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.

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