Thursday, October 20, 2011

Book of Centuries

History is the story of the way in which man has learned, and is still learning, how to live: of how through long centuries he has sought to satisfy the practical needs of his body, the questioning of his mind, and the searching of his spirit. It is the story of the greatest adventure in the world, this story of how man, from very small beginnings, has progressed in body, mind, and spirit. ~ Dorothy Mills

When I was in school, history was not "the greatest adventure in the world." It was downright boring. History was my least favorite subject in school, and, over time, much of what I memorized for the test flew out of my head. Textbooks had all the adventure squeezed out of them to make room for dates, facts, and other "important" things. I learned only what was required to get an A. What I had to regurgitate was just factoids that went in one ear and out the other once I turned in the textbook for good. History was history after graduation.

I fell in love with history as an adult, reading and discussing living books, usually written for the young, with my children. I enjoy reading nonfiction history, historical fiction, biographies, etc. especially those written by people with a passion for their subject. Thanks to reading wide and varied living books, I remember more history now than I ever did before. And, I don't even study! I want to know more because history really is a great adventure, when well told.

I learn interesting tidbits all the time. Do you know that Wisconsin is nicknamed the Badger State, but not because of the animal? Or, that President James Garfield came up with an original proof of the Pythagorean theorem? I get to follow people in their personal quests and journeys: facing dangers in the Lewis and Clark expedition, winding through twists and turns to invent the telephone, helping family and friends survive an epidemic to which the protagonist have immunity, and finding a new home after seeing your old village burned down to the ground. I sometimes find myself taking a peeking ahead after a particularly exciting chapter. Sometimes, I even stay up until the wee hours of the morning to read straight through to the end.

The most challenging aspect of teaching this way is finding books that are living without being moralizing. Not much has changed in the century and a half since Mason wrote, "There is nothing which calls for more delicate tact and understanding sympathy with the children than this apparently simple matter of choosing their lesson-books, and especially, perhaps, their lesson-books in history."

Charlotte Mason imagined the mind as a beautiful home which we fill with ideas found in storehouses (living books). She found it better to get to know a time and place through the life of one person or event instead of a timeline or chart of the entire history of that period listing all the important facts that somebody things children ought to know. Forming a relationship with someone in the context of their time, whether they are famous or otherwise, will teach children far more about that time than a list of dates that are just as confusing as times tables to the young. A history book that reads like an encyclopedia article has sucked the life of history. She favored books with a story that "moves on a few broad, simple lines" (Page 281).
They purl along pleasantly as a forest brook, tell you 'all about it,' stir your heart with the story of a great event, amuse you with pageants and shows, make you intimate with the great people, and friendly with the lowly. They are just the right thing for the children whose eager souls want to get at the living people behind the words of the history book, caring nothing at all about progress, or statutes, or about anything but the persons, for whose action history is, to the child's mind, no more than a convenient stage (Page 282).
"The writer has chosen such stories as he thought would amuse and please his readers, and give them at the same time some knowledge of the lives and thoughts of their forefathers. To this end he has not written solely of great folk––kings and queens and generals––but also of plain people and children, ay, and birds and beasts too." Mr. York Powell  (Page 288)
Other characteristics of living history are:
  • A single voice chronicling history in a way that was "succinct, yet often warm with life; business-like, and yet childlike in its tone; at once practical and spiritual, simply just, and the work of a true scholar, breathing love to God and man" (Page 283).
  • Firsthand accounts, those based upon eye witness testimony whenever possible, and contemporaries.
  • The heroic age, or "the echoes of some dim, rich past" (Page 284) before recorded history began because "these were giants in the land in those days, and the child wants to know about them"  (Page 284).
  • "Graphic details concerning events and persons upon which imagination goes to work" (Page 288).
  • "Replete with interest, sparkling with episode, and full of dramatic incident" (Page 291).

But the bottomline is what happens to the child when given a living history book:
  • "The child's imagination is aglow, his mind is teeming with ideas" (Page 284).
  • "A child's individuality plays about what he enjoys, and the story comes from his lips, not precisely as the author tells it, but with a certain spirit and colouring which express the narrator"  (Page 289).
  • "A narration should be original as it comes from the child––that is, his own mind should have acted upon the matter it has received" (Page 289).
  • "They love, too, to make illustrations" (Page 292).
  • "They play at history lessons, dress up, make tableaux, act scenes; or they have a stage, and their dolls act, while they paint the scenery and speak the speeches" (Page 294).
  • "The child will live out in detail a thousand scenes of which he only gets the merest hint" (Page 295).
This sounds vague until you see it in real life. When my son was little, he ran back to his room to get the "perfect prop" before we started a reading. He built triremes out of legos and pitted the Greeks against the Persians on Pamela's blue blanket. He built the seven wonders of the ancient world in legos too. A friend recently shared that her youngest has traded Leif the Lucky for Batman. Pamela peeks ahead after every Plutarch and Shakespeare lesson to figure out how long it will be until the Ides of March. When she reads aloud, her voice betrays her emotions: she is a bit worried that two different characters are about to lose their beloved horses, another faced a dramatic grizzly bear attack, a cable broke and sidelined an important project, and Aleck Bell never seems to have enough money or time to invent the telephone.

Younger children keep the order of heroes straight by century through a very large timeline, setup by centuries, in which children wrote the names of people in their proper chronology. The table of centuries provided a graphic panorama to things in their time order and exact dates becomes information overload. An article in Charlotte Mason's periodical provides greater detail if you are really interested. AmblesideOnline has another example here.

Older children (those ready for writing their narrations, or about upper elementary) keep a book of centuries. It started out as a place to record illustrations for a book written about the British Museum.

Pamela has tried keeping one off and on, but it has never quite gelled for her. So many things are coming together for her this year, so I thought I'd try again. What is a book of centuries? Well, my good friend Laurie Bestvater has scored the Charlotte Mason's archives for information to supplement what we find in her six volumes and describes her research here. Laurie sums it up her thoughts in a FAQ and is now offering a beautiful, high-quality volume that will last a child many years.

Stone Age Pages

43rd Century B.C. Page

Map Pages


amy in peru said...

I love this post. Thanks, Tammy!

amy in peru

walking said...

Amy!!!! It's so good to hear from you in Peru!!!! :-)

amy in peru said...

tammy, will you consider posting these in the cm blog carnival? the second carnival in december (dec. 20th, i think) is the timeline/boc edition :)

i'd be SO glad! as would many others I'd be willing to bet ;)

walking said...

Amy, I will contact you for the link on FB. I am probably going to do another one on the BOC next week. We plan to head back to an art museum and will be doing some more ancient history entries.