Monday, October 8, 2018

Beautiful moments

"You have a beautiful family ma'am." The waitress told me this morning, as we went out for breakfast to celebrate hubby coming home from one of the few trips he takes away from us each year. "And you look so happy." 

I smiled, "Thank you. I am." .

A few minutes later a different waiter came by, "I'm not sure if you know--the elderly couple that just left paid for your meal." We looked around for them to thank them, but they were already gone. 

Having a large(ish) family is best decisions I ever made. It's hard sometimes--but that's always true of parenting, no matter how many kids. These people bless me every day, from the 6 year old with her startlingly accurate evaluations of spiritual things, to the 3 month old and the way he meets my eyes, grins the sort of grin that makes the sun come out on cloudy days, then shoves a fist quite deliberately into his mouth ("Yeah, kid. I get you. Just a minute."). It's a sobering thing to be a parent and have all these miniature reflections of myself walking around, magnifying and reflecting back every personal spiritual struggle I have.

 But also beautiful. I get to be there for the joyful, off key, 100 decibel (seriously, I measured) group renditions of "cockles and mussles" and "Marie's wedding." I get to be there for the dismayed shout as we are walking out of IHOP, "Ah! I left my shoes!" and see the grins from the waitresses as she darts barefoot under the table to collect the too-big hand-me-down shoes she wore because they were pretty (even though they fall off every 30 seconds.) I get to be there for the sunshine grins, the peanutbutter-sticky-hugs, and the "WHAT? Butterflies have SCALES like DRAGONS?" moments. Also the horrified look when the hear--for the first time--the doom pronounced on William Tell (then cheer when the apple is split in two).

So, yes. I'm happy. And one of these days, I want to be the elderly empty-nester couple that goes out once a week, gets a cheap breakfast of eggs and coffee, and secretly buys a young family their breakfast just for the heck of it. Because it's hard being a parent, but it is also one of the most beautiful things ever.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Why Ambleside Online?

I talked a bit in a previous post about why we are using Charlotte Mason's method to educate our children. As the primary requirement for books is that they be high quality "living" books, there are many different curriculum to choose from. Each one has been created with different goals in mind, and it's important to know what those goals are when settling on a final curriculum.

Ambleside Online may not be the only way to put Charlotte Mason's philosophy into practice, but it does have some wonderful things going for it. The curriculum has been around for long enough to have many graduates who used it all the way through their schooling, and who are able to answer questions about what their experience was and how it served them through life so far. Many of these graduates have chosen to use AO with their own children, which speaks to the quality as well. Some of the women who designed the program are still homeschooling their younger children, and in many cases available online via Facebook or the AO forum to answer questions.

But it isn't just the founders who are available. I doubt there is any sort of count to the thousands of families who have used this program, but finding help from a more experienced AO mother is not difficult. The forum is very active, and the Facebook page has more than 10,000 members. In larger cities, it is very likely that someone else is within driving distance who uses the very same curriculum.

Another thing AO has going for it is that it is affordable. The women who designed it have never been paid for their work and do not charge for the use of the materials. The books will need to be purchased, but as it was a priority from the start to make homeschooling affordable for everyone, nearly all the books are public domain (meaning, available for free online or very inexpensive in print). There are only a few books each semester that need to be purchased, and often these can be found in a library for the truly shoestring budget.

The curriculum content follows Charlotte Mason's recommendations--Art study, composer study, monthly (or so) hymns and folk songs, science, geography, history, nature study, poetry and biographies. The books are laid out according to grade, with clear weekly schedules for those (like me) who really don't want to spend their time tweaking and adjusting.

I think the thing that strikes me the most about AO is that the curriculum is both deeply loving and nurturing, but also rigorous. It is "generous" in the deepest sense of the word, and I am so excited to be able to give my kiddos this gift (and to be able to learn alongside them!!).

For those of you who are using Charlotte Masons educational philosophy, what curriculum did you end up going with? Or are you free flying and creating what works best for your family as you go? I'd love to hear more about it in the comments!! 

