeschooling and another session focusing on the application of CM in schools.  Of course, I attended the home-schooling session, which was conducted by the lovely Nancy Kelly of Sage Parnassus.  During the morning hours, we were the students and Nancy was the teacher, demonstrating a variety of CM techniques.  We had a chance to experience different forms of narration, including oral narration, written narration, drawing, formulating questions, and map work.  Not only did Nancy present "standard" subjects such as picture study, literature, and Bible, but she also included  lessons on architecture and folksong.  In one of the later talks I attended, the notion of "spreading the feast" as an essential element of Miss Mason's approach was discussed.  Here, in this first immersion group, Nancy gave a wonderful example and encouragement to us by incorporating architecture, an unusual subject, in her lesson plan.  As we consider the subjects we want to study with our children, we can remember that we have a great freedom to truly "spread the feast" of knowledge and include many enriching subjects.  Among those unusual and yet vital subjects might be singing, music theory,  architecture, drawing, sculpture, archaeology, paleontology, astronomy, drama, cinematography, and many, many more fascinating subjects.
    After lunch, the immersion group had a chance to discussion our experience with Nancy and ask any questions.  Of course, there were lots of great questions!  Nancy has a wealth of experience and freely shared her knowledge and wisdom with all of us. I cannot stress enough how much I have benefited from this session and others I have attended like it that actually demonstrate Charlotte Mason's teaching style and allow me to be a student under a master CM teacher.  Every aspect of this session was directly applicable to my own home teaching.

    I attended several other sessions, and while I can't give a detailed description of each one, I can give you a "bird's eye" view:

Living Books:  Liz Cottrill began this session by explaining the role that books play in a CM based education.  Living books are the core of the curriculum and a central part of the learning experience.  Miss Mason wanted children to be provided with an abundant exposure to books presented in an orderly fashion.  Liz continued with an in-depth look at the impact of electronic use on reading skills.  She shared fascinating research results that explained the ways in which our use of "screens" negatively impacts reading skills.  While we might have a difficult time eliminating screen use entirely, she stressed the need to reduce the screen time in our homes.  Images on computer screens are constantly being refreshed, which creates a strain on our eyes as well as an adrenal response in our bodies.  Have you ever noticed that fighting and arguing increase in your home when screen time goes up?  Our adrenals trigger the "fight or flight" reaction in our bodies and stimulating them results in anxiety, argumentativeness, and physical stress.  Liz also explained that when we read on a computer screen, we tend to scan the paper in an "F" pattern, which results in poorer reading and attention skills.  She referred to Jane Healy's classic book Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It.  Ms. Healy notes that electronic screens stimulate the left hemisphere of the brain, which diminishes attention and also decreases motivation and organizational abilities. Brain scans actually show that the brains of non-readers are different from the brains of readers.  I loved her statement that reading is like push-ups for the brain! Additionally, the use of a physical book, the interaction with the physical act of turning the pages, making notations, and holding a book heighten our ability to attend to and remember the material we are learning as we read.  As we strive to increase the literary atmosphere of our homes, we will want to acquire a good library of actual books.  
Sorting out books!

Studies have shown that a key factor in academically successful students is the presence in the home of over 500 books!  I feel so much better now about my book addiction, don't you?

Emily, Liz's daughter, shared information on where to find living books and how to determine if a book is a living book by considering several factors:
   1.  Is the book written by one or at most a few authors who loved and knew the subject matter?  Books written by committees are not living books through which we can engage with another mind.
   2.  Is the language beautiful?  Literary? Engaging? Is it hard to put down?
   3.  Can it be narrated successfully?
   4.  Does the book contain true and living ideas?
  5.  Look for a target copyright date of before 1970.  Good books have been written in more recent years, but not quite as many.

Repairing Old Books:  This demonstration was wonderful!  Emily brought an assortment of old books that needed repairing and she showed us how to repair everything from minor tears to detached covers.  Just learning what tools to use was a great help!

Sensory Integration and Attention Workshops:  I attended these two workshops because of my special needs son.  Both were conducted by experts in these fields.  The professors were so supportive and compassionate that I came out of both sessions greatly strengthened both emotionally and intellectually.  Dr. Colley presented information on sensory integration including a very thorough question list to help you or your child  identify sensory needs.  Her compassionate presentation stressed the fact that we all have differing sensory needs and that this is not necessarily a disability, but rather an area in which we need to be aware and to thoughtfully make accommodations that enable our children (or ourselves) to meet these sensory needs.  Dr. Wiggins presented information on ADHD.  Of special note, he stated that Charlotte Mason's approach to learning was perfectly suited for students with attention issues.  He pointed out that when we stop the reading of a book at the point of greatest attention (even if that is only after a few minutes) and then ask for a narration, we are training the brain to attend.  Also, he discussed at length the secondary symptoms of ADHD, which include:

ability to hyper-focus (or "tune out" rest of world)
fluctuating activity levels
difficulty with attention and memory
difficulities with touch, details, switching gears, planning, organizing, beginning a task, prioritizing or sequencing a task, sticking to a task, and addictions and eating disorder
need for high stimulus/thrill seeking behavior

Stressing the plasticity of the brain, he emphasized that people with such challenges can learn and grow and develop techniques to overcome the negative aspects of this condition (there are some positive aspects, such as creativity).  His top recommended management approaches included medication (long discussion on this!), establishing order, organization, and structure through the use of checklists, schedules, colorful reminders, etc., and exercise.

Plenary Sessions:  In addition to the individual workshops, there were several plenary sessions (basically lectures to all of us at once).  These were also wonderful! But I've run out of time and energy, so I hope that many of the sessions will be posted on the Charlotte Mason Institute website.

I came away from the Conference with a renewed dedication and also feeling that the choices I was making for my family were valid and wise.  I feel challenged to control the use of screens even more carefully and place greater emphasis on engaging with nature and with living books.  

