Charlotte Mason for Real Moms

The Charlotte Mason method is truly an amazing way to homeschool, but its genius is clouded by too much information. If you are like me, you don’t have the time nor the inclination to swim through a sea of impressions. You need a summary, and then you need someone to tell you point-blank how you are supposed to put these wonderful, fuzzy ideas into practical, down-where-the-diapers-are-changed terms.

Actually, when I first heard of Charlotte Mason I was knee-deep in diaper changing. It was 1995 and I had eight children, the oldest just twelve. I had been using a boxed curriculum and the workbook pages were like slavery with me as the slave driver. Daily “school” resembled a WWE smack-down.

I was under the false impression that learning was supposed to be hard and distasteful or it wasn’t real “education” Then I read For the Children’s Sake and my entire outlook changed.  For the first time I realized that learning could be beautiful.

That one word, beautiful, is where you need to focus your mind.

If you will allow me, I would like to take you to a place where children chase butterflies in fields of daisies, or snuggle under the covers and read stories while the snow flies, or sit and watercolor dragonflies while listening to Vivaldi.

But first we must get rid of some garbage baggage.

Ideas such as:

  1. I have to teach my children everything they will ever need to know about everything.
  2. I have to cover every subject individually or I will not be doing it correctly.
  3. I have to sit my children down for six hours of school every day.
  4. If we aren’t unhappy, we aren’t doing it right.

And here is why:

  1. No school program, no matter how exhaustive, will ever be able to teach even the brightest child everything he will ever need to know about everything. We need only give fuel and oxygen to the spark already lit.
  2. Segregating ideas into neat little packets (called “subjects”) so that they do not touch each other is the devil’s way of keeping people stupid.
  3. Any child worth his salt should never, ever be contented with six hours of sitting and doing book work.
  4. If we are doing it right, learning should be delightful for both student and teacher.

Next, we are going to simplify things quite a bit.

As you know, there are six volumes written by Charlotte Mason on homeschooling. There are also numerous articles gathered from The Parents’ Review. Karen Andreola wrote the book , A Charlotte Mason Companion, that is still a major resource for homeschoolers everywhere. Not only that, but there are books upon books and sites upon sites, all written by very hard-working, marvelous people. If you have the time, be sure and take advantage of as much of this lovely encouragement and help you can.

However, you don’t have to study for hours before you start using this method.

Back in ’95 I didn’t have the entire picture, but that did not keep me from blessing my children with the gentler, sweeter side of education. I started simply by giving my eldest son a “living book” and having him narrate instead of his fill-in-the-blank workbooks. I think that was the day he was set free to enjoy learning.

Here is the kernel of the Charlotte Mason method in one simple sentence:

Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.

Mason explains it thus (if you have a few minutes, be sure and study the list at this link):

…the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas.

To bring this into even better focus, let me give a bulleted list of what it entails:

  • Habit

Children should pay attention, do their best (a little bit done well is better than a whole bunch done poorly), have a plan and be consistent at practicing it, and be selfless.

  • Gentle academics for young children

Little ones should not be subjected to long, tedious lessons each day. Modern studies have proven this to be the case.

  • Nature study and the outdoors

Young children should spend most of the day playing outside and enjoy nature, and older children should be outside as much as possible.

  • Living books

Mason hated what she called “twaddle” and what we today call textbooks and workbooks. She believed that children should be exposed to original ideas found in “real” books, not regurgitated information handed down to them via committees and think-tanks.

  • Narration, copywork, dictation

By involving children directly with interesting written material, we bring them in touch with language that is alive. They naturally become involved at the highest levels of their awareness where they learn the patterns of language deeply and indelibly.

  • Art and music appreciation

This is where a lot of the beauty comes in. Listening to fine music, such as classical and modern-classical composers, hymns, etc. as well as enjoying fine art done by the masters, gives children a taste for the higher, more noble things in life.

  • Handicraft

Cutting, pasting, and coloring all have their place, but there are more lasting crafts children can learn to do. In times past even little girls of six and seven were taught to do fine stitchery, and boys were taught skills such as wood-carving, carpentry, animal husbandry, and the like.

Well, so far I haven’t told you anything that is anymore useful than what you can find on any other site.

What you can do with this information, and how it can liberate you and your children, now that’s worth reading on to find out!

Here are the ways the Charlotte Mason method can set you free:

  • There is very little planning involved.

As you will see, you can simply follow your interests via good books and end up with an excellent education program (hint: the key is enthusiasm, something that set-in-stone curriculum cannot guarantee).

  • You don’t have to teach each subject separately.

