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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    Back at the Beginning Again

    September 15, 2016 by Brandy Vencel

    For reasons that I’ll be making clear in the coming weeks, I’ve returned to the pages of Norms and Nobility. I haven’t read but a few excerpts for a couple years, so it has been interesting to go back through it. I remember the wrestling that took place the first couple times I read it — it was such a struggle, both to understand as well as to sort out where I stood in relationship to it. And, like all good books, I find that the reading never wears out or grows old. Instead, it grows with. I’m in a new place, and as I return to my own primary sources — Charlotte Mason, David Hicks, James Taylor, Cindy Rollins — those who influenced me when I was in my twenties and just opening my mind to such things — I find new inspiration, and I read it with new perspective.

    It is amazing to me how some ideas can stay fresh.

    If education is a journey and our philosophy is the map, where we begin not only matters, but it actually determines our route.

    Beginnings matter.

    In fact, educational philosophy places perhaps an unusual importance upon beginnings. I know we were joking about our educational GPS system, but there were some grains of truth in the metaphor. We come to homeschooling on a journey, philosophically speaking. In addition to that, educating a child is a journey — and some people would pay good money for a map.

    The thing with maps is that it doesn’t usually matter where you begin, or even which route you take, so long as you know exactly where you’re going. A maps app can get you there, amIright?

    Education isn’t like that. The journey metaphor fits and yet doesn’t fit for this reason, because it’s one of the few “journeys” where the beginning place matters.

    In Norms and Nobility, David Hicks wrote, “Education at every level reflects our primary assumptions about the nature of man.” This is the beginning. Who do we believe man is and what is his purpose? What is he like and what ought he to be?

    If education is a journey and our philosophy is the map, where we begin not only matters, but it actually determines our route. If I believe children are little computers that need to be filled with data, I’m going to educate in a very different way from, say, Charlotte Mason, who says children are persons.

    If education is a journey and our philosophy is the map, where we begin not only matters, but it actually determines our route.
    Oh yes, I did.

    This is why Charlotte Mason’s 20 principles begin with a definition of the child — of what the child is like — because that is where educational philosophy must begin.

    The discussion of the route to take — meaning the curriculum to choose and the methods to employ — are all determined by that beginning point of what is man and what is his purpose. Miss Mason lived in a still-Christian world. They knew what persons were; there was only doubt as to whether children actually were persons at birth. Our age has a different problem, for we have forgotten what persons are. Thankfully, good theology and catechisms can rescue us.

    Hicks also raises the question of what a school is. I never caught this before, possibly because, as a homeschooler, I thought I didn’t really care what a school was. But to Hicks, the school is there representing the Ideal:

    The good school does not just offer what the student or the parent or the state desires, but it says something about what these three ought to desire. A school is fundamentally a normative, not a utilitarian, institution, governed by the wise, not by the many.

    I found myself thinking about Charlotte Mason, studying away, planning curriculum for her schools and college, training teachers in her methods — aiming to become wise, that she might guide all the schools that were depending on her to set the course through both curriculum as well as method.

    I also thought about this in terms of the homeschooling parent. We run into tensions between what the student is and what he ought to be, and sometimes we end up with a curricular dispute. We give a child something good for him, such as Robinson Crusoe, and he rejects it because it’s difficult reading. I’m not saying we never adjust. I’m not saying that dyslexia will never interfere with our fine ideals. But — stay with me here — do we stand with Wisdom and cry aloud at the top of the high places, “If you will be wise, climb up here.”

    Or do we say, “Oh, you poor thing. Climbing is so hard.” And we hand him the easy road, which is to say, the book he desires instead of the book that he needs.

    It’s a tricky thing, education. There are so many directions in which we feel pulled, so many people with opinions about methods, so many thoughts on the ultimate goal, and even so many beliefs about the beginning place.

    But like I said earlier: the whole map matters when it comes to education. This is unlike so many other things. In order to “get there” (if we ever actually get there), we must start in the right place, travel the rights paths, and aim for the right end.

    That’s enough to make us throw in the towel, isn’t it?

