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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    What Geography Looks Like

    August 23, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    [dropcap]T[/dropcap]oday we return to the What Ambleside Looks Like series. If you missed it, we already discussed picture study, composer study, and hymns {not in that order}. Incidentally, the order of this series is entirely arbitrary. I’m just interested in reviewing the basics.

    Charlotte Mason designed geography to offer children the world. Here's what that looked like.

    Geography: What’s the Point?

    So first, let’s ask ourselves what the point of geography is in the context of a Charlotte Mason-style classroom. In her first volume, Charlotte tells us:

    [T]he peculiar value of geography lies in its fitness to nourish the mind with ideas, and to furnish the imagination with pictures. Herein lies the educational value of geography.

    She does not believe that studying dry geography textbooks and memorizing the names of capital cities is a good example of geographic study. Remember: Charlotte Mason believed that education is nothing less than the forging of relationships. Geography was one more way for a child to form a relationship with the world in which God placed him.

    In this sense, she viewed geography as a means of world travel. The child could become intimate with a place in the world which he had never visited, if he was reading the right sort of books:

    But let him be at home in any single region; let him see, with the mind’s eye, the people at their work and at their play, the flowers and fruits in their seasons, the beasts, each in its habitat; and let him see all sympathetically, that is, let him follow the adventures of a traveller; and he knows more, is better furnished with ideas, than if he had learnt all the names on all the maps.

    In her sixth volume, we see her pressing even more for a geography that is gloriously, wonderfully alive to our students:

    Do we wish every child in a class to say, — or, if he does not say, to feel, — “I was enlarged wonderfully” by a Geography lesson? Let him see the place with the eyes of those who have seen or conceived it; your barographs, thermographs, contour lines, relief models, sections, profiles and the like, will not do it. A map of the world must be a panorama to a child of pictures so entrancing that he would rather ponder them than go out to play; and nothing is more easy than to give him this joie de vivre. Let him see the world as we ourselves choose to see it when we travel; its cities and peoples, its mountains and rivers, and he will go away from his lesson with the piece of the world he has read about, be it county or country, sea or shore, as that of “a new room prepared for him, so much will he be magnified and delighted in it.” All the world is in truth the child’s possession, prepared for him, and if we keep him out of his rights by our technical, commercial, even historical, geography, any sort of geography, in fact, made to illustrate our theories, we are guilty of fraudulent practices. What he wants is the world and every bit, piece by piece, each bit a key to the rest.

    That last part has greatly impacted my philosophy of geography. I never considered that in teaching geography, we ought to be giving them the world.


    Early Geography

    Our friend Charlotte discriminated between the ages. In the younger years, geography, like much else, was taught in a more hands-on approach. In Volume One, she writes:

    [T]he mother…will find a hundred opportunities to teach geography by the way: a duck-pond is a lake or an inland sea; any brooklet will serve to illustrate the great rivers of the world; a hillock grows into a mountain — an Alpine system; a hazel-copse suggests the mighty forests of the Amazon; a reedy swamp, the rice-fields of China; a meadow, the boundless prairies of the West; the pretty purple flowers of the common mallow is a text whereon to hang the cotton fields of the Southern States: indeed, the whole field of pictorial geography — maps may wait until by-and-by — may be covered in this way.

    Here we see her suggest teaching geography by analogy. A hill is like a mountain, a pond is like a lake or sea. And so on.

    In addition, she suggests that the mother of young children teach them to observe the position of the sun {and its relation to the hour of day}, gain a sense of direction by recognizing east and west, and later drill them with a compass. Basically, the many hours spent out of doors are not focused solely on nature study proper, but also include geographical study.