Monday, May 28, 2018

Charlotte Mason in a Nutshell

For our school we will be following a curriculum based on the works of Charlotte Mason. Charlotte Mason was a school teacher in the 1800's who devoted her life to the nurturing of children. There are several things that define a Charlotte Mason education, and I probably can't cover them all in a single blog post--particularly not in depth, and this won't be in order of importance either.

Quoting from the Ambleside Online Website: "First and foremost, Charlotte Mason is a 12-year Christian Character Building curriculum. Books are chosen not for cultural literacy so much as the literary quality with which they were written, and even more, their ability to develop the whole person and inspire his character. For all those years that children are getting a CM education, what's really being trained more than anything else is their character. Students receiving a CM education don't need any character building program because the entire curriculum is geared towards building character with the use of personal habits, quality books, teacher guidance, the work of the Holy Spirit and personal reflection."

A Charlotte Mason Education involves living books. A living book is a story well-told, one written as a first hand account, or by someone who knows their subject well and loves it well and writes it well. It is not a dry textbook. It should spark interest and delight in the child, and impact his or her mind with its ideas.
The world is a great treasure house full of things to be seen,
and each new thing one sees in a new delight. ~Charlotte Mason

A Charlotte Mason Education involves narration. Narration is when a child "tells back" what was just read to him. There is only one reading allowed, and he may not look back over the text in order to do his narration. Once read, once told. In the early years (grads 1-3 or so) narration is oral, and is required after every reading. Gradually as the child gets older, written narrations are added. Narration takes the place of formal writing lessons and even tests. Grammar is not required, particularly early on. Outside of the end-of-term exams--which are also oral in the early years--there are no tests. Even the exams are not graded, instead they are for the teacher's assessment, in case there are adjustments to be made for that particular student.

A Charlotte Mason Education involves time outside--especially in the early years.
It is infinitely well worth the mother’s while to take some pains every day to secure, in the first place, that her children spend hours daily amongst rural and natural objects; and, in the second place, to infuse into them, or rather, to cherish in them, the love of investigation. ~Charlotte Mason (Home Education, p 71)
And another one I love:
The study of natural history and botany with bird lists and plant lists continues throughout school life, while other branches of science are taken term by term.” -Vol 6 Charlotte Mason 
What to do outside? A nature journal focused on different things per term--stars, trees, flowers, animals, bugs, etc. Drawing helps them to see what is really there, rather than what they expect to see. Learning names, learning uses, learning what plants look like one season to the next. Learning the sky. There is so much that can be learned, and this area of study is typically absent in education now--at very least, it is given a low priority--despite the growing body of evidence that it is an absolute necessity for a well formed mind.

A Charlotte Mason Education involves Habit training. To ignore a child's habits--or to separate that out from the schooling process--is to miss the mark of education.

 This relation of habit to human life––as the rails on which it runs to a locomotive––is perhaps the most suggestive and helpful to the educator; for just as it is on the whole easier for the locomotive to pursue its way on the rails than to take a disastrous run off them, so it is easier for the child to follow lines of habit carefully laid down than to run off these lines at his peril. It follows that this business of laying down lines towards the unexplored country of the child's future is a very serious and responsible one for the parent. It rests with him to consider well the tracks over which the child should travel with profit and pleasure; and, along these tracks, to lay down lines so invitingly smooth and easy that the little traveller is going upon them at full speed without stopping to consider whether or no he chooses to go that way. ~ Home Education, P 109

There are many habits a child needs in order to travel along smoothly through life, and the appropriate place to address those needs is both at home and in the school room (which, in my case, are the same).

This is a nutshell version of what a Charlotte Mason education looks like for a student. There are so many other aspects of the Charlotte Mason Philosophy that really couldn't be covered in a single post. Some other topics that I would like to cover are: Charlotte Mason's 20 Principles of Education, What a Charlotte Mason education looks like for a teacher, and ways that her principles impact daily life outside of "school hours." I suspect that list is going to grow the more I write--there is so much depth to this lifestyle!!

