I keep getting added to unschooling boards on Pinterest, and unschooling lists on Twitter. People sometimes mistake the Charlotte Mason philosophy as some sort of unschooling, and I can’t blame them for that! It seems like the concept of masterly inactivity is often described as a mother staying out of the way of her child’s education. Yes, she should present her child with a carefully chosen book, but then she’d better get out of the way! But there is much more to a Charlotte Mason lesson than that.
Most likely, many of you who are reading this right now know from experience that a constantly lecturing teacher is a bore to students! But there is a middle ground, a perfect balance that rests between the over-lecturer and the hands off educator. Charlotte Mason describes this, a mother’s role in her child’s education, throughout her volumes.
Method of a Charlotte Mason Lesson
Method of Lesson.- In every case the reading should be consecutive from a well-chosen book. Before the reading for the day begins, the teacher should talk a little (and get the children to talk) about the last lesson, with a few words about what is to be read, in order that the children may be animated by expectation; but she should beware of explanation and, especially, of forestalling the narrative. Then, she may read two or three pages, enough to include an episode; after that, let her call upon the children to narrate,–in turns, if there be several of them. They not only narrate with spirit and accuracy, but succeed in catching the style of their author. It is not wise to tease them with corrections; they may begin with an endless chain of ‘ands,’ but they soon leave this off, and their narrations become good enough in style and composition to be put in a ‘print book’!
This sort of narration lesson should not occupy more than a quarter of an hour.
The book should always be deeply interesting, and when the narration is over, there should be a little talk in which moral points are brought out, pictures shown to illustrate the lesson, or diagrams drawn on the blackboard. As soon as children are able to read with ease and fluency, they read their own lesson, either aloud or silently, with a view to narration; but where it is necessary to make omissions, as in the Old Testament narratives and Plutarch’s Lives, for example, it is better that the teacher should always read the lesson which is to be narrated. Home Education, page 232-233
These words from Home Education show us that Charlotte Mason intended for a mother/educator to be more than a giver-of-books. She mentions six parts of a lesson.
1. Carefully choose a living book, and read consecutively from it (planned ahead of time.)
Whether we carefully choose a curriculum to follow, or carefully piece together books for our children to read, this is an important first step. Charlotte Mason mentions that the book should be read consecutively, but she did think that it was important to edit out parts of a text that might be inappropriate or distracting for children.
2. Offer a short review of the last lesson, and get the child to talk about it, too.
A simple, “Tell me what we read last time,” will elicit your child to talk about the previous lesson. You could also remind him or her about an idea that they discussed during the lesson before. Saying, “Yesterday, we talked about the idea that…” should get your child thinking about what they’ve already learn. Any understanding is built on background knowledge, which is why this step is so important!
3. Give a few words about what is to be read, to build the child’s anticipation.
Sometimes, additional background information should be established to inspire a child to learn more about the topic. Charlotte Mason gave an example of this in a Bible lesson:
The teacher opens the lesson by reading from The Bible for the Young, in which the subject is pictorially treated….there will probably be some talk and discussion after this reading. Then the teacher will read the Bible passage in question which the children will narrate, the commentary serving merely as a background for their thought.” Towards a Philosophy of Education, pages 162-163 (some text omitted.)
You can do this through showing your child pictures, maps, or maybe even presenting a thought-provoking question. We want our children to be excited and interested in what they are going to learn! Charlotte Mason said that by giving appreciative looks and maybe a little word about the book, we can help share our delight with out children. Although, she warns that we shouldn’t talk too much here!
The children must enjoy the book. The ideas it holds must each make that sudden, delightful impact upon their minds, must cause that intellectual stir, which mark the inception of an idea. The teacher’s part in this regard is to see and feel for himself, and then to rouse his pupils by an appreciative look or word; but to beware how he deadens the impression by a flood of talk. Intellectual sympathy is very stimulating; but we have all been in the case of the little girl who said, “Mother, I think I could understand if you did not explain quite so much.” A teacher said of her pupil, “I find it so hard to tell whether she has really grasped a thing or whether she has only got the mechanical hang of it” Children are imitative monkeys, and it is the ‘mechanical hang’ that is apt to arrive after a douche of explanation.” School Education, pages 178-179
4. Read two or three pages (or have children read once they are fluent readers.)
A Single, Careful Reading,- There is much difference between intelligent reading, which the pupil should do in silence, and a mere parrot-like cramming up of contents; and it is not a bad test of education to be able to give the points of a description, the sequence of a series of incidents, the links in a chain of argument, correctly, after a single careful reading. This is a power which a barrister, a publisher, a scholar, labours to acquire; and it is a power which children can acquire with great ease, and once acquired, the gulf is bridged which divides the reading from the non-reading community.” School Education, page 180
It’s important to read a book only once so that our children can practice devoting their fullest attention to it. If they fail to listen or pay attention as the book is read, Charlotte Mason said that a sympathetic look and the fact that they missed out on beautiful ideas will be consequence enough.
