Museum of Life, Chapter 2: A gentle education, one week on

I mentioned in Chapter 1 how surprised I was by the instant effects and benefits, even after just one week of seeking to put some of Charlotte Mason’s key principles into practise in our home. When I began homeschooling on Monday morning, I had quite simple aims – to establish some helpful routines and habits and for us all to enjoy being and learning together. If I could make some progress towards that end by Friday, I would be happy! But my expectations were more than exceeded. Here are 4 things that have jumped out at me as the week has gone on:

The joys of poetry

Charlotte Mason was a great believer both in the power of poetry to feed a child’s mind, but also in the child’s innate ability to appreciate it. Although we have always had a habit of reading poetry at home at various points, this week we have begun reading it daily, with pleasing results. The poem we chose, Night Mail, by WH Auden, is not an easy poem, in the sense that it is long, written in varied meter and uses some unfamiliar words. However, both children have taken to it like a duck to water.

I think the secret lies in a very simple, gentle approach: we read the poem just once daily, sometimes with the aid of a well executed recital online, sometimes without. I do not attempt to analyse it intensely, but rather to enjoy the experience of hearing it read, as well as reading it aloud themselves. We may have discussed one aspect of the poem briefly each day, but always gently and ideally in response to a comment or question that came from the children. The aim was to experience the poem and enjoy it, not to overanalyse it.

I have not actively coached them to learn it by heart by having them repeat it line by line. We simply read it through once together, unless they asked to recite a particular part independently, which they began doing as early on as day 2 or 3. I did not make them do it – they wanted to. By yesterday (one week in) they are both able to recite the first three stanzas independently from memory and more importantly, enjoy doing so.

I think we need to be wary not to underestimate what children are capable of appreciating. Whether it’s poetry from another era, classical music, the joys of nature, children are capable of enjoying them for the same reason adults are, because our minds are wired to appreciate beauty, literature, music and the natural world, to wonder and reflect. Their level of understanding and experience may vary, but the natural ability to enjoy all these things is there none the less. Let’s treat them with the respect they deserve.

The benefits of making connections

Charlotte Mason knew that the mind makes connections between different words, ideas, or experiences. She also believed that the more connections we make, the better we know or understand those things in their wider context. Modern developments in neuroscience now back up those convictions.

Reading ‘Night Mail’ this week has led to an illustration of that process taking place. A few days in we decided we wanted to find out what “Beattock” was as none of us had heard of it. With the help of Google we quickly discovered it is a place in Dumfries and Galloway. A quick look at a map showed us it is not far from the Scottish border, (“This is the night mail, crossing the border…”) which then reminded us that Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen are also mentioned in the poem later on. Having zoomed out on Google Maps, we also discovered the location of each in relation to the others, as well as Scotland’s position in relation to other parts of the UK. This also led to a brief mention of our friends who live in Scotland.

photo source: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beattock_Summit

Now I could have planned a whole geography lesson where I sat them down and lectured them on Scottish places and where to find them but, firstly, that would be dry and boring and secondly, done in isolation from any other ideas, I doubt they would remember it half so well. Now that they have the connection with the poem and our friends lodged in their minds, it’s much more likely to stick. Plus, I didn’t plan to teach geography that day, but we got it thrown in for free, taking up less than 3 minutes of our time!

The importance of atmosphere

We have not missed the tired grumpiness which often occurred as we were coming out of school each day. There is something about the atmosphere at most schools which can tend to exhaust children. I’m not referring to the healthy kind of tiredness which results from a good day’s physical exertion of some kind. I’m not sure if it’s due to over-stimulation or the stress of having to sit still in a chair for the majority of the day (a possibility in my son’s case) or just the sheer levels of noise and activity with little time for rest or quiet reflection. What I do know is that at 3:30 each day when we go out to collect my eldest from high school, the younger 2 are much happier and more relaxed than they would previously have been. We don’t need Laevers’ Wellbeing and Involvement Scales to tell us that children learn best when they are contented and relaxed, it’s common sense. We need to work on making schools places where children have more time to rest and reflect quietly and where there is time for the teacher to notice that a child is not at their best and engage with them in ways which help. Does this relate to the sheer size of classes and schools as much as anything else? I’m not trying to suggest any concrete answers here, just share my observation that after a week of learning at home, they seem more at peace.

The love of learning

A key tenet of Charlotte Mason was the conviction that the joy of knowledge is its own reward. That is, the joy of learning should provide sufficient motivation for the child, so as to negate the need for external incentives. What I and countless others have found on many occasions is the lack of enthusiasm in our children to recount what they have done or learned during their school day. Very occasionally mine have come home with something to tell, but more often than not, an enquiry resulted in a “dunno” or “I can’t remember”. There may be many reasons for this but what I have noticed is that this week, they seem to have been keen to tell Dad what they have done and on one day my 9 year old son even exclaimed how much fun he had had doing science experiments and learning in new ways. Just like the poetry recitation – once they had a taste for it, the joy of learning it became its own reward and motivation.

Maybe the novelty factor is on our side at present – that remains to be seen, but one week into the journey, these gentle principles and methods seem to be having a pleasing effect. There are promising signs of growth, which is what we aim for in a nourishing education.

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