All posts by Karen Glass

Know and Tell—Is it too late to start narration?

For those of us who begin using Charlotte Mason’s methods with our children from the beginning, we start narration at age six and watch the process unfold in due course. However, many families begin homeschooling later, with older children, or they switch to Charlotte Mason’s methods after using another method, and find themselves wondering how to begin narration with a child who is ten, or twelve, or fourteen.

Will that work?

I’ve devoted a chapter in Know and Tell to beginning narration with older students, but the quick answer, I am happy to tell you is—yes! Narration can be introduced with older children and still be an effective method. The reason for this is that narration is based on a normal human activity—“telling”—and we can begin working on that art at any point in our lives.

Fortunately, this means that you can also “begin again” if you need to. Sometimes things happen and we drop narration for a while—maybe even a few years. It can be reintroduced, and our children can  build fluency even after a lapse. I hope to encourage you to give narration a chance to do its work, and not to feel that it’s too late. A child of eleven or twelve needs a period of exclusively oral narration to develop that skill, but it need not be years long before introducing written narration as well.

In Philosophy of Education, Charlotte Mason makes a proposal for continuing education that would have had children as old as age 14 beginning narration—both oral and written. She assumed that they would appreciate the opportunities that narration would give them.

We go to work with a certainty that the young students crave knowledge of what we call the ‘humanities,’ that they read with absolute attention and that, having read, they know. They will welcome the preparation for public speaking, an effort for which everyone must qualify in these days, which the act of narration offers. (Philosophy of Education, p. 124)

I take that as a hint that when older children begin narration, they need to understand the reasons for it for themselves. To that end, I’ve included a short essay addressed to older children beginning narration—you can let them read it, or use it as the model for your own conversation with your students.

Narration is an effective method, even when it is begun with children older than age six. In Know and Tell, I’ll give you some strategies for starting at later ages, so that your students can begin the relationship-building practice of narration and enjoy all of its benefits.

Fluency in Narration

If you pick up a crochet hook or a pair of knitting needles for the first time, and try to maneuver a fiddly bit of string with those unfamiliar tools, it will seem difficult. Your concentration on one step makes you forget something else, and your hands feel clumsy as they try to perform the required gyrations. The early results might look like a tangled mess. However, if you keep practicing, the process becomes almost effortless. The hook or needles becomes an extension of your own hand, your motions are rhythmic and confident, and the string is transformed from mere string into a cozy scarf or a warm hat. You have become a fluent knitter (or crocheter).

In Know and Tell, I use the word fluent in connection with narration quite often. Fluency at each stage of narration is the goal. Charlotte Mason said that children who were taught using her methods—excellent books which were always narrated—learned to “express themselves in forcible and fluent English and use a copious vocabulary.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 28)

She was aware that fluency was not automatic and instant.

The first efforts may be stumbling but presently the children get into their ‘stride’ and ‘tell’ a passage at length with surprising fluency. (Philosophy of Education, p. 172.)

Just as the first attempts at handling a pair of knitting needles might result in a hopeless tangle, first efforts in narration might not be very impressive. It is a temptation to assume the method doesn’t work, or that it is not the right method for a particular child. It is easy to get discouraged and give up on narration. However, if we will be patient, and continue using narration (or knitting needles) consistently, the effort will result in…fluency.

Fluency is also built in incremental steps. It doesn’t happen all at once, or overnight. A young child practices until he fluently narrates a paragraph, while an older child may be able to narrate a whole chapter.

They require a little time to employ their power of fixed attention and that other power which they possess of fluent narration. So probably young children should be allowed to narrate paragraph by paragraph, while children of seven or eight will ‘tell’ chapter by chapter. (Philosophy of Education, p. 191)

It takes several years for children to build oral fluency when they begin at age six, but if you start narration with a ten- or eleven-year-old, oral fluency may be achieved within six or twelve months. We should focus on oral fluency before introducing written narration.

