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    Why Grand Conversation?

    September 15, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    In the comments of my last post, Pam asked why I’m doing this sort of thing. I’m so glad she asked because it really gave me a chance to clarify exactly why I am doing what I am doing.

    One of my long-term goals is to have a book club type of relationship between the books and myself and my students. I don’t think that is specifically a Charlotte Mason thing {wow–you know you’ve “made it” when your name become a descriptive term!}, though I am using the Ambleside Online books to work in that direction. But I would point out a few places where our friend Charlotte makes clear that narration is not all that she does {or is willing to do} with books. In Chapter 16 of Volume 3 she writes:

    Other Ways of using Books.––But [narration] is only one way to use books: others are to enumerate the statements in a given paragraph or chapter; to analyse a chapter, to divide it into paragraphs under proper headings, to tabulate and classify series; to trace cause to consequence and consequence to cause; to discern character and perceive how character and circumstance interact; to get lessons of life and conduct, or the living knowledge which makes for science, out of books; all this is possible for school boys and girls, and until they have begun to use books for themselves in such ways, they can hardly be said to have begun their education.

    The Original
    Home Schooling
    Series by
    Charlotte Mason

    The Teacher’s Part.––The teacher’s part is, in the first place, to see what is to be done, to look over the of the day in advance and see what mental discipline, as well as what vital knowledge, this and that lesson afford; and then to set such questions and such tasks as shall give full scope to his pupils’ mental activity. Let marginal notes be freely made, as neatly and beautifully as may be, for books should be handled with reverence. Let numbers, letters, underlining be used to help the eye and to save the needless fag of writing abstracts. Let the pupil write for himself half a dozen questions which cover the passage studied; he need not write the answers if he be taught that the mind can know nothing but what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put by the mind to itself.

    In Volume 1, when Miss Mason discusses the art of narrating, she again points to a follow-up process on the part of the teacher:

    The book should always be deeply interesting, and when the narration is over, there should be a little talk in which moral points are brought out, pictures shown to illustrate the lesson, or diagrams drawn on the blackboard.

    In Volume 3, CM gives an example of a lesson of Old Testament history and says:

    Step 5. While the children are narrating in the words of the Bible, help them by questions to bring out the important points of the story.

    Step 6. Help the children to realise how Joseph’s love of his father affected his life, and how they should let their parents feel their love.

    In that same section as the OT history lesson, for instance, after a history narration she says:

    Step 4. Ask the boys what they mean by a hero. The old meaning was demi-god, the Anglo-Saxon meaning, a man. Both really meant a man who was brave and true in every circumstance.

    Ask them, ‘What are the qualities which go to make a hero?’ Draw from them how far we can trace these qualities in Alexander.

    This was what made me brave enough to bring this into my own protocol as far as how I do lessons. A few lectures by Mr. Kern had kindled my desire to ask more questions and direct my student’s insights more toward what I thought he was missing, but I felt like it wasn’t authentically PNEU style, and I wanted to be a bit of a purist–to use Charlotte’s methods more rather than less {as she herself suggests}.

    In asking my questions {and in my posts I’m listing the ones I thought of in my own reading–I don’t necessarily ask my son every single one, this is just my “arsenal”}, I am hoping that my son will learn to ask these sorts of questions himself by my modelling them to him. In fact, I may eventually transition to having him write a list of questions out before coming to me for narration, as Charlotte herself once suggested.

    One of the reasons I started doing this {besides the fact that it was a means of keeping his education under a more watchful eye} is because I felt like he was missing the big ideas. He can narrate the minutia of what goes on with Robinson Crusoe on the island–but he is missing the sin, guilt, conviction, and redemption.

    Our discussion today centered around what repentance looks like when one is stranded on an island. Robinson cannot return and apologize to his parents. He cannot prove himself by mending his ways. But I was surprised that my son could come forth with a list of things that he thought could display repentance on Robinson’s part. It was a great conversation, and I’m so glad we had it–the narration alone wouldn’t have provided it.

    Putting as many questions in “should” form as I can is something I learned from Andrew Kern {who I mentioned in my first post}. I find that when I do that, it becomes easier to place Scripture at the center of a reading, regardless of what book we are talking about.

    I think the main way to keep questions in the spirit of Charlotte’s principles is to make sure they always are aiming at ideas–getting that “food of the mind” into the student–rather than on facts. Also, in reading Charlotte’s lesson plans, we see that she did not plan to ask questions after every single reading, and so if one does not begged to be asked, I content myself with remaining silent and moving on. Though I want the habit of good discussion in our home, I don’t want to begin forcing discussion when it isn’t fitting.

