Monday, March 24, 2014

The Living Page: The Grand Invitation

I'm joining Jen at Wildflowers and Marbles again for her fifth discussion of The Living Page by Laurie Bestvater.  My other posts are here.

Wildflowers and Marbles

I sometimes feel like I am already locked into an educational path in our family, that we've gone so far down this road that there's no deviating, no altering our course.  After all, I'm in my eighth year of this home education journey, and I have one child who is solidly on her way in her education.  But I also have four more, ages 8, 5, 2, and 4 months old.  I have two children who aren't even school age yet, and two who have barely begun!  I may have some time and experience under my belt, but I also have a lot more time to get even better.
The practice of using these books is begun and buttressed by the atmosphere, discipline, and the life of the school and teacher, but their content is clearly driven by the child and comprises a highly personalized journey and retelling.  ~Bestvater, p. 63
There is still so much time available to improve our atmosphere, discipline, and life. And even if all my children were much older, there would still be time to build, grow and learn.  In reading this section, I was reminded of a blog post Cindy Rollins wrote at CIRCE last month.
I suppose I was worried that the book would make me feel guilty.  We had, after all, failed at keeping a Book of the Centuries.  My children had not made a Book of Firsts or a Bible Notebook, but as I read the book I began to see the very thing I so often promote: the idea that we are working on something for the long haul--the very long haul--an entire lifetime.  If I start something with a twelve-year-old, something educational in the truest sense of the word, then he has his entire life to complete it. No, not to complete it: to enjoy it.  Even at fifty-something I can begin my own Book of the Centuries, just as last year I finally started my own nature notebook.
So long as I am still alive there is time for me to build, grow, and learn -- and this is vitally important work for me as a human being and a child of God.
Teachers learning Mason's methods today could not do better than to keep these notebooks for themselves; the notebooks constrain us to transformation over information.  We learn to ask different questions:  "What are you thinking?"  "Are you satisfied with your work?"  "Is there anything you'd like to add?" "You seem to have a problem; do you want to talk about it?" "Do you want some help?" and sometimes even, "I need to ask you for more."  ~Bestvater, p. 65
I was heartened and encouraged when I considered Bestvater's words about a blank page and the life in my homeschool.  I realized how much of the above quote describes much of what already happens in my family.  I have always largely eschewed workbooks and pre-formatted, fill-in-the-blank sort of work as well as required frequent narration, and because of this I believe my children have no hesitancy about the blank page.  Emma, my oldest, can create Shakespeare maps, write poems, draw maps, and write detailed narrations with excellent vocabulary and sentence structure without any hesitation or fear.  Gregory (8), while certainly not as far along, shows ample signs that he's heading down this same path.  Emma recently completed a "History of the Swords of Eol", a rich and detailed piece of writing born out of her love for Tolkein's Silmarillion.  This wasn't an assignment, beyond being told to spend some time writing, but she wrote it, revised it carefully, and presented it to me.  Clearly there are things that are going very well in my homeschool.

Bestvater ends the chapter by saying, "If a person can only be built up from within, what else but the freedom of blank page transmits that confidence? Is it too much to say a child's growth and transformation demand these open-ended postures, that Mason's forms of vitality are an imperative to true education and the Grand Invitation?" (p. 67)  After coming this far, I can't but agree with her.  And more so, I'm happy to agree with her.  I can finally stop feeling guilty because I don't use all the various pre-formatted, prepackaged notebook pages out there, and instead offer my children nothing but the blank page and verbal guidance of expectations for their writing and creating.  By offering them nothing but this, I am apparently offering them everything.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Weekends with Chesterton: Accumulation of Authority

"No; there are only two things that really progress; and they both accept accumulations of authority. They may be progressing uphill and down; they may be growing steadily better or steadily worse; but they have steadily increased in certain definable matters; they have steadily advanced in a certain definable direction; they are the only two things, it seems, that ever can progress. The first is strictly physical science. The second is the Catholic Church." - The Ball and the Cross, G.K. Chesterton

