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Realistic Charlotte Mason

How My Journey Began

by Catherine Levison

[After an absence of a few years, we are pleased to once again feature a regular column by Catherine Levison in The Link. She is one of the nation’s foremost experts on the Charlotte Mason Method, having authored three books on the topic for Champion Press and appearing, to overwhelming praise, at numerous homeschooling conferences and book fairs around the country. Please see Catherine’s contact information at the end of this piece, if you wish to contact her. -- Mary Leppert]

Nearly twenty years ago I met my first homeschooling parent. We were introduced to one another in a parking lot. I was a working mother of two, she was the homeschooling parent of five children. I was positively dumbstruck by the lifestyle she had chosen and I am fairly certain my attitude and facial expressions showed it. No, I was not hostile toward her choice but I was bewildered. Stupidly, I asked her a series of questions which she answered graciously and confidently. She provided me with the opportunity to see for myself that people, real people, were taking on this responsibility. Up until that point I had only heard of homeschooling through the media and it had remained a mere concept in my mind. She put a face to what was then only recently legalized in my state of Washington. What the two of us did not know that day was how drastically both of our lives were to change and how quickly those changes were coming.

Within a year I had a complete conversion from working mother with one child in public school and one in diapers, to the very different life that is homeschooling. The brief meeting in the parking lot in no way prepared me for the task and I never had another opportunity to talk with the woman I met there. No, I was on my own and I was at a loss right from the beginning. Phone calls were placed to my State Authorities, pamphlets and catalogs were delivered and I had begun the process of research.

Soon after, I attended an extremely large Home School Convention and I will admit to the overwhelming emotions I experienced and fought against there amid the curtained booths. I will further admit that I withdrew from the crowd and cried. Under normal circumstances I view myself as capable and confident but it was clear to me that I had no idea what I was going to teach or how I was going to cover any of the basics in education. My exact problem was this: There were too many choices, approaches, methods and merchandise offered. Ultimately I made my choice and could hardly carry the materials back to my car. I was ready for my first year of homeschooling, or so I thought.

Burnout hit me like a runaway logging truck that first year. Yes, I said “first year.” Having barely endured it, I enrolled my children in the closest public school the following summer and sat back waiting for September. Just before the leaves started falling off the trees and the yellow buses began showing up in the neighborhoods, I had a sudden change of heart. I could not do it. I had thought I had made the correct choice but evidently the enrollment was a mistake. I cancelled that at the last minute and began homeschool year number two.
Of course, I asked myself what had gone so horribly wrong that first year that I had wanted to quit. For me the answer was clear. It was the materials themselves that I had chosen. They were dry and boring. They did not inspire, they were incapable of that. Soon I learned about a completely different goal that came along with a multifaceted approach created by Charlotte Mason. She represented something new and foreign but it got my attention. In her writings she spoke of the love of learning. She insisted that it was the very key to education. She went further than that, however. Mason claimed that the love of learning was in my hands and was in fact my responsibility. But who was she and more importantly did she know what she was talking about or not? I was very skeptical and wary, having spent an entire school year covered in the dry dust of boredom.

Charlotte Mason, who she was and who she was not, are both important topics to me. Because she was born in the 1880s and wrote prolifically in her native country of England, many have come to think of her as a lace-covered Victorian, drinking tea by firelight in her parlor. Tea may have been her beverage of choice but that neither concerns me nor intrigues me in any way. In my second book, More Charlotte Mason Education (Champion Press), I previously had this to say.

“I keep a quite different impression in my mind. I imagine a sturdy pair of muddied boots with some otherwise sensible clothing to equip her for the field. Her frequent walks across the English countryside in all kinds of weather are well documented. I’m sure she was every bit as feminine as the next lady but I can visualize her casting off the bits of lace and other unnecessary fluff when it was time to head outdoors. My imaginings were somewhat proven true by this description of Charlotte’s college, ‘The actual surroundings, the books, the pictures, the simple furniture and wild flowers for decorations were a revelation in themselves in those days when the world lived in a crowd of ancestral treasures or the unutterable hideousness of the Victorian age.’ (Charlotte Mason College, p. 17) Personally, I love antique furniture, books and houses but the fact that Charlotte lived and wrote in another time is not the sole reason I’m interested in her teachings.” From More Charlotte Mason Education.

Rather than concentrating on what era she lived in I, instead, looked hard and long at what she was teaching parents and educators. I researched for the practical and the realistic applications that would benefit me and I found her to be ahead of her time -- or maybe better yet -- her concepts about children and education were themselves timeless. They were true, regardless of the century in which any given family lives.

With the love of learning firmly planted as my foremost educational goal I tackled the second school year with mostly new and far more interesting materials. That in itself helped to a large extent, but I had much to learn.

