Wading in the Shallows

Wading in the Shallows

I always thought I had a pretty good education. That is, until I met Charlotte Mason. It was like a whole new world was suddenly revealed to me. I had always enjoyed history, literature, poetry, and nature, but learning about Mason’s philosophy showed me how much more was out there and how much deeper I could go into the subjects I already loved. I was awed by the possibilities, but at the same time I was overwhelmed.

I realized that my own education was woefully deficient. There was so much I did not know! How could I possibly learn enough to teach my children about all those things? Solfa, foreign language, brushdrawing, Latin, sloyd, geography, art, music, handicrafts, drill, and on and on. So many subjects, and me with no idea how to teach any of them. I didn’t even know what some of those names meant until a few years ago. How could I expect to teach them? Well I realized that I couldn’t. Not right away at least, and maybe not for several years. Like my children, I am a student. Though I can learn some things faster, learning is still a process. It is going to take time.

Charlotte Mason’s programmes are designed to build upon one another as the child moves through the forms, and even Form 1 assumes the foundation of a “quiet growing time” for the first six years of life (Mason, 1989a, p. 43). In the early years the child establishes habits of attention, obedience, truthfulness, and orderliness. He develops a relationship with nature, his tastes are cultivated, and his wonder is nurtured. And for the mother it is a time to study, to read, to prepare herself, and to make up for her deficient education. Not everyone has the opportunity to study in those early years, but I did, and still it wasn’t enough.

There is so much research available now on every Charlotte Mason subject. There are even “new” subjects that we didn’t know were so important when I started six years ago. I have contributed myself to this wealth of knowledge with my own research into sloyd. I think it is wonderful that there is a resurgence of interest in the PNEU programmes and schedules, and I am so thankful for the many new resources that are available and are coming soon. But it can also stress me out.

I am just one little woman and I only have so much time and energy. The early years are over for me. That magical time when we spent our days at the park and the children napped and I read—that time is gone forever. Even with cloth diapering and baking bread, those days were free and easy compared to what I am doing now. During the day I have two students, a rambunctious four-year-old boy, and a house to manage. My children are not at a point where they do chores without guidance, and they still need a lot of training in right behavior. We have outings with our Charlotte Mason group, church to attend, and errands to run. I have my own hobbies and books I want to read. In the spring I will have a garden to plant and care for. And my husband actually wants to hang out with me too. If “education is a life,” I need some time for living. I don’t have the time to keep up on all this new research and learn the “new” methods. I don’t even have all the old ones down. So what do I do?

For starters I need to relax, have patience, trust the method, and give myself grace. If I was led to this philosophy of education by the Holy Spirit (and I believe I was), then I can trust Him to guide me in the way. He knows exactly where I am, where I am strong, and where I am weak. And though I am weak in some areas, it doesn’t mean I can’t make a start. Every subject in a Charlotte Mason education has its own starting point and that starting point is relational. I think there are four relationship-based activities that form the foundation of much of the Charlotte Mason method. I think the mother should begin with these, and thankfully, no expertise is required to get started—only the formation of a few new habits.

1. Go Outside

Charlotte Mason recommends that children in their earliest years spend hours out of doors: “not two, but four, five, or six hours they should have on every tolerably fine day…” (Mason, 1989a, p. 44). These hours spent in the sun and the wind, with the birds and the insects, reveal to children the majesty of our Lord and Savior. The child develops his habits of attention and observation as he watches a caterpillar methodically chew a leaf. He is gentle as he holds a butterfly newly emerged from his chrysalis and wonders as he watches the butterfly soar into the air. When he sees a hawk flying overhead with a squirrel in his talons he feels empathy, sad for the squirrel, but knowing that the hawk must feed her hungry babies and kill to survive. He finds an unknown and beautiful flower and he knows not to pick it, lest he injure the plant and rob it of its ability to reproduce. The child becomes a steward of the earth.

When I started trying to learn all the things I needed to know in order to teach, I started with nature study. My husband and I moved cross-country from California to North Carolina the year before I had my first child, and I knew nothing of the local flora and fauna. I worked full-time until my oldest was about four and we seldom made it to nature preserves, but before I had ever heard of Charlotte Mason I began my own nature education in the back yard. I planted a butterfly garden and butterflies came. With the help of a field guide and some picture books, we came to know the species of butterflies that frequented our garden and the flowers they preferred. Some of them laid eggs and we came to know their offspring.

