Tough Fall? Here’s Why Your Struggling Child May Need a Charlotte Mason School

(by Gretchen Olson)

None of my kids was average. That is, all of them were talkative, energetic, bold and creative. All of them were raised in a household where independence and freedom of thought are highly valued. When they struggled, I let them, and gave them time to learn to manage themselves, even if it made teachers uncomfortable. Not surprisingly, then, they didn’t fit the cookie cutter environments of our standard school model, both public and private. We had (ahem) more than a few challenges over the years. We gave institutional schooling a try in kindergarten and first grade, but after disastrous fall semesters I decided to bring two of my kids home (and should have done the same with the third).

Maybe you see your family in that description. Perhaps your child does not sit still easily, or prefers inquiring to rote acceptance. Does your child show a particular passion for something outside the mainstream, or exercise a skill level that is “above” his or her peers? If so, I have good news for you. There is a school method that accepts children the way they are, engages children physically, all while spreading a “joyful feast” of knowledge before them: Charlotte Mason. 

But first, who was Charlotte Mason? CM was an educator in Victorian England, who later established a teacher’s college in the northern Lake District. She wrote extensively about her philosophies and methods, but in short, she was revolutionary because she saw children as unique creations, not cogs in a wheel. She also saw that long lessons taught children the habit of inattention, frustrating student and teacher alike. She was a great lover of nature, like many of her well-known peers of the time (Beatrix Potter, John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt), and understood that children needed the outdoors, and that nature was the foundation of scientific learning. In short, she created a system of learning that recognized the realities of child-life and celebrated the beauty of living.

So what does the Charlotte Mason method and philosophy have that’s so different from what we see in nearly all other school environments? 

  1. Charlotte Mason — the person who developed these methods and philosophies — believed that each child is unique, and a whole person. Because children are not “vessels to be filled up” as modern educational theory promotes, but individuals, they deserve the respect entitled to each person. This is in direct contrast to the factory model of government schools (and most private schools), where all children are treated the same.  If your child needs a little more time to finish work, too bad. If your child is “ahead” and needs more to study, too bad. If your child can’t sit for an hour, too bad. And so on. Unfortunately, it isn’t going to get better: new programs like Common Core State Standards essentially digitize each child, tracking and selling thousands of pieces of information about the child from age 3 to age 20.
  2. Being outdoors is a foundational part of the Charlotte Mason method. In fact she said, “Why be indoors when you can be out?” That means nature study is prioritized, and children are expected to be outdoors and learn to observe all there is in the wonder of nature, which also lays down a foundation for further learning. (You know the sky is blue because you see it first, right?) Weekly nature walks, then perhaps drawing a specimen from the walk, are an important part of the schedule. 
  3. They also do not read textbooks. Charlotte Mason saw that textbooks were dry and boring, and taught children to be bored. So she only used what she called “living books;” that is, books written well by someone who was extremely well educated and passionate in the topic. In the subjects of literature, history, geography and natural science, the teacher reads aloud to the child — for only a short time to avoid building the habit of inattention — then asks the child to narrate back what has been read. This, too, keeps the child interested, and engages their minds with the facts and ideas presented. And narrating back is an important skill for many aspects of human life as they grow. (Older students do their own reading, but still narrate aloud or in writing or other medium, such as a presentation, speech, skit or video.) 
Students and teacher share lunch at Ambleside School of Marion in Marion, Illinois.
  1. Math is relevant. While some CM educators may use some workbooks, generally speaking, CM school is hands-on. Different educators use different curriculum or techniques (you can find options on our curricula page), but the idea is the same, “living math.” Living books are also used when appropriate, to match math with life. Makes sense, right? 
  2. The arts are also prioritized. But not just sitting through music or band class. CM students engage in a brief (less than 5 minutes) of picture study during the week, where they learn to observe closely the details of a famous work of art. They also listen to (or read in later grades) biographies of famous composers and artists, and then narrate. They learn to sing and perhaps play an instrument, too. 
  3. Good habits are important. Charlotte Mason knew that a child with poor habits would grow into an unhappy adult, so she prioritized the teaching of them, what she called “laying down the rails.”   Now, this isn’t nuns slapping hands with rulers. No, the teaching of habits is in line with the underlying respect for each child, and is integrated into their daily lives. Sonya Shafer at Simply Charlotte Mason describes them this way: listen attentively; restate accurately; observe closely; focus on the good, noble and beautiful; and do your best.  This was so important to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy that she taught the teachers and parents in her college and parent groups that a child’s academics should come after the habits had been established, and if there was a time when habits needed to be reinforced, then academics should be de-prioritzed. This does not mean no school, just paying attention to the habit formation instead of worrying about how far along the child might be in a particular book or subject.  

For those of us with “different” kids, Charlotte Mason can be a God-send. Our children are being taught, and learning,  the best habits, while experiencing the “joyful feast of knowledge” in an environment of love and respect,. It really can’t be better! 

To learn more about Charlotte Mason and the many quality resources, including a list of Charlotte Mason schools around the world, visit the home page at Everything Charlotte Mason. 


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