Reverence in Lessons

Reverence in Lessons

In my first article in this series, I highlighted a quality that Charlotte Mason said should accompany “all our teaching of children”: reverence. This is a quality that I began to realize was sorely lacking in my own lessons, so I resolved to do something about it. But was this going to be something that took place solely in my mind? In other words, was my goal to simply stir up feelings of holiness and reverence during lesson time? Thankfully not, since the difficulty of such an approach was starkly exposed in one comment on my article:

As helpful as a reminder to be present and mindful and reverent is, it can get to be another voice amid all the swirling voices… “Hey, while you’re at attempting to order your entire universe, remember to do it with reverence!”

Fortunately, in my experience, I have found that reverence in lessons is expressed more powerfully in what we do than in what we feel. Rather than add another “voice amid all the swirling voices,” I would like to suggest some practical actions which I believe characterize reverent lessons. Thankfully, these actions lend themselves to habit formation, and can eventually become, as Mason indicates, “second nature.” I have grouped these practical suggestions into five groupings:

  1. Reverence for the time.
  2. Reverence for the child.
  3. Reverence for the content.
  4. Reverence for the materials.
  5. Reverence in action: co-learning.

In this article I would like to address the first two.

1. Reverence for the Time

Charlotte Mason’s exposition of integrity in her book Ourselves takes a surprising turn when she includes time management as one dimension of this important quality:

Now, the eager soul who gives attention and zeal to his work often spoils its completeness by chasing after many things when he should be doing the next thing in order… It is well to make up our mind that there is always a next thing to be done, whether in work or play; and that the next thing, be it ever so trifling, is the right thing…[1]

I believe that the beginning of reverence in lessons is to firmly believe that lesson time is the right time for lessons. And the presence or absence of that belief is revealed by our actions. Of course it may seem obvious that lesson time is the right time for lessons, but that has not always been obvious to me. When I sit down for lessons, my lack of reverence for the time is most often revealed by two deadly compromises: multi-tasking and interruptions.

I call them deadly because of the message they send to the student: “I don’t care enough about you to give you my full attention.”

The Wonderful and Horrible Device

There is one device in the modern world that has more power than any other to destroy reverence in lessons. It is a device that is profoundly optimized for the two most damaging weapons against time management integrity: multi-tasking and interruptions. In the palm of my hand, it beckons me to a world of discovery: anything I want to know about from the past or the present is at my fingertips. It can satisfy my curiosity, it can entertain me, it can engage me, it can answer my questions. It can do almost anything, it would seem, except help me pay attention to the most important person in the world at lesson time: my child.

It interrupts me with things momentous and things trivial. It alerts me to news about family and friends. Moment by moment, minute by minute, it relentlessly urges me that there is something somewhere more deserving of my attention than this little person in my presence. This little person who was hoping to receive his daily bread of learning from me.

Over the years I have read the account of judgement in Matthew 25 many times. In that magisterial passage Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matthew 25:45, ESV). All along I thought the “least of these” referred only to the “hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison” (v. 44). Until one day I heard Eirik Olsen say in a sermon that our little ones are also among the “least of these.” Our little children have so little power or influence. They need us, our time, our attention, our instruction. Do you believe that when you pay attention to your little child in lessons that you are paying attention to Jesus? I do.

When, oh Lord, did You call out to me and I was texting instead? When did You ask me to hear Your words and I chose Facebook instead? When did I admire a meme when You wanted me to admire You? And Jesus will respond to me in truth: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (v. 40).

There is one step that comes first in the journey to reverence in lessons: put your phone away. Lesson time is the gift of yourself — all of yourself — to your child.

The Timetable

Charlotte Mason contrasts the “soothing routine of lessons” to “the labour of decision twenty times a day, and … the added fatigue of a contest to get [one’s] own way.”[2] Children thrive on routine and the timetable is a powerful habit-based process to secure it. Reverence for time includes reverence for the timetable. Mason writes:

Some people dearly like to be going on with a little job of their own in the time which should have a fixed employment. The girl who is sewing has a story-book at hand. The youth tries chemical experiments when he should be ‘reading.’ The time may be used for quite a good end, but it is ‘cribbed’ from the occupation to which it belongs.[3]

The premise behind the timetable is that there is a time for each lesson, and that time should not be lightly co-opted for another even quite “good end.” When I or anyone in our family feels tempted to deviate from the timetable, I often do a thought experiment. What if we had a doctor appointment, a piano lesson, or an outside class scheduled for this time? Would we be equally casual and loose with our time? If not, then why would we be casual and loose with the time scheduled for lessons which, we may believe, are conducted under the benevolent grace of the Holy Spirit?

