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Beautiful Dreamer

By Karen Andreola
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #24, 1998.

Covering the basics the Charlotte Mason way.
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Karen Andreola

From what Charlotte Mason wrote in her book Home Education, first published in England in the 1880's, I can give you a peek at how Charlotte taught children the basics - those fundamental areas of learning. Perhaps these few paragraphs will welcome you to explore her words further.

General Knowledge - Most of a child's knowledge will come from books. A very young student cannot read much for himself, so it must be read aloud to him. It used to be thought that the chief function of a teacher was to explain; with Charlotte Mason's emphasis it would be to read. She said a teacher's chief function is to distinguish information from knowledge.

If a child can put what he is learning in his own words, he has proved he is knowledgeable. The child who has only information can only fill in the blanks in the stereotyped phrases of his test-book.

To narrate is to know. Narration, retelling reading in one's own words, can be called "the art of knowing." But a child often finds it awkward to narrate from a dry, factual textbook. This is one reason real books on a variety of subjects are better to be used in acquiring knowledge.

An author of a real book is a person who decided to write on what strongly interested him. He shares his favorite subject, and any personal experience of it, with us. The writing is often touched with human emotion. And as we read, we pick up his enthusiasm for his subject.

Reading - Where there are no lovely little sentences there can be no reading.

"Lessons in word-making help the young student take intelligent interest in words; but his progress in the art of reading depends chiefly on the 'reading by sight' lessons. [Some of you may be gasping at this, but I successfully taught my children to read this way and they all loved learning to read. You start by teaching the sounds of the letters, and then . . . ] The teacher must be content to proceed very slowly, reviewing as she goes. Say -

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are,

is the first lesson . . . . Read the passage for the child, very slowly and sweetly. Point to each word as you read. Then point to twinkle, wonder, star, what, and expect the child to pronounce (sound-out) each word in the verse taken randomly; then, when he shows that he knows each word by itself, and not before, let him read the two lines with clear enunciation and expression. If these lines are written in a good size on paper, the words may be cut out to allow the child to piece them together. The cards can be kept for review.

"In this way the child accumulates a little capital; he knows eight or ten words so well that he will recognize them anywhere, and the lesson has occupied probably ten minutes. Lines can be taken from short tales, fables or poems. 'But what a snail's progress!' you are inclined to say. Not so slow, after all: a child will thus learn, without appreciable labour, from two to three thousand words in the course of a year . . . The master of this number of words will carry him with comfort through most of the books that fall in his way."

Some teachers keep their young students "in phonics" for a long, long time before anything interesting is given to them to read. "I should never put him into words of one syllable at all. The bigger the word, the more striking the look of it, and therefore, the easier it is to read, provided always that the idea it conveys is interesting to a child." It is sad to see an intelligent child toiling over a reading lesson infinitely below his capacity - ath, eth, ith, oth, uth - or, at the very best, "The cat sat on the mat." "He ate cool noodles at noon with a spoon" is silly. How about: "He ate red lasagna at noon with spoon." This is reading, not just "sounding-out."

Reading lessons should not be twaddle.

Writing - Penmanship is a skill acquired by daily short lessons. After a child is somewhat fluent in it he can go on to gradually fill up his "copy book" with verse and prose that he has chosen. The old-fashioned black-and-white composition books are perfect for this activity. When a child narrates, a parent can take dictation. The child can then copy the dictation (or parts of it if it's a long one) into his copy book. He can tell about his trip to a museum, or tell back an Aesop fable, or tell about anything he is learning. These little narrations can be written in his copy book. Pictures and maps can be drawn and photographs added.

After a child is familiar with narrating orally, he can then begin written narration. This more independent skill should be started no younger than age ten. Instead of "telling aloud" he can "tell" on paper while the teacher makes herself available to any younger students. The teacher may assign a "narration question" such as, "Give a description of Columbus' first voyage to the new world," or "Tell how a honey bee makes honey," or "What four things did you learn from this chapter?" The student need not be overly concerned with spelling in his rough draft but should write freely. The following day attention can be given to the finer points of his writing. Through the regular use of oral narration a student's power to "tell" naturally carries over to his writing. His written narration is his composition or essay.

Mathematics - Charlotte's book Home Education teaches us to begin teaching numbers through the evidence of the senses. Sets or groups of objects such as apples, beans, Lego bricks, buttons, or shells can be arranged in such a way to show addition, subtraction, multiplication, division or fractions.

But true mathematics is when a child begins to think in numbers and not in objects. At this point, the illustration should not occupy a more prominent place than the concept being illustrated.

For mathematics, "nothing can be more delightful than the careful analysis of numbers and the beautiful graduation of the work, only one difficulty at a time being presented the mind." The most delightful little word problems are those that have been invented by writers in sympathy with children.

Science - A young child strengthens his powers of observation in his young years by acting as a naturalist. Many children will be able to tell you the names of all the Star Wars characters, but do they know the names of the living things in their own backyards? To lie on his stomach beside a busy ant hill, to lie on his back to follow the drifting clouds, to dig in the soil for earthworms, to stare at a bumble bee, to take note of what time of day the petals of flowers open and close and to recognize their fragrance, to collect fallen leaves, acorns and seeds - these things and more can all be part of a child's "school."

When he is a little older, he can create his own nature notebook, filling it with drawings of his observations and a written record of his findings. These personal notebooks are priceless to their owners because they represent time spent in the glorious outdoors. Glorious it is because nature is one way in which God reveals himself to us. Poems and verses of hymns exclaiming the beauty and wonder of nature can be copied into these nature notebooks.

In a day and age when there is much concern for a child's attention span, the powers of attention and observation gained in the young years through nature study are valuable powers to be used later in any other of the higher sciences (filling out lab reports, etc.).

History - Charlotte Mason strongly believed in focusing on the story part of history while children are developing their wonderful powers of imagination. Myths and legends have a place, too. This appeal to the imagination in history gives emphasis to its literary side.

According to Charlotte, no history should be read to young children unless it is in literary language. She dwelled on the pleasure derived from a study of former ages - the culture and refinement it affords, the enjoyment and mental profit that is gained through narrating it. She wrote that it is a fatal mistake to think young children must learn "outlines" or overviews of the whole of history of Rome or England [or America]. Isn't this what many history books do by including mostly names, and dates, and events with very little story aspect in between? Instead, Charlotte asserted,

"Let [the child] on the contrary, linger pleasantly over the history of a single man, a short period, until he thinks the thoughts of the man, is at home in the ways of that period. Though he is reading and thinking of the lifetime of a single man, he is really getting intimately acquainted with the history of a whole nation of a whole age . . . Let him know the great people and the common people, the ways of the court and of the crowd. Let him know what other nations were doing while we at home were doing thus and thus."

Books that are biographical in nature provide examples for imitation as well as for warning. The deeds of heroes give us the opportunity to admire and form higher ideals.

If you venture to implement Charlotte's ideas in mid-stream, expect a period of transition. Take patience. You will start to recognize little accomplishments, and then bigger ones. Believe in God, believe in your children (and their natural-born curiosity), believe in Charlotte's principles for a gentle art of learning, and you will find joy.

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