Fluency in written narration also takes time—years!—to develop fully, and fluent written narration should not be confused with formal composition. In Know and Tell, I’ll sort this out more thoroughly, and give you a plan that will allow your child to take the time they need to build fluency. Just knowing that the early stumbling steps or tangled threads will resolve into fluent narration if you persevere is encouraging. Very few people are proficient with a crochet hook the first time they pick one up, but if you look at the lovely things a skilled crocheter can make, you know that they did not quit when their first efforts resulted in a mess.

Do the same with narration—keep working on it until fluency is achieved—and your children will delight you with the results.

Narration—The Foundation for Composition

This is the big question, I think. How does simple narration—oral, and then written—grow into formal composition?

I have been through this process three complete times, and while I couldn’t possibly say that the way I’ve done it is the only right way, I know it works. I’m in the midst of the process with my youngest child right now, and I find myself calmly confident that following certain incremental steps will take us from the first clumsy written narrations to fluent written narrations to actual composition and essay-writing.

Over the years, I’ve shared my process piecemeal, in response to specific needs and questions, but in Know and Tell I’ve gathered a description of the entire process into one place.  I have one chapter devoted to developing simple written narration, but the longest chapter in the book (by a wide margin) is the chapter that lays out the process of developing written narration into composition, step by step. I’ve even provided three different time-lines for the process, so that you can fit the plan into three, four, or five years—beginning in 8th, 9th, or even 10th grade.

I’ll walk you through the process of teaching your students to edit and polish their work, provide structure to their writing, and preserve their own writing voice as they learn to write in traditional forms. Know and Tell is not a fully-developed writing curriculum, but it will show you how to develop writing without a curriculum, and explain when adding such a curriculum to your efforts, if you want to, will be most effective.

In Know and Tell, I’ll be showing you how you can gradually increase the length of written narrations, and then begin to shape them into compositions and essays. I’ve laid out the steps in a natural progression that will preserve your student’s own writing voice. Very prescriptive writing programs often result in stilted writing. I’ll be encouraging you to help your student structure her writing while retaining a more natural style. You might think you want your student to be able to write a five-paragraph-essay (and you do), but please read this:

https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/kill-5-paragraph-essay

From the article: “There may be no greater enemy to quality writing than the 5-paragraph essay.”

When we use narration as the foundation for composition and writing, we have a strong, natural foundation that can forgo the stilted, artificial process of building an essay with sentence-by-sentence rules. Did you know that you can explain the idea of a five-paragraph-essay (beginning, middle, end) to an accomplished narrator in about fifteen minutes, and they will probably be able to write one? Mature students are ready to think about the structure of their writing, and a minimum of instruction will give them a grasp of what is expected, and then they are free to focus on content, and saying what they want to say. This is why students who learn to write through narration impress their college professors.

In Know and Tell, I’ll suggest a few critical resources to use that will build your student’s writing skills, but it is the daily writing, and eventually rewriting and polishing, that will grow your narrators into writers.

 

Beginning Narration in Know and Tell

When it comes to narration, you don’t just begin once. You begin…and begin…and begin…and sometimes, you have to begin again.

There are certain normal reactions to beginning narration with a six-year-old. In Know and Tell, I’ll explain what those are, so that when your child repeats back the last sentence you read, verbatim, you’ll know he’s normal and hopefully won’t get discouraged.

Sometimes, however, you need to begin narration with an older student. That presents a different set of challenges, and I have a short chapter just to talk about that situation. It may be that it’s a matter of beginning again, too, because you dropped narration for a while. That happens sometimes, but it doesn’t mean you can’t take up the practice of narration for a second try, and reap its benefits.

There comes a moment when you begin written narrations. That’s another beginning and a whole new set of challenges. I’ll show you how to start simply, and then make incremental steps that will take your child from a few words on a page to fluent written narrations.

And once your child has mastered that, you need to begin developing narration into composition. I’ll tell you a bit more about that later.

We often encourage each other to trust the process, and what I hope Know and Tell will do is make the the process clearer. It can be hard to visualize when you are just getting started. The development of narration looks something like this:

From 1st to 3rd grade, the primary focus is on developing oral fluency.
From 4th to 6th grade, the primary focus is on developing writing fluency (while fluent oral narration continues).
From 7th to 9th grade, the new skill introduced is editing, and your primary focus can target your student’s needs–continue building writing fluency if you need to,  and begin to tackle composition when you’re ready.
From 10th to 12th grade, the primary focus is on developing composition skills (while enjoying all the benefits of fluent oral and written narration).

