Snapshots from a CM-Influenced Homeschool

by Sally Thomas

Let me be clear: I love Charlotte Mason. Of all the educational philosophies I’ve encountered, hers speaks most clearly to my own sense of the child as a person, and to my – well, let’s call it fanaticism – about being a part of a civilization with an intellectual tradition. Recently, a tutoring student, a high-school senior in honors English, asked me who the Anglo-Saxons were, because even though they had read Beowulf in class he hadn’t really gotten what this Anglo-Saxon business had to do with anything. I spent the better part of our hour together enlightening him at great length and in huge detail, and then I sent him several pages’ worth of annotated timeline stuff – if, when I say fanaticism, that gives you some idea of what I mean.

Though I think my student was sorry he’d opened his mouth, he did give every appearance of finding this news of his English-speaking heritage interesting. I mean, news flash: you are someone, and you come from somewhere. What I love about a Charlotte-Mason education in my own home is that we get up every day and, in our reading and conversation, remind ourselves all over again of this basic human truth.

At the same time, I would not say that I am a Charlotte-Mason purist, at least when it comes to implementing her actual methods. Though there are non-negotiable CM “pegs” on which our day hangs – copywork, a daily feast of readings in living books, a “less-is-more” approach to lesson length – I’m not trying too hard to replicate a PNEU school in my home. The why of CM’s philosophy animates everything we do; the how, in my view, is open to some degree of individual interpretation.

In In This House of Brede, English writer Rumer Godden’s novel of Benedictine religious life, the wise Abbess Catherine, confronted with winds of change in the early 1960s, observes that the Rule of Saint Benedict was made to bend – not to break altogether, but to give, to accommodate. So, too, I think, Charlotte Mason’s method has a lot of “give” built into it, so that an individual homeschooling family, faced with curriculum and scheduling decisions, might ask not, Did Charlotte Mason do this, but Might Charlotte Mason, in our shoes, possibly choose this? Or, and possibly more to the point, Is this decision compatible with what both Miss Mason and we believe about the child, and about education?

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So, what does this mean? Well, for one thing, it means that I don’t stress out that much about elements in a CM education that haven’t worked for us. Nature notebooks: do not happen here. Book of Centuries: not really, unless I do it, which kind of defeats the purpose. Our Island Story: not a hit. And so on. (And, by the way, you the discerning reader will of course realize that everyone’s mileage varies, and that my list of no-go items is in no way a reflection of the objective value of those items. They just represent what, in my house, would entail more coercion than I am prepared to engage in to make them happen).

For another, it means that what I do tend to focus on instead are the large ideas. For example, from Volume Six of Miss Mason’s works:

*Children have a right to the best we possess; therefore their lesson books should be, as far as possible, our best books.

*They weary of talk, and questions bore them, so that they should be allowed to use their books for themselves; they will ask for such help as they wish for.

*They require a great variety of knowledge,––about religion, the humanities, science, art; therefore, they should have a wide curriculum, with a definite amount of reading set for each short period of study.

*The teacher affords direction, sympathy in studies, a vivifying word here and there, help in the making of experiments, etc., as well as the usual teaching in languages, experimental science and mathematics.

To my mind, this is the outline, the set of parameters. As long as these criteria are met, anything goes. But what does that mean, practically speaking?

Practically speaking, for my two youngest children, Rachel (a.k.a. Ray), aged 10 and Ben, aged 11, it means this schedule:

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This is the core of our daily education: “a wide variety of knowledge.” It’s a fairly moveable schedule; today, for example, I had one child pop up early from bed and want to tackle her schoolwork right away, so she pulled up her schedule on her Kindle and got to work, doing copywork followed by several problems from several different pages of her math test-prep workbook, then her day’s reading.

Meanwhile, my 11-year-old struggles with insomnia, and sometimes it’s just politic to let him sleep later, which is what happened today. As I write this, he’s sitting with me at the kitchen table doing copywork, which he’ll then follow with about twenty minutes of independent math work, again pulled from his test-prep book. I like to pick problems from several different pages, so that each child is doing, daily, one multiplication problem, one division problem, and one other kind of problem – today the 10-year-old calculated the perimeter of one rectangle.

