My firstborn child is of the naturally bookish sort. I gave him a few phonics lessons when he was three-years-old (because he was bored), and he took off on reading without much more intervention on my part. He is truly the ideal first student, and his ability to read at a very high level came in handy when, during the first month of his first year of “real” lessons, I gave birth to my fourth child, making that three children aged 3.5 and under, in addition to himself.
The thing about having a super-easy firstborn is that you start to wonder about your other children when they aren’t quite as quick. Granted, we have had our share of “issues.” My second-born didn’t talk much until she was three, and we later realized it was because of her food allergies (which we didn’t know she had). We put her on a gluten-free diet and within a week she was chattering in complete sentences! Likewise, my fourth-born still wasn’t saying much as he neared his third birthday, and lo and behold!, he couldn’t hear. (He can now, in case you were wondering.)
My second child has told me more than once that she “hates school.” Now this was amusing to me because she says she loves this, that, and the other thing about school, so why would she say she hates school? After asking her, “Well, do you like this book?” (Yes.) And, “Do you like this book?” (Also yes.) We had a good talk and I learned that it isn’t so much that she hates school as that she would much rather be outside.
This is why I ended up doing almost nothing for “kindergarten” (which isn’t legally required anyhow). I couldn’t bear to bring her in from her beloved sunshine and make her sit at a desk before I absolutely had to.
So this year is her first year of real, planned-and-scheduled lessons. And she is doing fine. I keep telling myself this because if I let myself compare her to her older brother at this stage, I’d make myself nervous with worry.
Of course, on some levels she is superior to him, able to memorize quite lengthy poems. She memorizes all of her poems and Scriptures … and all of her older brother’s, too. I say this so you don’t think she is missing a marble or something.
As I was saying, I have been pondering what Charlotte Mason might say to those of us with children who are simply not academic. Or what if our children have something wrong, like learning disabilities? One glance at the AmblesideOnline curriculum reveals its rigor. Children are assigned no textbooks. Instead, they are reading (or being read to from) full books — not abridgments, and not dumbed down to a “child’s level” — from the very first year. They are beginning Plutarch’s Lives and Shakespeare in the original language at the age of nine or ten. Really? Some adults cannot read these things!
Is this really for all children? Or is it for “gifted and talented” children who need something to challenge them?
Let me share some encouragement I have received, directly from Miss Mason herself.
Learning to Deal Directly with Books
I know I am not the only Year 1 mother who has secretly panicked when a child repeatedly did not “get” the moral in an Aesop’s fable, or did not understand the significance of Casabianca. Every year on the email lists, we read questions from Year 1 mothers on this issue. My child isn’t getting it. Maybe he can’t cut it in AO? Maybe I’m doing something wrong?
Miss Mason tells us:
[The teacher] will bear in mind that the child of six has begun the serious business of his education, that it does not matter much whether he understands this word or that, but that it matters a great deal that he should learn to deal directly with books.
I confess that I heaved a sigh of relief when I read this last week. Yes, it matters whether our children connect with the moral Aesop is trying to communicate. It’s true. But it only matters a little. Miss Mason says it matters “a great deal” that our little six-year-old children learn to deal with books.
In many ways, I think we can see Year 1 as a training year, especially for less academic children. They are receiving their phonics lessons. They are toying with addition. They are learning to narrate larger and larger passages. And in the midst of all of this, they are also learning to deal with books. This will serve them well in the future.
The Same Feast for Different Powers
I would remark on the evenness with which the power of children in dealing with books is developed. We spread an abundant and delicate feast in the programmes and each small guest assimilates what he can. The child of genius and imagination gets greatly more than his duller comrade but all sit down to the same feast and each one gets according to his needs and powers.
The surprises afforded by the dull and even the ‘backward’ children are encouraging and illuminating. We think we know that man is an educable being, but when we afford to children all that they want we discover how straitened were our views, how poor and narrow the education we offered.
This tenant of Miss Mason’s flies in the face of contemporary educational approaches, where dull or disabled — or even merely “average!” — children receive a truncated curriculum, while “gifted” children are treated with honors and herded off to special programs which develop them in some mysteriously meaningful way. When I was in high school, this hierarchy was clear. The college prep students read boring history textbooks, while our AP class read original documents — a feast of Federalist Papers and Supreme Court decisions and the like. The idea was that these documents, which define our heritage as Americans, were only for “special” students.
Mason was not an elitist, and this was based upon her first principle — that all children are born persons. Regardless of giftedness or lack thereof (or even disability), regardless of economic station, each child is a person.
So Miss Mason set out to educate children as if they really are persons. This means she made a feast fit for persons and allowed all a place at the table.
The “gifted” child will get more out of it, which is akin to how the healthiest children often seem to have better digestive powers, or how the hungriest child eats the most. The “dull” child will get less. But all will have had their souls and intellects fed generously.
When dealing with a less academic child, though, the temptation is to diminish the feast. He can’t handle this, we think to ourselves. This is too much for him. Sometimes this is true, I admit it. Sometimes, a child is better off waiting an additional year before beginning Year 1, or adding in Year 3.5 before transitioning to the Latin-Shakespeare-and-Plutarch intensity of Year 4. But notice that this is merely slowing the feast down, or pacing it. This isn’t the same as saying that the less academic child should be fed bread and milk instead of steak and lobster and salad and so on.
Yes, we want children to connect with the books and, yes, we ought to be concerned if the child is comprehending nothing. But let’s think about how we adults got to our own reading levels. I don’t know about you, but I have greatly improved mine over the years by reading books that are … wait for it … hard for me to understand.
When I read said books, I didn’t “get” every single word on the first reading. I didn’t comprehend all of what I read. In fact, on re-reading Charlotte Mason’s sixth volume this past year with my reading group, I am amazed at what did not connect in my brain the many other times through. I missed so much!
But you know what? I received much, also.
We can offer our children a generous feast, and then refuse to stress out when some of them seem to digest every crumb, while the others take a bite here and there by comparison.
Character Really Matters
In the AmblesideOnline FAQ document (which you really should read, if you haven’t already), the point is made that a Charlotte Mason education is not … unschooling … Montessori … unit studies … and so on. So what is it exactly? Here is the official answer:
First and foremost, Charlotte Mason is a 12-year Christian Character Building curriculum. Books are chosen not for cultural literacy so much as the literary quality with which they were written, and even more, their ability to develop the whole person and inspire his character. For all those years that children are getting a CM education, what’s really being trained more than anything else is their character. Students receiving a CM education don’t need any character building program because the entire curriculum is geared towards building character with the use of personal habits, quality books, teacher guidance, the work of the Holy Spirit and personal reflection.
Yes, a child who has gone through even half of the curriculum will know a lot and have amazing powers of thought. This is why we say that completing Year 8 is akin to completing high school as far as academics go. But this is not the point. It is merely a side benefit. The point is the cultivation of the soul, the ordering of the appetites. To put it plainly, it is not what they know, but who they become.
The important conversations which flow from any given reading — but especially Plutarch, at least in my house — are irreplaceable. As long as a child can comprehend language, he will be inspired by the heroism, by the goodness, while also learning to despise the bad and inadequate. In books of this quality, this effect is inescapable. To think that because a child would rather be outside, or isn’t very quick, he should be condemned to worksheets, busy work, and dusty, dry textbooks — to a life devoid of living thought! — is to reinstate elitism, and say that some children are “more human” than others.
As I work with my academically average-and-normal daughter — in the aftermath of working with a gifted and easy-to-teach son — I am reminded that she will take what she can and it will be a gift. And ten years from now I may be very surprised by who I think is my “brightest” child and “quickest thinker.”
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