Sunday, August 2, 2020

Charlotte Mason in Sunday School

"It is better that children should receive a few vital ideas that their souls may grow than a great deal of indefinite teaching."
Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 346

Much of what passes for Sunday school curriculum involves "a great deal of indefinite teaching" and few, if any, "vital ideas."  We want souls to grow, but we have a vague idea of how to achieve that goal.  

Our first mission must be to connect the child with the Bible text.  This is the most direct way for the Holy Spirit to speak to the child.  For very young children, this may involve retelling the Bible text in simplified form.  Somewhat older children may be ready for Bible text mixed with some retelling so as not to get bogged down in the passages for which they may not be mature enough or which may be too long for them right now.  Older children can hear or read the text itself and connect with it with very little intervention from the teacher.

In a Charlotte Mason context we call that "narration," but it's a concept that modern educators know as well.  It requires full attention to the reading and then some mental effort as each child thinks about what was read and how to reformulate that in his own words.  The child must think about the passage in order to narrate, unlike answering questions which often can happen by guessing based on cues in the questions.  Narration encourages focus throughout the entire reading and puts the emphasis on the child's understanding of the passage rather than on the child's understanding of the teacher.

The teacher's part of the lesson mostly comes before the reading and after the narration.  Before the reading, the teacher helps set the stage in two ways: recapping the previous reading and introducing key vocabulary, names, or dates.  

Recapping the previous reading works best if the students provide the summary.  I've used a pictorial timeline in my classes, so on the wall we have a picture representing each lesson so far.  Before we begin the next reading, I will point out the picture from the previous lesson and ask for volunteers to remind us what happened in that lesson.  This helps prime the memory.  Sometimes input from several students allows us to get a sufficient understanding to know where we are.  Sometimes I need to fill in some gaps, although it's not necessary to go into great detail.  Just the main outline of the previous lesson is sufficient to set the stage for the day's lesson. 

Help the children get their footing in the current reading by introducing key vocabulary, names, or dates before the reading.  Keep this short!  Don't introduce every word you think they may not know; just introduce words that may keep them from understanding even the broad outlines of what you're reading.  Don't introduce every name necessarily, but just the most important people in this reading.  Places and dates may not need to be introduced at all unless they play a significant role in the action.  You don't need to explain these words!  Just write them on the board, read them to the students, and ask them to keep an eye out for them in the reading.  The exception to that is situations where some background really needs to be given for understanding.  Sometimes it's helpful to find places on a map before a reading, and sometimes a date needs to be put in context before you start.  Err on the side of saying less when you're not sure how much is needed!  Teachers like to talk, and we often talk too much.  Our talking gets in the way of the child interacting with the text.

When it's helpful, use a wall map to give students an idea of where the events were occurring.  Sometimes it's even helpful to give each student a copy of a map so that each week students can mark on their own maps.  Occasionally other visual aids such as replicas of artifacts, posters with additional information, timelines, or even artwork can enhance the lesson.  "Better than nothing is a high standard," so consider the value of any additional materials and include them only when it's clear they will be helpful and not distract or confuse.

In an elementary class (roughly age 12 and under), having the teacher read aloud the lesson is probably best in most cases.  Some children won't be able to read silently with comprehension, and they'll read at vastly different rates anyway.  Most children won't be able to read aloud correctly and with proper phrasing, so the children who are listening will tune out or have trouble following along.  When the teacher reads, she can read with feeling, using tone and inflection to help the children follow along.  She can stop and ask the class for responses when she sees attention waning, even if she hadn't planned to stop so soon.

