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What is Education?

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Tell it and you will know it. AKA: Narration. It’s a trademark characteristic of the Mason method. I wanted somewhere where I could narrate, or rather just directly stash, all the key insights into what ‘education’ is as I read Mason’s works. Maybe then I will begin to know it.

Obviously my life has been consumed, for the last 2 years, with contemplating Education. I have always loved Philosophy but thought that the very familiar idea of education hardly warranted deeper consideration.

Now I find the very foundations of what I thought education was or is has been shaken, or maybe, coloured in. It is has been given a more vibrant presence in my life, a fuller depiction. Below you will find my summary of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education as I have read from the latest book in her series that I have at my beside- School Education (all page references below are from that book).

For those who homeschool I do believe that it is critical to have a philosophy of education. Otherwise, it would be like deciding to enter a swimming race and having no idea of what strokes to use or being without a stratagem for how to proceed and ultimately finish.

Charlotte Mason agreed that one adopts a philosophy whether one knows it or not, and to make sure that such a philosophy was backed up scientifically:

We do say that some educational theory which shall include the whole nature of man and the results of scientific research, in the same or a greater degree, is necessary. (65)

Jacques-Louis David , 1748 – 1825, THE DEATH OF SOCRATES

While she was not always aligned with the classical fathers in her understanding of education, she did agree with Socrates in one thing – that education was about ‘knowing thyself’ – but in that pursuit- not to adopt every educational fad that comes along.

We must not turn the cold shoulder to philosophy. Education is no more than applied philosophy––our effort to train children according to the wisdom that is in us; and not according to the last novelty in educational ideas. ‘Man, know thyself,’ is a counsel which we might render, ‘Child, know thyself, and thy relations to God and man and nature’; and to give their children this sort of preparation for life it is necessary that parents should know something of the laws of mind and of the source of knowledge. (118)

Mason does provide many definitions but provides one that she returns to again and again. I think our modern system adopts it in principle, if not always in action:

We consider that education is the science of relations, or more fully, that education considers what relations are proper to a human being, and in what ways these several relations can best be established; that a human being comes into the world with capacity for many relations; and that we, for our part, have two chief concerns––first, to put him in the way of forming these relations by presenting the right idea at the right time, and by forming the right habit upon the right idea; and, secondly, by not getting in the way and so preventing the establishment of the very relations we seek to form.(66)

This “not getting in the way” reference warrants its own post. It is a caution to parents to “not meddle” with their children’s learning. More to come….

I have set before the reader the proposition that a human being comes into the world, not to develop his faculties nor to acquire knowledge, nor even to earn his living, but to establish certain relations; which relations are to him the means of immeasurable expansion and fulness of living. We have touched upon two groups of these relations––his relations to the universe of matter and to the world of men. (90)

Mason took this relation-seeking in one more direction:

To complete his education, I think there is but one more relation to be considered––his relation to Almighty God. (90)

Mason was a Christian, but even with these references, I think the secular system can learn much from Mason.

What must we do? Just pack in content and information into the child. By no means! What is information without wisdom? And what is wisdom but the careful and considerate relating of things to each other in their proper way and in the correct order.

What, then, have we to do for the child? Plainly we have not to develop the person; he is there already, with, possibly, every power that will serve him in his passage through life. Some day we shall be told that the very word education is a misnomer belonging to the stage of thought when the drawing forth of ‘faculties’ was supposed to be a teacher’s business. We shall have some fit new word meaning, perhaps, ‘applied wisdom,’ for wisdom is the science of relations and the thing we have to do for a young human being is to put him in touch, so far as we can, with all the relations proper to him. (75)

Mason felt that mainly ideas, levered by habit and discipline, was the key to developing good character- ultimately an end goal of Education.