As the insomniac works, his sister, who’s done with her independent work, is working on a sewing project of her own devising. In a few minutes, we’ll break for lunch, during which I’ll cover our “basket” reading: an entry from our saints’ dictionary, a chapter of Life of Fred, and Madeleine Polland’s Beorn the Proud, which echoes the English-history reading each child has been doing independently. I also cover art during basket time, reading lives of famous painters; Amy Steedman’s Knights of Art is an enduring favorite in our house.

You might notice, from my schedule, that while I do generally follow Miss Mason’s dictum that studies not be determined on the basis of interest – because it is the rare child who says, “I feel like learning about Alcibiades!” – sometimes I don’t. This year, for example, my 11-year-old was interested in geology, and it seemed too good an opportunity to waste. He needed something to read for science, so I lined up a number of geology-themed books and let him have at it. While Miss Mason’s point is well taken, that a child’s education should not be limited to the horizons of his own passing interests, at the same time I find that if a child’s interest will fill a legitimate educational need at a particular moment, it’s generally pretty wise to follow that trail, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. Makes life easier, at any rate.

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My high-school student, incidentally, is very much on his own trajectory, though it’s still heavily informed by those large ideas of Miss Mason’s. We do an integrated history-literature-religion-humanities course of my own design – here is the schedule he follows for that course – plus math, science, and German, the last two of which we outsource via Belmont Abbey College, where my husband teaches. The high-schooler is on campus with his dad three days a week for classes, between which he does the rest of his work camped out in the science building which is his second home. The other two days he’s home in the early part of the day doing schoolwork, then spends the afternoons at his job as assistant to an equine veterinarian. Typically, too, he gets up very early in the mornings to run and work out with a local runners’ group. Because we’re so often not together during the days, and “homeschooling” with him has taken on a kind of satellite quality, we do a lot of our communication via email and a blog devoted to written narrations and timeline entries. There’s often an aura of old-fashioned-ness, even quaintness, around the idea of a Charlotte-Mason education — books and methods from the Victorian era and the age of the governess – but in our house, at any rate, the governess is often digital.

The high-schooler’s days are rich and varied, including a steady diet of good reading covering “a wide curriculum,” with “sympathy in studies and a vivifying word here and there” from me, his primary teacher; and from his college professors, “the usual teaching in languages, experimental science, and mathematics.” They don’t look much like secondary-level PNEU days, maybe, but the spirit of Miss Mason’s philosophy has guided our shaping of them.

I do aim to have our days fall loosely into the pattern of the PNEU school, with formal, sit-down work and assigned reading in the early part of the day, and the afternoon devoted to individual pursuits. These include some judiciously-chosen scheduled activities, notably a YMCA gym-and-swim class and Irish step-dance, but most of our afternoons are open for child-chosen projects. Currently the 10-year-old is sewing lentil-filled bean-bag toys, drawing, keeping a journal, and playing Minecraft. We are pretty philosophical about video games around here; I actually find that a lot of spontaneous narration goes on in the playing of Minecraft as, for example, the 10-year-old builds a “Borrowers” world in response to our reading of that series. The 11-year-old, meanwhile, is learning programming via CodeAcademy.com, because in addition to playing Minecraft he’d like to make video games. He’s also a voracious reader, working his way at the moment through a huge collection of Rick Brant Science Fiction Adventures books that I bought for $.99 for his Kindle. Both children play daily outside and make use of more traditional resources, such as Legos, dollhouses, tiny figurines, toy swords, and so on, in their imaginative play.

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I admire no end the model of the PNEU school and the governess training with which Miss Mason provided her students. For a mother working with her own children, however, I believe that there’s scope within the underlying philosophy – the Rule — for an infinite range of flexible, creative, and individualized approaches to the method. Like the Rule of Saint Benedict, which molds and is molded by the community that lives by it, the Rule of Charlotte Mason may be molded by, but will inevitably mold, the family.

