Charlotte Mason and Mother Culture

Charlotte Mason talks about Mother Culture. It’s a funny play on words. Is the culture supposed to be my mother? Is she talking about socialization for mothers?

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The Domain of Arnheim, Rene Magritte

I like to think of it in a Julia Cameron Artist’s Way kind of way: in order to keep feeding my children a rich diet of art and music and thought, I need to be feeding myself. Like an oxygen mask for a home educator.

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The Happy Donor, Rene Magritte

Or, like the yogurt starter (aka culture) I use every week to make my yogurt. While the recipe books tell me I can use keep using last week’s yogurt to start this weeks, I find the yogurt tastes better if every 2-3 batches I use some fresh starter.

Mason encourages home educators to keep reading books for themselves, not just with their children. She says we should have 3 books going at all times:

Besides my Bible, I always keep three books going that are just for me – a stiff book, a moderately easy book, and a novel or one of poetry. I always take up the one I feel fit for. That is the secret: always have something ‘going’ to grow by.”…

While I don’t strictly adhere to this recommendation, slipping into a book for a few minutes each day helps me immensely. But sometimes I need more than that.

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Paris Street; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte

This month I had a chance to slip away (twice!) to an art museum without my kids. At the beginning of the month, my friend Amy and I hit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for their Magritte exhibit. It was a great collection of works. (I also listened to audio tour through their free app and was able to show my kids a few of the pictures that way. I think it’s freely available even if you can’t make it to the museum in person.) The day was delightful on so many levels: reconnecting with an old friend, amazing art, time away…

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Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare by Claude Monet

Then for my birthday, we happened to be in Chicago. I met my friend Gina at the Art Institute of Chicago. My kids had expressed interest in going, but I said no, not without a twinge of guilt. We had just a few hours, but we hit a whole bunch of my favorites: the Chagall windows, A Rainy Day in Paris, Van Gogh’s bedroom, Cezanne’s Apple and Oranges. While her conversation was the biggest blessing of that day, the art itself filled me up in ways I’d forgotten I needed.

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Still Life with Basket of Apples, Paul Cezanne

My kids have recently put up some resistance against Picture Study, but the joy I felt at seeing the originals of pictures we’ve studied reminded me it’s worth it. Their disappointment in not going told me it’s worth it. I have renewed motivation to keep up with the daily work.

What’s your oxygen mask/yogurt starter right now?

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Seeing the details…

We are fully in the throes of autumn here. Red leaves, frost on the grass in the morning, cold noses and toes.

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With a new school year comes new patterns. With Jonah’s departure for college, we have had a major shuffling of responsibilities at home.

I have written before about chores and teaching them to my children. At different times, I organized chores by capacity. Then, once the kids reached a certain age, I assigned the same chores in rotation to all the kids and gritted my teeth when their capacity was vastly different.

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Today’s version of “clean.”

What I want now is to teach my children to see what needs to be done without being told.  This is completely different than what we have previously done.

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I want my kids to be able to look at the kitchen and see that not only do the dishes need to go in the dishwasher, but the counter needs to be wiped and the questionable organic matter growing inside last week’s lunch bag should go in the compost (and the bag in the washing machine.)

I think this ability to see what is front of us is necessary for all kinds of work, both at home and in the wider world. This skill translates into:

  • a landscaper who makes sure the sidewalk is clear after the job is finished
  • a chef who prevents a diner’s anaphylaxis by keeping ingredients separate in the kitchen
  • the CEO who can balance the needs of the workers with the company profits
  • a host who can see not only who is the life of the party, but also who is on the fringes

I have the vision for what I want, but we’re not anywhere near that yet. My theory is that it starts with the area of one’s passion (which, ahem, is not cleaning the kitchen) but then practiced by extension in other areas.

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For one child, the means to this end will be through music. For another, it’s going to be through following all the details of a complicated recipe.  For another, it will be the small adjustments needed to make no splash when she dives. But I don’t know how to make that attention to detail spread to other areas.

Any ideas?

How about a different kind of science curriculum?

