Saturday, June 27, 2015

Charlotte Mason and Deschooling

I had a revelation first thing this morning that explains why I once took a foray into unschooling. I think this was a necessary step on my Charlotte Mason journey. I don't mean to say that it would be necessary for everyone, or that I even recommend it. My best advice is to avoid unschooling altogether. But I understand now the relevant connection in my particular case.

You see, before I became enamored with the idea of unschooling, I was a CM homeschooler. That is, I thought I was. But like many a homeschooler, the public school experience was so ingrained in me that I couldn't really take the high dive plunge into Charlotte Mason; so I just stuck my toes in and maybe waded up to my knees. You know what I mean, don't you? The water is just so cold.

That's a metaphor in more ways than one. The cold stands for all sorts of fear. Breaking out of one's comfort zone and exploring foreign territory takes a great deal of fortitude. No one tells you that you're going to have to be brave. Really and truly brave. For a shot in the arm of confidence and courage, I highly recommend Dr. Seuss' Oh, the Places You'll Go! It's a delight to read aloud, so include your children.

What is also often the case with homeschooling is that you have to swim really hard against the current of societal pressure, the opinions of strangers, and the worries of family and friends. Though it's the fastest growing educational demographic in the U.S., homeschooling is still met with a great deal of suspicion and doubt. It's easy to let this rub off on you and distract you from your purpose and vocation. There's a very good chance that your efforts will be judged entirely upon your child's reading abilities at the age of six, if not before.

The safest bet might seem to be a nicely packaged curriculum that will tell you exactly what to do and will guarantee you "cover" absolutely everything. There's nothing wrong with a boxed curriculum, and it's what works well for many families. But I believe that a Charlotte Mason education presents an even better way, and it's a well-tested remedy for homeschooling burnout. Though it isn't an "easy" way to do things, once you get your routine flowing, it's a very simple method of home-centered learning.

What unschooling got right was the concept of deschooling. Unschooling advocates say that children pulled out of school will need a detoxification period. They will need time to adjust to not being spoon fed and having every minute of the day dictated to them, responding to bells like Pavlov's dog. They might find it very difficult at first to figure out what to do with themselves, to discover their interests and passions. School children's minds are predominantly fed with dry and dumbed down fodder, especially with the new Common Core Curriculum which puts increasing emphasis upon teaching to the test, and which has replaced the bulk of  classic literature traditionally used in schools with "informative texts".

Another result of bringing the children home from school is that the entire family dynamic changes, and the members have to learn to relate in new ways. Children no longer must be separated into grade levels and placed on academic tracks from which it is impossible to break free. Their net worth doesn't have to be measured by performance on tests and the ability to conform. Siblings can learn together, and the integrity of the family unit can be preserved.

I've always been dumb, a bright and talented woman who raised several children once said to me. In school she was placed in the not-so-smart track, and there she has remained, in her mind, all through life. Conversely, the kid always referred to as "gifted" suffers from wondering why he never became rich and famous, why he never measured up to his lofty potential, even with his advanced degrees. Or on the flip side, why he couldn't cut the mustard in college. In all cases, someone else was pulling the strings and gluing on the labels. The emphasis in school is upon what the child doesn't know. With CM, the focus is on what he does know.

Even if you have homeschooled your children from the beginning, and they've never set foot in a school, you still have to deschool yourself. You must re-evaluate the meaning of education. Public schools, by and large, run on a system. Charlotte distinguishes system from method, and her method is an intentional form of self-education. This is how it differs from unschooling. The CM parent directs her child's education. She creates an atmosphere of beauty, learning, and joy in the home and sets down the rails of habit (discipline). She chooses from the best of living books available to provide the food proper to the mind and spirit of the child (a life). So Charlotte Mason's motto goes: Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life. Most importantly, education is the handmaid of Religion.

The only form of education, Charlotte said, is self-education, and this approach is diametrically opposed to the modern, secular humanist system of public schooling. She outlined her method in a set of 20 principles of education, which you can easily google. There is plenty of time in the day to pursue personal interests, as each day's lessons are finished in the morning. But this form of self-education is, unlike unschooling, not interest-led. The child is not responsible for designing her own education. What happens is that when given a diet of living ideas and direct contact with things that his senses can act upon, most notably, ample time spent with Nature, his mind will, on the basis of natural law, extract and work upon the knowledge appropriate to it.