Saturday, September 8, 2012

ASI: A Method for Planning Lessons

The lessons at ASI were all planned using Charlotte Mason's own techniques.  In Home Education, she describes her method of lesson planning:

"In every case the reading should be consecutive from a well-chosen book.  Before the reading for the day begins, the teacher should talk a little (and get the children to talk) about the last lesson, with a few words about what is to be read, in order that the children may be animated by expectation; but she should beware of explanation and, especially, of forestalling the narrative.  Then, she may read two or three pages, enough to include an episode; after that, let her call upon the children to narrate--in turns, if there be several of them.  They not only narrate with spirit and accuracy, but succeed in catching the style of their author.  It is not wise to tease them with corrections; they may begin with an endless chain of "ands," but they soon leave this off, and their narrations become good enough in style and composition to be put in a  "print book"!

This sort of narration lesson should not occupy more than a quarter of an hour.  The book should always be deeply interesting, and when the narration is over, there should be a little talk in which moral points are brought out, pictures shown to illustrate the lesson, or diagrams drawn on the blackboard.  As soon as children are able to read with ease and fluency, they read their own lesson, either aloud or silently, with a view to narration...

Let us consider each of the key points of Charlotte Mason's thoughts as delineated in this selection.

A well-chosen book

It is the task of the teacher to select the text.  Although we did not specifically discuss this idea, we were exposed to the selection of books that Ambleside has chosen and has deemed "well-chosen".  What I particularly noted was that it is not necessary for a book to be a historical novel in order to be a "living book". Several of the books fell into the category of textbook, but were written in a more engaging and interesting style than the standard fare.  So, for example, the history book was one written by Dorothy Mills, a non-fiction work that is a textbook but reads like an engaging documentary.  Similarly, the science text was a volume that had different authors write on their respective areas of expertise.  

When choosing a text, whether fiction or non-fiction, one might ask themselves, "Is this true or true-to-life?  That is, is the information contained in it correct? Does it illustrate the consequences of moral choices and action in a way that reflects accurately the ultimate consequences of our choices?  Is good eventually rewarded or shown to be noble and worthy?  Is evil shown to lead to misery and unhappiness?  Is it good or noble? Will it help the student learn why and how to choose the good and noble? Is it beautiful?  Beautifully written? Does it cause the student to appreciate beauty or wonder at the works of our great Creator?

Having chosen the books, then the instructor must plan how the students will engage with them.

Thinking about focusing on habits

First of all, each lesson will focus on one habit or area of character growth.  Paying attention, listening respectfully, taking turns are all general habits that need constant work to develop.  You might also want to focus on more specific habits--using the author's own words in narrations, getting letters to sit on the line, observing punctuation marks.  Tell the student what you are focusing on at the start of the lesson:  "Today, let's be careful to write our letters so that they sit on the line."  At the end of the lesson, return to this point:  "Look over your writing to see if your letters are sitting on the line."

Once you know what habits you will focus on, you can begin to plan.  Their--sheesh!  THERE--- are five main parts to every lesson.  

1.  The First Little Talk

"...the teacher should talk a little (and get the children to talk) about the last lesson, with a few words about what is to be read, in order that the children may be animated by expectation; but she should beware of explanation and, especially, of forestalling the narrative."

     The first little talk is a very short introduction to the day's material. Begin with a brief review of the previous day's material.  Then, you may introduce the current day's work by identifying locations on a map or briefly explaining new vocabulary words and unfamiliar ideas. During this time, the teacher can also provide a structure to help the student(s) mentally organize the material they are about to read, if that would be helpful.  For example, if a science text will be discussing four main parts of a tree, you could write on a board the title "Main Parts of a Tree" and follow it with four bullet points.  Tell the student(s) that he will be reading about the four parts of a tree and should pay particular attention to what they are. Later, during the final discussion, you can fill in the bullet points.  

For a lesson on Joshua, Chapter 2, I had the students turn to a historical map of the Middle EastWe located Jericho, Abel-Shittim, and the Plains of Moab.  Our map was a topographical map, so we also noted that Jericho lies at the base of a very hilly area.  Our vocabulary words included harlot (which I simply defined as a wicked woman, and left it at that!), lodged, and flax. I briefly explained that flax was a kind of grain, similar to wheat, that was used to make linen cloth.  I also explained that homes in the ancient Near East had flat roofs.  The entire introduction took about 5 minutes, including getting out the maps, finding the page we needed, and putting them away.

The hardest part of this first point is keeping it short.  You are not trying to instruct the child in everything you know about the topic.  You just want to shed a bit of light on anything in the text that might be confusing or unfamiliar, and you want to orient the student(s) and connect the new material with what has gone before it.  It is REALLY EASY to let this take over the time you have for engagement with the text.  I am having to be very vigilant so that doesn't happen. 

2.  Reading the text

"Then, she may read two or three pages, enough to include an episode;...  As soon as children are able to read with ease and fluency, they read their own lesson, either aloud or silently, with a view to narration..."

Or observe the picture, listen to the musical piece, study the leaf,  etc.  The next step is to find out what the author/artist/Creator is communicating through the "text".  We want to encourage attention to the actual content of the text.   If narration is new to you, only read a short selection before narrating.  Half a page at most, or even a paragraph or a section of a paragraph (if the material is very dense, such as might happen in a history or science book) would allow a student unfamiliar to narration to be successful.  If you are reading a story or historical novel, try to separate the readings at natural points if you can, such as the end of one incident or the end of one major part of an incident.  You want the breaks to make a bit of sense.

Note that older students should be reading the text aloud or silently to themselves.  It is good to use both techniques.  The oral reading periods are excellent opportunities to assess reading, to coach the student in clear reading and in observing punctuation marks, and to encourage dramatic reading when fictional works are being studied.

We are doing a lot of oral reading right now.  The children take turns reading a section, then we narrate that section.  Occasionally, I read a section to demonstrate good reading skills.  As one child reads aloud, the others follow along in their own books.

Two techniques to help readers who are having difficulty:

--echo reading:  teacher reads, student echos
--choral reading:  everyone reads aloud together, or teacher and student read aloud together

3.  Narrating the text

"...after that, let her call upon the children to narrate--in turns, if there be several of them.  They not only narrate with spirit and accuracy, but succeed in catching the style of their author.  It is not wise to tease them with corrections; they may begin with an endless chain of "ands," but they soon leave this off, and their narrations become good enough in style and composition to be put in a  "print book"!"