Before my children could say the name, they have all known butterfly. They knew because I knew; they loved because I loved. I didn’t teach them; I showed them. Nature study became part of the way we live. The desire to know the bird overhead or the flower in the field drove me and the children to ask and to seek answers, all before any of us even considered writing or drawing our observations.

Nature study is not the same thing as keeping a nature journal. A nature journal is a wonderful tool to deepen a relationship with nature. It is meant to build on a foundation of care and interest. Whatever the age of the student—I was 28 when I started!—begin at the beginning: go outside; go where there are things worth observing.

2. Read and Narrate Living Books

Narration seems like a no-brainer. You read a passage, then you ask the child to tell back what he remembers. If he has trouble remembering, you try a shorter passage. He builds up his skill and over time he is able to tell back in more detail from longer passages. Is it as simple as that? Well it is, but a step is missing. The very first step: you must prepare yourself before you lay the foundation. Before asking for that very first narration, you must be in the habit of listening. Because the child is already narrating—he doesn’t need to learn how. As soon as he can speak he is telling you what he knows:

Narrating is an art, like poetry-making or painting, because it is there, in every child’s mind, waiting to be discovered, and is not the result of any process of disciplinary education. A creative fiat calls it forth. ‘Let him narrate’; and the child narrates, fluently, copiously, in ordered sequence, with fit and graphic details, with a just choice of words, without verbosity or tautology, so soon as he can speak with ease. This amazing gift with which normal children are born is allowed to lie fallow in their education. Bobbie will come home with a heroic narrative of a fight he has seen between ‘Duke’ and a dog in the street. It is wonderful! He has seen everything, and he tells everything with splendid vigour in the true epic vein; but so ingrained is our contempt for children that we see nothing in this but Bobbie’s foolish child is way! Whereas here, if we have eyes to see and grace to build, is the ground-plan of his education. (Mason, 1989a, p. 231)

Miss Mason has a poignant way of pointing out our faults as parents and teachers. She says our contempt for children is ingrained in us. It is so deeply set that we don’t even realize what we are doing, and we don’t realize that it is contempt. We don’t notice how easily we dismiss the thrilling escapades our little ones are trying to share with us. For at least three or four years before we ask for the first “official” narration from our six-year-old, we are getting these narrations, many times a day and about all kinds of subjects. Young children delight in these new experiences. As Mason says, “the flowers… are not new; but the children are” (Mason, 1989a, p.53). They want to share their new experiences and their enthusiasm with the people they are closest to. So the first step in narration is for the parent to develop the habit of listening.

But what if you have an older child just learning to narrate? Before addressing any difficulties the child may be having, I think the teacher needs to make an assessment of herself. Are you a listener? Does your child know you to be a person who hears what he has to say? Are you someone who gives full attention, eye contact, and interested responses? Are you fully engaged? Or is your listening conditional? Do you only listen during school hours? Or perhaps you are listening critically to make sure the child is “getting it,” but not hearing what he actually knows? Narration is not a sneaky way to constantly test children. It is not something owed to the parent to prove the child learned something at every lesson or in every situation. It is a natural ability the child has to express what he knows and what he cares about. It is up to the child to determine what makes it into his narration:

A child’s individuality plays about what he enjoys, and the story comes from his lips, not precisely as the author tells it, but with a certain spirit and colouring which expresses the narrator. By the way, it is very important that children should be allowed to narrate in their own way, and should not be pulled up or helped with words and expressions from the text.  A narration should be original as it comes from the child—that is, his own mind should have acted upon the matter it has received. (Mason, 1989a, p. 289)

So if education is the science of relations, it is not only important that the student develop relations with the material in his narrations. It is also important that the relationship between child and parent be based on respect, not contempt. There is a lot of vulnerability in giving a narration, especially for an older child just starting. It is easy to stamp out the little flames of new ideas bursting forth from his lips. To correct, to criticize, or to ask for more than is given can shut that child’s mouth up and harden his heart against you, his teacher.

Have you ever narrated in front of a room full of people after a single reading of new material? I have and it is hard. I’m going to be honest and say that when I go to immersions, though I am engaged and interested, I am also really hoping that Nancy Kelly doesn’t call on me to narrate. My own school training is still pretty deeply ingrained and although I know that I won’t be criticized or corrected, I still have the feeling of not wanting to be wrong. Now imagine how your older student might feel, perhaps coming from a classroom situation where getting the right answer is the goal, or even in your homeschool room, before you started with Charlotte Mason. If the child is used to being criticized or judged, it is very hard for him to open up and share his thoughts. The teacher must build up that trust and develop a solid relationship with the child, patiently waiting for his skill in narration to grow.