By reading one book out loud and then doing a bit of narration, copywork, dictation, and notebooking, you can cover every subject from language arts, to history to geography to science.

  • You can teach children at different levels at the same time.

You don’t have to have a separate program for history for each child. You can read a book about ancient Egypt, for example, to all of your children who are old enough to sit still and all of you can enjoy all of the rabbit trails you follow together.

Actually, I like to have two different read-aloud times, one with the littles and one with the olders.

  • Writing and correcting are at a minimum.

Narration, copywork, dictation, and notebooking are easily gone over, and aren’t even necessary to be done daily. I try and point out small mistakes and have the child fix them instantly, before they become habits. No grading involved!

  • You, the mom, get to enjoy good literature, art, music, and nature along with your children.

This is where a lot of the joy and enthusiasm come in. You don’t have to study anything you don’t find fascinating, you don’t have to read any book you think is boring (remember, you won’t be able to teach your child everything, but you can teach him what is interesting). Homeschooling can be your excuse for reading good literature and indulging your creative side!

  • The actual “teaching” you do every day can be short and sweet.

Learning this way is more efficient than other conventional approaches. Getting children involved at the heart of real life and real ideas is cognition on a much higher plane. It causes children to educate themselves, no longer passengers on a train to nowhere, but pilots on a grand adventure!

Happiness, happiness, happiness, right? Except…

…for the specifics. These are still pretty fuzzy ideas for someone who has never taught a child to read or write even a sentence!

This is why moms want to go cross-eyed. This is why the Charlotte Mason method seems so mystical. You are saying,

“PLEASE, help me get started somewhere…”

I hear you. So here it goes:

Start with a book.

Just about any book will do. The Bible is full of amazing narratives, or you could pick something from your childhood, or from a list on like 1000 Good Books, or here is a shortened list with quality books. If your child is young, anything Dr. Seuss or Frog and Toad is just fine.

If your child is older, try Little House on the Prairie, or The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to start out.

Read the book aloud.

You don’t have to read the whole book. Just begin and read until someone gets too wriggly, or the baby screams, or the pasta boils over on the stove…

Have some discussion about what you’ve read.

Sometimes this will be a direct narration. In other words, have the youngest start first and tell what she heard, then the next older child, then the next, and so-on.

Or, you could ask specific questions and have them answer them. Try and keep them more open-ended, such as, “What was your favorite part of what we just read?” or, “What do you think will happen next?” or, “Tell about your favorite character so far.”

Or…you could have everyone draw and color a picture. You could expand this and use a basic notebooking page to have your children both draw a picture and write something. This works especially well if you are reading a non-fiction book together and want to help your children arrange and retain the information presented.

Or…you could assign a formal written narration, but only for those who have been narrating for quite a while and can write fairly well.

Be willing to grab a map to look up a location, or an encyclopedia or other reference book (even an old textbook) to look up a person of interest, event, or time period. An almanac is great for looking up and comparing statistics. A concordance and Greek/Hebrew lexicon is also handy for Bible reading. (The Net is, of course, one of the easiest and fastest ways to find information, but the old-school book way is still very important to learning.)

(Note: check for neatness, effort, and basic spelling and/or grammar according to age and ability. Have each child correct immediately to reinforce good habits).

Pick out some copywork.

As a rule, just a word or two or at most a simple sentence for the youngest, up to an entire paragraph or page for the oldest. You can write this on a white board for everyone, type it up and print it out (I’m a pretty quick typist so I can do this while they are coloring a picture–try this link for primary work), or simply copy the page (having an all-in-one printer helps!).

Keep it short, but not too short, as ability dictates. Remember, a little done well is better than a lot done poorly.

Study the copywork and do a dictation.

I didn’t catch on to this one at first. The dictation exercises I had been given in school were all without studying or understanding. It was a test to show what I didn’t know. This is totally different. The child is taken through every part of his copywork until he feels absolutely confident, then the dictation becomes a way to show him just how much he does know.

I even allow my children to ask me how to spell words and whether or not a word needs an apostrophe, etc., while they are writing.

Take a hike.

Even if it’s just around the block. Notice plants, trees, flowers, and birds along the way. If you don’t know their names, take a picture with your cell phone and look them up. The Cornell site is a great place for birds. My Wildflowers is a great place for identification of, well, wildflowers.

Do some nature journaling.

You can use a simple sketch diary (I found some this year at the back-to-school sales for just $1.50 a piece!), or you can use a composition book and glue in index cards for illustrations, or you could splurge and purchase a Moleskin or other expensive journal with high quality pages.

Listen to some classical music.

