A Charlotte Mason Education, Books/Wide Reading, Narration, New to CM, Newcomers, Paradigm Shift
Comments 30

Becoming a Charlotte Mason Teacher: Paradigm Shift Required by Jennifer Spencer

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


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. Lani says

    What a wonderful message! I will be recommending that anyone newer to CM or simply still struggling with implementation read this post.

    As a homeschooler who has been studying Mason for about 9 years now and actually educating ‘school age’ children in this way for 6 years I feel lucky to have not had to step out of a traditional teacher model (since I wasn’t one). But I still found myself nodding and giggling as I read as I could relate to so much of what you wrote.

    Thank you.

  2. Bobby Jo says

    Me too! I can really relate to some of these. Being a trained elementatry teacher, I find it so freeing to be able to toss some of those ‘have to’s’ I learned in college out the window and instead embrace real learning vs. forced knowledge.

    Reading her original volumes has been my number one too! And discussing it with our book study group has been SO valuable to me. It makes me so eager to learn more and begin to let it become our way of life at home. You’re right, though, it’s not always an easy process. Thank God for his grace and patience with us as we learn His ways.

    Thanks for sharing these things! I’m passing this on to some friends as well.

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  4. I just shared this with our local study group plus posted it on Facebook. Thank you for sharing what has been a challenging and worthwhile process!

  5. Jennifer Spencer says

    Thank you! I guess it would have been good if I had said that I started out as a licensed public school teacher and spent four years there before stumbling across this philosophy. I hope my failures help someone!

  6. Angela D says

    I am sharing this as well! Thanks so much for the insight! I was out to lunch yesterday and was asked “Oh, you homeschool. What curriculum do you use?” I hate that. I have not read Mason’s personal writings yet, but I will be!

  7. Thank you, thank you!

    Since doing your number one suggestion, years ago, we have been “preaching” a very similar message. This was so affirming to us, what a joy to read it from someone else!

  8. Marcia Mattern says

    VERY ENJOYABLE READ! I use your #5—my kids call it “mom’s cliff hanger”. I try to stop reading when it gets super suspenseful.
    And now I’m off to read more of the origninal series. 🙂

  9. Thank you for this article! My son struggles so much with narration that I often just skip it, but I can see now how that has robbed him of the most important tool in his own learning.

    You’ve also inspired me to read another one of Charlotte Mason’s volumes this summer — required reading for mother.

  10. I agree with so much and loved what you said. It is a shift.
    Most of us were educated in the public school system. The more I worked with my own 5 children and then the past 4 years with a high school tutorial, her principles and methods work. I find myself digging deep into her exams, volumes, PR and praying!

  11. This is a fabulous article, and right on the button. It’s so important to read Miss Mason’s own work to fully understand what she was doing. And yes, yes, yes to point number six – it’s a philosophy, not a set of rules. 🙂


  12. Great article! You wrote: “The best way to understand Mason is to read her own words.” That is most certainly true, but your article is a close second!

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  14. I am the same in that I never can emphasize enough the effect that the reading of the original series has had on my own understanding/implementation of CM principles. Of course, I still find “the actual letting go of things I thought I knew about education in order to put Mason’s ideas into practice very difficult.” But learning is lifelong, and we are all students are we not? 🙂

  15. Pingback: a mother can narrate too « educating mother

  16. Kathy says

    A well written succinct post on Charlotte Mason Education.
    You are right when you say you can’t package her educational philosophies into a curriculum.It is my understanding that in Charlotte’s home study program books were carefully chosen for each child’s use according to their interests and abilities.
    Each of her educational ideas work together to instill a love of learning enhancing the child’s natural curiosity,This is so different than teaching to know facts or pass tests.
    It is what you care about not what you know.

  17. I am inspired too! As one’s children grow up it is good to re-read Charlotte Mason because we only seem to take what we can use at that time. I find I can always apply more, take it deeper and grow in her philosphy. Thank you for sharing these vital points!

  18. Loved the thoughts expressed. I have had the experience of presenting “Intro to CM” workshops, and have felt that same thing as a presenter–that people were waiting for me to tell them exactly what to buy and how to do it, and that I was frustrating them a bit by talking about the “why.”

