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Dear Friends,

Many of you know that I authored a study guide and maps  for teaching geography and history using the well-loved Holling Clancy Holling classics Paddle-to-the-Sea, Tree-in-the-Trail, Seabird and Minn of the Mississippi.  My friend and former professor, Anita Silvey, has written a delightful biography of Holling Clancy Holling in honor of his birthday, today August 2.  I think Holling’s books will be more dear to you than ever after reading Anita’s lovely tribute to Holling on her Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac, which you can access here.  I highly recommend subscribing to her blog for those who are as enamored with children’s books as I am, and are always eager to learn more!

What Holling Clancy Holling seemed to understand intuitively is how children learn.  Children learn when their senses are completely absorbed, when they are alive and intrigued.  By perfecting a beautifully crafted story, infusing it with important facts (things children need to know about history, science and geography) and then bringing it fully to life in gorgeous art, the minds of children are respected, nurtured and engaged. This is the gift that Holling Clancy Holling gave to us and to the world through his work.  And Holling’s approach, I think, is what Sir Ken Robinson makes an appeal for in his book Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative.  I am just about half way through this, and will post some more when I’ve finished his intriguing and inspiring book!  In the meantime, pick up one of Holling’s classic works, sit down with a son or daughter and enter the beautifully crafted world of Paddle-to-the Sea, Seabird, Tree-in-the-Trail or Minn!  You’ll be happy you did!

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Developing New Educational Paradigms

Dear Readers,
My daughter Rebecca recently sent me the following link regarding how educational paradigms are being challenged across the globe.  This is due to countless factors, but for those who have chosen to depart from institutionalized education, to create their own educational experience, I think you’ll find this talk by Sir Ken Robinson inspiring, challenging, and motivational.  Robinson is the author of Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, which is on my book list for summer reading. His talk on new educational paradigms seems timely for me personally, as I have determined to devote this summer to a neglected pursuit of the arts in our home.  I intend to intentionally pursue music, drawing, art history, and literature in a new and fresh way.  Robinson’s presentation has further convinced me of the importance of the arts and I think you’ll see why.  One thing he notes is that children are being anesthetized in unprecedented numbers through the overuse of Ritalin; this presumably to enable them “to learn.”  But Robinson notes that the opposite of anesthetization is aesthetic experience.  This occurs through the arts (and even through science and math) when the human faculties are totally engaged, “senses are operating at their peak  . . . when you’re resonating with the excitement of the thing you’re experiencing . . . when you’re fully alive.” This is what art, drama, music, and literature can do for us, and should do for us.  So by way of encouragement, consider how you might devote this summer to a pursuit of the kinds of engagement that Robinson advocates here.  Remember that the parts of the brain  developed through engagement with the arts, can eventually help to build the capacity for those lagging academic connections.  And even if that were not true, the emotional and spiritual connection provided by  times of renewal, reflection, and refreshment through art, will be a beautiful end in and of itself.  Here is the link.  Let me know what you think!

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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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Children’s books and the inspiration behind them . . .

Dear Readers,

Last Saturday I had the gratifying experience of meeting with 40 lovely ladies for a full day seminar discussing children’s books, education, literature, and history.  Despite the fact that we had over six hours together delving into these absorbing subjects, as usual there simply wasn’t enough time to cover it all!  So in response to some of the requests that emerged in our discussions, I’ll be posting over the next few days on some of these topics.

First of all, and a topic I come to with a great deal of enthusiasm, is the “story behind the story” of many of the best children’s books.  Honestly, the reason I come to this with such eagerness is that in this arena I happen to know one of the foremost authorities on children’s literature today!  Her name is Anita Silvey and I had the delightful opportunity to sit under her while doing my graduate work in children’s literature at Simmons College in Boston.  Since that time, Anita and I have maintained a warm friendship and I never miss a chance when visiting Boston to make a date with Anita.  She is one of those people who brings out the best in everyone she knows, and just sitting discussing children’s literature with her for an hour over lunch is always inspiring, informative, and invigorating!  I know if you were able to meet her you would feel exactly the same way!

So here’s one of my secrets:  Anita’s books on the history of children’s authors and illustrators!  I posted last year about her book Everything I Needed to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book and you can access that here. A number of the stories I shared with you on Saturday–Robert Ballard, Jim Trelease, Andrew Wyeth, David McCullough, were adapted from this book. There are many, many, more on contemporary authors and the books that inspired them as children. I find these stories SO valuable because as mothers and educators we never really know which book or books may be the catalyst or inspiration to focus our child on their particular path in life. And of course, this points to the importance of Charlotte Mason’s notion of “abundant and orderly” serving of books.

Now, if what you’re really looking for is the stories of the authors themselves, then Anita offers a number of really important resources. But to start, I would recommend one of two: Children’s Books and Their Creators and The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and their Creators. Hardly a month goes by for me that I am not pulling one or the other of these off my shelf to reference. The first title is over 800 pages and contains about that many entries related to children’s authors, genres of children’s literature, historical and cultural forces as formative to various genres, and personal perspectives from the authors themselves. The Essential Guide offers many of the same components (and indeed carries over into this paperback edition much of the same material) but arranged alphabetically from Aesop to Zwerger (you may remember that name as Zwerger is the remarkable illustrator of the edition of The Selfish Giant that we looked at in the literary analysis component of our day). So for the really ambitious I would recommend the first title, and for those that want a slightly simpler more condensed (albeit still 500 some pages!) version I would select The Essential Guide. This is a great place to start. I have many more guides to children’s literature that I will feature later, but this is a wonderful place to start!

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Orange County Literature Seminar deadline extended!

Hi Reading Friends,
The Orange County Literature Seminar is just around the corner!  I am extending the deadline for the discounted rate until tomorrow night at midnight!  So you can still register here.  Also, for those of you that are already registered, please be thinking of a favorite children’s book you’d like to share during our working lunch!  I’ll also be emailing you with specific details by Thursday so be looking for that to come through your regular email.  Can’t wait to spend this time with you!