Saying Goodbye to Charlotte

Back in the fall I wrote a couple posts about not feeling like you need to adhere to any particular pedagogy religiously. That it is okay to “tweak” things as necessary to work for you and your family. I wrote how I myself have struggled for years to find what works best for my children and our often hectic life.

I’ve known for awhile now that my son does best with workbooks, and yet, I’ll admit, the Charlotte Mason philosophy has been a hard one to let go of. I’m part of a few Charlotte Mason groups online and the fan base is rather large, with many who are rather zealous advocates. I learned a lot from the conversations on those groups, and overall I found their well-meaning and articulate comments were intended to be encouraging. However, I will admit that reading through those groups also often left me feeling guilty that I was not doing enough, or doing it right; that I just needed to try harder.

Here’s the thing: I really, really, wanted to follow the Charlotte Mason approach. We’ve been trying it for over two years now. Every fibre of my being agrees that it is a beautiful and enriching approach to education that can produce excellent results. But I have finally come to the realization that it just doesn’t work for us, no matter how much I want it to, no matter how hard I try. And finally, I have come to accept that this is okay.

This isn’t a realization that I came to suddenly, but rather something I have been gradually realizing over the last few months. In January our daughter ended up spending a couple days at our local ER which led to being admitted to her children’s hospital for seven days, six hours away from home.  Despite having just finished Christmas break, needless to say, lessons were put on hiatus again.  Once we were back home, I was too physically and mentally exhausted to even think about doing school, so we took another week off.

During this time off, I had a lot of time to think and reflect on our school – the past, the present, and what I wanted for our future. I had that little nagging voice in my head that was telling me that something just wasn’t working, and I needed to figure out what it was.

I finally came to realize that school felt like it had become nothing more than a check list of Charlotte Mason to-dos that just were not getting done, which was resulting in feelings of guilt and failure for me. There were so many subjects to keep track of at one time, and we were all tired of hopping from subject to subject every day. Just starting to read a chapter in this book on geography, and then the next day reading something different in science, then the next day reading something different again. We wanted to really be able to dive in and enjoy a subject, to soak it up – not be constantly stopping and starting.

Likewise, trying to keep up with the numerous enrichments was overwhelming me, even though people kept saying it’s easy to do. It was all feeling so forced – I was tired of trying to keep up to a list of which study we should be doing which day and constantly feeling behind when we missed that day for some reason. So I tried loop scheduling as some people suggested, but that didn’t change the fact that we  just weren’t getting to those “extra” subjects – which people kept telling me were actually the very core of a Charlotte Mason education.

In all honesty, many of the enrichments, picture study especially, were feeling contrived: telling my children they have to look at a picture they have no interest in, because some woman 100 years ago said we should. How on earth was that enriching their lives? My children love art, they love creating art, and they love seeing art – when we go to an art gallery. Because there they are free to explore many types of art, and they can find the pieces that speak to them, that interest them. There, in that setting, they will stand and stare, drinking that picture into their soul, figuring out what it is that they like, or perhaps dislike about it.

I was also tired of feeling guilty about our literature times together. Every morning at breakfast we read from our selected read-aloud, which we only ever do one of at a time. We love to dive into our books, and sometimes we will read 2 or 3 chapters of a delicious book in one sitting.

But according to Charlotte this was wrong – we shouldn’t be reading so much at one time, and we should always have multiple books going at a time. I wasn’t cultivating the habit of attention properly, and according to many, there was no way the material was truly sinking in like it would be, if I did it the “right way”. Never mind that after reading, my children would jump up and act out extremely detailed scenes from what we had just read. Or that sometimes our readings would lead to discussions on certain topics or ideas that had come up – things that they would remember long after we had read that particular chapter.

We also were enjoying a selection of adapted classics – something I never admitted on the groups, where these books were repeatedly called twaddle and were frowned upon.  I tried to do the “right” thing, and I did try to read the original versions to my children. But here is what I learned: when I tried to force the original versions with their archaic language on my children, they were completely disengaged. They did not enjoy the stories, nor did they take anything in.  They would essentially shut down while I was reading.

But see, here’s the thing: the language in the original classics was the language of the day (or at least recent enough that it was familiar), thus, these books were much easier for children of Charlotte’s era to understand. But that is not the case today. Right or wrong, the prose of 150 to 250 years ago,  is not the one our children are growing up with today. We need to respect that many children are going to need modernized versions, without criticizing the parents for not challenging their children enough.

I have come to realize that I fully believe it is better to read a modern-language version that allows the child to comprehend what they are hearing, and to become engaged in the story. This in turn encourages a love of literature, as opposed to forcing something on them they can’t understand, which only discourages them.

