Friday, March 31, 2017

Education is an Atmosphere :: {From My Commonplace} and More

Last week, some lovely ladies and I launched an Instagram community called Charlotte Mason In Real Life.  This wasn't my idea -- my e-friend Angela Reed is the brain child behind the project -- and I didn't choose last week's theme of Atmosphere.  But this invitation presented the perfect opportunity to share some thoughts that have been on my mind and heart for the last year or so on the role atmosphere plays as a tool in our homeschool.

My thoughts here are pulled from my Instagram feed over the course of that week of pondering the theme, plus a little bonus commonplace chat at the end that I didn't get a chance to share there but I think is relevant.  Just think of this as a little philosophical meandering...


My dryer broke this morning.  And this week we're talking about ATMOSPHERE at Charlotte Mason In Real Life!  This sounds like a bit of irony, but it is actually a perfect fit, and I'll tell you why.

I find atmosphere most often gets translated as decor in the homeschool world, when Miss Mason had a far broader vision.  It is not about pristine spaces, just the right books lined up just the right way, quiet during lessons, or any of the other bits we might long for as homeschool mothers.  In fact, I would argue that sometimes those elements might hamper the kind of atmosphere she had in mind -- when we pursue them to the neglect of the attitudes and actions that actually form our children's characters.

Atmosphere involves anything that the child takes in through his environment without direct instruction.  It molds not just his receptivity to lessons, but also his development of virtue, which is why it is one of the three tools of education.  And here's the most important bit: we are using it -- to our advantage or disadvantage -- whether we're meaning to or not.

From Volume 2:
"They are held in that thought-environment which surrounds the child as an atmosphere, which he breathes as his breath of life; and this atmosphere in which the child inspires his unconscious ideas of right living emanates from his parents. Every look of gentleness and tone of reverence, every word of kindness and act of help, passes into the thought-environment, the very atmosphere which the child breathes; he does not think of these things, may never think of them, but all his life long they excite that ‘vague appetency towards something’ out of which most of his actions spring. Oh, wonderful and dreadful presence of the little child in the midst! 

"That he should take direction and inspiration from all the casual life about him, should make our poor words and ways the starting-point from which, and in the direction of which, he develops––this is a thought which makes the best of us hold our breath. There is no way of escape for parents; they must needs be as ‘inspirers’ to their children, because about them hangs, as its atmosphere about a planet the thought-environment of the child, from which he derives those enduring ideas which express themselves as a life-long ‘appetency’ towards things sordid or things lovely, things earthly or divine."
It is a humbling vision.  But it also promises us that we can change it, right here and now, through our choices.  We don't need more money (to remodel the schoolroom!) or more quiet (maybe we can somehow offload that pesky toddler?). Our efforts in these directions DO AFFECT atmosphere, but they don't DEFINE it.

The tone we choose for our homeschool day, and our reponse when our days go awry (as they do), defines our atmosphere.  Showing our children what we value by giving those things pride of place in our homes defines our atmosphere.  How we treat one another defines our atmosphere.

So -- back to my broken dryer.  This is no small tragedy for a family of ten!  But the "mess" of wet clothes that are now hanging here and there around the house don't affect our atmosphere much at all.  My response to the dryer breaking DOES.  I can choose to be upset about it, or I can choose to calmly make a plan.  I can speed through lessons so as to do online appliance shopping, or I can adjust our schedule to accommodate the interruption.  My children can learn from their environment that difficulties can be handled with grace and patience, that rushing through lessons to "get them done" does an injustice to their value, and that habits of order and cleanliness really are blessings to those that cultivate them -- and which we sometimes feel most keenly by their lack.  Which is why my husband is headed to Home Depot straight after work. ;)


Although Charlotte Mason's vision for atmosphere has more to do with attitudes than aesthetics, she doesn't ignore aesthetics entirely.  We are both body and soul, after all, and we were created for beauty and order.  The spaces we spend our day in absolutely help to set the tone for our homeschooling.

But thankfully, we don't need to have picture-perfect rooms to create an environment that inspires virtue, encourages joy, and speaks to what we believe about life and learning.

Our home is nothing special decor-wise.  It is a place I am grateful for and it fits our style as a family.  There are also things I would love to change about it. ;) But that doesn't keep it from helping to cultivate our family culture.