Narration is the retelling of the material or ideas that the author presented.  In narration, we are learning to listen to others and respect them.  We are not trying to correct the author or debate with the author.  We are not expressing our own opinions about whatever the author is communicating.  We are just trying to hear and repeat what the author is, in fact, trying to say.  It helps me to think of St. Thomas Aquinas and how he always stated his opponent's point of view before he gave a response to it.  So it is with narration.  We want the student to tell as much as possible about what the author actually said. 

After the text is read, narration can begin with a question or statement.  The question should be open, not a yes or no question.  However, with younger narrators, you may ask a question about part of the text to help them focus their minds.  So, rather than a general, "Tell me what you remember," you might want to try a more specific prompt, such as, "Tell me what you remember about the attack of the Huns on the Visigoths." or "What caused the Huns to attack the Goths?"   To get a reluctant narrator started, it can be helpful to read the opening sentence of the section you just read.  Also, you can choose a sentence in the middle of the selection, and ask them to tell you about that.  

Multiple children can all narrate the same text.  Each one might give a full narration, or they might just add a few points to someone else's narration.  Either is fine.  I have told my children that it is OK for them to give a complete narration, even if their sibling already did so, because each person has a different idea about what they have read and how to tell about it.  This seems to make perfect sense to them.  It is interesting to hear how each individual approaches the task of narrating the same material.

Narration might be written, oral, bullet points, drawn, told to a partner, or silently to oneself. I know some like the idea of narrating into a recording device, but I think narration is an exchange of ideas that requires persons for its effectiveness (even if the person "listening" is just ourselves or if it is someone who will later read our work).  It seems to me that there is too much "distance" between the narrator and the listener with recording devices.  Another post for another day....

4.  Second Little Talk (idea)

"The book should always be deeply interesting, and when the narration is over, there should be a little talk in which moral points are brought out, pictures shown to illustrate the lesson, or diagrams drawn on the blackboard. "

At Ambleside, the second talk focuses on an "inspiring idea".  This is the time during the lesson that children have a chance to think and discuss the deeper ideas present in the material, or to organize the material in helpful ways.  Usually, this talk will begin with a good discussion-starter question.  The question should be one that really draws the students to ponder, as often as possible.  So, when reading and narrating a Bible story, one can ask, "What does this tell us about God?  About people?" In history, one might query, "What factors brought the Middle Ages to a close?" or "What do you learn from this passage about the character of {whomever}?"
In The Door in the Wall,  an episode relates how Brother Luke, a monk, comes to care for the main character, Robin, a crippled boy.  The second talk question I used for that reading was, "What do you learn about compassion from the way Brother Luke treated Robin?"  It is amazing to listen to the  profound thoughts the children express.

5.  A word on lesson length

Although Charlotte Mason recommends only quarter hour lessons in Home Education, it is well to remember that that volume dealt with younger children (under 9).  As children mature, they are able to attend for longer periods of time.  In the Ambleside schedules, the fifth grade students have some subjects that last 30 or 45 minutes.  So, I have scheduled 35 minutes for Literature, Science, History, and Math.  Truthfully, I find 15 minutes to be way too short for some of these subjects as the children mature.  Other subjects remain short and sweet--Poetry, Latin, Composer and Picture Study, Memory Work, Copywork, Dictation, etc.  


Saturday, September 1, 2012

Masterly Inactivity

Not exactly "masterly"

One concept of Charlotte Mason's that I never felt I really understood until the Summer Institute is the idea of "masterly inactivity".  Having gone over the ideas of her teaching philosophy, I now have a better understanding of masterly inactivity. At least, I think I do!

What it isn't:
--failing to preparing lessons
--being lax in directing student learning
--waiting for your children to "grow out" of bad behaviors
--sitting elsewhere while children do their work

What it is:
--preparing and directing learning times
--not imposing my ideas on the student, not "downloading"
--not using approval or criticism as means of coercion
--allowing silence and time for thought
--being your child's ally in developing good habits
--allowing the child to develop a relationship with the text

So, let's consider each point separately.

1.  Preparing and directing learning times

Charlotte Mason had  a distinct method for structuring lessons . I plan on doing a whole post on that, but for now I want to note that every lesson is prepared in advance in order to facilitate learning and allow the student to more fruitfully interact with the text (whatever kind of text).  The teacher retains full authority in choosing the material and structuring the lesson.

2.  Not imposing my ideas on the student

Here is a challenge!  ASI emphasized the idea that the teacher does not express his/her own opinions and thoughts on the material of the text.  It matters not whether the teacher likes or doesn't like the material, the students' ability to develop their OWN relationship with the text is affected if the teacher's opinion is stated.  The teacher is to guide the student in engaging the text directly and get out of the way of that process.  So, in narration, the teacher does not ask leading questions to produce a certain answer, but rather asks open questions or gives direct commands. 

 For example, after reading a paragraph in one of the Little House books which describes Laura's home, an acceptable directive from the instructor might be: "Describe the cabin Laura lived in.  Use the author's words."  Or, that could be phrased as a question: "What did Laura's home look like?  Use Laura's own words to describe it."  An example of NOT using masterly inactivity in this case would be: "I love this description of Laura's cabin." This is imposing your own opinion.  "Do you think it would be nice to live there?"  This is a "closed" question, answerable only with a yes or no.  Also, it  might be leading the student to think they ought to want to live there.  "What is your favorite part of this description?" Now you are encouraging the child to analyze based on their own opinion and not to directly engage what the author is actually saying.  This falls over into the child-directed teaching philosophy described in an earlier post.

3. Not using approval or criticism as a means of coercion

When the child gives a narration or expresses an thought, do not either approve of it, as in, "Good job!" or other such comments, or disapprove of it, as in, "That's wrong," kind of statements.  In the first case, using approval produces a student who is learning in order to gain your love and not in order to engage the text.  Secondly, for a student this encourages pride and instills the idea that performance is more important than actually learning.  Therefore, Ambleside uses no grades at all.  As we all did our practice teaching, we found this to be the hardest habit to overcome.  We all had a kind of reflexive "praise" habit... good job! very good! well done! etc., came flying out of our mouths pretty easily!  The teacher really does not need to comment on the students' narrations.  The toughest idea for me to accept was that "Thank you" also is not a wise way to respond to a narration, as it conveys the notion that the student is doing something for the teacher, when he is really doing something for himself...that is, faithfully narrating.  So, silence or a pleasant nod can be used.  Also, you can say, "Would you like to add anything else?", even after a thorough narration.  

