A Charlotte Mason Education, Books/Wide Reading, Citizenship, Habit Formation, Mason Schools, Middle School, Paradigm Shift, Practical Application
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Reflections Upon the Completion of the First Year in a New School by Dr. Jennifer Spencer

Thomas Gainsborough Picture Study

 As many of you know, this year marked the start of a new adventure for a handful of families in Boiling Springs, NC, as Willow Tree Community School opened its doors.  In addition to having new students in a new building and using new curriculum materials, this has been the first time that I have ever been able to implement Mason’s full design for a Living Education with a group of children.  Of course, I had used narration, done nature and picture studies, and taught math conceptually.  But until this year, I never had the freedom to work within Mason’s framework for things like scheduling and assessment. Neither had I seen what happens when students are taught languages using her methods, when they are grouped according to forms instead of grade levels, when there are no grades, or when they really are “never within doors when they can rightly be without.”  Including these things was like filling in the remaining holes in a puzzle, and it has made a great deal of difference in my own understanding.  As I reflect on the last year, I would like to share a few of my experiences and ponderings that might be of help to both schools and homeschools.

1. I can assume the best in children and their parents.

This is something that I have always believed in theory, but every school in which I have ever taught has had explicit, restrictive rules and some form of behavior management plan in place.  Since we were starting small and from scratch, we decided to take a chance on trusting our students and their parents.  We did not require uniforms or even publish a dress code.  Instead, we asked that students

Living in Right Relationship

and their parents “use common sense and modesty”, keeping in mind that the students will be active outside each day, and, so far, the no issues have arisen.  In fact, dress seems to be something the children do not even think about.  We also chose not to post rules or lists of consequences.  Instead, we created a poster on the biblical model of relationships that hangs in our main room.  This was one of the first pieces of copywork that our children did, and it guides interactions between one another.  While students needed pretty heavy coaching in conflict resolution at the beginning of the year, we now frequently overhear children respectfully talking out and solving their own problems on the walk back from the park without having to ask for mediation from a teacher.  We have also heard the children having lunch conversations about how they hate typical systems of rewards and punishments.  Of course, this is not to say that we never have problems with behavior; but giving children the opportunity to choose to do the right thing is resulting in real character development that cannot be orchestrated from the outside.

2. Integrating older students is hard.

We decided to open to grades 1-8 our first year, and most of our students are in middle school.  It has been a valuable experience for me to have the opportunity to teach each form for at least part of each day, because it has allowed me to observe how children of different ages respond to the change in paradigm.  Our youngest students are 7.  It took no time for them to begin narrating well.  They would run to tell me what they had just read about Ulysses or Robin Hood.  They used words and phrases that they had heard in the stories, such as “slain,” or “He struck a mighty blow.”  Their vocabulary increased, it seemed, exponentially, and they were able to comprehend texts that I thought would have been way above their understanding.  Most of the middle schoolers, on the

Nature Study of a Wheel Bug

other hand, had spent many years developing very passive habits of learning.  Narration was (and, to some degree, still is) a very difficult task for them, because they had not been in the habit of exercising their powers of attention through their previous school years.  Nor had most of them developed a love, or even an appreciation, for literature or reading.  It took some real thought before we decided that we were not going to be able to have them work exactly the way Mason had her Form 3 students working; we had some groundwork to do first.  Our first goal was to find stories that they could love.  We had to drop several of our books when we noticed eyes glazing over or when they could not narrate.  Some of those books might be revisited later, when the children have had more time to grow and strengthen.  While not all of the older students have developed a real love for reading yet, there has been growth.  One particular clue that this is true came when a student gasped and exclaimed, “Tomorrow is Gods and Heroes and The Yearling! Yes!”  We also occasionally see a child curled up reading Aesop’s Fables or Grimm’s Fairy Tales for pleasure.  We backed off much of the writing in order to give the students a chance to build up their powers of oral language, especially narration.  While they do copywork and dictation, they are only required to write one narration per week, and we have not started essays, stories, or poetry. The lesson here has been that we have to follow the child before we can follow any programme.  Older children who are new to this approach to learning have their own paradigm shift to make, and that takes a significant amount of time and space.

3. “The Awakening” is profound for both students and parents.

As we were enrolling students, we took great care in educating parents on what to expect.  They were bringing their children to

Illustrating a Story from Spanish

Willow Tree for various reasons.  Some families were slightly familiar with Mason because they worked at Gardner-Webb and knew and trusted Dr. Carroll Smith, who serves on our board.  Others thought that their children needed a smaller environment where they could receive more attention.  A few were concerned about the narrowness of the curriculum and the overemphasis of standardized testing in their children’s previous schools.  Only one (besides me) said specifically that they wanted a Charlotte Mason education for their children.  As the year has progressed and these parents have watched the evolution of their children, the feedback they have given includes phrases as profound as, “This year has been like going from death to life.”  It is as though they really could not fathom at the outset just what kind of changes would be wrought in their children by changing the approach to education–the interests in things they saw no interest in before, the increase in self-confidence, and the amount of talk there is at home about things they are learning in school.  They have watched the stress their children carried melt away, even as there has been a rise in the sophistication of books they are reading.  The focus of school has shifted from grades and test scores to education as a way of living and a source of delight.  The astonishment some of the parents have felt has led them to ask to join a book study club to read through Mason’s volumes.  We are only too happy to oblige!

These are just a few “ramblings” about the inaugural year at Willow Tree.  I join with the parents in looking on with awe and reverence.  This year has not by any means been easy, but there is no doubt that it has been rewarding.  We have a long way to go and much left to learn, but we will continue to step as fellow pilgrims on the same journey in Mason’s shadow for the children’s sake.

© Dr. Jennifer Spencer 2012

You can follow the growth of Willow Tree Community School on Facebook, as well as on our weekly blog at www.wtcschool.org.


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. I’m so thankful for people like you, Jennifer, who are carrying the torch and handing it off to the next generation of learners. Thank you for taking this calling seriously. I’m so glad your efforts are bearing fruit!

  2. Kathy Wickward says

    Your comments about integrating older children are appreciated, and I hope it gets better and better with those students, even as I contemplate bringing my middle schooler home to a Charlotte Mason education. It must be so satisfying to see your work bear fruit.I

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