    I would never go so far as to say that someone was not using the method authentically because they are not utilizing discussion, but I have learned that it was a helpful tool for our friend Charlotte, and is proving to be a helpful tool for our family as well.

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  • Reply Silvia September 16, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    I love that introduction of the HofNS.
    I had that problem two years ago, they rolled their eyes and said, here she comes! I was pointing to insects and things that I didn’t even know about! Ha, ha ha.

  • Reply Silvia September 16, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    And superb tip for written narrations, Brandy!

  • Reply Silvia September 16, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    My explanation (I hope not a justification) is that, if our children were attending a CM school, they’d be ‘ready’ for the exams as soon as they gave them to them. A school, even a CM one, has its own dynamics, and they are different than the home. Exams will be a nice one to one interaction, since they have several students in a class. I also think my daughter will have less pressure with narrations since there are more children, now all the pressure is ON HER straight. And considering that, she does great, but it can be very intense and turn into frustration when not careful.

    I was going to prepare a page of exam questions, when Stephanie told me to be VERY CAREFUL with the E. word. She reminded me that CM saw exams as an opportunity for them to shine, so I thought about asking her how she liked different readings, and giving her an opportunity to show what she knows, like playing recorder for friends (which she wants to do and did somehow already), etc. I will still converse and ask, it will be a nice closure to the term, but it won’t be as the examinations they have later.

    Now I’m thanks to you all, confident in my continuing without exams yet. (No wonder, Brandy, I couldn’t find a sample for Year 1, term 1!). I wanted to copy cat you. :))

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts September 16, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    GnC, I *do* think I’m going to find that this excercise is going to either make it easier for me to write exam questions, or I might even just use the ones that I never asked {because they never fit the conversation}.

    One of the best pieces of advice I received on written narrations, by the way, was the woman who said to have the students read them aloud to us. I switched to that this year after hearing this over the summer, and it has been wonderful! First of all, he reads aloud with a red pen in hand and catches many of his own mistakes in phrasing and even some grammar. {No more incomplete sentences! Yay!}

    Plus, I find that it naturally develops into a conversation. He might suddenly think of something he forgot and talk to me about it, etc. I *think* it was one of the directors who made this suggestion, and I’ve found it invaluable.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts September 16, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    Silvia, I just wanted to clarify: I am pretty sure that my examples were not from exams, but Pam can correct me if I am wrong. If they were, I did not mean to include them! 8)

    I was reading my Handbook of Nature Study last night, and there was a section in the early portion which basically said that if you are doing NS and the child begins to hate it, you should cease. That is sort of how I think of this sort of thing. If it isn’t pleasant, if it isn’t like fertilizer to the mind and the mind rejects it, I’d either stop completely or think of a different way.

  • Reply Grace'n'Chaos September 16, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    Great conversation ladies. When I read your first post, I immediately thought these were the kinds of questions that I would include in End of Term Exams. I apprecitate reading your perspective on this.

    My oldest is a sixth grader and because of when we started CM, this is our first year doing written narrations. She loves oral narrations and there is always such a wealth of information she gives me. I can see evolving into more discussion type narrations with her at some point. Especially, as she progresses into making her own connections and building relationships with her education.

    We will be watching Eve Anderson’s DVD on narrations next week and I think I’ve heard that she engages the children in a similar way your referring to Brandy. I’ll have to share what I learn from her example.

    An aside, I also have not given my End of Term Exams to my second youngest too early. This is her third grade year and I’m pretty confident she is ready.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts September 16, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    Silvia, Even though CM did exams starting in Y1, I don’t do them until the last term of Y2, and that is really because I think of that first one as a preparation for giving them beginning in Y3. I *do* think they pay attention differently once they begin taking exams, but I just didn’t feel comfortable doing them so young.

    There: my confession for the day. 🙂

  • Reply Silvia September 16, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    You are so intelligent! I learn so much from you both and your conversations.

    We read the theory behind, understand what we should do or not (such as talking too much, asking questions instead of listening to them narrate), and then, because our insight is educated, and we know our children best, we may, like Brandy, decide to have some questions prepared since we noticed our child is somehow missing the big picture.

    As you say Pam, narration and all this can look a bit different in every family.

    I’ve just started. I only have one child narrating, and at times it gets heavy, then I’m doing the narrations myself, or even (heresy… or maybe the Humble Version!) exempting her from *some oral narrations (I can’t afford her to dislike this, and it’s my fault that I tend to require oral narration forgetting other ways), and I remember the other ways for her to show what she knows, drawing is a favorite. And at times, I’ve caught myself asking some questions, but genuine, as I keep thinking about the book I may ask something out loud, and at times she has chimed in and it has been a medium size (not that grand, ha ha ha) conversation.

