Saturday, May 21, 2016

My Journey with Living Books

I have been quite busy lately with all sorts of preparing so there hasn't been much time for blogging. So many events, including the Living Education Retreat and Living Education Lessons, that there is something coming up for just about anyone interested in learning more about relational education a la Charlotte Mason!  This is a wonderful thing.

Here is a fun, autobiographical piece that I wrote for Leah Boden's blog, Living Soul Deep,  a few months back.  It is a selective account of how books have been part of my life.  If I left in all the outtakes, you would hear about how I didn't like the first D'aulaire book that I read or that I threw away a few Opal Wheelers after having used them for car books (car books = books that stayed in our vehicles which were doubles or  titles I didn't think were worth much).  Or how about the books I have thrown down?  There have been 3.  No, I'm not telling.  And I am thankful that while living in southern California, the warehouse-style store nearby was selling complete sets of Beatrix Potter books in a cute little holder.  A few sets landed in our home as baby gifts. Little things add up to flourishing lives.  Without further ado...

When did my living books life begin? My mom tells a story of when I was hospitalized at age nine with spinal meningitis.  She says that when the nurse leaned over the bed and asked what I wanted to have - and I could have anything - I whispered, "My books, please." I like that story, and always remember that I loved books, but I'm not sure what books I was reading at that age.  Some Little House on the Prairie with some Nancy Drew on the side, most likely. Pretty sure I didn't do any reading that day after the spinal tap.

I’d say that my real journey with living books began when I moved from California to my husband’s small hometown in Minnesota in 1993. With only preschoolers in tow at the time, I really didn’t have much of a library.  But then came a call from a retiring school librarian which changed things.  That sweet lady had heard that I might be homeschooling and so wouldn’t I need books?  And would I like to come pick through the stacks and take what I think might be useful? They were pruning most books printed before 1975.  Truth is, I didn’t even know what to look for and there was no time (or internet!) for research. So I filled up a dozen boxes with what looked like they might make for good reading – Landmarks, Signatures, Messners, as well as books by McClung, Wheeler, Earle, Petersham, the D’aulaires and many more. Then I giddily threw myself into the author research, the library sales, the donations, 4 more children and a 3 story house that happily creaks with all those books today.

In the early days of my living books life, I was reading all about Charlotte Mason and her ideas of what a living book actually is. I could see that it needed to be well-written, engaging, by a passionate author, and that it should stir the emotions.  But I think there is something else going on with living books, something spiritual between each individual child and certain books that makes them living. 

I found that out early on as I sat for hours reading The Chronicles of Narnia to my two  young sons. I watched and observed how those precious children responded with excitement and wonder, acting out scenes and describing episodes to their father at the end of the day. Whatever was going on with their strong reaction to the story is exactly what I wanted more of for them, for their education, and for their lives. 

Because I’m never sure which book will move which child, variety is important.  Just because one daughter has read the 12 books from the Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons twice, doesn’t mean the next child will be interested in them.  Why one son wants every Jim Kjelgaard ever printed and the other prefers Leonard Wibberley, I can’t say. Why the quiet child consumes everything by Roald Dahl and the loud one prefers Ursula Le Guin is a mystery to me.

I love what Charlotte Mason says about the child and living books:

"A book may be long or short, old or new, easy or hard, written by a great man or a lesser man, and yet be the living book which finds its way to the mind of a young reader. The expert is not the person to choose; the children themselves are the experts in this case.”  (School Education,  p. 228)

For myself, Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald goes down as the first book to make me cry. Years later I read it aloud in school (unabridged)  and it took almost 2 years.  No one minded.  I cried that time, too.  As a family we have enjoyed dozens of titles out loud such as Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer, Incident at Hawk’s Hill by Allan Eckert , the Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, A Family of Foxes by Ellis Dillon, The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, and Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, to name just a few.

My life has been forever enriched by reading slowly, surely, and widely. Think the turtle, not the hare! I’ve enjoyed all the Miss Read titles, old books about my favorite president James A. Garfield, theology from N.T. Wright, Richard Foster, and John Piper and my current interest – beautiful vintage collections of devotions, prayers, and poetry that follow the church year (see my reprint of The Cloud of Witness). By establishing an atmosphere filled with books and an expectation of learning, every family member has been positively and eternally enriched. With a living book to look forward to every evening when I crawl into bed, alongside my morning devotions, and during the school day with my children, I invite and ensure that new ideas will be at the ready in my mind on a daily basis.  That, I have found, leads to a living a very full life.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Habits Pendulum

a gift of fragrant, wild plum blossoms!

Habits are important in a Charlotte Mason relational education.  They are mentioned as the second item of Ms. Mason’s educational trifecta, “education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life” and emphasized under principal #7 which states, “By Education is a discipline, is meant the discipline of habits formed definitely and thoughtfully, whether habits of mind or body.”  The recent discussions on this topic online and in meetings show just how concerned parents and teachers are about habits.  I have noticed the swinging of the pendulum to one side – that of external application.
While Mason does mention choosing a bad habit to work on, I don’t see her picking a character trait or habit and turning it into a unit study by defining it, reading books to point the moral and talking about it ad nauseum  I know this doesn’t work because that is exactly where I started 20 years ago. Yes, we wrote “Attentiveness” on the board, defined it, looked up verses on it, and read stories that highlighted it.  What this did was to create a polite apathy and aversion in my sons towards any mention of the term Since I was reading Mason at the same time, I was a bit confused and could see how my approach conflicted with Mason’s ideas on habits and how to cultivate them.  I changed my approach. 

