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Narration as a Life Skill

The Art of Narration is crucial to healthy function in real life. (Sound too dramatic?)

One of the things in the air these days is a push to teach kids “Life Skills”. In the modern educational melee that has placed so much focus on test scores and pure detached academics- people have realized that many graduating seniors have “book knowledge” but are not fit to function in real life. It turns out Life Skills are important after all! I propose that Narration is one of those necessary Life Skills.

Narration is probably the most recognizable aspect of a Charlotte Mason Education and for good reason. It is literally the backbone of her philosophy. Narration is the art of -telling back-. “Whatever a child or grown-up person can tell- that we may be sure he knows, and what he cannot tell, he does not know.” Those who understand its use within Charlotte Mason’s Philosophy understand its power and importance. The additional thought I would like to put forward is this: Not only is Narration a powerful way to connect with and retain information- but it is in fact a life skill. Beyond academics Narration is fundamental to a person’s healthy function in real life!

One of the things I remind moms of when I do teacher training is what Narration is not. Narration is NOT telling back what you liked, it is NOT telling back what stood out to you, it is NOT telling what you agreed with. It is telling back what you have heard (or read) as accurately as you can, with as many details as you can- from the very beginning. When you are working with a student who is reluctant to narrate (because it is hard work!) it is tempting to resort to, “Just tell me one thing that stood out to you.” This is wrong. The challenge is not telling what jumps out at you. It jumped out at you! The challenge lies in focusing your attention on the other parts. Everyone notices what they notice. The idea is to notice what you might otherwise have missed. Honing the habit of attention to all incoming information, being able to tell back accurately what has been taken in- that is the art that takes nurturing. In some ways it comes naturally, that is why Miss Mason utilized it. The ability is within us all. But on another level, it doesn’t. As I speak to more and more to adults- I find that there is a human tendency to receive information through a lens that is unique to each person and can shape what they take in if they let it. This can be detrimental to growth. I’ll never forget a couple of stellar cases of this when, as I finished speaking, people came up to me and said: “I love what you said about _____.” And proceeded to tell me something I did not say! Somehow, they arrived at conclusions I did not make, and in some cases may have even stated the exact opposite! These people listened to the talk through their lens and their lens literally translated it into something that wasn’t said! That is scary. The ability to hear accurately- in detail- is a life skill.

If any of you have experienced marriage counseling I bet some of this is beginning to sound familiar! My husband and I had the amazing opportunity to meet with a counselor for several sessions. The most infuriating part of the whole experience was that I had THINGS TO SAY and say fast- but he wouldn’t let me! Instead my husband and I sat across from each other and took turns listening to what the other had to say- and before we could respond with our own thoughts- we had to repeat back what we had heard the other say as accurately (read fairly!) as we could. Talk about lack of progress- from my perspective at the time! It was slow going. We covered small amounts of ground- but- we covered it thoroughly! (A bit like slow reading) This practice broke down the communication barrier we didn’t even know was there. It broke it down with accuracy. I was forced to listen- not just to what stood out to me, not just to what I liked, not just to what I agreed or didn’t agree with, but all of it- in context. And THEN I got to respond! Basically, he made us narrate- Charlotte Mason style! It was frustrating (that is why kids sometimes balk) but it was empowering too. Training the habit of narration could benefit your child’s marriage someday!

Let’s talk about politics. Actually, let’s not! Why? Because it is usually awkward and easy to be misunderstood. In fact, that tends to be the case with any deeper-than-surface conversation these days and so we avoid them- how sad! We live and love and work around people we don’t dare go deep with- because we don’t want to risk misunderstanding. Does this make for healthy relationships or just easy ones? What if everyone had been trained in the Art of Narration- careful listening? We as a society could have deeper and more meaningful conversations and therefore become deeper and more meaningful people. The ability to hear and communicate accurately is a huge piece of the relational puzzle. As my children narrate to me day in and day out, I see them developing a skill that I see lacking in many adults. They are developing the habit of accurate listening and careful, articulate response. Yes, it helps them retain the knowledge that we are interacting with- but I see something bigger coming in alongside it. Something that makes me hopeful for their future relationships, personal and professional. Possessing the Art of Narration could benefit not only your child- but the society he will cultivate around himself someday. What a beautiful idea.

Being convinced, some will be tempted to toss this new “life skill” on the pile with all the others. Something to introduce and check off the list. But what is unique about Charlotte Mason’s use of Narration is the diligence with which it is applied. Because Narration is expected in some form (oral, written, drawn) after every scheduled reading- the long term effect is that this art becomes ingrained, becomes second nature. It becomes part of them- not something they turn off and on, but a way of living. In Forms 1 & 2 Narration starts off pretty basic- like everything, you are laying the foundation. It is merely telling back and more then that there is an element of thought that suggests- “The reading is true, and this is what I heard”. That is perfect for young kids- but the uniqueness of Narration is that it grows with the person. As my kids enter junior high and then High School, we begin to introduce books that might contain conflicting information, sometimes even false information or more often than not, information that we need to stand back from objectively and weigh. This is where I see Narration bloom into a legitimate life skill. Here is an example of what I mean. (Overlook my personal views and plug in your own if you disagree!) I don’t believe Socialism is a viable economic system- but I want my kids to understand what Karl Marx taught and why. I don’t believe Evolution holds weight in explaining the natural world- but I want my kids to understand Darwin’ theory, accurately. Narration lets this happen.

It is always fun to watch my kids come up against this stage of Narration and level up. Usually they want to argue with the reading (we tend to be loud opinionated people) instead of narrating! There seems to be some innate misunderstanding in the human mind that equates lack of argument with agreement! They are full of their new idea and anxious to express it. But- just like the marriage counselor- I make them stop and I say, “First, tell me what they said.” I want to make sure they know what was said before they launch into their own thoughts. Once their thoughts are in the mix, they can cloud the original position. I want to make sure their lens is clear and clean. I want them to have a firm understanding of what they are addressing before they address it. I want them to know that they can come into contact with ideas they completely disagree with, stand back, take an objective view and accurately tell back what was said. THIS IS HUGE! This is what I want for my kids. This is what I would love for our society. We are too full of people jumping to conclusions, waiting half-cocked for a moment of silence to take off on their tirade. Where does this get us? No one is listening, communication is not happening, society is weakening. The art of Narration could help. I have seen it help.

Again- its power lies in the diligence of its use. Narration is not just sometimes- it is all the time. That is how a habit is formed. That is how it ceases to be a mental chore. If it is always expected- the effort of listening is always happening.

Who cares if your kids know how to properly sort laundry if their marriage is in shambles. Being dependent on Jiffy Lube to change your oil is a drag- but pales in comparison to bouncing through life like a pinball from one conflict to another because you don’t know how to listen. People have realized that life skills do matter- thank God! But relationships matter more. Relationships are the things that define us the most and their health is dependent on good communication. Good communication begins with knowing how to listen.

Narration is a life skill! Not some of the time but all of the time. Not what stood out to me, not what I liked, not what I agreed with- but all of it, in context. Narration is telling back what you have taken in as accurately as you can, with as many details as you can- from the very beginning.

Narration can seem tedious. Depending on who you are, it may seem like either not enough- or too much- or sometimes both at once!! But it is worth it. Push through. Make sure you are presenting it to your kids accurately and in so doing prepare them for a life worth living.

S.Timothy 2020

For more on how to apply the principles of Narration at your home I recommend “Know & Tell” by Karen Glass.

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