Children may need to be taught to attend to a reading and then think about it and retell what they've read.  In that case, stop at every paragraph or in some cases even less to allow the class to refocus and think over what's been read so far. Sometimes, let your eager students be the first to tell you about what's happened in the passage you just read.  Then let other students add to that.  If you have a student who's really capable, you may have to ask that student to tell you just one thing, so that others have a chance to respond.  Sometimes, call on the quiet student or the one who has trouble focusing during the reading, to encourage them to do the mental work of thinking over what was just read and to include them in the group.  Especially call on the quiet or struggling student when the passage is a simple narrative or when you can see that they are ready to answer.  Help them have experiences of success!  Generally, don't prompt a student to try to get a response.  Let them work through thinking it over on their own.  If they can't give even a simple detail from the reading, use your judgment about whether to call on someone else or to help this student think through the passage.  Don't talk too much!  Give them time to think, and accept their good faith attempts to try.

After the narration phase, the teacher can recap or reemphasize something significant from the lesson.  At this time a review by looking again at maps or other materials that were used in the lesson might be appropriate.  On rare occasions a short teaching on a concept that came up that requires clarification may be needed. While you are preparing the lesson, think about the "vital ideas" that the Bible passage contains.  You might make a note of one or two of these in your plans.  You don't necessarily need to actually present these ideas to the students directly, but you want to watch for opportunities to help the children notice them during their discussion of the passage.  Sometimes it's appropriate to actually tell the children the idea you see in the Bible text, but save that for a few key lessons.  None of this needs to happen every week, and when it does happen it should be short.

At the end of your lesson, provide a way for the children to record what they remember.  This could involve acting it out or writing a summary.  In my class, we draw a picture.  I've made a simple grid on the front and back of a sheet of paper turned sideways, with three boxes across the top and three across the bottom.  This gives us twelve boxes on one sheet of paper.  Each week at the end of the Bible lesson, the students each draw a picture in the next empty box to represent something they remember about the week's reading.  I have a grid on the wall with twelve boxes on a large sheet (of paper or of chalkboard paper), and I draw a picture too.  These are simple and crude often, but they work!  At the start of the next lesson, we refer to this to remember what we previously discussed.  Sometimes when we need to think about past readings, I will point out the picture on the wall to jog the students' memories.  We've sometimes used simple costumes and acted out the story we just read.  With younger children I've used flannel figures and let the children tell the story while manipulating the figures.  Think about what fits your preferences, your students' interests, and the story's needs.

We store our class supplies for each student in a simple manila folder.  It's easy to manage and easy to store.  At the end of the year, we send the folder home with the student.  Many other ways of keeping supplies in one place would work fine too.  We keep the folders in a plastic file box, and in that box we also have folders with the handouts we'll need for future class sessions.  Almost everything we need fits in a simple plastic file box.
Children need a regular change of thoughts in order to maintain focus.  Spending too long on one activity or one type of activity will cause their thoughts to wander and their behavior to deteriorate.  Aim for 15 to 20 minutes on each phase of the class in the upper elementary years, definitely no more than 30 minutes on one type of work.  So after reading the Bible lesson, which usually takes me about 30 minutes start to finish, something that is not reading should be done.  I like to change to a movement-based activity since we've been sitting and concentrating for so long.  Then we do another, lighter, reading-based activity.  We follow that reading with singing, then with prayer and a missionary story.  Exactly what elements your class time contains can vary greatly, but it's vital that you change pace every 15 to 20 minutes and switch between activities that require different types of effort. 

When we do scripture memory, we work on learning a passage rather than a single verse.  We work on the same passage for approximately 12 weeks, working on a sentence or a phrase for two weeks and then moving to the next sentence or phrase.  At the beginning of the quarter, I introduce the passage which I have printed on a full sheet of paper.  Each student has a copy in his folder.  I read the whole passage and explain the context briefly.  Then each week we say that week's phrase together as a class a few times.  Then the kids line up.  I pick two kids to hold our giant rubber band, standing inside it one on each end.  (I keep track of who has helped so everyone gets a turn.)  Each child in line says the phrase without looking, then gets to jump over the band or crawl under the band or whatever suits him.  If a child struggles, we stop and everyone says the phrase together again and the child gets another chance.  I may assist with hand motions.  Each child is successful before we continue on.  When a child goes over the rubber band, he gets back in line to go through again.  Each child goes through the line twice, then goes back to his seat.  This is usually the time in the class period when we take bathroom breaks, too, so during this time my adult helper is taking small groups of kids to the bathroom and the drinking fountain.
Our lighter reading helps provide a chance for children who struggle to attend to the Bible reading to follow along with a reading in class.  We read a chapter from Little Pilgrim's Progress by Helen Taylor each week.  My husband reads from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis in his class.  Both of these are fiction that is fun to listen to and has a simple, straightforward plot.  Listening to these is not hard work.  But both of them also embody within the story ideas that help us understand truths about God and about ourselves.  A biography of a missionary or other Christian could work in this place, or you could use a book about natural history.  The book you choose should be well written, should convey valuable ideas about God without being preachy, and should not be difficult for the children to understand.

