A Charlotte Mason Education, Best Practices, Books/Wide Reading, Educational Reform, Habit Formation, LER, Narration
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Bushels of Information by Dr. Donna Johnson

In the weeks since attending the 2013 Living Education Retreat in Minnesota, I have returned to my preparations for the fall academic semester at Dakota Wesleyan University.  While doing so I’ve reflected on the pedagogy of Charlotte Mason and the conclusions being reached by her 21st century devotees as they delve deeply into the resources available to them.  More than one retreat attendee thanked those who have done the research needed to thoroughly understand Mason’s ideas and then pass on what they have learned.

Charlotte Mason’s methods have withstood the test of time.  This is not news to those who attended the retreat or regularly read this blog. I mention it only because I frequently find evidence of the durability and longevity of Mason’s philosophy in my current teaching setting.  For example, one of the slides in my presentation at the LER about CM and struggling learners (based on information from a 1997 edited book about students with disabilities) includes some decidedly Mason-ish ideas and even wording:

Image 4

While not included in my presentation, other information in the Lloyd, Kame’enui, and Chard (1997) book resonates with a CM philosophy, e.g., these ideas:  1) new material is stored in the long-term memory when one processes it, and 2) the most effective teachers present small amounts of material at any time.  I’m guessing it probably occurs to you that a great way to process new material is to narrate it, and that short lessons based on what a child can absorb and digest are foundational to Mason’s pedagogy.

The weekend spent at the LER perhaps increased my focus and perception of all things Mason.  To make a recent afternoon’s project – organizing all the end-of-spring-semester stuff in my office so I can focus on fall semester – a little more interesting, I attempted to find “Charlotte Mason sightings” in each item I cleared away.  Here’s what I found:

Image 2The beginning pull quote from a piece by Marilyn Burns in the December 2012 Educational Leadership journal: “The Common Core State Standards for Mathematical Practice will require teachers to strengthen students’ numerical reasoning and mental math skills.” Seems we heard something along these lines from Richele Baburina at the LER, but not in reference to the Common Core.

And in the same issue of EL, the title of an article

by Sandra Alberti:Image 3

Without even taking a look at the article, I was reminded of the major paradigm shift in philosophical repositioning needed to fully implement the Mason method.  I assume teachers in Common Core states will be expected to make some shifts to adjust to the new standards coming to their schools.

Next in the stack of stuff: the October/November 2012 Reading Today, a publication of the International Reading Association.  In an article about “the power of reading books to fuel learning,” Parsons and Day quote from Grand Conversations: Literature Groups in Action by Peterson and Eeds (1990):

“Real books . . . are written by authors who know how to unlock the world with words and to open   our eyes and our hearts. Each real book has its own voice – a singular, clear voice – and each speaks words that move us toward increased consciousness”  (p. 1)”

Not too far removed from a definition of living books.

Another thing that has been floating around on my desk for a while is the 16-page Parent’s Guide to How to Get Your Child to Love Reading by Esmé Raji Codell.  I don’t have Codell’s book so I’m not sure why I have the parent’s guide, but I paged through it. In one article, Codell describes a baking book group she organized:

“I invited former students and neighborhood children over for books and baking; they ranged in age from about six to thirteen years old. A baking book group will . . . nourish readings in homeschooling or after-school groups . . . . My favorite baking and reading afternoon was when we made corn bread and read from Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder” (pp. 9-10).

I can see this happening among families living the CM life.  It caught my eye because Farmer Boy became a favorite when I was teaching middle school boys who did not like to read.  They loved learning about Almanzo’s adventures as a boy.

I moved on from organizing my desk to grading work submitted for an online summer class I’m teaching on the topic of early childhood special education.  Each university student was assigned to choose, read, and narrate an article pertinent to the course.  Here are the first two paragraphs of an article from Young Children, the journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which one of the students chose:

“Every child is different. Some have difficulty expressing their ideas verbally. Some struggle to get along with peers or follow classroom routines. In each case, however, one thing is the same: improved learning and behavior requires strong self-regulation skills.

 According to Ellen Galinsky . . . regulating one’s thinking, emotions, and behavior is critical for success in school, work, and life. . . . A child who stops playing and begins cleaning up when asked or spontaneously shares a toy with a classmate has regulated thoughts, emotions, and behavior. (Florez, 2011, p. 46)

Again, clear reference to two Mason principles: the personhood of the child and the importance of habit formation.

