I don’t know why exactly, but I feel a bit embarrassed about writing this post. I suppose part of it is that I know I don’t have it all together. I don’t feel like we always attain to these ideals. We’re in the middle of summer and we spend our days doing not much of consequence, unless you count rereading all of the Little House on the Prairie series.
So I thought about trying to get out of writing this post, but then I decided that wasn’t a good idea. We’ve been saying that we’re all really more classical than we think. So maybe I just need new eyes, some fresh perspective, and a little grace for myself. It’s nothing spectacular, but that’s precisely the point. It isn’t the big things, it’s the little things. It just dawned on me that it’s been a whole decade since I was pregnant with my second child and reading Cindy Rollins’ fantastic blog. A new world had just opened up to me. What did it all mean? Phrases like classical education and Charlotte Mason and AmblesideOnline were rolling around in my mind before we started doing “real” school.
I’m indebted to Cindy, really — we started right out of the gate with AmblesideOnline in first grade, and just completed our sixth year of it! The nice thing about AO is that it’s a fully Charlotte Mason curriculum, and Charlotte Mason was all about having our principles give birth to our practices. Because of that emphasis on principles, I’ve had quite a while to think about the little things.
Living out these principles will look different in every family, but here’s what it looks like in ours.
Seeing virtue as the goal means recognizing that this child before me has potential. He isn’t just what he is right now, but also what he is becoming. He is, as Wordsworth so famously said, the “Father of the man.” He is what will someday be, and what I do right now with that matters a whole lot. So I read aloud a lot from really good and noble books because I believe that story forms the moral imagination and has the ability to cultivate virtue in ways that direct teaching just can’t match. I try to take meltdowns in stride, seeing them as opportunities rather than inconveniences. More than anything, though, this goal reminds me to pray. I’m not really the teacher. I’m just the humble vessel. As Augustine once pointed out,
[T]here is no teacher who teaches man knowledge except God according to what is written in the Gospel, “One is your teacher, even Christ.” Matt. 23:10
The only way I can see to implement this on a daily basis is to focus on true understanding, and to emphasize wholes rather than parts. Emphasizing wholes has become a habit for me. As a theology student in my 20’s, I was shocked into memorizing longer passages when I realized how many times I had been mistaught due to verse fragments being taken out of their larger context. Context has been very important to me ever since.
So we memorize whole poems and Scripture passages and sing whole songs (all one million verses of a certain hymn ahem). When reading the Bible aloud, I try to focus on a whole episode. We often can’t read a whole chapter, but we can at least make sure that we’ve read an entire parable, for example, or covered a complete thought. Perhaps the biggest way that we focus on ideas is to have ideas be what we draw out in the course of a lesson. So when we read an episode from history, we do make note of the facts. We note a name or event in our Book of Centuries. But our discussion focuses on the ideas. Later, during exams, we again focus on the ideas.
I already told you I’m not much of a decorator. I was trying to think of something unique for this category, and one thing I came up with is books. I like to call my decorating style “library chic” (code for “decorates with books”). As a child, if you had asked me what was my favorite book, I would have answered that is was Johanna Spyri’s Heidi. But the reason was not that this was my favorite book to read — no! — the reason was because that was the most beautiful book I owned. My aunt had given it to me for one of my birthdays, and I still treasure it to this day. When I buy books for school, I remember that feeling I had as a child that a book was magic because it was so beautiful. I mostly buy used, vintage hardbacks. I’m picky about illustrators. In general, I want the books to be beautiful when they’re on the shelf, and beautiful when they’re in a child’s hand. Some books only come in paperback or Kindle, of course, but if I’m choosing between a new paperback or a vintage used hardback, I choose the latter every single time.
There are a couple practices I’ve incorporated into our school days that draw on the child’s natural impulse to imitate. Most of you have likely heard of them. The first is narration. This is when the child tells back what has been read in his own words. With young children, we do this orally, and as they get older, we transition to written form. I first learned about this in Charlotte Mason’s volumes, but Karen Glass points out in Consider This that Mason was drawing on practices found in the classical tradition. So, for example, she quotes Erasmus as saying:
The master must not omit to set as an exercise the reproduction of what he has given to the class. It involves time and trouble to the teacher, I know well, but it is essential. A literal reproduction of the matter taught is, of course, not required — but the substance of it presented in the pupil’s own way.
We use this for all of our readings — whether they are in history or science or literature, the selections are narrated after they are read. We also use picture visualization. This could almost be called art narration. When we study a painting, we want to come to know it. The child tries to reproduce a picture of it in his mind’s eye. It’s sort of like that baby shower game where you try to remember what items are on a platter. Have you ever played that? Well, it’s similar. Look at the picture, we say, and close your eyes and try to see it in your mind. If an area is hazy, study that area, until you can duplicate the whole thing. After that, we take the painting away, and the child describes it from memory.
I’ve always been of the opinion that poetic knowledge begins with the physical and concrete. This means I’m bad at it, because I like to live inside of my head. For me, then, nature study has been a lifesaver. Setting aside time to go out in nature and really look — to drink in beauty — this has been a lifesaver for me because while Sarah kindly granted that mothers specialize in poetic knowledge, I don’t necessarily see that in my own life.
Sometimes we think we have to overhaul our entire lives in order to embody classical principles, but really it can be as simple as little practices here and there that make all the difference.
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