Obviously, there is some overlap in each epoch. Students don’t leave oral narration or simple written narration behind, and they sometimes dabble in the next stage while still working on fluency in the current one.

Each stage of narration represents a new beginning, and in Know and Tell I’ve tried to show you what you can expect as you begin each new stage. I have real narrations of others’ beginnings. I hope you’ll be encouraged to see how each new beginning gives your child an opportunity to strengthen and develop his thinking and writing skills.

I’ll just tell you right here one of the “secrets” of narration. Narration is a long game, and if you win, your child wins. If you understand the process, and the way each new beginning builds on the mastery of the previous stage, you will be less concerned about those off days, when narration doesn’t go well (it’s no secret that we all have days like that!). But there’s another little secret—no individual narration is especially important. It’s the continual, consistent practice that builds strong thinking and the power to express oneself clearly. Each new beginning of the process is a fresh start, but each and every narration is also a fresh beginning—either a virtual or literal “blank page” upon which your child can record a bit of knowledge and make it his own.

If you haven’t been using narration, I hope reading Know and Tell will encourage you to begin! —To begin as soon as possible, and to renew your commitment to the process each time you begin the next step.

Know and Tell—The Scope and Sequence

What would you expect to find in a book about narration?

I want to share a little of my rationale for writing such a book in the first place. I put my eggs in the narration basket (so to speak) very early in my homeschooling endeavors. Within a few months of starting, I caught a glimpse of how powerful narration was, and it made such an impression on me that I determined to use narration all the way to the end of the process, to see what it would accomplish.

At the time, I did not know one single person who had done that. It was 1996. The internet was still in its infancy, and the Home Education Series had only been in print for a few years. It was Charlotte Mason’s own words, combined with my early experience, that convinced me to put my faith in narration. I want to share with you how that faith has been realized.
By the time my oldest child was ten years old, I was a dedicated convert. I was observing the benefits of consistent narration, and hearing about similar results from others who were using narration as well. I tried to encourage everyone I could to give narration a fair trial, and I think it was then (about 2000) that I first envisioned a book about narration. But, I still had a long way to go.

We started written narration. We moved into composition. My degree is in English, and I like to write, so I developed strategies for using narration to teach my children writing. I have three adult children who are fluent writers (and a 13-year-old just beginning the process you’ll find in chapter 7). I’ll show you how you can do it, too. I sent my children off to college, and they told me that they didn’t have to do as much writing there as I had made them do. Their college English teachers were deeply impressed by their ability to write. I have heard the same tale over and over again from parents who have used narration—even from parents who felt that their student’s narration and writing fell far short of the ideal.

That’s because narration is a powerful natural art. In Know and Tell, I propose to walk you through the process. First, I’ll give you some background and insight into the nature of narration and how it has been used by others (including Charlotte Mason, of course). I’ll show you how a six-year-old begins to narrate and develops that skill. I’ll give you tools to evaluate your narrator’s progress. I’ll give you step-by-step instructions into how to begin written narrations, and how to develop them. I’ll show you real narrations from real children, so you’ll have an idea of what others have done.  I’ll show you how written narration can be developed into composition, and I hope I’ll give you the tools and the confidence to continue narration all the way through your child’s education.

I also have a chapter devoted to narration with special-needs children, and another about using narration in the classroom (it’s not just for homeschools!). I have testimonials from young adults, who share how narration prepared them for what they are doing now.

What I hope I have put into Know and Tell is the knowledge that you need to put narration into practice and trust the process.

Charlotte Mason wrote:

In the act of narrating every power of [a child’s] mind comes into play.

It is my hope that the scope of Know and Tell will give you a vision of that power, and help you to realize it with your own students.

Exciting News

I have exciting news—at least, it’s exciting to me, and I hope it will be to others. I’ve been working on a big project—another book!—for over two years. This one isn’t directly linked to Consider This in any way. Instead, it’s a book about a topic that I care passionately about—narration.