Withholding criticism is a little easier for me, but I struggled with the idea of withholding direct correction.  However, as we will discuss later, the correction can come directly from referring back to the text: "What does the text say about that?"  Also, if you have more than one narrator, the other narrator(s) might give correction.  Sometimes someone would say, "Well, I don't agree with that," or, " I didn't get that out of the text," and then we'd go back to the text and check and clarify.

4. Being your child's ally in developing good habits

Masterly inactivity does not mean ignoring poor habits and behaviors.  As I understand it, in this case it means setting a standard of behavior and then holding the child to this standard in a firm fashion.  I don't say "firm yet loving", because you are being loving when you help your child develop good habits.  Charlotte Mason portrays the mother as being the ally of the child.  For example, a child is doing sloppy work as a result of laziness and a desire to just "get it done" in a hurry.   The mother sets a specific standard: "Johnny, I see your letters are not sitting on the line.  When you write the next line, pay careful attention to making your letters sit on the line.  If I see you writing too fast, I will help you remember to be careful by reminding you to slow down."  In this example, the mother has allied herself with the child as his/her aide in accomplishing the goal.  It is not mother vs. child, but mother with child working toward developing a good habit.  It is masterly in its wisdom  and in the parent setting the standard and holding the child to it.  It is "inactivity" in the broader sense that the parent is not doing FOR the child that which the child is capable of doing for himself,  but rather the child is responsible for working to develop his own good habit with the aide and support of the parent.

  5.  Allowing silence and time for thought

One thing that really struck me was the peaceful and calm aura during the narration/class times.  I think that was produced by two factors.  The first was the absence of praise or criticism, which relieved any performance pressure.  The second was quite a bit of silent time for thought and reflection.  The instructors allowed time for the students to think and did not pressure them into response.  They did call upon students directly.  If the student didn't come up with any response after a period of silence, the instructor had a few techniques to sort of "prime the pump", including reading a sentence from the text as a sort of starter.  The point I want to emphasize here, however, is the value of silence and patience.  Allowing those times of silence really creates calm if the teacher is remaining calm himself.

5. Allowing the child to develop a relationship with the text

Masterly inactivity produces the "space" for  children to develop their own relationship with the text.  They are not influenced by the teacher's opinions, or concerned about her approval or disapproval.  They have time to think and reflect.  In the event of confusion, they are directed back to the text itself.  The teacher does not position herself between the text and the student as the interpreter of the text.  The next post on narration will develop these ideas a bit more and give a few more specifics on narration techniques used at ASI.

I do want to apologize for not having enough time right now to find and copy a lot of direct quotes from Charlotte Mason herself.  Maybe if you know of pertinent quotes, you could include them in the comments.  I do want to get these posts up and I'm trying to get ready to start up our own school year on Monday, so my time is very constrained right now.  As the year goes on and I am reading CM, I may add on some quotes to each of these posts.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

How to Make the Timeline Cards

I am not very crafty (the understatement of the week!), but these timeline cards are easy to make.  Here are the steps:

1.  Make of list of the key historical dates you want on your timeline.  These will include events/people that will be "pegs" around which other events can be understood and also a few key people/events that you are studying this term or this year. You might include one or two favorites you have studied in past years, also.  My list (with an * to mark those we are studying this year and a # to mark favorites from previous years):

The Beginning
Sumerian Cuneiform (2500 BC)
Pyramids (2500 BC)
Abraham/Isaac (1900 BC)
*Battle of Jericho (1400 BC) 
Trojan War (1000 BC)
Founding of Rome (753 BC)
Roman Republic (509-27 BC)
Golden Age of Athens (450 BC)
Alexander the Great (356-323 BC)
Julius Caesar (100-44 BC)
The Nativity
The Resurrection (30 AD)
St. Augustine (354-430 AD)
The Fall of Rome (476 AD)
*Coronation of Charlemagne (800 AD)
*Battle of Hastings (1066 AD)
*Gothic Architecture (1100's-1500's AD)
*St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD)
Columbus Discovers America (1492 AD)
Michaelangelo (1475-1564 AD)
*William Shakespeare (1564-1616 AD)
*Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669 AD)
#Johann S. Bach (1685-1750 AD)
*George Washington (1732-1799 AD)
*William Wordsworth (1770-1850 AD)
*Frederic Chopin (1810-1849 AD)
American Civil War (1861-1865 AD)
Queen Victoria (1837-1901 AD)
*Robert Frost (1874-1963 AD)
World War I (1914-1918 AD)
*Georgia O'Keefe (1887-1986 AD)
#Norman Rockwell (1894-1978 AD)
World War II (1939-1945 AD)
*Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Pope Benedict XVI (1927 AD-present)

2.  Find images you like online and cut and paste them into Word.  Adjust the size to your preference.

3.  On another Word document, using a large font (I used 48), print out the name of the person/event and the corresponding dates.  Center the text.

5.  Trim the pictures to size and cut out the corresponding title.  I used a paper trimmer to keep the edges straight.

6.  Glue both the picture and title onto black cardstock, centering the picture over the title. The purpose of the glue is just to keep things from shifting around while you laminate, so you only need a little bit.

7.  Trim the edges of the cardstock so there is a nice, narrow border around the image and title.

8.  Laminate.

8.  Trim the laminated edges.

There you have it!  Awesome timeline cards.  

To display, use a black 2" ribbon as the "line" of the timeline.  The distance between cards isn't important as long as they are in chronological order.  I used a bunch of regular tape to adhere the cards to the ribbon, but velcro dots would probably be sturdier.  If any of my cards fall down over time, I'll replace the tape with velcro dots.  So far, they are staying put!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Education is an Atmosphere

The rest of these posts are going to be a bit more "stream of consciousness" style.  Partly because I've got a lot I want to say and it's not all so well organized in my head, and partly because we need to start school on Monday and I'm pressed for time!

Of course during the Institute, we discussed Charlotte Mason's statement: "Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life."  I think most of us tend to focus on the "atmosphere" part of that statement, because we really like to decorate and re-decorate, lol!  However, the physical atmosphere of our homes/classrooms is only one aspect of atmosphere and not even the most fundamental one.

