I wish I could devote two uninterrupted years of my life to read, reread, and absorb the six volumes that contain Charlotte Mason’s original writings. It’s embarrassing to constantly be faced with all the things others know about Charlotte Mason that I don’t. I read, see, and hear quotes from various volumes in presentations, writings, and blogposts and wonder how I could be so ignorant.
Beyond the embarrassment, I also harbor regret. I claim to have home educated my daughters using Charlotte Mason’s methods. At the time, though, I was basing my teaching on second-hand sources: authors who had read the six volumes and then written how-tos. There wasn’t time to stop, read, learn, reflect, and then start up again.
I know that it’s never going to happen. Even if I did have the luxury of some sort of sabbatical, my brain is either too old or too unable to absorb and apply the depth and breadth of Charlotte Mason’s ideology. In every opportunity I have had to be an educator, I have done the best I could with what I knew at the time and made changes when my knowledge increased. Recently, my daughter Elsa and I co-wrote a piece for the newsletter of the Minnesota Association of Christian Home Educators (MÂCHÉ). Two things happened during that process that encouraged me. The first was that what Elsa wrote revealed that she is OK with most of her home education experience. The second is that a friend – whose Charlotte Mason homeschooling is far superior to what mine was – complimented me for being so honest in the article. (Frankly, because my daughter and I were responding to the same questions, dishonesty was not a viable option.)
So here are some excerpts from our joint effort:
Question 1 (Elsa): As a small child just starting school, what was your reaction to being home educated?
While growing up, I always thought that being homeschooled was special—maybe a little too special: I believed for many years that parents who didn’t homeschool must not really love their kids. It also seemed very normal, because my older sister Mariel had already been homeschooled for a few years. My twin sister Bethany and I had gone to public, half-day kindergarten, but I was happy to be home. I preferred playing and working on my own or with Bethany, anyway. I didn’t miss standing in line, doing worksheets, or having cafeteria lunches!
Question 2 (Donna & Elsa): Describe a typical day.
Donna: I have sometimes wished I were more of a journal keeper, so I could refer to a written record! I have kept many of my academic lesson plans over the years, but our days were much more than lessons. I do know that the transition to formally having school was not dramatic. From their babyhood on, Chris and I read to and interacted with our girls constantly. We had times during the day for unstructured play, household chores, rest, and being outdoors. This was not formalized during the preschool years, but a pattern was established that easily transferred into a school day. Formal academic work was almost always finished in the morning, even through high school. By that time, the girls were taking music lessons, working, volunteering, and participating in some classes and extracurricular activities at our public high school. Our days were busy, but not hectic. There was always time for a normal amount of sleep, time outdoors, a break when we needed one, handcrafts, visits with grandparents, and family vacations during May or September, when most families are locked into group school schedules.
Elsa: During elementary school, we would get up in time to get dressed, do our morning chores, and have breakfast before starting school around 8:00 a.m. Mom would go back and forth between Bethany and me in the schoolroom and Mariel in the office, talking through our lessons and helping us when we got stuck on assignments. We almost always finished our lessons by lunchtime, and afterwards we had our daily rest time. Mom would read from the Bible and from a work of literature while my sisters and I did needlework. In the afternoon, we had less-academic work to do, such as our music practice, handwriting and copy work, and Bible or poetry memorization.
Question 3 (Donna): Did your educational philosophy stay consistent over the years, and how did you ensure your curriculum reflected your philosophy?
At the beginning, my teaching methods were influenced by my experiences as a public school teacher. I tended to choose separate textbooks for each subject; however, I also used many, many picture and story books from the library, lots of hands-on lessons, outdoor play time, and shared real-life experiences. During our elementary school years, I read For the Children’s Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay and was introduced to the educational philosophy and methods of Charlotte Mason, an English educator practicing and writing in the early 1900s. Mason’s methods are decidedly truth-based, child-suitable, practical, engaging, and effective. I had instinctively been using some of her methods; Macualay’s book provided a firm foundation and a definitive guide as we continued. Also, we began attending the L’Abri conference that is held annually in Rochester, MN. The speakers helped us see the unity in life. All of life and education is religious, that is, based either on truth, which comes from God, or on lies. Academic subjects are not somehow higher or better than work, service, art, physical activity, relationships, etc. As a family, we learned together and avoided following curricular trends and at least some educational practices that didn’t fit. Looking back, I believe that our homeschool reflected a CM philosophy in some areas better than in others. I never did quite shake my public school teacher background.
Questions 3 (Elsa): Did you ever object to your parents’ curriculum choices and ask for something different?
I don’t remember objecting seriously to anything. Some of the things I enjoyed were the Saxon math series, plenty of time for free reading, home economics projects, and a book called Science Experiments You Can Eat. Oddly, although my favorite subjects are English and history, I disliked our history and literature textbooks the most. I hated the type of questions we had to answer for English anthology “comprehension” quizzes. History textbooks never seemed to be connected to anything at all. Most of the literature and history I remember from high school comes from living books, not texts.
Question 4: What are some of your best memories about home schooling?
Donna: My favorite part of every day was our read aloud time right after lunch. I read (from the Bible, worthy novels, and other living books) while the girls kept their hands busy with knitting, crocheting, counted cross stitch, and other handwork projects. These shared literary experiences are still a part of my relationship with my daughters. I also like to remember the places we traveled together, especially art museums and historical sites related to our shared reading. I remember times that were difficult, frustrating, or sad. At these times, we shared our dependence on God’s Word and the evidence of his personal concern for us. Finally, there are individual moments with each of the girls that would not have occurred had we not been home together.
Elsa: The part of my schooling I remember with the most fondness (and loved at the time) is the time Mom spent reading aloud to us every day after lunch. She read us everything, from The Phantom Tollbooth to The Lord of the Rings Trilogy to all of Jane Austen’s novels. I truly believe that my love of literature comes from all the time Mom dedicated to introducing us to the classics. The only thing that could have made it better was if Dad could have joined us!
Question 5: What are some things you would change or do differently?
Donna: We never did discover a real good way to learn a second language. There were also times I used textbooks just to “make sure” we hadn’t missed something in English, science, health, history, and various other subjects. I’m not sure that was really necessary. Also, because Mariel was oldest, I tried some things with her that I didn’t bother with for Elsa and Bethany. Taking some classes in our public school system put the girls in an uncomfortable position socially at times, but there were also benefits to those courses and programs. Looking back, I’m not sure what would have made that work better. Overall, my daughters were cooperative, lovely students who became lovely young women.
Elsa: I would have skipped the literature textbooks and just read (and talked about) more books! I’m pretty sure Mom would agree with me now.
Question 6: Is there life after home education?
Elsa: Yes! After graduating, Bethany and I followed Mariel to Hillsdale College in Michigan, which is a great fit for self-motivated students interested in the liberal arts. I was blessed to have many great professors who were also fine Christian men. Even more importantly, I met and then married another homeschooler! My schooling provided an excellent foundation in self-motivated learning, work ethic, practical housekeeping, and getting along with family.
Donna: Since our homeschool “closed,” I’ve gone back to school and back to teaching. I believe I learned more as a homeschool mom than during any of my formal training. This fall I started a new job as an instructor on a university campus. I’m excited to respond to the new opportunities God is giving me. Chris and I are also very blessed to observe our daughters as they follow God’s leading in their lives. Each of them has completed her education, found meaningful work, and met and married a wonderful Christian young man. I’m getting old enough to know by sight as well as by faith that “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” I Corinthians 2:9.