Basics

One of the most frequently asked question by those new to Charlotte Mason is, “what exactly is a living book?”

What does that term mean?

How do I know if a book is living?

When I first started learning about Charlotte Mason through curricula that billed itself as CM (but actually wasn’t), and reading blogs here and there, I developed the idea that living book meant historical fiction.

Other places I’ve seen people say that a living book is wrapped in a fictional story, or any book that ‘draws a reader in’ is living.

This leads to the erroneous conclusion that all you have to do to make a bunch of facts into a living book is to write them in a fictional story, or even that junk-food type books that kids love (Junie B Jones, Magic Treehouse) are living books.

But just because a child loves a book doesn’t mean it’s a living book.

My definition of a living book

Here is my own short definition:

A living book is a book of literary quality, often written for a popular audience by a single author (sometimes two) who is passionate about his subject.  It transmits ideas rather than just facts, and feeds the mind.

Let’s take that definition bit by bit.

  • A living book is a book

I think we should start here — by definition, a living book is a book.  Not a movie. Not a youtube video or documentary. Not a radio production or a video game.

A living book is a book.

  • Next, “of literary quality

This does not mean… ‘anything wrapped in a story shell.’

…It doesn’t mean any book that is narrative.

…It doesn’t mean any book that ‘draws a child in.’

It is a book of literary quality.

Beautiful writing.  Varied sentences. Wide and rich vocabulary.

It is a book that you as an adult love to read as much as your children do, because the quality of the writing is excellent.

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” — C. S. Lewis

I will say the same thing about a living book.  If you don’t enjoy it as an adult, if it is a pain to slog through because the writing is so stilted or written on such a low level, it is not of literary quality.

Continuing —

  • often written for a popular audience by a single author who loves his subject

Not a book written by committee.  Not a textbook. Not meant for ‘educational purposes only.’

This is a book that is written with such passion and joy, and written so lucidly, that everyone can enjoy it.

Even if they aren’t assigned it for school.  Especially if they aren’t assigned it for school!

It is not a lecture that has been written down.

If you open up a book, read a few pages, and would never think of reading it if you weren’t required to, then put it back.

Have you ever known a person who you could listen to them talk for hours, no matter the subject, because they had such a way with words that listening was a delight?  Or that was able to transmit their enthusiasm and draw you in to their subject even when you had no prior interest in it?

Or that could take anything and wrap it in a story of personal anecdote so skillfully that you hardly even realized you were learning because they were such a joy to listen to?

That’s what you want out of a book.

You want a book that grabs you by the collar, pulls you in, and won’t let go, even if you have no prior interest in the subject.   Because the author writes so well.

 

  • It transmits ideas rather than just facts.

This is a harder one to define.  Ideas. But let’s take a look at some books that just transmit facts and pull kids in, for comparison.

The most common style of books you’ll find in the non-fiction children’s section these days is the DK Eyewitness style.  They are not all published by DK, but they share the style.

Lots of pictures.  Little snippets of text.  Fact. Fact. Amazing fact! More pictures.

Now, look at a page of this book.  Take out all the pictures, and just leave the text.  Since there are often text boxes scattered all over the page with one or two central paragraphs, you’ll need to mentally draw those odd pieces of text together.

Now read through it, without the pictures.

Does it flow?  Is it beautiful?  Does it draw you in?

Or is it choppy?  Clunky? Does it read like a list of facts for a 4th grader’s book report?

I’m going to write a few pieces from my daughter’s favorite book about bugs here, so you can see what I mean.

On the page titled Wasps, we have three paragraphs telling a little about different kinds of wasps, then several drawings of different kinds of wasps.

California oak gall wasp.  This type of wasp lays her eggs in oak leaves.  Blue-black spider wasp. The spider wasp catches spiders to feed her young.  Giant hornet. Like the yellow jacket, the hornet is a wasp with a powerful sting.

Etc.

Then we move into some more interesting text, also scattered around a large drawing of a wasp:

The bright colors of the wasp probably acts as a warning to its enemies–keep away or else.  When a creature such as a bird attacks a wasp and gets stung, it learns to link the black and yellow stripes with the painful sting.  This makes it less likely to attack another wasp. The wasp’s antennae are covered with tiny hairs and are highly sensitive to touch and smell.  The antennae may also detect changes in temperature and humidity.

And so on.

But do you see here?  It’s all just fact after fact.    There’s no … personality.   It’s like listening to someone read from an encyclopedia entry.

If it weren’t for the large drawings and pictures over every page, my child would not be interested at all.

Pictures should enhance the text, not make it so the text is bearable!

One last point —

Living books can be fiction or non-fiction.  They can be historical fiction, they can be non-fiction wrapped in a fictional story.

They can be classics (20 years old or more) or newly published.

But just because a book is fiction, or historical fiction, or wrapped in a fictional story, does not necessarily make it a living book.

The litmus test is not whether or not it’s told in story form.

The litmus test is if it is literary quality and transmits ideas rather than just facts (food for the mind).

When you evaluate a book, is the quality so high that you want to save it for your grandchildren or even great-grandchildren?

If so, it’s probably a living book.

Want to remember the post What is a Living Book? Pin it to your favorite Pinterest board!

pinterest book with pages in heart shape what are living books

Do you think that Charlotte Mason’s method of homeschooling and Waldorf homeschooling are opposed?

They absolutely are not.

While they do deviate substantially once the student reaches age 10 or so,  there are several things that Charlotte Mason homeschoolers can learn from followers of Rudolph Steiner.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, which means if you click through and make a purchase, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Charlotte Mason vs Waldorf

One thing I’ve noticed while hanging out in both Waldorf and Charlotte Mason groups is that even though Charlotte and Steiner shared many ideas, their followers stress different aspects of their philosophies.

On top of that, the way Charlotte Mason’s method is portrayed in many popular curricula is just one interpretation of CM.  But those who haven’t read her work often take those interpretations as The One True Way.

Waldorf schools as a system have been around for decades, and they quite frankly have been better at teaching certain aspects of the method than Charlotte Mason followers have.