And finally, we must remember that narration is fundamentally a tool for the child, not the teacher. The purpose of narration is not so the teacher can assess the progress of the student or make sure the lessons or events of the day stick. Even during exam week the purpose of narrations is not strictly for the teacher’s evaluation, but for the child to show and celebrate what he has learned. Narration is a gift, freely given. It is the duty of the teacher to help the child to wield this tool and harness its powers for his own self-education. Narration is not the foundation of every lesson, but a way of interacting with living books to “train the pupil in the habit of attentive reading” and to “express herself freely and fluently” (PNEU, 1906, p. 492). Narration is not the foundation of every subject, and parents should not ask for narrations outside of lessons. The inner workings of a child’s mind are his own business; they are his private thoughts. Narrations given outside of lessons should be initiated by the child and treated as a gift. In them the child is reaching out, not as a pupil, but as a friend.

3. Teach Math in a Living Way

Compared to other foundational subjects, math actually took me a while to understand in light of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy and methods. When I began teaching my oldest child it seemed that the only options were based on specialized manipulatives, worksheets, videos, or online games. Because people weren’t talking about the way Charlotte Mason actually taught math, I assumed that math was somehow outside of her area of expertise. So I picked the curriculum that seemed best to me at the time and we jumped in. And it was hard—for me!

Every other subject I taught was fun and interesting, but adding math was like fitting a square peg in a round hole. The lessons I was giving didn’t fit in with our atmosphere. And with good reason: Miss Mason, in her carefully crafted, perfectly executed programmes, did not neglect this subject—a subject which is absolutely necessary for our understanding of the universe and its Creator. Her plan for math was as intentionally rendered as every other piece of the magnificent puzzle that is a Charlotte Mason education.

When I first came to realize that Charlotte Mason actually did have a plan for math, I put away the specialized manipulatives and turned to an old-fashioned, no-nonsense curriculum with a lot of writing. I remember that I was trying to teach my daughter to add with carrying, and she just was not getting it. Then I found The Mathematics Book and DVD Bundle from Simply Charlotte Mason and ordered it immediately. I read through the first part of the book (up to where I was teaching so far) and then watched the videos through “carrying.” I saw Richele Baburina demonstrate using pennies, dimes, and dollars to show how carrying works. And right there I was hooked. I knew that would work and it did! My daughter caught on to the concept quickly and joyfully. Math moved from a conceptual idea to something tangible, interesting, and necessary.

I then had the privilege to serve as a Beta-tester for Book 1 in the Charlotte Mason Elementary Arithmetic Series. Teaching my second student with Miss Mason’s method from the beginning has shown me that math is not separate or unrelated to other subjects as I always believed it to be. I remember once a student asked my 10th-grade geometry teacher, “Why do we need to learn this?” He replied, “In case you become a math teacher.” That is pretty much how I thought of math for most of my life. A certain amount is necessary, and then after that it is only necessary for certain jobs and otherwise doesn’t matter. If I could memorize the formula, it didn’t matter whether I understood what was happening. Math was mechanical to me.

But now I see that math is truth. Math is real. Math is definite. It is also relational. As I teach my six year old (a squirrelly and talkative little girl), I see that she has come to know numbers in the same way she knows a patch of sorrel in the yard. Take the number 25. She knows what it looks like written, but also what it is made from: two tens and five units. She knows that it can be made of five groups of five, but it cannot be broken up into groups of two. She knows that 25 cents is a quarter, or two dimes and a nickel, or fifteen pennies and a dime. She knows all the numbers leading up to 25 and many different ways of adding to get 25, and she can tell you what is left when you take a number away from 25. So in a sense, she has friendly relations with that number. She understands it and she enjoys it. And there is no reason why she cannot continue to know math in this way, discovering the truths designed with perfection by the Creator.

