Friday, March 21, 2014

The Living Page :: "A Learner Awake" in a "Fill-in-the-Blank World"

(Today I'm joining the chat about Chapter 3 of Laurie Bestvater's The Living Page.  You can read my thoughts on the first two chapters of this book here.)

In Chapter 2, Bestvater detailed all the various notebooks used in Miss Mason's schools.  There are certainly a lot of them, but no matter what the format, what the subject, what age they're meant for, what media are used--they are all, at their heart, composed of blank pages.

This is a break from traditional education today, and it's a break from the kinds of notebooking done in many "Charlotte Mason" circles.  When a student sits down to work on the kind of notebook conceived of by Miss Mason, there are no fill in the blanks, no multiple choice, no words or pictures to match.  There might very well be boxes or gridlines or ruling or columns, and there are usually clear guidelines and specific advice or assignments given by the instructor/parent.  This is not unschooling, after all.  But whether a Nature Journal, a Commonplace, a Book of Mottoes, a Century Chart, or any other of the many formats of notebooks used in her schools,  the student starts with a blank page.  This is an absolutely essential feature of Keeping in a Charlotte Mason education.

The question she's really getting at here in Chapter 3 is why?  Why does Miss Mason prescribe so many notebooks, and of so many different kinds?  Why does it matter if we include them or not, particularly when we can't be certain quite how or when from her writings?  And why in this format -- why the blank page?

That last question is her main concern, and she answers it primarily from a philosophical standpoint, explaining how this practice points to, as always, the educational principles on which it was based.  Working from Bestvater's answers and doing a bit of thinking of my own...

Why?  Because starting from the blank page...

:: Gives form to our vitality.
It might sound strange--how does the blank page give form?  By "form," Miss Mason isn't talking about a particular product.  She's talking more about an opportunity.  As Bestvater says elsewhere, form means "the time and space" for thought, for growth.  The notebook provides the opportunity to consider, to record, to think through the ideas the student grapples with in his education.  And it's precisely the openness and flexibility of a blank page that provides that form without limiting the vitality, squashing creativity, and turning ideas into products.  The blank page encourages mind-work without doing the mind-work.

:: Supports personalized learning.
On a related note, each student's product is not going to look the same, and that's the whole point: "the notebooks Mason favors are all highly personal, as all leaning is highly personal.  They are a unique framework for the child's own learning.  Some are more formalized that others, but none are arbitrary or 'busy work' ... The practice of using these books is begun and buttressed by the atmosphere, discipline, and life of the school and teacher, but their content is clearly driven by the child and comprises a highly personalized journey and retelling" (63).  We provide the form; the ideas and the student's acting on those ideas is the vitality; and something new and personal is created through the process:  "With the use of her notebooks, we come to see that Mason's equation is always: the written word or true-life thing + imagination = personal re-creation" (64).

:: Doesn't just exhibit formation but is a formative act.
These notebooks are "instruments as opposed to artifacts"; they are not just "containers for the child's narrations" (64).  They're not there to show what we have learned.  They're there to facilitate that learning.  As such, they are better thought of as postures or activities rather than products.  And though we expect a student's best effort and provide the supplies, time, and development of skills for that effort to bear fruit physically, the end goal is not a beautiful result.  The goal is a formative process.

:: Demonstrates our respect for the child.
This is absolutely key and, I think, why these kinds of notebooks are not often used in traditional schools.  By providing the blank page to the child and allowing him to do his own work, we "learn the humility and art of respecting the child, of paying attention to each individual's learning process" (64).  We have to be ready to trust that learning will happen, that the books and the process (and yes, the Keeping) will form the student without our hovering or providing answers.  We have to allow the student to do the mind-work.  We have to allow self-education to occur.  And Miss Mason assures us that self-education will occur if we only provide the generous feast, the habits, the "time and space"...and the forms.  As Bestvater says, "If a person can only be built up from within, what else but the freedom of the blank page transmits that confidence?" (67).

:: Is a sacramental approach.
With Bestvater's insistence on the physical from the start of this book, I have been mulling over this idea of sacramentality, a term she has used several times so far, here calling Keeping a "sacramental approach to life" (66).  As a Catholic, I see sacrament as a spiritually-charged word, but I appreciate its metaphorical value.  As a sacramental action, Keeping places an emphasis on the physical as the conduit for the mental and spiritual.  It involves routine, postures, reflection.  And perhaps most importantly, just as does a sacrament, it is what it signifies.  In other words, notebooks don't just signify learning--they are learning.