Here are 6 things that Charlotte Mason homeschoolers ought to learn from Waldorf

1) Severely limit screen time

This is a given in the Waldorf world, to the point of judgmental attitudes towards those who don’t. But Charlotte Mason adherents are less likely to talk about it.

While documentaries (especially nature documentaries!) have their place, and we love Magic School Bus as much as the next family, screen time affects attitudes.

I’ve seen it in myself, in my husband, in my kids and grandchild.

I will admit, this is one area that I really struggle in. While we don’t do apps or ebooks, when my husband comes home from work, the TV is turned on.

And when Grandma comes to visit, she lets my daughter spend all day on her tablet or phone. When Grandma leaves, it’s a battle to cut the electronics again.

It’s so much easier to give in and turn on a documentary than it is to listen to whining.

Strategy: For our family, cold turkey works best. Choose a day, and turn off the TV. I hear whining for about 2 weeks, but if I’m prepared for it I can handle it.

When we’re transitioning away from TV, I make an extra effort to be outdoors.

2) Simple toys and imagination

You might think this is only for little ones, but big kids too don’t need a lot of toys.

Simple, open ended toys and imagination. They don’t need the latest video game, the latest fad toy, or expensive gadgets.

Tools and things they can do with their hands for older kids. Quite honestly, the same goes with younger kids.

My neighbor buys toys for his grandkids every time he goes to the store. Literally, every time.

Their bedrooms are filled with plastic tweeting birds that don’t work, little plastic crabs that change color in water, miniature rockets, hand slap goo, and all manner of other things.

The problem with this is that when they’re outside without their toys, they are at a loss for what to do.

They aren’t used to using their imagination, so instead they beg Grandpa to use his phone so they can watch YouTube videos.

And these kids are 7 and 5 years old!

Strategy: The book Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne is my go-to book. I re-read it every year, and I give it as a baby shower gift.

Read it. Then read it again.

3) Delay Academics until almost 7

Experienced Charlotte Mason homeschoolers know this, but we seem to have a terrible time transmitting this idea to newbies.

I don’t know how many people come to a Charlotte Mason group and say “What should I be doing for schoolwork? My child is 4.” I’ve even seen people ask for phonics recommendations for children as young as 2!

While Charlotte Mason was not against kids learning phonics and everyday math if it wasn’t pushed on them, this is one area where I think we should take our cue from Waldorf.

No academics until 6 (or later)

We also do a disservice when we say “formal lessons start at 6.” Formal lessons could start at 6, but it wasn’t a requirement. Charlotte did not deny students 10 years of age admittance if they hadn’t started at 6.

The consideration of out-of-door life, in developing a method of education, comes second in order; because my object is to show that the chief function of the child–– his business in the world during the first six or seven years of his life––is to find out all he can, about whatever comes under his notice, by means of his five senses; that he has an insatiable appetite for knowledge got in this way; and that, therefore, the endeavour of his parents should be to put him in the way of making acquaintance freely with Nature and natural objects; that, in fact, the intellectual education of the young child should lie in the free exercise of perceptive power, because the first stages of mental effort are marked by the extreme activity of this power; and the wisdom of the educator is to follow the lead of Nature in the evolution of the complete human being. (Home Education, page 96)

Notice how it does not say ‘as soon as the child reaches his sixth year, he no longer gets his knowledge through his five senses, but instead uses books.’

Many kids simply aren’t ready for formal – even play based – academics until 7, or even later.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of.

A good page on what to do with your 6 and Under child, before formal academics, is here.

4) Telling Stories

I rarely see this mentioned in Charlotte Mason circles, but I see it everywhere in Waldorf ones.
Charlotte Mason homeschoolers tend to be so focused on books and reading books and more books, that they forget about storytelling.

Tell, don’t read, your children stories.

Note that I didn’t say “young” children.

Your children of all ages.

Storytelling is a skill that all cultures have practiced for millennia. We seem to have lost it in past years.

When you have young children, rather than reading Cinderella, tell it to them.  Fairy and folk tales were meant to be transmitted orally. They were written down by ethnographers, but they weren’t meant to be passed on that way.

When your children are older and reading their own schoolbooks, tell them stories at dinner.

…tell stories around a backyard campfire.

…tell stories from your childhood.

…tell stories from their childhood (reinforce family memories).

…tell stories from your cultural heritage (fairy and folk tales – you won’t run out!).

…tell stories from other cultures.

Strategy: Think you’re a terrible storyteller? Practice!

First, read or listen to a story. The next day, do the same thing. That night, tell it to yourself. The next morning, re-read it and tell it to yourself again. Now you’re ready to tell it to your kids!

It’s ok if the characters change. It’s ok if the words change. It’s ok if you leave out an entire scene, or make up a new one.

Adjust it as you need to for your family.

Know going into it that some stories will resonate much more than others. That’s ok, too.

5) Head, heart, and hands

“Head, heart, and hands” is talked about a lot in Waldorf circles, but rarely in Charlotte Mason groups.

It’s a great way of looking at the CM method though, and making sure you aren’t overbalancing in one direction or another.

Many people use Charlotte Mason education and only use the academics.

As with Waldorf, academics are only one part of a Charlotte Mason education.

Head, heart, and hands.

Head – academics – got that covered. Yep.

Heart – Christians would most likely consider this the religious aspect, but many of you reading this are not Christian.

We still need to address the heart.

Do you have a spiritual tradition? Great! No? That’s fine, too!  (Read Is Charlotte Mason for Christians only?)

Every student should be reading biographies that will inspire them to be better people.

Strategy: Consciously train your children in our social contract. The ones that most people agree is necessary for a polite society.

Some are obvious – Don’t kill someone unless it’s self-defense. Don’t steal. Don’t cheat. Tell the truth.

Others are not so obvious – Tolerance. Being polite. Good manners. Kindness. Standing up to injustice.

Other ways Waldorf followers practice “heart” is by letting beauty sink into their children. Painting, drawing, repeating stories, going slow. In  Kindergarten for your Three to Six Year Old from Christopherus, the author Donna Simmons says, “Think soul nourishment, not tasks accomplished.”

