THREE SIMPLE TOOLS
If you have found yourself educating your children at home for a few weeks or for longer you may be feeling overwhelmed and frustrated; overwhelmed with all the options available and frustrated with the uphill battles to get your kids to finish their schoolwork. In this post I hope to offer some relief and encouragement in regards to home education. This information may be new to you, or it may not, but if anything it will be a good reminder: The key to successful education is simplification.
“Now ye may suppose that this isin me; but behold I say unto you, that by and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise.”
I am going to outline three essential tools that Charlotte Mason used in her schools and how to use them. I will include recent research articles that support these methods, just to prove to you how timeless these methods are. Along with these methods, I want to stress the importance of keeping lessons short, elementary students should not be spending more than 10-20 minutes per subject, and then by high school it should be around 30-45 minutes per subject. When lessons are short and powerful kids will focus and retain more.
What if you could schedule a private tutor session for your child with a great writer, mathematician, or scientist? What would it be worth to you to have your child taught by and interact with some of the greatest minds in history? Books do this. They are compilations of the words and works that these passionate people wanted to share with the world. Some may be famous, like Albert Einstein or James John Audubon. Others may not, like Jean Henri Fabre or Paul Erdos. But when a person is passionate about a subject and has lived the experiences they have written about, you can tell a difference. There is a certain feeling that comes alive when you read the words of someone who is describing an experience they are wanting to share with the world. While you read their words you can see what the author is describing in your mind’s eye, and the passion is contagious. This is what Charlotte Mason called a living book. It is written with descriptive language, conveying rich ideas and igniting your imagination. “Living ideas capture the imagination by planting a seed that germinates in the mind, causing one to continue to wonder and ponder it, and to pursue further knowledge about the subject.” (“How to Recognize a Living Book”, Living Books Library) These are the books we should be giving to our children.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when deciding if it is a “living book:”
- Is the book written by one author? Or is it written by a group of people who are compiling facts?
- Did they live the experiences they are writing about? Or, is this person passionate about the subject ?
- Is the text literary and engaging? In other words, is the author a good writer?
A More Beautiful Question
Next, you should be asking thought-provoking questions and leading good discussions about these books. A good question has the ability to open up the mind in ways nothing else can. It literally turns on curiosity and a desire to discover truth. Here are a few of our favorite questions to ask:
- How is X like Y? Or how is X different from Y?
- Who is the most ________ (courageous, forgiving, kind, responsible, etc.) in this story?
- What does this story or person remind you of?
- What does the person in the story desire most? or, what are they most afraid of?
- Which person reminds you of yourself?
- What if ________ didn’t happen? Or, how would the story have been different if the character didn’t make the choice they did?
- What is something you don’t want to forget from this story?
- Do you see any patterns in the story?
One of the greatest orators of our time was a man who received less education than most Americans today. In fact, this man never attended school, yet he was intelligent and eloquent. Frederick Douglass was born a slave and never received a formal education. His master’s wife taught him how to read, and after that he devoured every book he could get his hands on. The first book he ever purchased was The Columbian Orator. Douglass studied and memorized classic speeches from that book in order to find his own voice. He went on to write a classic book, an autobiography of his life, and many people did not believe he actually wrote it because they believed it to be too eloquent for a man of so little education.
When a person commits something to memory it becomes a part of vocabulary and a part of their mind. Eventually, the words you memorize influence the way you think. Douglass’s beautiful writing and perfect grammar came from memorizing eloquent speeches. You can read more about recitation in this post.
Interestingly, young children do not need direct grammar instruction in the elementary grades to learn how to speak and write correctly. They do not need sentence diagramming, worksheets, or anything that resembles a worksheet. Research actually shows that these methods do not work. (see Note and Resources at end of post)
Out of the Mouths of Babes
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: children already know how to use good grammar. Yes, you read that right. Have you ever heard a normal, six year old child say “it give me to?” What about “zoo is panther the favorite my animal at?” That is because children learn correct grammar by listening to, speaking, and reading correct grammar.
So, how can you help elementary children learn correct grammar on an even deeper level? Copywork.
Copywork goes hand-in-hand with recitation and is one of those things that people may overlook because of the simpleness of it. Copywork is writing well-written sentences into a notebook. While you are reading good books, you will find that some sentences or paragraphs speak to your individual child. Have them copy those sentences down into a notebook. This is how it works:
- You write the sentence down on the left side of the open notebook.
- The child then copies down that sentence on the other side.
- Make sure you point out–or have them point out–the capitalized letters and punctuation.
- After they have copied down a few pages of sentences over the course of a week or so, start asking them if they notice any patterns in capitalization and punctuation. Where do you use capital letters? Where do you put periods? Etc.
- Sources for copywork include: scriptures and poems you are memorizing, song lyrics, sentences from school books, and quotes.
In the 1960’s Sonya Carson was a single mom with a third grade education. She worked two to three jobs while trying to raise her two boys, Ben and Curtis. After Ben brought home an unsatisfactory report card she decided to make a change. She could see their potential, and knew they were capable of much more than what they were doing. So she instituted a new rule: her boys were limited to two TV shows per week, and they were required to read two books and write a report about each one. Ben’s report cards started to improve, and after high school he attended Yale and became a world-renowned brain surgeon.
Know and Tell
Narration is simply telling what you know, but the act of narration is difficult and produces powerful results. After Ben and Curtis read their books they were required to tell their mother what they learned from the book, which is narration. There was no multiple choice test or fill-in-the-blanks, and they were not required to write about any certain theme from the book. They simply wrote about what they learned from the book.
Each person is unique and what they gain from a book depends on their experience, maturity, and past knowledge. What your child gained from a book may be much more personalized, and therefore influential, for them than what you gained from the book. Narration is the tool we use to see what they are learning and retaining from their lessons. The process of summarizing and synthesizing information gained from a book or experience is difficult because it requires the brain to transfer information from one side to the other.
Children ages 6-9 should be orally narrating to you after each school lesson; telling you what they remember from the story or any ideas that struck them. It may be incoherent and incorrect at first, but just like the body’s muscles it will get stronger with practice. Resist the urge to correct and criticize.
After age 10, children should start writing down their narrations. However, they should be writing about what they thought was important and interesting, not what you thought was important. By late middle school and high school you should start giving them writing prompts and teaching the different forms of essays. The questions listed in the “Good Books” section are great prompts to use.
The important thing to remember is that before a child can write well, they need to learn how to speak well; and before they can speak well they need to learn how to think well. Narration lays the foundation for good writing because it teaches children how to think and speak well.
Narration is another seemingly small and simple thing that bring to pass great things.
All three of these methods are simple to implement and free to use. You can use them for two weeks while you wait for school to open up again, during the summer break and weekends, or as your main tools to educate your child at home. Whatever your situationI hope this helps you feel prepared, confident, and ready to nurture life-long learners.
NOTE: Once children reach ten years old they should start writing their own essays and this will require a year of direct grammar instruction. However, not all grammar instruction is created equal. Recent research has shown that traditional grammar instruction does not work. This includes sentence diagramming, worksheets, fill-in-the-blanks, and ultimately learning grammar in isolation from real writing.