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Mid-year inspiration from Charlotte Mason

February can often be a month of lagging motivation and inspiration as winter drags on and the glory of spring and summer seem very far away.  Recalling Charlotte Mason‘s most seminal tenets of education half-way through our school year can revive and inspire us to finish well.

Education is an atmosphere.

Charlotte Mason’s motto, “education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life” might accurately be called “educating organically.”  As parents many of us are interested in providing our children with the most wholesome foods we can offer in our day of mechanized corporate agriculture.  When available, we desire organically grown fruits and vegetables, minimally processed whole-grains, free-range, antibiotic and hormone-free meats, and best of all, home grown fruits and vegetables from our own gardens!  We desire, to put it simply, to provide our families with foods that are as close to nature and as unadulterated as possible. This same perspective could be applied to understanding Charlotte Mason’s methodology of education. By defining education as “an atmosphere, a discipline, a life”, Mason strove to reconnect education back to an organic understanding of it; in other words, true education happens when the right atmosphere is established that nurtures life and growth. When the human spirit is nurtured by love, transcendent truth, beauty, music, literature, adventure, imagination, play, and healthy expanding labor, the mind and the spirit grow naturally. As Ms. Mason noted, “we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food.”1 Analogous with nutrition’s importance to maintaining life is the suitable nourishment of the mind and heart.

As parents striving to avoid foods for our children that are adulterated with sugar, preservatives, unhealthy fats and chemicals, so too, our approach to education should reflect a similar devotion.  Mason called the adulterated curriculum often proffered children “twaddle–the mentally inferior and useless stuff produced or written for children by adults.”2 Mason defined an “organic” curriculum as rich in “living books.”3 Because Mason recognized the inherent dignity and individuality of each child, she strove to establish an approach to education that respected and encouraged that intrinsic value. Just as parents avoid junk food with its questionable nutritional value, curriculum based upon tedious workbooks, monotonous rote work, and watered-down uninteresting stories, is to be avoided for its questionable educational value.  Mason advocated only the best literature for children.  As she notes, “We hold that a child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas, but is rather [. . .] a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge.  That is its proper diet.”4 An educational curriculum rich in scripture, classic literature, histories, biographies, poetry, and dramatic works nurtures the spirit, develops the imagination, and equips a child for life.  The clear delineation of right and wrong in fairy tales, folk tales, and mythic and epic literature, nurtures the inclination of the human heart for that which is good, lovely, honest, and true.  By a rich and orderly serving of living books, the child’s heart is expanded and enlarged. As the youngest child listens and understands story, he freely relates back his response to story.  The growing discipline of narration initiates the child into the world of words.  True education begins.

Education is a discipline.

In addition to a solid foundation of living books, Mason advocated the educational benefit of play and nature study. Indeed, Mason “recommended four to six hours outdoors each day [. . .] from April to October” for growing children.5 While Mason had the benefit of the English countryside at her doorstep, many of us must drive or plan in advance in order to provide these experiences for our children. But provide them we must. Running, swimming, skipping, jumping, climbing, and dancing will all make for happy, well-rounded children. Weeding a garden, feeding chickens, picking fruit in an  orchard, all work to connect children to real life.  While outdoor free play is important in and of itself, Ms. Mason also advocated nature studies that open the eyes of the child to the beauty and wonder of the outdoor world.  By the discipline of observing and relating (and even sketching and recording) what a child sees as they experience and examine the natural world–terrestrial and astral, a connection to and appreciation for beauty is established. This is the beginning of wonder.  In a technology-saturated culture, where children often spend little time outdoors, this becomes increasingly essential.  The ability to see the small wonders of the natural world around us (even if we live in a city or suburb) gives the child a lens through which to appreciate beauty and experience life.

Education is a life.