That one sentence says it all.

 

Hands – while Charlotte Mason circles will talk about handwork, that’s where they generally stop.

The “hands” part of a Waldorf education encompasses not only handwork, but also sculpting, painting, drawing, and body movement.

Did you know that clay modeling was done every year for ages 6-14 in the PNEU programmes?

Or that students were expected to ‘illustrate scenes from their tales, in brushwork’? That sounds like the painting of their lessons that Waldorf students do!

Waldorf education says that 1/3 of the curriculum is physical. Charlotte Mason homeschoolers should be doing just as much.

Playing outdoors, jumping rope, riding bikes, climbing trees, playing scout games, stalking birds-insects-lizards-frogs-animals, dancing. Even swimming is specifically mentioned by Charlotte that everyone over the age of 7 should do.

6) Primary Source reading

One thing that I see stressed in Waldorf groups is that you should read Rudolph Steiner’s lectures for yourself.

The same applies to Charlotte Mason’s works.

While those “in the know” always recommend reading her original volumes, many who consider themselves CM homeschoolers haven’t actually done it.

You may think that reading blogs and listening to podcasts will give you a sense of Charlotte Mason education, and you’re partly right.

But when you do that, you’re not getting Charlotte’s thoughts. You’re getting your interpretation of someone else’s interpretation of her words!

They are secondary sources – someone’s interpretation, summary, discussion, description, or analysis of the primary sources.

I always, always recommend that you read her works for yourself, and draw your own conclusions.

The original volumes are being reprinted by both Living Books Press and Simply Charlotte Mason. The Charlotte Mason Plenary has published both Volumes 1 and 6 along with study guides.  (Read my review of The Plenary)

But there is so much more than just the original six volumes!

From The Charlotte Mason Digital Collection website: “This database provides digital access to Charlotte Mason’s manuscripts, journals, correspondence and other archival documents housed in Ambleside (UK), where she established a teacher’s college.”

Not only are there several years’ worth of Parents’ Review volumes, but also A Liberal Education for All: Practical Workings of the PUS, letters, edited manuscripts, more than 12 years of PNEU programmes, and the Mother’s Educational Course with markups for future terms.

You can get lost in there for weeks (*cough* ask me how I know). And by immersing yourself in not only her volumes, but also the programmes, A Liberal Education for All, and the Parents’ Review, your understanding of the method will increase exponentially.

Here’s a little secret – I don’t agree with some of the interpretations of other “experts” in the Charlotte Mason community.

I don’t agree with them because I’ve read the source material for myself and drawn a different conclusion.

Maybe you will draw a completely different conclusion than I or other people do. That’s ok! But you will never know unless you read for yourself.

THE TAKEAWAY

Six things you should be incorporating into your Charlotte Mason homeschool if you aren’t already –

  • Severely limit screen time – it builds the imagination
  • Simple toys
  • Delay academics
  • Tell stories, don’t just read them
  • Head, heart, and hands – balance book work, beauty and ethics, and physical movement. Think soul nourishment, not tasks accomplished.
  • Primary sources. The Volumes and the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection.

What else do you incorporate from Waldorf into your homeschool?

Want to remember this? Pin it to your favorite Pinterest board!

One of the biggest troubles newbies to Charlotte Mason have is reading books slowly.

You look at all the great books on a curriculum list and dive right in … but then you’ve finished an entire term’s worth of reading in two weeks and think “this isn’t enough!”

Or, you don’t follow anyone’s term schedule but just sit down with your kids and read. You’ve never even heard that you should read books slowly.

Your kids don’t want you to stop reading, so why should you?

Let’s find out.

SLOW READING: A CORNERSTONE OF THE CHARLOTTE MASON METHOD

In What Is Charlotte Mason, I mentioned that we savor rather than gulp our books.

But what does this mean?

It means that we read books slowly. 40-50 pages per 11-12 week term.

What? That’s crazy slow, you say. There’s no way we could make a book last that long!

Yes you can.

You read only 3-4 pages per week. Mostly, you’ll read this amount in a single session. In Form 1, for example, History is done once per week for about 10-15 minutes.

Each session you’d talk about what happened last week (see this post I wrote for Wildwood Curriculum), perhaps talk about what your kids think will happen next, read the pages, then have the children narrate (tell back) to you.

After narration, talk excitedly about what you read. Maybe bring out the map to find places you’ve read about.

This will take approximately 10-15 minutes. Does that sound too little? Another staple of Charlotte Mason is short lessons.

Jodi Clark put this very well:

“It is very important to stick to the time period set for a class–this is a key piece to the method; it enables the child to slowly digest the information presented, which fosters deeper learning, understanding, and relations.

It’s a good sign they are delighted with the book if they want you to keep going. But they’ll have to wait until the next time the class is scheduled–usually a week.”

 

BUT MY CHILD DOESN’T WANT TO STOP READING!

Stop anyway.

Yes, stop even if they want you to read more.

This builds anticipation for next week, and also lets those shorter chunks simmer in their minds. They will tend to think more deeply on the scenes and topics, because they are getting them in small pieces.

Remember that Charlotte Mason is like drinking from a cup rather than a firehouse.

A trickle rather than a pour.

It also helps to develop the memory when a student forgets from one week to the next, then has to remember.

Even if the memory is jogged in order to remember.

It’s similar to Spaced Repetition, though the aim of reading slowly isn’t to memorize.

DO I USE ONLY VERY SHORT BOOKS THEN?

No. Use normal length books.

Books are generally read over several terms, and often over several years (a year is made up of 3 terms, approximately 11-12 weeks each).

This is also a reason why you should use only high quality books, that aren’t written down to children, and are full of ideas rather than just facts.

When you use a book over a period of several months to years, it needs to be interesting and well written. Anything less will guarantee that you (and your kids) will be well sick of it.

Another reason to use books that will span multiple ages is that your children won’t grow out of them in a year.

Have you ever used a curriculum that was perfect at the beginning of the year, but your child had such massive growth mid-year, that by the end it was well beneath her level? It happened with my own daughter quite frequently.