The CM method provides the tools for bringing about this self-education, but the tools alone do not a CM education make. The philosophy behind the method must be understood, and the child's natural curiosity must be engaged. I covered the tip of the CM iceberg by reading other people's writings on Charlotte Mason. Books such as A Charlotte Mason Companion by Karen Andreola are a great place to start. You can read CM blogs and peruse book lists and schedules online at Mater Amabilis, Ambleside Online, and Simply Charlotte Mason. You can join Facebook groups and connect with like-minded mothers. All of these resources are wonderful and can be very beneficial.

However, I caution you to learn from my mistake. I started out reading Charlotte's Mason's Original Homeschooling Series, but I didn't get very far. I made it through to a certain point in Volume 1, and then I only cherry picked it occasionally for ideas. I didn't have the consistent fire of inspiration of her own words or the big picture of her philosophy to guide me, simply because I stopped reading. I was feeling like things were going well with our homeschooling, but I got bored. I wanted more. I lost focus, pulled the anchor, and drifted. And then that golden apple of unschooling winked at me.

But I'm grateful to it. Because I needed to deschool. I still need to deschool, maybe now more than ever, as I go further up and deeper into the Charlotte Mason way of life. I found a wonderful book, The Rosary in Art, from Seton Home Study, and it's perfect for CM art appreciation. They kindly sent me a free catalog, and the temptation became strong to do more of their school-at-home program. Especially since I found their website to be very attractive and user friendly, and they are so profoundly Catholic. And hey, my kid loves workbooks! I settled for their cursive writing book, which will not compromise the CM principles. Because the thing is, you can't have your Charlotte Mason cake and eat it too. But that's another topic for another day.

What I suggest that you do right now is wade straight into Charlotte Mason, but don't go off the high dive, lest you become overwhelmed. Start simply. Read the last in her series, Volume 6, A Philosophy of Education, first. Get one of the companion books, such as Andreola's, and begin to do just a few things. Get a good feel for what constitutes a living book, and read aloud to your children. Start observing nature and spend more time outdoors. Assemble some basic math manipulatives and begin instruction with one-to-one correspondence. Play board games. Listen to classical music as you bake together or do a craft. Begin to understand that children are born persons. Go to Mass as often as you can, and answer your children's questions about God. Do not try to turn everything into a lesson. Once you have finished Vol. 6, go on to Vol. 1.

My mind has been turned back on and my spirit nourished by reading Charlotte Mason's own words. I read with a pencil in my hand! Hers are exactly the sort of living books that she advocated, ones written by a passionate expert in her field. Holy Mother Church and Charlotte Mason are a great combination, and we'll talk more about that too. In the meantime, trust me and let Charlotte's books become your intimate friends.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Kestrel Encounter

Earlier this week Beezy came running to tell me that our outdoor cat, Prince, had wounded a really beautiful bird. "We have to help it!" she exclaimed. The creature was on its back, staring up at us, so I got some thick gloves and turned it over. I was surprised when it turned its head back around to face me, like an owl. Is its neck broken, I wondered? Beezy's cousin was visiting. The girls fetched a basket, and as I tried to transfer the bird to it, he fluttered to a bush and out of sight.

A few minutes later, the girls had the bird in the basket and on the front porch. "I think this is a kestrel," I said, amazed. I only knew this because a friend of ours has been posting pictures on Facebook of kestrels from a tree in his yard. Beezy was gently caring for the bird by using a spray bottle to give it water. The cousins decided to try to feed him wild strawberries, but I realized with a sinking feeling that we wouldn't be able to feed this bird of prey unless we could catch some mice!

I called our vet, who told me to call the police station and get the number for the Department of Natural Resources. The operator got Officer Tom on the line, and before long, he was at our house to pick up the bird, a male kestrel, one of three true falcons. The others are the martin and the peregrine. I had to admire the cat for catching a falcon, but oh dear! Officer Tom was worried that the bird was pretty non-responsive. If he had brain damage, he would have to be put down. The girls had both touched his talons, which evidently was a dangerous thing to do, as these birds are also known as chickenhawks! The talons could have dug in and been extremely difficult to remove, designed as they are by God to grab an entire chicken.