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Amber says:
I would dearly love to have a PNEU style homeschool. I love the orderliness of it, I love how time efficient it is, and I love how it exposes the children to so many good things. But then reality hits, and I remember I am a mother of five children, ages 11 to one week old, and running a schedule like that is just about enough to kill me or drive me completely mad. I have to remind myself that I do not have a governess, a cook, or a general maid, nor am I dealing with a group of children of approximately the same age. But that doesn’t negate the value of CM’s approach, it just calls for adaptation and imagination. I’ve found a generous morning time, coupled with a read-aloud snack time and some time to work independently in between (and after, for the eldest) works reasonably well in our family. That doesn’t mean that I don’t at times daydream about a Catholic PNEU style school in my town… Although I’m not convinced that what we would gain would make up for what we would lose.
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December 6, 2013 at 1:51 pm
Sally Thomas
I know what you mean, Amber. That model is definitely my ideal. I’ve been thinking a lot lately, though, about the fact that the CM model was developed largely with the idea that someone besides a mother would be educating her children: either a governess or a teacher in a CM school. Even in the early days, there were mothers educating their own children — the mother of the famous (or infamous) English aristocratic Mitford sisters at times did directly educate her children according to the CM method. One of the funniest moments in her youngest daughter Jessica (“Decca”)’s memoir, Hons and Rebels, is of her mother reading her a chapter of Our Island Story and trying to get her to narrate. “Come on, little D, can’t you remember just one word?” “Very well, then — THE.”
But mostly, if I understand correctly, Miss Mason was training teachers, including in-home governesses, to teach other people’s children. I think her training was absolutely on the money, and as a method to apply in whatever situation might arise for such a teacher, hers is a clear winner on every level. But I think the fact that this training was meant largely for people not teaching their own children is important: someone was hiring the governess, and someone would want to *see* that the children were learning, via things that they produced (“Oh, look, how lovely, it’s Tarquin’s little nature notebook! Well done, Miss Boggs.”). For the governess, this was a job, with clearly defined hours. For the school teacher, obviously the same would be true. In both these situations, on a purely pragmatic level, the structure would be important, the schedule would be important, as would the need not to let things be dictated by children’s individual interests — because if you’re one teacher, and you have as many as ten children from ten different homes in your class, and you have limited time with them daily, then you don’t have the luxury of letting them go in ten different directions in their study, even if you didn’t have any other philosophical reason for a common body of coursework.
All that to say that I think that a mother educating her own children does have more freedom and flexibility, because the only person to whom she has to show evidence of learning is, in most cases, herself (and her husband, who may or may not need exerted persuading that learning is happening). Also, she’s with her children 24 hours a day, and though there may be a clear time in the day for formal learning (as there is usually at our house), she can see that learning is happening outside that time as well, and she can see that some of her children’s independent pursuits are filling the place of some of the designated components of the prescribed educational program — if that makes sense! Not that a governess might not observe these things as well and think on her feet in a given situation, but a mother, as the authority in her own home and not an employee, may feel freer to remake the rules a little. Of course, all kinds of things might influence how structured or not a mother would be in her own home. With many children at different levels, I see the value of more structure, though I certainly know large families who implement CM ideals in a relaxed way. With basically only two children left at home full-time, I tend toward the more fluid end of things purely because I’m not doing crowd control . . . though on the other hand, because I do have work of my own that I want to get done during the day, it pays for me to stress structure and routine at least a little bit. We seem to flow in and out of that mode. I also tend to start with more formal CM elements and then gradually drop things that don’t seem helpful, or people don’t seem ready to embrace without a daily fight — or to adapt them into a form that does work for us (e.g. Minecraft as narration).
None of this invalidates the model or the method — I think that’s got to be the ideal. To my mind, it’s the best educational template that we have to work with. And I don’t discount the notion that my interpretation of a CM education would horrify Miss Mason herself. She might well be sitting there in heaven watching me write this, and wringing her hands, and saying, “No! No! No! That is not what we meant at all!” But I hope not. Not too much, anyway. In any event, she’s there, and I’m here with these children . . . and I hope that, like a good Benedictine community, our family community preserves the heart and soul of the “Rule,” even as we deviate from the particulars of nursery life in 1901 — as the contemporary Benedictine community both is and is not like a 6th-century Benedictine community. (the bit in the Rule about keeping underwear in a community cupboard, so that anyone going traveling can request some, always kind of makes me smile. I haven’t actually thought to ask any Benedictine of my acquaintance whether his underwear is his own . . . I guess technically it does belong to the community, but surely he gets to keep it in his own drawer, and not just request it when going traveling. But as the Benedictines I know are monks, and I’m kind of female and embarrassed to ask, it’s quite possible that I’ll never find this out.)
 
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