Two words spring to my mind as I recall my first experience at the Charlotte Mason Conference this past June: nourishing and harmonious. Having finished my second year of teaching and started my third graduate class, my physical body boasted exhaustion throughout the conference week while, on the contrary, my mind was revived with life-giving words from the presenters—snippets from Mason’s works and other like-minded texts, such as our conference poem by Emily Dickinson:
He ate and drank the precious words,
His spirit grew robust;
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was dust.
He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book.
A loosened spirit brings!
The words from this particular poem continue to penetrate my heart as I am reminded that I imbibed, chewed, and digested living ideas. I was brought closer to LIFE, surrounded by persons united in purpose. What an incredible growing experience!
The first year following my initial baptism in 2012—or Cathartic Leap as I like to refer to it as—was one in which I was fully submerged underwater, so much so that I did not have full capacity of all of my faculties. Teaching I was, but only according to the topical ideas of Mason’s philosophy. However, last year, with my head finally above water, my vision cleared and my heart opened and awakened to receive more nuggets of truth. For each one of us, this paradigm shift paces differently. But for all of us, the end result—The Shift—is similar. For me, it was a leap from fantasy to nonfiction—from caged words to living ideas as I described in Parts 1 and 2 of “Meeting Mason” (my previous blogs).
A significant change materialized into the purchase of my first Commonplace book—a lovely and durable journal from Ollie’s—in June. Now these deeply-resonating ideas have a place to reside. I will readily admit that I am quickly becoming attached to this little book and recommend everyone to take the leap to start their own. Mason’s ideas bleed into how I teach my Sunday school children, as well. I am in the process of introducing them to narration and the grand conversation instead of being a “talking head” with crafts following each lesson as I have done in the past.
What has happened from 2012 until now to cause this change? Perhaps it was due to the day my students began to beg to read more and skip the word sorts. It might have resulted from a discussion with a parent with two daughters who love to come to school at Gillingham but who, at a previous public school, would beg not to go to school and then bicker with each other on the way home each day. Yet, I am sure it must have been the result of a letter written by a high school student. She declared that she had been contemplating the idea of taking her own life, but upon attending Gillingham, instead found life and a home with us. Maybe from the moment I said “yes” to Gillingham in 2012, Mason’s ideas started following me like a komodo dragon stealthily stalking a buffalo or a mongoose slowly but swiftly surrounding a cobra. Nonetheless, partaking in these ideas has simply wetted my appetite, but now it is time to dig deeper. The milk is no longer satisfying. I desire to partake in the meat.
One big idea that has traveled with me since the conference is the concept of symbolic experiences versus real experiences that Dr. Lowell Monke so eloquently and poignantly discussed. He said, “Learning about cannot substitute for learning from.” Watching videos or googling information is not a first-hand experience. These are disembodied facts that cannot inspire in us the qualities such as compassion, reverence, and respect. Real experiences cannot be replaced. They must be lived through our five senses. Likewise, Dr. Monke advocates that social media is alienating us from relationships like industrialization alienated us from nature. The result is a society that is numbed and stunned with difficulties in real intimacy and growth and becoming a valuable member of the community. Of course, in strong agreement with Dr. Monke is Mason, who, although she lived to see a fraction of the modern age unfold, promoted the importance of nature study and ample time outdoors to explore, observe, enjoy, and establish friendships with the trees and the flowers and the shrubs and the critters. As Mason firmly declares, “The child who learns his science from a text-book, though he go to Nature for illustrations, and he who gets his information from object lessons, has no chance of forming relations with things as they are, because his kindly obtrusive teacher makes him believe that to know about things is the same as knowing them personally . . .” (Vol. 3, p.66). Children first need to know the world through real experiences and then enhance those experiences with rich ideas from living books.
Perhaps the greatest joy I experienced from this past year occurred toward the end of the school year when one of my fourth graders adamantly declared, “You know, Miss Stalter, I didn’t like reading until this year. Now I love it!” The goal is for each one of my students to be brought closer to life as I have been and strengthened by this feast of ideas. As Mason purports in her work, An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education on page 72, “The work of education is greatly simplified when we realize that children, apparently all children, want to know all human knowledge; they have an appetite for what is put before them, and, knowing this, our teaching becomes buoyant with the courage of our convictions.” I confess that these notions are creeping from my mind to my heart and affecting not just how I teach math and reading at Gillingham to my Title I students but how I live my life outside of these walls. This realization is exciting but also startling as I consider the reality that I will soon be rendered incapable of consciously teaching anything apart from Mason’s relational education model, hinged upon education as an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life. Consequently, just as baptisms effect life-long commitments, so it is my undying desire that the lives of the children whom I help to baptize using Mason’s methods will experience that positive influence for their entire lives.
In this mission, in OUR mission—the whole of the Mason community—the conference has encouraged and strengthened me that Gillingham is not alone—WE are not alone. We have supporting leaders of this philosophy throughout the United States and the world as we strive to attest that ALL children have a right to this type of education that is as natural to us as persons as weaving a chrysalis is to a caterpillar. Therefore, from fantasy to nonfiction, I close this “baptism” saga by asking you once again: Is it a mission impossible? Nunca. A hazardous journey? A veces. A leap of faith? Todos los días.
In the words of our Director, Nicolle Hutchinson, “I dare us to dare greatly” (CM Conference, June 2014).
© 2014 by Kara Stalter