We hold with him entirely as to the importance of great formative ideas in the education of children, but we add to our ideas, habits, and we labour to form habits upon a physical basis. Character is the result not merely of the great ideas which are given to us, but of the habits which we labour to form upon those ideas. We recognise both principles, and the result is a wide range of possibilities in education, practical methods, and a definite aim. We labour to produce a human being at his best physically, mentally, morally, and spiritually, with the enthusiasms of religion, of the good life, of nature, knowledge, art, and manual work; and we do not labour in the dark. (99)

Millet, THE SOWER, 1814-1875

She was also known for the great motto adopted by all Parent’s Union schools (Mason schools):

Some of my readers will know the Parents’ Union motto, ‘Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life,’ especially well in the neat diagrammatic form in which it appears on the covers of our Library books. (149)

‘Atmosphere’ is a reference to what a child encounters just naturally going about living – her home, her friends, her things, nature, books, family. These encounters educate us. Unschoolers and delight-driven learners often place great emphasis on this and Mason says, indeed that it is tremendously valuable. But beware;

Suppose that all this is included in our notion of ‘Education is an atmosphere,’ may we not sit at our ease and believe that all is well, and that the whole of education has been accomplished? No; because though we cannot live without air, neither can we live upon air, and children brought up upon ‘environment’ soon begin to show signs of inanition; they have little or no healthy curiosity, power of attention, or of effort; what is worse, they lose spontaneity and initiative; they expect life to drop into them like drops into a rain-tub, without effort or intention on their part (150)

Education as a a ‘Discipline’ most simply, to my mind, means those habits of attention and otherwise that help us continue in our work in the best way.

Education is a “life”….well that will have a post all of its own as well.

But what so we often treat as “education”? Mason bemoaned this in her own time;

What do we do? We consider the matter carefully; we say the boy will make a jumble of it if he is taught more than one or two sciences. We ask our friends––’What sciences will tell best in examinations?’ and, ‘Which are most easily learned?’ We discover which are the best text-books in the smallest compass. The boy learns up his text, listens to lectures, makes diagrams, watches demonstrations. Behold! he has learned a science and is able to produce facts and figures, for a time any way, in connection with some one class of natural phenomena; but of tender intimacy with Nature herself he has acquired none. Let me sketch what seems to me the better way for the child. (76)

Leonardo da Vinci. VITRUVIAN MAN, 1490

What does she suggest?

The father of Plutarch had him learn his Homer that he might get heroic ideas of life. Had the boy been put through his Homer as a classical grind, as a machine for the development of faculty, a pedant would have come out, and not a man of the world in touch with life at many points, capable of bringing men and affairs to the touchstone of a sane and generous mind. It seems to me that this notion of the discipline which should develop ‘faculty’ has tended to produce rather one-sided men, with the limitations which belong to abnormal development. An artist told me the other day that the condition of successful art is absorption in art, that the painter must think pictures, paint pictures, nothing but pictures. But when art was great, men were not mere artists. Quentin Matsys wrought in iron and painted pictures and did many things besides. Michael Angelo wrote sonnets, designed buildings, painted pictures; marble was by no means his only vehicle of expression. Leonardo wrote treatises, planned canals, played instruments of music, did a hundred things, and all exquisitely. But then, the idea of the development of faculty, and the consequent discipline, had not occurred to these great men or their guardians. (152)

Instead of subject experts (though her method of learning will give the world many a great expert) she suggested of first importance –the well-rounded child.

We are more exacting than the Jesuits. They are content to have a child till he is seven; but we want him till he is twelve or fourteen, if we may not have him longer. You may do what you like with him afterwards. Given this period for the establishing of relations, we may undertake to prepare for the world a man, vital and vigorous, full of living interests, available and serviceable. I think we may warrant him even to pass examinations, because he will know how to put living interest into the dullest tasks.(79)

Unlike the strict classical educationalist, a child is not simply a blank vessel to fill and learn from those “who know” and to stay for the most part in the three R’s.

Another elemental relationship, which every child should be taught and encouraged to set up, is that of power over material. Every child makes sand castles, mud-pies, paper boats, and he or she should go on to work in clay, wood, brass, iron, leather, dress-stuffs, food-stuffs, furnishing-stuffs. He should be able to make with his hands and should take delight in making.(80)

Carl Larson, THE CARPTENTER’S SHOP, 1853-1919

And while she placed emphasis on learning from books (not because she thought words necessarily imparted knowledge better than people (though she does allude to this occasionally) but rather that books gave the student access to so many more people through the whole of written history. It is the human relationship that she is after.