    I think that’s unnecessary. It might sound like I’m pushing for perfection here, but I’m really not. I’m pushing for prioritization. We need to remember that these things matter, and that when things start feeling chaotic in the day-to-day, there might be a philosophical reason for that. My wise friend, Pam, once said that one of the reasons we try to do too much is that we’re lacking in direction.

    We start with a blank map. Or, worse: some of us start with a faulty one and have to do a lot of erasing.

    So. Don’t forget to study. To read and think. To ask the hard questions about education. If you’re feeling kind of lost, that’s a sign it’s time to start filling in your map.

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  • Reply Thoughtworthy | Afterthoughts September 20, 2019 at 1:47 am

    […] I had completely forgotten about this post, even though it contained one of my first Charlotte Mason… Worth reading, I think. A few years old, but still true. […]

  • Reply Missy Watts September 21, 2016 at 6:05 pm

    I am currently listening to the dramatized version of Pilgrim’s Progress in sections with my children. We just heard the part where two “pilgrims” jump the fence and explain that the master will let them in because they are on the path. Christian explains that there is only one gate and they skipped it so they aren’t fully equipped for the journey ahead (as evidenced by their decision at the next stop). I am wondering if this is similar – because we are talking about discipleship – not just education – in the end? To form the whole person requires a right foundation. The amazing thing about Christianity is that God will re-shape you from the wreckage at any point in your life. As parents we are hoping to skip some of the wreckage and help lay a strong foundation from the beginning.

    Your “Come up here” story is convicting me. I am going to have to be tougher around here with my older one. The path of difficulty is not fun but it is the right way (mixing my metaphors). I can’t wait to hear more about what you are working on!

  • Reply JenB September 17, 2016 at 1:45 pm

    This is excellent.

  • Reply Megan September 17, 2016 at 11:38 am

    I love this. I’m in a Scholé Sisters group that is just starting in my area and is using your Start Here book. We are discussing the first principle next week and this will be perfect to share and contemplate together. 🙂

    I loved what you said about our view of children being the determining factor in our route and destination and that when we do too much it is often because we lack direction. That is so true. It made me think of the AO conference when Lynne Bruce encouraged us to trust the process and not to feel like we have to add to it. That has helped me relax and enjoy the process so much more and to use the “map” I have:) This post drove that home again for me. Everything really is coming full circle and there’s rest in that. Your blog is such a blessing! Thank you!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel September 19, 2016 at 2:38 pm

      Ooh! I hadn’t made that connection to Lynn’s talk, but I see it now. I love that, Megan. ♥

  • Reply Melissa Greene September 15, 2016 at 7:11 pm

    I’ve read this through twice and am still processing. This part resonated with me since this is a current struggle I’m having….

    We run into tensions between what the student is and what he ought to be, and sometimes we end up with a curricular dispute. We give a child something good for him, such as Robinson Crusoe, and he rejects it because it’s difficult reading. I’m not saying we never adjust. I’m not saying that dyslexia will never interfere with our fine ideals. But — stay with me here — do we stand with wisdom and cry aloud at the top of the high places, “If you will be wise, climb up here.”

    Or do we say, “Oh, you poor thing. Climbing is so hard.” And we hand him the easy road, which is to say the book he desires instead of the book that he needs.

    …though, I realize it wasn’t the main idea of the post.

    I’d like more guidance or thoughts on how to handle this struggle. What would Charlotte do? Did she push through obstinate children? How does one know if it’s in the best interest of the child or some personal agenda that really doesn’t matter in the big picture? I totally view my children as born persons!…but I have one that’s putting me over the edge, ha!

    Anyway, that’s my rant for today :-p

    • Reply Brandy Vencel September 17, 2016 at 7:38 am

      It’s an interesting thing, to ask what CM would do {do we need WWCMD bracelets??}. I say that because she chose curriculum for *schools* and it was just implemented — there weren’t adjustments made for individual children. And there are places in her writings where she seems to insist that this is a good thing — which makes sense if we view curriculum as a course run, or as something that should be common to persons in a culture.

      With that said, it’s not like I’ve ever made adjustments. My understanding is that, in the context of a CM school, the most likely adjustment would be putting a child in a different From than their age. So, Forms were mixed grades — two or three grades in a Form. Advanced children could, hypothetically, be moved up a Form; struggling learners could be moved down. I have pondered this as a possible application.

