It was a little over 10 years ago that my life completely changed: not only had my husband and I decided to homeschool my older two children (who had been in parochial schools), but I had also discovered a way of homeschooling that perfectly fit my family, my faith and my philosophies! I had discovered Charlotte Mason and her method of education that grew into the unique and successful education pedagogy under the umbrella, Parents’ Union School. Realizing that parents are in fact the first teachers of all children, she established the Parents National Education Union, writing a monthly newsletter (Parents’ Review) filled with tips and tricks and techniques for best-practice education.
Mason, a spinster and self-taught educational theory expert, grew up in late-Victorian England in the Lakes District (1842-1923). She was an only child whose parents taught her at home until the age of 16 (when her mother died; her father died a year later). Mason went on to earn a First Class Certificate in teaching and spent her next 10 years teaching. While teaching, she began to formulate her own system of a “liberal” education – a wide and general education system that looked at the whole child, that sought to be more than filling-a-vaccuum with twaddle and tedium and instead sought to fill the child with a love of learning.
Mason’s life-work. as synthesized in her six-volume series, The Original Home Schooling Series, sparked wonder and thrill in me. I wanted this education for my children. I wanted to show them how to love learning … to be more than test-taking automatons. I wanted to create an education that was “an atmosphere, a discipline, a life” through living books, exposure to great and noble ideas and the use of art, music and poetry.
Mason’s methods are particularly suited for the home-educated family. She advocated establishing “education as an atmosphere, a discipline, a life”; of creating a three-part system:
- One third atmosphere: this means that all surrounding the student – from the pictures on the wall to the books on the shelf to the music in the background – be non-twaddle. That the student’s environment is one of the good, the true and the beautiful. Being at home, the home-educated student can be immersed in the good, the true and the beautiful 24/7.
- One-third discipline: cultivating in each student a habit of character, good habits that will transcend the schoolroom and allow the student to be a worthy citizen of the world. Her motto: “I am, I Can, I Ought, and I Will” is the primary focus of any CM classroom/homeschool. This is a motto that can be easily reinforced when the student is home-educated: good character is not a 9-3 life-style.
- One-third life: that education is constantly changing and that the student must be “in” the world; all subjects should be taught as living thought, not dry facts and figures. Thus, academic subjects should be only one third of the overall “school day”. In the classroom, teachers must teach to the test, getting their students to pass the state-mandated curriculum. In the home, the parent-teacher can interrupt the schedule for worthy field trips, start a unit study on an appropriate topic, and just generally imbue the home-school with loving, living AND learning.
As I mentioned, her philosophy is particularly suited to the homeschool – we can make table-time lessons short (15-20 minutes for the younger children and slowly increasing as the student grows and matures) while maintaining a sense of wonder and beauty. A portion of each day should be spent outside (Mason advocated daily walks, rain or shine) focused on the beauty of God’s creation and learning about the immense interconnectedness of it all. Nature study, with the keeping of a natural journal, are a large piece of this “outside time”. The arts should also be included in each day … with time spent celebrating the classics as well as well-done modern art, music and literature. Another aspect is “masterly inactivity” – where the teacher gives all the tools necessary for the lesson and sits back and allows the student to do their best.
There are some CM homeschoolers who advocate teaching CM-style as if still in the Victorian era – reading and learning and memorizing the same books, science and poetry that CM had her students do. I disagree with this for my homeschool: I think CM would have embraced the technology of today. She would have loved the Internet and the ability of “virtual field trips to distant museums”; of Googling great art and studying the masters of yesterday and today; of visiting the different cultures through the media available: cable television, Skype and the world-wide web.
The CM-method celebrates the human person:
- the God-given free will of the child
- the natural inclination to investigate and wonder
- the desire to create and imitate the good, the true and the beautiful
- the inherent desire to have boundaries which slowly give way to self-education and self-direction
- the need to “own” our knowledge through narrating (either orally or written) our understanding, rather than choosing the answer from options
- the understanding that education is more than 9-3, desk-learning; that education is a 24/7 life-style that matures as we mature.
My homeschool is not perfect. There are days when living books take a backseat to a math worksheet or a spelling test. But after ten years of this “work in progress”, I see the great benefit of CM’s philosophy, a philosophy that fits well with my family, my Catholic faith (and the embracing of the good, the true, and the beautiful), and my desire to raise well-rounded, thinking human beings who will be a benefit to society when they come of age.
Here are some of the myriad resources I used and continue to reference over these many years:
- A Charlotte Mason Companion: Personal Reflections on the Gentle Art of Learning, by Karen Andreola, offers a look at how one mom incorporated Mason’s methods into her homeschool. Lots of wonderful ideas, recommendations, and practical tips.
- When Children Love to Learn : A Practical Application of Charlotte Mason’s Philosophy for Today, edited by Elaine Cooper, is a collection of articles by various teachers and administrators who have sought to incorporate Charlotte’s philosophy and methods in modern classrooms.
- Real Learning: Education in the Heart of the Home, by Elizabeth Foss, gives a Catholic woman’s perspective on homeschooling in the way of CM. Foss brings years of experience using this and other methods within her large family. This is one I refer to every year as I prep for the year.
- Charlotte Mason Study Guide, by Penny Gardner, arranges pertinent quotes from Charlotte’s original writings into sections centered on various topics, such as the child, habits and character, narration, goals of education, the arts, and more.
- A Charlotte Mason Education and More Charlotte Mason Education, by Catherine Levison, give a great overview in short chapters. The second book adds more details, deals with specific questions, and includes sample schedules.
- On-line resources:
- The original writings of CM online: http://www.amblesideonline.org/CM/toc.html; and a “modern” translation: http://www.amblesideonline.org/CMM/ModernEnglish.html
- http://4real.thenetsmith.com/default.asp — this a marvelous site for Catholic CM’ers. Lots of great forums and people willing to share their experiences and found-resources
- http://www.livingbookscurriculum.com/blog/category/charlotte-mason-homeschooling/– a great blog for understanding how to make this work in the home
- http://simplycharlottemason.com/scmforum/ — a great forum community for getting questions asked and answered; this is a commercial site with lots of great resources for curricula planning, books and other supplies.
Mary Gildersleeve is a hand-knits designer, free lance writer and homeschool 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 (10-23 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