Mason’s philosophy of education is designed to develop life-long learners. Introducing children at a young age and through their educational career to the “best which has been thought and said in the world” connects them to the rich literary heritage of western civilization–a heritage that can inform and inspire them throughout their lives.6 Opening the eyes of a child to the beauty of the natural world around them develops wonder–a defense against the cynicism and hubris of postmodern life. This can provide a critical antidote to an often violent and topsy-turvy world. Understanding their place in that world establishes a solid foundation for right relationship with God and their neighbor.

Works Cited

1.  Mason, Charlotte. Towards a Philosophy of Education. Radford, Virginia: Wilder Publications. 2008. p. 86.

2.  Macaulay, Susan Schaeffer. For the Children’s Sake:  Foundations of Education for Home and School.  Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1984. p. 15.

3.  Towards a Philosophy of Education. p. 118.

4.  Ibid. p. 89.

5.  Mason, Charlotte.  Home Education. Radford, Virginia: Wilder Publications, 2008. p.40.

6.  Arnold, Matthew and Jane Garrett.  Culture and Anarchy.  Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2006. p. 5.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Deluge tablet, carved in stone, of the Gil...
Neo-Assyrian "Flood Tablet"

Dear Readers,

After a number of fits and starts, my colleague, Barbara Hawkins and I have just completed a brand new study guide for any teacher/parent/student interested in studying this most seminal work of literature!  We have incorporated the Charlotte Mason approach to studying great works of literature and we believe you will find this guide a truly helpful tool in understanding and appreciating this epic.

Gilgamesh is the world’s oldest epic and established many of the literary motifs we’ve come to expect in great epic works.  The story of Gilgamesh took place nearly five thousand years ago, but only became familiar to the modern world in the middle of the nineteenth century.   Hearing tales of wondrous treasures to be found beneath the stark desert sands of ancient Mesopotamia, a young English traveler named Austen Henry Layard (pictured above left) began digging in 1844 near the town of Mosul, Iraq.  There he discovered the remnants of the library of Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC), a famous king from the Assyrian period.  Mixed among the twenty-five thousand tablets shipped back to the British Museum were the fragments of twelve tablets containing one of the most ancient masterpieces known to man.

However, since scholars had to learn how to decipher the cuneiform script inscribed on the tablets, Gilgamesh continued its obscure existence in the basement of the British Museum until 1872 when George Smith, a curator with a common name, made an uncommon discovery.  He found an account of a vast flood in ancient Mesopotamia with details that eerily echoed the Biblical narration of the Flood.  “On looking down the third column, my eye caught the statement that the ship rested on the mountains of Nizir, followed by the account of the sending forth of the dove, and its finding no resting-place and returning.  I saw at once that I had here discovered a portion at least of the Chaldean account of the Deluge” (Mitchell 4).  Smith’s translation, published in 1876, sparked a frenzy to discover and translate the rest of the epic.   Even though no complete version has ever been unearthed, the adventures of this ancient king, no matter how whimsically interpreted, continue to enthrall each and every reader.

The good news for those interested in studying this epic with their young students (3rd/4th grade up to 7/8th) is that the children’s author, Geraldine McCaughrean–winner of the Carnegie Medal,  has written a lyrical and complete edition for the intermediate student.  McCaughrean’s work makes this epic approachable by even the uninitiated.  For those working with older students, or for high school students interested in this period, David Ferry’s A New Rendering in English Verse, is the perfect choice.  The newly completed study guide includes a thorough introduction to the heroic quest, insight on literary components and motifs, vocabulary, writing prompts, comprehension and analytical questions and much more.  As Geraldine McCaughrean notes in her introduction to her children’s book:

I feel a personal affection for Gilgamesh the Hero.  I just love that story.  It epitomizes all the reasons I like myth: because myth predates the whole Children’s Book/Adult Book divide. The stories are about things that mattered to everyone, regardless of age. They’re about the big things –passion and death and terror and God and friendship and heroism…

You can access a downloadable format of our new guide here.  Enjoy your trip to Ancient Sumer!