Know and Tell: The Art of Narration is almost ready for publication, and I’m excited to begin talking about what I’ve included in this book. You can read more about it here.

I hope you find this announcement as exciting as I do—narration is a long process, and sometimes it can be discouraging. I’m hoping Know and Tell will give teachers some resources and encouragement to make the task a little easier.

Best wishes!

 

Karen

Announcing…a new book! Know and Tell: The Art of Narration

I have some very exciting news that I’m so happy to share!

I’m delighted to be able to announce at last the big project I have been working on for a while. I have hinted at this a few times, always thinking that it wouldn’t be long before I was ready to talk about it, but the time hasn’t been quite right, until now. For over two years I have been working (and continue to work) on a book that deals with a topic that is very dear to my heart: narration.

 

A whole book about narration?

Yes, a whole book about narration.

Narration is a valuable educational method, and absolutely integral to a Charlotte Mason education. Narration is closely linked to knowing. Charlotte Mason assured us, “Let the boy read and he knows, that is, if he must tell again what he has read.”

Know and Tell unfolds all the whys and wherefores that lie behind the use of narration. It lays out the entire process from beginning to end, and discloses objectives for each stage. It gives you the tools you need to move from one stage to the next, offers guidelines that provide a framework to evaluate progress, and is packed with real-life narrations as examples of what you might expect. I’m looking forward to sharing a bit more about my new book with you over the next several weeks, as we anticipate publication. (No, it’s not available yet.)

As I became more confident in the way that narration works and saw the results, I have continually tried to encourage others to persevere and see it work for them. I’ve shared my suggestions piecemeal in answer to all kinds of questions. In Know and Tell, I’ve tried to gather that experience together and to anticipate those questions. I hope to  give you the tools you need to feel confident in using a method that is very different from the worksheets, quizzes, and tests that are the usual apparatus of teaching and learning. When I began using narration, I knew no one who had followed the process all the way through, but that is no longer the case. You get the benefit of seeing how this has worked with real children.

Charlotte Mason said that “education is the science of relations,” and I am convinced that narration is a relationship-building exercise. I want to show you how it works so that you can realize its full potential.

The release is tentatively scheduled for January 2018, and for the next  several weeks, I’ll be sharing things about narration each week that will give you a peek into what you can expect to find in Know and Tell. I trust that it will be a book that you can refer to again and again for encouragement and guidance as your children practice the art of narration year by year. I’m so pleased that this resource will available soon, and I hope you are, too.

 

Charlotte Mason and Poetic Knowledge

James Taylor’s book Poetic Knowledge isn’t the easiest book to read, but it is such a powerful presentation of some vital truths that it is worth the effort. His first task, of course, is to help us understand what he means by “poetic” knowledge. If you are well-versed in Charlotte Mason, it’s going to sound rather familiar. All these quotes are from the first chapter:

First of all, poetic knowledge is not necessarily a knowledge of poetry but rather a poetic (a sensory-emotional) experience of reality…

Take note of that reference to “sensory-emotional.” Does it hint at “relations?”

Poetic knowledge is…a spontaneous act of the external and internal senses with the intellect, integrated and whole rather than an act associated with the powers of analytic reasoning…

Again…both the internal and external senses are engaged in poetic knowledge.

The kind of knowledge that derives from the love of a thing, a person, or a place…

We see it again—the affections are stirred in poetic knowledge. We get to know things well and we learn to love them.

This is precisely the kind of knowledge that Charlotte Mason wanted her pupils to develop. The quote that we are all most familiar with comes from School Education, p. 170:

We should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest. We cannot give the children these interests; we prefer that they should never say they have learned botany or conchology, geology or astronomy. The question is not,—how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education—but how much does he care?

I can give you no more than the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding poetic knowledge. It takes time and thought and experience, and the occasional flash of insight to develop, but there is no doubt in my mind that Charlotte Mason understood and desired this for all children. This is the kind of sweet, life-giving knowledge that enriches and blesses us.

