From Tired to Inspired

From Tired to Inspired

It was the end of the school year and I was drowning.

I was overwhelmed and miserable, and that misery often stared back at me during our school hours in the faces of my children. Sure, we had our bright moments, but they were not what I knew was possible with a Charlotte Mason education. I’m not new to the Mason world. I know all about atmosphere, discipline, and life. I’ve read and narrated the volumes, which made that sinking sensation all the more painful.

Given the circumstances of my life, some could say I had every reason to be overwhelmed, to not hold closely to this grand method in the way Mason intended. We have nine children since taking infant foster twins in April. My husband has had to take on extra work at his job over the last eight months, taking him more often from home life. He is now frequently away during early mornings, evenings, and weekends in addition to his regular work hours. Our oldest daughter is at college, and our next oldest son still lives at home; he is 18 and is working full time for an auto mechanic and studying to learn that trade. So that leaves me teaching my 15, 10, 9, 8, and 6 year olds, as well taking care of our 6-month-old foster twins who have medical needs.

Our four children ages 6–10 were adopted several years ago, and that has involved a variety of struggles with learning and behavior. Additionally, as my husband is a youth and adult pastor, we host groups, families, and individuals in our home multiple times per week. I also volunteer in ministry with middle and high school students several times each week. Because we work in foster care, we also have social workers and attorneys who come to our house multiple times per month to assess our home for safety and to check on the well-being of our foster babies. Due to this constant stream of visitors, our home must be clean, tidy, and ready at all times for a drop-in social worker or another hosted activity.

I felt as if life had me by the neck, and many days I was hanging on by a thread. It was a lonely feeling, because whenever I would venture out onto the internet, I was confronted with stunning photos by people who clearly had it all together. It seemed like they had never struggled to do even the most basic thing, but if they had (in theory), they had quickly found their solution, because just look at that handcraft their brilliant child had completed!

While I was floundering around at the end of May, I came across a vintage Parents’ Review article entitled “The Teaching Methods of Charlotte Mason” on the Charlotte Mason Poetry website. As soon as I began reading, I became awakened to the fact that I had not been taking my responsibility to educate my children seriously enough. I believe the Holy Spirit was revealing the truth, prompting me, and gently convicting me of ways in which I was failing my precious students. In a flash it became clear: I could go forward differently, “forgetting the past, pressing on…” It was a pivotal moment in our family’s education. I immediately went and found my husband and explained to him what I had been doing wrong, and that I had to fix things. He smiled, nodded, and kept feeding the baby. He’s a good man, used to dealing with a crazy woman.

So what did I see in the Parents’ Review article that morning? Were the realizations truly as earth-shattering as I had thought? Well, first I saw myself in G. F. Husband’s description of teachers who won’t consider new ideas, who are swayed by any new idea, or who attempt to measure success by the immeasurable — measuring a student’s comprehension of the work by a false standard. Yes, I had slipped in how I viewed and applied this method. When G. F. Husband showed the three ways he measured the success of a school, I felt crushed to look at my own school and see how I had failed:

First: Are the Children FREE? … Some teachers dominate their pupils’ every thought and action… I would look then for happy, eager work…

Second, he would ask:

Are the children, then, learning to get information themselves from books? Are they doing this every day, in every way, in every subject, or are they in the teacher’s leading strings?

He then went on to talk of a third way to measure the effectiveness of a school:

Are they receiving vitalising ideas on every relation of life, every department of knowledge, every subject of thought? When we launch the children from the schools, are they beginning to appreciate good literature, good music, good pictures? Are they beginning to understand their duties as citizens? Will they with a little more experience be able to “look at life steady and see it whole?” Above all, will they have alert, active minds, ready to pounce upon and assimilate the essentials of the daily work they have undertaken?

Now here was the tricky part. Yes, I had been educating my children to have some success in living those high ideals in life and education. My husband and I did graduate two bright, wonderful people with a third coming soon. I was thrilled with the results to date from a Mason education.

But I had gotten tired. I had lost sight of what was actually important. It was hard to see it right there in front of me.

