Curriculum, Mason Co-op, Middle School, Philosophy, Practical Application, Science
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Preparing for a Year of Teaching Biology by Beth Pinckney

Many of you who regularly read the ChildlightUSA blog are no doubt devoting some of your summer to planning for the upcoming school year –  reading catalogs, ordering books, making lists and lesson plans, wondering about how to structure (or unstructure!) your time in the months ahead.  It’s a daunting task.  All of us, teachers in public, private, and home schools, agonize at times about how we will implement the ideas we have begun to internalize: how to find the best living books, how to live out the ideals of masterly inactivity, how to foster proper habits, how to make education an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.

I, too, am at work planning for next year, specifically for my co-op teaching.  In the year ahead, I’ll be working with a group of middle school students, exploring topics in biology and natural history.  As I develop a plan for the specifics of what we will do together, I reflect on some of Miss Mason’s writings (in italics below) and ask myself questions like these that follow each quote:

“Where science does not teach a child to wonder and admire it has perhaps no educative value.” (Volume 6, page 224)

What will I plan this year that will foster wonder and admiration in my students?  How will I gently lead them to explore and discover things that will intrigue them and prompt further questioning?  When will the “Oh, wow!!!” moments happen and how can I share my own enthusiasm for the beauty of a multicolored fungus or my amazement at the life in a drop of pond water in a way that will encourage but not rob them of finding their own delight and admiration?

“We prefer [the children] 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?” (Volume 6, p. 171)

What do I care about in the realm of living things and how can I communicate that caring?  How do I share my joy in seeing the flash of a goldfinch or hearing the call of the barred owl?  How do I help my students to understand that these living things matter and our relationship with the creation around us matters?  How might I encourage a student to love the trees in his backyard or the spider whose web glistens with dew?  What will we do that will not simply provide information, but will generate connection and caring?

Scientific training is not the same thing as information about certain scientific subjects. No one in these days can escape random information about radium, wireless telegraphy, heredity, and much else; but windfalls of this sort do not train the mind in exact observation, impartial record, great and humble expectation, patience, reverence, and humility, the sense that any minute natural object enfolds immense secrets–laws after which we are still only feeling our way.” (Volume 4, Book II. p. 100, 101)

How will our science study train my students in other areas of their lives?  How will they grow as a result of our time together?  What will we do in class and other activities that will go beyond simply imparting information, and lead, more importantly, to growth in their characters, in their powers of observation and attentiveness, to patience, reverence, humility, and dependence on God?

These are some of the overarching questions I consider.  In addition, I ask myself more practical questions that spring from considering these words of Miss Mason’s:

“Of natural science…we have to learn that the way into the secrets of nature is not through the barbed wire entanglements of science as she is taught (today in schools) but through field work or other immediate channels, illustrated and illuminated by books of literary value.” (Volume 6, p. 256).

What kind of field work will we do this year?  Will we watch birds, hike and identify trees and wildflowers, study the life of a nearby pond?  Will we take some field trips with people who are more knowledgeable about their area of study and eager to share it?  What books will we read?  Which are the best living books that will bring the minds of my students into the most direct contact with the minds of those who know and love amphibians or insects or microorganisms?

“The study of natural history and botany with bird lists and plant lists continues throughout the school life…” (Volume  6, p. 219)

I have found in my last two years of co-op teaching that my students have very little awareness of the natural world.  Since I will be working with middle schoolers this year, how will I help to fill in the gaps in their learning and appreciation of biology?  Will we start bird and plant lists?  What kind of notebooks or lab books will we use?  How will we process and evaluate what we are learning?  How will narrations fit into our co-op learning life?

These questions all have to do with how I, as a teacher, will plan for my students.  Another aspect of preparing for the year ahead involves my own learning and growing as a student of the living world.  In addition to her writings, Charlotte Mason’s life encourages me as I prepare to teach.  Specifically, as I prepare to guide my students into a greater knowledge of and love for the natural world, I love the model of a woman whose almost daily walks or rides in her beloved carriage took her out of doors to explore, observe, learn, enjoy, love the created world.

So, in addition to my hours in the library with lesson plans, I will ready myself for next year by spending time outside, watching the growth of my patty pan squash and identifying bird calls.  I’ll walk in the woods and name the trees by the creek.  I’ll look at the Japanese beetles with a loupe and read a living book or two on biology topics.  And then, I think I’ll be ready for a year of real living and learning with my students.  I’m excited.  How about you?

© Beth Pinckney, 2010


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. How marvelous Beth! You make me want to go exploring this afternoon as I read your blog. What a gift the natural world is to us. I think we will post some descriptions of teaching science soon as a follow up to this blog.

  2. Thanks for the inspiration! And, yes, I am making plans for the school year and only have two MP3 albums to download before all materials are ordered for the start of the school year. We have had a lovely three weeks studying the life cycle of some painted lady butterflies that we ordered from a kit. My daughter learned a lot, and I learned a lot, and we are eager to do more. Science is so much more engaging outside of the confining walls of textbooks and classrooms . . .

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