[I]f the lessons be judiciously alternated — sums first, say, while the brain is quite fresh; then writing, or reading — some more or less mechanical exercise, by way of a rest; and so on, the program varying a little from day to day, but the same principle throughout — a ‘thinking’ lesson first and a ‘painstaking’ lesson to follow, — the child gets through his morning lessons without any sign of weariness.Charlotte Mason, Home Education
We call it alternation when we place unlike subjects back to back in the lessons schedule. The concept is embodied in Charlotte Mason’s 13th principle, which says “The knowledge should be various, for sameness in mental diet does not create appetite.” The idea is both variety in the sense of a broad and generous curriculum, but also literal variety in the subject. Miss Mason believed this kept the mind fresh. The way she saw it, fewer breaks were needed and so the schedule was more efficient.
There is a sense in which this can be thought of as micro-alternation — mixing it up throughout the day. But Miss Mason also mixed it up throughout the week. If you look at the sample of her time-tables, you will notice that all days were not alike. They were similar, yes, but not exact. One good example is from Class III. There was a twenty-minute time slot that began at 11:00. On Monday, students did geography at that time. On Tuesday, it was English history. On Wednesday, it was Latin. And so on and so forth.
I haven’t done this in my school schedule because it isn’t very practical when you are teaching more than one grade. My schedule is designed for the whole — to have certain students doing independent work while others are with me.
But, if I were burnt out — or burning out — I think I would look into this type of macro-alternation.
In fact, there was a type of ultra-macro-alternation that is mentioned in The Story of Charlotte Mason, the biography written by one of Mason’s students, Essex Cholmondeley. It seems that Miss Mason would sometimes ring a bell and call off the whole school day for her college students. This was usually on a particularly fine day (especially if it came after a long bout of inclement weather), and they would spend all of that time hiking around and enjoying (and studying!) nature.
When we are thinking about preventing homeschool burnout, I think there is a sense in which mixing it up can really help. Miss Mason wasn’t afraid to do something different for a day, and sometimes that is in order for us, too. I remember reading a blog post years ago by a woman who had become overwhelmed by the state of her house. After feeling that sick-to-her-stomach feeling for too many days, she finally called the day off. Instead of lessons, she and her children worked their tails off. It was not a “day of rest” by any stretch of the imagination. They decluttered, they tidied, they scrubbed, and they cleaned.
The next day, they picked back up with their studies and it was a totally different type of school day because the big, heavy weight Mom had been carrying was gone.
So even a work day can be a way to mix it up. Yes, probably the most helpful thing about it was that something that really needed to be done actually got done. But there is also a sense in which the change of pace and the alternation of labor types is in itself refreshing.
I think that many of us who are familiar with Charlotte Mason’s principles tend to have a handle on micro-alternation. But sometimes (especially in February), that isn’t enough. This is when macro-alternation can come in handy. Think of it as a trick you keep up your sleeve for that special time of year when you feel desperate.
I was thinking about fires as I was finishing up this series. How can I kill this analogy? I asked myself. So I thought about fuel, the one thing we haven’t mentioned yet (we’ve covered oxygen, spark, and kindling, if you recall). How can alternation provide fuel? I decided that really, alternation provides refreshment. That’s its power.
So maybe, in the end, the fuel is us. It doesn’t fit the analogy as well as to say that alternation is the fuel, but maybe we could come close and say that at the very least alternation throws another log on the fire, and that’s something.
A friend recently told me that, in February, her children’s school never has a full week.
President’s Day, in-services, whatever — the school has four-day weeks the whole month.
That is our solution: a macro-alternation day each week in February! Go outside, plan a big craft project, clean the house — whatever. Do what needs to be done or what you want to get done. The point is to mix it up.
So. The practical steps to preventing homeschool burnout.
Want to think more about homeschool burnout? Try this episode from Scholé Sisters:
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