This is a quote I've seen several times before, and it was exciting to run across it in the course of reading.  It was also nice to realize that by seeing this quote out context, I wasn't misunderstanding it.  As I consider Sarah's article about reading Chesterton over on CIRCE, I have moments of doubt about these Weekends with Chesterton.  Am I contributing to the misunderstanding of Chesterton by excerpting quotes and sharing them here?  I'm not considering Chesterton out of context, as I come by these quotes honestly, that is through encountering them in the course of my reading.  In the article Sarah is talking about the short quips that float around (sometimes garbled), which is why I try to except longer quotes and more complete thoughts.  I think that mitigates the risk of misunderstanding, but sometimes I wonder!

For more, please go visit Mary at Better than Eden, who is hosting this week.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Living Page: Time Tools

Wildflowers and Marbles

I spent some time with Bestvater’s The Living Page early last week reading through her history notebook findings.  It was hard not to think, “great, something else I’m doing wrong!”  Last week was a tough week in my household, with everyone but the baby coming down with a horrible stomach bug, and I'm sure that contributed to my impression of the section.  But I want consider what I've read with an open mind, especially in light of a quote I read at about the same time from Sir Walter Scott's Waverley.

“Alas! while he was thus permitted to read only for the gratification of his amusement, he foresaw not that he was losing for ever the opportunity of acquiring habits of firm and assiduous application, of gaining the art of controlling, directing, and concentrating the powers of his mind for earnest investigation—an art far more essential than even that intimate acquaintance with classical learning which is the primary object of study.”  Waverley, Sir Walter Scott

If I or my children are just reading and not doing the work associated with reading -- narration, mapwork, common placing, history notebooks -- then we are reading for the “gratification of [our] amusement” and we shortchanging our ability to make connections in our readings and we are not gaining the mastery of the mind that Scott writes about.  I’m afraid my education has been fraught with this, and that I'm allowing this to happen in my children's education as well due to my lack of diligence in the application of some of these tools and techniques.

All this being said, I thought I would write a bit about what I'm considering doing with the time tools mentioned in this section and what I'm considering using in my home.  Jen at Wildflowers and Marbles did a wonderful job summarizing the tools, so I'm not going to spend much time on what they are.

The Child's Own History Chart

I am considering doing something like this with Nathan (5) next year.  I'd like to do a chart counting backwards as described, but I would also like to create a one page chart with him moving forwards in time as well, perhaps over the course of a year.  I was thinking that each month we could record one or two memorable things we did and then review the previous months' activities to help build an awareness of the scale of time.  In the history chart, I don't really understand how it develops over time - as the child grows older, is he supposed to remember or become aware of more events in his past than he would initially know?  And I'm not sure that this would work as a wall hanging in my home.  For some reason, things that get hung on the wall are largely overlooked.  I don't have that much hanging on the walls, but what there is seems to be immediately forgotten.  We seem to do better with materials that are pulled out, reviewed and used, then put away than with things left out all the time.

Table of History

Building off my observation that leaving things out does not make my children more aware of them, I think that Celeste's simple binder timeline would be a wonderful way to implement this idea with Gregory (8).  Although I see in the end notes that the piece of paper should be Cartridge paper ("a tough, unbleached paper used for endpapers, linings, and shotgun shells from whence it takes its name.  ...  Sheets of Cartridge paper sold today come in various sizes; one such standard is approximately 23"
 x 33".  For our purposes, it is enough to imagine a largish piece of stiff paper.") I'm still not convinced that this is the right tool for our family because I am not sure it will be noticed and used if hanging on the wall.  But I also take the point that to be able to see all of it at once is extremely valuable, especially if what we are trying to build is a "graphic panorama" in the child's mind so he "will see events in their time-order".  Obviously I need to consider this one further!

