If I could go back to the early days of my cm discoveries, I think this would be the quote I would most like someone to have impressed upon me: “…there is no part of a child’s work at school which some philosophic principle does not underlie.” (Home Education, 240) In which case, one thing is not as good as another. It took me too long to learn that if Charlotte Mason said it or did it, there was a particular reason. If I looked closely enough, I wouldn’t see a cobbled together hodgepodge of educational practice and ideas but a cohesive philosophy, unity and elegant practice that supported human learning in the most profound ways. In passing seemingly unimportant phrases in her works or in reading others about her rather than Mason herself, I have often missed treasures.
A case in point: I shared at the recent Charlotte Mason Education Centre’s conference my research on the Book of Centuries. I had read many times in the programmes that she desired children* to keep a “Book of Centuries” but was content to take definitions wrought by others rather than follow the trail through her writings to discover exactly what she meant by a Book of Centuries. What I had thought was essentially a timeline compressed into a book, was actually so much more. Briefly, here are some of the things I’ve learned.
(*form I does not seem to have used Books of Centuries probably because their handwriting, drawing ability, and understanding of time was still developing. I hope to show how the P.N.E.U used increasingly complex and specific timelines to build a concept of time in a later article.)
Clues from the archive
Of the programmes we have access to, (thanks to Ambleside Online) many say
“Keep a Book of Centuries putting in Illustrations from all History Studied”
In A Philosophy of Education, (175) we get the clear notion that, by 1923 at least, the Book of Centuries is a particular book produced and sold by the P.N.E.U which Mason recommended highly.
“Miss G. M. Bernau has added to the value of these studies (history) by producing a ‘Book of Centuries’ in which children draw such illustrations as they come across of objects of domestic use, of art, etc., connected with the century they are reading about. This slight study of the British Museum we find very valuable….”
Essex Chomondley mentions the Book of Centuries in The Story of Charlotte Mason (15) clarifying that Miss Bernau was herself a student of the Charlotte Mason College and perfected the Book of Centuries as originally suggested by Miss Epp in The British Museum for Children.
So we have good reason to listen carefully to this Miss Bernau as she takes us step by step through creating a Book of Centuries in her article published in The Parents‘Review entitled The Book of Centuries. Volume 34 1923 720-724. http://www.amblesideonline.org/PR/PR34p720BookofCenturies.shtml)
- The Book of Centuries began as a museum notebook (1906) and is for drawing essentially.
- The drawings were mainly of artifacts such as could be found in museums or from line drawings or photographs.
- The entries on the lined pages were mainly events by date and selected by the child as “most characteristic.”
- Pictures were glued in only occasionally. The value was is in the careful observation and consideration required in drawing and inserting pictures made the book too “bulky.”
- P.N.E.U. sold it as a specific design consisting of 96 pages.
- Each two page spread consisted of a lined and a blank page and represented a century.
- The last 10 pages were kept for small drawings of maps & descriptions of history of the child’s choice.
- It began with the prehistoric periods and ran chronologically through the 20th century.
- Keeping this book was noted as “A keen delight” to the students.
- The books were to be neat &accurate but it was not thought necessary to be an artist to make one.
- Each lined page has 20 lines in five (implied rather than demarcated) columns making 100 years in an almost mnemonic chart (n.b. The years’ positions reverse from A.D. to B.C)
- Entries were always done in Indian ink, occasionally colours were used.
- Since this was to be a “life-long interest,” difficult subjects could be drawn once there was more ability.
- Original and unique like the nature notebooks, the children chose what would be entered by their personal connection to the material of their studies.
- Over and above the drawings proceeding from their history reading, children were encouraged to continue a personal study of one particular thing or artifact to appear in the same place on each page throughout the centuries. e.g. An early violin and the modifications that ensued if the child played violin or an article of clothing…such as shoes in each century.