Perhaps the main part of a child’s education should be concerned with the great human relationships, relationships of love and service, of authority and obedience, of reverence and pity and neighbourly kindness; relationships to kin and friend and neighbour, to ’cause’ and country and kind, to the past and the present. History, literature, archeology, art, languages, whether ancient or modern, travel and tales of travel; all of these are in one way or other the record or the expression of persons; and we who are persons are interested in all persons, for we are all one flesh, we are all of one spirit, and whatever any of us does or suffers is interesting to the rest. If we will approach them with living thought, living books, if we will only awaken in them the sense of personal relation, there are thousands of boys and girls to-day capable of becoming apostles, saviours, great orientalists who will draw the East and the West together, great archeologists who will make the past alive for us and make us aware in our souls of men who lived thousands of years ago. (80-81)

Mason often had to emphasize that bookish learning is not the the goal, but the the means to…

Relations with each other as Human Beings.––But the subject of our relations with each other as human beings is inexhaustible, and I can do no more than indicate a point here and there, and state again my conviction that a system of education should have for its aim, not the mastery of certain ‘subjects,’ but the establishment of these relations in as many directions as circumstances will allow. (88)

These “books and things” help get the student embrace the fullness of what it is to be human. But books alone do not ensure the child gets to this fullness. Art Middlekauff, from Charlotte Mason Poetry illustrates in one his great podcasts that Stalin received what might be considered a typically well rounded Education, a blend of classical and experiential learning that should have opened his heart to humanity, but it didn’t. But perhaps for Stalin, he reduced the expectations of his education to subject mastery and performance prowess.

Instead, Mason writes,

The Full Human Life.––I think we should have a great educational revolution once we ceased to regard ourselves as assortments of so-called faculties and realised ourselves as persons whose great business it is to get in touch with other persons of all sorts and conditions, of all countries and climes, of all times, past and present. History would become entrancing, literature, a magic mirror for the discovery of other minds, the study of sociology, a duty and a delight. We should tend to become responsive and wise, humble and reverent, recognising the duties and the joys of the full human life. We cannot, of course, overtake such a programme of work, but we can keep it in view; and, I suppose, every life is moulded upon its ideal. We talk of lost ideals, but perhaps they are not lost, only changed; when our ideal for ourselves and for our children becomes limited to prosperity and comfort, we get these, very likely, for ourselves and for them, but we get no more. (83)

And so now we see what we are after for our children and for ourselves:

We begin to see what we want. Children make large demands upon us. We owe it to them to initiate an immense number of interests. Thou hast set my feet in a large room; should be the glad cry of every intelligent soul. Life should be all living, and not merely a tedious passing of time; not all doing or all feeling or all thinking––the strain would be too great––but, all living; that is to say, we should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest. We cannot give the children these interests; we prefer that they should never say they have learned botany or conchology, geology or astronomy. 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? (171)

Tissot, HIDE AND SEEK, 1877

What does it mean to have our feet set in a large room? Magnanimity. Wikipedia says this is is the virtue of being great of mind and heart. Amy Snell explores this in depth in her talk “Cultivating Magnanimity” from the CMEC retreat 2019. Suffice it to say we want our children, and ourselves, to continually grow and expand outward and inward so that their presence touches the world however small or big that community is for them. Our current system attempts to capture this with “growth mindset” but I think it only scratches the surface.

While I have mainly been quoting from Mason’s book School Education, here the great lady sums it up in her last book A Philosophy of Education:

The introduction of the methods I advocate has a curious effect on a whole family… The whole household thinks of and figures to itself great things, for nothing is so catching as knowledge and that fine temper of mind that knowledge brings with it. Children so taught are delightful companions because they have large interests and worthy thoughts; they have much to talk about and such casual talk benefits society. The fine sense, like an atmosphere, of things worth knowing and worth living for, this it is which produces magnanimous citizens, and we feel that Milton was right in claiming magnanimity as the proper outcome of education. (p.267-268)

It’s not just about being able to have ‘polite conversation’. This alone is not the goal we are after. They ought to learn…

With great interest something about themselves, mind and body, heart and soul, because they feel it is well to know what they have it in them to give… (Ibid., p. 187)

Ah, there’s the rub.

Is Mary Poppins a Charlotte Mason Teacher?

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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.”

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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?

Let’s see.

“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.

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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).

And again,

“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)

Furthermore,

“[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)

And finally,

“… 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.

CM writes:

“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.