When I finish this reading, I allow time for the students to draw a response, in this case in the form of a map of Little Christian's journey.  I showed them some really impressive maps that have been made from the original Pilgrim's Progress story, and suggested they might want to make one of their own.  They each have a piece of blank paper, and they are free to use it to illustrate the story in any way they want.  Some will make a detailed map.  Some will make grids and put an illustration in one each week.  Some will draw a large picture on the whole page each week.  Whatever they do, it's helping them think over the story and decide what's meaningful to them.

We sing a hymn together each week, singing from the sheet music without accompaniment.  (I select hymns I know and can sing easily.)  Sheet music can be printed for free from several websites.  Each student has a copy of the hymn, which we keep in their folders.  We sing the same hymn for four weeks.  Occasionally I share some information about the hymn, but mostly we just get out our music sheets, sing the hymn, and put them away again so we can move on.  Short and simple, but a nice break between heavier subjects and a lovely way to include an important element of Christian practice.

When we pray together, I try to make it a time of meaningful prayer with more involved than just making requests and with everyone participating.  I have experimented with several different ways of handling this 5-10 minutes, and I haven't settled on one that I think works best for us.  Sometimes we've just opened it up for voluntary prayer after which I close.  Sometimes I have spent several weeks working through the Lord's Prayer and having the kids help me to figure out what each part of that prayer meant, then implementing those pieces in our prayer time by assigning parts to each student.  Sometimes we've listed out prayer requests for our missionaries (or just the names of the missionaries) on the board, then had kids volunteer to pray for specific ones (and everyone had to volunteer).  We've done other things too.  All of these things have been successful in some ways, but I recommend making this time a matter for special prayer by the teachers so they can know what's best for this particular class at this particular time.

I close the class with a very short missionary story.  For a time, our curriculum included a missionary story each week, focused on one missionary for an entire quarter and including a quick episode from that missionary's life each week.  For one quarter when that wasn't available, we focused on a different missionary from our church each week.  When we needed to find our own missionary stories, we tried spending four weeks on each missionary from our church, giving small snippets about them each week.  The first week we might introduce the individual or the family and the general location where they serve.  Another week we might look more closely at the work that missionary does.  Another week we might look at the location and learn a little about what it's like.  One week we might talk about some particular challenges or prayer requests.  This missionary time really takes about 5 minutes, but it's flexible so it's well suited for the end of class when we might need to stretch a bit to fill some time or compress to end quickly.

Your Sunday school may include different elements.  I've included simple but useful handicrafts during our opening time in the past.  Some teachers include looking at great artworks.  You could include poetry or nature (plants in the classroom or walks outdoors).  Classical music might be a helpful element.  Your Sunday school may be structured completely differently from what I've described.  The structure we're using accounts for some needs that are specific to our situation.  Your situation will be different and will have different needs.  What matters is that each class contains "vital ideas" and that we avoid the "indefinite teaching" that undermines the work of the Holy Spirit.  When we present those vital ideas in forms and with methods that reflect proven principles of effective teaching, our students will thrive!

(This post will probably be updated from time to time.)

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Unbouncing Tigger, or The Defect of His Quality

I'm reading The Tao of Pooh, in which Benjamin Hoff uses the Winnie the Pooh stories to exemplify philosophical principles.  And I'm reading Charlotte Mason's second volume, Parents and Children, which is a collection of articles she wrote for the parents' magazine her organization published. 

