Monday, August 29, 2016

Charlotte Mason Education, Your Way

Families, be who you are!  - St. Pope John Paul II

Yesterday was Sunday, the traditional Christian day of rest. I found myself in a contemplative mood, so I took a walk after the rain to refresh myself. I posed a question to my mind, in hopes of being guided by the Holy Spirit. How would I define Catholic education in the simplest terms possible? How would I boil it all down to its essence? Here is what I came up with:

Catholic education is the encountering of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty through the lens of Catholic Tradition, in which the Faith permeates the entire curriculum and the whole of life.

 I would add that this objective should be accomplished in as natural a way as possible.

I have ventured deeply into the Charlotte Mason philosophy as a key to natural learning. I have found that CM provides a solid foundation of ideas and practical tools for homeschooling. The approach is based primarily upon high quality literature, the use of living books as school books, and direct connection with living ideas and the things of God's creation. A broad and generous liberal arts curriculum opens the world to the child in gentle, natural ways. The result is a guided form of self-education.

I have advocated for an authentic Catholic CM education for some time now, diligently reading Charlotte's own words and applying her ideas in our homeschool, all with great results. Yet the words of Egyptian style belly dancer Bahaia occasionally haunt me: Know what you are doing so you can do whatever you want.

Bahaia was the instructor one year at a dance retreat that I attended annually. She emphasized that before one can be creatively experimental or fuse diverse styles, one needs to be a diligent student of traditional forms of Middle Eastern dance. The dancer has to understand that the music and the dance are "married". She should learn about the culture that the dance comes from, and she must work to achieve a certain level of mastery. Only then can one develop her own, unique style and deviate from the traditional forms. Even then, certain elements must be present in the dancer's personal interpretation in order for it to remain within the parameters of what can rightly be called belly dance. I see a parallel in this that can be applied to home education.

As parents, we are called by the Catholic Church to be the primary educators of our children and to follow the Church's guidelines in these matters. She does require that we utilize an organized method, and that the Faith must permeate the entire curriculum. Getting our children to heaven is our central purpose. As such, I cannot advocate a hodge-podge, eclectic way, or an unschooling avenue which is directed by the child and centered only around his interests. We also have to keep in mind that Charlotte Mason was not Catholic, so there are things we may do differently in accordance with our religion.

However, within the parameters of the Church's guidelines (see the encyclical, "On the Christian Education of Youth"), we have much freedom. And we can "tweak" Charlotte Mason's approach as needed. But what if you don't want to feel like you "have" to do things a certain away, according to someone else's opinion and experience? If you wish to do things your own way and not be bound by any convention, believe me, I understand! I have that type of maverick personality. But learn from my mistakes and know what you are doing before you do whatever you want. Cultivate the habit of humility.

Once you have become a seasoned CM homeschooler, you will find that the method becomes uniquely yours. Even from the beginning, it will take on its own flavor in your particular family. What I recommend is that you start with a modern interpretation of CM such as A Charlotte Mason Companion by Karen Andreola or A Charlotte Mason Education by Catherine Levison. These will cover the basics so you can get the ball rolling. My favorite resource, and one that is specifically Catholic, is Elizabeth Foss' Real Learning, but this book is out of print and may cost more than you want to spend.

As you go along on the journey, I recommend reading CM's own words in her six volume series, beginning with either Volume 1, Home Education, or Volume 6, A Philosophy of Education. Perhaps you will be able to read these two books over the course of two years as you gain actual homeschooling experience. You will find what works well and what doesn't for your family. But you have to give the method due time and trust the process, slowly adding a few ideas and techniques until you have implemented the method in a certain "fullness" of expression.

Homeschooling is always a work in progress. As I wrote about a couple of posts back, I found that I needed to pare down the number of subjects I am covering each week, each term, and even each year. You don't have to follow Charlotte Mason to a "T" or cover every possible subject she addresses in her books, in exactly the manner she prescribes, in order to have an authentic CM education. Just stay the course and don't wander willy-nilly into a field of poppies.

Once you have done your homework, assimilated CM's ideas, and put them to use for at least a couple of years with your children, you will find that you have integrated what is essential to Charlotte Mason into your lifestyle of learning. And when you know what you are doing, you can do whatever you want.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

SFL Series--Sewing the Seeds of Contentment

Our society does not encourage the practice of contentment. The impulse is ingrained within us from a very early age to always want more. We are not taught to have a spirit of gratitude and humility. The consumer culture flashes images in front of us for the purpose of instilling insecurity, greed, and idolatry. No exaggeration. 