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Epiphany 2011

Dear Readers,

As today is the Feast of Epiphany it is a suitable time to share some musings on the best children’s books on the visit of the Wise Men to the Christ child.  Garrison Keillor reminded me on today’s Writer’s Almanac that the word “epiphany” comes from the Greek word for “manifestation” or “striking appearance”, and of course, nothing in all of human history is more striking than the incarnation. You can read the rest of Keillor’s insight here.

Astronomers have long pondered the mystery of the Star of Bethlehem and what kind of astronomical phenomenon could explain how a star could have led these seekers in the way it did.  Craig Chester, President of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy, published about 20 years ago a fascinating article about astronomical conjunctions occurring at this time that might explain the wonder of this star.  Below is an excerpt of his fascinating study, but you can read the entire article here.

In 3 B.C. and 2 B.C. there was a series of close conjunctions involving Jupiter, the planet that represented kingship, coronations, and the birth of kings.  In Hebrew, Jupiter was known as Sedeq or “Righteousness,” a term also used for the Messiah.  In September of 3 B.C., Jupiter also came into conjunction with Regulus, the star of kingship, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo.  Leo was the constellation of kings, and it was associated with the Lion of Judah.  The royal planet approached the royal star in the royal constellation representing Israel [ . . . ] Finally in June of 2 B.C., Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest objects in the sky save the sun and moon, experienced an even closer encounter when their disks appeared to touch; to the naked eye they became a single object above the setting sun.  This exceptionally rare spectacle could not have been missed by the Magi [ . . .] September 11, 3 B.C. is perhaps the most interesting date of aSong of the Camelsll.  Not only was Jupiter very close to Regulus in the first of their conjunctions, but the sun was in the constellation of Virgo (of obvious symbolism).”

There are so many ways in which the story of the Wise Men visiting the tiny child in Bethlehem is cause for wonder and awe.  Not remarkably, this awe has produced some really precious children’s books that can help explore that mystery with our children. A favorite of mine is the story written by Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933)  often entitled The Other Wise Man or The Fourth Wise Man. This story is based upon the fictional premise that there was another wise man who never made it to the nativity, precisely because he was acting the part of the Good Samaritan, and spent himself so completely ministering to those in need on his journey, that he missed his chance to actually meet the Christ child himself. The moral, as you can probably guess is Matt. 25:40.  There are a number of editions of this sweet tale, but I do like the illustrations done by Robert Barret in the edition above.

Another take on the visit of the Magi is entitled Song of the Camels: A Christmas Poem by Elizabeth Coatsworth and illustrated by Anna Vojtech.  Coatsworth was a prolific children’s author for over 50 years and is best known for her Newbery Medal winner of 1931, The Cat Who Went to Heaven. This tale in verse is told from the perspective of the camels that carried the magi to the Christ child. “Portents of glory and danger/ Our dark shadows lay/ At the feet of the babe in the manger/ And then drifted away.”  Anna Vojtech’s illustrations for The Song of Camels are filled with rich imagery of the Middle East and present another aspect of this marvelous story.

This is The Star by Joyce Dunbar and illustrated by Gary Blythe centers the action around the marvelous star that brings magi, shepherds, and angels in a confluence of wonder to a dark and humble stable. Blythe’s illustrations have an almost photographic realism to them that illumines the humanity of this night of all nights.

Finally, The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry and illustrated by Lizbeth Zwerger remains one of my most precious Christmas tales. Lizbeth Zwerger’s illustrations brilliantly illumine the pathos, simplicity, and sweetness of O. Henry’s story involving a poor but devoted couple desiring to bless their beloved with their very best gift. They sacrifice what is most precious to them in order to do so.  While its title would lead one to think it involves the magi, it doesn’t actually include them in the story, except to reflect upon the power of gifts given that require a deep measure of self-sacrifice.  O. Henry states, “The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger.  They invented the art of giving Christmas presents.”  I won’t give more of the tale away, as you must read it to appreciate it fully!  May the wonder of the visiting Magi inspire all of us to live in their spirit in 2011.  Happy New Year dear friends.