Monday, June 29, 2015

Vision for Children, First Installment

Last week I had the joy of returning to the Charlotte Mason Institutes national conference. This annual event is something we look forward to all year long; it is a highlight of our year, a time of refreshment, friendship building, and learning. This year, I had the great honor of being asked to address the 300 attendees on the campus of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky (across the street from my alma mater) as the final plenary speaker. I thought I would publish this speech in ten installments over the summer for those of you who were unable to attend.

I said yes when Carroll asked me to speak about living books and the moral development of the child because that seemed like a topic close to my heart. Then, as I began reading and researching, I thought I had offered to serve up the ocean with a teaspoon. This subject is huge. More time and more ability on my part could not begin to do it justice.

Because, reading has an enormous impact on a child’s moral development. I’m not going to try to convince you that books are the only influence, but stories are key, even critical, and I will unequivocally say, your children’s reading is essential to their moral growth and development. When I was first introduced to Charlotte Mason through Macaulay’s book For the Children’s Sake, I was initially drawn to Mason’s method because of “living books.” I knew I couldn’t recall the title of a single textbook I’d had, but had learned very much from books I read on my own. Immediately, I began using living books for my children’s lessons. Over the last ten years, I focused on studying Mason’s Home Education Series, gleaning specifics on the how and why of teaching Plutarch or picture study, to find out about “the way of the will and of reason,” or “masterly inactivity.” So when, this past December, I resolved to read nonstop, straight through all six volumes, I’m embarrassed to admit that I was surprised, (actually shocked is more accurate), at how much she says about books. This “big picture” view showed me how easy it is for us to see these books as a means to an end, as vehicles to transport information for “school,” a useful technique that’s superior to traditional textbooks.

Mason knew living books were far more than useful, far more than a tool, but the most effective and powerful instructors for a child’s life, reaching beyond school lessons, able to penetrate their whole person - to enlighten the eyes of the heart, instruct the conscience, illumine the understanding of themselves, others, their world, and even God Himself. Living books influence character almost mysteriously. Character, who a child is and becomes, was Mason’s higher goal, not the level of academic prowess he need attain.

Character is who we are. Our thoughts affect our beliefs, beliefs affect our decisions, decisions affect our actions, actions reveal our character. Throughout her writing she quotes such Bible verses as, “As
a man thinketh in his heart, so is he;” “A child is made known by his actions;” “Out of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Mason puts it: “A man is what he has made himself by the thoughts which he has allowed himself, the words he has spoken, the deeds he has done.” (v2, p236) Since stories determine what we think about, they are key to who we become.

I’m confident every parent and teacher here deeply desires their children to be strong in virtue and moral character. Think, parents, about the first time you held your baby, the daunting responsibility
you suddenly felt, your overwhelming sense of inadequacy not just for their survival, but to show them how to live. Remember realizing that bringing them into the world was the easy part? If changing diapers and teaching them how to play baseball was all there was to parenting, we wouldn’t tremble. But they are infinitely complex individuals, made in the image of God. Understanding them is nearly as challenging as understanding God is, something no theologian claims to do. We can’t imagine who this child will become. Feed and shelter, sure, but direct moral development? - how in the world do we manage that?

This is where living books, Mason knew, could assist us, by giving us vision. I am certain her confidence in books had something to do with her very first principle of education - you know the one that’s seemingly easiest, because it’s stated most simply: “children are born persons.” This is why children need a wide and varied feast spread, not just because there are varieties of children, but because each whole person, complex and multifaceted, needs to be fed. Stories feed the whole person, not just the mind. Mason was on to something here, had a glimpse into this mystery. She felt she was standing on holy ground – because she was, and so are we. This teaching of children is sacred work, sowing stories, like spreading seeds of all kinds, trusting they will bear fruit.

(to be continued)

For the joy of reading,


Monday, June 22, 2015

Characters Welcome

{Yesterday we honored fathers, and in honor of a very special father,my son-in-law, 
Emily's husband, and more importantly, Jonah's and
soon-to-arrive new baby's father, we are pleased to share his
reflections on the importance of the strong characters in our stories.}

Most readers have encountered a story that seems to have everything going for it. If the tale is a thriller there are a host of interesting---no mind bending---no mind blowing plot twists. Or if it's a serious drama, the death scene is a tear jerker. The story is as original as anything can be under the sun, with a brilliant setting and intelligent style. The one thing the story lacks is engaging characters. Everything else is top notch, and maybe it even has a though provoking message, but this imaginary work can never be truly wonderful, as characters are what enliven a story.

