Clear your mind of the children, or the dinner, or the new bonnet, or what not … and don't I know how ready your attention is to wander when it's a book that asks for it, instead of a person? ~ Gabriel Betteredge, former bailiff and current house steward who consults Robinson Crusoe as his lifetime companion.He raises a good question — How does one train attention to a book, not a person, when years of schooling has trained students to focus on a teacher lecturing or prompting? When years of worksheets has taught them to skim for answers, instead of reading to know? How can this transformation happen in a classroom with students whose abilities range from barely able to make it through a large group setting without a meltdown to gifted learners who already long to know? How do we help them go from letting facts pass through them like a sieve to seeking knowledge and making connections?
What are signs of a classroom full of seekers? Here is a list made by Charlotte Mason to assess for yourself, whether you are a homeschooling parent, a teacher at a homeschooling co-operative, or a teacher in a classroom. (These statements are quoted from Leslie Laurio's modern paraphrase of Towards a Philosophy of Education.)
"It's appropriate for all ages — even Shakespeare's seven ages of man!" — When I'm pre-reading, I sometimes gasp at an exciting connection. The other day my mind turned to a literature book when reading about Tim Severin's brilliant solution that blocked ginormous waves from entering his medieval leather boat during a gale. He and his crew sewed together pieces of oxhide with thongs to make a shell based on an image of a Roman army testudo formation that flashed into his mind. The hard part letting students make discoveries. To my delight, one girl gasped; another said, "Wait a minute;" a boy blurted out the name of the book.
"It effectively educates brilliant children, and develops the intelligence of even the slower children." — The other day we did the classic test of acids and bases using red cabbage juice as suggested in The Mystery of the Periodic Table. First, we tested vinegar and it turned red; then, we tested a baking soda solution, and it turned blue. Excited chatter erupted. We put them together and purple foam brewed. Eman, who is learning to function in a large classroom, exclaimed, "I can't wait to tell my dad I did three experiments." Another student decided to do this at home with his little brothers. The seekers of the class pondered and shared their thoughts, "Wait a minute! So, when you mix the acid and base, it reacts and becomes neutral!" Living out living books means that persons with varying abilities can thrive together.
Children concentrate with focused attention and interest without any effort from them or their teachers. — Effort is required to get them to that point! Lots of patient smiles and awkward pauses and encouragement. Reading short sections. Scaffolding them in how to notebook. Reading fewer books. Skipping long, wordy nonessential passages. Once students learn this kind of concentration, it looks effortless.
All children taught this way express themselves in confident, well-spoken English, and use a large vocabulary. — The boy who came to us labeled non-verbal in August 2013 amazes us. Every morning he spends a half-hour outdoors on a scooter. When we came in, I asked what he was going to do during math and he said, "Work on lessons." For history, he said, "Narrate." Narrate! He is still such a slow processor that it's hard for him to narrate in class. Since he asked for it, the headmaster and I brainstormed how it could be done. Now, he leaves the class with his Kindle and notebook and finds one of us. Then, he narrates and we write what he says. The first day was rather amusing — for the record, he did not have his Kindle that day — he said that Lincoln "was a red car." However, a few days later, Angie took down what he said about their readings in ancient history, "Mesopotamia has rivers. Deserts with dark storms like Egypt." Even speech-delayed children can acquire a large vocabulary when surrounded by living books.
Children are calm and stable. — Last week, I substituted in the elementary class. Since Eman and the boy who narrated Mesopotamia are usually with me, they joined me for the reading, a chapter from Tom Sawyer. Thirteen students and I sat in a circle on the carpet while I read to them. Those with books had their eyes on the words. A prospective family with a spectrum child was meeting with Angie. They wanted to know how their child might fit in, so she said, "In the room next door are four special needs children. You'll be able to figure out one. Can you spot the other three who all have autism?" They quietly opened the door, watched, and listened. They were amazed at how calm and attentive the students were. Building trust, developing good habits, and helping students find joy in learning helps them find meaning their daily work.
Keeping the mind busy with things to think about seems to make children's minds and lives pure. — Our kids find neat things to do outside of class. Several want to do more chemistry experiments at home. Some girls are planning to make a video of The Brendan Voyage over the summer. At recess, the kids are fighting Civil War battles or fighting over who gets to be Robin Hood and Maid Marion. We have a couple of kids whose viewing choices have shifted to history documentaries and trivia shows. When they go to local Mexican restaurants, they speak Spanish and sing for their servers. One boy would rather go to North Dakota to see dinosaur bones instead of Disney.