A person is not built up from without but within, that is, he is living, and all external educational appliances and activities which are intended to mould his character are decorative and not vital.(Mason, Vol. 6, p. 23) 

In the following example, Mason tells of a lazy young man who changes his ways: 

The lazy boy who hears of the Great Duke's narrow camp bed, preferred by him because when he wanted to turn over it was time to get up, receives the idea of prompt rising. But his nurse or his mother knows how often and how ingeniously the tale must be brought to his mind before the habit of prompt rising is formed; she knows too how the idea of self-conquest must be made at home in the boy's mind until it become a chivalric impulse which he cannot resist.  (Mason, Vol. 6, p. 102) 

What are the elements here?  A great story, a subtle reminder, self-discipline and an irresistible chivalric impulseBut note what she says next -  

It is possible to sow a great idea lightly and casually and perhaps this sort of sowing should be rare and casual because if a child detect a definite purpose in his mentor he is apt to stiffen himself against it. 

Here she says that even this way of encouraging lightly and casually should be rare. It’s a fine art, this role of helping the child build up from within. 

A unique aspect of Mason’s philosophy is that the habits of the mind are not developed in isolation from the method, content, or philosophy.  Habits are part of the whole, the life, the education at hand.  I find it interesting that when I have a problem or something isn’t working in my homeschool, I don’t need to run out and buy a different curriculum to fix it.  If I turn to her philosophy and try to understand more, I almost always find the solution.  

Here is an example that illustrates what I mean.  It seems that a headmaster in a poor district in England had adopted Mason’s P.U.S. curriculum and wrote her a letter in appreciation. He states that previously, corporal punishment (physical punishment involving pain) had been the norm in his school where bad habits abounded. 

But now narration compels the teacher to get at the back of a child's mind.  This combined with mutual discussion on a wide range of subjects, begets understanding.  Understanding begets confidence and love, and all need of corporal punishment and restraint gradually disappears.  A teacher who had previously taught in the school called the other day.  She exclaimed immediately: “How happy everyone is!” “Do you mean the children?” I said. “Yes,”she answered, “and the teachers.” That is not intended as a compliment to the work but it was in reality one of the best I have received; for children are only happy when making headway. (Cholmondley, The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 138) 

I love the idea that narration compels the teacher to get at the back of a child’s mind! That example highlights the fact that the methods (narration), content (wide range of subjects), and philosophy (relationships, understanding) all work together to provide a healthy, positive atmosphere that may reduce stress and bad habits.
Now, I don’t think that every child will follow the same patterns that she glowingly tells us about in her examples.  I’m also not saying that Mason is the final authority on the subject, because she isn’t.  But I do think that she is getting at something different than what I see being talked about when it comes to habits.  And maybe that's because she already assumes that the authority issue has been settled.   She calls proper authority one of the three "foundation principles", the "basis for moral training", "fundamental", and "present but not in evidence: we do not expose the foundations of our house". Just a quick glance around our culture, church included, we can see that this isn't in place.  It isn't in place for the adults (under God's authority) and it isn't in place for the children. But I suppose that is another discussion altogether. So when it comes to habits, Mason speaks of the child’s heart – their inner self.  Ideas are the impetus for good habits and should thoughtfully mobilize the student to self-discipline.  The parent or teacher should be working alongside the child and the Holy Spirit. 

One more thing.  Dr. Carroll Smith shares this note that he came across in the Armitt Museum archives on Charlotte Mason. It was written to Henrietta Franklin in 1922, the year before she died. She writes, “Science has done nothing to confirm the “rut” theory in all these years, and Brother Body seems to me much the inferior partner.  I think all that I have written is still true but I would emphasize habit and so on less. Child mind – no, because a child has as much mind as the rest of us 

Thus, don’t begin with teaching the habit of (insert habit here)   - begin with the relationships, appropriate books, ideas, outdoor life, and all those things that fill the child’s mind with ideas that make up this living education.  Watch that pendulum, please.


(This blog post was originally published  at the Charlotte Mason Institute blog.)

Monday, April 18, 2016

Grilling and Reading

In 2005, the Kellys invited the Jahnkes over for pork chops on the grill. But there was one stipulation - each person was to bring a list of their 5 favorite books to share. It was fun!  I remember helping the littles prepare their choices.  With great foresight, Mr. Jahnke actually saved the list and recently shared it with me.  Here are my children’s selections:

Son (16)
-Les Miserables by Hugo
-A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens
-That Hideous Strength by Lewis
-Til We Have Faces by Lewis
-The Three Musketeers by Dumas

Son (14)
-The Story of WWII by Leckie
-The Fortunes of Captain Blood by Sabatini
-Big Red by Kjellgard
-Black Hearts in Battersea by Aiken
-Periscope Up by White

Daughter (8)
-Bobbsey Twins series by Hope
-Laura Ingall’s Wilder Books
-Owls in the Family by Mowat
- Melendy Quartet by Enright
- Betsy books by Haywood

Son (6)
-Cowboy Sam by Lenski
-Chronicles of Narnia by Lewis
-Aesop’s Fables
-Maze books

Daughter (4)
-If you Give a Mouse a Cookie by Numeroff
-Maze books
-Beatrix Potter books
-Unc’ Billy Possum by Burgess

Daughter (2)
-It Must Be Magic – (mommy’s poetry book from her childhood – Hallmark)
-Nursery Rhyme Books
-Ricka, Flicka, Dicka Bake a Cake by Lindman
-Snipp, Snapp, Snurr Go Swimming by Lindman

I don’t know what my husband’s choices were.  Here are mine:
-A Severe Mercy by VanAuken
-Girl Meets God by Winner
-Expecting Adam by Beck
-Sir Gibbie by MacDonald
-Homeschooling for Excellence by Colfax

This list gives such a fascinating snapshot into our lives and personalities at that time.  Hmmmmm.  Maybe we will do this again soon and I’ll share an updated list!

Admiration, Hope and Love!