For those of you who are also using Charlotte Mason's philosophy for teaching your children, what would you add to my list? 

Friday, May 25, 2018

A Continual Feast

I was introduced to this book through Cindy Rollen's Advent book, Hallelujah: a Journey through Handel's Messiah. It has well earned it's place on my shelf over the last 6 months of heavy use. Something I have been studying is how to work the traditional church calendar into our daily lives. There are many reasons we have begun to embrace this, but one of the greatest is that the cadence of the calendar draws our attention from one aspect of God to another in a beautiful, steady rhythm. We can make one thing our focus for a season, knowing that soon enough that season will be passed and we will be moving on to the next.

In the Old Testament God gave his people different feasts and fasts to keep through the year. In much the same way, the church calendar is a litany of feasting and fasting. Lent, Advent, 12 Days, Easter, Pentecost--each of these bring with them a season of joy or sorrow, of feasting or fasting. Each of them cause us to question--why? Why are we celebrating the day? What has God commanded us to remember? What is important about this dish, this day, this season? Each of them focus in on a different part of God's work. And, what more useful as we observe these traditions than a beautiful cookbook focused on the traditional recipes and observation rituals of each season?

 Divided into sections based on each feast, ordered according to the calendar for ease of use, A Continual Feast has been the perfect addition to my cooking library. Most recipes contain commentary about how that recipe was used traditionally, and what it symbolizes in the feast (which I find personally interesting, and is also helpful as the children ask questions!). The recipes range from very, very old--I loved the reprint of a recipe from the 1600s involving pheasant feathers "cunningly set about" a roast bird--to more modern ideas like the Pentecost Cake that is piped with symbols of the holy spirit. Most of them comfortably tiptoe between ancient and modern.

Some of the feast recipes can be fairly complicated, but they are doable and not intended for daily use. I found many of the more labor intensive Christmas recipes were actually made well in advance, because traditionally that was how it was done. Other recipes are fairly simple and meant to either round out the feast or be a daily go-to in seasons where creativity is the key (Lent can be a challenge!!).

All in all, this book has been a delight and has added a great deal to our year. I haven't pictured my personal copy because, well, a few encounters with the counter have made it not particularly pretty. But only because it has been so well loved.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Norms and Nobility--prologue

As part of my continuing teachers education I'm taking a course next year through Circe Institute's Atrium program. We will be working through the book, Norms and Nobility by David Hicks. This book on offers a compelling argument in favor of classical education and how true education involves so much more than the small areas we have relegated it to in modern thought. Education involves the whole person, not just a body of facts that must be learned over the course of 12 or so years.

I'm going to try blogging my way through the book, chapter by chapter (or, likely, section by section. It may not be entire chapters at once) over the course of the next year. I'm starting my read through a bit early as I find that I have a bit more time on my hands for reading now than I had expected. (More on that in a future post, possibly.) So, without further ado, here is my summary-with-thoughts of the Preface

 Norms and Nobility--Preface

Written ten years after the publishing of the book in 1981, David Hicks seems to have mellowed a bit. I found it interesting that he said, if he were to write this book again, he would make fewer sweeping claims for the ancients. They did not have all the answers, and the answers they had were not unified. They did not all come to the same conclusions. Rather, Norms and Nobility is "about an ancient ideal expressed as "classical Education" against which the modern school is weighed and found wanting."

The ultimate aim of education, he goes on to say, is not thinking but acting. It isn't knowing what to do, but doing it. "The sublime premise of a classical education asserts that right thinking will lead to right, if not righteous, acting." Children do not just need to be trained into rational, logical thinkers. Facts are not enough. They need to be able to act in a wise and noble way.

