Thursday, March 12, 2015

Behind the Scenes

Some seventeen years or so ago, the ladies collectively known as the Advisory 'met' via a couple of email groups and AOL groups created to discuss homeschooling with Charlotte Mason's methods.  There was no CM curriculum at that time.  There were Miss Mason's books- only the six volumes on education were in print- and a scant handful of other books published about her and her work (two, I think, perhaps three).  There was a newsletter one could buy- printed on coloured paper and stapled together.  There was a shortlived magazine.  And there was the email list.

Charlotte Mason was growing in popularity, but there was a lot of confusion about what her methods would look like in practice.  Plenty of people who owned the six volumes never read them, or read the one devoted to the education of children from birth to 9 and then thought that's what you did in high school, too.  We started reading the series together and discussing it, and we were often surprised to discover that some practice long understood to be 'Charlotte Mason' actually wasn't much in keeping with her standards at all, and that she had actually written a curriculum she required those who claimed to be following her methods to use, that she said it wasn't enough to just use the books she used if you didn't understand and apply her principles.  We discovered so much more- it was an exciting journey.

We became increasingly enthusiastic about sorting out exactly what was and what was not accurately 'Charlotte Mason's method.'  We found that every time we doubted her, if we put her method to the test in our homes it actually worked, and much better than we thought it would.  Her ideas were not made up in her head while she spun silk in some ivory covered tower with windows and no doors- she worked them out through decades of in depth study and readings that spanned centuries (see Karen Glass's book Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition for more about this) and testing them on hundreds and thousands of children taught with her methods.   With each new successful application of her philosophy and method in our homes, it grew more important  to us to know, as accurately as possible, what Miss Mason actually said and did, what her methods and principles actually looked like.  Repeatedly, those of her methods we tried, we found true. So we started posting more and more about our discoveries to the emails lists, and eagerly read to find out what others were discovering- which is where our friendship began, but that is another story.

'I have my children use their writing for copywork,' somebody would say.  But we had learned the purpose of copywork was to expose children in a focused way to models of  great literature with excellent prose and perfect punctuation. This is an integral part of CM's approach to grammar and punctuation.  Using their own work for copywork removes an important plank from her language arts program.

'We do unit studies, but we do them the Charlotte Mason way,' somebody else (at one time, possibly one of us) might say. But we had learned that Miss Mason had serious objections to unit studies, that she felt they were often artificial and involved the adults doing more of the work of making connections that the children should be doing for themselves, and she felt they were disrespectful of the children's minds.

'I don't see the point of reading through a book slowly- it's so artificial to stop if your child is still interested and clamoring for more.  Isn't this why we homeschool, so we are free from such constraints?' Probably said by one of us, but I plead the fifth. When we tried it, you see, we learned it actually increased the child's interest, helped them give better narrations, gave them better retention, and they spent more of their free time thinking about the book and processing the information in a deeper, more meaningful way.  Can you imagine the heady excitement and joy a mother experiences when her child comes to her several times over the course of a week to talk about her schoolbooks, to share what she's been thinking about the stories and how they are going to turn out, and the characters and mistakes they might be making, and things they should think about- "Mother, is the Artful Dodger really a good friend to Oliver?  I thought he was, but now I think he might be using him."   "Mama, I just can't believe what Pinnochio is doing right now!  Why doesn't he listen to Gepetto? I think he's going to find out that place is not as much fun as he thinks it will be."   Oh, how we want for others to discover this loveliness.

'There's no such thing as CM in a box,' more than a few somebodies said (and are still saying).  But we had discovered that actually, Charlotte Mason assigned the curriculum for each of her schools and families using her programme (and they were all over the world) to use each term- even required that the exams be sent back to her where she and her teachers corrected them.   You could write your curriculum, she acknowledged, but you could make your own shoes, too, but you don't, because the product isn't the same and it's not as efficient.

The more we tried it, the more we read, the more we applied, the more excited we became.  This was working, and it was fun!  We loved the fruit.  We didn't want to keep it to ourselves.  We were excited about what we were discovering, and we wanted to share it with others.

And one day, one of us wondered, "What if you could make a Charlotte Mason curriculum today?  What would it look like?  What are the best books, and how could one fit them in over the course of a school career."