While reading School Education not long ago, I ran across an expression that Charlotte Mason used which means much the same as “poetic” knowledge—“appreciative” knowledge. If you’ve read Poetic Knowledge, you know that Dr. Taylor considers poetic knowledge to be a kind of deep, relational knowledge and he contrasts it with scientific knowledge, which is more factual—based on external things that can be quantified rather than emotion.

In a very similar way, Charlotte Mason contrasts her “appreciative” knowledge with “exact” knowledge. Look what she says about it:

Appreciative Knowledge and Exact Knowledge.––All the time [the child] is storing up associations of delight which will come back for his refreshment when he is an old man. With this sort of appreciative knowledge of things to begin with, the superstructure of exact knowledge, living science, no mere affair of text-books and examinations, is easily raised, because a natural desire is implanted. (School Education, p. 77-78, emphasis added.)

Let’s take just a few moments to unpack that. “Appreciative” knowledge stirs the emotions—it’s a matter of delight. It comes first in the educational process, and once it is established as the foundation, the superstructure of “exact” knowledge has something upon which to rest.

We find the same basic idea in Formation of Character, where Mason writes:

It follows that the first [15 years] belong to what we may call the synthetic stage of education, during which his reading should be wide and varied enough to allow the young scholar to get into living touch with earth-knowledge, history, literature, and much besides. These things are necessary for his intellectual life, and are especially necessary to give him material for the second stage of his education, the analytic, which, indeed, continues with us to the end. (p. 380-81)

If this is true, then the bulk of educational efforts for homeschoolers belong to this synthetic stage, where poetic or appreciative knowledge is our primary goal, not the accumulation of mere facts. We want to put our pupils in “living touch” with all kinds of knowledge. We want them to care. If you’ve read Consider This, you know that I use these terms—synthetic thinking and analytic thinking—to describe the ways we interact with knowledge. Synthetic, relational thinking allows knowledge to be much more than information.

But what then is knowledge? That is a question which as yet nobody has been able to answer. Our approach to a solution is to adapt Matthew Arnold’s rather inadequate definition of religion.  Knowledge is information touched with emotion: feeling must be stirred, imagination must picture, reason must consider, nay, conscience must pronounce on the information we offer before it becomes mind-stuff. (In Memoriam, p. 4, emphasis added)

And here is a curious thing, which will not seem strange to anyone who has been using Charlotte Mason’s methods for a period of time that is long enough to build fluent narrators.

One of the paths that will lead us toward appreciative or poetic knowledge is…narration!

…the custom of narration lends itself surprisingly to this sort of poetic insight. (Philosophy of Education, p. 166)

The unfortunate reality for most of us, as adults, is that we were educated in a way which deprived us of the opportunity to form and develop poetic knowledge—to have relationships with all the many wonders that the world holds. We were dragged through a monotonous course of highly-forgettable material, which we dutifully regurgitated on test day and promptly forgot. Experience quickly taught us we weren’t likely to need those particular snippets of information again, and rarely did our studies inspire mild interest, let alone a life-long love of knowledge.

Dr. Taylor uses the word “aesthetic” as a rough synonym for “poetic” knowledge. I want to share just a short portion of what Charlotte Mason writes on the topic of the “Beauty Sense”:

Our Beauty Sense.––There is another region open to Intellect, of very great beauty and delight. He must needs have Imagination with him to travel there, but still more must he have that companion of the nice ear and eye, who enabled him to recognise music and beauty in words and their arrangement. The æsthetic Sense, in truth, holds the key of this palace of delights. There are few joys in life greater and more constant than our joy in Beauty, though it is almost impossible to put into words what Beauty consists in; colour, form, proportion, harmony––these are some of its elements. Words give some idea of these things, and therefore some idea of Beauty, and that is why it is only through our Beauty Sense that we can take full pleasure in Literature. (Ourselves, Book 1, p. 41)

This, too, is a way of understanding and talking about poetic knowledge—taking delight in the way that things look, sound, and simply are. Charlotte Mason has a warning for us—we must not be deceived by imitations, nor be so taken up with small matters that we miss the greater.

Many persons allow themselves to be deceived in this matter and go through life without ever entering the Palace of Art, and perceiving but little of the Beauty of Nature. We all have need to be trained to see, and to have our eyes opened before we can take in the joy that is meant for us in this beautiful life.