That morning I just sat. Silently. Then I meditated on this article through the noise and chaos of my day. I couldn’t do much with these new ideas just yet. I believe the Lord was walking me through a series of understandings in the ways I had lost my footing.

G. F. Husband said something that resonated with me and showed me a blind spot in my teaching:

[Mason’s] message to you is “Believe in the child, trust the child and you will be astounded at its courage.”

Now, you may be wondering whether I was even using the Mason method at all. Yes, certainly I was. But was my school a clear reflection of what the six volumes and the Parents’ Review articles advocated? Well, I was coming to the painful realization that no, it was not.

The question that began to grow in my mind was, “Could I change?” Or was I too tired and stuck to turn things around? Did I have too many children, too many responsibilities?

By the end of that day I had my answer.

Absolutely, I could change. Our Lord is so faithful to gently lead us to a place of understanding and repentance. Through this article by G. F. Husband I found myself being called to a higher standard than I had been holding myself to.

But right after the question of whether I could change came the question of how I could change. What should I do first? This method is so broad, and I can very easily become overwhelmed. That is a lonely feeling because when you peer out into the wide world of Mason land, everyone seems to know what they are doing, or if they don’t know, they quickly appear to find out. Well, it was a Parents’ Review article that got me thinking that I should change. So I started to look at more Parents’ Review articles to answer my second question: how I should change.

As I began to read through these Parents’ Review articles, I wrestled with some doubt and fear, but then another emotion began to emerge. One I had not felt in a long time: excitement. This was followed by hope and joyful expectation. I approached those articles as a dying person who finds an oasis in the desert. Phrases began to connect with each other in my head. Over and over the books were mentioned: the right books to use in conjunction with this one grand method.

When I read the article “Letters from Mothers,” I was thrilled to find creative solutions to many of the problems I was experiencing. These mothers from the past faced many limitations, but their energetic and brisk treatment of those challenges set my mind to work. One of the mothers described living in a very hot climate and moving her school around the veranda as the morning went on, hoping to catch a cool breeze. I resonated with that mother, as I often have to move my school around the house to accommodate the various needs of the day. But she did it! She kept moving around that veranda. It gave me a mental picture of perseverance and courage under adversity.

The mothers in this article and in “A Mother Without a Governess” were writing about things I deeply care about: creativity, joy in learning, reading wonderful books with my children, experiencing beauty through art, music, nature study, and doing life together as fellow learners. We have experienced all of this, and I knew that we could again.

It may sound ridiculously easy to just read a few articles and make a few changes. But I assure you, it was the opposite. It was time-consuming and challenging to read and reflect while simultaneously taking care of so many people, with their constant needs and demands. It was tough to mentally work through each of my limitations. I fed babies with my phone’s browser open to many articles at once, spending late nights trying to assimilate what I was learning.

One of my favorite articles was “The Story of a Home Schoolroom” by Mrs. W. J. Brown. I loved the way she wrote and shared her experiences. She carefully followed the timetables and the programmes, and they were a great help to her. (Her comments made me badly wish the PNEU was still active!) She learned that you cannot use this method without a nature journal and book of centuries. It was confirming what I already knew and had been failing to practice. Her description of her days, of how “a frosty evening, too, will take us out for a sharp walk when we are working on star maps,” seemed delightfully attainable. Often during my reading, I would think, “Of course we can do that too!”

Mrs. Brown’s thoughts on children’s questions on the Bible and Shakespeare matched my own experience. She discussed the bond and intellectual tie a home-teaching mother has with her children, and her description struck me profoundly. I feel that tie with each of my children, but not till I saw those ideas in writing did I grasp the importance of daily working on that bond — which she said softens into common interests in later years. She shared the innovative ways she handled the books in her home, storing and sharing them.

Finally, she discussed the challenges of educating her own children. Her creativity and attitude in solving those difficulties set a wonderful example for me. I pondered Mrs. Brown’s warning when she wrote:

I have to admit that anyone who undertakes the education of her own children is taking on a whole-time job—it cannot be run as a side-line!

And here I was, thinking it could be run as a side-line.

