A big thank you to Jen Snow for writing, not one, but two posts for this series, of which this is the first.
Jen Snow is a missionary wife, homeschooling mom to three children ages 8, 5, and 3, and former classroom teacher. In her spare time (when she’s not plowing through her too-tall stack of books to be read with a cup of coffee and a piece of dark chocolate in hand!), she serves as a homeschooling consultant to other missionary families, moderates at the AmblesideOnline Forums, and blogs her ponderings on educational philosophy and her family’s homeschooling adventures in Central Africa at Snowfall Academy.
For those of us who were raised attending our local public or private schools (and perhaps even more so for those of us who taught in a school setting), it can be difficult to wrap our minds around what a Charlotte Mason style lesson really looks like. We know we aren’t supposed to force-feed our students with dry facts, write elaborate unit studies that force the connections they should make for themselves, or ply them with endless comprehension questions. And yet saying “just read and narrate” can seem too abstract to translate into actual practice. So, what are we to do?
Thankfully, in Home Education (Volume 1), Charlotte offers us some guidance on what a narrated lesson can look like:
Method of Lesson. — In every case the reading should be consecutive from a well-chosen book. Before the reading for the day begins, the teacher should talk a little (and get the children to talk) about the last lesson, with a few words about what is to be read, in order that the children may be animated by expectation; but she should beware of explanation and, especially, of forestalling the narrative. Then, she may read two or three pages, enough to include an episode; after that, let her call upon the children to narrate,––in turns, if there be several of them. They not only narrate with spirit and accuracy, but succeed in catching the style of their author. It is not wise to tease them with corrections; they may begin with an endless chain of ‘ands,’ but they soon leave this off, and their narrations become good enough in style and composition to be put in a ‘print book’!
This sort of narration lesson should not occupy more than a quarter of an hour.
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. As soon as children are able to read with ease and fluency, they read their own lesson, either aloud or silently, with a view to narration; but where it is necessary to make omissions, as in the Old Testament narratives and Plutarch’s Lives, for example, it is better that the teacher should always read the lesson which is to be narrated. (Vol. 1, p. 232-233)
From this outline, one can deduce a simple “lesson plan”:
Before the Reading: Briefly introduce the text by quickly reviewing the previous lesson and introducing the new reading (including things such as key names and important vocabulary that may be unfamiliar.) The key is to keep it brief — BEWARE of explaining too much.
Read: Read a 2-3 page ‘episode’ from an interesting, well-written book. Young students can listen to the passage read aloud, students who are able should read for themselves.
Narrate: Have the student narrate the passage, telling back what they learned in their own words. Do not interrupt, ask pointed questions, or correct any errors until they have finished. (The discussion of narration itself is outside the scope of what we are discussing here today, but if you are unfamiliar with narration may I point you to the excellent post that Karen Glass contributed to this series last week?)
After the Narration: Answer any questions that the student poses related to the passage. Briefly emphasize and discuss any moral points suggested by the text. (Again the key is briefly — avoid lecturing! One mom on the AO Forums shared that her rule of thumb is that ‘more than three sentences is a lecture’! I’ve found this helpful to keep in mind.) Show pictures, illustrations, diagrams, or maps related to the lesson.
(Note: Since this passage is taken from Volume 1, Charlotte specifically has children aged 6-9 in view here. However, I believe this same general format can be applied to older students, bearing in mind that their lessons will last longer than 15 minutes since they will read longer passages, produce more written output, and discuss ideas and issues raised in the reading in more detail.)
A few real life examples
By way of example, I’d like to offer a look at a couple of lessons that I studied with my 8-year-old Year 1 student this past week. For the sake of example, I am breaking the lesson elements down into the format outlined above, but in real life things tend to flow pretty naturally from one segment to another. However, I hope that some real-life examples may be helpful for those of you still having a hard time wrapping your mind around what lessons look like in a Charlotte Mason setting.
History Tales: Antonio Canova from Fifty Famous Stories by James Baldwin
Before: I quickly listed out the names of the key characters: Antonio, his grandfather, and the Count. We located Italy on the world map.
Read and Narrate: I read the story aloud. Michelle narrated the story orally, making reference to the list of names. (She has been narrating for nearly 2 years now, so I read the whole story at once, and she narrated with a good amount of detail.)
After: In this story, we learn that Antonio Canova goes on to become a famous sculptor after beginning by carving a centerpiece from a lump of butter at a dinner party. We looked up Antonio Canova on Wikipedia and were able to take a look at his self-portrait and several of his famous sculptures. We had an interesting connection, since one of them was a statue of George Washington commissioned for the capitol building of North Carolina (and transported from Italy by warship, steamship and mule train!) We have recently been reading about George Washington too, and spend most of our time Stateside in North Carolina, so this was fun for us to see! At the end of the week, we added Antonio Canova to our timeline book.
Shakespeare: Part 1 of Much Ado About Nothing from Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare by Edith Nesbit
Before: I pre-read the story and compiled a list of the key characters. I make a stick figure drawing on an index card for each character than we can manipulate during our narrations. I briefly introduce each character before we read. We also defined and discussed the meaning of the word “slander” since that an important concept to understand in some of the interactions between the characters in this play.
Read and Narrate: We followed along in the book while listening to a Librivox recording. We read/listened to the first third of the story, pausing several times for narrations. (Shakespeare stories tend to be complex, and this one seems to be especially so.) We used the character cards to help with the narration, manipulating them on the whiteboard, drawing arrows, hearts, and frowns to show who was going where and who loved/hated whom.
After: We didn’t complete the whole story as we intend to spread it over three once-weekly readings. However, after completing a Shakespeare story, Michelle usually likes to make a drawing of her favorite scene. We may also watch the BBC Animated Version of the story.
Natural History: Chapter 23 A Friend in Need from Wild Animals from Africa by JW Northey
Before: I provided Michelle with a list of the animals/characters she would meet in this story: Mr and Mrs Ground Squirrel, Herpestes the Mongoose, and Puffer the Adder.
Read and Narrate: Michelle read the chapter on her own, and then narrated to me, referring to the character list I had given her.
After: We looked up each animal using an animal encyclopedia and Wikipedia. We learned that ground squirrels tend to stand up on their hind feet when they sense danger or to see over tall grasses. We took another look at the simple line drawing provided with the text which depicted the ground squirrel standing up in this fashion. I asked her why she thought he was standing like that, and she thought it was probably because she was scared of the adder!
A few other helpful resources for Charlotte Mason style ‘lesson planning’:
Appendix V to School Education (Volume 3) (click through and scroll down) gives some examples of Oral Lessons used in Charlotte’s schools
Some Thoughts On Narration from AO Advisory member Donna-Jean Breckenridge, sharing some of the ways she has done narrated lessons in her home over the years
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