Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Language Arts on the Fly

Language arts are probably the easiest part of educating with Charlotte Mason's methods. It's so deceptively simple that I've graduated three students who are proficient in language skills without ever purchasing a Language Arts program or cracking open a spelling book. In fact, one of my graduates went on to major in English at college and was the subject of a doctoral thesis on CM's language arts acquisition.

What's the secret? It's this: you learn to read by reading, and you learn to write by writing. Or, to amplify it a bit, you learn to read and comprehend and know what words look like by reading, and you learn to write and spell and punctuate by using those things as you write, and sometimes by noticing your own mistakes and mentally correcting them.

But what does that look like?

 It might look like you're not doing much in the way of language arts. :-) But there's more learning going on with CM's methods than meets the eye. The details will probably look a little different from one home to the next, but here's how we did it.

In the early preschool years, I read picture books to my kids. We did lots and lots of reading.

When they "started school" at age six or seven, they started daily copywork. I would write a word or two on a sheet of elementary-lined paper, and the child would copy it underneath. In some cases, the child would trace it first and then try to write it. Tracing was always more fun with a colored pencil or highlighter! Choosing a word to write was pretty straightforward: "You liked the Peter Rabbit story we read today where he sees the white cat twitching its tail; would you like to write 'Peter' today?" My son might say, "Can I write 'white cat' instead?" So I would write "white cat" lightly in pencil on a sheet of lined paper and he would trace it, and then copy it. Sometimes the child had definite ideas of his own about what to write. One child wanted to write "Happy Birthday" every day for the two weeks before his birthday. Another child wrote her own name a lot. One child went through a cowboy phase and wanted to write "horse" every day, so I let him. Usually there would be little doodles of horses or something, and those are articles of "schoolwork" that I still cherish (along with one son's written narrations which were always bordered with stick figures dueling with lightsabers . . )

Later, when copying a single word became too easy, we moved on to short sentences, which I would write on lined paper for the child to copy underneath. It was always easy to come up with something, either from something going on in real life, or from something we had been reading: "Balto is a good dog," or "I am seven years old." "Polly is my pet horse." I usually just came up with something relevant off the top of my head, or sometimes the child already knew what he wanted to write: "I want to write, '"Molly is our new cat!'"

When we moved up to slightly longer sentences, I started taking things from real print. This was never difficult, since we're homeschooling with real books and always surrounded with text. I would pick up a book, usually one we were using for school that day, open to what we had just read, and scan the text for a suitable sentence -- something in the general vicinity of the length I wanted without any complicated spellings (no foreign names, or regional dialect) or complicated punctuation. If the book would lay flat, the child could copy straight from the book. If not, I would still write it out by hand for him to copy. But since copywork at this point was still straightforward sentences, it was quick and easy for me to write it out -- it took all of maybe 90 seconds.

Sometimes I put more thought and organization into it. One year I collected Bible verses from the Children's Bible we were using and we used those, starting from the shortest verse and working our way to the longest. I picked out specific verses I wanted my children to internalize, about God's love and mercy, and verses about kindness, that sort of thing -- never verses chosen to chastise the child for some besetting sin. (Years later, I came across that list of verses, and they are currently posted on on the AO forum.)

Later, some of my children chose their own copywork. One transcribed entire chapters from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Two of my sons transcribed George Washington's Rules of Civility -- we used a modernized copy because I wanted them copying correct spelling, not quaint antiquated English (but my daughter, who is currently doing that, insisted on using the original). I remind the child to try to copy word by word, not letter by letter, since seeing the word as a whole is what teaches spelling. I have a collection of quotable quotes about books and reading that I collected from the internet and saved in a document, and if any of my sons didn't have anything specific to write, they could use one of those.

As each child got older, his (or her) copywork increased in length, but never took longer than ten minutes unless the child just liked writing.

Around the time copywork started getting to a point where I thought the child could write a sentence or two on his own, we started written narrations. My first child did one written narration a week (because he loved to write, took a lot of time and care on his one narration, and was doing a lot of writing on his own outside of school). With the others, I think we started with a couple a week, then once a day, and settled at two half page narrations a day around seventh grade. Whatever wasn't written was narrated orally. In high school (around 10th grade), I started assigning written essays -- I collected SAT-type essay questions from the internet, printed them and cut them out, and the child would draw one from the collection, and that would be his writing assignment that day.

Around the time written narrations started, we also added studied dictation. My general method: open a book, pick a sentence. Hand child the book to study, when he's ready, I read the sentence out loud and he writes it. Boom, we're done.

We started dictations slow and easy: "Learn this sentence so you can write it without looking." It might be only four words long. After that seemed too easy, I made it tricky: "Learn this short paragraph with three sentences; you'll need to be able to write one of them without looking." My youngest is in the middle of this process now, and as I scan our school reading for an appropriate dictation passage, I'm starting to look for passages with quotation marks and semi-colons. Today's dictation was taken from Northanger Abbey, the chapter we read this morning. I never choose something she can't do, and she almost never makes a mistake. If she was making mistakes, I would back off and choose sentences with fewer complicated spellings, less punctuation, shorter length -- the point is for her to succeed, not to catch her in a mistake. The whole process takes maybe 10 minutes, and she much prefers this to copywork (we don't do copywork on the days we do dictation, it's either one or the other). She's always happy when it's a Dictation day and not a Copywork day.

