Think Clear, Feel Deep, and Bear Fruit Well.
Trying to understand the ideas of Charlotte Mason, a Victorian Era educator, can be tricky 150 years later. How does her first principle—“Children are born persons”—apply today? Well, children are not products to be standardized, tested, or graded. They are certainly not percentiles. Children are capable of learning far more than we imagine. We find ourselves resorting to praise, stickers, and rewards as we force-feed knowledge to them. We end up narrowing our focus to the boundaries of the three testable R’s to boost standardized test scores. We are tempted to cut out what they need most—the best of history, literature, art, music, nature study, etc. Children long to know, and do not need artificial rewards and prizes if we allow them to “think clear, feel deep, and bear fruit well” as Matthew Arnold put it so eloquently.
Children hunger for knowledge when offered in a manner that stimulates the appetite. Unfortunately, oral lectures, textbooks, and worksheets prepared by experts and teachers dull the taste buds. These artificial devices rob children of the opportunity to think. The mind is a living thing that feeds on ideas. It will starve without them. A steady diet of ideas found in well-written books and interesting things will awaken the mind to awe and wonder.
Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham wrote, “Memory is the residue of thought.” http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/winter0809/willingham.pdf We remember things our minds have pondered. The mind will remember when allowed to observe, think, and share what is known. Children observe by reading, listening to a read aloud, or attending with their senses. They think by processing what they observe, making connections, and asking their own questions. They can share what they know by retelling, reenacting, drawing, building, writing, playing, devising experiments, creating, etc.
How does this look on a practical level? Take science for an example. Some friends and I were on a nature walk with our children. We heard a dull noise in a spot. We had never heard sounds like that. We wondered what it could be, so we followed the noise and discovered frogs! Thousands of frogs. What kind of frogs? We took a picture so that we could find out. Why were they making so much noise in the middle of the day? We had to look that up, too. When we realized there might be eggs, we went back and collected some to watch the life cycle of the frog firsthand. We learned about how to care for them, what to feed them, what to expect, etc. We took photographs, wrote notes in our notebook, and made nature notebook entries, etc. Three months later, we have been finding teeny-tiny frogs on our walk and we wonder if they are kin. The life cycle of a frog is not something we memorized because we lived it.
Children also long to forge with their community and their world. They want to feel connected to someone and something. Finding connections between wide and varied things instills a sense of awe and wonder. Reading living books (classics and the best of modern offerings) sparks more excitement because the boundaries of subjects are blurred. Reading about the life of a person by imagining what their childhood was like, seeing how ideas inspired them, and feeling surprised at life’s twists and turns is far more exciting than a fact-laden paragraph in a textbook. Stories have a privileged status in being stored in long-term memory. http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/summer2004/willingham.cfm
Children feel more connected to their learning with they are allowed to personalize their understanding. They want to discuss ideas rather than listen to a long oral lecture and take notes from a white board. They find drawing and writing in personal notebooks far more satisfying than filling out a multiple-choice sheet. Journals carried from year to year record their growth as persons and are far more likely to become treasured keepsakes than meaningless workbooks.
Every week, we spend over an hour walking a mile-long trail because we stop and study things that capture our attention. I take pictures. At home, we pick one picture of a thing from nature and try to identify its common name and Latin name if we do not already know it. Sometimes, we end up submitting a photo to websites like Butterflies and Moths of North America , Bug Guide , and Project Noah for help. These free resources are one way to get the whole family involved with citizen science. We draw pictures with watercolor pencils in our nature notebooks, note the common name, Latin name, date and location and write about anything interesting. We also keep a calendar of firsts to record the first Carolina jessamine, wisteria bloom, banana spider, etc. of the season. Our calendar helps us anticipate when to begin looking the following year.
Bear Fruit Well
We often joke about short attention spans—“Squirrel!”—and bemoan how many people are taking medication to address it. How we structure our lessons and organize our day can build the habit of attention. Many and varied short lessons keep the attention fresh as does varying those that require sustained mental effort with those that are light and active. Going outside and exploring the natural world every day also lengthens attention span. Children pay more attention when they can retell and share what they think and imagine. Play, creating, and finding delight builds attention as well.
For many years, my habit of nature walks was sporadic at best. Another homeschooling friend and I made a pact last fall to walk a nearby wildlife refuge every Friday and enjoy a picnic afterwards, weather permitting. Except for travel and illness, we have kept our promise. We have armed ourselves with bug spray and bottled water on the hottest days and raincoats and boots on the wettest days. We have bundled up on the coldest days and, to be honest, those were the shortest walks ever. On the day of tropical storm Andrea the weather did not look bad enough to skip our walk. We hit the trail even though the nature center was closed and saw foam bubbling out of a tree! I cannot begin to tell you about all the wonders and delightful memories we have forged in the past nine months.
Next month, my friend and I are opening a school based on a Charlotte Mason philosophy of education. Last fall, we had no inkling of starting a community school for full-time students and co-oping homeschoolers. Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine that the photographs we were taking would don the walls of its website. Those weekly walks, which were hard at first, have become foundational to our lives. We look forward to seeing awe and wonder in the eyes of our students.
Sow an act, reap a habit;
Sow a habit, reap a character;
Sow a character, reap a life.
We must sow the idea
That makes the act worthwhile.
| Tammy is on the far right. Photo courtesy of the Clarendon Citizen from the Article "Harvest Community School to offer education alternative" |