Memorization…but that’s boring!

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I have been thinking a lot about recitation since our homeschool recitation night is coming up. I found a great article on Charlotte Mason Poetry called Ruminating on Recitation. There were some great summaries and examples included of what it is supposed to look like and the purpose it is meant to serve. Thank you to the author Maria Bell.

I don’t think most of us have a super exciting idea in mind when we think of recitation.

This is my narration of the article above. I don’t propose to know what I am talking about or that I have summarized it accurately.

But just what is recitation? Is it the age old boring process of memorizing things? I don’t think so. Is this tedious practice even something that that is older than the school system that we have known for the past 200 years? Perhaps there are times that this memorization for the purpose of memorization is necessary (choral pieces, catechism, etc), but on the whole I think it wasn’t. Charlotte Mason certainly didn’t think so.

What is it for?

1. Recitation is a path to vital knowledge, whether the child is engaged as a reader-practitioner (doing) or as a listener/learner (hearing).

2. It is NOT just learning facts, without having them infused with the ideas that inform them. “…a child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge.” (Mason) Unlike many who believe that children have all the knowledge within them that they need for life, I agree with Mason who believed that just as we have everything within us when we are born to digest food, children also have everything within them needed to digest knowledge, if like food it is put before them. This is distinct from the idea that children are born with all knowledge in them that just needs to be drawn out.

3. When someone has memorized something through the process of recitation, it does not mean that the person is just a mere sac holding space for these ideas. These ideas, once in our minds, are like the food we digest – constantly being ruminated upon and digested to become nourishment to our souls, as food nourishes the body. Recitation helps to increase the depth to which we take in the written or sung piece, holding the idea there in our mental library book stacks for our perusal . Charlotte Mason wanted young people to understand ideas, through living books or living poems, art and ideas, by knowing them at their very core.

How is it done? “A committing to memory without labour by listening to or reading a text aloud regularly” (Mason).

1. Recitation is the frequent reciting and reflecting of something (poem, song, oral speech, saying, psalm, etc), for the purpose of carrying it with us, digesting it, considering it, sharing it. Memorization may or may not happen in this process.

2. It will likely be the habit of memorizing without a tremendous amount of work. Like so much else, it is learned by the way. When kids are young, a parent may read while the child is colouring, playing or before bed. Maybe over lunch….just by the way. As they become of school age, there will be set opportunities during a 10- 15 min of recitation at least three times a week (this has worked for us). The piece is read to the student, the student may ask about it, and soon the child is encouraged to read it for herself. At each recitation lesson another opportunity presents itself. Before long, the student is barely looking at the page. In this way we can say that our student has learned a poem without the conscious process of memorizing. “The gains of such a method of learning are that the edge of the child’s enjoyment is not taken off by weariful verse by verse repetitions, and also, that the habit of making mental images is unconsciously formed.” (Charlotte Mason).

But what if this doesn’t happen??

Charlotte Mason assures us it is unlikely the child’s fault. The piece might be too hard and thus the process becomes laborious or even impossible, like asking a baby to chew and digest a tenderloin. It’s beyond them. Something that challenges the student, while also remaining within their realm of decent handling, is best.

3. The piece should be read to the student first of all in a way to bring out the beauty, humour, or whatever quality the piece illuminates, 3 or four times (likely different lessons) until they think they know it and want to try it (they likely don’t know it all by this time). At this point they are ready to try it themselves each lesson until they have it.

Here is a great example from one of my favourite movies, The Nativity Story.

What to recite?

Charlotte Mason writes that until six let the child pick up what he likes of what she hears along the way, then “let the poems [or other such material suitable for recitation] be simple and within the range of his own thought and imagination. (Mason, Home Education).

Does it have to be something they understand?

There has to be a balance here. How much of what we read, do we understand every word or turn of phrase? Not much. On the other hand, how quickly do we completely become disinterested when it is beyond our ability or interest. In general, the majority of the piece should be within their comprehension with little explanation necessary. However, there should be parts that they have to wrestle or grapple with.

Direct references:

“Ruminating on Recitation” by Maria Belll http://charlottemasonpoetry.org/ruminating-on-recitation/

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

Haines and Back Again

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We have been enjoying a great visit from Ian’s parents from Northern Ireland. Skype has been a fantastic tool to help the kids connect to these great folks even though we are so far away from them.  So when they arrived, it didn’t take long for the kids to get to the important stuff right away — duplo, stories and chocolates.

