Monday, August 29, 2016

A Living Difference

As my son and I put his schoolbooks away together yesterday, I was telling him about my own seventh grade year. He was amazed at the differences. That I went off to school and shared classrooms with two dozen other students and had a different teacher for each subject, wasn’t surprising news to him; rather, it was that I only had six classes and four books. That’s all the curriculum required.

I do remember the excitement of the first day of school, opening the new book for each academic class, and being eager to find out new things. Though I was an excellent student, got top marks and wanted to learn, I acknowledge with chagrin that not only do I recall little of what I read in any of those books, but to this day can’t name the title of a single textbook I carried to and from class and home to study. The sheer sum of the hours spent passing through those pages only to satisfy the expectations of parents and teachers, with little concern for knowledge of the subject or forming any deep connection with it makes me shudder. What a waste of time, of life! Thank goodness for the library, with its unending supply of books.

Coincidentally yesterday, a friend told me she had just finished reading Jane Eyre for the first time. I had met Ms. Eyre in seventh grade, along with Scout of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Francine of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I’m sure there were dozens of others, but those three novels alone took me to Victorian England, the slums of Brooklyn, and the sleepy southern Alabama town where I learned an immense amount about social class, injustice, politics, morality, and human motivation, along with an enormous amount of incidental information about geography, architecture, and history. Those living books are where I got my seventh grade education. I don’t think any of the hours in those pages was wasted.

My son, on the other hand, thanks to the wisdom of my instructor in educating my children, Charlotte Mason, studies in 25-30 subject areas and reads in at least a couple dozen books a week, and in about half the time I spent within the walls of my junior high school weekly. Mason’s concern was the nutrition of the mind, which like an octopus is reaching out limbs in all directions, seeking food for itself:
“We, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum, taking care only that all knowledge offered to him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas. Out of this conception comes our principle that:–– "Education is the Science of Relations'; that is, a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of––
"Those first-born affinities      That fit our new existence to existing things." In devising a syllabus for a normal child, of whatever social class, three points must be considered:––

(a) He requires much knowledge, for the mind needs sufficient food as much as does the body.

(b) The knowledge should be various, for sameness in mental diet does not create appetite (i.e., curiosity).

(c) Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form…” (An Essay Toward a Philosophy of Education by Charlotte Mason, p. 154)
My teachers were all well-trained and I am thankful for the hours they invested for my sake. My credentials for teaching my own children do not compare. But, in a Mason education, my qualifications are not crucial to the education my children receive. Instead, it is the inherent desire for knowledge my children were born with and my certainty in the power of persons to self-educate that assures me of the quality of their education. My responsibility is to provide the feast for their minds to feed on, to ensure their lessons are short and various, and trust to the Holy Spirit, their Divine Teacher, to lead them to truth, beauty, goodness and the knowledge of God, man, and the universe they were made for.

When I think back to my own seventh grade education, I am Thankful for my passion for reading and the wealth of literature I found to feed my imagination, or I surely would have starved intellectually. Those living books educated me to life and led me to eventually embrace a different philosophy of educating children—a philosophy that makes all the difference.

For the joy of reading,


Monday, August 22, 2016

Living the Tales Told (Ps. 90:9)

My 30-year-old son found out yesterday he probably has cancer, had surgery this morning, and while I was talking with him in the recovery room, he mentioned staying up very late the night before. He wasn’t worrying, he was writing.

It seems he once read a book where a dying father with many young children wrote them each a letter for them to receive on their birthdays the year after his death. My son had tucked this away in his mind, just in case he should ever find himself in that situation.

Of course, I hope my son’s children never have to receive these letters after their father’s death, but this incident reminded me of the power stories have in our children’s lives. When a child’s heart has been richly furnished with tales of love and loss, ordeal and overcoming, that child is being well prepared for the unknowns of life.

