Practical Application
Comments 2

Slowly but Surely By Sandra Rusby Bell

Perhaps it’s not surprising that I decided to homeschool years before I even had children. I’ve heard it argued that there is only one kind of home educator: a perfectionist.
In my last year of high school, I had the opportunity to read all of my elementary school report cards. I was shocked to see that almost every one of my teachers had written some variation of, “Sandra is a very good student but will only apply herself to something if she thinks she can do it perfectly or be the best at it.” I have no memory of any of my teachers speaking to me about this tendency of mine but they showed great insight into my personality and it really hasn’t changed much over the years. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I won’t be the best at anything in this life but I still struggle mightily to persevere at tasks that I can’t do perfectly.

One of the things I find most compelling about a Mason education is the picture she paints of the teacher setting a table laden with the feast that is the whole field of knowledge. I love Leslie Laurio’s paraphrase of Mason’s eighth principle, “’Education is a life’ means that education should apply to body, soul and spirit. The mind needs ideas of all kinds, so the child’s curriculum should be varied and generous with many subjects included.” (

Studying a great number of subjects with my children is exciting but also daunting, especially for the perfectionist in me. In fact, sometimes planning and preparing the feast can be so paralyzing that I forget to feed the children the “food” I already have on hand. In the past I often allowed our study of certain subjects to fall away for several weeks if I hadn’t had the opportunity to preview the whole book I planned to assign, or I didn’t have fully developed lesson plans, or the perfect supplies, or what I thought was enough time.

This year I determined to do as much as I could do, with the limited supplies, or time or advanced planning, believing that a little bit done regularly is better than a lot done sporadically. And it’s most certainly better than doing nothing at all. My new determination led to changes in several areas.

Dictation was something that often wasn’t getting done in our home because it requires my focused attention and many days I didn’t feel I had enough time. While preparing to speak about Composition at last year’s ChildLight conference I became renewed in my belief in the power of this method of teaching spelling. I decided that I would be consistent with this even if I could only do two words in a passage on a given day. The results have been staggering. My struggling speller is improving by leaps and bounds. I have also realized that while an actual Dictation lesson takes focused attention, we can play with word families after we’ve talked about spelling rules at any time of the day: while driving in the car, washing dishes or going for a walk. After learning the rule about double consonants before a “y” while copying “Happy Thoughts” by Robert Louis Stevenson, one of my young spellers took great delight in spelling every word I could think of that followed the rule for the rest of the day. We only took a moment to study the word “happy” but by the end of the day he had added many new additions to the list of words he can spell.

Earlier this year I became discouraged by how few constellations my children knew. I spent an entire weekend skimming through every astronomy book we had, trying to learn as much as I could so I could teach the children. By Sunday night I was completely bogged down and still not sure where to begin. I flipped through a simple children’s book called “The Big Dipper” by Franklyn M. Branley and realized that all identification starts with the Big Dipper. Suddenly my perspective changed; being able to find the Big Dipper wasn’t just something any child could do, it was the beginning of all knowledge! I didn’t have to know everything. I just needed to learn one thing at a time and share it. Now, even on the most bitterly cold nights, if we’ve been out in the car, everyone stops on our way into the house to see if we can find all of the constellations we know. The night sky is becoming a friend, slowly but surely.

This winter was very cold where I live and there were many days when we couldn’t safely spend much time outside. But whereas in the past I would have let Nature Study slide, this year we did what we could. My children learned to identify every bird that came to our feeder, one at a time. And they know every tree that we can see from our window.

I have learned to ignore curriculum developer’s schedules. I am very happy with the Science program we are using, for example, but to finish each book in a year would require about two hours a day, five days a week. I think Science is very important, but I’m not going to have my students spend that much time in one subject at the expense of the others. Students in PNEU schools often took several years to read through a book and we are choosing to do the same.

In the past, I always tried to keep up with my children’s reading so that I could have good conversations with them and better assess their narrations. But I have come to accept that I can’t keep up. I am outnumbered and they have fewer responsibilities than I do. If I make them wait for me, I will hold them back. I still read as much as I can but I trust in my children’s minds and their ability to interact with the minds of the authors and with the mind of the One who inspired those authors. This forces me not to mediate. And I am reminded that I am not in control.

Serendipitously, I’m finding that my limitations have a way of ensuring that I follow Charlotte Mason’s insistence on short lessons. And of course, these short lessons, while counterintuitively helping to develop the habit of attention, also enable us to cover a wide curriculum.

Being able to touch on so many subjects in a day has inspired me to become unmoving in an area where I once showed great weakness; I will not read another chapter of our readalouds, or permit my children to read ahead if they are reading independently, even if they beg. I do believe there is a place for long, leisurely reading. For our family this happens in the evenings. I read some research when I had my first son that said that the most reliable indicator of whether or not a boy will become a reader is if his father reads to him and in front of him. My husband embraced this responsibility and spends about 2 hours almost every night reading to our children. He is easily coaxed into reading another chapter or three. And that’s good. But this reading is for a different purpose; it is purely for pleasure and to knit us together as a family. During school time we are reading for knowledge. In the past when I have allowed myself to be talked into reading for much longer stretches, we’ve been left feeling happy but not really satisfied. Gorging and feasting are not the same thing.

I’ve come to see the feast in a different light. I do not have to serve an abundance of good food, perfectly prepared, every day. I provide as many delicious dishes, in small portions, as I can.

This entry was posted in: Practical Application


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. bethdpinckney says

    This is a great post! The other very important Mason concept that you have touched on is masterly inactivity. You have, out of necessity, had to step aside and let your children go on without you reading everything they do. We do this more and more as our children get older, but we set the stage for successful progression in this area by our consistent habit training and good-natured discipline and example in the earlier years.

    Isn’t it wonderful as you make grow and changes in your learning life with your children to rediscover how “right on” Miss Mason was! I have found that to be true over and over again.

  2. lauriebestvater says

    and so a Mason education has fed me…in all the ways you describe…addressing my perfectionism and teaching me how to teach by frustrating my need to “be ahead” of my children…now, with older children, we enjoy what habit and attention and little baby steps have built and see with John Muir, “when we try to pick out anything by itself we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Shall I tell you what my report cards usually said? “Laurie, finishes her work before everyone else and then bothers them by talking or singing!”

    Sandy, you have such a lovely way of describing this journey. Thank you for sharing your observations and the time you could have been reading ahead!

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