Tonight my Tao of Pooh reading came from chapter 4, "Cottleston Pie."  One of the points of this chapter is that dealing with things As They Are is better than pretending things are Something They Are Not.  Tigger comes up a lot.  Hoff reminds us of Rabbit's plan to Unbounce Tigger.  The plan failed, and one of Tigger's positive traits became obvious: he doesn't get lost.  Tigger's bounciness distracted everyone, maybe even himself, from noticing his talents.  And when Rabbit finally wins and forces Tigger to promise not to bounce, Tigger's whole character changes, and not for the better.  Everyone misses the old cheery, bouncy Tigger, even if the bounciness seemed overwhelming.

Maybe as parents we tend to be Rabbit, wanting to "unbounce" our children.  Maybe we can't see their talents because we're distracted by the annoying bouncing.  Maybe our children can't see their talents either.  Maybe we're trying so hard to "unbounce" them that we're taking away part of what makes them special and overlooking more important potential.  "For within the Ugly Duckling is the Swan, inside the Bouncy Tigger is the Rescuer who knows the Way, and in each of us is something Special, and that we need to keep." (p. 65)

Last month our Coffee with Charlotte group read and discussed chapter 16 in Volume 2, "Discipline: A Consideration for Parents."  One of the last points in that chapter focused on the necessity of seeing the child as a person, whose good qualities sometimes show up in negative ways.  Many negative traits or behaviors stem from some characteristic that could be a positive trait if directed appropriately, and the job of the parent is to diligently help the child redirect until the positive direction is habitual.  "As the bad habit usually arises from the defect of some quality in the child it should not be difficult for the parent who knows his child's character to introduce the contrary good habit." (p. 175)

What if instead of trying to make our children fit into our vision of Who They Should Be we instead considered Who They Are and thought about how to help them become even better at that?

Friday, April 12, 2019

Success in Imperfection - Part 6 of 6

 This is Part 6 of 6.  Find the other parts here.

Less than perfect *is* success.  Focus on what happened, not what didn’t happen.  Today, this week, this term, this year, what did you and your students accomplish?  Where did you grow?  What new experiences did you have?  How did you improve?  Appreciate the beauty in what you *are* doing.  It’s easy to feel inadequate and worry that you’re failing. 

And of course we have to consider where we need to improve, but first we have to seriously look at where we’re doing well.  So your Year 1 student isn’t narrating beautifully even when you read a paragraph at a time.  But what *is* she doing that she wasn’t able to do at the beginning of the year?  Where can you see growth or forward progress? Where are you seeing small glimpses of success?  Maybe your Year 4 student isn’t adding Latin or taking to Plutarch or the original Shakespeare plays, but is he enjoying one of the literature selections?  Or is he beginning to see the panorama of history just a bit?  Or he’s fondly remembering a book from a previous year that you were sure he hadn’t understood at all?

We often scare ourselves with lofty visions of what our teenagers *would* be learning if they were in school.  Stop that!  The mythical school classroom looms too large in our imaginations; the real classroom is not nearly as intimidating.  Of course we want to offer a rigorous education that prepares our students for life, but that happens through slow and steady progress, mixed with delays and setbacks, bit by bit.  What does your teenager care about that most of her peers don’t?  What opportunities is your teenager getting at home to learn self management?  What subjects are you able to at least *touch* on that wouldn’t come up in a traditional school setting at all?

Oftentimes what looks like failure  is really a success because of our unique situations.

