Since I live in a place where there isn’t really a Charlotte Mason (CM) homeschool community that exists in many other urban centres, I have to create a space to narrate my thoughts (narration is a key part of any CM school). My husband can only handle so much before he asks if I have still haven’t met anyone yet to really explore it with (hint, hint). Even since writing this post, a good friend has jumped into the fray with me. So many of the wonderful mothers who homeschool here haven’t heard of her, or they simply have found a homeschooling system that works for them. I am so thankful for these companions in the day to day experience of school-at-home. But I do imagine what I would say if they ask me about CM and why I choose this method: “Who is she? What is it? Don’t you think it’s weird to follow an educational philosophy named after a person?” (not that wierd…so many philosophies are).
For moms with no particular religious affiliation, how do I explain what the method looks like? I know that at the core of Charlotte Mason is a Christian worldview that underscores every idea and practical suggestion. That said, I think there is much our secular schools could take away from the method, because, well…..it’s centered on natural law. Some things just make good sense.
So when I sat down with my kids to watch Mary Poppins Returns, I was delighted to find an example of a CM homeschool teacher for the secular school. Mary Poppins exemplifies a few of the stand-out features of a Charlotte Mason education.
#1 Play is The Thing
Discovery through play is pretty key to CM, especially up to mid-elementary and arguably beyond. She encourages kids to spend at least 7-8 hours outside a day, in play and recreational pursuits. I’m still doing the math on that one and trying to find all those hours but even the hours we do find make such a difference. Each afternoon sees the cessation of all lessons and free occupation and play is where it is at. While many public schools now try to make all lesson time ‘learning through play’ (which CM would not agree with), a good CM educator knows that this time is invaluable for the proper development and expansion of mind and interest. What does Mary Poppins say?
Annabel Banks: It’s just that… Mary Poppins: You don’t require the services of a nanny?
John Banks: Well, we have grown up a good deal in the past year, after all.
Mary Poppins: Yes. Well, we’ll have to see what can be done about that.
Charlotte Mason warns against forcing formal learning too early and emphasizing the former over the latter:
”No, let us be content to be the handmaids of Nature for the first five or six years, remembering that enormous as are the tasks she sets the children, she guides them into the performance of each so that it is done with unfailing delight; for gaiety, delight, mirth, belong to her method. If a child chooses to read and write before he is six, let him, but do not make him; and when he does begin, there is no occasion to hurry; let him have a couple of years for the task.” (The Parents Review, Volume XXIII)
Remember…. “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
#2 Miracles are Possible
CM warned against the “horror of great darkness” which she felt was brought on by unbelief. She felt that people often arrived there, at first, by questioning miracles. She defends her belief that children must be presented with miracles of the Bible (and more generally, stories of the supernatural). Why?
“In the first place, all that the most advanced scientists have to urge against ‘miracles’ is that precisely such phenomenon have not come under their personal notice; but they before all people, are open to admit that nothing is impossible and that no experience is final” (CM, Parents and Children, p. 110).
And here our buoyant Mary Poppins (Returns) would agree:
Annabel Banks: But we can’t fix the carriage wheel. It isn’t possible.
Mary Poppins: Everything is possible. Even the impossible.
Perhaps a stretch to see the deeper musings of CM in this….but this whole post is a little whimsical.
#3 Distraction is the best way to get out of a mood.
Mary Poppins: When you change your view from where you stood, the things you view will change for good.
And… Jack (Poppins trusty side-kick in M.P. Returns):
“There’s a different point of view awaiting you if you would just look up.”
From the first (and arguably, best, Mary Poppins) we have this old favourite tune:
A robin feathering his nest
Has very little time to rest
While gathering his bits of twine and twig
Though quite intent in his pursuit
He has a merry tune to toot
He knows a song will move the job along – for…
A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down
The medicine go down-wown
The medicine go down
Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down
In a most delightful way.
The honey bees that fetch the nectar
From the flowers to the comb
Never tire of ever buzzing to and fro
Because they take a little nip
From every flower that they sip
And hence (And hence),
They find (They find)
Their task is not a grind.
Does CM support such a flippant notion as this- that simply redirecting one’s attention or focusing one some new, more interesting occupation will help us leave a sour mood behind?
“Again the sameness of his duties, the weariness of doing the same thing over and over, fills him with disgust and despondency, and relaxes his efforts;–but not if he be a man under the power of his own will, because he simply does not allow himself in idle discontent; it is always within his power to give himself something pleasant, something outside of himself, to think of, and if he does so; and given what we call ‘a happy frame of mind’ , no work is laborious.” (CM, Home Education)
#4 Education is about habit training.