I’m sure I will continue to be reminded of Charlotte Mason’s ideas in the days to come.  But my pleasure at discovering Mason tidbits is tempered by how often and how quickly her effective methodologies are buried in heaps of information that tend to obscure  and neutralize their desirable effects.  Tidbits, rather than central ideas, are what they become amidst the excess of information and resources that overwhelm most of today’s educators.  Those of you preparing for the beginning of a new school year in a Mason environment will most likely not have to attend day-long professional development on bullying, technology, the Common Core, your school’s new math curriculum, or mass customized learning (check that one out).

On page 174 of Home Education, we read, “Give your child a single valuable idea, and you have done more for his education than if you had laid upon his mind the burden of bushels of information.”  Again I’m going to mention something I heard from the attendees at the Living Education Retreat: as they read, study, and learn more about Charlotte Mason, many of them implement a single new concept during an educational term.  The effect, for instance, of switching from long lessons to short lessons, increasing or adding time spent outside, learning science from living books rather than textbooks, beginning picture study for the first time, rejecting spelling lists and implementing prepared dictation, will be at minimum significant, but more likely substantial.

There has been discussion in this blog about the need to “evangelize” and spread the Charlotte Mason message.  My “congregation” is future public school teachers.  In my classes I have been able to spread the word about living books over textbooks, encourage focusing on students as persons, use oral and written narration as assessment, choose texts with one author so there is at least a bit of life in them, and give For the Children’s Sake as a graduation gift to students I believe will read and apply it.  These are just tidbits in a milieu of bushels of information that is not in my power to clear away. Those of you in private and home settings are blessed.  Being at the retreat reminded me of the years I had to homeschool my girls. So many new understandings and resources have been developed since then.  But I love my job and know that it is my current calling and opportunity.

So as a new school year begins, I am thinking about how to make lessons shorter and more varied, gain more focused attention, and make more use of narration in class.  Wonder how the university students would feel about narrating their syllabi?


Alberti, S. (2012). Making the shifts. Educational Leadership, 70(4), 24-27.

Burns, M. (2013). Go figure: Math and the common core. Educational Leadership, 70(4), 42-46.

Codell, E.R. (2003). How to get your child to love reading. New York: Algonquin Books.

Florez, I.R. (2011). Developing young children’s self-regulation through everyday experiences. Young Children, 66(4), 46-51.

Lloyd, J., Kameenui, E.J., & Chard, D. (Eds.).  (1997). Issues in educating students with disabilities. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Mason, C. M. (1989).  Home education. Wheaton IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original work published 1925)

Parsons, S., & Day, D. (2012). The power of real books to fuel learning across the curriculum. Reading Today, 30(2), 7.

Peterson, R., & Eeds, M.  (1989). Grand conversations: Literature groups in action. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

© 2013 Dr. Donna Johnson


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. A. Rice says

    Thank you for this…the “single idea” concept is always liberating!!

  2. my pleasure at discovering Mason tidbits is tempered by how often and how quickly her effective methodologies are buried in heaps of information that tend to obscure and neutralize their desirable effects. Tidbits, rather than central ideas, are what they become amidst the excess of information and resources that overwhelm most of today’s educators.

    You hit the nail on the head Donna. Keep up the good work!

  3. I too have found myself noticing “new discoveries” and “great ideas” that look remarkably similar to Charlotte Mason’s ideas. I’ve just taken it as further proof that Miss Mason’s ideas were based on a sound insight into the truth of who people are and how they learn.
    I was blessed by the idea of implementing a single new concept in an educational term. I can become overwhelmed by how much I need to change. I need to remember that small changes implemented one by one will become a blessing over time.

  4. The education “business” in the U.S. historically is characterized by pendulum swings. (One notices this more as one gets older and teaches longer.) In Alberti’s article entitled “Making the Shifts,” she lists the major topics that will be addressed in depth under the Common Core math standards: addition and subtraction in K-2; multiplication, division, and fractions in grades 3-5; ratios, proportions, rational numbers, and beginning algebra in grades 6-7; linear algebra in grade 8, etc. That is the progression that was followed when I went to school, and when I first taught. More recently, almost all math topics have been addressed at all these grade levels. While attending grad school in the early 2000s, I was shocked to find that lower elementary students were working on stem and leaf plots and other statistical concepts: things I was learning for the first time in my life – that I remember – while preparing to do doctoral research.

    I’m not trying to encourage teachers to “do” less CM than they can; she stated 20 basic principles, all of which intertwine, and many of which can be adopted and implemented simultaneously. So while it’s simple, it is also deep and profound, and there’s always more to learn.

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