CM in Non-Mason Settings, Educational Reform, Habit Formation, Middle School, personhood, Philosophy, Students with Special Needs
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Musings of a Masonite by Dr. Donna Johnson

What exactly are we?  Are we followers of Charlotte Mason?  Supporters, devotees, or disciples? Or maybe adherents or enthusiasts? Is it sensible to be guided by a 100-year-old educational philosophy?  Should we be embarrassed to recommend a pedagogical methodology that most in today’s elite educational circles have not even heard about?  A methodology promulgated by someone whose name barely surfaces during a search of prestigious educational journals? Someone whose methods have not been properly researched and validated?  Someone whom homeschoolers – of all people! – emulate and promote?
During my busy days teaching students with special needs in a public middle school, I rarely have occasion to mention the name of Charlotte Mason. Still, she is with me every day.  Some days I need all the help I can get, and Charlotte’s help is more helpful than anyone else’s I know. She helps me in ways that may be barely discernible to my teaching colleagues but are becoming steadily more apparent to me.
When I am part of a team meeting to discuss the abilities and needs of a struggling student, I hear reports of test scores, grades, behavior ratings, and classroom observations. When it’s my turn to contribute, I most often share something the student has written: a journal entry, an essay, or a story. These pieces give a glimpse into a child’s heart and mind and help the team focus on personhood, interests, and relationships, not just deficiencies and areas of struggle. At a recent meeting, a young man read his essay about his dad.  This boy feels a great loss because his mother and father have recently separated. Afterward, we all wiped our eyes before continuing the meeting, and proceeded with a better understanding of the young man’s academic and behavioral struggles.
When my students tire of preparing for upcoming state tests by cramming bits of knowledge set forth in the state standards, I open a book and begin to read. The children relax, connect, and draw strength from the beauty, truth, and vitality of living books. Today, I read pages from Wind in the Willows, Farmer Boy, and Where the Red Fern Grows. My sixth grade students retell images of Rat and Mole they see in their minds that I don’t even recall reading to them. My eighth graders read page after page about Billy, Little Ann, and Old Dan’s adventures in the Ozark hills.  This year I can’t stop them. Last year I couldn’t get them started. My last period group of boys settles around a table and marvels at the life of Almanzo Wilder. Sheep shearing, breaking a team of young oxen, and staying home from school to plant potatoes are not experiences these children have had. They wonder, question, and learn, even though they are not subjected to lists of  “comprehension questions” in a workbook or vocabulary words printed on a worksheet.
When my students misbehave and fail to meet classroom and school expectations, they are given detention and failing grades. Rules are set forth in the handbook printed in their planner, which they are to have with them at all times. School staff and parents become frustrated when poor attitudes and habits seem to increase rather than change for the better. I try to follow Charlotte Mason’s principles of one-at-a-time habit formation and natural consequences for poor behavior. I try not to nag and lecture. I take time to devise unique, one-of-a-kind consequences that relate to a particular rule infraction. I try to be as disinterested and unemotional as possible and leave a child’s spirit and personhood intact when their behaviors fall short. Progress is slow, but one small step in the right direction may become a turning point.
Charlotte keeps giving me more ideas. For a long time, I’ve been thinking about ways to give my students more opportunity to talk. They love to talk. They need to talk. They blurt. But without some sort of structure, their talking gets out of control in volume and topic and somehow leads to general pushing and shoving. In my school, teachers either rigidly reinforce the no-talking-without-raising-your-hand procedure or just try to talk over the chaos. It recently occurred to me that it might be possible to teach middle school students to carry on polite conversation based on a mature adult model of listening politely, taking turns, and staying on topic. We’re working on it. In one class last week, we politely discussed all terrain vehicles (ATVs) for a short time with only minimal redirection and without the raise-your-hand rule. I believe we all learned a thing or two about ATVs. I know I did.
These are my examples of trying to be a Charlotte Mason follower in a non-Charlotte-Mason environment in a time period far removed from Charlotte’s day and age. These are things I did not know to do in my before-Charlotte-Mason years of teaching. They are sensible and effective. When in doubt, Charlotte reminds me to acknowledge the personhood and respect the possibilities of each of my students. That starting point sets us in the right direction; following as many of Charlotte’s other principles as possible moves us further on.

© by Dr. Donna Johnson 2010


  1. gladysschaefer says

    Thank you so much for your insight into the public classroom world. It makes me wonder what my public school days would have been like if I had had a teacher like you. Blessings to you in your work!

  2. dmjohnso says

    Thank you for your kind and encouraging words, Gladys. Today was one of THOSE days: a student I thought I could trust disobeyed a hard-and-fast school policy, a group doing a written retelling didn’t really engage – their responses were short and lacking in depth, I couldn’t seem to get ahead of the day’s challenges. Will take a little time to rest, reflect, and regroup!

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