  • So my 11 year old draws generic daffodils week after week in his nature notebook.    This was actually much better than what we’ve achieved in the past, so I was happy!  Plus, he’s been doing it with minimal prompting, and drawing is really a challenge for him so he usually won’t even try.  For all these reasons, this is actually a success, not a failure, even though it doesn’t meet our usual expectations for perfect nature study implementation.
  • Usually dictation passages come from school readings.  I’ve been comfortable pulling them from other great literature sometimes, but it’s hard to justify using lines pulled from various episodes of a fictional TV series.  However, my son gladly is copying out the Hobbit in his commonplace book every day and already is an excellent writer, so this temporary compromise of using the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition as dictation doesn’t bother me too much.
  • My daughter had a concussion last year and her ability to focus has taken time to return.  She’s also working and volunteering and participating in other activities that have great value for her now and in the future.  Our lightened version of a light year schedule is still incorporating great history and literature and theology.  She loves her readings!  We just had to cut back to what we can actually achieve with our current challenges.  This little bit done consistently is still beautiful, and when we can’t get it done we just have to let it go and try again.

Ultimately, are you honoring God in your home?  Are you following His direction?  If you are, then you’re achieving absolute success, even if it looks like failure from a human perspective.  The verse I cling to when homeschooling is hard is Isaiah 54:13:  “All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children.” 

We aren’t wise enough to plot out a definite course that’s best for ourselves, our family, our community.  No map we lay out or get from even the most expert source can account for the specific struggles and needs of our families.  We study the map, and we “mix it with brains,” but then we must defer to the Holy Spirit because He *does* know which course is best and it may look utterly different than what we would expect. 

If we stay close to Him, then ultimately our imperfection will be the greatest success we could have.

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Success in Imperfection - Part 5 of 6

This is Part 5 of 6.  Find the other parts here.

When you make your plans, plan to delegate.  The first place to delegate is to your kids.  Pass responsibilities to your kids as they can handle them.  This looks different for each child and each home; it will even look different from week to week sometimes.  Don’t fear for their failure.  You want to be wise about adding responsibility, but you also need to let them own the responsibility even if it turns out to be more imperfect than you would like. 

Plan for boundaries to help teach them as they take on these new roles.  They need regular checkpoints where they can see the consequences of their success or failure.  This helps them learn to manage their own work.  But within those checkpoints, give them freedom. 

Some of them will pick up on what they need to do sooner than others.  I have one child who starts his week’s work on Sunday evening and tries to come narrate to me while I’m putting his sister to bed.  He’s usually done with most of his week’s work by Wednesday, even though I’ve added extra work to his already full AO schedule.  Another of my children generally refuses to start his schoolwork until 5 minutes before a deadline.  He’s pretty sure he can knock all the work out really fast, so why should he start on it before he wants to?  The process of teaching him to manage his own work even though he doesn’t want to looks like a detour, like we’re not making progress on our route, but it’s necessary in order for us to reach our end goal, so it’s worth all the difficulty up front. 

Success isn’t simply getting the work done well; it also means learning these life lessons and developing a strength of character, and that sometimes comes at the expense of completing all the work or doing it in a certain timeframe.

Delegating can also mean outsourcing some of the work to another teacher.  If there’s an opportunity to do that and if you think it would be beneficial, consider using an outside course occasionally.  I can’t do everything well--time constraints make that impossible even if I were good at everything.  So if I can outsource an area that takes a great deal of my time and attention, that can free me to focus on another area.  It also gives my kids a chance to see a different perspective from another instructor. 

I’ve appreciated the opportunities we’ve had to do science labs in a group setting run by someone else, for instance. When we don’t have that opportunity, we make do with my efforts, but when we can, doing labs with a group can be a blessing. High school math is another area I’ve outsourced.  I teach algebra and geometry, and then after that the kids who will do algebra 2 and higher take their math at a local university.  They get college credit and a teacher who’s actually focused on explaining that subject, their homework gets immediate feedback, and they have a support group for studying.  It’s been great! 

Most importantly, follow the Holy Spirit’s lead.  Pray over your plans, and listen to the answers.  Keep praying, and be willing to adjust the plans when they need it.  Pray over your children.  You are not responsible for their ultimate success.  That is not a burden for you to bear.  You are responsible for faithfully carrying out what you *should* do, so lay the rest of that burden down.  Pray over the challenges that come up each day, the small ones that soon pass and the big ones that sometimes never resolve.  Pray for wisdom, for patience, for the right response. 