Out of that list, and those purposes, the curriculum that would become AO was born.

Once the curriculum was created, we could have just walked away, and left just the website there for anybody to use while we went about our lives.  But we wanted to continue to provide support to our fellow homeschoolers, to create a community for all of us who wanted to apply Charlotte Mason's methods with their children.  We loved the results we saw so much that we wanted to share them, to help others, and, in turn, to be helped by their ideas, encouragement, and discoveries.  So many homeschool groups were textbook oriented. We wanted to provide a Charlotte Mason community.

So we had the email list, and now the forum, our Facebook page and group, and soon, an AO Conference, and then another one, and then....?

And always, our goals are the same- what do Charlotte Mason's methods really look like, what are her reasons, her ideas, and how do we implement them at home?  How do we help others do the same? Since we have found this philosophy such a blessing, how to share it with others?

For these goals, we are often called purists, and sometimes snobs, and from time to time, 'CM Police' (which is funny, as that is a term I think I first coined back in the cmason list days), and occasionally worse.  Sometimes it's a joke, some good natured ribbing, and sometimes, not so much.

Those who want to do whatever they want and call it Charlotte Mason can do that pretty much anywhere and everywhere else (and do).   Those who want to substitute methods and materials that don't match up with Charlotte Mason's philosophy are completely free to do so.   We won't go to their homes and picket. We won't publish their names in the newspaper and shame them. We won't call them names and slander them on our blog, website, or forum, (although sometimes we will say this or that practice or claim is not found in Charlotte Mason's work).

But we assume that if you are on our forum, our Facebook group or pages, you are there for the unique support that we offer.  And on our blog, in our forum, on our Facebook pages, we believe we have a responsibility to provide our guests and members with the most accurate information possible so that those who want to can implement the Charlotte Mason gold standard, the best CM practices possible as determined by measuring them against her own writings and programmes.  That's what we wanted for ourselves when we started.  We won't give our members less than we wanted for ourselves.  That's who we have been from the start.  That's one of the promise we make to our members.

I shared some of our back story at the beginning of this post. Here's some more:  we're also still working on the curriculum.  I could write several paragraphs about all the work that goes on behind the scenes, some of it quite exciting and we can't wait to unveil it, and some of it just the basic drudgery of maintaining the website, keeping our links updated, keeping our areas free of spam, etc.  Literally, hours and hours of every day are devoted to helping our online members and doing the behind the scenes work that keeps AO going.

We are cooking dinner, grocery shopping, trying to find time to get the dusting done (well, I gave up on that one), giving the kids their baths and bedtime stories or taking them driver's ed and praying hard, helping them work through The Little Duke, Plutarch, This Country of Ours, or Richard Feynman's Six Easy Pieces and Latin, cleaning the fridge (or suffering because we don't have time to do that)- you know.

In other words- we're just like all of you, with more combined experience and years spent reading and discussing Charlotte Mason and the AO curriculum (although I know quite a few of our regular members have spent just as many years and hours studying CM as we have).  Again, none of us is perfect.  There is that ideal that we shoot for, and a reality that sometimes we have to substitute in its place.  We don't want to be discouraging to those moms who are doing the best they can while dealing with circumstances that mean second, or even a distant third best is the best for that family at this time.

 However, other times, we've tried the substitutions and found that they brought on some complications we hadn't thought of, and we want to help other mothers avoid the mistakes we made.

So, our goals include helping people know precisely and accurately what Miss Mason's best practices and philosophy are based on the standard of her own writings and being a blessing and encouragement to our fellow homeschooling moms.

Those two goals- accuracy and encouragement- may seem at odds with one another, and sometimes there is tension between them. There is an ideal we all strive for, and the best we can do at the time compromises all of us have had to make. But the more closely we adhere to those principles, we have discovered, the more smoothly things go.  We are a Charlotte Mason curriculum.  Our program works best when married to the principles that created it, rather than divorced from them.