    Another thing I’m *just doing, Pam, you say some of her quotes were from oral examinations. I’ve decided not to give her a very loaded exam next week. If it were for me, I’d be doing the IDEAL exam, but I prefer to make it lighter, this child of mine needs that gentleness to gain the strength that this education will call for as she grows, but now she needs to shine, so sometimes the questions, not even at the times of the narration, have been my examination. Although I promise I’ll be a good girl and keep those from being annoying (I can easily get there… the bad teacher tendencies in me that are not tamed), and focus on just a few for the ‘examination’ week, which is this coming one instead of falling into the bad habit of talking/asking too much.

    Ah, and thanks for doing the homework for me, now I’m rooted and I have an explanation for what I do and for what I shouldn’t do!

  • Reply Pam... September 16, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    And I know you are going to do a great work in his life. Whenever we invest and listen to a child, we love them and enrich them. Charlotte mentioned ‘inspire’ quite a bit. Yes!

    I am all for upping the quality of narrations and discussions around here too. How to do that probably looks different with each child. Sometimes our narrations are best as we go and walk in the yard. Sometimes they overflow it all while sitting on the washer while I fold. But they always want to tell me. Lots.

    I think you are right about not only the student notes as they interact with the books, but also our own teacher’s notations. I should encourage that more. Hmmm.

    It was good thinking this out with you. I appreciate your desire to excel; not just as a teacher, but as a mom, wife, and woman of God.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts September 16, 2011 at 5:13 am

    I agree that teachers tend to talk too much. 🙂 In doing this, my goal is to ask a question or two, and hear the answer, not to say a whole lot myself.

    I *think* {and I could be wrong here} the underlining and marginal notations were the student’s own interaction with the book. In fact, I wondered if she meant that instead of taking a separate page and mapping out their thoughts, they would simply note them in the form of marginalia, etc.? I’m not positive; I’ve been thinking I need to dig through the Parent’s Review archives to see what more I can learn about this and attendant questions I have.

    Yes, you are right. I took my last two examples from the Appendix on oral lessons. I was just astonished–I had thought that Narration Alone was the sixth sola! 😀

    I have been enjoying the freedom I feel to try and lead my little guy to the bigger ideas through questioning {but not interrogating :)}. He sometimes misses the forest for the trees. You picked the perfect excerpt, where it said “bringing certain readings to a point”–I sometimes fear this child misses the point too often, and I think that through conversation I can draw him out a little, and hopefully build a habit where he will be able to then do what CM says, to ask himself half a dozen questions about the text, all on his own.

  • Reply Pam... September 16, 2011 at 2:35 am

    I appreciate anyone who seeks out the reasons for the things they stand for and practice. It is for us to ‘always be prepared to give an answer’. So thanks.

    I do have a few thoughts to those quotes you of which you referred:

    *We must always keep in mind as teachers “beware how he deadens the impression by a flood of talk.” v.3 178-9

    *Some of your quotes were of written narrations (underlining, highlighting, marginal notations) and I think, meant for the student’s commonplace book. ?

    *Some of your quotes were exam questions; which does not mean you can’t ask these things during oral narration time. I just wanted to clarify that.

    *Some of the references were for the very young (those refering to the diagrams, pictures, moral pointing and a Plutarch talk for a child of 8).

    *Now here, is what I believe to the be source for the heart of what your are striving for in your homeschool: pg 328-9 of vol. 3

    How Oral Lessons Are Used: Though the part of the teacher should, in a general way, be that of the University tutor who “reads with” his men, the oral lesson, also, is indispensable, whether in introducing a course of reading or as bringing certain readings to a point…. Oral lessons, too,give the teacher opportunities for the reading of passages from various books bearing on the subject in hand, a sure way to increase the desire of the children for extended knowledge. It might be well if the lecture, with its accompaniments of note-taking and reports, were cut out of the ordinary curriculum, and the oral lesson made a channel for free intellectual sympathy between teacher and taught, and a means of widening the intellectual horizon of children. I add a few sets of notes of criticism lessons which have been given by various students of the House of Education to the children in the Practising School. These lessons are always expansions or illustrations or summaries of some part of the scholars’ current book-work.

    Not sure, but maybe this is your reference point of choice. I think oral lessons are a type of pre and post curser in oral narration, but am not entirely sure. What do you think?

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