Dear Stephanie - A Word About Attention

paying close attention

I have a question for you and your readers.  How would you go about teaching older children the habit of attention when they have not been previously trained this way?  I have a lot of reasons that I failed in this, one of which is that I made lessons too long and arduous and our school feels overwhelming to my children.  Focus is not a strong suit, which of course leads to a lot of chaos!  I have 3 different grade levels, soon to be 4...I feel that if we don't work on this FIRST, then nothing else is going to work.  Tips?  Insights?

Thanks for the great question!  Let's see who might chime in here with some advice.  I'll get us started.  I think you have made a keen observation when you said that the habit of attention needed to be worked on FIRST.  And it is a problem, particulary if you have been accustomed to doing the opposite.  I speak from personal experience.  I trained myself to tune-out during sermons and school.  Why did I need to pay attention when I knew there would be a review of the material the day before the test  ? I formed a cycle of inattention as a child.  I wanted something so very different for my children and a Mason education has given them that.

Charlotte Mason was on top of this problem.
 It is difficult to explain how I came to a solution of a puzzling problem,––how to secure attention. Much observation of children, various incidents from one's general reading, the recollection of my own childhood and the consideration of my present habits of mind brought me to the recognition of certain laws of the mind, by working in accordance with which the steady attention of children of any age and any class in society is insured, week-in, week out,––attention, not affected by distracting circumstances...It is not easy to sum up in a few short sentences those principles upon which the mind naturally acts and which I have tried to bring to bear upon a school curriculum. The fundamental idea is, that children are persons and are therefore moved by the same springs of conduct as their elders. Volume 6, p. 14
From that quote, we can say -
  1. There are natural ways the mind works and we need to recognize these.
  2. It should be a long-term, lifelong habit.
  3. Distractions should be removed.
  4. Always remember that children are persons.  Always. (She always brings it back around to this, doesn't she?) 

I suspect that you already know most of that information, but it bears repeating.  At least it does for me.  If I understand the underlying principles, I can apply it to just about any subject. Every subject in a Mason education requires full attention.  If I am not expecting the children to pay full attention to something, it isn't part of our lessons. (See my post, Time Value for related ideas.)

As the mother/teacher,  (I wear both hats - homeschool mom and teacher in a co-op community of 13 students), it is soooo important to model and practice this habit of attention.  That means focusing on the student and not the book when he is narrating.  That means occasionally letting them read the lesson aloud to me and modeling narration. (They LOVE this.)

Mrs. Taber and the walnuts
That said, I think that starting slowly, but purposefully is important with students not accustomed to this.  If you wanted to run a a marathon, you would start out slowly, adding more distance as you master each mile.  A plan would be good, too. Short goals that can be reached and built upon.  In your school, everyone should know what is going on and where you're going.  Start with one subject.  Once they are fully attentive and focused with that subject, pull in the next one.  And you know this one - short and varied lessons.

Can I share a story here?  One of my sons at the university doesn't take notes (for the most part).  Even those in Mason circles give me sidelong glances when I tell them this. But if you've paid attention and narrated for most of your life, you continue to learn that way when you leave home. At one point, he was happy to find a study group that got together and just talked over what they learned in class.  That's it.  Then I found this quote by Essex Cholmondley, talking about her college training at Ambleside:

"All the methods of study in college helped to form the habit of attention.  No notes were taken at lectures.  Instead time was given immediately after the lecturer had left the room in which to write a report.  These reports were expected to be short, clear and to the point, covering the whole matter of the lecture."
-The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 150

Sounds like written narrations to me!  Everything they did was helping them grow that habit of attention, even in college.

I hope you can find something to use in this rambling post, Stephanie.   

And just for you, here's a quote from Ann Voskamp -
"When I fully enter time's swift current, enter into the current moment with the weight of all my attention, I slow the torrent with the weight of me all here." - One Thousand Gifts
Admiration, Hope and Love,

me writing to you


  1. You certainly excel in your many callings. It is nice to see the fruit that comes from such diligence, Nancy. Your son's future wife will be very blessed to have a listening husband.