Mason’s methodology contained hundreds of ideas and techniques and a mountain as huge as this cannot be understood and applied overnight. Due to my fear of the unknown and my natural tendency toward skepticism, I held on to many standard practices used in teaching, such as the common textbook method. I used those and some other “school at home” concepts side-by-side with Mason’s. Slowly and carefully I tried one technique at a time. With my house quickly filling with Charlotte Mason’s original articles and books, I was able to read thoroughly on a topic and turn right around and try them on my guinea pigs -- I mean, my children. When I found one tip or practice after another working better than I could ever imagine, I was the very happy mother of very happy children. My personal escape from early burnout and my apparent contentment was noticed by people in my community and soon I was making public appearances and writing books. I set a standard for myself at the outset, when I approached the task of helping others. I only write about homeschooling tactics and solutions that I have actually tried and found success with. And, as a firm believer in individuality, I have never pushed an all- Charlotte Mason Method for anybody at any time. Instead, I highly recommend taking the techniques provided and morphing them to your heart’s content. I know from personal experience that the practical aspects of this method are adaptable and are easily applied to any other style of educating, whether structured or unstructured. It also does not matter how many tips and tactics you implement — applying one or two at a time to whatever approach you already use is ideal and it will not feel like a drastic alteration.

That brings us to my foremost goal with this column and therefore its title. Realistic homeschooling is what I have lived, written about and I am certain it is what you are living, too. Parenting itself can be frustrating at times and so can teaching your own children. I prefer to acknowledge that for both you and myself. Accepting that you have limitations is realistic and it reminds me of how a person who has suffered the amputation of an arm or leg does not deny that this has occurred. Instead they acknowledge it, compensate for it learn new techniques to cope with it.

Fantasy and escapism have their place in our lives, the dentist’s chair comes to mind, but to live there day after day is not practical. Typically, all parents face challenges and frustrations, even more so when they have taken on the responsibility to home educate. I have lived this. I have also lived a very busy life. In that light I have always attempted to visualize my audience and what I see when I do so, is a busy person much like myself. I write for the busy parent who wants practical answers to his/her very real problems.

Future articles will cover many topics and solutions to many all-too-common frustrations that Moms and Dads consistently face. Homeschooling how-to techniques in academics and the arts will be frequent issues, as will parenting skills and coping mechanisms. How to motivate the children to get their work done and how to cultivate the crucial skill of listening, learning and most importantly retaining what they have learned will be covered. Because children, some more than others, live to test boundaries and press your buttons and quite simply make every attempt to get by with the least amount of cooperation and effort, we will cover tactics that help to enlist their enthusiasm and interest. Along with articles on general parenting there will be plenty on teaching history, spelling, writing, reading and art appreciation to name a few. How to choose quality books and other materials in a frugal manner will be addressed. At least two other topics near and dear to my heart are these: The very important power of habit and the sheer joy of nature-study, including the observation and sketching of nearly everything that can be found outside of your home.

For now let’s look at it this way: Picture your mailbox. There are two envelopes there that are not junk mail or bills. That’s a bit exciting right there. It turns out you have received two invitations to attend two different parties. One is printed on gray paper with black ink. Everything about it is boring, including the location, the theme and food. The other invitation promises diversity. Even its layout and colors are interesting. This party promises to be fun and promotes wonderful, delicious food and lively music. It appears to be an exciting and interesting time and now you do not want to miss it. You even look forward to it as you mark the date on your calendar. Now picture your children and ask yourself which invitation to a homeschooled education do they want to receive? There is, and always will be, a boring way to present something and a far more intriguing, interesting way to do the same thing. That is one of your tasks. Out with the boring; in with the love of learning. This column will help you to achieve that while using realistic, practical methods that are successful and are within your reach financially and in other respects.
Not too long after that meeting in the parking lot I also became the homeschooling mother of five children. This unforeseen possibility became my lifestyle. It was to become one of the most meaningful choices I have made in my life and has brought much fulfillment to me and my family. What happened to the first homeschooling mother I ever met? What was her drastic change that she had no foreknowledge of? She died of a brain aneurism quickly and without warning. She was very young and so was her family. Her husband, the father, took sole responsibility to homeschool the children. She was not able to mentor me or let me observe her teaching at home; she did not even recommend a book to me. But she did have an impact on me. A quick meeting between cars, my first homeschooler, taken at an early age, has taught me this: To value life, even when it’s difficult. To continue raising my children as best I can and not give up. To live each day to its fullest, while still allowing time for rest. To appreciate all of it. For that, I have a lot to thank her for. C.L. ■
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Catherine Levison currently resides in Seattle. She is the mother of five and began home schooling in the 1980s. Her family enjoyed home education due to creative and effective techniques supplied by Charlotte Mason. Catherine’s work has been designed to give practical advice while encouraging parents to think for themselves and develop a style that fosters individuality. Her book titles include, A Charlotte Mason Education — A Home Schooling How-To Manual and More Charlotte Mason Education — A Home Schooling How-To Manual. Her latest book is A Literary Education — An Annotated Book List. For more information or to write to Catherine, please contact her publisher at www.championpress.com.