How often, in my own difficulties, have I admonished myself when on the brink of despair, “Now, what would Caroline Ingalls do?” … Or Marmee March, Mary Emma Moody, Marilla Cuthbert—or, for that matter, Anne of Green Gables herself. Living in the lives of fictional characters instructs. Our heroes and heroines don’t exist because their lives are free of rocks, snares, toils and dangers. They are our heroes precisely because they have faced the unthinkable or impossible and found a way through, around, under, or over those impediments. We live inside their skin, feel their pain and bewilderment, will them on to meet their messy and miserable circumstances. Their fortitude and tenacity inspire us. We close the book, put it back on the shelf, and possibly never return to its pages again, but the lessons stick, the pictures hang in the galleries of our imagination, and when life deals us unexpected twists and turns, we have a wealth of inherited advice, so deeply embedded we usually forget who we learned the lessons from.

What would we do without the tales that have told us how to live? What will our children do if we don’t provide them with a bountiful supply of heroes to grow on? It doesn’t matter if those teachers come from the pages of the Bible or fairy tales, from nonfiction or fiction. Truth is our light for life wherever we read it. Wisdom is the fruit of a story-strewn childhood.

For the Joy of Reading,


P.S. “And they all lived happily ever after,” is not just for fairy tales. My son called the next day to tell me that the doctors’ best opinions were wrong and there is no cancer. Who says amazing twists don’t happen in real life?

Monday, August 15, 2016

What About Mom’s School Books?

Like it or not, school is in session or nearly so. Homeschooling moms all over the country are scurrying to make final book choices. The last question turned in for my summer reading input concerns books for mom: "What should we moms be reading? How many books and on what subjects?”

Good question. I am convinced that one of the reasons homeschool moms wear thin is that they are not feeding themselves with a good diet of books. In the effort to select and serve good literature to their children, they forget that the teacher also needs some nutritious helpings herself.

When is a mother to find time? Anyhow she can. Don’t forget my old challenge to read ten minutes a day. That will get you through a couple of dozen books a year. C. S. Lewis said,
“The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come.” (The Weight of Glory)
And why must a mother read? For the same reasons her children should. The mind lives on ideas, Mason said, as the body lives on food.

And where are those ideas to come from? From books—a vast array of living books full of living ideas. Mason said mothers would find new energy from reading:
“One cannot read without many life-giving thoughts from almost any good book: poetry, biography, history, essays, good novels—all will supply our need.” (The Story of Charlotte Mason, Essex Chomondeley)
Years ago I discovered that reading books on some of the subjects my children were studying was the key to my own mind expanding and growing. I had more energy and enthusiasm for life in general, and for teaching school specifically. Mason states:
“People are naturally divided into those who read and think and those who do not read or think; and the business of schools is to see that all their scholars shall belong to the former class; it is worth while to remember that thinking is inseparable from reading which is concerned with the content of a passage and not merely with the printed matter.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 31)
So, reading just any old thing doesn’t count:
“You will find if you read thoughtfully and steadily ONLY that which is worth reading, daily nourishment, stimulating thought will come to us, and however foreign the subject may be, what we read, if it is worth reading, will help us do our work better and will give us fresh thoughts to impart to the children.”
We may not have the privilege of extended, uninterrupted quietness in which to read, but we can attend for short intervals, just as our children have short lessons; we can read a little in several different books on different days as our children do; and, best of all, we will find our own education is far from over—perhaps just beginning.

If we believe Mason’s principles are effective for nourishing the mind of our children, why will they not work for us? Are you spreading a wide and varied feast for yourself? Are you stretching your mind in new directions? Are you nourishing your mind with the life-giving thoughts straight from the mind of other thinkers—the wealth of ideas found in books? Mason said,
“If you find yourself sinking to a dull commonplace level with nothing particular to say, the reason is probably that you are not reading, and therefore, not thinking.” (Story of Charlotte Mason).
If you’re interested in making up your own curriculum, here are some steps to take:

1. Write down four to six subjects in which you need to gain knowledge. Don’t shy away from unfamiliar or intimidating areas.

2. Begin hunting for a book for each of these subjects.

3. Read a little in each of them every week—slow and steady progress.

4. Narrate to yourself—or to anyone who will listen—what you are learning.

5. Have a wonderful school year—and enjoy the feast!

For the joy of reading,