”I am, I can, I ought, I will.”*
If you’ve been homeschooling for any amount of time, then chances are, you’ve heard of Charlotte Mason. For someone who lived over a hundred years ago, she’s made quite a name for herself in the modern homeschool movement. If you’ve ever searched for Charlotte Mason inspired curriculum or information, you’ll most likely find a variety of resources, all Christian in nature. While it may appear that the Charlotte Mason method of home education is not compatible with a secular lifestyle, I strongly disagree. Even though many of her ideas were based on Victorian era Christian ideals, her education methods can and should be used in any homeschool – religious or not.
“Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.”
I first read about Charlotte Mason’s methods several years ago, when I first began homeschooling my eldest child. I was drawn to the idea of educating with living books, so now much of what I do is based on this foundation of teaching. But it’s more than just reading beautiful literature. It’s creating an atmosphere of learning. One of the best ways that I have found to do that is by filling my home with beauty and ideas – load your bookshelves with the best literature you can find. Hang beautiful, thought-provoking art work around your house. Watch history and science documentaries as well as good movies and television programs. Listen to beautiful music (which, of course, is open to interpretation). All of these things lead to one end – inspiring your child with the best ideas the world can offer.
“The question is not, — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?”
There are several specific tenants of the Charlotte Mason method of education. I’m going to touch on just a few of them.
Literature is the foundation of education and is at the forefront of the Build Your Library curriculum. Rather than studying from dry, formal textbooks, you read lovely prose, from writers who care deeply about their subject matter. A living book is one that evokes your emotions, draws you deeply into the story, offers much for thoughtful contemplation as well as information. The majority of Charlotte Mason websites, books and curriculum’s available on the market today seem to focus on Victorian era literature. While those books are quite lovely – there are literally thousands of books written since then. These wonderful books are just as worthy of your child’s time. Books like The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, One Crazy Summer, Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science and George vs. George: The American Revolution As Seen from Both Sides are just a few suggestions.
I’ve written more about using living books in your homeschool: Thoughts on Living Books and The Importance of Reading Aloud.
Copywork and Dictation
“Perfect Accomplishment.–– I can only offer a few hints on the teaching of writing, though much might be said. First, let the child accomplish something perfectly in every lesson––a stroke, a pothook, a letter. Let the writing lesson be short; it should not last more than five or ten minutes. Ease in writing comes by practice; but that must be secured later.”
Copywork and dictation form the backbone of language arts in the Charlotte Mason method, which in turn are at the backbone of the Build Your Library curriculum. In the beginning, copywork is handwriting practice, focusing on neatly and carefully writing single letters, then words and finally sentences. Preferably, once you get to writing sentences, you would choose beautiful passages from literature. This is “killing two birds with one stone,” in that you are working on neat and careful writing, but also filling your child’s thoughts with grand ideas and good writing. This is sort of an osmosis method of learning to become a good writer, because they are immersed in a world full of living books and lovely thoughts. They also learn what good writing looks like and therefore, learn to write well.
When they are proficient writers, usually around the age of 10, you can begin dictation. This gives them the opportunity to take those passages of good literature and work on learning the mechanics of writing, such as where to place the commas, end punctuation, grammar, spelling, etc. This cultivates the skills of observation (they must study the passage first), listening and comprehension skills and learning correct sentence structure. If you would like to learn more I have written more in-depth articles on How to Teach Copywork and How Does Dictation Work?
Narration is another foundation on which much of Build Your Library curriculum and the Charlotte Mason method of education is based. It takes the place of reading comprehension quizzes, inane discussion questions or tedious book reports. Narration is simply retelling, in their own words, what they read (or heard). Children naturally want to tell us about things they saw, heard or watched. Narration is a natural extension of that. After a reading, you ask your child what they remember. It’s as simple as that. They remember more clearly, that which they have processed by telling back. It is essentially oral composition. They have to focus their attention on the reading, organize their thoughts and learn to express themselves clearly and coherently. But it doesn’t have to be boring. Narration can be creative – creating a skit, a piece of art, a short story – all based on a reading.
