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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education, Mother's Education

    Charlotte Mason and Notebooking

    December 6, 2013 by Brandy Vencel

    Does the idea of notebooking make you shudder at the need to buy craft supplies? Charlotte Mason style notebooking begins with only a blank page.[dropcap]I[/dropcap]’m going to admit right now that I was a bit wary of a book on notebooking. The word notebooking has generally made me shudder. (My apologies to those of you who notebook.) The word notebooking calls to my mind a flutter of activity which a person like me simply cannot maintain. It evokes images of something that looks suspiciously like a workbook page, with boxes and prepared clip art and writing prompts and … did I mention I could not maintain that sort of activity for long?

    Imagine my relief to learn (courtesy of Laurie Bestvater’s wonderful book, The Living Page) that real, true Charlotte Mason “notebooking” begins with nothing but … a blank page.

    The blank page countenances this relationship to the material and respects personhood, mind, and creativity. On the other hand, if I structure your page with blanks to be filled or draw the diagram for you to label, or photocopy the map, I rob you of this work of the mind and ultimately depress your ability to imagine and respond for yourself. (p. 101)

    A blank page? Even someone like me can provide that!

    One of the things I love about giving my children a Charlotte Mason education is that it is inherently doable. Not everyone can keep up with the levels of frenetic activity associated with superhomeschoolers. But everyone can offer a child a simple, untarnished, blank page.

    Of course, once we do that, it can feel like we’re falling off the other side of the horse. Are our children are now being unschooled? After all, we just handed them a blank page.

    Well, Bestvater anticipates this and provides the answer:

    “Self-activity” should not imply, however, a lack of structure. Each notebook has its impetus within the method, and habit is no less a feature of this aspect of a Mason education. Students will not naturally know how to keep a Commonplace or a Book of Centuries. They must be prepared by the teacher and maintain certain habits with their notebooks if these are to give pleasure and do as they are meant to do. (pp. 75-76)

    Years ago, I was homeschooling a friend’s little daughter. She was very bright, and highly creative. One sunny day, my little brood of students ventured out into the garden to examine some corn that I had planted earlier in the season in order to provide a source for nature study. On that day, the corn was glorious.

    My students all had their blank notebooks with them, and they began to draw. When I brought them inside, we all shared what we had drawn. One by one, they each showed me their best attempts to duplicate the corn. One child had drawn close-up images of elements of the corn — the stalk, the leaves, and so on. Another had stood back and drawn the whole thing.

    The latter is what my adopted student had drawn, and up on the tip top was … a purple crown. She named her drawing Princess Corn or something along those lines.

    How hard it was to restrain my laughter that day! I had forgotten the need to give instructions! Whereas my own children had previously done nature journal entries and knew that we were attempting to observe the world around us and not what was in our own imaginations, this little one had no idea. She had never done a nature journal entry. The purple crown — lovable as it was — was entirely my fault.

    In giving instructions, we provide the form within which structure the student has the freedom to provide the content.

    As with any friendship, introductions must be made, etiquette attended to, if the relationship is to be gratifying… These are not meant to be a Mason legalism, rather to release the students and teachers from the burden of a sad experience or a less than satisfactory result. (p. 76)

    Once we provide the “introductions,” a whole world opens up to our students. This is something I already knew. I adore our Books of Centuries. My oldest child has his own, and, of course, I keep one myself. I tell him that he is required to make one entry per week, but can make as many as he likes. Some weeks, he makes one per day! He and I are reading the same books, and yet our Century Books contain such different information; we both have our own relationships with the material.

    My Commonplace Book (my oldest child will be getting one very soon) has a form. It consists almost entirely of other people’s words, with only an occasional note from me. That is the form of the thing. But no one tells me which words to choose. I choose the ones I love and enter them in the pages. Within this form, there is great freedom, great delight.

    This is so different from what is generally called “notebooking” in homeschool circles that Bestvater has coined a new name for it. She calls it Keeping. I cannot tell you how much I love this word. It points to the purpose, I think.

    The blank page whispers “once upon a time…” and the child supplies the rest in words and symbols fresh from his mind and heart. The page becomes a live thing, the shape of his own unique essence, a personal response to the Grand Invitation. (p. 101)


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  • Reply Welcome! | Lucet Oculos May 10, 2015 at 10:56 am

    […] a generous liberal arts education, including living books, spiral mathematics, artist study, notebooking, handicrafts, nature study, and so much more – generally following the philosophy and […]

  • Reply Laura Witten December 2, 2014 at 11:26 pm

    Beautiful post. Somehow missed it last year 🙂

  • Reply Mama Squirrel December 10, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    Actually, just a note there re the Century Charts: Brandy, those were separate, and yes, they were a grid. Laurie talks about those, too, but they’re not the same as the page in the BoC.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 10, 2013 at 4:25 pm