      We have one that struggles a lot. I have rarely switched out books for her, but I have been tempted to do so a million times! My biggest solution has just been to read the hard books aloud. In fact, that is what I did with Robinson Crusoe for her — read it aloud, broke for narrations more often than I’ve done with the other two who have read it, etc. I have also considered spreading two grades out over three years. So, same or similar content, but allowing for shorter readings. I also think that struggling learners need a lot more support — so making more of the lessons like the Plutarch lessons by starting with a “what happened last time” to trigger memory, covering vocabulary, writing some proper nouns on the white board so they aren’t forgotten, and breaking the readings up for multiple narrations.

      This is the harder path, but the interesting thing is I feel like she always rises to the occasion when I do this. With that said, I also know there is a level of severity at which it really would be too much. But that is when I think that, for a book like Robinson Crusoe, the solution would be to do it later on in the child’s education, rather than to skip it. It’s such a hard balance and requires so much wisdom, I think!

      • Reply Lorraine September 17, 2016 at 2:27 pm

        Hi Brandy,

        It’s been a while, but it was nice to slip in and read your blog entry today. What a blessing for your readers that you are still busy learning, growing, and sharing!

        Both your post and Melissa’s inquiry reminded me of a discussion in which Carol Hepburn and I both ended up affirming similar conclusions about dealing with struggling readers….

        In short, we both believed that any literature read should be living, and that a broad banquet should be offered and received…., but that the actual books themselves could be both varied from an initial plan, and more limited if need be.

        I think our wording was that the specific books in question, were themselves not the issue. The more important part is the implementation of CM more and more, rather than less and less.

        In some cases, doing too many books compromises how we implement CM.

        While we did not come out and say quite all of this, most of what I am putting into words here in this little response was already understood amongst those in the group and between the two of us…., so I’m definitely rephrasing a good bit…. but the point is……..

        That the angst about any given book does not need to exist.

        That the process of taking in some proper food, and then of digesting it well….. by reading, narrating, and at times engaging in the Grand Conversation? And doing so with enough diverse, yet at times similarly themed materials, that the Science of Relations is actively engaged and exercised in the heart and mind of the young scholar.

        That’s what was most important to us, in looking back at our years with gifted, yet struggling scholars.


        As for what Charlotte Mason would do, in a classroom setting?

        Those struggling learners who were exposed to Charlotte Mason styled classes? Oh, they learned so much by watching their fellow scholars wrangle with the texts which they themselves merely struggled with. It reminds me a bit of Karen Glass speaking of what it is like to grow by failing to narrate well (in her posts on narration in Magnanimity, some time past?).

        These struggling learners who hear their peers put things into words which they realize are correct, provide a narration for their mind, and a tug on their heart to grow……

        On the other hand, with the writing of narrations on paper, it is clearly expressed in CM-writings/PRArticles (somewhere or other) that students who struggled with the written work could still provide narrations verbally while other students were doing their writing….

        All of that is lovely and wonderful……. but that classroom full of children helping the struggling scholar see what can be done, and what could be culled out of the day’s readings? That’s something that most of us homeschoolers are unable to duplicate.

        For that reason, I’m a little more inclined than perhaps you are to encourage a change in venue ***when needed***.

        But then, perhaps my gifted/struggling scholars might have had more struggles than yours…….

        I definitely believe in having some reading below the child’s reading level, at the child’s reading level, and some a good bit above the child’s reading level as well.

        One last thought, for any mom wondering what to do with their own children, would be that, in the PRArticles, it is mentioned at least once that, in the study of science texts, two supports should be provided for the child:

        1) that the child see a demonstration of what is to be read prior to the reading (rather than vice versa)…. and this has much to do with visualizing what is being read……. which was something not to be done in geography in her day (written descriptions of huts, the people in them, and the lifestyle they lived out looking just this way or that did not require a lot of new, foreign vocabulary, so such descriptions as were included in geography readings of her day helped a child to construct a mental image through the reading of a picture utterly unfamiliar to the child….. an excellent exercise in tying pictures to words and words to pictures in the files of the mind — but in science, this is so different, because there can be so much new vocabulary – so much that a child is unable to visualize from a text filled with unfamiliar verbage – oh, BTW, in the case of the geography lesson, the student’s narration was often to be in the form of a drawn narration…, if the drawing did not match the verbal description in the book, it was considered incorrect)

