Monday, September 30, 2013

Now It's Time to Say Goodbye

Dear Friends,

It's time to say goodbye. I've enjoyed sharing pieces of my life with you and hope you are inspired to give your children a life-giving education.

one step at a time...

Thursday, August 15, 2013

How I Raised a Professional Writer Without a Composition Program

In a previous post, I explained that children do not need a composition program to become good writers. In fact, writing programs often hinder progress because they cause children to think that writing is like mathematics and all they need to be a good writer is a formula. The fact is writing is an art, not a science.  Writing does need structure, but this can be learned in a relatively short amount of time. What is really needful to make a truly great writer is copious reading of superior literature and many hours of practice.

Composition programs can also rob children of the joy of playing with words. Writing often involves hard work, but it ought to be enjoyable as well.  I have raised successful writers by simply applying Charlotte Mason’s methods. I didn’t cherry pick, mind you, but faithfully followed all of her suggestions. This is extremely important to understand. Contrary to what some suggest, narration alone is not enough.  I’d like to explain how I did it, using one of my children as an example, because sometimes, practical real-life situations can clarify difficult processes. Let’s briefly walk through her writing experiences from birth to her high school graduation.

The Preschool and Kindergarten Years

When Bryana was very young and not yet reading, my husband and I built a small library of award-winning children’s picture books and read these aloud to her over and over again. We chose each title carefully. We did not go to the library every week because we believed that a good library consisting of a few quality books was better than a book a day if it were merely twaddle.  We gradually filled a single bookshelf and used these books for several years. Sometimes when I read aloud, I’d point to the words. Bryana learned at an early age that words were meaningful and fun.

Even when I taught her to read, I was careful not to quench her love for the written word and refrained from too much phonics instruction and long lessons. She practiced reading every day, but only for a few minutes. When she began to tire, we immediately stopped. Why do I tell you this? Because I want to make it clear that good writers love words. If, from the beginning, you introduce words in an enjoyable fashion, your children will be less resistant to them later. Reading instruction should be fun. If not, you are doing something wrong. Don’t take yourself so seriously when teaching your child to read. Relax and enjoy the process together.

The Early Elementary Years

Until Bryana was eight or nine years old, I read aloud many of her school books because she was busy becoming a proficient reader. She read the simpler books to herself and I read aloud the more difficult children’s classics and histories. After I read a brief passage, I’d have her tell back to me what she could remember. Charlotte Mason calls this oral narration or oral composition.  Notice that Bryana was learning basic composition skills by retelling what she just heard.

Think about it. What do we do when we write down a narrative? We have to remember the events and sort them in the order in which they happened. We have to decide what is important enough to tell and what should be left out. We use appropriate transition phrases such as next and then. We must recall names and places and think about cause and effect. Bryana was doing all of these complex thinking processes in her head and relating them to me without having the difficult distraction of writing them all down. After all, she was only seven years old and still learning to write legibly.

After learning to write the alphabet, she began to copy down her favorite lines from the books we were reading. She spent just ten minutes a day on this. It was mostly for handwriting practice, but it also helped her to pay closer attention to a well-formed sentence. This is how she learned basic punctuation and capitalization. She copied excellent literature and poetry throughout her remaining school years. Today she has several journals filled with her favorite passages and quotes from various authors. This is some of the necessary material for making a good author.

The Later Elementary Years

According to Charlotte Mason, children should have frequent, daily practice with oral composition for several years before attempting written composition. So we waited until Bryana was nearly ten years old before teaching her to write down her narrations. By this time, she was excellent at oral narration and proficient with a pencil.  Transitioning from oral narrations to paper was much easier for her at this age. At first, she only wrote three or four lines, but gradually, she increased these written narrations to a page or two. I told her that I didn’t want a boring summary. I wanted her to include interesting details and use exciting words that the author used. She should simply write down her oral narrations. Of course she couldn’t write down all that she wanted to say, but I didn’t require her to finish the narration, just write as much as she could in the amount of time I gave her, which was usually 20 minutes.