I know better. And yet it was the article “How the PUS Helps a Young Mother” that challenged my feeling that I was too tired and busy to make this education a “whole-time job.” This mother said that our chief difficulty in home education is our lack of time and our own inadequacy. She listed some things that take up our time, but then urged that we make time for the things we really care about. She said that if we don’t choose to put these things above lesser things, the opportunity we have with our children will be lost forever. As I now have graduated children, I know the truth of that warning. The day must be quickly seized, and there is no time to lose.

Next I went to the Parents’ Review article by Charlotte Mason herself called “The Parents’ Union School.” It was sobering to read her thoughts on such issues as taking care not to exhaust children’s brains by letting the school time go too long. She took me to task for thinking that children could or should not read difficult things. She reminded me that it is desultory, unorganized work that fatigues both body and brain. It is not the difficult books but rather the excessively long school hours that are to blame. So, it is my responsibility to choose the right books and to trust the child to take what he can get. She then urged:

The first thing that this School is designed to teach is a love of knowledge for its own sake, and this I think the children get; they learn that last accomplishment of noble minds, to delight in books for themselves…

She said never to hint that a poem or book is “good” for him; that would be “fatal to the slow, still operation of knowledge upon his personality.”

Now I know that all of this and more is in the volumes. But having this information presented in a small and fresh form was just exactly what I needed. I also noticed how bold Mason was in discussing all of these issues in the Parents’ Union School. She spoke as one who can be trusted. It was a different tone, and it gave me courage.

The last article I read before setting out on my new journey was called “Conference on PNEU Methods.” By now I had an endless number of questions on how I would put all these ideas into practice. This last article was the answer to the many prayers I had been praying late into the night and early in the morning. Through a series of questions sent to many PNEU-based schools, H. W. Household was attempting to find out how each school dealt with the term’s prescribed work. I too was very curious to see their answers!

Questions that were answered included:

  • How do the students narrate in groups?
  • How is narration accomplished in the schools?
  • Are there certain books that are not narrated?
  • Has the appeal of the books made itself felt?
  • Has it affected discipline?
  • Has concentration been secured?
  • What has the effect been on the “backwards” child? (I will admit crying over these answers, as they mirror my experience with my own adopted children who began life at a disadvantage.)

The questions went on to solicit the responses of the children and teachers to all of the subjects.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Here I was in possession of the answers from people who were using this method to the best of their ability, who were using the PNEU programmes, and were giving their opinions on how each subject in a Mason education was playing out in their school. I couldn’t really believe my eyes. As often as I had read and studied Mason’s volumes, I still sometimes felt at a loss to understand how things really worked for live teachers with flesh and blood students. When I discovered this article, I literally stopped and thanked the Lord for allowing Household to send his surveys around all those years ago and for enabling the team at Charlotte Mason Poetry to make these answers available to us today. I was in awe of the situation. The answers I had been praying for had fallen into my lap. The timing was perfect. The surveys were asking my own questions in clear and intelligent ways. And the answers did not disappoint.

Now that I had many answers to my questions, I sat with this knowledge that I could make changes if I was willing to set the lesser things aside and pick up this challenge with every bit of energy that I could find, knowing that God would provide me with strength. But first I decided to acknowledge the subjects which were going well already, which provided some encouragement that I wasn’t starting from scratch. And there were many beautiful things already happening in the lives of my little students: the poems they were memorizing, our love of reading the Bible together, and the many schoolbooks that had brought us joy. We had artists’ works stored away in our memory, and I was now reading Ourselves Book I not only with my teens, but with my younger children (ages 6–10). (The delight over that book, the narrations, and later discussions would fill a whole post, so I will just say experiencing Ourselves with my children might be the highlight of our school year.) The love of nature, studying the creation of God, and the way it was a daily part of our lives was also quite special in our school, and a source of encouragement as I reflected on these things.

Finally, I was ready to make changes. By now it was the beginning of June, and I decided to extend school till the end of June (something I have rarely done) due to what I was reading, and how distracted our spring had been. I wanted to see if the results could be as immediate and widespread as some of the Parents’ Review articles had suggested.

