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.  


  1. Dear Caroline,

    What a nice narration of your time at the conference! I feel blessed to have met you and now count you as a friend. It was a challenging and nourishing time with kindred spirits.

    From joy to joy,

  2. Thank you, Nancy! It was a delight to meet you, too. I only wish we had had more time to chat :)

  3. Thanks for writing about the conference, Caroline. So glad you had a wonderful time!