By using high quality books that span ages, you’ll decrease the chances of this happening.

VERY SLOW READING DOESN’T APPLY TO ALL BOOKS

Can you imagine trying to read a single short book of historical fiction over an entire year? Or perhaps spreading out Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone over a two year period?

That story would drag!
No, fiction isn’t generally included in slow reading.

That is to say, light fiction isn’t.
In Form I (approximate ages 6-9), books of fiction weren’t generally assigned. Instead, short biographies and fairy tales were.

Form II (approximate ages 9-12) is when we really start seeing fiction every term in the PNEU programmes. Still, these are done at the rate of 1-2 books per term.

The vast majority of books in a Charlotte Mason education are non-fiction.

BUT ISN’T CHARLOTTE MASON FILLED WITH BOOKS?

Yes and no.

Multiple books are read every term, sometimes 3-4 books per subject. But they are still read slowly. They are still read at the rate of 40-50 pages per term.

Books are an integral part of a Charlotte Mason education, but they are only a part of it.

Just as important is working with your hands, cultivating a sense of beauty, and becoming a naturalist.

It is a well-balanced approach to education.

By reading books slowly, it keeps the reading manageable.

EVALUATING CURRICULA

In light of this, it should be easier to evaluate curricula that claim to be Charlotte Mason or draw from CM.

  • Lots of books listed? Fine – could go either way
  • Mostly historical fiction? Ehh …. you’ll definitely want to dig more. Charlotte Mason used some historical fiction starting in Form II, but only 1-2 books per term.
  • Are the books read quickly or are they spread out over several terms (or years)? While it’s ok for some books to be read more quickly, the majority should be read slowly.

If the books are read more quickly, consider that the curriculum might actually be more Waldorf or Classical. These are both valid homeschooling styles, but they aren’t Charlotte Mason.

THE TAKEAWAY

  • Keep readings short
  • Read only 3-4 pages per week from each book, on average, to let the material simmer
  • spread each book over several terms or even years
  • Stay strong when your child begs for one more chapter to build the anticipation

Have you tried slow reading in your homeschool? I’d love to know how it works for you! Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email.

You’ve heard things about this Charlotte Mason method, and the more you read the more it sounds like exactly what your family is looking for.

But there’s one problem: you keep seeing on blogs and Facebook groups that Charlotte Mason is for Christians only, and can’t be used by those who aren’t.

But you’re not Christian.

Do you need to leave this method behind and look for another that will welcome non-Christians? Does Charlotte Mason’s method of education really only work for those who have committed themselves to her god? Is there something different about the biology and brain of children of Christian parents that makes this method unsuitable for those of us that aren’t?

Of course not!

Charlotte Mason was Christian

Let’s get this out of the way right now — Charlotte Mason was Christian. More specifically, Anglican. In the U.S., this is the modern Episcopalian Church. Her worldview was saturated with it, and she couldn’t conceive of any other religion being ‘right’, just as many modern-day Christians can’t.

However, she also taught Jewish students, and had friends and close co-workers who were Jewish. Nowhere in her writings have I found where she said that Jewish or any other religions should not use her method. On the contrary, she says that her method works with all children. Are we to believe that her ‘all children’ actually means only Christian children, and that children are biologically different depending on what religion their parents follow?

I don’t think so.

How to bring your own beliefs to a CM education

With the proliferation of Christian curricula where the entire thing seems to be saturated with a certain brand of Christianity, and the inclusion of generally Young Earth resources in these, you’d think that Charlotte Mason held those same views.

Nope.

Her programmes (from the PNEU) are filled with books that are only mildly Christian or that are outright secular. She used books that taught current scientific theory (Darwin), and she says in Volume 1 concerning which Bible commentaries to use: “Mr. Smyth brings both modern criticism and research to bear, so that children taught from his little manuals will not be startled to be told that the world was not made in six days; and, at the same time, they will be very sure that the world was made by God.”

So what do we as non-Christians, or Christians whose beliefs don’t follow other curricula, do?

First, “We must teach only what we know.”

What does this mean? It was actually this singular passage that brought me back to my non-Christian beliefs. I was trying to raise my daughter with Christian materials, because that was all that was available 15 years ago. I read this passage, and realized that I didn’t believe what I was trying to teach my daughter.

“In the first place, we must teach that which we know, know by the life of the soul, not with any mere knowledge of the mind. Now, of the vast mass of the doctrines and the precepts of religion, we shall find that there are only a few vital truths that we have so taken into our being that we live upon them––this person, these; that person, those; some of us, not more than a single one. One or more, these are the truths we must teach the children, because these will come straight out of our hearts with the enthusiasm of conviction which rarely fails to carry its own idea into the spiritual life of another.” (Home Education p 347)

What are the core beliefs that you carry in your soul? These may or may not align with the religion that you belong to. However, these core beliefs are the only ones you can teach.

How do you make this into a curriculum?

The easiest way is to use a curriculum that aligns fairly closely with what you already believe, and then tweak from there.

The great thing about Charlotte Mason’s curriculum as found in the PNEU programmes is that there are few religious books outside the Bible portions, so it’s easy to take a curriculum that is modeled after these programs and tweak it to fit your own worldview.

Tweaking curriculum for your views

Wildwood Curriculum is a strict Charlotte Mason curriculum, but without religious dogma.  It is easily customized to fit your own beliefs.

If you belong to an organized religion with educational materials for your religion, just put those in in place of World Religions/Philosophy. Easy peasy.

If you don’t have such a simple option, it will take a bit more work.

Take a few days to think about what ideas form your spiritual beliefs or core values. Besides those, what knowledge (spiritual or mindfulness) do you think is important to have? What qualities and morals do you want to cultivate in your children?

If you’re a visual person, you might find an outline or a mind map helpful to organize your thoughts. Don’t rush it. It will be a work in progress. Here’s a copy of mine so you can see where I’m coming from.

After you’ve figured out what ideas you want covered, use that as your guide when planning your year. What resources are available to you to convey these ideas to your children? Think outside the box — they don’t need to be books; they can be experiences or you modeling actions. At the same time, they can be books.