Parents [and teachers] share their children's interest in their schoolwork and enjoy the company of their children. — Back to my morning substituting, we read the chapter on World War I from A Child's History of the World. First, they gave a lovely narration about the previous chapter on the Industrial Revolution. Then, we read the introductory section on Serbia and Austria, which they narrated well. "Those countries are so little!" We read how France and Russia joined the fray. They were indignant about Germany marching through poor Belgium. When I asked what they thought England would do, they were sure it would side with Germany. They based their reason upon the connection between British royalty and Germany in their biography about Queen Victoria. They were shocked and appalled to learn that the United Kingdom sided with France. "FRANCE?" "They always fight France!" "Have they forgotten Napoleon?" The teacher told me that, the next day, they were still shaking their heads and muttering about England's choice. Teaching is a pleasure when students are engaged!
Children enjoy their books, even when they aren't picture books, and they seem to really love learning. — We are reading a challenging, worthy book for junior high geography. We sample the most tantalizing excerpts, and they are hooked. Two gasped when Josef Fischer found the long-lost Waldseemüller map in a German castle. When each student got a print of one of the twelve pieces, they looked carefully to make one large map. "Hey! That's not big enough!" "Yeah, the book said it was four by eight feet." In drawing a medieval map of the cosmos, done in Latin, they applied Spanish and Aristotle's four elements. "Tierra — terra — it must be Earth!" "Aqua sounds like agua, which is water." "Aer looks like air." "So, ignis must be fire!" In narrating the imaginary races that medieval people believed existed, one girl said, "Those sound like the duffle pods in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader;" a boy decided the barking, dog-headed people were from Egyptian mythology; Eman added, "They're wearing a dog head skin like British wild people." Students love learning when we let them make connections.
Teachers don't have to work so hard making corrections. — One day, I filled in for the junior high teacher for literature. The class narrated their previous reading in an Alfred the Great biography. They were confused about why Alfred would marry when he was only a boy. I was confused because I didn't remember him having an arranged marriage as a child. I quickly realized their error and peeked at the next reading. I decided it contained enough information for them to correct themselves. After reading a section, I heard, "I'm confused." "Why did Alfred call Judith his sister?" "It said Judith married a man four times her age." "She's fifteen, so her husband must be sixty." "Wait, I think I got it! Judith married Alfred's father!" "And she's young enough to be his sister!" "Oh, now it makes sense!" Living books lend well to self-correction when students go astray.
Children taught this way do very well no matter what school they attend. — I suspect that children do very well in school, and, more importantly, do very well in life based upon what I know of CM-taught students who are now adults.
Students don't need grades, prizes, etc., to motivate them. — To scaffold parents in the transition, we assess habits as well as academics using a non-tradtional scale: novice, apprentice, practitioner, and expert. It removes the pressure of "getting all A's" because nobody can be an expert at everything. There is always room for growth! Having gotten over the hurdle of extrinsic motivation, the junior high is starting to learn for the sake of learning. When they drew a T-O map in their notebook, one said, "Hey, didn't we see one of those in a Fra Angelico painting?" When I pulled out Madonna and Child in Majesty, they asked, "Why is the globe upside down?" One is saving up for a copy for the Waldseemüller map for her bedroom. Another mappamundi sparked a lot of conversation. "Mappamundi must be a map!" "Mundi sounds like mundo which is Spanish for world." "I get it! Map of the world!" "Don't you see? Jesus is embracing the world. He's in it and in us!" "I can see why they were afraid to sail west. It wasn't just the end of the world; it was the end of time." "So, let me get this straight. What we're reading in geography is connected to chemistry, history, literature, and Spanish?" One student asked about the antichrist, and other students raised their hands to answer it! The teacher simply guided their conversation.
Since I don't believe in extrinsic motivation, I will offer a hilariously funny natural consequence for making it to the end of this very long post: another quote from The Moonstone, one of the 100 best novels in someone's eyes. It seems that Gabriel Betteredge may adore Robinson Crusoe, but he would not last long in a Charlotte Mason style of education.
You see my young master, or my young mistress, poring over one of their spiders' insides with a magnifying-glass; or you meet one of their frogs walking downstairs without his head — and when you wonder what this cruel nastiness means, you are told that it means a taste in my young master or my young mistress for natural history. Sometimes, again, you see them occupied for hours together in spoiling a pretty flower with pointed instruments, out of a stupid curiosity to know what the flower is made of. Is its colour any prettier, or its scent any sweeter, when you DO know? But there! the poor souls must get through the time, you see — they must get through the time. You dabbled in nasty mud, and made pies, when you were a child; and you dabble in nasty science, and dissect spiders, and spoil flowers, when you grow up. In the one case and in the other, the secret of it is, that you have got nothing to think of in your poor empty head, and nothing to do with your poor idle hands. And so it ends in your spoiling canvas with paints, and making a smell in the house; or in keeping tadpoles in a glass box full of dirty water, and turning everybody's stomach in the house; or in chipping off bits of stone here, there, and everywhere, and dropping grit into all the victuals in the house; or in staining your fingers in the pursuit of photography, and doing justice without mercy on everybody's face in the house.