I love science. I want my kids to love science, but the way it’s taught in the US recently is a travesty.

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Here’s what science looked like in our house in 2007.

In the spirit of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education, I’m going to offer  my thoughts on teaching science at home.

The bedrock of Charlotte Mason’s science education was keen observation. She emphasized the practice of nature study, every day if possible, with nature notebooks full of detailed illustrations and diagrams. For teachers she advised not trying to explain everything. Not giving the answers. Asking questions and letting the students explore the material for themselves, without bulky textbooks. When books were used, she advocated living books—whole books, written by a single author with a passion for his or her topic.

She said that teachers should not make connections for the student. “Education is a science of relations,” she wrote. That means that we are offering copious material (living books, art, music, experiences, a rich home life, and opportunities to observe nature anywhere we can find it) and allowing our students to connect the dots between Mendel’s pea plants and CRISPR, or marble towers and Newton’s theory of gravity.

Sounds like all of the science curricula I’ve bought, what about you? Actually, it sounds like none of the books or materials I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on.

If I were of an entrepreneurial spirit, I would make this into a homeschool science curriculum and tour the country to sell it to you. I’m not an entrepreneur, so I’m going to present this idea like all my other ideas here—freely—and hope that you may adapt it to breathe some new life into your study of science at home.

Here are the foundational ideas I’d like my kids to learn from science:

  • Science takes teamwork.
  • Science requires us to pay close attention to details, and then to step back and ask “why?” or “what then?”
  • Science requires trying again, and again, and again.
  • Science is not about knowing an answer up front, but using the available data to make judgments to predict behavior of physical objects.

And I’d like to teach these ideas with inspiring stories, great characters, and examples.

My proposal is a book-and-movie study of October Sky (book: Rocket Boys by Homer H. Hickman, Jr.), Apollo 13 (book: Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger), and The Martian (book: The Martian by Andy Weir). All three are about the space program, but you could apply these ideas to any books with good science in them.

Apollo 13October SkyThe Martian: A Novel

I recommend you and your student(s) read each book bit by bit. When you get to a part that has an experiment or a question, STOP. Take the time to understand the problem and work it. You might need to do some other reading to gain the knowledge you need to solve the problem, or you might need to experiment yourselves. The stories are all suspenseful, so you’ll have to have some strong self-control not to rush ahead and finish the book or watch the movie. Finish the problem. Then keep reading until the next one. When you finish one of the books and all its science, watch the movie and decide for yourselves if they got the science right.

Rocket Boys tells the story of 4 middle school/high school friends in a small, West Virginia coal mining town, who built rockets. There is lots of great history (the Cold War, Sputnik, coal mining, JFK) in the story as well (and some stuff about the teenage obsession with sex, which I skipped when I read it aloud to my middle schoolers). In addition to being a great story, the book exemplifies the scientific method: make an observation, form a hypothesis, and test it. When you’re wrong, change one variable and try again. This book would be a fantastic companion to chemistry, since a lot of their experiments involve rocket fuel. Also, rocket design (aka aerodynamics). A helpful companion text would be Backyard Ballistics (Gurstell).

Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 is an example of why working the problem is so important. 55 hours into Apollo 13’s voyage to the moon, an explosion caused a critical failure of the spaceship. “Houston, we have a problem.” The combined efforts of NASA engineers and the astronauts (both in space and on the ground) were needed to save them. The problems encountered in their voyage include the amount of oxygen needed for survival and basic engineering (with a fun puzzle problem you could simulate with a bunch of supplies from the hardware store). Apollo 13 is one of our family’s favorite movies.

Finally, the book that inspired this idea: The Martian. Weir’s story of an astronaut stranded on Mars is a bonanza of problems to solve, including biologic (how many calories does a human need to survive? What about vitamins? What about water? How much water do crops need?) chemical (how to make water), and physics (astrodynamics, vectors, velocity). All of it requires math, and the math really matters in this book. I realize I’m making it sound boring, but this is a fantastic story that had my whole family on the edge of our seats- first on audio, and then in the theater. The character Mark Watney has a delightful sense of humor and a problem with swearing (full disclosure), so be warned.