      Oh my goodness, Mama, that makes so much more sense! Thank you for clarifying. I have asked Laurie Bestvater for an interview, so if she agrees to it, I’m going to ask her more about the BOC in general. I feel so much better in that perhaps we are using our grids more like the BOC than I first thought. 🙂

  • Reply Mama Squirrel December 9, 2013 at 1:33 am

    Hi Brandy, I am hosting this week’s Carnival of Homeschooling and am thinking of a book theme. Could I include this post?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 9, 2013 at 3:52 pm

      Mama Squirrel, That is fine! You never even have to ask. 🙂 Of course, I do like to know. I usually read everything you post, but every once in a while I miss something… 🙂

  • Reply Rebecca Dolores December 6, 2013 at 8:06 pm

    I love coming to your blog and seeing posts on information that is so relevant at the time I need it! I have been putting off a BOC because I didn’t know where to start. I see pages out there people have created and I’m always thinking I could just create my own, but then..where do I start and what do I include? So, when you first mentioned this book I put it on my amazon wish list and I intend to order still! Well, this post helped me a little more. I love the idea of just starting from a BLANK page. This seems a lot less complicated for us all. So, with this information you’ve gleaned from the book- does this apply to a BOC and a commonplace book? Or is this some other form of notebooking that is in addition to those other forms of keeping? My 9year old is in Term 2 of AO Year 2 – and I’m starting to get anxious about waiting too long to start a (consistent) form of keeping for her. I feel like starting a BOC from now and leaving out all the good stuff we’ve already covered actually hinders me from starting at all!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 9, 2013 at 4:05 pm

      I would say that this applies *more* to the commonplace {though for commonplaces some people prefer lined paper — Bestvater sounded to me like she thought that part was a personal choice…I use completely blank paper for mine} and the nature journal, but still there is a feeling of “blankness” in the BOC. I will try to explain. What I have done for my modified BOC is *not* what CM was doing. I’m not ready to change anything in my process, but I wanted to give the disclaimer.

      Each century had a 2-page spread. One page had the Century Chart and one page was blank. The blank page was for drawing artifacts from that specific century. The Century Chart feels much more “blank” than what I have been doing. I have an actual grid of squares. It is interesting to me that in CM’s chart, the grid was implied. It actually looks striped. Each stripe represents five years, I believe. It alternates light gray with white and then the child is supposed to mentally separate the stripe horizontally into five years. One possible example is in the graphics at this post: .

      One of the things I haven’t wrapped my mind around yet is that the chart originally functioned as a mnemonic device — the students recorded symbols rather than words. That isn’t what I’m doing; mainly because I haven’t yet learned to think that way.

      By the way, I didn’t successfully launch my oldest on a BOC until this year {he’s 11 doing Y6}, and it is going well, so I don’t want you to think that starting late is always a bad thing. We tried some other versions, and nothing really worked for us, and some of the others that looked good to me were waaaaay out of my price range. That was why I started my own. It makes me uncomfortable that it isn’t as close to what CM was doing — Bestvater specifically cautions against making the chart bigger so that we can “include more” — which is *exactly* what I did! {Oops!} But it is working well and at this point I’m just going to go with it.

  • Reply Ms. Mommy December 6, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    My 6 yo is VERY creative so it is difficult for him to not include some grand imaginitive element to his observation drawings even after instructing him what to do. How do I respond? I don’t want him to think he can’t be creative. He LOVES to draw creatively.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 6, 2013 at 4:47 pm

      I can only tell you what I did with the student I mentioned in this post, which was to continually require her to draw what she saw in real life. It didn’t mean she couldn’t draw creatively at other times — and she loved to illustrate the stories we read, which was something my other students didn’t like to do and was oh so fun!

      In this case, I do think it helped that she could see what other children in the “class” were doing. If your 6yo is your oldest, that might be more difficult unless you are keeping your own nature journal {which I highly recommend! 🙂 }.

      Oh! I did also try to explain to this child the purpose of what we are doing. That seemed to help get her on board. So, something along the lines of that we are learning to train our eyes to really see, and so we want to be precise. Creative drawing is wonderful, and I was glad she did it, but that if she was paying attention to her own imagination during nature study, she wasn’t really in tune with the act of seeing — she is still caught up in her own mind.

      I totally understand not wanting to squash a child like this, so it does take time to get them on board with it, but they really have to do the nature journaling correctly if this is doing to serve as science in the early years. 🙂

  • Reply Anonymous December 6, 2013 at 12:31 am

    What brand of notebook do you use for your Commonplace Book? Have you found one you really like?
    Julie in St. Louis

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 6, 2013 at 12:35 am

      I still do not have a favorite! Right now, I’m using a handmade book that my sister-in-law brought back for me from Indonesia. The great part about it is that the pages are very thick. The bad part is that I think I’d prefer spiral binding because it doesn’t lay flat. I hope that someday I will have a favorite to share. Maybe you will find one and tell ME? 🙂

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