    Listening to narrations helps moms too. It is a rare art to truly listen to someone. The concept of narration is multifaceted; because it teaches our children to listen well to all they learn, and then teaches their mothers to listen well back to them.

    Somedays, when they've told me all of their reading, I ask them to narrate about anything else that's going on in their lives. It's my favorite part.

    1. Pam,
      I love your favorite part.

  2. Nancy, thanks for taking time to write this post. What a silly experience I've had in my formal education -- read my own book during lecture :( then cram before the test! Now, I finally do just want to discuss ... but often while referencing my notes. Some day I may finally be educated to not have so many crutches.

    (Incidentally, my husband has never been a note-taker and is an academic whiz -- he studied hard in grade school and read A LOT as a child, on top of endless hours spent outdoors in the woods.)

    I love this idea: "All the methods of study in college helped to form the habit of attention. No notes were taken at lectures. Instead time was given immediately after the lecturer had left the room in which to write a report. These reports were expected to be short, clear and to the point, covering the whole matter of the lecture."

    Thanks again!

    1. Glory Bea,
      Thank you for your comments! I just read an article about universities this morning that you might find interesting. Olasky says that in many cases, neither the teacher nor the student is working hard - http://www.worldmag.com/articles/19027 Hmmmm. Regardless, helping our children develop the habit of attention is a win-win situation, isn't it?

  3. Thank you so much for this, Nancy and friends! I think I will be revisiting the post over and over to let it sink in. Wonderful wisdom. I so appreciate you taking the time to answer. :)

    1. You're very welcome, Stephanie. Keep us posted, would you please?

  4. Disclaimer: I know I'm out of my league trying to contribute here but I'm anxious to improve some areas of our learning processes in our home, so even if I have to be corrected about what I say, I will learn something. :)
    I had a thought while I read Stephanie's question and the first paragraph of your answer Nancy, as I pondered how to help my 8.5 year old narrate better after being read to. For example, we read through The Story of the World portions and then I ask him to tell back to me about what we read. I am doing same with the book on J.S. Bach by Opal Wheeler that we are working through. Frequently he gives very basic sentences that miss much of the rich detail. But he doesn't do this with his nature reader, so I know he can do better. So as I read this, I had that issue on my mind.
    And what came to mind is perhaps I need to do better prepping him for what we are about to read by asking him to pay attention to the story elements.
    Setting, characters, conflict, resolution, etc.
    For instance, we are due to read about King Alfred this afternoon. So I can tell him to pay attention to what country or region King Alfred is king of, what problem will he encounter and how will he try to solve the problem and if he was successful or not. That way, he has things he has to be listening for, answers to make part of his narration. That should help him pick out the right details to remember who King Alfred was and why history remembers him.
    I'm getting these ideas from Adam Andrews "Teaching the Classics" as I study his material so I can lead my son through thinking about what makes up a story.
    We can even try to identify the nature of the conflict as some of those well known categories like, man vs. man, man vs. nature or animal, man against society, etc.
    I thought that knowing that the story has a setting, specific people involved and a conflict to resolve will help him focus, purposefully listen and correctly narrate the details, thus helping him frame the story for future memory retrieval.
    I have no CM quotes to base this process on but if you told me to look for things like the story elements as you read something to me that you knew contained them, I think I could listen and re-tell it better thus committing it to my long term memory.

    1. Heather,

      Thank you for joining in this discussion! I would agree that preparation before reading a passage to be narrated is important. I have some further thoughts based on what you have written, but will need to find some time later today or tomorrow to respond.


  5. Hi! I'm stopping by from the Carnival of Homeschooling - I'm posting there this week, too. I always appreciate a chance to be reminded of CM practices. The more review, the more likely I am to consistently employ the "methods."