The antidote is simplicity. It's that "much not more" principle I wrote about in the previous post. It's about focusing on what's truly important in life, putting first things first. The classical Christian model for living embraces a continuous encounter with Truth, Goodness, & Beauty. Though material wealth is not in and of itself bad, spiritual wealth must take precedence. It isn't enough to see the proverbial glass as half full rather than half empty. The Good Life is exemplified in the words of the Psalmist, my cup runneth over. Happiness is measured by the degree of contentment.

Joy can only be found in the fear of the Lord. A path to contentment, which is rooted in wisdom and humility, begins with the bookmarking of our days in prayer and devotion. Start small. This morning I read from a Catholic prayer book and prayed a decade of the Rosary. I am currently reading the book of Mark, so I read a portion of a chapter. Sometimes I will follow up with journaling. Before bed, you can wind down your day with another decade of the Rosary, write 5 things for which you are grateful that day in a gratitude journal, and do some spiritual reading that inspires you. 

It can be tempting to do too much, to embark on a complete overhaul with an hour of prayer and contemplation twice a day. You may need to simply begin each day with a Hail Mary, before you do anything else, and end each day with a short prayer with your children. And of course remember to say grace together as a family before meals. Perhaps you could carry your Rosary in your pocket and pray one decade at a time throughout the day.

With prayer and devotion anchoring your days, you will have the peace and serenity, the repose of the soul, to go about your daily round in an organized and purposeful fashion, not wasting precious time; making every activity, large or small (and our days are mostly small, aren't they?), an offering to the Lord. Contentment comes of resting in Him. 

Today contemplate contentment. Practice a detachment from worldly distractions and pull focus on what is in front of you. Do the next right thing, one thing at a time. No multitasking! We will continue to ponder this principle of contentment, starting with the tiny acorn. Soon we will have grown a mighty oak with deep roots and will shelter under its branches.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A Streamlined Catholic CM Schedule

We will begin our fall term next Monday, so this week I am doing my final homeschooling preparations. Once again I have tweaked our Catholic CM loop schedule! Last evening I watched a youtube program by Christopher Perrin on the topic of multum non multa, one of a series on the 8 essential principles of classical education. It was very good.

I have written before on the question of Charlotte Mason and the classical tradition. CM is absolutely not classical in the sense of the trivium being aligned with stages of child development, as you will find in Susan Wise Bauer's The Well-Trained Mind. That approach is a modern invention which might more properly be labeled as neoclassical. CM is not centered upon the study of Greek and Latin, as was ancient classical pedagogy.

Charlotte Mason also differs from classical in her approach to a broad and generous curriculum. The classical principle of multum non multa is roughly translated into English as "much not more" or "less is more".  This reflects the idea of "depth not breadth", focusing first on digging deep wells which will, over time, produce educational breadth. Classical philosophy believes that it is better to study only a small number of things so as to master them. CM, on the other hand, taught spreading a bountiful feast of 15 to 20 subjects, believing from her experience that children can go as deeply into many subjects as they can into a few. She argued that children need variety.

In the webcast I watched, Christopher Perrin argued for reducing the number of books and subjects that we teach. His ideas are not completely opposed to Charlotte Mason's. In her schools, children took their time getting through books, reading some over a period of up to three years. Certain subjects were covered daily, while others only weekly. We can use a loop schedule to fit many books and subjects into our curriculum.

Perrin recommended block scheduling, as used in universities, in which you have a limited number of classes in each term. We can do something similar in our homeschools. For example, history in our fall term will cover only two "streams", world history and Bible history. We will alternate between the two with the goal of corresponding the historical events chronologically. Terms 2 and 3 will cover different branches of history. At CM schools, only one poet, artist, and composer were studied each term. You could block these subjects, perhaps doing poetry one term, art appreciation the next, and then music appreciation the last term.

Both Perrin and CM advocate for depth and breadth, but they use different approaches to get there. Perrin advises us to integrate and synthesize in order to reduce the subjects taught. Looking at subjects as a family group helps. So history, literature, philosophy, and theology can overlap in one book. This is certainly in line with Charlotte Mason's ideas of living books and natural correspondences between subjects.

Long story short, I streamlined the curriculum for the first term from what I had previously planned. I was simply trying to squeeze in too much in order to present the "fullness" of a CM structure. I feared the result would be to sacrifice quality for quantity, and to force mediocrity over mastery. It simply isn't reasonable to fit every possible CM subject into one term!