What we display, how we order our rooms, where we do lessons -- these all depend on family needs, priorities, and yes, limitations too. Here's a peek at how that combination has worked out in our home and what I hope our ordinary spaces say about our educational philosophy to my kids.

This is our dining room, where we do much of our work.  We also eat all of our meals here, because when you have ten people in your family, you can't get away with just using the eat-in kitchen. ;) The furniture is functional but plain and we have more baby gear around than the average family, but it is tidy and gets beautiful light.  I hope having this space organized and ready for work inspires my children to cultivate their own habit of tidiness and makes them feel calm even when the house is (very) loud around them.

This is a small office we use for overflow schooling: music lessons happen on the opposite wall, and these "desks" are for when a student needs more quiet than the craziness of our home usually allows. Eventually, I'd love to decorate it properly. But I hope the fact that I took the time to carve out this space and have tried to make it uncluttered and useful sets a tone for the work that takes place here.

These are our nature books and seasonal tray, along with a display of my children's artwork.  This is prominent, right at our front entry, and tells people who enter what we value and gives my children pride in what we do. (The stacks on top are waiting to be shelved...when I can find room for them. I know you fellow booklovers can relate!)

Immediately in front of you when you walk into our home, these bookshelves line our downstairs hall and hold religion, adult fiction, and the AO books that aren't currently in use.  I'm partly sharing this because, well, who can resist a shelfie? :)  And partly because I hope they set a certain tone for our home space.  They tell my children: we enjoy quality books, we think they are worth lining our walls with, and if you are looking for a particular title, I probably have it. ;)


And a bonus {From My Commonplace}...

As a mama-example of the Science of Relations, I encountered this quote in my reading from this week that tied right back to the atmosphere discussion as well as to a {From My Commonplace} quote I had in my drafts folder from way back in December.  The perfect time to feature it, despite it being rather unseasonally from A Christmas Carol.  You'll see why in a moment.

From this week's reading from Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth (emphasis mine):

"All through the latter part of the last summer and early fall Per Hansa had done a full man's work plus a bit more; nor had he spared the boys, either. And he had hired a number of men besides. He needed all the help he could get; for there was the new house to build, the crops to be harvested, the fall plowing that must be done, and in addition, all the other work about the farm. But he had gone about his duties in a mood that made any task easy for himself and for those who worked with him."

And from my reading of Dickens' A Christmas Carol a few months ago, in which Scrooge speaks of his early employer:

"He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.  Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune."

These quotes embody a big part of what Charlotte Mason had in mind as the tools of the teacher-mother...

Yes, our children need good habits that enable them to choose the right even when it's not easy (Education is a Discipline).

And they need worthy work that's full of rich ideas, the proper food of the mind (Education is a Life).

But they also need that Atmosphere that makes work seem a joy, that trades difficulty for challenge, that models what virtue is, why we make the choices we do, what we value, how we find delight in the midst of life.

Isn't that what it's all about?  Haven't you experienced this yourself? And if it is true, ought not we to make use of it, for our own sakes and our students'?

(Preaching to myself here today!)


  1. Loved this peek into your home, Celeste. I'm thinking on your commonplace quotes, my Saturday coffee hasn't quite reached my brain cells. ;) I love what you said though and how you tied all these things together. <3 Happy April!

  2. Thanks for these thoughts, Celeste. As I wind down a day that wasn't really full of the kind of atmosphere I want too be in our home, the quote from A Christmas Carol was convicting. I just need the reminder that atmosphere is more about what I say and do, how I respond, than it is about the right books and decor. And I do often respond harshly instead of softly or gently. I respond with demands instead of grace or help. I think my children are against me instead of us being on the same side. I adore to be one kind of mom and so often end up being anything but her. Sigh. Thanks for the reminder about what really creates an inspiring atmosphere.

    1. And excuse the typos. I was on my phone.

    2. I feel the exact same way, Kathy. Atmosphere is the tool of the three that I most struggle with -- and it is the one that is most dependent on the mother. But I figure that my kids see me trying and that has to count for something! Home education (and parenting, really) definitely stretches us -- in good but often painful ways! Praying for you and I hope you'll pray for me also. <3

  3. Wow, this is just a wonderful post!! Really inspiring and gives me a lot to think about and pray about this Holy Week. Thank you Celeste!