    Just as a point of clarification for Kathy, though: no, there were definite “programmes” sent out each term that each student was expected to follow. Sometimes there were little notes saying that certain books were optional, or there might be a choice between Book A and Book B. But it would have been impossible for the PNEU office to come up with an individualized program for each child.

    You can view some of the original programs on the Ambleside Online website, as well as in the CM archives database. Click on “Our Library” from the AO home page.

  19. Karen says

    I love the part about giving them good books and leaving them alone. My oldest son taught himself everything he knows about biology and physics. He loves these subjects and all it took was me giving him a couple of books and off he went.

  20. Yeah for point #1. I fell in love with CM’s methods when I read her volumes for myself. I printed them off from Ambelsde’s site and bound them together each vol one at a time and set them beside my bed along with a highlighter. Then as I was going to bed I would read as little as or as much as I could digest that particular night. I began to get a feel for her as a person and the many facets which make up her method came togehter as more or less a whole. Thank you for the reality. Though we love her and her methods it is not so easy to use them as deftly as she did. In reality for me it is slow going to be able to incorrporate each one into our daily lessons. Currently I struggle with the idea of developing the habit of attention with my eldest son whom is an inventor and creative soul. He likes what HE likes and not anything else. If he hates reading to begin with, and is not with me when we start the lesson, how can I stop the lesson when his attention wanders? The same with copywork. Though he can sit for much longer than 20 minutes, 4 hours with and audio of the light Princess, or anything science oriented, and never want a break. I often debate with myself whether the issue is attention or willfullness. “I won’t do what I don’t like” as opposed to , “I like this but my mind is tired.”
    Thanks for writing….I am encouraged.

    • amy in peru says

      Sarah, our eldest sons sound very much alike! 🙂 For us, it is also a unique mix of personality, but when it comes down to it, it’s a matter of the will. As he has grown, becoming a better master over his will, he has improved his ability to “will” himself to concentrate on things even when they are not his favorite subjects! Be encouraged! 🙂

      • I am encouraged by your reply. Thank you. I suspected the change I am hoping to see would come when he approaches that age when he begins to govern himself. It’s good to hear you have been through it with one of yours too and to hear you confirm the issue is in the will. Solves the internal debate and directs me straight at the issue. 🙂
        If you don’t mind a further question, I would like to ask what you did in the meantime to set him upon rails for success until he is ready to govern himself. At present we set the guidelines and with natural consequences let him be guided back to the path we see is right. I would love to know if there is another way to approach it.

  21. Pingback: Becoming a Charlotte Mason Teacher: Paradigm Shift Required by Jennifer Spencer « ChildlightUSA Weblog « My Homeschool List

  22. I’m reading this months after publication, so I have enjoyed not just the article, but all the comments that were made.

    I join those who agree that nothing compares to reading her, but it’s also revealing you say we need to see the new things in light of CM.

    For me, with a traditional teaching, I struggle with an ideal of CM perfection, and I believe we fall so short… then I tell myself that nowhere I read that CM would want us to be so hard on ourselves for that surely robs us from the joy of learning and being a great example for the children.

    Though I read this at Andreola’s book, it’s been imprinted in my mind ever since. The faith to believe in her principles and to apply them to our homes it’s not something we can buy, or get by osmosis or as the result of following any set of rules.

    Thanks once more for encouraging us beginners of this paradigm shift.

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  24. Thank you for this article. I enjoyed reading it as I’m beginning my journey into learning more of CM’s education method. My daughter is not even 5 years old and I feel that this post has given me a great foundation to seek more information and learn in preparation to learn with her as she grows.

  25. Claire says

    Actually, CM *does* relate to both Classical and unschooling philosophy ;). I was planning to unschool before I discovered CM, and what attracted me as an unschooler was/is the focus on *trusting* the students to take what they need. I sometimes say that CM is *really focused* strewing, although I know that’s not really right – but it gives an idea of how I see the overlap between the philosophies.
    I’ve also seen someone on a forum identify as a ‘classical unschooler’ and she definitely knew exactly what she was talking about – so in individual homeschools, anything is possible 🙂

  26. Rosemerry says

    Thank you for your thoughts. I was wondering if you are currently teaching and using the Chralotte Mason philosophy. My basic question is how does one become employed as a Charlotte Mason teacher?

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