Ironically, I had been worried about not spending enough time out in nature with my child and missing out on learning experiences. And here Nature came knocking right on our door. I heard the song of the kestrel from a video our friend took of the birds at his house and realized that we have more of them living in close proximity to our property. In fact, one just landed on my fence with something in its mouth!

Beezy took some videos yesterday of two of them at the top of our TV antenna, one with what appeared to be a frog. I had been thinking that the birds were especially loud this year, and now I know why! I think Charlotte Mason herself would have been duly impressed with our nature studies. The kestrel, who was named Sarah before we knew he was a boy, was alive as of the day before yesterday, but I did not get a call back after leaving a message with Officer Tom yesterday. So please keep Sarah in your prayers!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Postscript on Rachel Dolezal

First off I want to applaud Matt Lauer for the integrity he showed in his interview with Rachel Dolezal. I watched it not too long after writing the previous post on the firestorm over her identification as a black woman. I don't have much more to say. People will think whatever they want. The truth is, it doesn't matter what Rachel says, or doesn't say, to explain herself. In my experience, trying to defend oneself when people have already made up their minds about you and nailed you to a cross is akin to jumping into quicksand. If I could talk to Rachel, I'd tell her not to do anymore interviews, to let it all die down. America will quickly move on to its next petty obsession, while it complacently ignores the real horrors in the world.

A couple of things struck me in the interview with Lauer. I had understood that Rachel has four adopted black brothers and two black sons. In reality, one of her sons is one of her adopted brothers, a high school student of whom she has legal custody. Coupled with what she said about her racial identification being a matter of "survival", I even more strongly suspect that there is a family drama behind all this. Something is up with these biological parents.

In another interview, Rachel maintained that her birth certificate was not drawn up until more than a month after she was born and that she wasn't born in a hospital. She suggested that it's possible that the people who raised her are not her biological parents. Personally, I think she resembles her mother. Regardless, she claims unequivocally that she is not white. Whether it's true or not, whether we understand it or not, this is what she believes. Her blackness is something she fervently needs to believe. She said that she changed her appearance because, This is what makes me feel beautiful. I get that. Whatever lies she may have told, the truth resounded when she said those words.

I think we all have an opportunity to look more closely at ourselves here. Hypocrisy abounds. In what ways have we been deceptive in how we present ourselves to the world? We all want to be accepted, to belong, to feel beautiful. People are understandably upset. People enjoy being upset. If Rachel owes someone an apology, that's between her and that person. If she has sinned, that's between her and God. If she has broken a law, then the justice system will do what it does. It's none of my business. It's none of yours. Except for the part where we need to pray. Where we are commanded to pray. So pray.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Rachel Dolezal Debate

Most news stories that show up on Yahoo are basically light and fluffy, not even anything one would consider to be real news. The story of Rachel Dolezal, President of the NAACP in Spokane, however, caught my eye, and following this story as it unfolds is nothing short of fascinating. She is allegedly a white woman who for many years has been passing herself off as black. Rachel has stepped down from her position with the NAACP, having apparently been an exemplary leader, amid the scandal caused by her being outed to the media by her biological parents.

We have yet to hear from Rachel, except for a short interview in which she did verify that she identifies herself as a black woman. There has been a firestorm on social media over the issue, as you would expect. The NAACP itself has no issues with her being white, per se, as being black isn't a job prerequisite. Some black people in the media have even defended her. Melissa Harris-Perry of MHP posed the question as to whether Dolezal could actually be black, using the analogy of transgender experience.

I'm no expert on any of this, but I feel compelled to respond as a human being. It does appear that Rachel likely lied about her race on a government job application to be an ombudsman. She claimed to be white, black, and American Indian. Her birth parents say that she is mostly caucasion with a little Native American heritage. That sounds like a lot of us. I do know that to receive certain government benefits, one must be able to prove being at least 1/16 Native American. I don't know what the stipulations are for claiming to be racially black.