Stream of History, History Charts, Map of Centuries and Century Charts

This sounds like the big brother of the Table of History, where events and people are organized by decade rather than centuries, but still only the most important dates are placed.  This time tool has to be displayed, otherwise it ends up almost duplicating the Book of Centuries and becomes far less useful.  The suggested scale is one yard equals 3000 years.  The History Charts seem to go hand in hand with the large Stream of History, giving the student a place to give all the details of a person's life or major event, without pouring too much detail into the Stream of History or Book of Centuries.  The Century Chart then is a graphic representation of much of the same material in the Stream of History, giving the student a symbolic "at a glance" view of a century, highlighting just the most important event of a year.   The Map of Centuries looks like a very useful quick glance as well, but rather than looking at events in a given century, it helps the student to see the most important theme in each century.  Emma (12) saw me looking Jen's map and is already excited about it.

There are a lot of different pieces here!  I take the point when Bestvater says, "Likely any timeline is better than no timeline, but if Mason and the P.N.E.U. gave careful thought to scaffolding the child's growing time sense, are not some important principles at stake if we depart for the sake of convenience or personal preference for a less considered activity?"  And truly, this thought does give me pause.  But all these charts start to strike me as busywork - adding entries to the Stream of History on the wall, adding entries to a close up Time Chart, adding a symbols to the Century Chart, and adding entries to the Book of Centuries.  I can see how they all have their purposes, but does it become cumbersome to be adding perhaps the same thing to four separate places?

Book of Centuries

Last, but not least, is the Book of Centuries.  This is the Charlotte Mason educational tool everyone thinks they are familiar with, but yet it seems we've gotten it wrong.  "The Book of Centuries is like a rope hammock:  there are just enough points of contact to hold you up, but a lot of space too.  This notebook is a visual touchpoint for the child, the century at a glance, personalized."  There is a strong graphical emphasis in this work too, half the book is given over for sketches and drawings of artifacts from the given time period.  "This careful tracking and drawing of artifacts represents a practical outworking of Mason's pedagogy of books and things, left and right-brain education in balance.  In the careful looking and drawing the child forms relationships in a different way than he does with the story or biography."  Rather than a horizontal timeline in a binder, it is a collection of organized notes and drawings.

I think this form of the Book of Centuries will be more attractive to Emma (12) and this is probably the piece I'm most looking forward to introducing to her.

Calendar of Events

Ah, the last one!  I don't have a student old enough for this one yet, but I love Jen's idea of making this a shared iCal calendar.  It encourages entries to be brief but yet doesn't arbitrarily limit how long they can be.  It also makes it easy to include a link for more information.  I will definitely have to do this when Emma gets old enough to use this particular time tool.


Overall, there is a huge amount to think about here, and the potential for a lot of new tools as well.  I can see the benefits and reasons for all of the tools, but I'm concerned about overwhelming Emma as well as myself.  One major disadvantage to having my first and second children four years apart is that I think at time Emma sees the practices and tools in a more negative light because no one else in the house is using them.  Really, what needs to happen is that I need to use these tools too, I need to have my own versions of these things.  And it isn't that I object to this, after all, I can see their value and use...  but I need to build my own habits and set aside the time to use them regularly.  I know from experience that the best way to have Emma be interested and willing to use these tools is if I use them too.  AFter all, don't we all enjoy learning more when we have someone else who is working and collaborating right alongside?  Isn't that why I'm participating in this online discussion about Bestvater's book?

In the rest of the school year, I'm planning on creating a close-up timeline for WWII (our current historical study) with all the kids.  I think I am going to hold off on the other tools until the beginning of the next school year, setting them up with the children over the summer but not making a concentrated effort to put them into practice until August.  I think that will help give me some time to sort through what I need to prepare, figure out where things will go, and what to purchase.  It will also give me some time to work through the rest of The Living Page!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Weekends with Chesterton: Free-thought

Free-thought may be suggestive, it may be inspiriting, it may have as much as you please of the merits that come from vivacity and variety. But there is one thing Free-thought can never be by any possibility--Free-thought can never be progressive. It can never be progressive because it will accept nothing from the past; it begins every time again from the beginning; and it goes every time in a different direction.
The Ball and the Cross, G.K. Chesterton