The most important component of "atmosphere" is who we are.  Our children have an amazing capacity to detect the "real" person behind our words and actions.  They have an uncanny ability to understand what we are feeling and truly thinking and to learn from that.  It is scary to realize that we can not fool our children; their characters will be formed by the atmosphere of who we really are and what we really think interiorly.  Therefore, it is critical that we seriously strive to conform ourselves to Christ in every way we possibly can.  We are called both by our Lord and by our vocation that " we may in all things grow up in him who is the head, even Christ..." (Ephesians 4:15)

Our  holiness is the essential "atmosphere" that we generate in our homes.

Based on this, we can bring a true Christian ambience to our homes.  This is expressed first of all in the way in which we interact with others.  In the CM method, both teacher and stuent are called to approach the material with humility and one another with charity.  Slurs and sarcasm have no place in a Christian home (I say this with trembling, as our family tends to have a very sarcastic wit...which they got, I regret to say even more, from me!) Interrupting and shouting need to be set aside.  Dr. St. Cyr especially stressed the importance of LOOKING into the eyes of the person you are communicating with or listening to.  He gave a lot of interesting information based on neuroscience about how much information is exchanged between two people subconsciously when we look into each other's eyes.   In my own parenting, I have found this to be crucial in enabling children to feel they are being both listened to and loved.  For this reason, the teacher faces the students (I know...I usually sit next to my children!) and looks into their eyes while listening to narrations and discussing the material in any text.  I had never really considered how often I don't look at my children when they are "doing" school-related tasks!  This is an area that is a top priority for me this year.

Secondly, a Christian atmosphere is expressed in our physical environment.  It was great to be able to be in an Ambleside classroom during the Institute and I did come away with some very lovely ideas, which I'll share below.  First of all, though, noting the overall physical atmosphere might be helpful for you.  The room was invitingly painted in a medium beige color--not cold but not intrusive, either.  The books were neatly placed both vertically and horizontally, imparting a sense of order.  There was no extraneous stuff lying around (ummm....).  There were learning displays on the walls, but they were restrained and tastefully done; nothing was garish or over-crowded.  In general, the simplicity of the room made it feel peaceful, but it was welcoming as well because it was not overly stark. Bookcases were wood or wood-like and there was a large antique armoire in one corner that added a sense of history and a homey feel to the room.

I have set up in our own learning area a few of my favorite items (my Ambleside pictures were taken with my phone and are really you get to see my "take" on what I saw there).


This is a picture of the timeline I put up in my school area in Delaware that is based on the one I saw at Ambleside.  I finally feel I understand the idea behind a wall timeline!!!  It is NOT the place to put everything you have ever studied.  It is best thought of as a framework.  Historically important dates serve as "pegs" to anchor other dates the student is reading about or studying.  I did put up our poets, artists, and composers for the year, as well as a few items specifically related to our history study (Middle Ages).  Other than that, the dates are of key events, people, or eras.  I will use this timeline to orient my children whenever we encounter dates in our reading:  Did Robert Frost live before or after the Civil War?  Was he alive when Victoria was Queen?  Could his life have been affected by the World Wars? and so on.  I still need a crucifix above the timeline in the center there!

Bulletin Boards:

A small bulletin board on our artist featuring a note on the key element(s) of his art.  Also, a representative work (which at the Ambleside school was actually 3 works, but I don't have much room).  I loved the way the black cardstock set off the information here and also on the timeline above.  I also made a board to place over the CD player that will eventually have a list of all the works we listen to from our fall composer study (Copland):

A plant, a snake (which we found in a window well of our house in Delaware...the whole reptile thing is really getting out of hand, Lord!), some living things to bring God's creation into our room:

An organized bookshelf.  Since the boys are using a lot of the same books, I have several copies of each so they can read and also follow along with the text when others are reading.  I placed on the shelves only the books we are using this term plus a very few reference books to keep it easier to find what we need.  I am learning (oh, so. very. slowly.) that fewer books are better than more books!

A print (or two) of artwork.  Also, I posted a schedule just because I didn't want to be constantly answering questions raised by my special needs son about what we are doing when (which really would be constant if I couldn't direct him to just look at the schedule).   In the Ambleside classroom, there was no posted schedule, although we did have one in our folders.  Maybe the students would have a copy of the schedule in their desks? I might tape on to the inside of the lids of the desks when they arrive (they are on order now).  No picture of this small wall because it just wouldn't come out right.

A planter's desk that also is used to store books and supplies while giving my arty ds a place to work on his "creations".  I just had the top more firmly attached today, so soon it will be full of books. The Ambleside teachers insisted on clear, neat desks, so I can't have all of his artwork stuff in the desk he will be doing his schoolwork on.

And, lest you think I'm organized, a shot of my desk, where I am frantically trying to lay out plans for next week's lessons!

I have an extremely small and limited space, but I am happy that it is much better put together now than last year!  I am waiting on three individual desks that will be the main work desks for my boys.  As at the Ambleside school, I will stand and face them as they work at their desks reading aloud and narrating.  It will be a more formal arrangement than we have had here in the past, but I think it will benefit these younger boys.  Again, I don't know how this would work out if they were not able to do so much together, but I can tell you that at the Institute, all of the adults in attendance spent the first three days doing about 4th to 8th grade classwork and found it very interesting.  So, I do think you could combine quite a lot of subjects across a very broad age range if you wanted to.  Picture study, nature study, composer study, poetry, history, Bible, and science could definitely be combined.  My dd (17) will work in her room, but she is mainly doing AP online classes through Patrick Henry University, which has nothing in common with Charlotte Mason methods! 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Ambleside Institute, Part II: Authority

Schoolmaster,  Norman Rockwell
Another important aspect of Charlotte Mason's method is her understanding of authority.  Dr. St. Cyr talked briefly about three ways of interacting with our children:


I. Authoritarian or Autocratic Discipline

The authoritarian (or, as CM calls it, "autocratic") stance is best illustrated by the phrase, "Because I said so."  This is the parent/teacher who tries to coerce the child to certain behaviors by his or her own power.  Using fear, intimidation, praise, reward, shame,  or even love as tools to overpower the child's personality and accomplish his goal, this instructor sets up a power struggle between the child and himself (or herself).  Charlotte Mason describes this approach to governance in School Education:

Authority is not uneasy; captious, harsh and indulgent by turns. This is the action of autocracy, which is self-sustained as it is self-derived, and is impatient and resentful, on the watch for transgressions, and swift to take offence. Autocracy has ever a drastic penal code, whether in the kingdom, the school, or the family. It has, too, many commandments. 'Thou shalt' and 'thou shalt not,' are chevaux de frise about the would-be awful majesty of the autocrat. The tendency to assume self-derived power is common to us all, even the meekest of us, and calls for special watchfulness; the more so, because it shows itself fully as often in remitting duties and in granting indulgences as in inflicting punishments

II.  Permissiveness

On the other extreme lies the permissive parent.  This is the parent who allows the child to do his own will, who often under the excuse of kindness and sympathy permits a child to shirk his duty, who fails to insist upon respect or obedience.  This parent can be motivated by a desire to avoid conflict or can be undisciplined himself.  A permissive approach, while seeming quite different than an authoritarian approach, actually has the same fundamental problem: a lack of recognition of the true Authority (that is, God) over the parent and a failure to willingly submit to that Authority.  The permissive parent/teacher does as he or she chooses in allowing or not allowing behaviors in children; he indulges his own whims instead of submitting to the True Authority and accepting his responsibility and duty.

The sense of must should be present with children; our mistake is to act in such a way that they, only, seem to be law-compelled while their elders do as they please. The parent or teacher who is pestered for 'leave' to do this or that, contrary to the discipline of the house or school, has only himself to thank; he has posed as a person in authority, not under authority, and therefore free to allow thebreach of rules whose only raison d'ĂȘtre is that they minister to the well-being of the children. (Philosophy of Education, ch. 4)

Charlotte Mason gives an example of this misguided permissiveness in Home Education. The mother has worked hard to teach her son to shut the door upon leaving the room.  Unfortunately, she fails to maintain the standard she has set:

vol 1 pg 124
Now that Johnny always shuts the door, his mother's joy and triumph begin to be mixed with unreasonable pity. 'Poor child,' she says to herself, 'it is very good of him to take so
much pains about a little thing, just because he is bid!' She thinks that, all the time, the child is making an effort for her sake; losing sight of the fact that the habit has become easy and natural, that, in fact, Johnny shuts the door without knowing that he does so. Now comes the critical moment. Some day Johnny is so taken up with a new delight that the habit, not yet fully formed, loses its hold, and he is half-way downstairs before he thinks of the door. Then he does think of it, with a little prick of conscience, strong enough, not to send him back, but to make him pause a moment to see if his mother will call him back. She has noticed the omission, and is saying to herself, 'Poor little fellow, he has been very good about it this long time; I'll let him off this once.' He, outside, fails to hear his mother's call, says, to himself––fatal sentence!––'Oh, it doesn't matter,' and trots off.
Next time he leaves the door open, but it is not a 'forget.' His mother calls him back in a rather feeble way. His quick ear catches the weakness of her tone, and, without coming back, he cries, 'Oh, mother, I'm in such a hurry,' and she says no more, but lets him off. Again he rushes in, leaving the door wide open. 'Johnny!'––in a warning voice. 'I'm going out again just in a minute, mother,' and after ten minutes' rummaging he does go out, and forgets to shut the door. The mother's mis-timed easiness has lost for her every foot of the ground she had gained.

III.  Proper Authority

The most helpful way of correcting and guiding children is authoritative.   Charlotte Mason understood this to be:

vol 3 pg 17
Authority is neither harsh nor indulgent. She is gentle and easy to be entreated in all matters immaterial, just because she is immovable in matters of real importance; for these, there is always a fixed principle. It does not, for example, rest with parents and teachers to dally with questions affecting either the health or the duty of their children. They have no authority to allow to children in indulgences––in too many sweetmeats, for example––or in habits which are prejudicial to health; nor to let them off from any plain duty of obedience, courtesy, reverence, or work. Authority is alert; she knows all that is going on and is aware of tendencies. She fulfils the apostolic precept––"He that ruleth (let him do it), with diligence." But she is strong enough to fulfil that other precept also, "He that showeth mercy (let him do it), with cheerfulness"; timely clemency, timely yielding, is a great secret of strong government. It sometimes happens that children, and not their parents, have right on their side: a claim may be made or an injunction resisted, and the children are in opposition to parent or teacher. It is well for the latter to get the habit of swiftly and imperceptibly reviewing the situation; possibly, the children may be in the right, and the parent may gather up his wits in time to yield the
point graciously and send the little rebels away in a glow of love and loyalty. 

A crucial element of true authority is the understanding that all real authority derives from God.  The parent/teacher is under authority just as surely as the child/student is under authority.  The teacher or parent can no more do their own will than the student can do their own will.  Directing your child to study well, to do their chores, or to behave respectfully is not your option, it is your duty:
vol 3 pg 16
Authority, on the other hand, may qualify as not being self-derived and not independent. The centurion in the Gospels says: "I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, 'Go,' and he goeth; another, 'Come,' and he cometh; and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he doeth it."

Here we have the powers and the limitations of authority. The centurion is set under authority, or, as we say, authorised, and, for that reason, he is able to say to one, 'go,' to another, 'come,' and to a third, 'do this,' in the calm certainty that all will be done as he says, because he holds his position for this very purpose––to secure that such and such things shall be accomplished. He himself is a servant with definite tasks, though they are the tasks of authority. This, too, is the position that our Lord assumes; He says: "I came not to do mine own will, but the will of Him that sent me." That is His commission and the standing order of His life, and for this reason He spake as one having authority, knowing Himself to be commissioned and supported.
The most wonderful aspect of this understanding of authority is that it frees us up from power struggles and conflicts.  You are not your child's dictator or controller--God is the One directing both you and your child.  You are your child's ally.  You are helping your child do the will of God, and he is helping you as well.  You are not, in fact, free to allow your child to do anything he or she wishes, to shirk their work or duty.  You must obey God and "bring [your children] up in the discipline and correction of the Lord. (Eph. 6:4)"

One question that arose in our discussion at the Institute was whether a teacher or parent could "bend" the rules or whether they had to always keep strictly to schedules and plans.   For example, a child asks if they can go blackberrying on a beautiful day instead of doing chores.   The parent remains in proper authority if he decides that blackberrying is the best use of time (it may be the only opportunity, it may be the children have been working hard inside and could benefit from fresh air and exercise) and in the best interests of the children.  The parent is being permissive if he or she simply gives in to the persistent requests because he or she is tired of hearing about it.  I would add that I think the parent is acting in an authoritarian way if he or she will not listen to reasonable requests from the children and sometimes accommodate them.  This is clearly an area that requires a lot of judgement, self-control, and prayer!