From my commonplace:

Those who believe as I do that teaching students to reason well is not enough threaten, Alder would argue, to turn education into indoctrination while placing a greater burden on the teacher and his lesson than either can bear. Yet it seems to me that the difference between indoctrination and education is more one of degree than of kind, and my teaching experience has lead me to believe that unless my aims are more broadly defined than to make my students rational thinkiers, I will surely fail to achieve even that. Education must address the whole student, his emotional and spiritual sides as well as his tational. The aims of education, the teachers methods, the books and lessons, the traditions, and regulations of the school--all must express not just ideas, but norms, tending to make young people not only rational, but noble.
 This is why the high value that modern methods of teaching place on skepticism is, perhaps, misplaced. In modern thought, dogma is bad but skepticism is good. Students are encouraged to accept nothing, question everything. These adolescent students are, as yet, untrained and inexperienced and yet they are expected to have the capability of being able to distinguish for themselves right and wrong. Skepticism rejects the idea that anything deserves our wholehearted allegiance--everything must be questioned.

The emphasis placed on skepticism and analysis has likely come from those who watched these tools used in the field of science, and saw the wonders that were discovered as a result. The tools were taken and applied to the areas of traditional wisdom and morality to grave consequences. Surely it is possible to both accept that there are certain areas that are simply right or wrong, and other areas where the use of skepticism and analysis is a useful tool.

Perhaps, though, it is not the schools curriculim, but rather the teachers themselves that are most in need of reform. A teacher must first be a student, and as soon as a teacher stops learning he or she can no longer truly teach. The greatest value in the curriculem he proposed, David Hicks continues, "is that it sustains and nurtures teachers as practitioners of the art of learning while discouraging nonlearners from entering the profession."

Only a school (and by extension a curriculum) that encourages teachers to be always learning will keep its teachers fresh and fearless and its students happy and motivated in their studies, ready to test their lessons against life. 

I have to admit, as I enter my fourth week of first grade homeschooling my oldest, I am so excited to read this book. As I see her eyes light up as she comes into contact with the Great Books and makes her own connections makes me fully believe that this is true. There is so much more to education than passing a series of tests.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

St Lucy Day

The prepped dough for our St Lucy's Day breakfast.
Braided in a circle like this it is called "St. Lucy's Crown."
Once baked, I'll drizzle it with icing before serving.  

St. Lucy day is one of my favorite holidays that we have added this year. Although widely celebrated in other countries (particularly Sweden), it is not traditional in my part of the world. I don't know anyone else personally who celebrates it, but it is such a delightful holiday I'm not sure why not.

St. Lucia's was a 3rd century Christian Martyr under Diocletian. As the story goes, she was born to wealthy parents but her father died when she was 5. After God answered her prayer for her mother to be healed of a long term illness, Lucia sought--and received--her mother's permission to distribute much of their wealth to the suffering Christians. Lucia did much of this with her own hand, delivering food to the Christians hiding in the catacombs. As she wanted to carry as much as possible to them, she devised a crown with candles on it to leave both hands free to carry food. Denounced as a Christian by a  rejected suitor, she was martyred in Sicily around 310AD, at about the age of 27.

Traditionally the celebration of St. Lucy's day starts early in the morning as the eldest daughter in the family dresses as St. Lucy in a white gown and red sash. She wears a crown of ligonberry set with seven lighted candles, as St. Lucy did. Younger daughters are her handmaids, also dressed in white with a crimson sash but instead of a crown with candles they carry a single candle.  The daughters serve coffee or mulled wine and a special yeast bread, called "St. Lucy's Crown," to their parents in bed, to commemorate St. Lucy bringing food to the Christians.

Given the ages involved we did not do real candles. Someday, maybe. We didn't actually do fake ones either, mainly because I completely forgot to buy any. It turned out that the greenery I had for the crowns had white berry bunches, sooooo those were the "candles" this year. Fortunately I hadn't mentioned anything about candles--real or otherwise-- to the girls, so there was no disappointment on their end. We'll do something more fancy next year.

The bread is quite similar to cinnamon rolls, except instead of being flavored with raisins/cinnamon it is flavored with oranges. This gave me the idea to use a trick I'd learned years ago on cinnamon rolls. I made the dough ahead of time, braided it, and put it in the freezer. The night before St. Lucy's Day I unwrapped it, put it on a pan, and put the pan in the (cold) oven overnight. I set a timer for the oven early the next morning and went to bed. Overnight the braided loaf thawed and rose, and sometime much earlier than I cared to get up, the oven turned itself on and began baking. By the time my alarm went off the next morning, the bread was almost done and the house smelled amazing.