Hang with people going through the same thing

Finally, consider joining Facebook homeschool groups that reflect your spiritual views, especially if you can find ones that follow Charlotte Mason.

I prefer groups that embrace both religious and non-religious viewpoints. Here are a few resources:

Charlotte Mason Secular Homeschoolers
Wildwood Curriculum (this is the link to the homepage.  If you are planning to use the curriculum, there’s an active Facebook group, too)
Charlotte Mason Plenary

Up Above the Rowan Tree

Charlotte Mason’s method is for everyone, no matter your religious beliefs (or lack of them!)

Want to remember this? Pin it to your favorite Pinterest board!

 

woman in yoga pose next to lake with text Charlotte Mason is not for Christians only

 

Artist study is one area I’ve always struggled with.

I don’t know much about the artists or styles or periods that they worked. I couldn’t tell you the difference between Impressionist and Post-Impressionist.

I’ve always been stumped about what to actually do with my kids during art appreciation. Do we just look at the picture? Am I supposed to point out the use of color? How do I help my kids learn about art if I don’t know anything myself?

Have you felt this way, too?

Reading through the Parents’ Review articles I was happy to find an article titled Art for Children written by Thomas Rooper.

What sort of art to use for artist study—

On page 248, it says that the wisdom of the day was that children couldn’t appreciate high minded art, and both the subject and treatment should be simple or children won’t like them.

We still get that today. A quick search for art for children’s rooms turns up nauseatingly simple designs of giraffes and rabbits, with bold, simple colors.

There is no beauty, no subtlety.

Instead, Mr. Rooper reminds us of this:

“’Young citizens,’ says Plato in the Republic, ‘must not be allowed to grow up amongst images of evil, lest their souls assimilate the ugliness of their surroundings. Rather they should be like men living in a beautiful healthy place; from everything that they see and hear, loveliness like a breeze should pass into their souls and teach them without their knowing it the truth of which beauty is a manifestation.’ In the study of art ‘liking comes by looking.’ Children cannot learn what a beautiful work of art really is unless they have an opportunity of seeing good specimens almost every day of their lives. A love for the study of beautiful things is gained by a slow process; it cannot be dinned into the mind like the multiplication table, it was never imparted by the rapid method of acquiring knowledge which is known as ‘cramming.’”

There’s our first step — choose beautiful pictures. Not cute, not ugly or disturbing. Beautiful.

artist study

NEXT

After you’ve decided on suitable art, how do you bring it to the children?

“Leaving to others the study of the technical skill displayed by the artist, and of the position of the painter in the closely connected schools of European Art, I will direct attention to the subject which has been chosen, and then to the thoughts which the present treatment of it may suggest.”

Ah-ha! We don’t need to talk about whether an artist was Impressionist or talk about how he used color in this way and that artist uses it in that way.

Instead, we draw the children’s attention to the subject painted.

That’s not to say that you can’t talk about the schools of art, or that you shouldn’t as a child gets older. But this is not something you need to go deeply into.

For older students, a quick biography or object lesson concerning the artist of the term will suffice, while younger children don’t need even that.

SETTING THE STAGE

The painting used in this example is called “Circe” by Briton Riviere circe and her swine by briton for artist study

“Have you ever gone to see the pigs fed? … As we approach the sty bearing a heavy bucket of bran and meal stirred up into a thick creamy mixture, we hear inside pushing, struggling, squealing, grunting, shrieks of excited greedy anticipation mixed with squeals of disappointment, as some porker gets shoved away by an old sow from a place near the trough which is to receive the cause of all this babel of sounds. Now we pour out the luscious nutriment. Wonderful result! In a moment the din stops. Not a sound is heard but of a furious supping, interrupted by an occasional subdued and comfortable grunt of utter enjoyment and satisfaction.”

At this point, the author isn’t even talking about the picture. He’s just setting the stage for it, talking to the children about feeding pigs. He’s using descriptive words, making it fun, and letting us feel like we’re actually out throwing the slop.

Once we have this background, we can start talking about the painting itself.

“If we now study the picture we shall see that the pigs are painted as at the moment when they expect to be fed. See them crowding up, pushing each other over, uplifting their ugly heads, stretching their throats …”

Interesting! He’s not just putting the picture in front of the children and letting them ‘get what they get’, he’s actually drawing their attention to certain bits. Because he’s set the scene, we can see exactly what he’s talking about. If he hadn’t had us imagine that we were feeding the pigs, we might not have understood when he says “we see that the pigs are painted at the moment when they expect to be fed.”

“Look at their flexible coarsely-shaped snouts, their huge wrinkled brawny faces with small greedy eyes, and ask yourselves whether the artist has not studied nature to good purpose, in depicting the scene of animal selfishness which I have just described.”

And again, he’s specifically pointing out how they are portrayed. Their huge wrinkled brawny faces. Their flexible, coarsely-shaped snouts. I can almost see a pigs snout moving and snuffling just from this description; how much more alive will this make the painting!

“Let us now turn … to contemplate the fair form of the woman who sits and surveys it. What a contrast! What grace, refinement, and beauty are here! Observe the long fall of hair, gathered above the neck in a single circlet of gold, the graceful curve of the seated figure …”

And then here, he’s contrasting. He’s pointing out the difference in how the woman is drawn to how the pigs are.

But do you see? He’s not only pointing out the contrast, he’s also drawing the children’s attention to details they might otherwise miss. The single circlet of gold in her hair, the graceful curves.

By directing children’s attention, we are also refining it. We are modeling for them what close observation of a painting looks like.

THE NEXT STEP

After the picture itself is admired and studied, the author gives even more background.

It is not simply a painting of a beautiful woman feeding pigs, but an illustration from Homer’s Odyssey. Then he tells the children an abbreviated version.

Do you think a child, after studying this painting in this manner, might want to go further and listen to an audiobook of a dramatized version of The Odyssey?

This might even be a good lead-in for an older student before beginning to read The Odyssey for himself.