We want to help others use AO while applying Charlotte Mason's principles as closely as possible because the results are beautiful!  AO was created out of those principles.  Trying to use AO without being grounded in and infusing it with those principles is kind of like trying to drive a car without fuel. You can get out and push it along for a while, but that gets exhausting quickly.  Those principles are the fuel as well as the oil that keeps things running smoothly, and we want to help people implement the curriculum smoothly.

  We do recognize- we have experienced ourselves- that life does not always permit us to meet our ideals in homeschooling.  During a very hard period in my life, I relied overmuch on audio books, and now I've found out the hard way that this means two of my children missed out on the years of exposure to the printed page which is vital for the rest of Miss Mason's approach to language arts work.  Keeping quiet about that because sharing it might annoy somebody, or hurt their feelings, or make me sound like a snobby purist - well, that seems counter to the whole spirit of AO to me- we're here because we want to help, to warn people if the bridge ahead of them is weak, not to stand by and cheerlead people who are unknowingly headed for a rickety bridge that takes them a direction they may not even wish to go.  If I'd been warned about it by somebody who was learning from her mistakes, I might still have needed to use audio books, but I could have made other adjustments to make up for what we were losing.  And that's just one example.  I think all of us could share others.

 Every day we strive to communicate support without enabling, to encourage those who need it,  andto stay true to Charlotte Mason's principles  as the ideal best practice- because we have found that they are.
We don't want to be enabling bad habits or providing space for negativity and undermining the ideal, while at the same time, it's very important for us that we be a constant presence to support the harried.  We know our replies are being read by people at all ends of that spectrum.

There are those who really are just looking for the easiest way and don't want to challenge themselves or their children and want to call whatever they do "CM" no matter how much it isn't.  There are those who have created something they want to sell and they call it CM because that will attract customers.  There are those who reduce CM down to something much less than the wide, generous, and also rigorous curriculum she envisioned.  And then there's that harried mom at the end of her tether, struggling to balance all kinds of issues,  what she most needs is encouragement, not discouragement.

So somehow it feels like everything we say needs to be calculated to address multiple issues both spoken and unspoken.  We want to offer support, encouragement, and sympathy for those who desire to do more but really can't.  We want to offer the most Charlotte Mason compatible tools, resources, and information to moms like we were 20 years ago - starting their journey, needing to pick up some basic information as fast as possible.  We want to be supportive of those who would kind of like to do more, but are hesitant for whatever reason and just need a little nudge, or a corrective suggestion.  We want to provide the most accurate information possible about Miss Mason and her principles, because, as I said earlier, that's what we wanted when we started, and we won't give our members less than that.
And all because Leslie had an idea, all those years ago.

Of course, we are all very, very human.  Those are all a lot of things to try and do at once as graciously as possible.  Sometimes we fail. But those are the stars we use to set our course.  We thought that you, who are sharing this journey with us, might like to know.  We're glad you are on this journey with us.


  1. What a great truth, that of using AO without CM's principles. Reading volume 5, -or any other volume-, I was impressed... everything I see YOU AA ladies do, say, explain, advocate, share... comes from ideas CM expressed in her invaluable volumes. It's like an inextinguishable fountain, full of fresh ideas, inspiration... and all of YOU are simply the best examples and human face of this way of life and education.

  2. Yes, thank you, for all you have done and continue to do.

  3. I am so grateful for all of your work.

  4. I am so grateful for all the effort you all have done! Thanks for this peek into a little of the history of your labors. It is amazing all that has been accomplished in a relatively short amount of time. May the Lord bless each of you for your great gift to us :-)

  5. Wonderful to read after all these years! Thank you for leading the way, Barbara

  6. Oh, wow. This is magnificent, Wendi. So thoughtful. So articulate. So gracious. As everything related to AO always seems to be. Thank you. A thousand thank yous. Yet that is not enough.

  7. For all the people who give you flack for being snobs and purists, I am thankful that you have stayed humble, true, and honest. Bravo!

  8. Very great article! Thorough and concise. I really appreciate all of the hard work you and all of the other ladies have poured into this vision. We are just starting and I am sure I will be reading plenty of entries as I ask questions on FB and am directed to the answers here :) Thank you for being strong in your beliefs of Miss Mason's philosophies and providing such wonderful groundwork for mamas like me who could not do this on their own.