        2) that the student be allowed, at the discretion of the teacher, to prepare his science reading ahead of time….. – that is, he could look up any vocabulary words ahead of time, and then ponder the meaning of the sentences with all these new terms, all while preparing to read the text aloud, with full expression of tone (demonstrating understanding)….. The next class lesson, some students would indeed be called upon to read out loud, and they should be able to do so with good clear diction and a demonstration of understanding (as seen through those vocal inflections).

        • Reply Melissa Greene September 17, 2016 at 7:42 pm

          Thanks so much ladies for your time and thoughtful responses! Brandy, I actually did think of WWCMD bracelets as I was typing that 🙂

          My problem is not so much with difficult reading since I would most likely read it aloud or find an audio if it was too far advanced. This particular child LOVES to be read to. My problem is more of a heart/character issue I think. It’s a horrendous attitude in most other subjects such as writing and math or anything extra. He would be a willing participant if all we did was read.

          Since he’s just begun 6th grade and can read somewhat independently after graduating this spring from the Children’s Dyslexia Center, I wanted to introduce written narration. He’s been doing copywork for some time, but it’s a struggle….and certainly not best effort, but rather hurry up and get it done. As I’m typing, I’m realizing, our issue has more to do with writing than reading….the actual physical act as well as composing.

          Lorraine, I was struck by what you wrote here…

          it is clearly expressed in CM-writings/PRArticles (somewhere or other) that students who struggled with the written work could still provide narrations verbally while other students were doing their writing….

          If anyone is privy to these particular articles, I would love to learn more.

          Yes, Brandy, it is so hard to find that balance of knowing exactly when to push and how much. I often wonder at his capability vs. his attitude. It feels like a guessing game or constant tug-of-war.

          Now that I think of it, this child also hates orally narrating as well. Maybe we need to spend more time on it before transitioning to written work?

          I’m kinda thinking out lout here…

          Thanks Again,

          • Lorraine September 17, 2016 at 10:20 pm

            Melissa, I’m sorry that I’ve been out of kilter from the series/PRArticles in my current research…., I’m working predominantly from my notes for a little while…. so I can only say that, for now, I don’t have a clue.

            I did try to do a quick search at the AO site, but came up with a blank for now….. I’ll let you know if I find it in the near future (I could post to Brandy maybe?)

            It sounds like you are quite the caring mama! What a fortunate family!

          • Brandy Vencel September 19, 2016 at 2:43 pm

            Melissa, I think it’s so tricky! I constantly pray for wisdom in these things because it is hard to tease out what is character, what is “real” in the sense of other factors. Some of the things I’ve read recently have caused me MORE confusion — for example, with dysgraphia…so the difficulty of the physical act of writing actually seems to raise cortisol levels — so the child is experiencing way more stress than he would be if he were “normal.” Which makes sense, but cause me to start guessing wildly about how much to push, you know? Because I firmly believe that there is a part of learning that requires grit or fight or whatever we want to call it…but how much is too much? It’s so hard!

            I’ve been thinking a lot about alternative therapies for these things. I hope to someday write about them, but for now we are still too unsure — we aren’t sure if we really “know” things, if that makes sense…

          • Brandy Vencel September 19, 2016 at 2:45 pm

            Thanks for dropping by, Lorraine. I would love to know which PR articles you are referring to as well. 🙂

          • Melissa Greene September 19, 2016 at 7:59 pm

            …so the difficulty of the physical act of writing actually seems to raise cortisol levels — so the child is experiencing way more stress than he would be if he were “normal….Interesting stuff Brandy and it makes perfect sense. I would wonder if the physical act of writing causes the cortisol to rise or some other factor, which in turn inhibits the ability to write. Sort of like , the chicken and the egg scenario. Then again, cortisol is a hormone released in stressful situations which is most likely coming from the struggle to write. On the other hand, then what is causing the inability to write? Again, kinda thinking out loud here. Let me know if you find interesting recommended reading 🙂

            I’ve been thinking a lot about alternative therapies for these things….we’ve sought outside therapies for dyslexia/dysgraphia with some mixed success. Let me know if you have questions or feel free to e-mail me privately.

