My mom was one of the first homeschoolers. Back when it was new and strange and you had to explain what it was to everyone you met outside of school hours- IF you weren’t afraid to be seen out and about during school hours. I loved it! In fact, she first decided to homeschool one of my brothers and leave the rest of us in school until I begged and cried and told her that it meant she loved him more than she loved me! And so she consented and the journey into the unknown began. This was in the time before the internet gave information at our fingertips. It was before mommy blogs and the myriad of curricula choices we have now; before conferences, book clubs and support. It was a time that we can’t really even imagine anymore. They were alone with their convictions- isolated from each other by distance and still they persevered. Those moms are my heros, they were the real deal.
Despite my positive experiences I wasn’t at all sure I would homeschool my kids, I’m not sure why. I think I liked my independence and while I liked my kids, I wasn’t really a kid person, if you know what I mean. I thought teachers were this special species of ooey gooey kid loving geniuses. Plus, we lived in a small town with the classic “good” small town school and so it didn’t really feel necessary. But as the months ticked by and people started to talk to me about preschool and kindergarten, something just didn’t feel right about sending her away. It felt like breaking up a beautiful routine and relationship we had developed that didn’t feel at all like it was winding down but rather just getting started. Sending her away felt wrong. I never announced myself a “homeschooler” I just thought we’d take it one year at a time and see what happened. I joked with her throughout her school years that, I would send her off to school when she got smarter than me. By the time that happened we were both hooked and no one wanted to go!
After procrastinating as long as I possibly could (I hated being tied down to a schedule!) I began formal lessons with my oldest at 7 years old. “Teach Your Child How to Read in 100 Easy Lessons” was my crash course in teacher training! Thank God it is scripted! I had no idea what I was doing! But it was fun- it felt natural. I found out that I actually had to know and do very little; just like learning to walk and talk the progression of curiosity for numbers and letters and an ability to make sense of them were IN my child! I simply facilitated the time and the discipline of direction. No ooey gooey genius required.
And so we were off. Along came more children and my little school grew by one new pupil every couple of years. My good friend started a little monthly homeschool get together day, and I got to watch other moms and see how they did things. My confidence grew, and not unlike juggling I began to toss in other subjects as they came to my attention. Then. came. the. discovery. of. The Rainbow Resource catalog! The only thing that held me back from ordering every item listed was money! I love books- and I found out I loved curriculum too, or so I thought. I loved READING about curriculum! Sort of like vitamins- the promises and descriptions are great fun to read and dream about. Actually opening the bottle and trudging through the monotony of taking the pill every day is a little less romantic! But I didn’t know this at the time because… a-hem… money.
So, I dreamed over my catalogs, occasionally making a purchase here and there. I also found homeschooling a convenient excuse to indulge my old book fetish. Every thrift store required a bee line to the bookshelf for a scan. Library sales and used bookstores became the highlight of my life. As the kids grew and money began to allow, I accumulated a pretty impressive collection of “homeschool” stuff! I felt sure that this was what homeschooling was about! Classic literature, biographies, great vintage science readers, original source documents- but much to my dismay, my book collection and my curriculum collection weren’t jiving! By the time we got through what the curriculum had listed for the day- there was no time or energy left for my lovely collection. My kids were spending their days reading summaries of the things I had wanted them to read for themselves. What to do? I began to tweak. No curriculum was safe. I would pore over the curriculum catalogs all summer, learning to read between the lines- trying to find out what was really being offered and what was required. I would make the purchase, just to get it home and reorganize everything into a form that felt more… right? I don’t know! But I do know the headache! Year after year I would promise myself, THIS year I WILL use it the way it is written! Why make life harder than it has to be? Only to find myself squeezing and tweaking the first week in! I told myself that it must just be that I am a control freak and we bumped along like this, thoroughly enjoying ourselves and making lovely memories until my friend loaned me “The Charlotte Mason Companion”- Stop the music!
I think my oldest must have been in 5th grade. That would put #2 in 3rd, #3 in Kindergarten, #4 in diapers. I was captivated! These people were articulating what I had been feeling. I read the book mid- year and immediately started trying to figure out what all of this meant. I remember that we were doing a study on the Human Body and my first thought was that the kids needed to sketch the bones in the foot from a real medical book instead of cutting out printed bones and gluing them in place! I don’t know! That is how clueless I was. I knew it resonated, I read it over and over, it captured me with the IDEA- But there really wasn’t enough there to flesh out what a Charlotte Mason curriculum looked like day to day. I tried- and fumbled and failed but kept trying because I knew enough to know that this was it. This was what I had been looking for. An educational philosophy? Who knew there was such a thing! And who knew that this homing beacon inside of me had a target that was so well developed. I had to know more, but how?
The fact that Charlotte Mason had a school, had written books, had in fact, led an educational revolution completely missed my radar screen. I had made a choice to not have wifi at our house and resisted until the bitter end getting a cell phone, so all of the information online was lost to me. I next read “For the Children’s Sake” and then Catherine Levison’s books. I was beginning to get a picture! We began actually using my amazing book collection! Charlotte Mason said the good books could BE the curriculum- It felt like permission! We began experimenting with narrating and copy work. Some things felt vague and un-firm and I was skeptical, but strangely drawn. It felt like a leap of faith, not a blind leap, because it also felt like permission, but a leap none the less. While I loved the permission, I was hesitant about leaping! So, instead of leaping we swam out a little way, always keeping the shore in sight. But every day, a little more, a little further.