Given the ages involved, I got up early and got the plates ready. I woke the girls up, helped them get dressed, handed out the plates and the crowns and the mugs of coffee half-filled (lots of trepidation on that last one....). Then I hurried back to bed and pretended to have been asleep all along--and completely astonished--as "St. Lucia" and her "handmaid" brought us breakfast in bed. My guess is it'll be a few years before St. Lucia is old enough to take over, but in the meantime, the more authentic we make it the more excited they'll be about independence next year. It's the long game. I can wait.

The nice breakfast was the main event of the day this year, but next year I would love to have another family or two over and have a Swedish feast. I'm thinking meatballs, ligonberry jam, a St. Lucy's Crown for dessert (probably coffee cake, so it isn't exactly the same as breakfast). We could do a procession leading up to the feast, and have the children serve. Or, perhaps, the kids could put on a play about Saint Lucy's life. There are also traditional songs to go with the holiday, which I didn't have a chance to learn or teach this year. But that is okay. The beautiful thing about family traditions is that they can be added onto gradually, and every stage is special.

Have you ever celebrated Saint Lucia's Day? If so, what did you do?

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

St Nicolas Day

This year we celebrated St. Nicolas day for the first time. Falling right at the beginning of Advent on December 6th, St. Nicholas Day focuses in on the man behind Santa Claus, Nicolas, the Bishop of Myra. The name Santa Clause comes from his real name Saint (Ni)Clause.

There are almost as many legends around the real person as there are around the jolly old man in a red coat. Depending on where you look you will get many versions of the same story. It is a consistent theme that he was a man of mercy, and fought against poverty and prostitution. In one of the more common tales he secretly spent a great deal to give dowries to three daughters of a poor man who could not marry without a dowry. They were to be sold to be prostituted to pay for their father's debts, but the gifts that St. Nicholas gave were more than enough for them to be married instead.

In early December we read many stories about Santa and St. Nicholas--both the real and the fictionalized man. We read about the legends associated with the Bishop, and the little elves who help Santa make gifts. I had picture books and audio stories for both. I'm sure there are movies also, but we don't tend to watch many movies these days--though I do think we made room for a fun evening of popcorn and Arthur Christmas (the family favorite Christmas movie).

The traditional way to celebrate St. Nicholas day is with moulded cookies called Speculaus. Speculas cookies are claimed by assorted countries--Holland, Belgium, and Switzerland being a few. I had never made Speculas before, so I did a lot of reading up on it, and found out it was quite a challenging skill. I purchased a mold and tried a test recipe. It was a complete flop. So then I purchased a book full of recipes. The second try went better. It was still pretty obvious that I was new to the fancy-cookie making business, but all the cookies were the proper shape, only a few stuck to the mold, and I could even see most of the image on most of the cookies. I felt like a magic worker.

Another tradition of the holiday is for the children to set their shoes by the window. In the middle of the night St. Nicholas comes and fills their shoes with either apples, oranges, candy, and nuts (for the good children) or switches and coal (bad children). In our version I had the girls each set out one of their shoes outside their room before they went to bed. The next morning the shoes each held (spilling out) a candy cane, a pouch with a couple St Nicolas cookies, and an orange. They were delighted.

Something I wasn't expecting happened as we added this holiday to our Advent season--suddenly the conflict between the secularized Christmas focused on getting gifts and the Christian Christmas of focusing on the true Gift, Christ the babe, melted away. Santa had his day. December 6th. There was room to spend a week or two reveling in the silliness of fat elves and an imaginative story of the North Pole. There was room to spend time with the true Bishop, to talk about the legends and guess at what seeds of the legends had actually happened. There was room to celebrate him simply. And then we moved on to the rest of Christmas--most of Christmas--which was focused on Christ himself. It was quite lovely--and I'm sure the good Bishop would approve.