Monday, August 24, 2015

Vision for Children, Ninth Installment

(The next portion of the plenary lecture given at the CMI international conference, June 20, 2015)

We must employ living books for all school subjects, not just for fiction reading- imagination stimulating, curiosity provoking books. Information is received, she said, if accompanied with enough narrative padding. Which tastes better, a vitamin C tablet or a fruit salad? Are their history books dreary accounts of dates and events, or do they reveal acts of God’s whole panoramic story? Children need plot, not timelines. Do their science books entice them to discover more knowledge of the universe? Schoolbooks are more than preparation for college, but equipment for life. Fiction functions as a scaffold to hold truth. Narrative nonfiction should be just as appealing as an intriguing story.

One biography that captivated me as a child, if you can bear one more reminiscence, was Annie Sullivan’s. No life can show the power of language to us like Helen Keller’s, in that denouement when her mind associated Ms. Sullivan’s finger spelling w-a-t-e-r into her hand, her desire for a drink, and the pump gushing H2O. remember this pivotal moment when she spoke aloud for the first time the only word she had uttered before measles had robbed her of sight and hearing? There certainly was no quenching her thirst for words after that. Annie’s tenacity woke Helen’s imagination and released her from a prison of ignorance.

This story convinced me as a child that barriers of blindness could be surmounted. My friends and I endlessly replayed this scene, and I always acted as monster Helen, giving my older friend, playing Annie, a rough and tumble time. I didn’t know that 35 years later, I would be wrestling with my own emotionally damaged, language-blocked child day and night. Do you think God knew how that childhood book would prepare me for the little terror-stricken Cambodian toddler I would adopt? Do you think the dozens of stories of orphans I loved – Anne of Green Gables, Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, Tom of Water-Babies, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm – somehow softened my heart toward orphans so that, one day, when I was in the midst of math with my daughter at the kitchen table and the phone rang, I would walk into the next chapter of my story as familiar territory when a stranger called asking, at the suggestion of a mutual acquaintance, if the toddler she’d adopted and didn’t want could come to our home?

The stories we read our children prepare them for their future. Mason quoted Ecclesiastes, “In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening, do not withhold thy hand; for you do not know which will prosper, either this or that, or whether both alike can be certain we have a moral obligation to sow story seeds. We are responsible, and Mason didn’t let us off the hook.

Listen to this:
"...for the keys even of this innermost chamber [the holy of Holies] are placed in the hands of parents, and it is a great deal in their power to enthrone the King, to induct the Priest, that every human cries for...the wonder that Almighty God can leave the making of an immortal being in the hands of human parents is only matched by the wonder that human parents can accept this divine trust with hardly a thought of its significance.” (Home Education, v1; p. 333)
Ouch. I shamefully confess I forget this. It struck me hard one morning. I was sleepy after being out late the previous night with my Mason discussion group where we had talked about the role of the Holy Spirit as the divine instructor. Yawning, I turned to our morning Bible reading, Mark 1, a familiar passage about John the Baptist crying in the desert - I was pierced,could hardly speak the words, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” I knew this was for me, that my role in my children’s life stories was to be the one pointing to Jesus, making a path for them to find Him. Those ordinary copy work and history lessons before us were sacred means God could use to reveal Himself to them. We don’t know what He will use, when, where, how–who these children will become.

But living books enable them to see the way. The eyes of their imagination open to see how hundreds of characters believe and behave in hundreds of contexts, instruct them about virtue, choices, consequences, help them gain insight and wisdom, similar to the process in which hundreds of meals contribute to physical growth. Mason’s purpose for these books aimed at putting readers in touch with the minds of great thinkers. Our children glean much more from these writers than we could ever impart to them ourselves. Our children do not need to see life just as we do, but to learn to see themselves as God’s children. They are not ours, they are His.

For the joy of reading,


Monday, August 17, 2015

Vision for Children, Eighth Installment

(This is a further portion of the plenary speech shared at the Charlotte Mason Institute international conference, June 20, 2015)

My books have shown me what was good, and what was not.

