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Tips on Turning Reluctant Notebookers into Keepers

December 16, 2014 by Brandy Vencel

BY TAMMY GLASER

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t is one thing for families and students steeped in a Charlotte Mason philosophy of education to keep notebooks. It is quite another to introduce keeping during a paradigm shift to her methods.

How to introduce notebooks later on in a child's education.

In her final volume, Mason spotlighted what distinguishes her theory from what was is in practice at the time {Volume 6 , pp. 6-7}.

  • The children, not the teachers, are the responsible persons; they do the work by self-effort. Don’t we typically blame teachers and/or parents when children fail to learn?
  • The teachers give sympathy and occasionally elucidate, sum up or enlarge, but the actual work is done by the scholars. Don’t we feel like we aren’t doing enough if we aren’t actively teaching our kids?
  • The quantity set for each lesson allows of only a single reading; but the reading is tested by narration, or by writing on a test passage. Isn’t it easy to slip into giving them a second chance when met with stares especially for older students starting CM?
  • The best available book is chosen and is read through perhaps in the course of two or three years. The books used are, whenever possible, literary in style. Which is why we thank AmblesideOnline for helping us find those gems in a world that prizes informational writing.
  • Marks, prizes, places, rewards, punishments, praise, blame, or other inducements are not necessary to secure attention, which is voluntary, immediate and surprisingly perfect. What do we do with students who have only known external motivation and struggle with attention?

Not much has changed in ninety years!

So, how does one foster notebooking to students used to extensive reviews and test preparation, textbooks written in an informational style chock full of sidebars and graphics, and external motivation?

While I don’t have all the answers, I’m learning.

Narrating after a single reading is hard. Students are used to black and white questions {true or false, yes or no, multiple choice}, copying teacher’s notes, and skimming a text for answers because the writing style is boring. Such activities do not require much attention and very little thinking. I have seen top students from traditional schools give me blank stares and awkward giggles because narration sounds easy but they find it hard.

If they do not pay attention, then there will be nothing to notebook. I learned this when a junior high student sketched a black-and-white two-winged butterfly with a smiley face on a day that was too cold for butterflies. I get what I inspect, and I had not been checking nature notebooks carefully. As I suspected, the student had not paid attention to anything on the walk. I handed him a sweet gum ball stashed in my pocket. He knew what it was, drew it, and wrote a paragraph about it. Then, we enjoyed the glorious pictures of sweet gum balls in the book Seeing Trees by Nancy Hugo and Robert Llewellyn.

The first thing I have learned is to set an atmosphere of expecting and encouraging.

Expecting – looking forward to; regarding as likely to happen; anticipating.

Encouraging – inspiring with courage, spirit, or confidence.

I expect them to pay attention and encourage them when they falter. Eventually, they realize three things. First, they must read to know. Second, they can listen to fellow students narrate. Third, they will not get the chance to read it again. I say very little while they narrate as a group except to repeat what a quiet person says. If they all missed an important idea, I might say something very general to see if someone does know. The more that I help them remember, the more I hurt them in the long run. Saying less is more.

At first, I spend a lot of time filling their awkward pauses with warm smiles, hopeful they will remember something. It is very difficult for me to keep quiet and wait for them to struggle day after day. I keep my own notebooks to help me empathize with their struggles. Then, suddenly, the light dawns. They retell in their own words and make their own connections. That glorious day is worth the wait.

Disposability is an issue Mason did not face. Everything can be tossed out today, especially knowledge. Technology flies facts to our fingertips immediately. People believe that learning where things are on a map and when people lived is not necessary when we can look it up. How can students make connections when facts are not readily available in their minds?

Students are used to storing notes, worksheets, study guides, etc. that require very little thought into three-ringed binders. They cram information into their brain long enough to pass the class. Then, they click open the rings and dump out the paperwork, which has no value or meaning to them. A concrete act reflects the mental act of data dumping what is in their mind.

We must give notebooks an enduring air. When I handed out their books of centuries {beautiful bound volumes sold by Laurie Bestvater}, I said, “You will use these books until the day you graduate.” Many were surprised! How often does a student receive something they will hang onto for six years? Then, I added, “In fact, I hope you will add to them after you graduate.” We cleared off a separate shelf in the classroom for these treasures. They are too beautiful to shove into individual crates where the students store supplies.

I encourage them to use composition books, journals, and unlined sketch books. I never write in their books. They are too sacred. If I have comments — which are positive — I write them on sticky notes. I am guiding them toward simple requirements such as dating the entry, writing on the next page {rather than any random page}, finishing their thoughts, etc. I let them know that researching the topic at home and copying that to make up for failing to pay attention in class isn’t narrating.

I have noticed something interesting. Some students do not see the difference between the ugly spiral notebooks and bound books. The kids who “get it” want their science, nature, and history notebooks {narrations} in very nice books. One told me, “I was a bit disappointed because I left my science notebook at school. I had to write it on this [lined loose paper]. Since I don’t have homework, I might as well add it.” Then, he turned to me and said, “I think I’m finally seeing why it’s better to have everything neatly written in one notebook.”

Paying careful attention to their notebooking is paying off. I’m seeing original expressions. Compare how students addressed the struggles of Dr. Horace Wells.

  • “The man groaned and the crowd started to boo and Dr. Horace ran away.”
  • “Dr. Wells lived in shame and had to stop dental work because of mental breakdowns.”
  • “The crowd didn’t believe in his work now. So Dr. Wells had a mental breakdown and had to retire for a short period of time.”
  • “He quit because he was humiliated.”
  • “The crowd booed Horace off the stage permanently, and he went into hiding and went mad.”

I’m seeing their opinions emerge. I’m seeing initiative. One student looked up the meaning of druid and wrote its original meaning in Latin and Old Irish. Another added something he learned on the history channel to his narration of Stonehenge. I hope to see originality grow in the weeks left in the school year.

Staring at a blank page and putting something on it is daunting. Something small but thoughtful is a good start. Paying attention and noticing allows that first step. In time, daily practice of paying attention and narrating orally and on paper will lead to something they will want to keep.

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Tammy Glaser became interested in Charlotte Mason’s ideas in 2000 and is astonished to find her understanding still unfolding. She speaks at conferences, writes articles, and keeps blogs {Aut-2B-Home in Carolina and rarified}. Her eldest, who has autism and aphasia, keeps company with her at Harvest Community School, a Mason-style private school which hosts all kinds of children including some with a variety of needs: English as a Second Language, Auditory Processing, Dyslexia, Autism, Sensory Processing, etc. Click here to read more about Tammy.

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