What was in your fifth grade reader?

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Kids at the Salmon Fry release

Here I am again. Two years later.  Let’s cut to the chase. So — we are homeschooling. While I had dreamt of unschooling and running through fields of green grass all day with my children (here where there is snow 10 months of the year) I figured the novelty of that might wear off eventually.

So I have decided to give it a a real shot – Charlotte Mason style. If you don’t know who she is yet, you will if you keep reading my blog or are bored enough to follow me on instagram.

Her philosophy of education has become synonymous with her name. In a way, it is too bad that her educational philosophy got named after her (because indeed it is far older than her and it makes it look as though I’m following some victorian guru no one has ever heard of, especially here in Yukon). It’s really about providing a feast of “good food” for your child’s mind. It’s not delight driven education, because if I never expose my child to medieval weaponry, pet care, or botany, how will she ever come to know if that is what she truly loves, and never knew it until that moment we opened a most special book about it. But it’s also not endless unit studies, because that is part of the reason we are not in school.

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At a Kids on the Farm outing

Exposure to really good words, poems, songs and art is a big part of what I’m doing here.

Today we were enjoying the summer weather on our way to homeschool improv theatre class (no joke) and we were listening to the audiobook version of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter. You know something different is happening on the Prairie than in most school rooms we know when this passage comes up.  A little intro: Laura and fam have been twiddling their thumbs (literally twisting hay to feed the fire as that is the only fuel they have left). It has been a fierce winter and Laura has not been able to go to school.

“Every day Laura found time to study a little. When enough hay was twisted to last for an hour, she sat down by Mary, between the stove and the table, and opened the school-books. But she felt dull and stupid. She could not remember history and she leaned her head on her hand and looked at a problem on her slate without seeing how to solve it or wanting to.

“Come, come, girls! We must not mope,” Ma said. “Straighten up, Laura and Carrie! Do your lessons briskly and then we’ll have an entertainment.”

“How, Ma?” Carrie asked.

“Get your lessons first,” said Ma.

When study time was over, Ma took the Independent Fifth Reader. “Now,” she said, “let’s see how much you can repeat from memory. You first, Mary. What shall it be?”

Now before we continue with what happens next, let me reiterate that they open her Fifth Reader. Fifth grade. Grade 5. Here we go. Mary chose first what she is going to read. Wait no. What she is going to recite. She is blind, so she must have a better memory than the rest of us. I’ll give her that.

“The Speech of Regulus,” said Mary. Ma turned the leaves until she found it and Mary began.

“‘Ye doubtless thought—for ye judge of Roman virtue by your own—that I would break my plighted oath rather than, returning, brook your vengeance!’” Mary could repeat the whole of that splendid defiance. “‘Here in your capital do I defy you! Have I not conquered your armies, fired your towns, and dragged your generals at my chariot wheels, since first my youthful arms could wield a spear?’”

The kitchen seemed to grow larger and warmer. The blizzard winds were not as strong as those words.

Laura goes on to choose a poem called Tubal Cain. Before you go to look it up (as I had to), I’ll save you the work. It’s a 19th c. Poem by Charles Mackey. It’s about a descendent of Cain from the Bible who was a metal worker. It’s a long poem for a fifth grader…well, even for me.

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The girls remember every word correctly. Ma praises them and says Carrie and Grace will have their turns for recitation the next day. Carrie is maybe 6 and Grace is likely 3. That’s right —Grace is a preschooler.

When I heard this chapter in the car my first question was, “What’s the ‘Speech of Regulus’?”. Then, “Who was Regulus?”. Then, “What is the Speech of Regulus doing in a reader for a fifth grader?”

While I was impressed by the recitation I am no longer surprised by the fact that those young women could recite that much, In gently adhering to a casual Charlotte Mason inspired pre-school program, my kids listen to a lot of poems. Most days they always ask for a reading of The Cremation of Sam Mcgee. And even my three year old will start mumbling stanza after stanza while staging play mobile guy fights in the corner.

I’m not here to judge but I’m guessing that The Speech of Regulus is not in any fifth grade reader in Canadian schools, and even if it was, I would likely be in the same position as many of the students: not able to understand it on first reading. Some might accuse Laura of just being a puppet but upon closer reading we see that she did know it. She understood it.

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Pondering life while taking in the view

I’m not getting my kids to listen to poetry just to memorize it, but to remember it (as one homeschooling teacher put it). To remember it for that time, one day down the road when my kid has his heart broken, his friendship fail, or is in prison (totally possible – my kids will make their own choices). Or more positively, to have the poetic words to express their moments of joy. Or to ponder silently the poem they know, and the situation they one day find themselves in. That they are not alone, because someone else has felt this before. Do with it what they will.

My favorite novel is The Count of Monte Cristo. The main character, Edmonton Dantes, spent 14 years in prison for something he didn’t do. I suspect he had more things to think about (because he had them memorized) than some lines from Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Outlander. We never know when we may need to feed on that stored literacy fat, that good food for the soul, when we have nothing else to feed our hearts, like companionship.

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So here’s the rub. I’m doing this homeschool thing for me, as much as for my children. I was given beautiful tastes of true education from my parents and a some good teachers along the way. They led me to good, true and beautiful literature and fed my desire for learning, helping me begin making the connections between all things. But there is a lot I still want know and understand. Particularly about the natural world. There are far too many things I am not able to tell my kids about when they ask questions (What is story that goes with that constellation? What part of the animal is this bit of bison from? What tree is that? What flower is that?) I know I will never be able to answer them all, nor should I.

But maybe, I’ll just start with learning about The Speech of Regulus (I understand it is in the Defeat of Regulus) myself. I know I am going to love anything with the words “Splendid Defiance” in it. As Ysabeau likes to say, “I’ll get goosebumps”.

I know this route isn’t for everyone and Ethan is still in the school system so I will continue to get the best of both worlds – I hope.

The question is not, — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?

~Charlotte Mason

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