Sometimes we’re not to fix the problem but to show grace through it.  Our kids need to see us respond in love to the challenges, and we can’t do that without relying on the Holy Spirit.  We can’t know the right course without his guidance either. 

In the book Prince Caspian, Lucy has instructions from Aslan, but no one else does.  She wants to follow those instructions, but she’s intimidated by the pushback from the others, so she goes along with their preferences.  This winds up hurting them all.  So often we’re in that same position.  We know in our hearts, we feel it, that a certain course of action is the right one, but we talk ourselves out of it because it doesn’t look like what others expect or even what we expect.


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Success in Imperfection - Part 4 of 6

This is Part 4 of 6.  Find the other parts here.

The map should not rule us.  Plan, but hold plans loosely.  AmblesideOnline’s booklists, schedules, and other plans are such a help!  They give us a place to start.  Sometimes we can work with those plans with very few changes, and other times we’ll find we have to make big adjustments.  When you’re ready to plan, plan for what you think you can realistically accomplish plus a little more.  Give yourself room to grow into the plans.  Looking at the schedule for a new term can seem overwhelming--all those books!  All those new types of work!  And we weren’t getting everything done *last* term! 

Don’t panic!  Take that work, and organize it into whatever template works for you so you can see how it might actually play out in your home with your unique situation. Adjust your expectations down if you need to, but don’t adjust them all the way down to a level that feels completely safe.  Leave some challenge, some room to grow.  That book that seems *way* too hard before the term starts may become a favorite a month into the term.  Even the book that continues to challenge us may prompt us to learn new ways of working through difficult material or to persevere with something that’s uncomfortable.  If we always plan for what we know we can do and do well, we won’t reach as far.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” No homeschool plan really works out in practice exactly as it looked in pristine form.  You can’t account for the colicky baby, the washing machine leak, the sudden case of strep throat, someone’s bad mood. 

Your plans are a map, helping you see the path to forward progress, but they can’t be adhered to rigidly when the terrain is different than expected.  Sometimes we have to stop and figure out where *we* are and where we need to be and what the best route is to get there, rather than just following the plan, or we’ll end up in a hole we can’t get out of.

When Charlotte Mason’s teachers told her the timetables were impossible to keep to because of all the challenges that come with having actual children with their unique needs, she told them to “mix it with brains.”  In other words, adjust the plan to meet the real needs and circumstances you face--don’t try to force those needs and circumstances into the plans. 

Reevaluate regularly so you can *try again in a new way, *drop what isn’t currently needed, *add what has been neglected.   In the upper years of AO, you’ll really find this is necessary, because the schedules start to contain more work than you *should* undertake--you have to decide what to keep and what to leave out, because only you know what’s best for your situation. 

AO could pare down the plans for you, but that wouldn’t allow you to decide which route is best.  One family may need the slow, scenic route, while another family may need one that’s more direct or includes more challenges.  Being unable to complete every good and worthwhile task isn’t failure.  It’s life.  As homeschoolers, we have way more that we would *like* to do than what we can possibly do.  We have to decide what’s most important so we can focus there, while still watching for opportunities to add in some of what we’ve had to skip.

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Success in Imperfection - Part 3 of 6

This is Part 3 of 6.  Find the other parts here.

How do we measure success?  Charlotte Mason said it wasn’t how much a child knows, but how much he cares, and the connections he makes.  Most of the time, I don’t get much indication of how much any of my children care. I worry just like anyone else about where I’m falling short.  When the kids were young, it was sometimes really hard to find signs of caring and connections.  Somehow my kids never seemed to act out the stories they read in school like I hear about other people’s children doing. 

Now that they’re older, I’m more likely to see connections in a dinner table argument over Richard III.  I’d prefer not to have the argument, but it’s undeniable that the participants both know and care about the history they’ve studied.  My kids normally don’t love their handicrafts, and that’s a subject that gets skipped regularly by at least one of them.  But that one has voluntarily taken up macrame to make holders for planters.  Sometimes a narration will reference other things we’ve learned about in the past, or will include a strong disagreement with the author’s opinion. These sporadic glimpses of caring and connections show me that we’re on the right track. 