These are the things that I mulled over and over in my mind that week, and have continued to think about since then. Ultimately what I have come to is that I am tired of our education feeling like a constantly unfinished to-do list. I am tired of our education feeling like it never quite meets the incredibly high bar set out by others who are not living our life. I am tired of measuring our success by other people’s standards for their families. I want something that engages my children and makes them look forward to lessons, instead of something that has begun to feel like drudgery. Ultimately, I want them to love learning, and I want their learning delivered in a format that makes it easy for them to learn. This is not the same as saying they won’t be challenged.

And so, roughly a month ago, we dropped all the Charlotte Mason enrichment studies that had been part of our Morning Time. I was tired of forcing these enrichments on my children, just because Charlotte said my children needed them to have a fulfilled education and life. I realized that they were already being exposed to these things organically: singing hymns on Sunday, or whenever else the mood hit them – our daughter loves to sing the Gloria at random times. I realized we were already reading a variety of rich poetry and literature for fun. We already visited art galleries, museums, as well as the playhouse to enjoy plays and music.  We listen to classical music in the car when driving somewhere, or whenever my kids feel like a romp and want to act out the stampeding warriors of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries.

I admit I had no idea when we would read Shakespeare, or if we would ever read Plutarch. Nor, quite frankly, did I care anymore. As for Nature Study, we never got it done anyways, so it really wasn’t a big loss from the schedule.  What we would continue to do however, was spend lots of time outside together and going for walks. Whenever my children find a rock, or shell or feather that excites them, we stop and examine it, and it inevitably finds a home on our “Nature Sill”.  I knew we would continue to stop and watch the squirrels scampering up a tree, or listen to the variety of birds singing. We would teach the art of observation organically, without having to come back and make a lesson out of it with water colors and a journal and oral or written narrations.

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And so it was a step towards joy to let go of a large chunk of “Charlotte”. Instead of trying to cram several different forms of literature and studies into our time together at the breakfast table, we enjoyed a Bible story, our read aloud, and then ended in prayer time. Short and sweet. Simple. Refreshing.

Life and lessons continued on. We kept up with the Charlotte Mason approach to language arts with copywork and dictation, science and history, and always of course the infernal narration. My son hates narration with a passion. We have been at it over two years now – he hated it when we started, and he still hates it today. And slowly I have been coming to realize that because of his hatred of narration, it is not working as a learning tool, as it is supposed to be. I would read to him, or assign him something to read, only to have him look at me pleadingly, sometimes anxiously, saying, “Please Mom, please, don’t make me narrate.”

And so, after much prayer and consideration, I decided to say goodbye to Charlotte completely. It has been a very hard decision – the toughest one I’ve made in our homeschooling journey. It has been very hard for me to give up on my picture of their education, but I’ve come to realize that my ideals are hindering them. So, I am letting them go because I know that deep down, it is what is best for my children and for our family. In letting go of Charlotte, I will be opening up their education to it’s full potential.

We are a week into our new approach, which is your very basic, traditional workbook approach – the complete opposite of what I wanted when I started homeschooling several years ago.  But already, I can see my children thriving, especially my son. Most in Charlotte Mason circles scorn workbooks, calling them the “easy way out”, claiming they don’t teach children to think as deeply as narration does. Yet, I am here to say that workbooks have opened up my son’s ability to think. Working through the workbook questions allows my son to process the information he has read, which in turns leaves him better able to discuss it. He is retaining information better and he is better able to articulate his thoughts. He is no longer dreading science or history lessons because of the narration he knew would come at the end. He is enjoying the variety of exercises in his grammar and spelling workbooks – he told me after the first few days that he was glad to have some variety. He had gotten tired of doing copywork and dictation day after day; always the same thing, just different words.

Our daughter, who has Autism and health issues, is loving her workbooks. She is taking great pride in being able to read the instructions to herself, always saying, “Look Mommy! Listen! I can read them Mommy! I can do it!” It gives her a small area of life that she can have some freedom and more importantly to her, control over. So much of her life is out of her control – the inability to manage her feelings and emotions, her struggles socially, and thanks to her bowel disorder, even what happens to her own body. It may seem such a small thing  – the ability to work independently with a workbook, but to her, it’s a big thing, and it’s bringing a smile to her face during lesson time that I have never seen before.

I wish the pure Charlotte Mason philosophy of education could have worked for us, I do. There is a part of me that feels a bit envious of those who were able to make it work, and not just “make it work”, but who truly thrived with it. But there’s a bigger part of me who is proud to have realized and acknowledged it wasn’t working, and to have had the courage to make such a radical change. I’ve finally learned that there is no curriculum or method out there  is inherently any better than any other, when it comes to achieving an excellent education for your children. Because the best curriculum is the one that meets your child’s individual needs, not your ideals.

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