Does that sound too easy? It actually is that easy -- in fact, it seems so self-evident that I feel redundant even writing it out. I find language arts to be the quickest, simplest, most painless part of a CM education. There's nothing to buy, no complicated curriculum to follow, no lists of vocabulary or spelling words to memorize, no contrived creative writing assignments -- the whole thing takes 5 or 10 minutes a day, and writing has never become a dreaded, tedious chore. In fact, most of my children's writing happens outside of school. With the skills they practice painlessly during school, they take off in their own time and write their own stories or plays or songs. I believe in making as little work and fuss as possible, and language arts is an area where simpler is truly better.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Why Choose Charlotte Mason?



As a homeschool mom, do you find yourself dreaming of meandering in the great outdoors exploring nature with your children and snuggling with them on the couch for a good book, but also torn because you desire your children to have the advantages of the excellence that a classical education has to offer with its high standards and discipline? Are you torn between relaxed days where you can simply enjoy life with your children, and a rigorously structured plan that will enable your children to attain to any career goal they set for themselves?

Why choose one or the other? Did you know you can have both?

A Charlotte Mason education offers structure, ease and enjoyment because of its well-rounded, expansive cohesion. It recognizes that the child is a complete, whole person -- not a trainable, formable being who has the potential to be a person "someday," but a full-fledged person right now -- an individual created in the image of God, with a right to know and experience all that's worthwhile in the wide world. It recognizes that education is supposed to do more than prepare a child for a job: education should expose a child to the diversity and vastness of the universe and give him the tools to appreciate all the variety of beauty and delight that the world has to offer. It should prepare him to live a life graced with zest, and full of connections with all kinds of interests, and a wide range of relationships with people -- not just the people around him, but also those in faraway places, and even distant times. His education should encourage him to find joy in being a useful part of his community. It should teach him to know God. Preparation for a career is important, but it's only one part of a full, rich life.

How can an education fill such a tall order? By carefully arranging an unusually wide variety of subjects in brief time slots at regular intervals that make for shorter school days with less tedious drudgery, and yet still cover a wider range of topics every week than a typical school schedule can offer. A shorter school day allows down time for reflection and dreaming. It allows free time for pursuing interests that have been awakened from the vast array of school subjects.

How does a Charlotte Mason education do this? If you imagine school like a huge church pot-luck laid out fresh every day, the curriculum offers carefully planned and arranged dishes such as lush paintings, constellations and planetary orbits, inspiring symphonies, the seed cycle of flowers, a selection of classic literature rotated for freshness, multiplication and division, Scripture, historical heroes, language arts, principles of the laws of nature, hymns that have built the faith of generations, peeks at what life was like in past ages, the beauty of words arranged in poetry, right triangles, a view of how people live on the other side of the world. All of this delicious fare is served in manageable-sized portions that won't cause indigestion, and without rushing or harassment so that the meal can digest and settle comfortably. The parent/teacher isn't there to force feed anybody, but to serve up portions with a smile, to sit down and even enjoy the meal with the child.

Each child's approach to the table is as individual as his personality. Some children take a heaping pile of art and just a little bit of math. Other children return for second helpings of history, or go back to nibble at science later. The only rule is that every child has to at least try a bite of everything every day. These dishes aren't just facts and data to be choked down like a vitamin-enhanced diet shake. They're ideas that spark curiosity, inspire wonder, and perhaps even lead to life-long passions.

Does the number of subjects sound like the makings of a long school day? It doesn't have to be! A Charlotte Mason school day is typically only two to four hours, depending on the child's age/grade. How can that be? Encouraging focused attention makes these lessons effective, even though they're short. Interesting, narrative books take the place of boring textbooks and maximize time by doing triple duty as they teach, inspire, and offer role models. To make the biggest impact in a student's limited school time, only a few of the best books are preferred over a lot of mediocre ones. Children assimilate not only the best ideas from these books, but the language and vocabulary of excellent writers, too -- and without weekly vocabulary lists!

Does it take a lot of memorization for a child to remember what they learn? No! The key to Charlotte Mason isn't memorization, but narration. A child tells back or writes down what was heard or read in his own words, and the process of mentally going over the material as he clarifies, sequences, and re-creates it in verbal form is what transforms reading into real learning. Narration itself is where the learning takes place! Learning isn't a passive activity, it's something the child does himself by wrestling with fresh material. The parent/teacher's task is to set the meal table at regular times; the child's job is to attend, be engaged, and narrate for the short time school is in session. By recognizing that learning is the child's work, and that it's rewarding work (after all, who doesn't enjoy knowing and understanding things?), pressure is taken off the parent/teacher to make the child learn, and school can become a pleasure. A Charlotte Mason education is enjoyable and life-enriching for both the parent/teacher and the student, yet it provides the kind of knowledge that any classical scholar would envy.

Are you wondering whether you could ever afford this kind of education for your child? Yes, you can! AmblesideOnline offers all of this for free. All you need is access to a computer, some books, and an investment of time to grasp this approach to learning.

-- Leslie Noelani Laurio
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To read more about a Charlotte Mason education, see
http://archipelago7.blogspot.com/2015/03/defining-charlotte-mason.html

To learn more about AmblesideOnline, or to view our booklists, links to free texts, schedules, and additional resources, see http://www.amblesideonline.org/