I have no idea how long this would take- maybe one book would be a semester, or most of a year. If you try it out, please come back and tell me how it goes!

For a unit on pandemics, I would recommend Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, and Gina Kolata’s Flu. (You could add the movie Contagion to this list.)  Obviously, you couldn’t be working with deadly microorganisms to work the problem, but you could study the medical principles behind virulence and attack rate.  Two games to play in this unit would be Pandemic (a board game) and Plague, Inc (on your phone or tablet).

The Andromeda StrainFlu: The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused ItThe Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola VirusPandemicPlague, Inc

Shaking it up: Poetry

Last week I took the girls out to a new coffee shop near us for tea and poetry.

Book - Zen Ties by Jon J Muth

Jon Muth’s Zen Ties is one of our favorite children’s books (a lovely, gentle story, beautiful paintings, and humor: what’s not to love?!) , and it happens that Stillwater’s young cousin, Koo, speaks in poetry. “Hi, Koo!” I brought it with us, and we read it over tea and croissants.

We spent half an hour writing our own haiku. First we each wrote one about the coffee shop. Then each of us wrote two words for the others which they had to use in their poems. (I got “candy” and “east” on the first round, and “San Pelligrino,” “Danger” and “Monkey” in the second. Hazards of being in a coffee shop, I guess.)

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I’m counting this for poetry, syllables (early grammar), and Lit.

Are you shaking things up during these last two months of school? If you’re not changing things around a little, do you need to?

Growth v. Confidence

This has been a challenging year for us as a family, and as homeschoolers. I can’t share much of that here, but I want to reflect for a minute about one particular pitfall of homeschooling, and how I’m trying to work around it.

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My school experience as a kid was one of boredom. I spent years finishing my work before the rest of the class and having to sit quietly at my desk while other kids finished. When they “pioneered” a gifted-and-talented program at my school, it meant that after I finished the regular work, they would pull me out and give me more work. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that maybe a few of us should have different work, or be able to work at our own pace.

That experience led me to design our homeschool to be a place where my kids could work at their own pace(s). When they master a concept, they move on to the next thing. The idea was not to “waste” any time sitting around being bored by repeating the same old information they’ve already mastered. On the other hand, if they need more time on a topic, we can spend as much time as they need before moving on.

We’ve been doing that for twirteen years now, and for the most part it has worked well. Most of our time is spent at the growing edge, or at the place where we’re all being stretched.  I have noticed one problem, though, and it’s this: living at the growing edge can be pretty uncomfortable. And tiring. Working at the growing edge doesn’t ever let you rest in a place of mastery, which builds confidence.

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There are several sources of confidence. One is internal, where the experience of repeated success causes us to trust our skills and our mastery of a subject or skill. The other is external, where we are able to see our mastery in comparison to others, or hear from others that we have mastered a subject. (Think: exams, teachers, certificates, races, performances, etc.)

While I hated the boredom of my own education, it was pretty great seeing that I was ahead of everyone else academically. That built my internal confidence. I had many teachers who gave me a lot of messages that built my confidence externally.

In our homeschool, my kids have very little opportunity to compare themselves academically to their peers. Instead, they compare themselves to one another, which leaves my younger children feeling lost as they compare themselves to a much-older, academically very gifted sibling. Our homeschool has effectively erased a major source of external confidence. On top of that, I have eliminated the sense of mastery that comes from lots of repetition by engineering a learning space in which we spend most of our time with new material.

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Where do I go from here?

We are trying to spend more time resting in mastery. As much as the repetition grates on me, I need my kids to see how much they know. This means different things for different kids- one needs more opportunities to perform. One needs opportunities to do things without an older sibling making suggestions over her shoulder. Another needs to spend more time reviewing material we’ve already done. They all need opportunities to compare their work to their own peers (instead of to their older siblings.)

What does the balance between growth and confidence look like for you? I’m looking for ideas here, friends, so please don’t be shy sharing in the comments.

7QT: Don’t you have something you’re supposed to be doing?