Not only has my own understanding and appreciation of math improved, but I have also become a better teacher. Now that I have let go of the idea that math is all about enduring, I have learned to read my students and move on before mental weariness sets in (vol. 1, p. 25)—before math becomes drudgery, as it became for me. That means being present for math lessons. It also means keeping the lessons simple and to the point. The child’s work speaks for itself and there is no need to “drive the point home” by asking the child for explanations or to explain his work. One nice thing about math is that answers are simply right or wrong. And if an answer is wrong, we try again with a new problem of the same kind. Or sometimes we put the book away to try again tomorrow. Progress is individual and lessons are easily catered to the student.

4. Start a Handicraft

I am especially partial to handicrafts. Since I came from a manual profession with a philosophy of its own, I was impressed and excited to see that many of the ideas I already had about manual labor were part of Mason’s philosophy. (It is fascinating as you get to know Mason better that you realize her ideas can be found many places where no one has ever heard of her; that is because her ideas are true!) Handicrafts round out not only an education, but also a worldview. One of my very favorite Parents’ Review quotes comes from Miss R.A. Pennethorne:

The child is only truly educated who can use his hands as truly as his head, for to neglect one part of our being injures the whole, and the learned book-worm who is ignorant of the uses of a screw-driver, also lacks that readiness and resourcefulness, mental neatness and capability, and reverence for labour and its results, which a knowledge of practical matters gives. (Pennethorne, 1899, p. 561)

In my former profession as a hairdresser in upscale salons, I had a unique vantage point. I was able to get to know many different kinds of people with a variety of professions and interests. And I am sad to say that most people who sat in my chair were not well-rounded people. Most people had a primary interest, either related to their job or their favorite entertainment. Few people understood the value of work or appreciated the worker. But the ones who did were the most enjoyable people to talk to. I noticed from my clientele base of highly-educated professionals that those clients who had experience working with their hands appreciated me as a person and not as a servant, and their interests spilled over into other areas.

When I was about 23 I met my all-time favorite client, a married Christian man and father of two in his forties with a very dry sense of humor. He was a physicist who loved history, travel, making things by hand (all kinds of things), survival skills, and technology. He learned to play the hammered dulcimer just for fun and used to let me borrow some of his favorite books. We never ran out of things to talk about and our talk was never focused on ourselves. That client, though he had never heard of Charlotte Mason, had captured the spirit her philosophy.

Handicrafts are not just work for hands. The ability to create with the hands gives expression to the ideas of the mind. It is an outlet for the imagination and exercises one’s logic. It requires discipline and attention; there are right ways and wrong ways of working. These habits grow into integrity:

Now everyone carries… in his own breast—a rule by which he judges of the integrity of a workman… It is by this unwritten law of integrity that every true man… tries the work that is brought to him… The honest worker he considers a person of integrity, that is, a whole man… We may not all be bricklayers or carpenters, but in some sense we are all paid labourers, and cannot escape the binding obligation of integrity. (Mason, 1989d, Book I, p. 168)

The very first step in training children’s hands is actually the “out of door life” and goes along with training their bodies. But when school lessons begin, handicrafts are of the utmost importance. In the PUS schedule for Form 1, only math and reading are given more time than handicrafts. The three years spent in Form 1 are meant to teach the children proficiency in several different types of handicrafts, usually paper sloyd, sewing, and clay modelling. Though handicrafts are missing from the morning schedule in the later forms, they have not been displaced by “more important” academic subjects. They have just moved to the afternoons.

The early training in handicrafts should have enabled these older children to do much work on their own, only going to a teacher (or YouTube) for guidance to learn something new or to work through a difficulty. The students are still given projects which are expected to be completed by the end of the term. Ideally the child knows how to use his time well and chooses to work on his projects several times a week, but if that is not the case, a regular time should be designated for handicrafts. Children who missed out on the early training of Form 1 need a block of time set aside to learn. The subjects usually started in Form 1 are excellent choices even for teens, but if the child has an interest that is not in the early programmes, such as bookbinding, woodworking, leatherwork, or blacksmithing, he should absolutely be allowed and encouraged to pursue those interests instead. And if a family member or friend is able to teach them these skills, that is even better.

In general our society has split the workforce into two categories: those who work with their heads and those who work with their hands. The notion that this is even possible denies the three-part nature of man (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Only through the Holy Spirit can the spirit of man be nurtured, but for our souls (mind, imagination, emotion) and our bodies we must work to use them rightly and in the service of the Lord. The division of the workforce into these two categories creates a gulf between the people on either side. We lose the ability to understand and appreciate each other. For the body of believers it becomes harder to accept that the job of one man or woman is as important as the job of another.