If Rachel did lie on her government job application, she might be charged in some way, so there is at least potentially a valid legal issue. We all know that lying is wrong. But let us not forget that Jesus said, "He who has not sinned, cast the first stone." No one who is ripping apart Rachel Dolezal's character and demonizing her could claim that they have never told a lie. Lying on a job application isn't earth-shattering news. Like Harris-Perry said, the reaction of the public to this story says more about us than it does about Rachel.

The U.S. has long been divided over issues of race and ethnicity, which are not limited to tensions between blacks and whites. For example, there was an article circulating on Facebook among members of the belly dance community that offended many people. The author slammed white belly dancers for "appropriating" Middle Eastern culture and contended that white women simply should not be belly dancers. Granted, I've never known a white belly dancer who pretended to be Egyptian or Lebanese, but I have known several who frequently visit the countries of the Middle East and very much enjoy being steeped in certain aspects of the culture. As Harris-Perry pointed out, there is more to race identification than sheer biology.

In the U.S., an ethnic and cultural melting pot, we have perhaps suffered from an identity crisis. Our country is very young, and many people are interested in genealogy and learning more about their ancestors. Often people strongly identify with one element of a mixed cultural history. I know people who are in small part Native American but who emphasize that part of their heritage over their more dominant ethnicities. I've seen white folks with dreadlocks. Many an American woman has married a Frenchman and fully embraced a French lifestyle. People without a bit of Irish and who are not Catholic wear green on St. Patrick's Day. It's not at all uncommon in the entertainment industry for white artists to appropriate black culture. Hello, Eminem. We consider President Barack Obama to be a black man, but he is just as much a white man.

It's easy to see why Rachel Dolezal identified so strongly with the black community. She has 4 adopted black brothers, was married to a black man, and has two black sons. She graduated from Howard, a prestigious black university. She has taught African Studies as a college professor. Are accusations of mental illness because she thinks of herself as black and altered her appearance to reflect that identification really valid? Remember the movie, "Dances with Wolves"? Kevin Costner's character was a white man who lived among American Indians. He took on their customs and dress, and yes, danced around a fire with a wolf. He was not depicted as a madman.

If you have seen Roots or have any basic knowledge of American history, you know that after the Civil War, people of mixed black-and-white race would sometimes pass themselves off as completely white. Those who were fair-skinned enough could successfully appropriate white culture and avoid racial prejudice and persecution. Obviously Rachel's racial misrepresentation is not the same as the "passing" of emancipated slaves. But I think that there is more to her story than meets the eye, and she may have had valid reasons for her transformation.

I watched the Good Morning America interview with Rachel's parents. The mother was curiously silent. She avoided answering many questions directed toward her, and her husband answered instead. When she did answer a question, she did not do so directly, offering rather what seemed to be a scripted response. We don't know why Rachel is estranged from her parents. Surely there is a reason that she felt the need to "adopt" a black father and to distance herself from her biological family. Many people have a compelling need to reinvent themselves and start over with a new life.

I have no idea how I would feel about Rachel's choices if I were a black woman. But I think that she deserves some compassion. As Christians, an ounce of charity is regardless required. I was very disappointed in Al Cresta for saying on Catholic Radio that he was glad that Dolezal's parents outed her. Her mother claimed that it was the media who contacted them, and otherwise they would not have exposed their daughter. But no reason was given as to why the media ostensibly sought them out. Why would they think that publicly humiliating their daughter was a good idea? It's possible that their intentions were well-meaning, an effort to force Rachel to get the "help" that they think she needs. But maybe she did what she did in order to break free from a past that we, at this time, know nothing about. And maybe it was the best way she knew of to create the successful, purposeful life that she was leading until the proverbial sh*t hit the fan.

Perhaps it would help us to understand Rachel if we consider that most of us, in one way or another, have presented ourselves in a modified light. We change our hairstyle and color, makeup, and wardrobe to reflect how we wish to be rather than the truth of how we were born. We might not be "deceptive" about our race, but haven't white people been obsessed with getting a tan to alter our pale skin, which we deem to be not as attractive? We attempt to hide our age by covering the grey and having cosmetic surgery. We buy houses and cars we can't afford in order to keep up with the Joneses. We desperately copy celebrities. Yep, we are a nation of posers. Authenticity, which we crave, so often eludes us.