One: After two weeks of illness (one child on antibiotics, another on Tamiflu, me on nothing as I hacked up one or more of my lungs) we are finally clawing out way back into schooling at home. Sam is coming down with something now, too, but since he’s goes to work to be sick, I don’t really count him as one of the stricken.

Two: Man, getting back into this is rough. In the midst of that, Sam and I both traveled. I really should have stayed at home, but… I wanted to see my friend. I saw her, but I spent the whole time afraid I was going to give her the plague.

Three: Speaking of plagues, we adopted a lovely cat. His name (spoiler alert) was Julian.
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Then his larynx swelled up, and despite high-dose steroids and a veterinary ICU and more steroids and another vet, he still died. After his necropsy, at which the vet couldn’t determine the cause of the allergy/infection/laryngeal edema NOS, she called me back to ask if I’d been able to get his shot records from his previous owner. No, I hadn’t. So she put us on Rabies Watch, had the county public health nurse call us to find out our travel plans and if any of us were acting strangely, and billed us $65 for rabies testing. Just like that, our family went from the infectious disease specialists to the possible source of an urban rabies outbreak. (Better spoiler: he didn’t have rabies, and neither do we.) Here is a gratuitous photo of the new cat, whose rabies vaccination I have documented on paper.

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Four: Anyway… now, two weeks later we have adopted a replacement cat, and everyone is trying to get back in the groove. To that end, everyone made it to the co-op for classes this week, all the adults went to their gainful employment, and I’ve been trying to teach things to the children with limited success.

Five: On Monday, I made it till one-thirty before I had to crawl into my bed for a nap. When I got up, I went to see where Phoebe one of the children was with her work.

Mom: Where are you with your school work today? Do you need help with math?

Anonymous Child: Why are you asking? Don’t you have some work you’re supposed to be doing?

Mom: I was under the impression that helping you with math was my work.

So that was really successful. I should have stayed in bed.

Six: Yesterday I finally made it outside for a run. I discovered three things:

  • two weeks without exercise turned me into a meatball, and I couldn’t breathe.
  • spring is coming, whether the bomb cyclone and Storm Emma realize it
  • exercise is my anchor activity.  Once I made the effort to exercise again, all sorts of other things became possible, like making dinner and putting bleach in the toilets and following up on my daughter’s math.

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The guardian of spring.

Seven: However, an anchor is not entirely sufficient to return everything to normal. In order get us back in the routine, I had to pull out the paints and insist everyone make some art while I read aloud to them. An hour later, the children wandered off to play Minecraft and left me with a huge arty mess to clean up. I think this means we’re back in the groove.

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Be sure to visit Kelly at This Ain’t the Lyceum for more Quick Takes.

Snow books

It’s finally snowing here for our first day of winter break, and we’re going to pull out all our favorite snow books today. They are (in no particular order):

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The charm in Uri Shulevitz’s Snow is that Boy with Dog knows better than everyone else who tells him it’s not going to snow. The illustrations are fantastic, and the sparse prose is exactly right.

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Virginia Lee Burton’s classic, Katie and the Big Snow, is chock full of details. The only thing I change when I read it aloud is “The doctor couldn’t get her patient…”

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Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon perfectly captures the haunting silence of a snowy night.

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Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day was Phoebe’s favorite when she was little (and I’m sure that had nothing to do with the fact that I substituted her name in for the main character’s.)

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Jaqueline Briggs Martin’s Snowflake Bentley is the true story of Wilson Bentley, the man whose passion for natural beauty led him to photograph snowflakes. His work was amazing, and this children’s book about him is beautiful.

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I loved Carolyn Haywood’s Snowbound with Betsy growing up and dug an ancient copy up a few years ago. I still love it.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter haunts my dreams: the food running out, the Christmas box that couldn’t make it, the cutting for the train…

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Winter Holiday, the third book in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, takes place on a frozen lake and is full of all the fun you imagine you’d have with like-minded kids and utter freedom.

I don’t think we’re going to have enough snow to give me time to read all of them today… but I’m going to give it a shot. What snow books am I missing?