During the first year, her narrations were filled with mechanical errors, but I took Charlotte Mason’s advice and resisted the urge to get out a red pen. Instead, I complimented something from her piece, and then pointed out just one thing that she should correct and watch out for next time. I privately noted misspelled words and wrote them down for a spelling/dictation lesson later in the week. Often, I didn’t correct a narration at all. But I began to have her write more often, stretching her but not frustrating her.  Every few narrations, I pointed out one or two errors to fix and work on. I wanted to be a cheerleader more than a critic. Please understand, I was not an expert and often had to get out a writer’s guide to make sure I knew how to correct her work. Most errors were simple punctuation and capitalization errors. Other obvious mistakes were the use of repetitious words such as and he did this and he did that. Or, then he did this, then he did that. I corrected her to the best of my ability, but amazingly, over time, much of her writing improved on its own. This is because, through narration, she became so familiar with well-written literature, it couldn’t help but flow from her pen.

The Junior High Years

By twelve years of age, Bryana was writing daily narrations. Her writing became more interesting and she often copied the style of a particular author of the schoolbook from which she had been reading and narrating. She could switch her style too, depending upon the author and book. This is an amazing accomplishment, one that many professional writers do not do well and it was all because of the rich and varied literature she was reading. 

At this point, I helped her start a blog. I thought this would give her an incentive to write more if she knew she had an audience. I explained that she now potentially had an audience of thousands of people, and so she would have to be very careful to frame her words well and edit before she posted. The posts had to pass my approval, but I did not micro-manage the blog. My only requirement was that she wrote worthy, encouraging thoughts. Bryana began to post some of her narrations. She also began to critique books and movies she had read and watched. She explained why she agreed or disagreed with the actions of the heroes in these stories. This helped her writing to change from simple narratives to critical essays. Her enthusiasm to write increased noticeably. Each year, her writing improved.

The High School Years

Now, Bryana was writing two or three narrations daily. She began to develop her own unique writing style. This came naturally after experimenting with the many styles from which she had read and narrated. She still didn’t write neat little essays, but simple retold what she read. Around fourteen years of age, I had her read through Strunk and White’s short, helpful Elements of Style. She never completely stopped oral narrations, but they became more informal. She would explain what she was reading at the dinner table or in casual conversation. 

Charlotte Mason believed this was the opportune time to teach students how to write formal essays. A formal essay has an introduction and a tidy conclusion. It focuses on retelling, describing, explaining or defending something. It can have other purposes, but these are the most common. After years of writing narratives, Bryana easily learned how to transform a narration into a tidy formal essay. I used the website located at
to help explain the format and process to her.  Once a month she practiced writing a formal essay using topics that interested her from her schoolbooks. This new-found skill was especially helpful when she took the SAT college entrance exam. Generally, composition programs teach this skill over a period of several years and charge a hefty sum as well. I want to say this loud and clear, this is completely unnecessary. I know that there are naysayers out there that will try to convince you that you need that popular, structured, writing program. They capitalize on your fears and insecurities. Afterall, they are the professionals. You are just a parent. Don't believe them.  Instead, listen to many successful authors. They agree with me that writing programs don't make good writers. Reading large amounts of great literature and writing, writing, writing, are what make great writers. I agree with them because I have also seen the results, over and over again.

Before Bryana graduated from high school, she was writing for two political journals and several poetry journals. She published her first book in 2012. Today, writing is a passion of hers. She writes to communicate truth. My other three children are also successful writers. They are all enthusiastic about their craft and feel the need to write because they have something important to say.  Every one of them went through the simple, holistic process I just described. I want to encourage you to trust Charlotte Mason’s methods of reading a wide variety of excellent literature and imitating brilliant writers through copy work, oral and written narration. If you faithfully and accurately apply these methods you will raise good writers. You can read more about Charlotte Mason's writing ideas here and here.

Next time, I will share some recent samples from my youngest daughter's current narrations. I want to show you the natural changes that occurred in her writing over the past few years as we followed this simple writing process. 

one step at a time...

(first published in Home Educating Family Magazine)

Friday, August 09, 2013

On Heroism

My Daughter, Bryana, has been writing a series of posts to the children she mentors now and to the ones she hopes to have in the future. May I share part of it with you today in hopes that you will read the rest and be blessed?

[Someday, perhaps, I will have children. How will I explain to them what to do with the deep-seated, grasping longings they have in them and don’t understand? How will they know they aren’t alone with their wants, that all of humanity pulses with the same passions? – passions that can raise the sinking ship from the waves, or drown it utterly? How will they know that I too know the press of their heartache? I will write a letter… ]


My Dear Children,

You want to save the world. God bless you.