Writers and storytellers agree that to weave a good story, a breathing story, there have to be living characters. A character cannot be written just to fit a thesis. All the plot developments and interesting ideas fall flat if the characters are flat.

Think back to stories that have endured. The tales that captured our imaginations. Some writers excel at all facets of storytelling, like Steinbeck. East of Eden is a masterpiece in style, story, and characters. Or C.S. Lewis, who could authentically craft fantasy, science fiction, and myth. These writers know how to create characters, and these characters are alive. They change and grow or are stubborn and wither, or they do both at different times in the story. Characters can also make what may seem a bland story or simplistic story, pop with energy and display the wonder of even the mundane life. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, is not an undisputed masterpiece, but the characters of the Father and the Boy are masterful. Characters make a story.

This should be no surprise. Scripture, The Story, is full of characters.

-Abraham: cowardly, brave, sly, honest, and faithful Patriarch. 

-David: humble, courageous, murdering, cheating, repenting, and God fearing King.

-Nebuchadnezzar: pagan, arrogant, insecure, mad, grass-eating, and, eventually, Yahweh praising King of Babylon.

All characters in Scripture are contrasted with THE Character, Christ. The God-Man. Fallen humans image Christ, despite their failings, or image the anti-Christ. This is why we need, and should yearn for, full characters. It is through the highs and lows of characters that we see ourselves. A reader or listener cannot learn nearly as much from a cardboard cut-out or a caricature as they can from a living character that faces and responds to situations in a human way. We see our own anger and hotheadedness in bold through the life of Joab; We see our own fear in the hesitancy of Moses; we see the love and sacrifice and strength we strive for in the life of Jesus.

So we must seek to continue this tradition of character creation in the stories we read and the stories we encounter with our children. The character of Lord Voldemort gives a stark example of the unbridled seeking of domination, while Neville Longbottom displays the inheritance of the meek. The angry obsession of Captain Ahab is a vivid warning to readers. The humble leadership of Aragorn is a strong encouragement.

We have a high calling, as curators of story. We pick up where those before have left off. And we must seek out stories that point to the one who is both Character and Author.

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Minute for Poetry

When my children were small, a sure-fire way to drive their daddy crazy was to chant, especially on long car trips. If you sit quietly at any playground and listen, you will not be able to miss some rhythmic, sing-song childish chorus, because children's love of the cadence of language is as natural to them as breathing, which all advertisers take full advantage of with their unforgettable ditties.

In our tech savvy and productivity oriented culture, there is little time given for real poetry. Childhood is the ideal time to instill this pleasure, when attraction to language is strong and minds are fresh, uncluttered, and relish any new sound or idea. One of my own favorite childhood poets was Walter De La Mare. His short poems sprinkled the pages of our school readers and found their way into many anthologies for children. Indeed, he compiled a few collections of poetry for children himself.

The best way to begin to enjoy poetry is simply to read it aloud, however you like, and let the words fill your ears and teach you themselves how to love them. Here are three little poems to share with your children:


THE cat she walks on padded claws,
The wolf on the hills lays stealthy paws,
Feathered birds in the rain-sweet sky
At their ease in the air, flit low, flit high.

The oak's blind, tender roots pierce deep,
His green crest towers, dimmed in sleep,
Under the stars whose thrones are set
Where never prince hath journeyed yet.


SOME one came knocking

At my wee, small door ;
Some one came knocking,

I 'm sure sure sure ;
I listened, I opened,

I looked to left and right,
But nought there was a-stirring

In the still dark night ;
Only the busy beetle

Tap-tapping in the wall,
Only from the forest

The screech-owl's call,
Only the cricket whistling

While the dewdrops fall,
So I know not who came knocking,

At all, at all, at all


ONE night as Dick lay half asleep,

Into his drowsy eyes
A great still light began to creep

From out the silent skies.
It was the lovely moon's, for when

He raised his dreamy head,
Her surge of silver filled the pane

And streamed across his bed.
So, for awhile, each gazed at each -

Dick and the solemn moon
Till, climbing slowly on her way,

She vanished, and was gone.

For the joy of reading,


You may also enjoy "What's in a Poem"