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    Using Signs & Seasons with Charlotte Mason Families

    May 6, 2015 by Jay Ryan

    [dropcap]A[/dropcap]s discussed in my previous guest post, Charlotte Mason taught that education should include time spent outdoors, closely observing nature.  For most families, this typically includes studying plants and animals, but likely does not include methodical observations of the sky.  In our contemporary culture, astronomy is mostly ignored, treated as an optional topic of specialty interest, an “indoor” activity consisting of reading books about the solar system and outer space, with nothing to observe.  One does not often hear of any sort of astronomy study that includes methodical outdoor observation of the Sun, Moon, stars and planets, and their cycles.

    Using Signs and Seasons with Charlotte Mason Families

    Growing up, I always fancied myself as an astronomy enthusiast.  I had read many astronomy books and watched all the PBS astronomy science programs on TV.  However, like everyone else today, I had no knowledge or experience with observing the sky.  I only knew a handful of constellations, such as the Big Dipper and Orion, which I learned as a kid.  Like everyone, I was mystified at the alleged constellations, how anyone could find such patterns in the stars.

    I’d see the Moon and notice that sometimes it was a crescent and other times it was full, but had no idea that there was any order to these phases.  I also heard that there was such a thing as a “lunar calendar,” but had no idea what that entailed.  Like everyone, I noticed that the seasons changed, that the days would grow longer and shorter, but had no idea what that was all around, or that this might have been related to astronomy.  I also had never seen a planet, and believed that they could only be seen with fancy telescopes.

    When I was nearly 30 years old, I discovered amateur astronomy, the hobby of owning and using a telescope.  I found out that I, like everyone, had labored under common misconceptions.  I found out that the planets were not only visible to the eye without a telescope, but were among the brightest “stars” in the sky, especially Jupiter and Venus.  I found out that there was a logical progression to the Moon’s phases, and that the lunar calendar was as simple as following that progression from night to night over the span of a month.  I discovered that the constellations were not really all that hard to find, as long as one applies some consistent effort in observing the sky.

    Learning to observe the sky blessed my life tremendously.  There are many wonderful things going on above our heads every night of our lives.  I learned firsthand that the heavens declare the glory of God.  However, it saddened me that these glories went unnoticed by the majority of people in our modern culture.  My own path to learning the sky had difficulties, partly because there were no educational materials available to teach a novice where to begin and what to look for.  In 1990, I set out to research the subject, to create curriculum materials to help others learn the sky.

    The fruit of that research is our homeschool curriculum, Signs & Seasons: Understanding the Elements of Classical Astronomy {S&S}.  It would be my hope that CM families would consider S&S to be a “living book” as Miss Mason described.  I was honored that AmblesideOnline has added S&S for Year 7.  In this way, I hope that CM families will use S&S to conduct their own methodical observations of the sky, and themselves learn firsthand how “the heavens declare the glory of God.”

    The Prologue of S&S explains that the Sun, Moon and stars have been given by God for timekeeping, for maintaining a calendar.  The calendar tradition has flowed down through history, including the American astronomical almanacks, which were used by our ancestors for finding the times of planting and harvest.

    Chapter 1 begins with the sunrise.  This chapter explains the daily motion of the Sun across the sky, and relates it to the rotation of the Earth.  The compass points are introduced, along with their relation to the Sun’s daily motion.

    Chapter 2 discusses the nighttime and the constellations.  Some important foundational concepts are introduced, such as the spherical appearance of the sky, and useful circles that span the sky.

    In Chapter 3, the cycle of the phases of the Moon are explained, including detailed instructions for spotting the Moon at various times of the day and night, and how to understand these sightings in terms of the Moon’s orbit around the Earth.

    A particular band of constellations is introduced in Chapter 4, through which the Sun, Moon and planets appear to move.  These constellations are collectively known as the zodiac.  A detailed explanation is offered of the differences between astrology and astronomy, and how to draw a proper distinction.

    Chapter 5 begins to tie together the concepts learned in previous chapters, and shows how the annual cycle of the Sun’s apparent motion through the zodiac is the cause for the changing seasons.

    In Chapter 6, the seasonal constellations are discussed, explaining why certain constellations are visible in certain seasons and not in others.

    Chapter 7 gives detailed information about seeing the classical planets, explaining the various aspects of their cycles, and how to spot them in the sky.

    The Epilogue of S&S discusses in detail the calendar, explaining its history and tying together all the concepts presented in the other chapters, to provide a complete understanding our how our system of telling the time of day, the day of the month, and the month of the year is based on the cycles of the Sun and Moon.

