It’s finally spring in Minnesota. The end of the school year is fast approaching, and the news in my classroom is both good and bad. The good news is that books and reading have become a source of – in Charlotte Mason’s words – “interest and delight” for me and my students. Living books capture our minds and spirits; reading them together is the best part of each day.
In the past weeks and months, my students and I have read The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare, Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Now we are reading two books more recently published and perhaps less proven, but that I feel can be categorized as living books: they are Holes by Louis Sachar and The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. Holes was first enjoyed by many of my students as a movie; they thought they “knew” the story but are finding that you “should never judge a book by its movie.”* The book is so much richer and more detailed. The Lightning Thief is perhaps even more intriguing because there is not yet a movie; the book is living in our minds before it meets our eyes via a screen. The Lightning Thief is about Percy Jackson, a sort of Harry Potter-esque character, and his encounters with the Olympians – yes, the Greek gods.
So . . . living books are a delight to me and my students. And now the bad news. What is not so delightful is that I’ve had my middle school boys in class for eight months and am not fully satisfied with their (our?) progress. I had hoped for much more improvement in both the habit and delight of reading by the end of the school year. Charlotte Mason’s comments on pages 226 to 230 in Volume 1, Part V: “Reading for Older Children,” give insight into the strength and influence of long-established poor practices that continue to be stumbling blocks to my students and impediments to their progress.
Before I met them last fall, my struggling middle school students had been formally schooled for between six and eight years. Most of them had been “taught to read with care and deliberation until he ha[d] mastered the words of a limited vocabulary” (p. 226). But not one had gone on to doing “the rest for himself” (p. 226). Why not? The reasons are many, and in a public, rural school there are spiritual, family, and economic factors that a teacher cannot readily manage or address.
Areas we do control are those of educational methodology and instructional planning; Mason’s philosophy and practices can help our students “acquire the habit of reading,” and avoid falling “into slipshod habits” (p. 226) Some things she suggests that we are not doing well at our school are: 1) using books (history, legends, fairy tales) as a means of interest and delight, 2) training attention so that one reading of a lesson is the basis for understanding and narration, and 3) practicing reading aloud. There are other things we are doing that Mason says are counter-productive: 1) direct questioning about the subject matter, 2) study of vocabulary words out of context, 3) using lesson books that are twaddle, and 4) expecting students to learn “detailed processes, lists, and summaries” (p. 229).
Mason’s words, penned long ago, are on the mark. In trying to efficiently organize, summarize, and reduce information, and then assign it to specific grade levels, and then force it into the minds of children so that we can later test to see if they have met our standard, we are destroying delight, imagination, curiosity, and personhood. And slowing academic progress.
But let’s not end with bad news. There is more good news. For many of us, one school year ends and another starts. In the late summer or early fall there will be an opportunity to begin again. In the interval we can give thought to better ways to apply the gentle, effective ideas promulgated by Charlotte Mason. While we have not arrived, we have progressed, and will begin again in a better position than that in which we lastly commenced.
*quote from J. W. Eagan
© 2009 by Dr. Donna Johnson