:: Is a means of entering the Grand Conversation.
As Bestvater says in this chapter, Keeping "speaks an unconscious but powerful message about the Great Conversation: 'it is worth having, and I too have a voice'" (76).  The digestion involved as a student culls, copies, selects, draws, notices, Keeps--this is the beginning of seeing his place within the scheme of the liberal arts and making his own contribution to it.  (And I would add add that perhaps that message isn't always unconscious, and perhaps it needn't be.)

:: Encourages not just cognition but metacognition.  
It's not just about noticing--it's about noticing that we're noticing: "Ultimately, the blank page makes us examine our thoughts for metacognition, and intrinsically, it insists upon space and time for learning" (65).  A student doesn't just see a wildflower, for example; he sees it, and he records that he saw it in his Nature Notebook, and as he does so, he becomes aware of what he knows and thinks and makes further connections...and the education unfolds.  I experience this when I'm blogging too: I can read and understand a chapter (cognition), but Keeping, like narrating, makes me aware of what I understood (metacognition).

:: Is a conduit to friendship.  
And by friendship, I mean that close familiarity one has with "books and things," as she calls it.  You make the time to sit down and think, notice, write, draw, chart, narrate.  And through that time, working over the once-blank page, relationships with ideas develop and link to other ideas--the "science of relations" in action.

Bestvater lays out the beauty of the blank page so keenly in this section that I found myself even more in love with this method of educating than I was before and even more convinced of the place Keeping has within it.  (And that's saying a lot!)  She asks at the end, "Is it too much to say a child's growth and transformation demand these open-ended postures?" (67).  No, I don't think it is.  I think if we're looking for the kind of "growth and transformation" that Miss Mason promises, if we want to raise a "learner awake" in a "fill-in-the-blank world," then blank pages are the perfect companion.  

So what do you say--are you convinced?  Does the blank page feel like a paradigm shift to you?  Does it seem as natural a fit as it does to me?  Have you been faithful to the blank page in your own education or the education of your now-older students and want to share about the fruit borne of that practice?  My children are still young.  I haven't seen how these methods work over the course of a student's growth from child to adult.  But what I have seen in just our few short years of homeschooling has already instilled in me a trust in their self-education, and I can't wait for what is to come as they continue to learn alongside their "paper companions."

In the next chapter, we're moving back from philosophy to the nuts-and-bolts.  Looking forward to reading along with you!


  1. I just finished reading this chapter and this phrase that stuck out to me most was that notebooks are "instruments not artifacts." I've been mulling that over and it's really been enlightening to me because instruments are made to *produce* things but they are never confused with the *product* itself. Another thought from that phrase is that an instrument, as it produces, allows for a gradual unfolding and revelation of the process and each individual *note* has its own significance and plays an important part in the whole piece. When we look back at a piece of music after it's been played those individual notes are gone and what we are left with is the overall impression of what was just heard.

    I may have to write a blog post about this and flesh these thoughts out a bit more when I have some time....

    Anyway, what I *really* wanted to say was, I like the way *you* said it. :)

    1. Thanks, Lisa. :) I definitely think a notebook, in building those connections, ends up being much more than the sum of its parts, much like a piece of music is. Love the metaphor.

  2. I went to public school in Germany and when I was in school all students did their work like this. We NEVER did anything like fill-in-the-blanks or worksheets. They didn't exist. I am pretty sure it is still this way. I wonder why this is so different in America.

    1. So interesting, Eva! It does remind me of the main lesson books in Waldorf's method, so I'm not surprised (though I don't at all subscribe to Waldorf, and what CM is suggesting is different in many ways). I don't know why it's so different. But I will say that modern American culture is "dumbed down" in other ways as well, so I think it's a trend that extends beyond education. ;)

  3. I loved this section! I feel so inspired and encouraged. I've largely eschewed the worksheet/fill-in-the-blank approach, and I haven't used many of the preformatted notebook pages out there either. I've long felt guilty about passing by the latter though, because they are so popular in many CM-ish circles. But when step back and examine my homeschool, I realize that my children are blossoming without these tools. The blank page is enough, in fact more than enough, the best we can offer when it is coupled with direction from the teacher, as Bestvater is careful to point out.

    The blank page does feel like such a natural fit, as well as the emphasis that it is part of the process and not a product in and of itself. I feel like I understand the whole of CM's pedagogy better through this lens - and yes, I feel like I'm more in love with it too! I'm so glad I am reading this book, and reading it at this time of year too.

    1. Isn't it great how simpler is often better when it comes to a CM education? There is lots of learning for us homeschooling mothers to do as we try to follow CM's principles as well as we can, and surely some of her methods are complex and delicate...but who knew that something as simple as a blank notebook could be so effective when paired with the right method? :) I definitely agree that this lens of the blank page is a very effective way to approach the whole of her philosophy. I'm learning a lot. :)