The best fiction books are not those without any negative or ugly incidents, but show characters who wrestle with difficult moral choices and reveal the subsequent good or bad consequences. Sometimes the miseries characters suffer help children with their own. For example, I was nine when my family broke up. Divorce is devastating to children, but I knew that awful things happened to people because I had read about some. During that year, I had a book I read over and over. Its happy ending gave me hope. The long suffering its heroine endured showed how life requires extended periods of endurance. Doubtless, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett is familiar to you. In this excerpt, Sara, a child born in luxury and suddenly orphaned, is reduced to service as a house drudge, exhausted from performing adult labor, excruciatingly lonely, thinly dressed on a bitter winter day, and hasn’t eaten for two days, when she miraculously spies a coin in the ankle deep slush, a fortune. She looks up to see the wonder of a bake shop across the street, and an animal – no, a wretched child (is it a girl?) more destitute than herself, sitting on its step. The shop is warmth, good smells, a rosy, smiling clerk. Sara can buy six hot buns with this coin. Then the wrestle begins:

“The beggar girl was still huddled up in the corner of the step. She looked frightful in her wet and dirty rags. She was staring straight before her with a look of stupid suffering…muttering to herself. Sara opened the paper bag and took out one of the hot buns, which had already warmed her own cold hands a little. 'See,' she said, putting the bun in the ragged lap, 'this is nice and hot. Eat it, and you will not feel so hungry.' The child stared up at her as if such sudden, amazing good luck almost frightened her; then she snatched up the bun and began to cram it into her mouth with great wolfish bites…Sara took out three more buns and put them down. The sound in the hoarse, ravenous voice was awful. 'She is hungrier than I am,' Sara said to herself. ‘She is starving.’ But her hand trembled when she put down the forth bun. ”I’m not starving,” she said—and she put down the fifth. The little raving London savage was still snatching and devouring when Sara turned away. The girl was too ravenous to give thanks, even if she had been taught politeness—which she had not.”

We can tell children what’s right, but more important, they must love what’s right. Sarah made me do that. When a chance comes for a child to be a hero, to show courage, to make the right moral choice, there isn’t time to run and find a book, to ponder over what to do, which is why a stock of book experiences is invaluable preparation. Long before their own crises occur, books show what can or ought to be done in possible situations.

Books also help children cope with suffering. Awareness of the suffering of others was something Mason didn’t feel we should shield children from, on the street or in the pages of a book. Ignorance is not equal to innocence, she said (Formation of Character, pg 374). Fairy-tales begin introducing the idea that evil can be overcome. Good literature deals with sinfulness prudently and shows its dangers before children face dilemmas themselves. Our broken real world is what is shocking. Remember, in God’s story, the hero is crucified, the most undeserved violence ever suffered. If we allow our children only to be exposed to books void of darkness, we deprive them of the great lessons to be learned in Peter Rabbit, Tom Sawyer, Little Women, the Holy Bible. Mason said we “must read to learn the meaning of life.” (Ourselves, pg 72)

For the joy of reading,


Monday, August 10, 2015

Vision for Children, Seventh Installment

(A portion of the plenary speech at the Charlotte Mason Institute's Annual Conference, June 20, 2015)

Of course, as a child I had no idea faith and wisdom for life were growing in me, only now, by looking over my shoulder, can I see the trail of books that showed me the way.

I’m pretty sure my mother had no idea either. She was young and I doubt if she ever considered educational philosophy in her life. She worked full time, kept an immaculate house, gardened, sewed, baked from scratch, sang in the church choir, served on numerous civic and church committees…and just one of the things on her to-do list was to read to her children. Of all the accomplishments of her life, I count that as her greatest gift to me. She invested in those recorded stories I mentioned, left books out for babysitters to read to us bought us books, took us to the library. This was normal parenting then. Ultimately, she instilled a love of story, a desire to read, and a thousand ideas she had no notion she was planting.

My parents appealed to the state school board to gain the right for blind children to go to public school with specially trained teachers. I was among the first children in America to be “mainstreamed.” I was so excited to begin school, and for one reason only: I was going to learn to read for myself. The funny thing about that is, it wasn’t my teacher that taught me Braille who taught me to read; I had already learned how – I had parents who surrounded me with books, who read books themselves, and who read books to me. Those are the true reading lessons.

The habit was being formed in me unconsciously, as Mason acknowledges the best are:

“The whole group of habitudes, half physical and half moral, on which the comfort of everyday life depend, is received passively by the child; that is, he does very little to form these habits himself, but his brain receives impressions from what he sees about him; and these impressions take form as his own very strongest and most lasting habits.” (Home Education, pp. 124-125)

Children thrive naturally in the soil that feeds them. Those fed with strong stories will have strong imaginations, an immense warehouse of stored experience and wisdom. We need to develop such a reading atmosphere for our children if we want them to read, plant seeds from living books to cultivate imagination and equip them for life. My parents set me in that path and that well-formed habit has only deepened.

For the joy of reading,