    Geography for the Older Student

    It was only after the child had built up a repertoire of analogies through his hours of outdoor romping that he was welcomed into the classroom to read great geographical works. When Charlotte says we ought to allow our geography student to be “at home” in a region, she accomplished this through certain kinds of books:

    The ‘way’ of this kind of teaching is very simple and obvious; read to him, or read for him, that is, read bit by bit, and tell as you read, Hartwig’s Tropical World, the same author’s Polar World, Livingstone’s missionary travels, Mrs. Bishop’s Unbeaten Tracks in Japan — in fact, any interesting, well-written book of travel. It may be necessary to leave out a good deal, but every illustrative anecdote, every bit of description, is so much towards the child’s education. Here, as elsewhere, the question is, not how many things does he know, but how much does he know about each thing.

    {I actually own an ancient copy of Hartwig’s Tropical World and it is absolutely fabulous.}

    A child uses maps at this stage, but not for drills.

    Maps must be carefully used in this type of work, — a sketch-map following the traveller’s progress, to be compared finally with a complete map of the region; and the teacher will exact a description of such and such a town, and such and such a district, marked on the map, by way of testing and confirming the child’s exact knowledge. In this way, too, he gets intelligent notions of physical geography; in the course of his readings he falls in with a description of a volcano, a glacier, a cañon, a hurricane; he hears all about, and asks and learns the how and the why, of such phenomena at the moment when his interest is excited.

    Charlotte firmly believed that a child ought to grasp the meaning of a map. She writes in her first volume:

    The child who gets no ideas from considering the map, say of Italy or of Russia, has no knowledge of geography, however many facts about places he may be able to produce. Therefore he should begin this study by learning the meaning of a map and how to use it. He must learn to draw a plan of his schoolroom, etc., according to scale, go on to the plan of a field, consider how to make the plan of his town, and be carried gradually from the idea of a plan to that of a map; always beginning with the notion of an explorer who finds the land and measures it, and by means of sun and stars, is able to record just where it is on the earth’s surface, east or west, north or south.

    Basically, a little cartography is in order.


    Practically Speaking…

    In my own home, we have a basic geography routine which works for us. We utilize the basic geography selections for AmblesideOnline, of course. For each book, we secure a blank map to work with. I have done this with every book, save Marco Polo. His journey was so extended that we worked with a globe instead. Now, I wish I had thought to get a number of blank maps and tape them all together, that we might have had a great big one with which to record our intellectual travels. This is what I hope to do with my future students.

    But as I was saying, we have a map. On the first day, I take the child to the globe {the children are trained from very young to know where our own residence is upon the globe}. We start with where we are, and then we “travel” to find the place about which we will be reading. Then I show them how the map “matches” the globe. I find this is most important with my youngest students, who don’t yet completely comprehend maps.

    As we are reading, we trace the journey {for most of the books detail a journey of some sort} upon the map. In Paddle to the Sea, for instance, I have a blank map of the Great Lakes, which I label for my students, and they color. On the first day, Lake Superior is mentioned. I label it, and my students color it blue. As we go on, they color the places we talk about that day. As students get older, the details and flourishes they add to their maps can become more extravagant.

    In fact, I think it would help greatly if we began to think of the maps as a sort of travel diary, where the children are recording not only the journey, but the things which interest them along the way. What if they drew little icons to represent parts of the journey? The man-sized sheep upon the mountain top from Marco Polo? The iron mills in Paddle to the Sea?

    But I digress.

    I end our geography readings with we call our “map narration.” Instead of merely telling back, the child tells back while using the map as a prop. He traces the journey upon the map while he is explaining what happened there. All of this goes a great way in associating his memories of the stories with actual positions upon the map.

    In addition to all of this, Charlotte mentioned cartography, as I pointed out above. We have made models of their bedrooms to scale using graph paper. Both times we did this, we were trying to make decisions about furniture, and this helped us to see how it would fit and how the rooms could be arranged. The children seem to have learned a ton through this, and I keep thinking that I should just do our whole house, with their assistance, of course.

    We are blessed to be near real mountains and a real ocean, so we haven’t had to work too hard with analogies. But as I think about it now, I want to make a special effort to point out geographical features whenever we are on nature walks. This is easy for me to forget in the midst of identifying a butterfly, of course, but it would be a generous gift, especially to my littlest ones.