Second only to “Children are born persons,” let us take Charlotte Mason’s guiding principle that “Education is the science of relations” to heart. This is the key to aesthetic, appreciative, poetic, synthetic, relational knowledge. Don’t get tangled up in which words are being used. Learn to see to the heart and meaning of all them, to find that kernel of truth, which is the same, no matter how it is presented. Education is the science of relations. And narration is a relationship-building exercise. Think about that. Not for a minute, or even ten. Think about it often. Look for it in action in your educational endeavors. Call it anything you like, but for the children’s sake and for your own, I hope you will not miss it.

The perfect Charlotte Mason curriculum

Yeah, I thought that title would grab your attention. Everyone wants the perfect Charlotte Mason curriculum, don’t they? Because if you had that, you’d have exactly what you need to give your children a perfect Charlotte Mason education, and who doesn’t want that?

What if the perfect curriculum was so authentic and perfect, that it came directly from the Parents’ National Educational Union, the organization Charlotte Mason founded herself? You couldn’t really go wrong, then. Could you?

Let me tell you about some teachers who did.

The schools in Gloucestershire, England introduced the PNEU curriculum into five schools in 1917. They liked what they saw, and by 1925, there were 196 schools using the perfect Charlotte Mason curriculum, straight from the PNEU presses. That’s right: one-hundred-and-ninety-six!!

If you know anything at all about the teacher training at Ambleside, simple math will reveal that the schools were not supplied with Ambleside-trained teachers. They were just regular teachers—like you and me—who were lucky enough to have the perfect Charlotte Mason curriculum.

But all was not as rosy as we might imagine. Some schools thrived. The children were narrating and learning, and they loved their books. The teachers were excited about what was happening in their classrooms, and loved the PNEU materials. But there were other schools, and they were struggling. The children didn’t like the books. They didn’t narrate the way the teachers thought they should. They couldn’t handle the material at all. Can you guess what went wrong?

It’s really quite simple. The teachers didn’t really understand the principles that lay behind the methods they were trying to use. They made errors in implementing the methods because of their lack of understanding, and the results were correspondingly disappointing. If the children didn’t like a book, it was often because the teacher didn’t like the book, or didn’t see a reason for it. That distaste was passed on to students. In some schools, the students were promoted too quickly through the Forms and were trying to read and work from books they weren’t ready for, so of course that was a failure. Some teachers expected “narration” to be a word-for-word parroting back of the material read, so they read tiny chunks which the children could hold in their short-term memories just long enough to do that.

They had a lovely curriculum, but without a solid understanding of the principles, they weren’t able to make the most of it. This is why, from its inception, AmblesideOnline has stressed that curriculum is not enough:

Before getting to the nuts and bolts, we’d like to emphasize that our confidence in Charlotte Mason’s method and the philosophy behind it is what prompted us to put this curriculum online. But this curriculum is only one tool and was never intended to replace your understanding of the principles behind a CM education, what its goals are, how it works. Without the understanding of Charlotte Mason’s vision, even a curriculum like AmblesideOnline won’t give your children a CM education. It will just be another booklist, a collection of texts and subjects to mark off a checklist. We designed this curriculum so that, instead of spending your time trying to figure out the best CM-quality living books to use, your children can jump into their schooling right away and you will be freed from the burden of trying to create your own CM curriculum, so you can spend your time familiarizing yourself with Charlotte’s Mason’s vision for raising broad-minded, thinking children who are as concerned about their duty to others, as they are their own rights.

Now we come to the actual point of this post. There was a remedy for these difficulties, and I suspect you can guess what it is. Since they lacked understanding of the principles, they needed to read Charlotte Mason’s own writing for themselves—to let her teach them the philosophy that governs the methods. The suggestion was given to them to read a volume, and then to read that same volume again and again. That’s A—just one—volume. Either Home Education or School Education are suggested (because these were schools, not parents). This advice was given early in 1925, and A Philosophy of Education was published later that year, so I’m going to add my opinion that it would serve the same purpose.