Despite all of her peppy songs and rosy cheeks, Mary Poppins is a stickler for good habits. She doesn’t have time for gaping mouths, dawdling, messiness or any other bad habit that gets in the way of life.
Mary Poppins (Returns): You need to be more careful when the wind rises, Georgie. You nearly lost your kite.
Mary Poppins (addressing John and Annabel): And you two nearly lost your Georgie. He might have got away completely had I not been holding on to the other end of that string.
Mary Poppins: My goodness, Annabel, what have you done to your clothes? You could grow a garden in that much soil.
Mary Poppins (looking to John) : And, John, yes, just as filthy.
CM leaves no doubt that habit training is part of a good education:
“Here, no doubt, come in the functions of parents and teachers; they should be able to make the child do that which he lacks the power to compel himself to.” (CM, Home Education, p. 99-100)
#5 Feed the mind and soul with living books and ideas.
CM is famous for her insistence that living books are the best way for children to learn the pageant of history, science, and language arts. Books are cheap, accessible, they cut the fluff if properly edited and vetted. They prevent a teacher’s personality, extended oratory and showmanship from taking over. A book presents the big idea, and often one person’s life expertise, and it is left to the child to take what details are important and worthwhile to her.
CM doesn’t advocate for much ‘jostling’ on our part to get the message across:
“But a child of ten cannot understand Shakespeare. No; but can a man of fifty? Is not our great poet rather an ample feast of which every one takes according to his needs, and leaves what he has no stomach for? A little girl of nine said to me the other day that she had only read one play of Shakespeare’s through, and that was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She did not understand the play, of course, but she must have found enough to amuse and interest her.” (CM, Vol.5, p. 224)
Mary Poppins Returns offers a presentation of books as a great medium for learning virtue and knowledge in the musical number “A Cover is Not the Book”. This is perhaps the biggest stretch I have to make for the Mary Poppins = CM teacher cause. While there are no overt quotes to show Poppins’ love of living books, this dancing and singing number is a close nod to the power of book to “take us lands away”:
Uncle Gutenberg was a bookworm
And he lived on Charing Cross
The memory of his volumes brings a smile
He would read me lots of stories
When he wasn’t on the sauce
Now I’d like to share the wisdom
Of my favourite bibliophile
He said a- Cover is not the book
So open it up and take a look ’
Cause under the covers one discovers
That the king may be a crook
Chapter titles are like signs
And if you read between the lines
You’ll find your first impression was mistook
For a cover is nice But a cover is not the book
Perhaps the lyrics play in a little too nicely into the current a-la-mode virtue of non-judgement but we do see the song use Travers own storylines from the Poppins series to point to greater lessons, and certainly in a fun way, without any over-explanation.
#6 Don’t explain to children…just present ideas.
You may remember our first Mary Poppins say “Why complicate things that are really quite simple?”
The CM method challenges one of the biggest problems in our school system today — Scaffolding. That tiresome conviction that children must access all the help they need from those around them, to fill the gap between their own ability and potential knowledge (Zone of Proximal Development). Ashley Olander over at Charlotte Mason Poetry has done the best job yet unpacking the problems of this pedagogy. Our tendency to explain everything to children is our response to tired belief that we “need to show children HOW to learn!” Right?
CM says an emphatic NO! They know HOW to learn. What they don’t often know is how to get the ideas and information they need to build character, knowledge and virtue. That is the teacher’s job. The presentation of ideas. The curator of the classroom. The provider of the ‘what’ to learn. Here is Mary Poppins at her finest. In the newest film, Poppins is clear that she has no intention to ‘jostle’ the children by entertaining such notions of over-explanation.
Shamus the Coachman: Now, where would we all like to go on this fine, fine day?
Mary Poppins: The Royal Doulton Music Hall, please.
John Banks: Where?
Georgie Banks: What’s that?
Mary Poppins: We’re on the brink of an adventure, children. Don’t spoil it with too many questions.
But Jack, the Leerie, knows best. True to his job as a lamplighter, he brings light to every situation, bringing clarity without explanation.
Annabel Banks: How on earth did she do that? Jack: One thing you should know about Mary Poppins, she never explains anything [Emp. Mine]
From the first Mary Poppins film we remember her up-front guarantee to Mr. Banks:
“First of all, I would like to make one thing clear: I never explain anything.”
These words could have come from CM herself. In fact they did.
She writes: ”As the object of every writer is to explain himself in his own book, the child and the author must be trusted together, without the intervention of the middle-man. What his author does not tell him he must go without knowing for the present. No explanation will really help him…”(Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education, pp. 191-192).