5. Have the children narrate
Children Narrate by Nature.- 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.” Home Education, page 231
This is the part of a lesson in which a child really begins to solidify their understanding. By narrating, they are processing the information that they’ve read, making sense of it, and adding it to their memory. If a child can narrate it, then he or she knows it!
6. Have a little talk about moral points, bring in pictures or diagrams to solidify what was learned.
This closing part of the lesson encourages a child to keep thinking about what they’ve read. It also serves as a little bit of an assessment. Maybe together, you make a quick diagram of the ideas or events presented. Maybe you present a picture displaying something about which they’ve just read. I think the most important aspect of this closing is to get your child talking about it! This is where their questions and interpretations of the book will bubble up to the surface. This was always my favorite part of teaching a lesson! I loved hearing my students’ reflections and perspectives on what they read!
Other Things to Consider
I love that Charlotte Mason gave us such a complete outline of what a lesson should look like! She also mentioned some other things that we should do for these lessons:
It’s important to plan a lesson ahead of time by pre-reading and thinking about what will be focused on. If you plan on following her advice of bringing in pictures or making diagrams, it’s not really possible to do on the fly! By carefully planning a Charlotte Mason lesson, we can prepare for the “mental discipline” and “vital knowledge” that must be stressed.
The teacher’s part is, in the first place, to see what is to be done, to look over the work of the day in advance and see what mental discipline, as well as what vital knowledge, this and that lesson afford; and then to set such questions and such tasks as shall give full scope to his pupils’ mental activity.” School Education, page 180
Set Questions and Tasks
Direct questions on the subject-matter of what a child has read are always a mistake. Let him narrate what he has read, or some part of it. He enjoys this sort of consecutive reproduction, but abominates every question in the nature of a riddle. If there must be riddles, let it be his to ask and the teacher’s to direct him to the answer. Questions that lead to a side issue or to a personal view are allowable because these interest children.” Home Education, pages 228-229
The questions that Charlotte Mason encouraged us to ask are not like the questions at the end of a story in a text book. These text book questions have a definite answer, or at least guide the child towards a specific way of thinking. But these types of riddles must be avoided. Instead, questions that get to the ideas in the book, or challenge a child to think in a new way (leading to a personal view) are interesting and meaningful.
Charlotte Mason gave examples of the kinds of thinking children should do when reading. Many of these qualify as the modern category of “higher level thinking,” which can be encouraged through thoughtful questioning.
This, of getting ideas out of them, is by no means all we must do with books. ‘In all labour there is profit,’ at any rate in some labour; and the labour of thought is what his book must induce in the child. He must generalise, classify, infer, judge, visualise, discriminate, labour in one way or another, with that capable mind of his, until the substance of his book is assimilated or rejected, according as he shall determine; for the determination rests with him and not with his teacher.” School Education, page 179
Encourage Questioning and Note-taking
Let marginal notes be freely made, as neatly and beautifully as may be, for books should be handled with reverence. Let numbers, letters, underlining be used to help the eye and to save the needless fag of writing abstracts. Let the pupil write for himself half a dozen questions which cover the passage studied; he need not write the answers if he be taught that the mind can know nothing but what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put by the mind to itself. School Education, pages 180-181
Students should be allowed, and encouraged, to write in the books, underline important information, etc. Truthfully, this one would be difficult for me! Write in books?? Gasp! Writing in pencil, or using sticky notes on the books are alternatives. Charlotte Mason also mentioned having children write their own questions after reading. By avoiding the shallow, surface-level questions that I mentioned above, children get really good at asking in-depth questions! This volume, School Education, explained a child’s curriculum for the ages of 9-12, so these skills are most likely too advanced for a child’s first formal lessons.
Putting it All Together
These lessons are kept short. While this might seem like a lot to plan for, if you consider a 15-20 minute lesson, the time a mother/educator spends talking will be very short! If formal lessons are still a few years off for you, like they are for me, I hope that this gives you some idea of what your homeschool could look like in the future! A lesson taught as Charlotte Mason intended will be a gift from you to your child, leading to many happy discussions and memories!