But what I want to underscore is the suggestion that reading just one volume is enough to give you the background philosophy so that you can implement the methods well. If you’ve read Charlotte Mason, you aren’t going to be asking children to narrate by parroting verbatim. You’ll know why Plutarch is a worthwhile addition to the program. You won’t neglect outdoor time for the children to make their own nature observations. If one carefully-selected volume is enough to prepare a teacher to teach a classroom full of students using PNEU/CM methods, then it is enough for us.

From the Pamphlet “Notes for the Conference of July 18th, 1925 on P.N.E.U. Methods”:

Here, of course, we go to the very root of the matter, and here it is most necessary for teachers to have a firm hold upon Miss Mason’s own teaching, for the tradition of elementary school and training college is all the other way.

It should be said at once that no teacher can hope to get out of the programmes and the method all that can be got, unless he reads and re-reads what Miss Mason herself has said about them. As I have said before, a copy of School Education or Home Education should be in every school, and should be in constant use.

(emphasis added)

There has been an increase of interest in Charlotte Mason and her methods, and that is a very good thing. I’ve been thinking about the best way for new practitioners to really apprehend the methods. Blog posts or podcasts are too short or too difficult to re-access to really give you a comprehensive understanding of the principles. Everyone suggests “reading the volumes”—and I’m going to suggest that, too! But if you are a busy homeschool mom with several children, those six volumes are seriously daunting. As soon as you plunge into the first one, you’re going to realize that this is not light reading, and the idea of making it through all six volumes is going to seem like an insurmountable hill of difficulty.

So, let’s hit pause. What if you don’t really need to read all of the volumes to understand the philosophy? That’s a lovely ideal—you can probably do that eventually—but I suggest taking a step back and thinking hard about which matters most—reading all the volumes, or understanding the philosophy well so that you can implement it in the education of your own children? I actually know someone who read all six volumes from cover to cover in a two-month period, but I cannot recommend that as a good plan for genuine understanding. She suffered from many, many false ideas about Charlotte Mason because she had read so quickly. Suppose you take a different approach—the one recommended to the teachers in Gloucestershire—and pick one relevant volume—Home Education, School Education, or A Philosophy of Education—and make yourself a student of that volume. Read it once—narrate it to yourself. Then read it again. Then go back and read the parts you especially like or the parts that still puzzle you. Mark that book up and make it your own.  Read it with a friend or two, or read it with an online study group (there are always on-going studies happening over at AmblesideOnline). Don’t be in a hurry to read another book until you really know the first one well.

I have a feeling that this is going to pay dividends in ways you can’t even imagine. You will know Charlotte Mason’s principles. You’ll be able to spot right away whether or not a particular practice or book or idea is compatible or not. You’ll gain the confidence that comes with knowledge. You won’t need anyone else to tell you whether something is “CM” or not, because you’ll know. Suddenly, the perfect Charlotte Mason curriculum will be the one you get up in the morning and use to teach your children, because you are well-versed in her methods and philosophy.

For many years, it wasn’t really possible to purchase individual volumes—you had to buy the whole set of six. They can be a bit intimidating. But that has changed very recently, and you are spoiled for choice. You can purchase a large-format facsimile version with  lots of white space for notes from Simply Charlotte Mason, or an easier-to-hold version, and you can purchase the volume you want to read.  If funds are very tight, you can read them for free on the AmblesideOnline website, and you’ll find instruction there for how to download them to your Kindle.

Edited to add: Sometimes we talk about “scaffolding” our children into CM practices like narration. As an adult, you might feel the need for a bit of scaffolding as well, to make reading Charlotte Mason a bit more approachable when you begin. Someone commented that Brandy Vencel’s bootcamp was a good introduction to the principles, and I decided to add a few more possibilities here. Leslie Laurio has re-written the entire CM Series in modern English, and if that would make it easier for you to read, you might want to try that. If A Philosophy of Education is your choice, I have created a shorter version which leaves out much of the non-essential material and includes short chapter introductions and subheadings that make the material easier to comprehend—Mind to Mind.