But what if you have no idea if there’s a story behind a painting?

The internet is our friend.

Spend a few minutes on Wikipedia before presenting a painting, so you are armed with at least a bit of knowledge before starting.

WHERE TO GET ARTIST PRINTS

Now that you know a good way to present art to your children, are you wondering where to find it?

  •  One easy way is artist calendars. Calendars.com has many calendars for $14.99, or you can look in bookstores or even discount stores. While it sounds expensive, at 12 prints per calendar (make sure you get one with different pictures for each month), it works out to $1.25 per print.The paper is heavy and fairly resistant to grubby fingerprints.And they are easy to cut up to hang on walls or otherwise display.
  •  Come Look with Me series by Gladys Blizzard. These are cheaper than calendars, come with artist bios and questions, but can’t be cut up to be displayed.
  • Download and print

The Met Museum has released 400,000 digital images of its collection into the public domain.

They also have hundreds of art books free for download.

THE TAKEAWAY

There you have it, folks. Artist study should be guided somewhat, but we can leave the technical talk out of it.

Do a bit of research yourself before presenting a print to your child. Set the scene. Draw their attention to details. Then give backstory and connections if there are any.

That’s it.

Like so many things in a Charlotte Mason education, so very simple, but so effective.

Do you have a favorite artist or piece of art? Share it in the comments!

Charlotte Mason picture

You took an online quiz that said you scored high for Charlotte Mason, but you have only a vague idea what it is. You’ve looked at blog after blog, website after website, but you’re still fuzzy on the details.

You don’t want to spend days reading about the fine points of a CM education, you just want a general overview so you can see if it might even be something you want to look deeper into.

Here it is.

A simple, easy to understand overview of Charlotte Mason Philosophy.

SHORT AND SWEET

Charlotte Mason was a late 19th/early 20th-century educator who used a whole child approach with a liberal (broad) education, using real books written for a popular audience by authors who love their subjects. No workbooks or worksheets, and plenty of space for childhood.

NEED A BIT MORE?

Intrigued? Let’s go a bit deeper.

A LIBERAL (BROAD) EDUCATION

Charlotte Mason believed in giving all children a liberal education. That has nothing to do with political leanings, rather it’s used in the sense of a liberal arts degree in college — a broad education, covering a multitude of subjects. It is not, however, limited to the ‘liberal arts.’ Charlotte Mason used cutting-edge science books and her aim was to raise naturalists.

LIVING BOOKS

Living books give new people more fits than any other area, I think. Living books are literary quality books filled with ideas rather than simply a litany of facts. When I say ‘literary quality’ I don’t mean narrative or wrapped in a story. They sure can be, but it isn’t necessary.

The language should be beautiful but not excessively flowery. It should not be dumbed down using simplified words and sentence structure.

They can be either fiction or non-fiction, though most of the books in the PNEU programmes are non-fiction. Fiction books tend to be catogorized under Literature and Reading.

Most classics are living books, but that doesn’t mean that modern books can’t be. It’s simply that living books tend to stand the test of time, so classics tend to be living. However, modern books like A Really Short History of Nearly Everything, I Am Malala (Young Readers Edition), and A Little History of the United States are also living books.

Ask yourself these questions when looking at books:

  • Would I read this if it weren’t required for school?
  • Is it written well enough that both children and adults find it interesting?
  • Will the writing stand the test of time? Would I want to save this for my grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren?

It’s something you have to develop a sense for.  Read this post for for a more thorough discussion of living books.

One more point about Charlotte Mason and books — books are savored rather than gulped. They are read slowly, often only 4-5 pages per week, and often a single book is spread over several years.

RAISING NATURALISTS

Charlotte Mason’s aim was to raise naturalists. People who had a deep knowledge of place, a thorough knowledge of their surroundings. We try to educate our children in such a way that they develop a profound connection to their environment, the plants and animals that live in their same space, and the land itself.

We do this through journaling, yes, but also through adventures. Scout games and adventure was an integral part of a CM education. Nature should be experienced, not read about or quietly observed!

INTERESTING EDUCATION

This is not a boring education filled with dry, dusty old books. Children are not dragged through the school day, but “children delight in their studies.” If your kids think their CM education is dreadfully boring, then something is very wrong.

We read books about exciting, inspiring people, both modern and old. We read tales of adventure and travel around the world meeting other cultures.

We play scout games and get covered in mud, track animals after a rain, pretend to be the boy from My Side of the Mountain. We build forts and live life outdoors. We play with the chickens and come inside with straw all over our clothes.

EDUCATING THE WHOLE CHILD

Body, Mind, and Soul. It sounds cliche, but it’s true.

  • Body — working with our hands to make useful objects, gross and fine motor movements, breaks in the school day for play, dancing, physical activity, as well as plenty of time every day outside to practice whole body movements naturally (read: climb trees and roll down hills)
  • Mind — Academics. CM is gentle but rigorous and thorough. Our students get not only the standard school subjects, but also art and music appreciation, Shakespeare, multiple foreign languages, and high quality literature.
  • Soul — Religion or philosophy, appreciating art and music but also creating both. Plenty of time in nature feeds the soul.

CULTURES

Charlotte Mason believed that people should not insulate themselves.  They should be exposed to a broad variety of cultures around the world, and speak several languages.  Cultural exposure begins early, and by the time a student was in 15, he would be studying 3 languages,  not including English.

WHAT IT IS NOT

After all that, you may be wondering what Charlotte Mason is NOT. Here’s a few:

IT IS NOT WALDORF

While very similar in the early years, the academics deviate significantly around 3rd grade. Also, Waldorf is done in blocks while CM is not. With Waldorf, you’ll dive deeply into a subject for 3-6 weeks depending on grade level. In Charlotte Mason, you’ll spend a year on that same information, but you will also be working with multiple other subjects at the same time.

Waldorf is a pour of one topic, Charlotte Mason is multiple topics dripping at the same time. Over the course of several years, you’ll have covered a similar amount of information.

IT IS NOT UNSCHOOLING OR CHILD-LED

Charlotte Mason is structured, and no provision is made for children’s interests in the choice of school books.