You don’t have to sit the kids down and concentrate. Just play it in the background while they are drawing, or cleaning, or playing. Every once-in-a-while talk about the composer, or find out about the different periods of music, or find out the different types of compositions and musical instruments. After a while they will go off on their own classical adventures and teach you things about music you never thought you needed to know!

Here is a Youtube link to get you started.

Enjoy some art.

You can buy books, or you can look online. You don’t have to spend oodles of time, just a few minutes now-and-then, or just put out a book from the library on the coffee table and watch it disappear. If you catch someone looking at a painting, or a sculpture, stop to talk about it, or check out the artist online or in a reference book.

The Art Renewal Center is an almost inexhaustible source.

All you need now is a bit of reading instruction, some math, some penmanship, and a few science experiments, and you’re set.

Really, that’s it.

Oh, and you might also need to know the frequency, maybe a list of materials, and a few hints as to how to go about things. Doesn’t that sound like a great idea for my next post!

Until then, how about a sample schedule to help you get a better picture of what this looks like? Make sure and sign up so you won’t miss out!

31 thoughts on “Charlotte Mason for Real Moms

  1. This is so wonderful, helpful and timely and freeing! Thank you so much for putting this together. I’m going to read again and again!

  2. Very helpful and informative for a mum just starting out with a toddler. It can be overwhelming with all the information, thank you.

    • You are very welcome, Noushii. I absolutely understand how you might be overwhelmed. I hope you will enjoy the amazing adventure from here!

  3. Hi Sherry! This is SUCH a freeing article…you’ve got a knack for seeing the big picture, and whittling it down to the essentials…no small task, but a gift for us all to benefit from. Please, do not grow weary in well-doing, you’re my “older” woman from the Bible, training me every time I check your blog. Keep writing and- thanks!

    • Thank you for your sweet comment, Kath! Knowing that I am blessing my Lord by blessing you makes me very happy, indeed. I will continue as He strengthens and enables me.

  4. This was probably the most helpful post you’ve put together! It truly truly was. I’m not exactly certain why, but it may be because I’ve been extraordinarily drawn to Charlotte Mason, but with kids of all ages & stages and the general hecticness of our day I wasn’t sure how to put it all together. Her ideas are fantastic, but seemed overplanned and it seemed to be made for 1 or 2 children in a wonderful, peaceful, beautiful, quiet home with perfectly behaved children and perfectly patient moms 🙂
    Now I know I can do it, after all these years, thank you thank you for your time putting this together!

    Oh, also, where is the sample schedule, I’m not seeing it? And I certainly hope you do continue on this subject next as well. (Frequency, hints, etc)

  5. Thank you for this! As a mama to ten, schooling since ’94, I’ve loved CM from the first page in For the Children’s Sake, too! I so appreciate your simplifying what I have observed as becoming more burdensome and “rigorous” (and dare I say, joy-killing) elsewhere as the movement has matured. I feel you’re helping to bring the joy and delight back into the picture that Susan Schaeffer MacCaulay and Karen Andreola sought to paint for us! ❤️

    • I totally agree, Kimberly. I was also thinking that Charlotte Mason has been portrayed as too rigorous and joy-killing. A few sites make it seem so structured and precise, when it truly is supposed to be liberating and wonderful. I also am saddened by the increase in so many programs that want to bring everyone back into bondage, especially since the voices of reason and truth are no longer among us. I guess you and I will need to continue on and bring the message of beauty and love of learning to this generation of homeschoolers.

  6. Thank you for writing on this and breaking it down practically. I have been using Charlotte Mason methods for 9 years now with my now 7 children but I always feel I fall so short of the ideals because it is a such a challenge to incorporate all of the components consistently in a larger family with babies and toddlers in the mix. I really appeciated and was comforted by your insights in your Homeschool Sanity book where you pointed out that Charlotte didn’t have children of her own and that her methods used in a large family homeschool will look different than they did in Charlotte’s PNEU schools.

  7. A God send article for us! Starting this year with a 3rd, 1st, preschooler and baby this year and this really encouraged me to focus on these things. You really are a blessing when you share these things! Thank you!!!

    • I’m so very glad, Jessica! You just relax and enjoy your babies. Building a foundation of love and warm responses is the best way to begin a quality education.

  8. Not only is your writing fabulous, but the blog’s new look just makes this such a delightful place to relax and read. I love all your graphics and how you’ve organized the posts, it looks so good!

    • Thank you so much for the sweet compliments:) My daughter Olivia worked so hard to get things just right for me, so your feedback will be a great encouragement to her!

