(I'm sharing my thoughts here as I read Laurie Bestvater's The Living Page. So far, I've discussed the place of Keeping in Charlotte Mason's vision for education, nature journals, and copybooks. Today I'm hitting the last section of Chapter 2, which focuses on history notebooks.)
I admit: I nodded wholeheartedly when at the beginning of this chapter, Bestvater asks whether my own history education was scattered, un-living, and (as a result) nearly completely forgotten. Yes, yes, and yes. I know this is a lament for many who were taught in traditional ways in traditional schools. Most homeschooling mothers I know seem to think that more hands-on projects or crafty supplements are the answer, but Miss Mason recommends something different, which should come as no surprise for those familiar with her work. Of course, living books and narration are the hallmarks of her approach to history. But (just as we see in every other discipline) alongside those methods are various kinds of notebooks that prepare the mind, scaffold learning, and work as another form of narration. These records--or "time tools," as Bestvater calls them--are a key to the student's successful historical understanding, and the ways they were conceived of and used in her schools was precise and, as with everything else in a Charlotte Mason education, carefully considered.
Jen summed up this chapter so nicely, explaining the key forms, when they were used, and what they were meant to look like. I'm going to focus just a few thoughts here on the types of historical Keeping meant to be used with young students--or in other words, the types I'm planning to put into practice right away with my own young ones!
The notebooks suitable to the earliest years (Form I and early in Form II) are unique in that, unlike the Book of Centuries, they are meant to be kept for only a short time. The Book of Centuries is meant to be a lifelong activity, beginning about halfway through the child's school education and continuing throughout life. These early formats were planned to prepare younger students for that kind of culling and mapping of time to come.
The Child's Own History
This is not something I have read about in the past, so I'm looking forward to trying it with my two Form I students soon. The idea is to chart with the child the years of his life, starting from the present and working backward as far as the child can remember and to his birth. Included for each year would be the child's age, the ages of his siblings, and other important events he might remember, starting from personal events, then including public events, and then national events--a special trip, the observation of a holiday, a memorable news event, and so on. These can be written onto the chart or symbolically represented. The goal is to work with the child to create a visual representation of his own history, which serves to prepare him to understand his own century, and then the vast stretch of history.
And since I'm always concerned with the format Keeping takes, I'll add that Bestvater is very clear on that point: "Something framed in the way of a sampler is suggested ... there are probably many ways to create such a cherished record for the child that awakens interest and is highly personalized just so long as it is not enclosed in a book. The chart needs to be highly visible, a type of wall art" (46). So this is intended to be a visual record, something worthy of display. My children aren't up for a sampler (ha!), but I'm sure they would love to create this in a more artistic way than just a paper chart. Any ideas? Bestvater suggests the final project be something special, a keepsake. I'm not a particularly crafty mommy, but I think working in a different medium might make this a fun summer project. Maybe they could paint on a small canvas? Collage onto a wooden box? Something out of clay or wood? Fabric arts? Pastels or watercolors? If you have any ideas (or if you have done this project already in your own home), please do share.
Table of History
In order to give definiteness to what may soon become a pretty wide knowledge of history--mount a sheet of cartridge paper and divide it into twenty columns, letting the first century of the Christian era come in the middle, and let each remaining column represent a century BC or AD as the case may be. Then let the child himself write or print, as he is able, the names of the people he comes upon in due order, in their proper century. We need not trouble ourselves at present with more exact dates, but this simple table of the centuries will suggest a graphic panorama to the child's mind, and he will see events in their time order. (quoted in Bestvater, 39-40)
According to Bestvater, this quite Table of History was probably introduced toward the end of Form I. We actually began something quite similar when my children started Year 1, and I have found it invaluable in encouraging my children to make connections across their studies. Ours doesn't quite fit Bestvater's reading of what was being used in Miss Mason's schools, but I'll share it here and then point out the differences between what she describes and ours:
My children each have a personal binder timeline that they add to weekly--they choose what to include and how often, but it's usually one or two entries a week. Most of the entries are just the names of historical figures, but there are events in there occasionally as well (they both just added "The War of the Roses" last week, for example). They choose what to include. It is set up in columns just as described here, and the children just make simple lists in the appropriate century's column without considering the exact date. Ours is not visual in the sense of being hung on the wall--and that's a big difference, since Bestvater sees this as an essential feature of this table. I find that the binder timeline is still reminiscent of a "graphic panorama" in that it has a simple graphic layout and is accessible to the children whenever they like, so it suits our purposes for now. The other reason I went with a binder version is the size, which is another difference between ours and the one described here. Our columns are a couple inches wide, making the whole timeline much longer than the recommended one-page spread. I can't quite wrap my head around how lists of names could be written by children in the narrow columns prescribed here, so the larger format is suited to our needs. (Bestvater has the names written vertically in her model--was this perhaps what was intended? It doesn't seem all that useful to me, but perhaps I'm missing something.) I have been pleased with this format so far in that it does encourage the children to start to "see events in their time order" and to understand the relative passage of time through the simplicity of the design, and they have taken ownership of it. They refer to it several times a week, just flipping through and making connections: So Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all lived at the same time! and Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing in America when Rudyard Kipling was writing in England! and so forth. And when in a couple years they are ready to begin their Book of Centuries, they will have already begun to grasp the abstraction of time through these concrete methods.
Speaking of the Book of Centuries, I'll admit: this section made me really happy that my children aren't yet at the age to have started one quite yet. As Bestvater herself describes in this chapter, a much fuller understanding of the precise form and methods of these time tools has developed over the last few years thanks to the accessibility of PNEU documents, and I feel fortunate to be able to put this fuller understanding to use in my home teaching. And I also have to say--I so appreciate Bestvater's insistence on going to the source and on presenting as precisely as possible how these tools were conceived of by Miss Mason and used in her schools. There will be times I need to adapt her suggestions to suit my own family, but I just love an author that makes the purist case and allows me to consider the practical side of things for myself.
Some have argued that there is no use in being a Mason purist, and I take the point. Likely any timeline is better than no timeline, but if Mason and the PNEU 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? For example, if the figures and dates are pre-printed or already selected for the child's insertion on a ready-made timeline, hasn't some mind other than the child's really done the connecting, selecting, and most of the sorting? It seems likely that there will be less attention and interest paid to this sort of timeline than to the personalized one Mason has envisioned, and hence less connection and retention. With a pre-printed or parent-chosen model, at best the child uses his scissor skills and finds the appropriate century to insert the cutout. Likewise, a classroom-sized timeline tracing the circumference of the room, while it upholds the mandate to keep the timeline a visible reference point, loses its condensed map-like impact. If a timeline only covers the history being studied in that year in that particular classroom (taking part of the role of the history chart), it is a helpful tool but still manages to be less effective than what it seems the PNEU proposes. I am not suggesting we follow this rather involved trail just because it is the path Charlotte Mason trod; I hope I am presenting enough evidence to instigate a closer look at all her various practices in a search for the very good reasons underpinning them. (49-50)
I am grateful to her for presenting this evidence and taking this closer look, and I'll certainly be considering our current and future practices in light of it all. It's an exciting time to be starting out as a Charlotte Mason homeschooler.