CM doesn’t discourage children’s interests; on the contrary, hours every day are left for the child to pursue his or her own interests. They are exposed to a wide variety of activities and subjects so that they can experience and then choose what they’d like.

But there is a definite structure. It is not leaving your child to decide what he wants to study when.

IT IS NOT INDEPENDENT

By that same token, CM is not a method where you hand your kids the books, tell them what to read, then see them hours later.

Charlotte Mason requires discussion and interaction. Discussion allows the parent to clear up misunderstandings, help develop the student’s logic and thinking skills, and share the material.

Parents are also expected to provide object lessons occasionally, where a specific point is cleared up, or information that is not provided in the books is covered. Object lessons can be done in any subject.

IT IS NOT TEXTBOOK OR COMMON CORE

Some textbooks may be used in the older high school years, and a grammar text was used in the PNEU programmes beginning at about age 10. But the vast majority of books used are real books written by one person who is passionate about the subject.

There is no effort to align a Charlotte Mason curriculum with Common Core, and textbooks in general are avoided. They are usually written by committee and transmit facts rather than ideas, the opposite of a living book.

The Takeaway

I hope by this point you have enough of a picture of CM to know if you want more information, or to be able to say nope, this isn’t for us.

If you’d like to continue learning about Charlotte Mason, there is no better place to begin than with her own books. She wrote six!

I plan to start a podcast soon about living a Charlotte Mason lifestyle, regardless of your spiritual beliefs. I’ll keep you posted!

Do you have specific questions about Charlotte Mason? Let me know in the comments, and be sure to subscribe (button on the right) to get tips and techniques for a Charlotte Mason education.

I’m sure you’ve seen them — curricula that people tell you is Charlotte Mason and is absolutely loaded with historical fiction.

When I first started homeschooling 17 years ago, the choices for curricula were slim.  Facebook didn’t exist, forums were in their infancy, and email lists were spread mainly through word of mouth rather than search engines.  Even learning what curricula was available was a challenge.

I chose a literature-based homeschooling curriculum, but we struggled with it.  Later, we switched to a different literature-rich curriculum with less historical fiction.  And suddenly, our joy was back.   It’s no that the first curriculum was bad.  With that switch,  I realized that my daughter simply did not learn well from historical fiction.

Sure, they were fun, but as far as learning history that way?  A bust.

Both of these curricula though were — and still are — widely touted as using the Charlotte Mason method.  

I thought that while Charlotte Mason was a nice philosophy, it obviously couldn’t work for my kid-who-doesn’t-like-historical-fiction.

I was wrong.

Historical Fiction in the Programmes

When I first began really digging into the PNEU programmes in preparation for writing Wildwood Curriculum, I still held that deeply ingrained belief that Charlotte Mason = historical fiction.

What I found was something else entirely.

While historical fiction can be used to help ‘flesh out’ studies or even bring them to life, they are not a major component of a Charlotte Mason education.

In Form I in the PNEU (Parent’s National Education Union) programmes from the 1920s and early 1930s, we see no historical fiction used for either literature or history.

What we do see is books about children in other countries, and fairy tales from various cultures.

Literature vs. History

Forms II and above for that same time period do have historical fiction, at a rate of 1-2 books per term. These are listed under “literature” rather than “history”.  While they could be used to add flavor to the historical studies, they were never intended to replace the non-fiction living books used for history.

This is good news for those of us whose children shy away from historical fiction.  If your child doesn’t like it, simply use a different high quality book for literature.

Look at those figures again — 1-2 books per term.  That’s 3-6 books per year, though I found that the programmes tended to have 3-4 books per year of historical fiction.  This is a far cry from the literature-based curriculum I used when I first started, which has 25 books of historical fiction for their program meant for ages 8-12.

What would Charlotte do?

Some would argue that historical fiction was in its infancy in this time period, and that is the reason that Charlotte Mason didn’t use historical fiction as extensively as many literature-based curricula that call themselves CM do today.

This is a rather touchy argument. It’s rather like saying, “If this were as popular and widespread when Miss Mason was alive as it is today, surely she would have used it more. Therefore, we are justified in using these in a much higher proportion than she did.”

This is problematic on a few levels. First, no one actually knows what Charlotte Mason would do with today’s resources. She may have used historical fiction much more than we do now, or she may have used it much less. She may have used exactly the same amount, that is, approximately one book per term.

Second, when we say with a broad stroke “this is what she would have done,” we take away from the purpose of studying her works and programmes. In my opinion, it’s fine to say “this is what I have decided for my own family” but not “this is what Charlotte would have done if only ….”

Third, historical fiction as a genre was actually established in the early 1800s. Sir Walter Scott was the one who brought it to popularity, but he wrote Waverly in 1814. There had been a full hundred years of additional historical fiction to draw from by the time the PNEU programmes were in use.

And yet, we still see generally only one book per term that might be considered historical fiction today.

Does “Living Book” = Historical Fiction?

Why the disconnect? I think it’s the emphasis on “living books” in a Charlotte Mason education. That is not a problem; as a matter of fact, living books are indispensable to the method. The problem comes when people think that “living book” equals “fiction.”

I plan to do a blog post on living books in the near future, but let me just say this here: while a living book can be fiction, it is not a requirement. The requirement is that they be written in a literary manner.

As a matter of fact, the vast majority of living books in the PNEU programmes were non-fiction.

The Takeaway

Judicious use of historical fiction in a Charlotte Mason education is fine, but don’t rely on them for the bulk of your children’s education.

One to two books per term should be the maximum, beginning at approximately 9 or 10 years of age (Form II).

More than that and you are taking away from other essential elements of a CM education.

 

Habit training:  give me a shout if you love it.

(Silence)

Yeah, me neither 🙁

I think habit training is one of the areas that we get asked about the most, both from a Charlotte Mason lifestyle perspective and simply a parenting one.  In particular, ones that don’t come from a strictly Christian viewpoint.

While I don’t have any modern secular resources to offer you, we do have Charlotte’s own words from the May 1890 Parent’s Review.  Yes, that’s right:

Parents have been struggling with dawdling children for at least 120 years.

