A Charlotte Mason Education, Childlight USA Conference, Homeschooling, Mason Co-op, Nature Study, Practical Application
Comments 18

The Large Room by Sandy Rusby Bell

Three years ago I received an email from a woman named Sandra Zuidema who had just started attending our Charlotte Mason study group.

“Did you and Jennifer really mean it when you said you’d love to have more people join you at the ChildLight USA conference?” she asked. Well, of course we meant it but I must admit we had some reservations about spending fifteen hours driving with a virtual stranger.

We needn’t have worried. Within moments we knew we had met a kindred spirit. For two full days we never stopped talking about Charlotte Mason, our dreams for our children, and how we were trying to give them a rich and beautiful life.

By the time we drove home, we knew we needed to plan a way to spend time together regularly.

We decided to start a co-op. We met together every other week for a full day. Sandra taught the children art. We went hiking, did nature study, went caving (no self-respecting caver would call it spelunking!) with a geologist, visited a sugar bush, fed trumpeter swans, made salt-dough maps and found clay deposits in a local creek. It was a beautiful year. But I was beginning to think that perhaps our gatherings would have to come to an end. We loved what we were doing but it was taking a full day away from all the other things we needed to do.

Last year all of the moms from our co-op attended the ChildLightUSA conference again. Sandra and I shared a room (we wouldn’t want to miss a single opportunity to talk!).  At 2:00 I was awakened with the classic sitcom question, “Are you sleeping?” Sandra was too excited to sleep. She had spent part of the day speaking with Nancy Kelly about the co-op she and her children take part in. Nancy explained that her group meets together in order to do all the things many people love most about a Charlotte Mason education but that often take a backseat to the “basics”. We all met together with Nancy at lunch the next day and she graciously shared her schedules http://sageparnassus.blogspot.com/2010/10/schedule-truth-beauty-goodness-co-op.html  and more importantly her wisdom and experience.

We decided to call our co-op The Large Room, inspired by our favourite Charlotte Mason quote, “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? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him? (Vol. 3 p. 171)

We met every other Thursday this school year and spent the whole day together because we live quite far from each other so we wanted to make the drive really worthwhile.

We opened our gatherings by singing our national anthem and praying The Lord’s Prayer. It is a beautiful way to begin but to be honest it came out of a realization that several of our children didn’t know “O Canada”. Home schoolers don’t have many opportunities to sing the anthem, a fact we became aware of when our children looked at us blankly when we attended Remembrance Day ceremonies a few years ago.

Next we read Shakespeare together for about thirty minutes. This year we read Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth. I chose to start with Midsummer Night’s Dream because we had several students reading the “real” Shakespeare for the first time and Dream is usually considered the easiest and perhaps funniest play. And the children had seen a university production of it the year before. The kids, aged 7 to 14, were all interested and engaged. And the moms were often stunned by the students’ insights into difficult reading.

We chose two hymns and two folksongs to sing together each term. Laurel Aldridge was in charge of choosing the songs and she did a great job of picking a variety of English and French songs, meaningful hymns and funny folk songs. “The Log-Driver’s Waltz” was definitely the favourite this year http://www.nfb.ca/film/log_drivers_waltz

Next we did a picture study together. We chose a different artist each term and studied six paintings from each artist. Sandra often began the lesson by reading from a book about the artist’s life and work. Next we looked at the painting Sandra had chosen. The children were perfectly silent during this time. At the end of about five minutes everyone turned their pictures over and told what they remembered. A tradition developed in which certain boys delighted in telling us how many flowers, sheep or blades of grass could be found in the painting. But once that was out of the way the children stunned the moms with their attention to detail. Laurel and I often cheated and peeked at the print because neither of us could remember what someone said they saw. Inevitably the child was correct.

At home during the week after our meetings we pasted each child’s copy of the painting into beautiful bound hard-cover sketch books we found on sale. Sometimes we asked our children to narrate what they remembered from the picture without looking at it again. Here is my 8 year old daughter Catharine’s narration about Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”:

The painting is called “The Last Supper”. There is a circle thing over Jesus’s head that is supposed to be a halo. And there is something cut out in the bottom of the picture, and it’s a door. And Jesus is in the middle. And some of the people are wearing blue with red on top but Jesus is wearing red with blue on top. And on the roof it looks like a giant vent. And there’s pillars. And at that moment that the picture is done Jesus has just told them that someone’s going to betray Him. And at that time Judas is reaching for the bread because Jesus had said, “The first person who eats this bread is the one who is going to betray me.”

One guy is pointing up at the sky.

The table is very long.  A guy at the end on the left looks like he’s wearing armor.


At this point everyone was usually ready for a little break. We had been inspired by Melanie Walker to have our children take turns preparing a snack and serving each other.

After snack time I led the children in Composer Study for about twenty minutes. We chose a different composer each term and listened to a few of his pieces. I think our first term study was our favourite. We studied Vivaldi and got to know his “Gloria” and  “Magnificat” One of my most beautiful memories is watching 2 year old Gloria groove to “her” song. We listened to Ann Rachlin’s rendition of the poem behind “The Four Seasons” http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001AQKX6O/ref=dm_sp_alb/186-3875045-7275336  I think we’ll all forever picture the man riding the pig backwards whenever we hear “Summer”.