Mostly I have to see the success in forward progress, slow and incremental.  So my 11 year old still has unsteady handwriting and can only write three or four words a day, but this is much better than the beginning of this year: he writes in cursive, he’s improving regularly, and he does it on his own.  These are all huge improvements, so they constitute success even if copywork for us looks very different from someone else.  Sometimes doing both a full Shakespeare play and a full Life from Plutarch is too much in a term; we sometimes switch off between the two or spread them over a longer period of time.  If we’re still doing the plays and the lives regularly, slowly is still a success for us.  We’re still getting the feast, just at a pace that we can handle. 

Success is not about how we measure up to our own expectations.  It’s not about how we compare to what we hear about other families’ accomplishments.  It’s not about how completely we implement every piece of a Charlotte Mason education.  Success is about how we persevere in spreading the feast, guarding the personhood, cultivating the love, making forward progress at a pace that isn’t destructive.

Imperfection is reality.  We have to come to terms with the pressure our own pride and insecurity put on us.  We have to put aside the pride that pushes us to achieve visible successes so we can feel successful, pushes us to achieve them *even if* those visible successes are not the right course for us right now.  We have to get past the insecurity that tells us that someone else’s definition of success is what we have to achieve in order to know we’re doing well. 

Charlotte Mason gave us a wide array of sign posts to aim for on our journey, of modes of transport that will help us get to our destination.  Every one of them is good and useful, but not all of them are possible or even desirable in every family, for every child, at every time.  The principles are still true no matter what, but what they look like in implementation changes based on our situation. 

Some of the principles show us where we’re headed, our destination.  For instance, we want our children to love the world around them, past, present, and future.  That’s one of our goals.  Some of the principles tell us how we can legitimately move toward that destination.  Children are born persons, and our path toward the goals must respect our children’s personhood.  Keeping the principles in front of us reminds us where we’re going and how we can safely get there, but it doesn’t tell us exactly how we need to travel along the way.  So we have to make our plans with those principles in mind but also use our judgment. 

A few weeks ago, I needed to get from one activity in a neighboring city to pick up a child at another activity in my town.  I don’t know my way around in that neighboring city, so I thought I would follow someone else who did.  I quickly realized that person wasn’t headed the same direction I needed to go, so I changed course, but by then I didn’t know which way I was going.  I tried to wing it and got lost, so I pulled up a map app to help me get my bearings.  The app couldn’t really get oriented at first and it sent me down a sketchy road to turn around. I went even when I knew I shouldn’t, simply because I didn’t want to stop and figure out where to go.  The path on the screen looked safe enough, and finding my own path seemed unnecessary and time consuming.  I followed the app down a path I had serious misgivings about, and it led me right into a hole.  I couldn’t get out!  I was totally stuck and unable to go anywhere.  I tried to let the map rule me, to listen to the experts rather than my own judgment, and it ended in disaster. 

I’ve often done something just like that in my parenting and my homeschooling.  I read a book or listened to a comment and decided that I needed to change course in order to get a child sleeping through the night or potty trained or reading well or any of a number of lovely outcomes.  But I didn’t stop to consider where I was on the grand parenting map and what was the best route for us to get closer to the goal (or even if this particular destination was a valid stop for us on the way to our ultimate goal).

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Success in Imperfection - Part 2 of 6


This is Part 2 of 6.  Find the other parts here.

Imperfection feels like failure, doesn’t it?  We want to know that we’re doing what’s best for our children, that we’re competent at this job of homeschooling that we’ve embraced, that we measure up, and the clearest way to know that is to judge ourselves and our children against the standard.  But what if our standard isn’t the right one?  And what if we aren’t competent to judge how we measure up because the results aren’t necessarily visible?  What if our expectations fail to account for the true challenges we face?  What if the “right thing to do” isn’t actually best for our specific situation?