    The Heart of Geography

    As in a number of other places within her philosophy, geography is one of the places where we see Charlotte Mason crossing the educational divide we see in our culture. The adoption of John Dewey’s philosophy has resulted in our culture valuing children who know about rather than know intimately. It seems an odd idea to say that children ought to “build a relationship” with the world around them, or even the world far away {through the use of books}. Instead, we prefer our children to possess a large arsenal of facts about geography. We drill them — sometimes without even using maps. We consider ourselves “successful” if our children can rattle off information about places they’ve never seen.

    Charlotte asks different questions to determine her success: Does the student love the place he studied? {Has he gained affection?} Has he read such great books about places, and gained such intimate knowledge, that he can visualize the place? Is it as if he has already been there? If he is able to travel there someday, will the place actually seem familiar to him?

    It’s not that memorizing facts is wrong. Though I don’t have my children memorize geography facts at this time, they all must memorize their math facts, and they do this because it aids them in their math. I am sure that geography facts might function in this way, depending on the approach. But it isn’t really AmblesideOnline — it isn’t really Charlotte Mason — if we aren’t working on increasing in affection for these places and being able to visualize these foreign parts of God’s world.

    Generosity. That is really the heart of a Charlotte Mason education, which is why I appreciate it so much. Let us always remember that in the geography lesson, we are offering them the world.


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  • Reply Anne White February 28, 2014 at 7:11 pm

    Did you know that Hartwig’s book (the Polar and Tropical books combined) is actually “Pa’s big green book” from the Little House series? Apparently all the Laura fanatics knew this already, but I didn’t.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 28, 2014 at 11:08 pm

      I did NOT know that! That is so cool! Now I *really* love my own big green book. 🙂

      Which I suppose could be typed up if AO ever wanted it.

  • Reply Nadene November 11, 2013 at 11:12 am

    Charlotte Mason’s approach has such a wonderful mix of relationship and learning. I love your practical approach. Thanks for sharing your “how-to-do” Geography tips and advice.

  • Reply Meredith in Aus September 6, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Oh, well, we can share our weaknesses. :o) I still look forward to reading what you write about what Charlotte wrote!


  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts September 2, 2011 at 9:29 pm

    Oh, Meredith! You are going to make me confess my weaknesses, I see! Well, when the time comes I will at least do my research to find out what Charlotte was actually doing. My goal for this year is to make regular nature study a habit–I have done poorly at this. 🙁

  • Reply Meredith in Aus August 30, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    Hi Brandy

    Great series.

    I’m really looking forward to your Nature Study post. I fear that I am the geography student who only possesses an arsenal of facts (unfortunately, a very small arsenal to boot!). I know I lack the analogies which you spoke about and I hope that remedial nature study may help remedy the problem! When you do your nature study post (assuming you were going to do one!), could you make it ultra practical and offer suggestions for remedial older students (and mums)? That’s my Christmas list for now. Thanks ;oP

    In Him


  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts August 27, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    Aw, shucks, Mystie. You went and embarrassed me. 😉

    Phyllis, It is pretty heavy reading, but it is oh so good! I think if I were placing it into the curriculum, I’d spread it over two years–maybe fifth and sixth, or seventh and eighth? We read it for fun about a year ago when my son was eight, but I know there was a lot he didn’t get out of it simply because it was so young. We’ll probably do it again in a few years when the younger children are older…

    What I would like to get my hands on is the children’s geography book that CM suggests to read to very little children during the children’s hour (of story reading before bed). I think I saw a title in her first volume, though now I can’t recall it. I think that’d be fun to do with my Year 0 babies…

  • Reply Phyllis August 25, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    Ooo! That Hartwig book is online. Do you know what age group it would be good for?

  • Reply Mystie August 23, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    Your description and explanation is very clear and well done! Things like this can be hard to wrap one’s mind around, but you do a good job pulling it all together and explaining how it can work.

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