I began immediately. The results in our home mirrored what I had read in those old articles, but even so, I could hardly believe that the changes had such a broad and immediate impact.

The Atmosphere of Environment

First, I knew the atmosphere in our school had to change. Even though I had read about many of the experiences of PNEU mothers who had gone before, I was still shocked to find that within a few short days, the atmosphere in our school changed dramatically for the better. Because of my renewed understanding of what those mothers of the PNEU accomplished with their brisk, energetic description of their days, I was enabled to push for a similar atmosphere in my home. At first it was nearly imperceptible, but it began to grow into an enjoyment of each other during the school hours. Narrations took on an eager energy, just as described in all of these articles. Because there is only one of me, and five narrators, you can imagine the briskness of my morning. But it was working! There was a new air of enthusiasm.

Multiple articles mentioned the importance of each child owning his own book. In “The Parents’ Union School,” Mason explained that the library of a child who has read and understood these books from age six through eighteen cannot fail to affect the atmosphere of the whole household. She wrote:

Each child should have his own books … because the sense of property in his books, and of the duty and responsibility of taking care of them, is no small part of his education.

So I immediately confused my local bookseller and my husband by buying multiple copies of the same book. The children were delighted. They loved having their own copies and reading their own books. We are done forever with multiple sticky notes, marked and unmarked pages, and waiting in line for a book. The atmosphere was greatly improved with that small step. You might think it a waste until you read how this was handled back at the time of the PNEU. They took great pains to help the children own their own copies of the books so that they might have a living library when their school years were finished.

Charlotte Mason described this wonderful atmosphere in Towards a Philosophy of Education:

The bracing atmosphere of truth and sincerity should be perceived in every school; and here again the common pursuit of knowledge by teacher and class comes to our aid and creates a current of fresh air perceptible even to the chance visitor, who sees the glow of intellectual life and moral health on the faces of teachers and children alike. (p. 97)

The Discipline of Habit

As we know, Mason often discussed the discipline of habit. Our habits had become destabilized over time. Of course I knew the important habits, such as:

  • The child giving full attention to a single reading from a living book and then narrating what was read
  • Using time limits and not letting the child work too long at any one subject

But I had lost the sense of how important these habits are, and how essential they are to the method as a whole. Charlotte Mason wrote:

We need not labour to get children to learn their lessons; that, if we would believe it, is a matter which nature takes care of. Let the lessons be of the right sort and children will learn them with delight. The call for strenuousness comes with the necessity of forming habits; but here again we are relieved. The intellectual habits of the good life form themselves in the following out of the due curriculum in the right way. As we have already urged, there is but one right way, that is, children must do the work for themselves. They must read the given pages and tell what they have read, they must perform, that is, what we may call the act of knowing. (vol. 6, p. 99)

Don’t be alarmed after reading that quote. Remember that in the incredible article “Conference on PNEU Methods,” teachers discussed which books were narrated, how they were narrated, and what sort of results they could expect. It’s all there. This grand idea that Mason reveals in Volume 6, which I love but sometimes struggle to understand, is all explained in that article.

I’ll share a few of the habits that I quickly put back into place:

  • Carefully planning my school mornings, adding up the time allocated to each subject to make sure we didn’t go over our time. This was particularly helpful with certain students, and greatly affected the atmosphere during our school mornings.
  • I made sure we began narrating everything that those Parents’ Review articles suggested, gaining several helpful ideas from how the small schools handled narration.
  • I was careful to block out the hours for school in the morning, not letting myself become distracted with other (lesser) things during those precious school hours. I found that the babies’ morning nap time was sufficient to get most of our subjects finished in the lower forms, and we worked hard as soon as I put those babies to bed! But I also learned from reading “Letters from Mothers” that there are many ways to accomplish our goals, and sometimes life circumstances call for unique creativity. I began to feel cheerful about using that creativity instead of feeling like a failure if I wasn’t doing something in the exact way I had imagined it was “always done.”
  • I noticed that Household repeatedly told his teachers to be immersed in Mason’s volumes. He especially urged his teachers to regularly read volumes 3 and 6. I realized that this was something missing from my life as a teacher, making it much harder for me to peacefully implement the method. I began to voraciously read the volumes indicated. For me it was life-giving to be daily at the source of this method, something I had been missing for far too long.