    The entire purpose of S&S is to help the student become an observer of the sky.  The text is heavily illustrated, with over 400 images to help prepare the students for what they might expect to see while observing the sky.  In fact, the illustrations are part of the lesson, not just decorations, as in other curricula.  The companion field journal mainly includes pre-made tables for recording sky observations, to facilitate notebooking.  Though the S&S course can be done for high school credit, it is intended for students 13+.

    The entirety of S&S is written from a Biblical perspective, and includes a description of the Hebrew lunar calendar, and also the astronomy for Passover and Easter.  The text includes Scripture verses throughout, and also quotations by historical writers from down through history.  In this way, it is hoped that the student will see how astronomy was once a well-known subject in centuries past.

    We also offer a FREE email newsletter, to alert the readers to upcoming sky events.  You can sign up at our website, Classical Astronomy.  Be aware that there will be an amazing alignment of the bright planets Venus and Jupiter during the month of July, 2015.  These planets will be drawing closer throughout May and June, with their closest approach on July 1.  We will also be covering this and other happenings in the sky on our Facebook page.

    I’m always happy to answer email and provide any help to homeschool families, so please drop me a line anytime.  Also, you can save money on the curriculum by ordering from  Whatever course you use, I hope that you will consider studying astronomy with your homeschool family.


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  • Reply Debra Perkins October 11, 2019 at 9:21 pm

    Brandy, did you do S&S in circle time and go and observe that evening?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 12, 2019 at 6:56 am

      Yes! And I usually did it once the days were a little shorter so we weren’t up sooo late at night. 🙂

  • Reply Jennifer May 9, 2015 at 7:40 am

    Thank you for posting this Brandy. This book has been on my wish list for a while and was planning on using it with my children in their 7th and 8th-grade years. After reading your post, I may pick it up a bit earlier. We were blessed to find out that our local nature center has a host of amazing programs. Most recently we went on an astronomy night hike. It was lovely!

  • Reply Kathy Wickward May 6, 2015 at 5:10 pm

    Any ideas for those of us with fickle weather – more clouds than sun? I was tenacious for a while, but you lose something when tracking over a period of a few days, and then the next few the cloud cover messes it all up. We also struggle with an excess of trees – great for nature study, but not so great for sky study.

    • Reply jay May 8, 2015 at 12:16 pm

      Kathy, I live in Cleveland, Ohio, which has the most number of cloudy days in the USA outside of Seattle. The trick is persistence! If I can learn this stuff, anyone can! For the curriculum, I recommend using planetarium software to cover the gaps in the cloudy nights. There is a free app called Stellarium that I recommend, but there are many commercial programs as well. There are also numerous phone apps, like StarWalk. As for trees, can’t help you there. Chain saw, perhaps? 🙂

      • Reply Kathy Wickward May 12, 2015 at 7:19 am

        Thank you, Jay – we would be the folks in Seattle. I will look into the software and we’ll look forward to staying up late in the summer!

  • Reply Brandy Vencel May 6, 2015 at 12:22 pm

    Just so you all know, I think the first two chapters are covered in Y7, with an emphasis on field work. In AO Y8 science (which hasn’t been released yet because it’s waiting on approval) S&S should be used again, with more chapters covered. I love that they are doing it this way because I found that stretching the book out was exactly what encouraged us to build those sky-gazing habits.

  • Reply Melissa May 6, 2015 at 8:45 am

    Thank you for posting this overview of Signs & Seasons Brandy. I’ve always wondered about this book and am very intrigued to see it added as an Ambleside choice!

    • Reply Patty May 6, 2015 at 11:04 am

      Yay! makes me excited for next year. will be doing AO year 7.

      Since we have been on the topic of combining recently, I will have two younger students ages 8 &9 doing year 3 in the fall. Would you recommend including them in our astronomy studies or waiting to introduce them to Signs and Seasons when they get to year 7?

      • Reply jay May 6, 2015 at 11:18 am

        If I can chime in, I say get the whole family involved in the observation. This will be a great year with the Jupiter/Venus thing and the “Blood Moon” eclipse in the fall. A lot of moms have used S&S with little ones, as a “sit down and read” book. It’s so heavily illustrated that I think little one can grasp a lot. -jay

      • Reply Brandy Vencel May 6, 2015 at 12:20 pm

        I agree with Jay. The first time I did S&S was actually when all of my children were technically too young. 🙂 We did it in Circle Time, really small chunks per sitting. They got a lot out of it. It will definitely be beneficial for us to do it again when they are the “right” age — for sure! — but still we learned a lot, and those little chunks were things we could then go outside and apply. That was what I tried to do — apply it as soon as we could. It built a habit of looking at the sky, which was such a great thing for us all!

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