A Charlotte Mason Education, Books/Wide Reading, High School, History, Homeschooling, Living Books, Narration, Practical Application, Science of Relations
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Nurturing a Love of History in the Home and School by Mary C. Gildersleeve

“Education is the Science of Relations”; that is, that a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of–
“Those first-born affinities that fit our new existence to existing things.”

from the preface of Charlotte Mason’s Towards a Philosophy of Education [emphasis added]

I’ve always loved history.  I’ve always loved reading historical fiction of all different periods.  I’ve always been fascinated by the history in whatever area I am currently living.  Even when I was younger, say upper-elementary age, I would browse the 970s in the public library, pulling books that looked interesting, fun or provocative to take home and read.  I immersed myself in historical fiction and non-fiction of many eras and especially reveled in understanding the who and why of things.

 I didn’t love history class.  I hated memorizing dates and names.  I hated being multiple-choice-tested to see how well I could spit back the events.  I hated that we were only taught the where and the when with no thought to the why or the who or the domino effect of the events.  I hated that we were taught American history in a vacuum:  Jefferson was such a grand land-dealer that he was able to “steal” the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon.  What we weren’t taught at the time was that Napoleon could have cared less about the far off continent since he was bent on stealing all of the much closer continent, Europe.  For years, I thought the 1812 Overture was composed to commemorate the American War of 1812!  Ridiculous, no?

 I really hated the history textbooks we used.  The ones where you had a paragraph, maybe two, that dealt with the Erie Canal … or the Lewis and Clark Expedition … or the Mexican American War.  At the end of each chapter we were assigned the nauseatingly boring list of “terms to know” and multiple-choice/fill-in-the-blank assignments to ensure knowledge.  YUCK!

 What would Charlotte Mason have said about my history background?  Mason was a firm believer in educating the whole-child, in ensuring that each child truly owned his education and would have a “natural relation” with each subject.  Now, a child may not love every subject, but Mason believed that each subject should be taught with that goal in mind – to expose the child to the wonders of science, or geography, or English literature, or history in order to nurture the natural inclinations to various subjects.

 Further, Mason taught that the children should not be fed on the junk food of watered-down text books, what she termed “twaddle”; rather, the children should be fed with experiences and real books that capture the student’s imagination and grab their attention.  For Mason, “living books” kept alive the Battle of Hastings … the microscopic world of bacteria … the travels with Marco Polo to the East.

Now that I have control over what my own children will learn, I want to follow CM’s style rather than the “traditional” pedagogy.  I want my children to own all subjects.  I want them to live each subject, choosing which they’ll pursue when they are older.

But how does this actually work?  How can a classroom teacher, with 20-30 students, accomplish what I do with only my three?  How does a busy home school mom, with toddlers and multiple ages, accomplish true, living education?

Let’s take American history as the subject and explain some tips, tricks and techniques I use to live the subject with my own children (ideas that would work equally well with most subjects).

  •  First, text books are not all bad nor are they all the same.  There are some very good texts out there with a Christian world-view, or a totally secular view that gives the truth and thus are quite useful.  These texts are wonderful for ensuring complete coverage of the time period being studied.  I only use these texts as the “spine” … the bare outline of what to pursue in other ways.  I also will use the end-of-chapter questions as a way to check for memory … but I also have the students narrate the events (either orally or in a few sentences) exactly what they’ve learned about a certain event or person or place.
  • Picture books and short-chapter books cover a myriad of historical events, people and places in more depth than you’ll find in a few paragraphs in the text book.  These are often written to engage the young-scholar with beautiful word-images as well as detailed graphics.  Even older students benefit from the love and care that goes into making these books
  •  Historical fiction … even some of the twaddle like the American Girl series … hook the reader with the interesting bits about the loves and lives of the people who experienced the Civil War first hand … or rode the wagon-trains west … or helped find gold in California.  Books that list good historical fiction by time period are available, or ask your public librarian for assistance.  The nice thing about historical fiction is that there are books written for all age/reading levels.
  • We’ve used lots of adult-reading level books as family read-alouds – books by Stephen Ambrose or Bullfinch’s Mythology, for instance – which would be too hard for my children to read on their own, but which become great teaching tools for the children to own the time period when read by my husband or myself.
  • Videos (through streaming on Netflix … or PBS or HistoryChannel.com streaming) are another excellent resource, particularly for a generation of students who are used to sound-bites, visuals and instant understanding.  Some of the better fictionalized biographies of key people help the student to live the time period.
  • Toys, games and crafts that are era-appropriate help the student live the time – whether it’s salt-dough long houses, making and playing an authentic Native American game, or sewing a period-correct costume for acting out the life of Dolley Madison.  Right now, my third-grader is perfecting his log cabin for our Westward Expansion section using all-wood (no plastic for this project!) Lincoln Logs.
  • Field trips … even a quick run to a local site … can often do more than a full chapter in a well-written history book.  We’re blessed to live in the midst of Civil War battlefields, fields that are maintained by the National Parks so are free to explore, fields that allow for running and “playing” the battles all over again.  There is nothing quite like heading to one of these sites, at the same time of year as the actual battle, with mist rising from the ground and the trees beginning to leaf-out, and the silence of the woods … and then hearing the battle cry and the attack!

I still love history … and now I love history class, too.  If I had been taught history the way I’m teaching my own, I would now hold a doctorate in American History.  That being said, I’m perfectly happy nurturing a love of all subjects in my children instead.

Mary Gildersleeve is a hand-knits designer, free lance writer and home school teacher living in a small rural county about an hour south-west of Washington, D.C.  She earned an MBA from the College of William and Mary (Williamsburg, VA) and a BA in Print Journalism from Gonzaga University (Spokane, Washington).  She has two published books:  Great Yarns for the Close Knit Family: over two dozen original hand-knit designs inspired by a dozen fantastic family read-alouds and In His Image: Nurturing Creativity in the Heart of Your Home.  She is married, has 5 children (9 to 22 yrs) and keeps busy homeschooling her younger three children, working on the computer, writing articles, and knitting…knitting…knitting .  For more information, her website is www.marygildersleeve.com.

©Mary Gildersleeve 2012


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.

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