          • Lorraine September 19, 2016 at 9:20 pm

            FWIW, I came to the conclusion, with writing in particular – though in most other areas (perhaps I should have reconsidered a point or two…., looking back), that if our dysgraphic child was strained in working on a skill, I assumed it was not character. If the child was acting out with anything akin to sass, rolling eyes, or other types of a rebellious attitude, that was a character issue. That was handled separately from the skill, say, of writing…..

            I did very little written work with our oldest son (the one who was dysgraphic). Our dyslexic son? That was different. We pushed him more….. I don’t think I’d change that overall plan, though I’d adjust some things (not a perfect mom, of course).

            IMHO, with our dysgraphic son, the fact that we emphasized verbal work, discussing what writing would require, asking my son what he would write for various target audiences, etc. did a lot to produce a sense that he had something *worth writing* (he had a form of dysgraphia that also results in a huge vocabulary – he was really good with words), so he had patience to stretch with actual pencil and paper *occasionally*. The more intense the stretch, the longer I waited between writing assignments.

            e.g. – back when he first did timeline entries, I asked for one every single week…., after a while, I asked for one every week – but with a time limit….. When a writing was an outline (much later), I lowered the amount of readings in other subjects (e.g. – we didn’t finish some books during various terms/years, though we started *most* of them)….; When writing was more of direct composition, that was so much more of a strain. No other writing was required for weeks, if not months….. depending on how much the stretch and strain had been.

            In the case of the musculo-skeletal system, it takes time to heal a stretched muscle. Simply overnight if one is healthy. Longer if one has an auto-immune disease.

            With the mind, will, and emotions? Allowing enough time for the emotions and even mind to resettle after a significant stretch and even strain? That is vital.

            Pushing on a regular basis is not what got my dysgraphic son to write a book.


            That said, I did push our dyslexic son. He regularly ‘lost’ his checklist page (Karen Glass spoke of having had a checklist of skills learned *after* her children were older…., including some of the basics, such as caps, periods, etc. – we had done that as well, but we also included words which were habitually misspelled even though they had been studied….., as an aside, that son spelled more effectively on words he had not studied – even via focused copywork, such as the ‘friendly’ copywork that Lynn Bruce once spoke of, FWIW).

            Since that dyslexic son didn’t regularly lose other things, the losses resulted in a push back on my part.

            I wish I’d kept a photocopy of that ‘list’ so he could have simply made a new copy again, but somehow, that possibility slipped my mind.

            It would have been my best ‘push back’. It might have reduced other aspects of push in both directions.

            Other than that, I’m not sorry that I pushed our dyslexic son, though we only asked him to work on writing a good bit later than CM typically recommended.

            Oh, in his case, he had a relatively temporary form of dyslexia. He had late blooming eyes, and once they ‘bloomed’, he could readily grow into ability —- on a slower pace than his peers, since he didn’t have those younger years of establishing a foundation to grow upon, but he had the ability.


            If I knew more, I might have changed things a good bit, but with what I knew at the time, I’m pleased enough, overall.

            Again, I’d make some tweeks, being imperfect and all, but the overall idea of pushing the particular type of dyslexic we had, while not pushing the dysgraphic son *often*? That I think will stand the test of science, over time?

            All of which I shared because of this idea of raised cortisol……

            That makes so much sense to me.

            I don’t think the raised cortisol is the cause. I think it is just one of many sub-symptoms.

  • Reply Sharron September 15, 2016 at 12:49 pm

    This was good reading on a not so good day. Thank you!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel September 19, 2016 at 2:44 pm

      Sorry you had a bad day, Sharron, 🙁

  • Reply Dawn September 15, 2016 at 11:50 am

    Brilliant. Particularly the graphics.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel September 19, 2016 at 2:45 pm

      Thanks for noticing the graphics, Dawn. I laughed while making that second one. 😉

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