Yet Rachel Dolezal apparently found a way to be her authentic self and has contributed very positively to society as a result. Is this really a case of a woman trying to be something she's not?

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

One Fine Charlotte Mason Day

It is officially summer vacation. Last night our young cousin stayed with us, and today we all walked uptown for ice cream. This is the season for fully embracing a sacred leisure. Last Friday Beezy attended the field day fun at the Catholic school where she takes a la carte art and gym classes. That was the last day for them and also for our local public school kids, so we wrapped up our home education efforts as well. I do think that a clean break for the season is a good idea, for both homeschooling mothers and their children. But of course learning is always happening as a natural part of fully living life!

In summer we shift gears. The days are more relaxed. I've been gradually planting my container flowers. Sleepovers can happen any night of the week. More time is spent in nature and in walking and riding bikes and scooters; going to graduation parties; sitting on the porch visiting with friends and family; and reading books for the pure enjoyment of it. The farmers market provides fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables. We have weeds to pull, both in our yards and in our souls. Occasionally we behold a perfect red rose...

Summer also provides the opportunity to reflect upon what worked well in our homeschools, and what we wish to do differently in the coming year. One thing I know for sure is that I want to incorporate more of Charlotte Mason.

I'd like to share with you one, perfect CM day in May. This was one of those occasions when everything went smoothly and was full of delight. We had our lessons on the front porch. We began, as we always do, with a prayer. This particular one was a "Prayer for Peace," so maybe that had something to do with the fine results! I introduced the concept of division in math to Beezy using small glass stones which are easily found at a dollar store. All new math concepts should be introduced with manipulatives, putting the concrete before the abstract.

I read a chapter from The Story Book of Science, a vintage reprint by Jean Henri Fabre. This is an example of a living book, in which factual information is presented as literature, in narrative form. We read about the process of ants "milking" plant lice, and Beezy voiced that she didn't really understand what was going on. I didn't either, so we consulted the always obliging online resource known as Youtube. Charlotte Mason could not have imagined such a wondrous thing in her day. There we saw the insects and their activity just as it had been described in the book, but now we knew what plant lice looked like (I had never even heard of such creatures!), and we saw how the ants were able to collect the plant milk which the lice leaked in droplets. Sometimes the ant has to caress the lice to get them to let go of this precious food, and then it is taken back to share from the ant's paunch in a "kiss" with others in the colony!

I had Beezy narrate what she had learned by drawing a picture. She depicted two ants in the kiss of milk sharing. Oral or written narrations of the material read can also be done.

Beezy read aloud a story from the "Faith and Freedom" vintage Catholic reader, This Is Our Parish, and then completed a page from her Time & Money workbook. Charlotte Mason did not advocate the use of dry textbooks or workbooks, but my daughter likes to do "work pages", and in some cases they are a convenient and effective resource. She also did a Grammar workbook page that day. Grammar was a subject that CM did not teach using living books. One simply learned the rules of grammar in a systematic way, for which CM gives directions in her Original Homeschooling Series.

Beezy's grandpa had brought her a U.S. puzzle map from a recent trip to Arizona, so we put that together. I then had the good fortune to find the "50 Nifty United States" song on Youtube. This is the tune I learned in the 5th grade for memorizing the names of the 50 states in alphabetical order. We will surely return to this in the fall in our American History studies!

We read a lesson from the Baltimore Catechism on the Holy Ghost and his descent upon the apostles, which was very timely, with Pentecost Sunday approaching. I read the questions, and Beezy reads the answers, and then we discuss the material and go over any vocabulary words.

Our lesson time was finished with a chapter from the novel, Saint Mary Margaret (Windeatt). I read this aloud, and Beezy gave an oral narration. 

I hope this has given you a lovely glimpse into how Catholic Charlotte Mason lessons can unfold. The CM method adapts easily to a modern lifestyle and allows for unplanned discoveries. My desire is for more of this joyful way of learning and living together as a family. These days with our children are precious and irreplaceable, and Charlotte Mason and our Church have left us with an unparalleled legacy to make the most of our time here on Earth.