So you think you might want to be a Charlotte Mason teacher? You’ve read Susan Schaeffer Macaulay and your eyes have been opened? Great! Now what?
Friends, this has been a long, arduous, and sometimes painful journey for me. Although Mason’s ideas resonated with me, the actual letting go of things I thought I knew about education in order to put Mason’s ideas into practice was very difficult. If you will allow me to share some of the things I have learned along the way, perhaps I can help make your transition a bit smoother. What follows is a list of “A-Ha!” moments that I have had through the years:
1. The best way to understand Mason is to read her own words.
There are lots of books and blogs about Mason’s ideas. There are also some really good conferences available. But there is a great deal of difference in the knowledge obtained through primary and secondary sources. Many times those secondary sources even contradict one another. (For example, how can one person’s ideas possibly be tied to both Classical Schooling and Unschooling?) I have met many people who gravitated to the secondary sources instead of Mason’s own writing because those were easier to read. In fact, I did the same thing for a while. But the difference in my understanding when I read the original volumes—especially when that reading was combined with conversation (i.e., “narration”) with others who were in my book club—was astounding. I would suggest that secondary sources could be used as companions for and/or commentaries about the original writings, but not as substitutes.
2. A Charlotte Mason education is much, much more than a curriculum.
“Oh, you are a Charlotte Mason teacher? Which curriculum do you use?”
“Mason advocated the use of books. But which books? Should I only use the very books that she used? Should I branch out and include books published after her death in 1923?”
“Which math/reading/handwriting program is the most ‘Masony’?”
Much to the disappointment of some newbies, there is no “Mason in a Box” program that will pull together all the “right” books and coordinate correlating activities and cut-and-dried assessments the way many programs do. And I would be extremely leery of any program that claims to do so. The reason is that a Mason education is not something that is “done to” children. It is a way of living, and that cannot be prescribed nor sometimes even predicted. Sometimes newcomers are disappointed that when they attend conferences so much time is devoted to philosophical ideas instead of the nitty-gritty “How to ‘Do’ Mason”. I am sure there are indeed some who are reading this blog and thinking how frustratingly vague and unhelpful it is. All I can do is apologize and point you back to number one above.
3. Give the children the best books and then get out of their way.
I think that one of the most difficult things I had to work through during my paradigm shift was that I am not the center. I am not the fountain from which knowledge springs for my thirsty students. It is not my job to provide all the answers. When I do I rob my children of an opportunity to exercise their own minds, and a lack of exercise leads to atrophy. It is not for me to draw all the connections for my student through the development of units. It is also not for me to determine which ideas are most important from our reading. My study of her volumes (see number one above) showed me that Mason stressed the importance of laying out the feast of ideas for children and then allowing them to deal with it as they were able. This means they may not get every point that I thought was important. One of the hardest things for me to let go of was the need to ask questions that pointed them to my way of thinking. This included giving “comprehension tests” in which I drew out all the important ideas for my students and held my opinion as the correct answer. The result of leaving this behind has been that sometimes they do not get the ideas that I got at all, sometimes they come to the same ideas I had after having lots of time to ruminate on the material (making it theirs forever, since they were the ones doing the thinking), and sometimes they enlighten me with ideas I might not have thought of. There are many teachers who use great literature, but the story is staled by focus on comprehension questions, vocabulary, and analysis. I think that when a book is “taught” and then “tested”, the reading becomes mechanistic as the student tries to guess what the teacher wants in order to get an A. At the end of the test, the book may be either remembered fondly or dumped completely by the child’s mind. On the contrary, when literature is savored for its own sake, narrated through the individual personhood of the child, and shared in an intimate way with others, the book becomes a permanent part of the child’s life. It becomes a way to build good character and healthy relationships as children are invited into the “great conversation” of mankind that transcends time and place.
4. Narration is not simply an assessment tool for reading comprehension. It is the way in which students process what they are learning and, therefore, it is not optional.
When I first started trying to implement Mason’s ideas, I think I had this unconscious notion that narration was useful as a test of comprehension and attention. Essentially, I replaced comprehension tests with written narrations, which were then graded with a rubric so that I could be sure the students got all the ideas I thought were important. I also used narration to “catch” students not paying attention. Of course, if we were running short on time, I might not have students narrate at all. But I came to the realization through the reading of Mason’s work (see number one above), along with the work of Lev Vygotsky, that language is not simply a means of expression; it is the primary tool the mind uses to process information. So while the knowledge that I will have to narrate will certainly make me pay better attention to a reading passage, an art print, or a nature walk, the real value lies in the fact that having to verbalize makes me understand, since one cannot tell what one does not know. Using words makes me organize my thoughts, which also makes me remember. In other words, narration is not so much telling what you know as it is telling so that you can know. Every child must narrate every lesson in order to fully know.
5. Go out on top.
This one is a realization that opened up my world and allowed me to literally quadruple what my students learned in the course of a year. I had struggled with how to maintain student attention long enough so that they were able to narrate well after a single reading. I was also frustrated with myself and with my students because we did not seem to be able to read as many books (many of which were very difficult reading) as I had been assured was both desirable and possible. Then I discovered that I was stuck in the traditional mindset that each lesson needs to last 30-45 minutes and have a definite resolution. This had led me to think that we had to read an entire chapter in one sitting. But this did two things. First of all, it usually left the children tired, cranky, and unwilling to read anything else for a while because I had gone past their attention spans. Second, it sometimes tied up the loose ends so that the children could feel finished with the book for a while. Then the next day, students would trudge to the reading area with the knowledge that they were once again in for a reading session that would go beyond what was enjoyable. This was bad!
Through my study of the volumes (see number one—again), I realized that there is a very good reason for keeping lessons short. In order to keep an activity enjoyable, you must go out on top; that is, you must stop at the point of highest tension (and attention) and leave your audience hungry for more. Instead of reading a chapter, read 2-3 pages, stop at “just the wrong time”, and then go immediately into some quite different activity. When you do this, the child’s mind continues to work on that story as he goes on with his day, and when the next reading time comes he greets the book with excitement and anticipation. Since the session is so short, the child is not mentally exhausted by the end, so he can handle reading from four or five books per day instead of just one. It also breaks the more difficult books, like those from Shakespeare, Bunyan, and Scott, into bite-sized pieces that are much easier to swallow and digest.
6. Mason relied on principles. She was not a legalist.
Finally, I think I used to put much more pressure on myself to find out the “right way to do Mason”. To have this as one’s focus is to technique-ize. Sometimes we want to forego the effort of wrestling with theory and philosophy, thinking that if we just do all the things Mason said to do in the way she said to do them we will be providing a truly Mason education. This is absolutely and unequivocally not the case. This is an example of something in which the whole is exponentially more than the sum of its parts. We also have to remember that we live in a different time than Mason did. We must be careful that our desire to be true to Mason does not stick us in a time warp. As new books, products, and technologies appear, they need to be weighed against Mason’s principles instead of dismissed. And where can one find these principles? See number one above.
© Jennifer Spencer 2011