Which volume should you choose? It depends on your needs. There is no perfect, magic order in which to read the volumes, but for a first choice, Home Education, School Education, or A Philosophy of Education will narrow the field. If you’re interested in a post with a bit more information about each volume to help you choose (I’ve read all six more times than I can remember), let me know. But please do choose one and digest it well. If one was enough to equip the school teachers of Gloucestershire, one will serve for us as well, and be a solid foundation. You’ll be able to make your chosen Charlotte Mason curriculum the perfect curriculum in your home, even if it doesn’t arrive from the PNEU.

New school year, new narrator?

I started to write this out as a response to a comment on Facebook, to yet another mom of a new narrator who is discouraged that her child isn’t narrating with fluency and ease after a few weeks. Then I decided that it might be some encouragement to others in this season as well, so I’m parking it here for easier access and sharing. It’s off the cuff, but I hope it helps.

Narration is a long game, and it’s founded on a basic human activity—telling. Mature or natural narrators “tell back” with ease, but sometimes you need to scaffold your children into it. With a new narrator, you shouldn’t have more than two or three narrations per day, probably. There are lots of strategies for bridging the gap to just plain narration. Try a few, use the ones that work for your child, and remember that you really have three to four years to build oral narration fluency before beginning written narrations.

  1. Make sure you’ve modeled narration. Your younger children will be used to hearing narration and will find it smoother later, but your first narrator has to pave the way. So you model it—you narrate. After once or twice, narrate the beginning, and ask them if they can pick it up and narrate the rest.
  2. If you are getting one sentence—accept that sentence. If you want to, you can say, “Let me think if I can add something to that,”—and narrate a bit more. I would caution you not to narrate so thoroughly and in so much detail that your child views it as an overwhelming task.
  3. Ask for narration of just a part of the material, or let your request for a narration include a hint about what you expect to hear: “Can you tell me what happened when Ben Franklin went to work in his brother’s shop?” That brings the request to narrate into focus. Or ask for part by prompting, “which part did you find most interesting?”
  4. Bridge your way to oral narration with props. For young children, this can be very helpful. Use blocks, clay, crayons and paper, dolls, stuffed animals, or whatever interests your child. Let your child illustrate something from the reading and then (this is important) tell you about it. Let the action be illustrated with dolls or stuffed animals as props (I have seen a crew of stuffed friends tagged with the roles of Shakespeare characters).
  5. Persevere and have your child narrate in some way. Pause and reflect on how things are coming along only every 2-3 months. Remember—this is so important—that no individual narration is of any great consequence. It’s a foundational mental process that taps into a whole host of good intellectual skills and it will develop with use and practice. If your child has an off day and can’t narrate or gives you a poor narration, ignore it and keep going. On the day your child gives you a beautiful, thorough narration—and I promise that will happen if you don’t give up—make sure you say, “that was a very good narration,” because that gives them the key to what you are looking for, and lets them know that they can, in fact, narrate.

And I say one more time—narration is a long game. Keep your eyes on the goal, and don’t worry about the wobbles along the way. Don’t give up on narration–no matter how much your kids dislike it (mine did, too)—because it will repay your efforts and theirs in a hundred ways. And when I tell you it is a long game, it’s because I know it first-hand.

Not long ago, I asked my son—27 years old, Bible college grad, US Marine, husband—to write something for me about narration. This is part of what he said:

Growing up homeschooled I always hated all forms of narration. Written narrations were frustrating because I always felt like I was simply trying to rewrite the book that I just read, but shorter and in my own words. It seemed stupid to me. Oral narrations were just as awkward, and similarly I felt like I was just parroting back what I had read. I honestly didn’t see what I could be learning from it, and I probably expressed as much to my mother at one point in time or another. But regardless of my feelings I had to do them, and so I did. Its only recently, years later, that I have realized how important those narrations might actually have been to my development. I didn’t realize that I was actually learning and practicing important life skills by doing these seemingly meaningless narrations.

Don’t get discouraged. Don’t give up. Your kids might not thank you now, or anytime during the process, but they are going to appreciate it when find that their ability to synthesize material and restate it clearly gives them an advantage in many ways.  Make them narrate—help them as much as you need to at the beginning. It is worth the effort.