Next Laurel read a poem or two from our term’s poet. Sometimes we talked about the reading and sometimes there was a moment of silence. Once a young woman groaned when she wrongly thought a poem was being directed at her. At this point the children were invited to share a recitation they had prepared. The moms had agreed that at least one member of each family would need to recite each week. By the second week almost everyone was asking to share a poem, a passage from the Bible (in English and in Greek), a Latin song or a paragraph from a favourite book.

And finally, we came to our second favourite (second to lunch!) part of the day: Nature Study. Many weeks we went for a walk to find what we were going to paint. Sandra chose things that we commonly see in our neighbourhoods. We looked at phragmites, galls, teasels, yuccas, oak trees and acorns, sunflowers and best of all, chicks! Sandra’s family was kind enough to incubate a dozen eggs just for us! We purposely chose to have Nature Study at the end so that everyone could take as much time as they needed with their dry-brush drawings.

After the kids were done drawing they were dismissed. They loved playing in the tree house and climbing the ropes and ladders Kent Kelly taught us how to make at the conference last year. And the moms loved their time together over coffee and lunch preparations.

Last week we invited the dads and grandparents to join us for a year end celebration. It was a beautiful way to finish a perfect year. He has indeed set our feet in a large room. What a gift to be in that room with beloved friends.


My life and the lives of my children have changed because of the ChildLight USA conference. And the funny thing is, many of those changes have come about from the unplanned moments over lunch, on the drive and in the middle of the night. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for us this year. Won’t you join me?



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. Sandy,

    You have no idea how much this thrills my heart! What a beautiful thing your co-op is. Truly – for the children’s sake.

    Sursum Corda,

  2. Nicole says

    Thank you for sharing your experience with co-op this year. It is so fun to see how each CM style co-ops looks a bit different, but all are so enriching! It is such a wonderful opportunity for the kids and the moms.

  3. Sandy Rusby Bell says

    Photo Credits: L. Aldridge, B. Aldridge, S. Zuidema, J. Talsma

  4. The Canadian lake full of swans reminds me of a Bruegel painting! Trumpeter swans. E.B. White. I just sighed Sandy!
    I love watching you Canadians come south in the SUMMER!
    Looking forward to seeing you and your passions are inspiriing!

  5. Lisa Cadora says

    Verrrrrryyy inspiring, Sandy. I’m feeling co-opcoming on in Cincinnati!

  6. Sandy, thank you for sharing this with so many.

    I was absolutely blessed to have been part of it for the time that I was, and, truly, leaving this fellowship of Charlotte Mason kindred spirits was one of the hardest parts of moving to South America.

    I wish I could join you this week for the CLUSA CM conference – my first year missing since Emily’s 11th birthday! (What a trip that was!)

    You, Sandra, and Laurel have so much to share with those who will attend; I only wish I could be one of them.

    With so much love,


  7. Jeannette says

    Oh Sandy, this was so much like the little co-op I helped lead for the last few years. Only we did not have the trumpeter swans or the chickadees eating out of our hands (must be a Canadian thing!) Thank you for sharing how it can be done. I encourage all who are inspired to go for it. The benefits can not be measured. So looking forward to seeing everyone in a just a few days now.
    Traveling mercies to all.

  8. blue j says

    This is exactly what I needed to read. The ladies who have regularly been attending our Ambleside Education Group (a group helping moms to incorporate CM’s high ideals in the education of their children) have decided that we really want to do a co-op together every other week for 1/2 a day. Your post is very helpful.


  9. Stephanie says

    Thank you for such an inspiring post… I will look forward to reading more. Thank you for providing a visual Charlotte Mason for me to glean from!


  10. Patty Rakyta says

    I just found you and reading about your detailed days is so helpful. I actually went to the link for the schedule and now I can’t seem to locate it again.
    I have a question about Shakespeare, when you say “we read together”, does one parent read it aloud to all or do you all take turns reading?
    Thank you so much for sharing!

    • Sandra Rusby Bell says

      Hi Patty, I’m glad that my post was helpful! I had to go back to read it myself to see what we were doing because we have changed things a bit. When I wrote this blog post we were reading the whole play together during our gatherings. The students each took a part and read. That worked well and everyone became comfortable with the language but we found there wasn’t time for any conversation and sometimes we couldn’t get through the whole play. For the last few years we read some of the play together but most of it at home. I assign each student a narration of one part of the week’s reading and we share the narrations when we meet together. The narrations are creative and funny and show deep understanding. This Sage Parnassus blog post is a helpful starting point for narration prompts: http://sageparnassus.blogspot.ca/2011/04/narrating-our-way-through-julius-caesar.html

      Each of the families in our group has read the play in different ways at different times. Sometimes mom has read the whole thing. Sometimes each person in the family takes a portion. We have listened to audio recordings. The “Shakespeare Appreciated” versions are favourites. And once in awhile our students just read independently. I can honestly tell you that most of our kids read Shakespeare almost as easily now as they do any “age appropriate” novel.

      I’ve sent Nancy a note about the broken link to the schedules.

      I hope this helps!

  11. Sandra Rusby Bell says

    Nancy has fixed the schedules and even added some new ones!

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