The Presentation of Living Ideas

Presenting living ideas … the overwhelming nature of this task can send shivers right through me. When I decided to push ahead in June, I seriously doubted my own ability to choose the right books. But the more I studied those Parents’ Review articles, the more answers I found, and the results did not disappoint.

In “How the PUS Helps a Young Mother,” I was reminded to “give them the Bible text, Shakespeare, [and] Bunyan.” Some of you may find it easy to choose books, so you may not understand why I had to repeat that line to myself over and over again. It was simple. I thought, “At least I can do that.” It gave me the courage to move forward when I felt stuck. There are so many books! I don’t have the PNEU programmes, as much as I wish I did. But the Lord is gracious to lead me along, and through much reading and perseverance, I was able to select the books I felt comfortable using.

Right away I put Shakespeare and Plutarch back into the weekly schedule. I had to use that creativity I mentioned. Out of the gate, the first narration of Plutarch was so stunning, I sat there in tears. Two babies on my lap, several children all grouped around, struggling to understand, but still clearly able to use their minds to digest what they had just heard. I read the section with hope and energy, and they performed the act of knowing unlike anything I have experienced in my previous years of reading Plutarch.

Our experience with Shakespeare has been more steady over the years, but I had slacked off a bit in reading the actual plays together. After our second week of reading Julius Caesar together, there was a brief and lively discussion about Brutus and his behavior. The children could relate to the internal struggle of loyalty. The discussion showed how deeply they had understood a difficult section of this play, and again the phrase “trust the child” came to mind.

We had the same experiences in history, science, picture study, and composer study. I was on a timetable now, so there wasn’t a moment to spare for staring at my phone or my computer screen. We were experiencing what Mason described in “The Parents’ Union School”:

… children have an inherent need of knowledge on many subjects, and to acquire it is delightful to them. The brain is as much invigorated by regular, happy, various, work as is the physical frame; and the child who learns many things learns each of them as well as he who learns a few things learns those few, but the former has the added element of delight in his work. Only one caution is necessary,—a strict limitation in regard to hours of work. No young scholar should know what brain fag means; and every school time-table should be framed so as to secure ample leisure for the scholar and fitting work at fitting periods.

Now it wasn’t all perfect, don’t worry. But ideas were seizing my children. Many ideas. About many things. And those ideas quickly began connecting to other ideas at such a speed and with such exuberant energy, I found it difficult to keep up. I saw once again the living beauty of Mason’s words:

Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food. Probably he will reject nine-tenths of the ideas we offer, as he makes use of only a small proportion of his bodily food, rejecting the rest. He is an eclectic; he may choose this or that; our business is to supply him with due abundance and variety and his to take what he needs. Urgency on our part annoys him. He resists forcible feeding and loathes predigested food. What suits him best is pabulum presented in the indirect literary form which Our Lord adopts in those wonderful parables whose quality is that they cannot be forgotten though, while every detail of the story is remembered, its application may pass and leave no trace. We, too, must take this risk. (vol. 6, p. 109)

It is with great joy that I share this story with you. As summer has gone on, I have wondered at the amazing results we experienced by attempting to closely follow what was set out in those vintage articles. My experiences confirm in every way what those authors described. Though it’s easy to forget how wonderful those weeks were, I have the comfort of our actual real time experience to draw from during these months of break, and that brings me courage as fall is just around the corner. I am thankful for the chance to share my experience so that any of you who might be struggling with this method can follow the same path with these old articles and find renewed hope, joy, and courage as you start your new school year.

Mary and her husband Michael live in Portland, Oregon and have been home educating their children for the last 12 years. They were thrilled to find the Charlotte Mason method 10 years ago and have been using it ever since. Michael and Mary have three biological children, four adopted children, and are fostering twin babies. Raising children for the glory of God and sharing God’s love with students in their youth ministry is both their passion and their hobby. Mary keeps a sadly neglected blog at eventideblog.com but otherwise stays quite busy at home.

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