Several years ago at the national Charlotte Mason conference, Deani and Meghan Van Pelt presented a wonderful plenary session on the L’Umile Pianta, the magazine published for the alumni of Charlotte Mason’s teaching college in Ambleside, England. From their work on the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection, they shared their experience of getting to know some of the people involved in the P.N.E.U. through the pages of this periodical. I left the session with a desire to befriend Miss Pennethorne too and with a sense that a gold mine was just beneath my finger tips if I would do the hard work of digging.
In preparing for the conference this year, I finally started mining in earnest. It is joyfully ironic to me that what I am now employing in studying Mason and her world is rooted in my understanding of Mason’s own philosophy of teaching history. Her admonition from Volume One to“linger pleasantly over the history of a single man, a short period, until he thinks the thoughts of that man and is at home in the ways of that period” I have tried to heed in relation to herself.
I knew that if I expanded my knowledge of what was happening at the time of Mason’s life and work, I would be better equipped to interpret her work for today’s setting. It stands to reason that the biblical interpretation principle of understanding a text’s historical context should apply similarly to understanding the writings of Charlotte Mason, with the volumes as the texts and the archives serving to provide the context.
For instance, by reading the L’Umile Pianta and the Parent’s Review I am gaining a sense of what plants and animals were seen a hundred years ago in the Ambleside environs as well as its geology and history. This knowledge helps me to understand the context in which nature study was lived out and practiced, how it truly was a way of life. Another example is found in reading the many lectures that were presented on a wide variety of topics with lively discussion frequently following. I am introduced to what people were thinking and found pertinent and interesting. Additionally, I have seen what the students did for fun and entertainment. This has given me pause to ponder and reflect on the benefits and drawbacks of our technological age. Most interestingly, I have read assessments of many term’s work based on the examinations. This has helped me keep focused in my own school setting on what Mason emphasized and viewed as important. Relevant to us all, I have read about the eagerly anticipated yearly conferences, their schedules and sessions. My own current sense of community is heightened as I look forward to our 10th annual Charlotte Mason conference next month, knowing that we are continuing a tradition that was well established over a hundred years ago. (I hope to see many of you there!)
In addition to the historical context, the existence of commentary on Mason’s principles and practices from people that were living and working with her, as well as what she wrote herself outside of the volumes, is invaluable. As biblical commentaries throw light on the text to help me find meaning, insights, and understanding, so Mason’s contemporaries throw light on living out her principles and employing her methods. I have developed connections with these people and the living ideas they were pursuing. I should not be surprised, but frequently am, when I come across questions or comments that I was thinking about or somebody just mentioned to me recently. The years seem to fall away as I strain to hear Mason’s response or the comments of others as they deal with the nuts and bolts of teaching. I am just like those old students striving to apply the principles in my own context.
One of the nuggets which I dug up that enables us to sit among our fellow teachers of Ambleside is a letter written to them by Charlotte in July 1896 and published in the L’Umile Pianta. I thought the letter was fitting given the approach of the end of the term and school year. Have you ever been disappointed in your students’ exams? Have you struggled with why some children don’t remember much of what they have learned, yet have enjoyed learning? Do you struggle with fitting in narrations? Mason eloquently addresses all of these concerns. I am impressed with her ability to be encouraging and yet to point out what is needed. She holds up the value of the love of learning, but doesn’t let it run rampant over the essential work of consistent narration after each lesson. She says, “The power of producing what one knows is to be had only at the cost of thorough, careful, varied, interesting recapitulation [narration].” She also gently reminds us that who the children are as people is more important than what they can attain intellectually. I am able to apply her wisdom, correct any course headings that have wavered, and press on towards a “nobler ideal of life.” What a letter to receive from our teacher, Miss Mason–one just as timely today as it was 118 years ago! I hope you are inspired after looking at this little nugget to grab your pick and join me in the mine– let me know what you find!
 Parent’s National Education Union- The organization that supported all the member schools and families following the programmes of study sent out by Charlotte Mason.
 One of the dear ladies whose name appears frequently in the archives.
 The magazine published and sent out to all the members of the P.N.E.U.
© 2014 by Kerri Forney