You are not alone, my friend.

How to cure a dawdling child

p 243:  “How is the dilatory child to be cured?  Time?  She will know better as she grows older?  Not a bit of it”

Don’t think this is something your child will grow out it.  She won’t.  At least, not on her own.  However, we have specific instructions on what we can do to help our child break this habit.

p 244: “This inveterate dawdling is a habit to be supplanted only by the contrary habit, and the mother must devote herself for a few weeks to this cure as steadily and untiringly as she would to the nursing of her child through measles.”

Here we go — dawdling is a habit, and can only be countered by replacing it with the habit of *not* dawdling.  This requires the parent’s devotion for several weeks.

Not a day or two, but several weeks of determined effort.

“Having in a few–the fewer the better–earnest words pointed out the miseries that must arise from this fault, and the duty of overcoming it, and having so got the (sadly feeble) will of the child on the side of right doing, she simply sees that for weeks together the fault does not recur.”

We’re not going to give a long lecture.  We all know that kids tune those out anyway, right?  We tell them short and sweet why dawdling is bad, and get their agreement that they will work on it.

Note the “sadly feeble” will of the child.  Miss Mason didn’t pull any punches here, did she?  LOL  She knew that your child is likely to give you a sigh and “ok” rather than an enthusiastic “yes!” to which you will have to put in no further effort.

Here’s how she sees it playing out:

“The child goes to dress for a walk; she dreams over the lacing of her boots– the tag in her fingers poised in mid air–but her conscience is awake; she is constrained to look up, and her mother’s eye is upon her, hopeful and expectant.”

Kid is tying her shoes and starts day dreaming mid-tie.  (is CM spot on here or what?)  Kid feels mom’s eyes boring into her, and glances up — yep, mom is looking at her with a pleasant face and eyebrows raised.  Not scowling.  Not rolling her eyes.  Just that gentle reminder… maybe a cough is in order here, a gentle reminder if Kid says in confusion, “what?”

“She answers to the rein and goes on; midway in the lacing of the second boot, there is another pause, shorter this time; again she looks up, and again she goes on.”

There.  Right there.  Our child, whom we have just reminded not to daydream while tying her shoe, is now daydreaming while tying the other shoe. 

We’ve all been there.  Moms have been there going back generations.  Here’s your proof.

“The pauses become fewer day by day, the efforts steadier, the immature young will is being strengthened, the habit of prompt action acquired.  After that first talk on the subject, the mother would do well to refrain from one more word on the subject; the eye (expectant, not reproachful), and where the child is far gone in a dream, the lightest possible touch, are the only effectual instruments.”

Note here, that the pauses become fewer day by day.  Not that this is an instant fix, but that it has to be done day by day.  And probably with both shoes day by day 🙂

I also want you to notice the next part — we are not yelling at the child.  No “come on, Sally!  How many times do I have to remind you?”  Just an expectant look, or for those kids who are so caught up in a daydream they don’t see it, a light touch.  Maybe a cough (my own mother’s favorite prompt)

The habit is formed

“By and bye, ‘Do you think you can get ready in five minutes to-day without me?’ ‘Oh, yes, mother.’  ‘Do not say ‘yes’ unless you are quite sure.’ ‘I will try.’  And she tries and succeeds.”

Yeah!  Success!  And we are done now, right?

Wrong.

“Now the mother will be tempted to relax her efforts– to overlook a little dawdling because the dear child has been trying so hard  This is absolutely fatal.  The fact is, that the dawdling habit has worn an appreciable track in the very substance of the child’s brain  During the weeks of cure new growth has been obliterating the old track, and the track of a new habit is being formed.  To permit any reversion to the old habit is to let go all this gain.  To form a good habit is the work of a few weeks; to guard it, is a work of incessant, but by no means anxious care.”

 

How many of us have done this?  I know I have.  “Oh, just this once, she’s been so good lately!”

And then we’re back at square one.

It has taken us weeks (or longer!) of sustained attention on our own part to help our child overcome the dawdling habit in this one area.  Now it will take months of a watchful eye to avoid relapse.

Habit training is not for the faint of heart.  It requires as much discipline in the parents as it does in the kids.  More so, I’d wager.

“One word more, — prompt action on the child’s part should have the reward of absolute leisure, time in which to do exactly as she pleases, not granted as a favour, but accruing (without words) as a right.”

What this means, is that if you’re working on not dawdling while getting dressed for an outing, then if the child does everything promptly and it’s not yet time to go, the child should have that time to play, to read, to do whatever she wants (within the rules of course).  She shouldn’t have extra chores piled on top of her (oh, since she got ready so fast she can quickly clean the bathroom).

The takeaway

Habit training for dawdlers in a nutshell:

  1.  The child will not ‘grow out of it.’  It is up to the parents to help replace the habit of dawdling with the habit of prompt action.  Take on one thing at at time.  Not all dawdling, but start with a single instance, like dawdling while getting ready to go out.
  2. Talk to your child briefly (don’t lecture) and get her agreement to work on this.  This does not mean you then call it done and start yelling the next day when she doesn’t.  The child has a “sadly feeble will.”  It’s normal.
  3. Be diligent!  Kid will daydream while tying shoes.  A light cough or touch if she doesn’t catch it herself, and you don’t yell.  A raised eyebrow with expectant look, or a very, very brief reminder if the child is truly clueless why you’re looking at her.
  4. Again with the second shoe.  Really.  It’s normal.  Count to 10 internally and smile, and remember that your great-great-grandmother had this same struggle with your great-grandmother.
  5. Repeat, day after day, week after week, never letting down your guard on this one expression of this one habit.  It will be weeks.  This is not Jello Instant Pudding.
  6. When the habit is formed, child will slip and you’ll be tempted to let it go.  Stay strong.  One false move and all is lost.
  7. Guard this habit as if your sanity depended on it (because it very well might).
  8. And last, don’t add extra work as a “reward” for not dawdling.

How are you at habit training?  Is this something you want to try?