“Our failure as teachers is that we place too little dependence on the intellectual power of our scholars, and as they are modest little souls what the teacher kindly volunteers to do for them, they feel that they cannot do for themselves.” (Ibid. p. 192)
“[Teachers proceed] with lessons elaborately drawn up, in which certain work is assigned to the perceptive faculties, certain work to the imagination, to the judgment, and so on… this sort of doctoring of the material of knowledge is unnecessary for the healthy child, whose mind is capable of self-direction, and of applying itself to its proper work upon the parcel of knowledge delivered to it. (CM, Home Education, p.172)
“… as the bird has wings to cleave the air with, so has the child all the powers necessary wherewith to realize and appropriate all knowledge, all beauty and all goodness.” (Mason, 1911, p. 427)
This is perhaps the most disarming claim by Mason for our modern classrooms and, in particular, for our elementary classrooms where a dependence upon illustration and over-explanation have “paralyzingly effect on the mind.” (Mason, School Education, p. 243).
To read a beautifully full account of the CM philosophy on this topic, Ashley Olander’s article, “Building Without Scaffolds” over at Charlotte Mason Poetry is a must read and I fully credit her article for the quotes above.
In the first film there is a little, but important, exchange between Jane and Mary Poppins that is worth considering
Jane: He’s [Father] never taken us on an outing before.
Michael: He’s never taken us anywhere
Jane: How did you ever manage it?
Mary Poppins: Manage what?
Jane: You must have put the idea in his head somehow.
Mary Poppins: What an impertinent thing to say! Me, putting ideas into people’s heads? Really!
And while it could be argued she did put this idea into Mr. Banks head, in the end, we must believe Mary. All she can be credited with is presenting an idea, but Mr. Banks must be credited for giving the idea merit himself, and taking it on.
“Give your child a single valuable idea, and you have done more for his education than if you had laid upon his mind the burden of bushels of information” (CM, Home Education. p. 17).
#7 The teacher should NOT the showman of the classroom.
Mary Poppins is a show woman of the highest order…right? I don’t think so. She is charming and whimsical and certainly Disney has capitalized on the compelling personality of this fictional character. I haven’t read the books by Travers but I wonder if she is as powerful a force in the books. I believe the children play a greater role in the books. However, even in the Disneyfied telling of Mary Poppins, it becomes clear at the end that Poppins only stays as long as she is needed and then MUST leave. It would be wrong for her to stay. She has a job to do and has only come to offer the help that she can.
Balloon lady: Of course, the grown-ups will all forget by tomorrow.
Mary Poppins: They always do.
Balloon Lady: Only one balloon left [to carry Mary away from our world], Mary Poppins. I think it must be yours.
Mary Poppins: Yes, I suppose it must.
And whether by umbrella or balloon, she comes and goes just like that. Because Mary Poppins knows that the story is not about her. True to the original, Mary Poppins Returns is about a family. Once her job is done to help, she must exist stage right.
Parrot Umbrella: Awk, that’s gratitude for you. They didn’t even say goodbye?
Mary Poppins: No, they didn’t.
Parrot Umbrella: Look at them! You know, they think more of their father than they do of you!
Mary Poppins: That’s as it should be.
Mason presents a picture of a teacher that is much like what we see in Poppins:
“The teacher’s part is, in the first place to see what is to be done, to look over the work of the day…and see what mental discipline, as well as vital knowledge, this that lesson afford, and then to set such questions and such tasks as shall give fully cope to his pupil’s mental activity.” (Mason, School Education,pp. 180-181)
And further to that the mother (often the teacher), “…must refrain from too much talk….the less she says the better.” (Mason, Home Education, p.78)
What is the role of the teacher? Curator, Philosopher guide, and at times, friend. This doesn’t mean that the teacher isn’t in charge. Make no mistake, children and adults alike obey and adore Mary Poppins (i.e. “Close your mouth please Michael. We are not a codfish.”)
#8 Lay a feast before each child.
Mary Poppins invites her charges to “Open different doors. You may find a you that you never knew was yours.”
Likewise a CM education is not simply delight driven education. It is meant to be an illuminating experience, a feast of idea-foods that you have never tasted before. Maybe even some things you didn’t know you like. You may be surprised to find out that your child likes to sing, likes to dance, likes to gaze at the stars, likes Math and even history (minus the dates). The point is to ‘open different doors’. CM calls it laying out an “abundant and delicate feast”.
Mary Poppins keeps her cards close to her chest in terms of faith. Thankfully she is character of fantasy so we do not need to ask what she’s truly about. But I’m sure she’s as close to a CM teacher as we get in Disney World.