That does not mean that there are no exceptions. We do, in fact, regularly reschedule appointments with doctors, teachers, and friends. But we do so with respect and reverence. Mason writes that “timely clemency, timely yielding, is a great secret of strong government.”[4] Sometimes the best thing to do on a beautiful day is to cancel all lessons and spend many hours out in the fields. The exception proves the rule.

Respect for time also includes giving margins to your schedule so that there is no scramble or rush to get going. I learned this lesson in reverence when I started arriving early for church. The extra time helps me prepare my heart to meet the Lord. The same principle has convinced me that I also need to carve out time to get my materials and heart prepared for lessons — I hope to meet the Lord there, too.

The Long Haul

A final way I believe we show reverence for time is by having patience in the journey. We are in this for the long haul. Mason writes:

It is not in a day or a year that Fra Angelico will tell us of the beauty of holiness, that Giotto will confide his interpretation of the meaning of life, that Millet will tell us of the simplicity and dignity that belong to labour on the soil, that Rembrandt will show us the sweetness of humanity in many a commonplace countenance.[5]

Are you concerned that your children are not responding to picture study after a couple of weeks? Don’t be discouraged. According to Mason, it takes more than a year before our hearts begin to open to the artistry of Fra Angelico. The same time horizons are often required for other subjects, such as music appreciation, poetry, Shakespeare, and even Bible lessons. Fortunately, we can use a lifestyle of habits to “plow the soil” so our hears become more receptive to living ideas. I explain this concept in my presentation entitled “Habits for Life.”

2. Reverence Towards the Child

Charlotte Mason writes that “we must either reverence or despise children.”[6] Almost everything we do with our children can be classified into one of these two categories. Few things fall in a middle ground. The early portion of Mason’s Home Education describes the “code education in the Gospels” which serves as a Scriptural basis for the first principle — that “Children are born persons.”[7] The code says, “Take heed that ye offend not—despise not—hinder not—one of these little ones.”[8] When we are not despising, we are well on our way to reverencing.

In a sense, Mason’s entire six-volume series is a lengthy exposition on how to reverence rather than to despise children. The implications and applications are endless, but in this article I want to focus on only one: the act of narration, and specifically what our role is as parents and teachers.

Every once in a while, we all come across a paper or book that ushers in a true paradigm shift. For me, the most powerful essay I’ve read in memory on the topic of narration is Shannon R. Whiteside’s 2019 paper entitled “Narrative Events and Literacy Learning: Retelling as a Meaning-Making Practice.” Nothing else in print has come close to awakening me so much to the active role of the parent in a narration lesson. I call it “the other side of narration,” and I now believe it is a powerful way to express the reverence due to student-narrators.

The Other Side of Narration

Much attention has been given to the cognitive dimension of narration. That is not surprising, since Mason herself refers to narration as the “act of knowing.”[9] That raises the question, however, as to whether narration is thus solely a private and internal act. To be sure, Mason does indicate that a form of narration can occur “in the heart,” when we simply “go over [something] in our minds.”[10] But is that all there is to oral narration too? When our children narrate, do we simply sit and stare as cognitive skills are developed and the “act of knowing” is performed?

I used to think so. Narration was for the student. He had to get it done. My role was simply one of enforcement. I had to make sure it got done. To do so, I didn’t actually have to listen to the words. I just needed to make sure that words were coming out of my child’s mouth. Some people would say that the teacher’s role is more than just the act of compliance. They would say that the teacher is also evaluating; specifically, he or she makes sure the child got the “right” ideas from the text. The teacher would thus be assessing reading comprehension. I was never a fan of this “evaluation” model of listening to narration, because I agreed with Mason’s evaluation of the child:

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.[11]

So I would sit back and make sure my child engaged with the material; that he took “what he needs.” I suppose I also had to listen in case he had questions — in case there was going to be some discussion.

Whiteside’s paper has changed all that for me. In “Narrative Events and Literacy Learning,” she argues that oral narration is not simply a cognitive exercise. She asserts that oral narrations are actually “storytelling ‘performances’ that utilize poetic devices that reveal the moral stance and originality of each narration.”[12] There is a huge difference between a performance and a cognitive exercise. The difference is this: performances require an audience. Whiteside goes on:

Goffman (1981) defines performance as “that arrangement which transforms an individual into a stage performer, the latter, in turn, being an object that can be looked at in the round and at length without offense, and looked to for engaging behavior, by persons in an ‘audience’ role” (p. 124).[13]

If Whiteside’s thesis is correct, then the oral narrator — the child — is looking for engaging behavior from the audience. Who’s the audience? Why, that’s you and me!

Whiteside writes:

Written communication as opposed to oral communication requires language to be more precise and descriptive. Narration allows students to build up these skills as they strive to recreate a story for an audience.[14]

The bottom line is that when we speak to an audience, we express ourselves differently than when we write. This is a generally accepted truth recognized by many, including authors and speakers such as Stephen R. Covey.[15] But how about when we speak to a mirror? Or worse, to people who aren’t even listening?