Briefly, the Daily Core subjects will be done each day, including one item from the Writing Loop. One item will then be chosen each day from the Extended Loop. We will be finished with the official school day by 1:00, in traditional CM fashion. However, there is also an Afternoon Loop. Afternoons are left free for children to pursue personal interests, but my daughter often needs some ideas for how to constructively fill the time. The Afternoon Loop will contain items such as handicrafts, nature walks and notebook, music appreciation, and writing letters to family members who are far away. I have also listed weekly activities outside the home.

I will keep you posted as to whether I have pared down the curriculum sufficiently. A quote from a CM homeschooler I once came across often comes to mind: "Pare back until you have peace in your home." 

Daily Core: (open with Pure Faith: A Prayer Book for Teens)

- Literature: Julie’s Wolf Pack (J.C. George, indigenous Alaska); Anne’s House of  Dreams (L.M. Montgomery, bedtime read aloud)
- Spanish
- Hamilton’s Arithmetic
- Piano practice
- A Book of Gratitude reader (Seton)

Writing Loop (copy work & dictation from Living Faith Kids devotional; reading books; Bible verses from Rosary mysteries; prayers, hymns & poetry):
- copy work
- dictation
- grammar workbook (Catholic Heritage Curricula)
- written narration  
- cursive writing (Seton Handwriting 3)

Extended Loop:

- The Rosary in Art (Seton): Rosary prayers and New Testament mysteries     
- Our Catholic Legacy (world history, Seton)
- Memory Work/recitation (review Rosary prayers; Mary’s Magnificat;
   The Ten Commandments)
- A Child’s Geography of the World and map work/visual enrichment

Afternoon Loop:

- Needlepoint project
- Nature walks & notebook
- Correspondence (personal letters)
- Beethoven Lives Upstairs (DVD & CD)

Gym & art classes at Catholic school; piano lessons; religious education class

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

SFL Series: Learning as Leisure

My daughter will soon begin her 6th grade homeschooling year, which gives me pause for serious reflection. I vividly remember being 12 years old. This was one of the best times of my life. I was a precocious kid in many ways. In fact, in my turbulent 20s I sometimes longed for the wisdom that I possessed at the age of 12! I was studious, creative, and very religious at that stage of childhood. I knew my own mind, and I proceeded through life with intense purpose and joy.

I spent long hours exploring the woods and creek behind our home, often in the company of my dog, Elsa, a best friend who we had for only a short while before she died of heartworms. I listened to music, recording my voice (on a tape recorder!) singing along with the likes of Olivia Newton-John and Anne Murray. I thought that I sounded just like Olivia! I was an avid reader and enjoyed drawing, writing poems and stories, and gymnastics. I had a nice circle of friends and loved the Girl Scouts.

My family went to a charismatic Christian church where we danced and clapped along with a live band, and where bursts of speaking in tongues, prophesy, and interpretation were common. I would speak in tongues in the privacy of my bedroom, but I told my parents about it, and they were somewhat concerned. We had previously attended the very conservative, traditional Church of Christ, so this was new territory. I also woke up each morning hoping to no longer need glasses, as a youth leader had testified to the healing of his eyesight. Faith healing was a mainstay of this new church. (At the age of 47, I still need glasses, and bifocals at that!)

Life was full, meaningful, and simple in those days. But it was also the beginning of changes that brought on insecurity and confusion. Sixth grade was the year that I moved up to the Jr. High School. This was the first time that students changed classes for different subjects. I felt so big. I was at the top of my class. I literally fell out of the school bus into a ditch once, because I was wearing clogs and couldn't see over the top of my miles high stack of homework books (pre-backback days!). My best friend and I were competitive with one another, and the same boy decided he liked both of us. This was the point where I began to lose some of the innocence of childhood. In a relationship with this boy, I had my first experience of getting spiritually lost.

When you homeschool, these types of pressures can be so much less. In the school atmosphere, issues of popularity, drama with friends, and the distraction of the opposite sex make academic studies practically secondary. This only intensifies with the higher grades. The long school days (and school year), with homework and associated extracurricular activities, also render life as secondary. A family life, a personal life, a spiritual life--all are sacrificed on the altar of school. And the meaning of education has been so drastically altered from its origins as to be unrecognizable. Even a homeschooling parent, especially one who went through the public school system herself, has to work hard to pull focus on what matters.

In my mind, the 6th grade was a pivotal turning point. Academic subjects became more distinguished and rigorous. I believe that this was the year when I really began to relate my identity and worth as a person to being a "super smart" student. This defined me. The boy that liked both me and my friend even gave me the nickname, Brains.

I want something different for my daughter. While I loved life at age 12, the memory also triggers feelings of pain and regret. Sure, suffering in life is unavoidable, in the general sense. We have to carry our crosses daily. But at age 12, those crosses should be light. Innocence should be preserved.