When we demonstrate to our children that we are under authority and that we are not free to do as we will, we are teaching them the most valuable spiritual lesson they can ever learn:  Thy Will be done.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Ambleside Summer Institute, Part I

I was blessed this summer to be able to attend the Ambleside Summer Institute conducted by Maryellen and Bill St. Cyr in Denver, Colorado.  It was a tremendous learning experience, and I came away with a deeper and clearer appreciation of Charlotte Mason's philosophy and methods.  In this series of posts, I hope to be able to share with my readers some of what I learned.  During the conference, we did not take notes, so this is narration at its purest!

Although I learned many specific techniques, which I will share a bit later on in the series, the most important concepts presented were the underlying philosophy and attitude toward learning and the learner upon which Charlotte Mason based her approach.  Dr. St. Cyr described three different fundamental educational philosophies.  Any method of instruction is based on one of these three philosophies.  The three philosophies are:

I.  The Mastery Approach

In the Mastery Approach, the teacher is the primary force in the educational model.  The student and the text are subordinate to the teacher, whose job it is to impart ("download") facts and figures into the student by use of a text.  The goal of this model is for the student to attain mastery of factual material in order to excel on tests and advance to higher levels of achievement.  Higher scoring students are rewarded by entry into prestigious schools and by awards, teacher approval, and letter grades; lower scoring students are punished by teacher disapproval, receiving low grades, and being assigned to remedial classes.  This model requires the teacher to assume the role of "expert".  It is the model commonly used in our school system.
The difficulty with this approach lies in the way in which it teaches some of our young people to value ambition, approval of others, and arrogance while at the same time teaching others that they are unworthy and unable to learn.  Love of learning is eradicated as the students strive, successfully or unsuccessfully, to earn rewards (or, possibly, avoid punishment and shame).  This approach does not form godly character; it does not teach the values of humility and of caring for others; it does not instill a love of learning.

Charlotte Mason noted the damage done by the use of a teacher's approval/love as a reward in Towards a Philosophy of Education:

vol 6 pg 82
...we have methods more subtle than the mere terrors of the law. Love is one of these. The person of winning personality attracts his pupils (or hers) who will do anything for his sake and are fond and eager in all their ways, docile to that point where personality is submerged, and they live on the smiles, perish on the averted looks, of the adored teacher. Parents look on with a smile and think that all is well; but Bob or Mary is losing that growing time which should make a self-dependent, self-ordered person, and is day by day becoming a parasite who can go only as he is carried, the easy prey of fanatic or demagogue. This sort of encroachment upon the love of children offers as a motive, 'do this for my sake'; wrong is to be avoided lest it grieve the teacher, good is to be done to pleasure him; for this end a boy learns his lessons, behaves properly, shows good will, produces a whole catalogue of schoolboy virtues and yet his character is being undermined....Where we teachers err is in stimulating the wrong Desires to accomplish our end. There is the desire of approbation which even an infant shows, he is not happy unless mother or nurse approve of him. Later this same desire helps him to conquer a sum, climb a hill, bring home a good report from school, and all this is grist to the mill, knowledge to the mind; because the persons whose approbation is worth having care that he should learn and know, conquer idleness, and get habits of steady work, so that his mind may be as duly nourished every day as is his body. Alas for the vanity that attends this desire of approbation, that makes the boy more solicitous for the grin of the stable-boy than for the approval of his master! Nay, this desire for approval may get such possession of him that he thinks of nothing else; he must have approval whether from the worthless or the virtuous. It is supposed that outbreaks of violence, robbery, assassinations, occur at times for the mere sake of infamy, just as deeds of heroism are done for the sake of fame. Both infamy and fame mean being thought about and talked about by a large number of people; and we know how this natural desire is worked by the daily press; how we get, now a film actress, now a burglar, a spy, a hero, or a scientist set before us to be our admiration and our praise.

vol 6 pg 85
Emulation, the desire of excelling, works wonders in the hands of the schoolmaster; and, indeed, this natural desire is an amazing spur to effort, both intellectual and moral. When in pursuit of virtue two or a score are 'emulously rapid in the race,' a school acquires 'a good tone' and parents are justified in thinking it the right place for their boy. In the intellectual field, however, there is danger; and nothing worse could have happened to our schools than the system of marks, prizes, place-taking, by which many of them are practically governed. A boy is so taken up with the desire to forge ahead that there is no time to think of anything else. What he learns is not interesting to him; he works to get his remove.

vol 6 pg 86
...another natural desire whose unvarnished name is avarice labours for good government and so-called progress cheek by jowl with emulation. "He must get a scholarship,"––is the duty of a small boy even before he goes to school, and indeed for good and sufficient reasons... It is hard to say what better could be done and yet this deliberate cult of cupidity is disastrous; for there is no doubt that here and there we come upon impoverishment of personality due to enfeebled intellectual life; the boy did not learn to delight in knowledge in his schooldays and the man is shallow in mind and whimsical in judgment.

II.  The Child-Centered Approach

This second philosophy is oriented to the child.  The student is the dominant element in the learning approach, and the wishes and desires of the student drive the curriculum.  The teacher's role is as an assistant to the student to plan a curriculum that the student is interested in and to provide resources such as texts, materials, etc. that the student can use in learning whatever he chooses to learn. Teacher and text are both subordinate to the student.

The outcome of this method can be a student who is self-centered,  narcissistic, and unable to discipline himself to do those difficult or unpleasant tasks that are necessary in every life.  Basing the entire education on the interests of the student does not lend itself to the forming of a self-controlled, mature adult, but rather to the encouragement of childish behavior and self-indulgence.  Furthermore, weak areas of learning and thinking are not addressed or developed, resulting in a rather lop-sided person--very strong in areas of interest, and very weak in other areas.  Under this type of learning approach, the child is never challenged to overcome difficulties, but rather avoids them as much as possible.  