How it does need saving! How like it is to an overbold ocean liner, broken on the bergs of the deep and going down. How you want to dive under it and uphold it! How you wish your hands were great like those of God, that you could seize the smokestacks of the terrorized Titanic and take her out. How you want to dispense a thousand lifeboats into the cold darkness. How you want to hang on the heavy bell-ropes of the planet and set up a clamor for help that combs the stars.

This ambition to be a hero is one of the grandest things about the kingdom of youth. Never let anyone belittle it in your hearing, as long as you live. You are wise to let it run in your veins and impassion you. You are wise to look beyond your little self and into the great world, and hurt for it. You are wise to nurture your longing to heal the ravaged globe. Young people, never stop.

There is something you need to know, though. You should know it now, while you are still young, for though it will surely dawn on you when you are old and full of days, it may be too late, then, for much good that might have been. Oh, it may be too late.

Read on...

one step at a time...

Monday, July 22, 2013

You Don't Need a Composition Program

Throughout the years I have been told by frustrated parents and no doubt, well-meaning curriculum guides, that Charlotte Mason was mistaken. Copy work, rich literature and narration are simply not enough to produce good writers. While some children are natural writers, others need detailed writing instruction. These assertions are sufficient enough to frighten many Charlotte Mason enthusiasts, if not most, into buying a “comprehensive writing program.”  I’m sure that some of these conclusions have been made because their children never became good writers. Understandably, this can lead to disillusionment. But if Charlotte Mason’s methods only work for natural writers, how did they become so popular across Great Britain and last for so long? Personally, I have witnessed the success of her methods not only with my four children, but also in the lives of numerous others. I hope to show you in this brief article that Miss Mason wasn’t mistaken and the fault lies in the application of her methods.

The number one, most common mistake that I have seen parents make is that they expect too much too soon. Just last week, a frustrated parent showed me a written narration from her twelve year old daughter. Vanessa has been writing narrations for approximately two years now. I read the narration and noticed that she had clearly understood the events in her history book and written them down in correct order, even adding some interesting, rich vocabulary that she had picked up from the author. She didn’t begin with a nice introductory sentence because she was continuing the narration of some events that had happened in a previous written narration. The length was a full, written page. About two-thirds of the sentences were capitalized and properly punctuated. I saw before me a good narration.

Vanessa’s mother, on the other hand, saw a mess. She couldn’t get past the ugly mechanics and the poor introduction. She expected a nice, neat essay with an introduction, a conclusion and proper punctuation. These glaring errors blinded her to the rich vocabulary and complex sentence structure that her daughter had so aptly displayed.

Personally, per Charlotte Mason’s advice, I would have praised Vanessa for retelling the order of events so clearly and also commended her for using some new words that she picked up from the author. Then, I would have asked her to go over it again to see if she could find any words that she should have capitalized and any sentences that need a period. I would have pointed out one or two misspelled words and had her correct them, taking a brief mental picture of the correct spellings. Privately, I would note any other misspelled words and use them later in the week for an informal dictation/spelling lesson. You see, Vanessa needs a fan, a cheerleader, not an inspection officer. She needs to feel positive about her writing. If a child doesn’t have a positive writing environment, she will not develop a love of writing.

Now, at this point, you may be thinking. That’s all good and well for Vanessa, but my child is fourteen years old and has been writing narrations for three years. He still writes like Vanessa! My reply to you may be difficult to swallow, but I assure you, your son is doing just fine. Be patient and trust the method. All of my children went through a lengthy period of writing narrations that needed better punctuation, spelling and organization. I continued to have them write several narrations a week occasionally pointing out errors and making suggestions. I didn’t over correct and I allowed them to write about the things they cared about. I didn’t burden them with stilted, formulaic writing exercises. They read great literature and were allowed to respond to it without much interference. Eventually, each child developed a style of her own without any “stylistic” instruction and the mechanical errors also ceased. Even more importantly, they all began to love writing. It happened at different times for each child. In fact, it wasn’t until my children were around fifteen and sixteen years of age that I realized they had become really good writers. This was after years of faithfully applying Miss Mason’s recommendations of reading and copying beautiful literature, memorizing classic poems, practicing weekly dictation, and daily narration.

If you are tempted to throw in the towel and use a writing program – you know, the one that empties your pocketbook, requires much of your time, and makes your kids groan at the thought of it – perhaps you should re-evaluate your practices. Impatience with the process, overcorrecting a child’s writing and inconsistent narration can hinder Charlotte Mason’s methods from working effectively in creating good writers.