I do not know if I am the only one who missed this important phrase “Miss G. M. Bernau has added to the value of these studies (history) by producing a ‘Book of Centuries….” Though it may be just me with a case of misery loves company, I suspect that this particular notebook may be one of Mason’s most misunderstood. Many home school supply companies sell some kind of timeline book or bloggers include instructions for a “Book of Centuries” that very often are not these. My own children had an ignorant mother in this respect and I instructed them in a type of amalgam of the timeline/book of centuries that once begun was not easily redirected. We did do a wall time chart in certain years but I wish I had understood the specifics of what Mason was getting at here, with both the Book of Centuries and her use of timelines and charts because I think the end would have been a brilliant scaffolding of the child’s history understanding. –enlarging what Mason calls the “pageant of history.”(Philosophy of Education, 175) Even though keeping our timeline book was a good thing (and my children do value theirs) what I now see Mason did is much simpler and at the same time more structured than what we did. My children’s books tried to do too much and were hence not as fruitful, I think, as this plan with time charts and the Book of Centuries would be.
The drawings of artifacts and household objects (as opposed to events or personages or maps willy nilly) seem to me now significant for several reasons:
a) observation and drawing skills are enhanced
b) the child forms a relationship in a different way than with story or biography…it is the relationship with things as “ hooks “ for history knowledge. Something from each century drawn provides that extra hook…and once studied carefully enough to copy, was yours for life.
c) the child would naturally and easily grow a personal and deep interest and even affection for art, museums and archaeology that was similar to the purpose of the nature notebook
d) respect for the child’s abilities and personhood are enhanced by allowing for choice, relationship and the gradual increase in difficulty of the drawing task.
The particular format of the lined pages– twenty lines with five years represented in each seems to me to echo Mason’s adherence (Philosophy of Education, 177) to the time charts explicated by Dorothy Beale. It is clear that one way is not as good as another. Bernau says,
“Naturally one page is a very small space in which to illustrate the whole of a century, and yet it is a mistake to leave two pages for some centuries, as I have seen in some books, as it does away with the idea of the book; therefore each should choose what she considers the most characteristic events, planning out the arrangement of the page, as far as possible, before drawing. In this way no two books will be alike, and there is great interest in comparing them.” (Emphasis mine)
What do you think the idea of the book is? I think the same benefits Dorothy Beale lists of her mnemonic charts apply here: (“The Teaching of Chronology” published in The Parents Review Vol. II, 1891/2, 81-90 http://www.amblesideonline.org/PR/PR02p081Chronology.shtml )
a) “Forms a framework, which from the first saves events from getting shaken into disorder in the memory…filled but scantily at first, and gradually expanded.”
b) Unifies and reunites the separated subjects by adapting to much of the child’s reading—“political history, church history, literary history, the progress of scientific discovery”
c) Shows a century at a glance and is not an overwhelming amount of material or dates.
d) Respects the child as a historian and person by allowing his own choice of dates to remember and not another’s
e) “compact form, so that it can be easily remembered.”
f) “Even if the precise date of any event is not retained yet the general position becomes as familiar to the mind as the relative positions of places in a map of Europe.”
g) Creates a community of learning as opposed to competition as children celebrate and respect each other’s individual approaches in comparing the unique books.
Making it practical
Below is my interpretation of the lined (left hand) pages drawn up to represent 100 years by 20 lines with 5 implied columns. I have inserted a few events from the twentieth century so you may see how the actual date is inferred by position and not written, e.g. Victoria dies 1901, the A-bomb in 1945, Berlin Wall falls in 1989 etc.
The entries would be in the student’s own hand and mine here are in type obviously. Space left below the chart on the page may have been used for a slight description of the century. The colours of the lines are simply for ease of reading—there is no suggestion of colour in Bernau’s description.
The page that follows contains my rough drawings of a few artifacts or inventions of the 2oth century. I did not plan my page carefully as Bernau recommends and my drawings are rather too big and hasty to truly represent what I think she was wanting done but were done to give a rough idea of what would be on the right hand page of the two page “spread.”
(Click on images to enlarge. You may need to use the “zoom” feature on your computer.)
Since Books of Centuries were called by Mrs. Bernau “life-long” and “a great joy to the owner” I am plunging in and making myself one. The more I look at this model the more eager I am to fill in the bits here and there that I know…my own history crossword puzzle. My last student (at home at least) will be with me only three more years but we will make this new Book of Centuries as a reminder that understandings can grow and practice change. Since on several of the programmes Book of Centuries was listed under the heading “Sunday Occupations,” trying not to lose that underlying principle, we too will save the Book of Centuries for that slower day anticipating time to ruminate and consider how faith and history intersect while we draw the things we’ve encountered and mark the stories we’ve been told over the last week.
Want to join me? I am working on a readymade version.
© Laurie Bestvater 2010