It’s been my experience that learning often comes in spurts with long stretches of desert time in between. Step by step, precept upon precept, ideas are cemented; skills and concepts are mastered. Then one day, the baby who couldn’t even crawl is running a marathon. My daughter’s first history narration went exactly like this — word for word: “History is a wonderful thing. It’s so… historical.” Thankfully, we’ve seen some improvement since that disappointing day! The good news is that these minor setbacks sent me back to my handy six volumes, much the same way trials send us to our knees in prayer. Here’s what I found.
According to Charlotte Mason, a brilliant, intuitive educator who I am continually convinced was born eons before her time, a comprehensive study of history would occur in three stages. The first stage – before the age of eight or nine – would best be spent engaging the child via story with vivid pictures. The next stage involves developing a sense of history via charts or timelines. As each event, brought to vivid life through living books, is encountered, the child places a picture or symbol on the history chart to represent that particular detail. But the third stage is the one I want to talk about here today. I have no children left in stages one and two. (Yes, I know that’s surprising given my youthful glow! Ha!) As the kids got older, I found myself inching toward accepting what my friends, family, neighbors, and even a few strangers on the street had to say about the matter. Isn’t it amazing how freely perfect strangers will offer advice to homeschooling parents they’ve only just met?
For a year or so, I took the sage advice of my peers and parents and tried the “college prep” course of study for my formerly Charlotte Mason-styled students. I purchased a few textbooks to use as “spines” instead of the books I had previously trusted to do the job. They were dead textbooks, but I thought they held the golden key to the college entrance applications my kids would soon be filling out. Gradually, like wilting blossoms in the searing summer sun, each one of my four children began to droop, to despise learning, to resent me as their teacher. What’s worse, their test scores plummeted, too.
At the time, I had taken on part time work which took up quite a chunk of my time. I thought the textbooks and online tutoring would make our school run more smoothly and efficiently. And they did. But was my goal to have a smooth, efficient school or to develop a passion for living, loving, and learning within the souls of my children? Breeding passion within a child’s soul is messy business. But well worth it.
So anyway, I had totally blown it.
The solution came in such an extraordinary way I just have to tell you about it. My daughter Hannah, who is 17 now and who benefited most from our years as a Mason family, decided on her own to take over for me. I was busy working, and her brothers needed to be taught. So she went through the house, gathered several living books for each subject area, and began teaching them – the way she watched me teach her throughout her entire life. The results have been remarkable.
Hannah absorbed the Mason way of living because I had lived it in front of her for so many years. She was then able to translate it through her actions (and masterly inactivity) to her brothers. Her eagerness to convey the beauty she experienced at their ages was contagious. Now, the boys are also excited. And me? I’m humbled and still a little burned out.
I was going to talk about Composer study here, and I promise I’ll get to that in a minute. But I wanted to share our experience so that if anyone is feeling overwhelmed, burned out, or bored, you won’t make the same mistake I did. If you’re feeling that way, take the children for a long hike in the mountains, a bike ride on a lonely trail in the woods, a visit to the aquarium, the zoo, or the kitchen of a local restaurant.
If you are not a homeschooler and are burned out, try having the children put their heads down on their desks and listen to a chapter book read aloud. Or if you are able and have the facilities available, treat them to a cup of warm tea and turnovers in a dim classroom while they listen to carefully chosen pieces by the composer you’re currently studying.
Whatever you do, don’t quit using this method! My poor children were drying up on the vine. They were becoming little raisins! Now, with Hannah’s help, they are plump, juicy grapes, bursting with sweetness and robust flavor. Just like every book we choose should be!
Here is what Charlotte Mason said the third stage of history study should look like (from History: Teaching Practically Considered, Parents Review Volume IV 1893-1894, pp. 890-896).
“In watching the landscape from a railway carriage the scenery is visible to us not as a continuous panorama; as we pass our eyes fix themselves by an involuntary impulse upon a single object, upon a single limited field of vision; were we to force them to do otherwise no distinct impression, other, perhaps, than the sensation of a swimming head, would be produced upon our consciousness. Even in the process of reading, which at first sight might seem to yield contradictory results, the same is true: the mind is focussed successively upon separate distinct ideas, each one of which fades gradually out of view as the attention is again transferred to a new area or idea. … We are therefore justified in accepting as a condition of our method that our endeavours shall be directed to vivify particular events–moments of action; while at the same time we also exert ourselves to hook on these moments of action, one to another, into a continuous chain of associated links.”
What I believe she’s telling us to do here is to make the biggest, most important events in history come alive for our children, to vivify them, and then to link them together to form a chain of events. What we choose to include will inevitably be the result of our life experiences as teachers and not solely what is considered important by the masses. Our worldview will interfere to a certain extent. But, just as the landscape flies past our railway car (or bus, car, or plane as it takes off), certain larger than life images will jump out at us despite the blur that forms the rest. These events we grab hold of and vivify.
How this all relates to composer study is in the vivifying. In order to make each successive time period come alive for my students, I try to play music from the time period for them. We choose three composers each year, but usually only end up studying one of them. We almost always fall in love with the music and want to stay with one composer for more than the allotted time. The year we met Chopin, we also met author and feminist George Sand, composers Franz Liszt and Mendelssohn, and artist Eugene Delacroix. We learned about Poland, Paris, Vienna, and the military engagements that sent Chopin away from Poland. We learned about consumption (Tuberculosis). We learned that a comet was named after Chopin, that a role-playing video game has been made about him. We learned about scherzi and counterpoint. And we listened to The Minute Waltz more times than I care to remember. Hannah fell in love with Nocturne # 20 in C Sharp Minor and attempted to learn it on the violin (it’s a piano piece). Here’s a link if you’d like to listen to an amazing little girl’s version of it:
I am not trying to suggest that Composer Study, or Picture Study for that matter, is only important as it relates to history. But using Picture Study and Composer Study to vivify history, to engage the heart of the child, and to expose him to works of great beauty, sacrifice, and tremendous talent fills the soul with life. The beauty is back. My home is buzzing with life again. And I’m so grateful!
(Of course, as I write this, my 11-year old is singing the “Cheer Up, Charlie” song from Willie Wonka at the top of his voice!)