In my own experience with public speaking, I find it nearly impossible to recreate in the studio the energy and expression that come out of my mouth in front of a live audience. But there is something worse than a studio, and that’s a dead audience.

Seeing oral narration as a storytelling performance has completely revolutionized how I participate in narration lessons. I am no longer listening for compliance or evaluation. Rather, I am listening for the same reason as I listen to any other performance: I am listening for enjoyment.

I think as soon as my son realized that I was actually listening to him, his narrations began to flourish. I would smile when he said something with enthusiasm. I would laugh when he said something funny. I would look with appreciation when he said something creative. I would ask for clarification when I didn’t understand. In short, I discovered the other side of narration. I discovered I have the privilege and the opportunity to be the audience.

In Whiteside’s paper she shows that oral narration brings out more than just the ideas of the text. It also brings out the creative expression of the child-narrator. Whiteside has identified a set of poetic devices naturally employed by children when they narrate orally, including parallelism, constructed dialog, and imagery. These are sophisticated devices that show that the student is creating meaning in the process of retelling. This is an act of knowing indeed!

Whiteside developed an analytical model called “agency clusters” which an active listener can use to catalog the poetic devices observed in a narration performance. She also explains how narration reveals the moral stance of the learner. The student-narrator offers many clues about his or her evaluation of the characters and events of the text. When the parent-audience is sensitive to this dimension of narration, he or she gains a window into the developing moral sense of the child.

Listening to narrations is no longer a chore for me. Now, it is an exciting moment of discovery. I get to find out what my child thinks is important in a passage; I find out what he thinks is honorable or dishonorable. I get to observe his poetic devices, now that I understand their significance and importance. In return, he gets an audience that cares. When he knows that he is performing for an engaged listener, he naturally employs more poetic devices and expressive depth.

No doubt there is a cognitive element to narration, and no doubt narration can be done alone. But I now find that narration is best when it’s done in the context of relationship. I am blessed with the gift of enjoying my child rather than evaluating him. I enjoy his performance because I want to get to know him and I love him; in short, because I have reverence for my child.

The Habit of Reverence

Hopefully the above discussion shows that reverence in lessons is not a matter of conjuring sentimental feelings. Rather, it is a matter of conscious and practical decisions such as putting the phone away, adhering to a timetable, and playing the role of an engaged listener during narration performances. When applied consistently, these practices become habit and they become second nature. However, these practices are only the beginning. Stay tuned to hear more about reverence in action in a Charlotte Mason education.


[1] Ourselves, Book I, p. 171.
[2] School Education, p. 21.
[3] Ourselves, Book I, p. 174.
[4] School Education, p. 17.
[5] Ourselves, Book II, p. 102.
[6] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 238.
[7] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. xxix.
[8] Home Education, p. 12.
[9] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 291.
[10] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 17.
[11] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 109.
[12] Whiteside, Shannon R. (2019). “Narrative Events and Literacy Learning: Retelling as a Meaning-Making Practice,” p. 23.
[13] Ibid, quoting Goffman, E. (1981). Forms of talk. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
[14] Ibid., pp. 38–39.
[15] Covey, Stephen R. (1990). The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, p. 10.

8 Replies to “Reverence in Lessons”

  1. Very helpful in preparing myself to not just be a teacher but also a privileged audience of my child!

    1. Yes! And being an engaged audience helps our children become skilled at public speaking. I just read this today in Charlotte Mason’s School Education: “some power of public speaking, should be a part of our fitness as citizens. To secure the power of speaking, I think it would be well if the habit of narration were more encouraged, in place of written composition” (p. 88).

  2. I’m grateful for you bringing up these areas for reflection. As I think about it I see that I have two areas I can especially grow in with regard to the timetable alone! In my mind – and probably out loud to my family – I’ve justified the timetable as a necessity for sanity. While I think it’s true, your article is making me rethink the implications of this line of reasoning as opposed to following the timetable out of reverence.
    Also (and admittedly contradictory!) sometimes I lack in reverence for the time because of a kind of greed for more content. In the moment, it’s a zeal to get the most out of it, and in that way, probably an error in proper reverence for the material and child 🙂 It reminds me of one of Tolkien’s walking songs;
    “Leaf and flower, tree and grass,
    let them pass, let them pass.
    Hill and water under sky
    Pass them by, pass them by.”
    Now, I guess the next thing to do is to take a good practical look at my timetable to see that it serves us as we attempt to follow it more closely.

    1. Joy,

      Thank you for sharing these wonderful thoughts. Your insights take us deeper into the power of the timetable when we prepare it and cherish it carefully.


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