My oldest and my youngest both learned to read painlessly and early.  My youngest taught herself by helping me do DuoLingo Spanish on my phone at bedtime every night!  (That’s not an officially approved method of reading instruction.)  When my oldest started Year 1, for her reading instruction time we used the Declaration of Independence because I had a lovely picture book copy of it and it had enough words she didn’t already know that we could do some word building and other CM-style reading work with it.  Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?  My second child had a vision issue that went undiagnosed until she was about 8, and because of that and some other factors she spent about 2 years working painfully through the McGuffey Primer. 

Was that a reading lesson failure?  No!  Actually, in some ways my lessons with my oldest were failures because I neglected to do the spelling portion of the lessons most of the time and so my oldest had to really hit spelling hard through copywork and dictation when she was older to make up for that.  My second child’s lessons didn’t produce the same results, even though we did them even more intentionally and incorporated many of the optional elements that help to remediate reading difficulties.  But she had extra challenges, and we didn’t see much progress until her vision issues were addressed.  And even then her results continued to be different because she’s a different child.

If I measured my success by the standard of “reading fluently by first grade” or some other commonly accepted standard, my time with my second child would be considered a failure.  But it wasn’t a failure!  We did what was possible and healthy based on where we were at the time.  We mostly kept school as a positive experience in the midst of the challenges.  We kept evaluating what we were doing to see if it was the best course right then.  And we kept in mind Charlotte Mason’s principles and her guidance, which saved us from falling into many mistakes that would have been considered the “right thing to do” but in my daughter’s case would have been the wrong thing to do.

Keeping the principles in mind can save us from those sorts of popular mistakes, where something that works for many is confused with something that’s a foundational expectation.  But we can fall into another trap, trying to do everything that’s ever been associated with Charlotte Mason, as if leaving something out or giving something short shrift means failure.  Charlotte Mason never expected any of us to be able to perfectly implement every technique, every notebook, every activity that she recommended, every opportunity for habit formation.  Even her own teachers, in her own schools, with lovely timetables and days structured to help them keep the timetables, couldn’t fit in everything. 

My lists for weekly work for each of my students are pretty long, especially in the upper years, but they still don’t include everything I think we should be doing and certainly not everything Charlotte Mason ever recommended.  And we don’t even accomplish those lists completely every week!  (Don’t tell anyone, but occasionally some thing on the list doesn’t get accomplished at all during an entire term!) And many of the items on my long lists aren’t done “correctly” but are done quickly and simply in order to fit into our crazy life.  They get done, but they probably don’t look anything like what most of you envision if you see that item on a schedule.  And I’m happy with that, because even our simple and quick version of those items is good.  Sometimes we can get bogged down in trying to figure out how *exactly* we’re supposed to do each piece.  We just can’t research everything!  And it isn’t necessary to research everything. 

Sometimes we find we need improvement in an area, and then more digging into the details is needed, but usually a general understanding is good enough, certainly enough to start with.  It isn’t perfect, but it’s moving us in the right direction.  Charlotte Mason success is not measured by how many things we accomplish and how correctly they’re completed. 

Not only did Charlotte Mason not measure success in that way, she warned us not to try to take her recommendations and turn them into lists and rules.  She saw the danger in making her method into a system, like taking a detailed road map showing all the possible routes and turning it into a list of specific steps to get from point A to point B in one particular way, the kind of list you get in a map app.  She didn’t want us to judge ourselves by such a list.  That’s not a proper measure of success.

 In the first place, we have no system of education. We hold that great things, such as nature, life, education, are 'cabined, cribbed, confined,' in proportion as they are systematised. We have a method of education, it is true, but method is no more than a way to an end, and is free, yielding, adaptive as Nature herself. Method has a few comprehensive laws according to which details shape themselves, as one naturally shapes one's behaviour to the acknowledged law that fire burns. System, on the contrary, has an infinity of rules and instructions as to what you are to do and how you are to do it. Method in education follows Nature humbly; stands aside and gives her fair play.
Charlotte Mason Volume 2 p. 168
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