Throughout 6th, 7th and 8th with my oldest we began to find our rhythm. In hindsight I can see that there were fumbles and misunderstandings of what I understand now- but it was life giving! Our school days took on the tone that I had always hoped was possible. Soon, High school was looming on the horizon! This was it- this was where I had always told myself I might be in over my head. I began to take stock of where we were and what I knew. My old doubts and skepticism came back. While we had now joined the 21st century and had wifi- as I scanned the net it seemed like most of the CM moms had elementary aged kids. I felt alone and unprepared to face High School under this new paradigm. Where was the support? Where were the testimonies of kids who had done this thing all the way through. (I now know that they are there, but at the time couldn’t find them!) It seemed like many families felt like Charlotte Mason provided a good foundation in elementary but moved on to other things for High School. I caved. I geared up for a more traditional route for 9th grade determined to not screw up my kid’s educational future on an idealistic philosophy.
That year was like the week after a breakup. They say that you don’t really know what you’ve got until you lose it and I think that that is true. I won’t give specifics but, we powered through History, no connection. We spent hours a day on Biology, great test scores, no retention. We did everything textbook- literally! The joy was gone. The life was gone. My daughter and I gritted our teeth and decided this was just what High School looks like and made it through the year. I think she kind of liked the challenge, but as the teacher I kept asking, “But challenged to what end?” It was that summer that I happened across the book “The Well Trained Mind” at the library. This book had some good points, it revved up the part of me that likes to control. I felt motivated to do more, push harder, go further. I kind of like that feeling. But if I am honest, I think it spoke to the fear and insecurities I had. Fear can motivate too you know. “What I am doing is not enough, who I am is not enough- I will try harder and do better.” I think this is a particularly insidious lie homeschool moms are tempted to believe. Mercifully, after reading TWTM I found Charlotte Mason’s series for the first time. Reading the one after the other was a unique experience. It felt like coming home. I can’t really explain it- because I wasn’t in despair after reading TWTM, I was actually weirdly psyched! But when I got into CM’s volumes- I felt like I could breathe. Something in them spoke to the human- BEING in me, where the other spoke to the human- DOING.
So, now here comes 10th grade! The textbooks and tests hadn’t delivered. I had felt secure in having given test after test and quantified my daughter’s knowledge, but it had been a false security. None of that “knowledge” was there in conversations over the summer. As we planned the next year, I realized that she could do the same topics again and they would be new to her! No; traditional education made promises it couldn’t keep. If we were going to spend our days doing something it was going to be the thing that held the possibility for connection. Connections can’t be measured, and what can be measured isn’t guaranteed to stick! That was my epiphany. That was the summer of angst! I felt so torn! I now knew what didn’t work- but what did? Could Charlotte Mason’s philosophy really be enough? Could this really work? What about this, and this, and this? Could Education really be about building a person- mind, body and spirit? I felt like the answer should be yes- but still- in letting go of quizzes and grades and testing I felt like I was being asked to let go of academic expectations. Yes, of course the person is more important than the academics… but could you really have both? Here was Charlotte Mason with a tantalizing promise, a promise that, I didn’t have to let go of anything- I just had to shift my thinking.
This time it truly was a leap of faith. It was a leap of faith to not just dabble in narration- but to do it consistently, exclusively. It was a leap of faith to not just do some copy work and dictation along with everything else but do it daily and as CM prescribed. It was a leap of faith to limit myself to short lessons and only living books. It was a leap of faith to devote time to things that don’t need to be seen on a transcript. It was a leap of faith, and like the ultimate leap of faith that comes when we make Jesus the Lord of our lives- things didn’t come clear until I jumped. That was the year we went all in. All of us. No looking back. We quit keeping an eye on the shore we had left and set our eyes on new kind of goal. That was the year I began to see the kind of results that soothe a mom’s anxious heart. The kind of results that don’t come with dabbling but with diligence. I began to see a love of learning and a sense of connection between my kids and their studies, but also between my kids and me. That was the year a weight lifted; our school days became simple. That was the year I began to have time to reach beyond my little family circle and invest in the people around me.
Since then my eldest has graduated- done some college (well- I might add!) and married her prince charming. She is a beautiful person and a life-long learner in spite of my fumbles and isn’t that the goal? She goes to Charlotte Mason conferences with me and has even taught at CM co-ops. My younger kids have received the benefit of the consistent and cumulative effect of this Philosophy beginning at a younger age and it has been amazing. It really works- all of it! Each piece of this method plays beautifully off the others which is why it looks confusing or like “not enough” when viewed as isolated tidbits to pick and choose from. Now that I can see it. Now that I have “proof” I spend much of my time trying to encourage people who were like me. People standing on a shore they are not content with, looking longingly out at a sea that is both deep and wide. I blog to encourage moms and to offer a testimony of High Schoolers who are thriving under Charlotte Mason’s Philosophy. I founded a weekly CM Cottage School in our hometown and write CM curriculum guides. I do consultations with women across the country and am honored to help with and speak at our state’s annual Charlotte Mason retreat. Charlotte Mason has given us an abundant life- but has also given us time to share that abundance.
Early, early on I met a mom at a park and upon finding out that they homeschooled I eagerly asked what curriculum they used as a way to start up a conversation. She said, “Have you ever heard of Charlotte Mason?”
“Yes.” I sort of fibbed.
“That is what we do.”
Simple. That was the end of that discussion!
This is where our homeschooling journey has led us. It has been a winding path and God’s mercy has covered us all the way. It has ALL been good, I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world! When I talk to parents I emphasize the primary goal- Homeschooling; I can give advice in any direction- But in the end I always say, “Have you ever heard of Charlotte Mason? That is what we do.”