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We just got back from four days in Haines Alaska where we stayed in a lovely place that overlooked remarkable glaciers and a mud flat inlet that gave lots of food for the soul and playtime.

Ysabeau is asking to return to the “fluffy house” and I am guessing this is in reference to the giant bear hide hanging on the wall and the shaggy carpets all through the bedrooms. Fluffy.

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We celebrated Ethan’s 11th birthday with some cake and family games.  I highly recommend the game Bellz! game for great dinner table fun for all ages. We got this for him and it has more than earned its keep in the games drawer already.

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Xav now goes into serious photoshoot everytime he sees an iphone or camera. As soon as you pull it out he is running over screaming “CHEEEEEEEEEESE”.

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Summer lovin’

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I got some fantastic mail the other day from an old college friend. She has taken up a highly underrated skill – calligraphy.

She practices everyday and has integrated this discipline into the daily tasks of life. She composes her groceries list while practicing her pen. She writes down her spiritual thoughts for the day carefully in the script of the day she wishes to work on. Wonderful.

Above, you will see I commissioned her to pen the Ignatian practice of the daily examen for me so that I can have it at my kitchen window while I do the dishes.To see more of her work visit Amielou Creative

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I have definitely enjoyed the bounty of a warm summer in Yukon. The greens keep-a-comin’! Below you see a comfrey plant that is almost half the hight of the tree beside it. It actually provides shade to the seat beside.

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Ysabeau was determined to help me in the garden one day and proceeded to dress very similar to myself. However, she got tired of wearing her hot winter boots very quickly!

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We had the honour to attend our neighbour’s wedding this past June. Kathryn and Bryan are such special people and they had just the celebration to reflect their union.

It was out at her parents newly built rural home and since there was still some landscaping happening around the place, the kids managed to find huge pikes of dirt and started some version of what seemed like the Hunger Games, until dinner was served. Some great opportunities for dancing!

I am still working on the bread-making which I realized does kind of lose its luster in the summer when you want to keep the kitchen cool. But I can easily get eight loaves at a time now which is fantastic.

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Ethan has been home from school and doing the odd camp here in there. But usually the pace has been slow when family isn’t visiting and we take the time to stop and watch the diggers…

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…or drink tea.

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I love giving this kid a haircut so I can see his handsome face!

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This summer has delivered some great hot days for much needed beach time.

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June highlights hit an all time high with a visit from Auntie Rhi and Master Duplo Builder, Spencer. We had great fun getting to know Spencer (who Xav followed around with pieces of Duplo every minute of the day) and enjoying the sun with these crazy cats.

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Pretty, Happy, Funny, Real

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I knew it would take me a while to get my groove on – the music is slowly warming up my muscles. Things are going much better. The weather is getting warmer, we are getting out, and dinner is getting made …I count all of these as successes and I am only responsible for two out of three.

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A walk in a spring Yukon small forest +meadow.

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I have discovered that kids love nothing better than throwing rocks into the river with a friend.

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And we all know that true happiness is a great sleep. As Ethan and I come to the end of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I was thinking about poor Ol’ Lord Rhoop who Caspian found floundering in the waters of the Dark Island : a place where all your dreams come true, including nightmares. He struggles to come to himself again once rescued and only finds true rest when given a long dreamless sleep. So true.

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Build and destroy. Our neighbour Bryan played way to many rounds of this -what a good sport!

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Splash parks – need I say more.

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This recipe book was not always coiled. A colleague from my last place of work let me know about this great service offered at Staples. For just more than a ten bucks, you can get your favorite recipe book coiled so you don’t have to prop it open! Happiness!

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Hide…

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“Oh I just can’t wait to be KING!” or “The simba song”.

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A friend gave us coconut and Ysabeau has been obsessed with shaking it each night before bed!IMG_0123

First swim of the season. 15 degrees maybe.

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They are eating all my apples!!!

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This one of Ethan below is real because it was take during Cub Scout Camp and I don’t think he even knew it was being taken! Why doesn’t he do this at home? Love it.

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This is a link up with Like Mother, Like Daughter