I had been thinking that this 6th grade year should mark a similar transition for my daughter to the one I experienced in school, with an increased focus on productivity, on hard work that will eventually, supposedly lead to material wealth. But I had forgotten about the classical ideal of education as the encountering of Truth, Goodness, & Beauty. How could I, a staunch proponent of Charlotte Mason, have so easily fallen off the wagon? It just goes to show how deeply the indoctrination of government schools goes.

Learning as leisure is exemplified in the Greek word and concept of schole (accent mark above the e). Schole is the basis for the Latin schola; in English, school. This doesn't mean that education should be very easy and filled with unproductive amusement. Rather, learning as leisure is a deep well that feeds the soul. The schole ideal encompasses an education of the entire human person, not merely the process of acquiring skills and memorizing facts. Seeking Truth, Goodness, & Beauty for their own sake was the basis of classical education. Learning arithmetic, Latin, or any other subject was a means to that end.

In modern times, we have a new model of education in the U.S. known as Common Core. The associated curriculum "standards" put the focus on the rules, rather than the Beauty, of the English language; and it envisions literacy as merely the comprehension of "informational texts", as opposed to the classical model of losing oneself in the worlds of literature and the great minds of humanity which serve to connect us all.

My child's sixth grade year will be one which continues in the depth and breadth of a Catholic Charlotte Mason education, the perfect model of schole if ever there was one. Beezy's childhood will continue to be just that--a childhood. Learning as leisure, centered upon faith formation, will be the supreme rule. After all, as our Lord himself proclaimed, "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

Monday, August 1, 2016

SFL Series: Clearing the Fog

Occasionally I check my stats here at the blog to see what posts people are reading most. Sometimes articles are viewed that I wrote a long time ago, so I click on them to jog my memory. Today I noticed that a few people had read a post from the joie de vivre series that I wrote three years ago. I have written a lot about French inspiration and the unique joy of life that the French possess. This slow family living idea is in the same vein.

Right now I want to talk about "brain fog". This phrase has come up in things I've been reading lately. People have trouble with memory and concentration. They lack energy and focus, feeling like they are going through their days not quite awake. I know this feeling well. The typical American cure is coffee. And more coffee. And lots of coffee all day long.

I got a few books (okay, a small pile!) from the library by Dr. Mark Hyman. He does not appear to be a fan of caffeine. It's a major toxin, he says. On the path to getting healthy, he recommends gradually cutting down on the coffee until--gasp!--one is caffeine free.

At this many of us dig in our heels. We love our coffee! Because we like the taste. Not because we are addicted. Hey, coffee is a French thing, no? I hate to admit it, but not everything the French do is to be celebrated. They have many good, healthy cultural habits. And I'm going to guess that they probably don't take the coffee habit to excess. They are excessive in nothing but their passion for life. So yes, they enjoy a quality cup of java. I seriously doubt any of them are drinking full pots of Maxwell House or Folger's every day.

The French way would be to drink the highest quality coffee you can afford, to sit and drink it slowly, savoring the aroma and flavor; dunking a baguette for breakfast in it; enjoying people watching from an outdoor cafe. This is not how we drink coffee in America.

My husband and I do drink high quality coffee. I do sit and enjoy it. At first. But I can drink coffee through the morning hours without eating any breakfast, the result of which is jangled nerves, an upset stomach, and not much relief from the brain fog. Dr. Hyman says, in fact, that caffeine ends up depleting one's energy. It also interferes with sleep. So what am I going to do?

Well, I've been cutting back, and my stomach does feel better. Not feeling well in my stomach is what finally convinced me that coffee is my enemy. My goal today is to drink tea instead, which has only a third of the caffeine as coffee. I like organic Earl Grey. But when the Earl Grey is gone, I'm going to switch to what I have left of my Yerba Mate, a tea with naturally occurring caffeine that doesn't jangle the nerves or upset the stomach and is chock full of nutrients. I'm also drinking Women's Energy tea from Yogi, which contains the hormone balancing herb, dong quai. 

In addition to cutting the caffeine I'm eating healthier. This morning I ate a good breakfast of eggs scrambled with non-GMO soy milk, and plain, organic whole milk yogurt with farmers market black berries. Food is a topic we will explore in depth as we go along. The idea is to be truly healthy and to feel good in body, mind, and spirit. It isn't to lose weight, though that will likely be a natural consequence. A sluggish mind, heartburn, nausea, dehydration, insomnia, and constipation aren't worth what might be benefited from the caffeine habit. It's time to let go of the denial. If you don't feel good, you aren't healthy. What small step can you take to feel better today?