We have all been given different talents. Teaching a child to work with his hands may reveal a hidden talent in one who struggles with reading. It may teach another child how difficult it is to cut a straight line so that when he sees workmen building a house he appreciates their skill. And for another child, one who is full of movement and thoughts, it may offer a time of peace and rest. We cannot know God’s plans for our children, what He will ask of them or what challenges they will face in the future. We must prepare them as best we can for any possibility and prepare their hearts to see the value in all kinds of working. If as Christian parents and teachers we want these children who have been entrusted to our care to be capable of serving the Lord according to His purpose, we cannot neglect any part of the child’s being because “to neglect one part of our being injures the whole” (Pennethorne, 1899, p. 561). Maybe the simplest way to think of handwork is that it is a bridge that spans many divides. It also crosses the chasm between persons: if you want to know someone work with him.

Go Broad Then Deep

Beyond these four essentials, there are many other subjects I don’t know much about. However, I can still spread a broad feast of nutritious educational dishes even though I have not yet learned all the gourmet recipes. We don’t do formal drawing lessons yet, but we still do a lot of drawing. It is unlikely that we will ever do solfa (I am not a great singer), but we will still make a joyful noise, singing hymns and folk songs. I am not an expert in teaching foreign language, but as my children spend time with my mother, I am sure they will get a solid grasp of one.

Just as I am a different wife now at 37 than I was at 22, I will be a different teacher for my youngest child than I am right now for my oldest. Though I am sometimes impatient with my own lack of knowledge, my desire to know my children and share a life with them is stronger than my desire to be an expert Charlotte Mason teacher.

Education is the science of relations, and the relationships between our children and the Lord and between ourselves and our children are more important even than our own self-education. There is no race to the finish line: education is for a lifetime: we have many years ahead. I trust that the Holy Spirit is working on me, through me, and with me. My skills and knowledge as a teacher will steadily grow if I am dutiful and diligent. I have already learned to teach some subjects very well. For other subjects—well, my children and I will still take the plunge, even if it means we have to remain in the shallows for now. And that’s OK.


Mason, C. (1989a). Home education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.

Mason, C. (1989d). Ourselves. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research & Supply.

Pennethorne, R. (1899). P.N.E.U. principles, as illustrated by teaching. In The Parents’ Review, volume 10 (pp. 549-563).  London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

PNEU. (1906). Notes on lessons. In The Parents’ Review, volume 17 (pp. 487-501).  London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

7 Replies to “Wading in the Shallows”

  1. What you said about math really resonates with me. I feel like it’s the subject I’m floundering in as a teacher. This post was so encouraging. I’m going to be looking into the math program you mentioned. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hearing your young child say “butterfly.” . . . “They knew because, I knew. They loved, because I loved.” So sweet!

    Narration is “there.” I’ve always loved this pithy point. It says so much. Your admiration for the method of narration is apparent. It is so beautifully stated and explained here. How carefully you have chosen your words! Narration is a lovely thing to grow into as we apply it personally into our days of learning.

    Oh, the math courses we tried. We changed every two years. We endured.

    “I will be a different teacher for my youngest child than I am right now for my oldest” . . . gave me goosebumps. How true this was in our house. But I hadn’t thought about it until today when I listened to your talk, Brittney. I was a different teacher for each of my children partly because I was still learning even up to our very last year, and partly because they were individuals with various talents.

  3. You will reach so many hearts with these words, Brittney! You have acknowledged the challenge while delighting in its worth! I love that! I am almost at the end of our home education, using a Mason approach a little more each year since my children were about 9 and 11, and you just confirmed exactly what the Holy Spirit has been speaking to my heart! I especially loved your discussion of handicrafts because it is the area I have given least attention. 1 Thess. 5:23 as it relates. Wow. Yes! “Wading in the shallows” is now a phrase I will never forget!

  4. This article is SO GOOD, Brittney! I kept thinking about parts I wanted to comment on here, but there are too many. So I will just say “thank you” for writing it and sharing it with us. You and I think a lot alike and it is really helpful to me.

  5. We aren’t likely to be taking up solfa any time soon either but I am hooked.
    We’ve always combined elements of Waldorf and CM but this year we are more CM than ever before. My eldest is only in 4th grade but I am amazed by how much *I* am learning with his book selections for the year. CM is such a gift!
    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and reaffirming for me that I am heading in the right direction x

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