  9. Thank you! This is very helpful! I agree, other places or things I have read scare me to death. I was to CM and setting a timer every 15 mins to switch subjects. We all ended up in tears and me with chest pains.
    I pray many people will see your well thought out and explained, ( yet simplified) post!!
    God bless
    Mrs.O

    • Chest pains–that is so very descriptive of what happens when we at home force schoolishness, isn’t it? I myself have done similar experiments with just about the same results 🙂 I am so encouraged by the response to my post–I think a lot of moms have been feeling failures because they haven’t been following according to the “letter” when the spirit will do fine!

  10. JI love the Charlotte Mason ideas but I get discouraged about the drawing part. My kids give me so muchh grief about drawing. One time I called my husband in tears because draw okids didn’t want to do a nature study. They drew real quick and just wanted to be done. It sounds so beautiful and all but with all the complaining I get so frustrated .

    • I hear you!! One of mine is the same way and sometimes she can even whine enough for one of our other ones to join in the “yeah, that’s right, I would rather just get this done” attitude. Then the drawing ends up crummy & scribbled just to be done. No matter how interested they are in the lesson, it’s the putting it on paper afterwards that kills it.

    • That is awful, Amy and Jolissa! I know what it is like to have visions of wonderfulness only to have them dashed to pieces by reality 🙂 How about printing out a coloring page or a nice picture off of the Internet for them to glue in. Then they could embellish with a few colored lines or even some stickers. You could even have them pick up a leaf or a flower (or a feather) and tape it in the sketch book. You could have them dip it bits if nature in paint and use them as a stamp. Or you could show them how to do a leaf rubbing. Some might enjoy more gathering special rocks which you could put into one of those nifty compartmented boxes where they could be labeled according to a nature guide. If you only have a few that are utterly opposed, set these to other activities so that the drawing ones will feel better about what they do. There are a million ways you can go about enjoying nature!

      • How did I seriously not think of these?? Duh me! We have been doing all kinds of nature lately!! Just not drawing! I feel so silly. We made big bug posters (on 11×17 paper) of 30 different bugs they are bound to see around here (praying mantis, cicada, daddy long leg…) for them to check off as seen, they created their own little nature journals (on their own, no prompting) with leaves, clovers, flowers etc, they have a 4 leaf clover collection they are pressing to frame, they have huge fun rock and shell collections, they have fairy houses out of all natural items they found, forts made from nature (sticks, trunks, branches…), leaf rubbing, they have their own little gardens they fully tend, the list is endless! Seriously, I can’t believe I was dwelling on the one thing our one child doesn’t care for–drawing! The others will compliantly sketch away after a lesson, but she wants hands on. Thank you Sherry! Now I’m thinking she’s perfectly fine not drawing :). I love the idea of printing a coloring page or taping things in. Those she’ll do without question! I think I just always want something on paper to remember and to show (herself) she learned it. How silly. Thank you for the reminder all is well after all! (And thanks for more ideas 🙂 ) Silly me.

          • Yeah, they love nature and NEED to be outside.(winter’s gonna be tough around here!) And our backyard is only about 80 feet by 90 feet! Only 3 trees left, but loads of fun I suppose 🙂 Easy to please.

          • Amazing how you have been able to engage your children and take advantage of what you already have. Godliness with contentment is great gain 🙂

  11. I think it is so sweet that you comment back to your commenters;) I just wanted to say that!
    God bless you and yours!
    Mrs.O

    • Thank you, Mrs. O!:) I really appreciate that ladies take time out of their already hectic days to interact with me, so I believe they deserve some recognition and feedback.

  12. What a timely post for me. Thank you. I actually found the same sketch books. Do you think they will work for watercolors? What do you do about math? I’ve seen a number of different CM approaches. Finally, could you please post your sample schedule? Thank you!

    • So glad you were blessed! We have actually used the sketchbooks for watercolors. The paper is not as good as actual watercolor paper, but it does well with pen and ink. As for math, I’ve come at it from different angles, and recently found an amazing Charlotte Mason-friendly free math book online that I will be trying. I will try and get to posting my schedule as soon as I complete it for myself 🙂

  13. Oh please do share more! I *only* have seven at home And this is our homeschool style, using Sonlight to give us some structure and direction. I’d love to hear more about the details of how you carry this our day to day.

  14. Thanks so much for this post! Loved it!! Thank you so much for your super-practical articles!! As you say, most mamas just need a few concrete leads into WHAT we’re supposed to be doing, rather than all the theoretical fluff. This is just what you’ve provided – thanks!!

    Diana

    • It makes me so happy to know my writing is actually useful to someone! Thank you for taking the time to tell me 🙂 I try and keep things practical because I know as a mom I don’t have much time for anything else…

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