My adult daughters are now professional writers who love to communicate through the written word. Knowing my own deficiencies in this area, I realize I didn’t have much of a hand in the writing process. I just put them in touch with great authors and made sure they practiced oral and written composition on a daily basis. You can do this too.  In the future, I hope to share in greater detail how Charlotte Mason’s composition ideas look in the life of a single child over a twelve year period. 

one step at a time...

*article first published in Home Educating Family Magazine

(image courtesy: Talking Fingers)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Charlotte Mason Carnival: Knowledge of God

Welcome to the latest Charlotte Mason Carnival. In this edition, fellow CM bloggers share how we impart the Knowledge of God to our children. We will begin with a wonderful quote from Charlotte, herself:
“Of the three sorts of knowledge proper to a child, the knowledge of God, of man, and of the universe,––the knowledge of God ranks first in importance, is indispensable, and most happy-making.”
Carol, at Journey and Destination, shares some keys that help unlock a child’s heart and mind in her post Imparting Faith to Our Children. I think she mentions something of great importance when she quotes Charlotte:
 “It is as the mother gets wisdom liberally from above, 
that she will be enabled for this divine task.”
Carol writes:
“I always asked God for wisdom and then doubted that I had any. If you ask for wisdom, you need to believe He will give it and that He will help you to discern what is best and make wise choices regarding your children's influences, activities and direction...”
I agree with Carol and Charlotte so much! We are instructed in the James 1: 5-7 that when we ask for wisdom, we should not doubt that God will give it to us, or else He will not. Years ago, I began asking God daily for wisdom in educating my children. I believe with all my heart that any success I have had is because He heard and kept his promise to give it liberally. When mothers get a hold of this Divine truth, it removes much of the frustration and indecisiveness that they may be feeling when making educational decisions for their children. Ask for wisdom, and don’t doubt that the Giver kept His word and gave it to you. There's more good reading in Carol's post. Read on...

Nebby writes about the areas where she disagrees with Miss Mason’s thoughts about the Knowledge of God. Then she writes about the areas in which she agrees.  Two thoughts in her post particularly stuck me. Here is the first one:
artist: Lawrence Wilbur
"[Charlotte] encourages mothers especially to simply talk about God in a natural way, as One who is present with them and involved in their lives... So the key really is to work on our own spiritual lives and to not be afraid to talk about it as we go through our days."
And the second one:
"Charlotte has some advice for those difficult years when our children may start to question what they have always been taught. Her advice is not to argue with them but to present them with good books on the subject so they can in a way argue with the authors. This makes it so they are not battling us but are wrestling with the ideas themselves."
I have found this to be true with my older children as well. Great advice!

 If you have not yet read Raising Heavenly-Minded Children or Practical Ways to Cultivate Spirituality in a Child, I invite you to visit Charlotte Mason Help.
"It is better that these teachings be rare and precious, than too frequent and slightly valued; better not at all, than that the child should be surfeited with the mere sight of spiritual food, rudely served."
 And now we will move on to some posts about other areas of a Charlotte Mason Education.

Sylvia, who is an excellent Charlotte Mason educator, presents a review of Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. I have read that this is the book that influenced Francis Schaeffer when he wrote How Then Should We Live? Personally, I think both of these books offer excellent insight into Charlotte Mason artist studies.
I must confess that Charlotte Mason unschooling is an oxymoron to me as Miss Mason strongly believed in structure and that the teacher should choose the children’s books. But Rebecca shares how using some of Charlotte Mason’s methods adds balance to her children’s education even while using the unschooling philosophy of education.

Although Laura does not write specifically on her blog about educating the Charlotte Mason way, in her recent post, Getting Science on Everything, she shares a peek into her family’s science studies and offers some good advice.

Here's a view more entries that came in today:

Celeste writes about her summer reading list and nature around her home.

Mama Squirrel from Dewey's Treehouse posted her daughter's year 6 exam questions, Charlotte Mason style. She also did a little research that can benefit all of us who teach Plutarch.
"Which of Plutarch's Lives were actually read in the Parent's Union School, and in which editions?  I looked through the term programmes in the CM Digital Archives, and made a list."
And that concludes the Charlotte Mason Carnival. I hope you leave today with an insightful thought and an encouraging word or two. You can find information about the next carnival here. Thanks for taking the time to stop by.

one step at a time...