III.  Charlotte Mason's Approach

The last philosophy that Dr. St. Cyr presented was that of Charlotte Mason.  In this educational approach, the dominant role is played by the text itself.  Both the student and the teacher are subordinate to the text.  Each of them must respect the actual text and treat it truthfully.  They must be in an attitude of "submission",  humbly learning from the text and its author.  The role of teacher is to facilitate the student's direct engagement with the text (which could be a work of literature, a science or history text, a musical composition, a painting, a nature study subject, or a poem) through reading (or observation) and narration. 

This approach creates an attitude of deference and respect in the student.  The student is challenged to learn and understand a great deal of material outside of his natural strengths.  He learns to attend honestly to others, respect other students' comments on the text, and receive correction (from the text itself).  The teacher does not use ambition, approval, self-indulgence, or shame to instruct, but allows the text itself in an impartial manner to teach both factual and philosophical ideas. This direct contact with the text is a primary feature of Charlotte Mason's philosophy, as she states in 
School Education:
vol 3 pg 66  
Half the teaching one hears and sees is more or less obtrusive. The oral lesson and the lecture, with their accompanying notes, give very little scope for the establishment of relations with great minds and various minds. The child who learns his science from a text-book, though he go to Nature for illustrations, and he who gets his information from object-lessons, has no chance of forming relations with things as they are, because his kindly obtrusive teacher makes him believe that to know about things is the same thing as knowing them personally; though every child knows that to know about Prince Edward is by no means the same thing as knowing the boy-prince. We study in many ways the art of standing aside. People sometimes write that the books set in our school constitute much of its usefulness; they do not always see that the choice of books, which implies the play of various able minds directly on the mind of the child, is a great part of that education which consists in the establishment of relations.
The Art of Standing Aside.––I have even known of teachers who have thought well to compose the songs and poems which their children use. Think of it! not even our poets are allowed to interpose between the poor child and the probably mediocre mind of the teacher. The art of standing aside to let a child develop the relations proper to him is the fine art of education, when the educator perceives the two things he must do and how to do these two things. The evolution [growth] of the individual is a natural sequence of the opening up of relations.

In this philosophy, the primary task of the teacher is to choose excellent materials, organize the structure of engaging with those materials directly (more on this later), and then step back and allow the student to learn as much as he or she is capable of learning directly from the text itself.  

Understanding Charlotte Mason's philosophy allows us to understand how and why certain teaching strategies such as "masterly inactivity" and narration are important.

IV.  Summary

Charlotte Mason believed the ultimate purpose of all education was to develop persons who are fully capable of knowing, loving, and serving God and one another.  To summarize this teaching on the philosophy of education,  both the mastery approach and the student-directed approach lead to the development of persons who are less than fit to know, love, and serve God and others. These approaches produce the fruits of ambition, self-interest, competition, pride, and self-indulgence.  Charlotte Mason's approach seeks to develop humility, honesty, and self-discipline by faithful engagement with the beautiful, the true, and the good.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Summer Notes

Kayaking on Puget Sound

     We have been having a very busy summer here, so blogging has fallen off a cliff!  We traveled out to visit family in the Seattle, Washington area.  It was such a blessing to be able to see my parents and spend a little time with them.  We also enjoyed the cooler temperatures--it was such a relief to have the "high" be only 72 degrees!  I cherish these times when my children can make  connections with their grandparents and cousins. 
Summer, 2012 with Bumpa and Grammie
 As some of you already know, my father is in the later stages of Alzheimer's disease.  It has been devastating to watch this once brilliant man slowly lose his ability to think and remember.  And yet, I am seeing that in this process he is becoming childlike and, I hope, more prepared to meet his loving Father when the time comes.  My mom has had a heavy burden of care for him and that has taken its toll on her, too.  Please say a prayer for them if you are reading this.  Let us pray, too, that each of us will more and more conform ourselves to the will of God, so that whatever our latter days bring to us, we will welcome it in a spirit of joy, trust, and acceptance as the gift of our dear Father.  I have been thinking about this a lot, but that's another post for another day.   
   Not only have we had some travel adventures this summer, but it  has also been fraught (great word!!) with animal adventure.  When I was traveling in Washington state, a little bird flew into the home in which I was staying.  I said a quick prayer to St. Francis for help (I have tried to catch a wild bird inside a house before and I KNOW it is really difficult), and I was able to quickly catch that little guy and release him with no harm done.  Thank you, St. Francis!
    Then, when we returned home, my son Bugle Boy found an injured mourning dove lying on our walkway.  We didn't know if it had been attacked by one of the hawks that we so frequently see, or if it had been hurt in the serious thunderstorm we had experienced the night before.  We put it into a cardboard box with a towel and took it to the local wildlife rehab center, near Winchester, Virginia.  They told us that the dove's crop had been pierced and it would need surgery, which led me to believe a hawk had attacked it. 
Injured mourning dove on our walkway

Actually, it was a very interesting outing that would make a great field trip. The center had hawks and owls in large cages that they were treating, as well as crows, snakes, and other small animals.  It was set inside a large park-like preserve that had picnic areas and woodland.   They have educational programs and I am sure you could call ahead to arrange a visit.  The rehab center itself is small, but the work they do is fascinating to both adults and children (at least, to me!)

Then, last night, my youngest son Mad Muncher called me up to his room after he had been tucked into bed.  And what should I see but a FROG on the WINDOW!!!  Mind you, his room is a high second (almost 3rd--we have a daylight basement that comes out of the ground below his room) story room with no trees of any kind within 50-100 feet!  What in the world was that frog doing there???

I know this is dark, but I hope you can still see the frog...maybe not?

Is this any better?

It was a great chance to observe those little suction-pad feet in action, and it fits right into our fall science topic of reptiles.  A few weeks earlier (right after we lit upon reptiles as a topic), we had found a perfect dead snake carcass on our drive for inspection-- not at all crushed-- so I take these events as signs from God that REPTILES is the ordained subject, lol!!!

Well, that's it for now.  Maybe I'll post again later, and then again, maybe I'll just enjoy the last few weeks of summer!!!!