When I first started reading Charlotte Mason's writings, I was so excited about what I was learning, that with my husband's help I started my own evening group meetings. As I was relatively new to the state, without a car, and didn't participate in field trips or lessons outside the home, I knew few home educating parents at all. It was in the year that the Original Homeschooling Series was published by Tyndale House and was first being purchased by curious parents that I wrote up a small message and sent it into the state homeschool newsletter. The note read something like this:
All those who have read Susan Macaulay's For the Children's Sake and are interested in discussing Charlotte Mason's philosophy and method of education, or wish to learn more, call Karen Andreola for the time, date, and directions. Bring nursing children only, please.
A handful of interested mothers called, none of whom I had ever met. I was bashful about speaking in front of a living room full of people, so my husband helped lead the talks for the first meetings.
These were the first of many group meetings that were to follow. We have moved in and out of different states across the country since those first meetings, yet friendships were formed that I still hold dear, although they are now carried on long distance.
Lecture Halls at the Turn of the Century
When I started my support group, I was carrying on a tradition that had begun many years before.
Once upon a time, Charlotte's views were expounded in lectures all over England and in her book Home Education, first published in 1886. Concerned people gathered to hear different aspects of educational reform addressed. Who attended the gatherings? Parents with children of all ages, grandparents, teachers, headmasters of schools, and professors of universities. Some people did the speaking; others did the listening and learning. The many members of this group founded an organization in 1888 called The Parents' National Education Union. Local chapters throughout the United Kingdom voluntarily helped to start schools that used Charlotte Mason's method. Charlotte's magazine, Parents' Review, tied the members together. For the first time, there was help for parents teaching their children at home.
The teachers who worked in these schools were trained at Charlotte's House of Education. This training college was nicknamed "The House of the Holy Spirit," as its purpose was to train young women not only to teach their own children in the future, but to become teachers and governesses of other people's children, using Charlotte's sound Christian philosophy and methods.
Handy Topics for Conversation
Since I am a veteran Charlotte Mason support group leader, I'd like to share what takes place in our meetings, and how I prepare for those I lead. I first choose a topic, such as Nature Study, Picture Study, or Education Is a Science of Relations. Then I read relevant passages from Charlotte's books.
For my presentation, several note cards keep me on track. I read aloud quotations from Charlotte's books that I have underlined and paraphrase other passages. My own collection of living books that support the topic of the evening is passed around for "show and tell." Many times, however, I display examples of living books that can be found at the local library.
After fifteen minutes of presentation on my part, the actual "talk" begins. This will last from forty-five minutes to an hour, as mothers naturally enjoy participating - sharing what they are doing with their own children, and asking questions. Sympathy springs forth in the discussion as mothers in the group volunteer helpful advice and answer questions.
Homeschooling is so personal that sometimes the questions of an inexperienced home educator cannot be answered fully in a group setting. Supporting this mother with prayer will also give her hope and lift her spirits. "Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow," as the Swedish folk saying goes. We don't wish to belittle a mother's problems, but there is a point at which the anxious mother will have to - in faith - wait on the Lord, do some of her own reading, and take courage to work out her problem within her home routine. The Lord is her ever-present help in trouble. (Psalm 46:1)
How Some Groups Come Together
If you feel inclined to start a group yourself, to surround yourself with kindred sprits, you may decide what, if any, preparations will be required by those who attend. If the members of the group are especially keen, they may wish to read about the appropriate topic before the day of the gathering, but this is not imperative. I welcome ladies to my home group who haven't read anything about Charlotte Mason. After hearing my little talk, they may be inspired enough to read on their own, but I do not hold anyone accountable. After some months it would be helpful if another experienced mother could take turns giving the little talk and leading the discussion.
I have received letters from mothers across the nation who have started Charlotte Mason support groups. In one area in Michigan the original group became so large because of such interest in Charlotte's ideas that it was split into three! Another group in Dallas, Texas, has split into several sub-groups as well. Some other groups are currently composed of just two enthusiastic members. I have also received letters from isolated home teachers who live in an area of the country (or overseas) where none other shares their interest and enthusiasm for Charlotte's ideas - no kindred spirit has yet been found. For these ladies, books by and about Charlotte may be one form of fellowship.
A support group leader should only take on what her energy will allow. There have been periods in my life as long as two years when I was unable to attend or hold meetings - times when I have had more pressing family needs to attend to, such as our household relocations. Presently, I hold a home meeting about every other month.
A Pot of Herb Tea
For me, a necessary aspect of hosting a support group is providing a warm, friendly home atmosphere; and that includes refreshments, fine china, flowers, and lighted candles. Most of us live very busy lives, with little time for the amenities that are a comfort to so many women. An evening spent with kindred spirits - away from the duties and cares of teaching and household management - discussing matters dear to one's soul over a cup of tea can be both a respite and a healing balm to many a busy mother.
First, my grandmother's blue and white cross-stitched tablecloth is gaily flung over the dining room table. Pouring cups of herb tea is a pleasure of mine, so I remove my collection of old and odd tea cups from their place of safe-keeping when ladies are expected to fill my dining room. A few scented candles are lit. Light refreshments are served. Blueberry muffins, a bowl of fresh fruit salad, apple or pumpkin pie, chocolate biscuits, scones, cinnamon buns, or lemon cake with apricot filling are some of the treats my feminine guests have tasted.
Before the guests leave, I point out the basket of homeschooling magazines for borrowing. At nine o'clock, I ring a little bell that rests on my buffet and thank everyone for coming. Although I've never read this in any book of etiquette, this is the signal that the evening has drawn to a close. With the last wave, I close the door, let the tea cups soak hidden in a mound of bubbles, and get upstairs to bed before my bedtime.
I remind you - there is nothing so potent or powerful as a good idea. It is my intention for each mother to leave the meeting strengthened with an idea of Charlotte's clutched under her arm. A good homeschool can only run well on good ideas.
This article is excerpted, slightly edited, from the book, A Charlotte Mason Companion, by Karen Andreola. The ideas and topics in this new book are based on Karen's extensive research into Charlotte's writings and the old PNEU lectures.
Dean and Karen Andreola are the founders of Charlotte Mason Research & Supply Co. They publish the Parents' Review, a newsletter dedicated to reviving the educational principles of Charlotte Mason, a nineteenth-century Christian British educator who founded the Parents' National Education Union.