As a child gets older and has been narrating for a while, you can begin written narrations. The method is the same, but they put their thoughts into writing. But it can go beyond merely writing a summary of the reading – they can create a character journal, write a letter to the author, conduct and interview with a character, as well as develop the skills of literary analysis. Coach them early on, and watch as they naturally pickup better skills on their own.
I’ve written more about What is Narration? and you can learn about Build Your Library’s exclusive Narration Cards here.
“This is all play to the children, but the mother is doing invaluable work; she is training their powers of observation and expression, increasing their vocabulary and their range of ideas by giving them the name and the uses of an object at the right moment,–when they ask, ‘What is it?’ and ‘What is it for?’”
Nature Study, in Charlotte Mason’s day, was the only science students studied before high school. Of course, in Victorian times, there wasn’t much need for the average student to study science, but there was a great need for learning about the world around you. Keeping a Nature Journal was more than just a scientific study, but a piece of artwork.
In our modern world, it can feel like Nature Study is unnecessary. Why bother, when there are more important sciences to study? But Nature Study has many benefits that are too important to be overlooked. By getting outside and immersed in the natural world, you child will develop observational skills, a keen sense of wonder, and a desire to deepen their scientific knowledge.
It’s easier to just stay indoors and watch a nature documentary on television, but our children need the experience of seeing it in the real world and being a part of nature, to own the knowledge by collecting it themselves.
So how do you do it? You can get out once a week for a nature walk, learn the names of all of the plants in your neighborhood, go on a hike or walk along a nature trail once a month, visit a nature reserve or state park, choose a tree in your yard to study for a year, or choose a few insects to collect and study.
Short and Varied Lessons
At first glance, short lessons sounds somewhat fishy to most people. Considering that most children spend upwards of 6 – 8 hours of their day either in school or working on school work, how can short lessons be a good thing? But the idea of short lessons is such an important aspect of the Build Your Library curriculum and Charlotte Mason’s method, that we cannot overlook it.
“You want the child to remember? Then secure his whole attention.”
Short lessons allow you to keep your child’s attention focused. Remember back to those long lectures you would sit through in school – eventually your mind would wander. A better way would be to spend a powerful 20 – 30 minutes engaging your child’s mind. Rather than completing a page of 50 math problems, assign 10 and be sure your child can do them well. There is no meaningless busy work in this method of education.
Rather than spend an hour on math, an hour on history, an hour on language arts, etc., you spend a brief time focusing your child’s whole attention on those 10 math problems, then read a chapter from your history book and maybe do some timeline or mapwork. Then spend some time outside in nature. Upon coming indoors, you both go off to do some independent reading for 30 minutes. Short lessons discourage dawdling and encourage your child to give their best effort. Your formal lessons can be completed by noon, and the afternoons can be filled with errands, art, or just leisurely pursuing your passions.
“The end result of a Charlotte Mason education is the children find knowledge so delightful that it becomes a pursuit and source of happiness for a lifetime.”
At first glance, Charlotte Mason’s methods of education may appear old-fashioned and overly religious. It would be easy to dismiss, but the core of the method is still very worthwhile in a modern, secular homeschool. You don’t need to follow her original reading lists, or even follow the method strictly in order to give your child the best possible education. Just fill their environment with beautiful and worthy ideas, spend time out of doors exploring the natural world and pursue your passions. Give your child a world full of heroes and myths, things to think about and fall in love with, ideas to ponder and inspire them. That is the best education possible – one in which they see learning as a life-long pursuit and not something that must be done within the “schooling hours” each day.
The Build Your Library curriculum is a perfect example of a modern approach to Charlotte Mason’s methods of education. For more information about our secular Charlotte Mason based homeschool curriculum, please see our About Build Your Library page and further explore our webpages.
*All bolded quotes are from Charlotte Mason.