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Living Page: The First Three Weeks

When I first heard about Laurie Bestvater's new book, The Living Page, I wasn't sure I wanted to read it.  I was fairly certain I would end up feeling guilty about all the notebooking I should be doing but wasn't.  However, I wasn't taking into account my pregnancy and how that changes my ability to think well and consider new things.  I tend to just react, not ponder and grow in my practices.  I wish I could figure out how to maintain my higher brain functions and be pregnant, but after five tries I'm fairly convinced that it isn't something I can do.  Thankfully my pregnancy induced intellectual stupor seems to be wearing off, and this is coinciding nicely with Jen's discussion of The Living Page.

Wildflowers and Marbles

I am rather behind, but I wanted to share a few thoughts about the first three weeks.  First of all, I am finding this book extremely encouraging.  Second, this book, along with Celeste's thoughts on digital keeping, have helped me realize how much keeping I do already.  I do keep a physical commonplace book (although it hibernated during my pregnancy) which I was drawn to pick up again about six weeks after my daughter's birth.  I also keep a private website where I post pictures of the family and commentary about our doings for friends and family (and if you are friends or family and don't have the URL, email me and I'll pass it along!) and again, now that I'm no longer pregnant that is getting updated fairly regularly as well.  I also write in Day One several times a week, the only keeping I managed to continue through my pregnancy.  Day One is a place where I write about the doings of the day, as well as about what I'm reading, pondering, and considering.  I also keep reading logs for myself and my two older children.

These first few sections of The Living Page also reminded me about the keeping I have tried to maintain, but haven't managed to do consistently.  For example, the nature notebook with the last entry of December 2012, the Calendar of Firsts that for two years has not made it past May, and a sketchbook of drawing exercises that hasn't seen an entry since September of 2013.  And the less we talk about the notebook with "Before 3000 B.C." written on the first page with nothing else following, the better I'll feel.  And then there's my daughter's Book of Centuries that hasn't seen an entry since the fall.  And the kids' nature notebooks that haven't seen entries since the spring of 2012.  I had hoped to encourage and inspire them to make their own nature notebook entries as I made my own, but it didn't work out that way!

Even with this deficiencies staring me in the face, I still am encouraged.  How could I not be, after reading words like these?
Mason has shown me that the notebooks can be forms of vitality, literally the shape and outline, the liturgy of the attentive life.  They nurture the science of relations and the art of mindfulness.  p. xv
What if the emphasis is meant to be on the formative process -- the growing person who feasts upon and then share the Great Ideas in creating the art, rather than the artifact or achievement itself?  p. 15
 Isn't it encouraging to think of notebooks being part of the formative process of growing person, a person who is learning to consider, ponder, and explore the great ideas of what it means to be a person and a child of God?

And because I do want to share something that has been part of our formative process this year, I want to share another quote and piece of work from my daughter's time in Atrium.  And while this focus on the product may seem to contradict the quote about the formative process, I think that they are harmonious because the beauty of the created work is part of the process and part of the meditation, which is certainly part of the formation of the person.
Beautiful script is also a value in itself; Sundays were often spent by P.N.E.U. students working on a beautiful rendition of a particular passage on fine paper. p. 30

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Weekends with Chesterton

"Well, we won't quarrel about a word," said the other, pleasantly. "Why on earth not?" said MacIan, with a sudden asperity. "Why shouldn't we quarrel about a word? What is the good of words if they aren't important enough to quarrel over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn't any difference between them?

From The Ball and the Cross, by G.K. Chesterton

This quote reminds me of an online conversation that was a watershed moment for me in my understanding of language and truth.  A number of years ago, I watched an email exchange take place on a parenting email list where one person insisted she was a vegetarian even though she ate various meats not infrequently.  They went back and forth several times, until the so-called vegetarian stated that she was the one using the word, she could define it however she wanted to define it.  All of a sudden the absurdity and the absolute chaos implied by her statement hit me, and I found myself entertaining the previously ridiculous idea that there could be absolute knowledge in something that wasn't physically measurable.