Monday, February 24, 2014

The Living Page :: Copybooks

The second chapter of Laurie Bestvater's The Living Page can be broken roughly into three parts: nature journals, copybooks, and history notebooks.  Last week, we talked about nature journals, and today, I'm focusing on that second category: copybooks.

Copybooks for my children:
Most of the suggestions she makes here are for older children--notebooks for keeping snatches of music, lab research, Scripture passages.  I was wowed by the Music Notebook, inspired by the Fortitude Journal, and happy to see a Foreign Language Notebook, which I already keep for us (on Evernote).  But I was most interested in the books geared toward younger learners, and I'm going to highlight those here.

A copybook is essentially a housing place for copywork.  But in calling it copywork, I do not mean for it to seem mundane.  In fact, Miss Mason envisions it as quite an inspiring activity.  As Bestvater explains, the key factor in a copybook is that the Keeper has a connection to the passages selected: "Students would still be instructed by the slow copying of beautiful lines but, characteristic of Mason, the words would be the ones that spoke to their hearts, or at least be words with a context--coming from their readings." (28)

So the child progresses in penmanship from practicing strokes on a chalkboard; then to perhaps individual letters on lined paper; then to working through a sentence slowly, word by word.  And at that point, copybooks can be introduced.  Ms. Bestvater mentions several that might be suitable for this age, for example:

:: A Poetry Book, where the child keeps favorite lines or stanzas: "But a book of their own made up of their own chosen verses, should give them pleasure" (quoting Mason, 29).
:: A Motto Book of favorite literary selections, organized by theme, perhaps choosing one motto for each day of the year: "What an incentive to a good day it would be to read in the morning as a motto of our very own choice and selection" (29).

Our penmanship time currently is divided between printing and cursive.  For the former, my kids tell me what they'd like to use for copywork, and I print a Startwrite page for them with the passage at the top and blank lines underneath.  Once it's completed, it goes into their school pile, which gets sorted at the end of the school year.  For cursive, they're still working on letter formation.  (That photo above shows our currrent copywork layout.)

We'll be sticking to Startwrite pages for beginning cursive, but I think they would love to move on to something more "special" for their printing, and I have a stack of Bare Books that would be the perfect start for such a project.  My only concern is that the permanence of the copybook might create some difficulty.  I have been hesitant because my perfectionist daughter struggles to complete her copywork to her satisfaction (her writing is fine for her age).  The only way she gets through her penmanship calmly right now is by my constantly reminding her it is writing practice--she should try her best, but it isn't always going to be perfect because she's still learning.  If it were in a bound book, I can imagine the frustration that might ensue!  On the other hand, she is the one that is always finding little snatches of poems to fall in love with and repeat to herself for days afterward.  I'm sure she would adore the culling process and having her very own Poetry Book to keep.  So we may continue what we're doing for now and revisit the copybook for next year?  I'll be thinking on this.  (Suggestions welcomed!)

Copybooks for me:
I have already mentioned that I don't think a Nature Journal or Book of Centuries lend themselves to a digital approach, but I think various kinds of copybooks could, depending on how they're conceived of, organized, and managed.  I'm not sure Bestvater would agree, but I'm going to chat about it anyway. ;)

First, I'm going to split up these copybooks into a couple categories.  There are some that I think would quite easily lend themselves to a typed format: a Household Book, a Parent Year-Book, a Travel Diary, a Reading Log.  These are more practical in their purpose.  But she mentions a second category of notebook in which the process of copying is meant to have a meditative effect that is formative to the soul.  Those kinds of notebooks are a far more tenuous match for a digital approach.

I'm going to take the traditional Commonplace Book as an example.  The Commonplace is a collection of quotes culled by the Keeper from her reading and learning.  When working through this section, I looked for what Bestvater noted as the essential aspects of a Commonplace Book and whether an e-Commonplace could meet these standards.

So, from Bestvater's descriptions, we might say that a Commonplace Book should be:

:: Inspiring.  The main goal of a Commonplace is to inspire the learner, and a "habit of noticing passages" around a selected theme or virtue can be "deeply inspiring and formative" (31). Can we notice inspiring quotes through e-Keeping?  Yes, surely.

:: Freely chosen.  The Commonplace Book should always be a collection of what the Keeper wants to include.  To insist otherwise is in direct contradiction to the purpose of the book: "The possibilities for abuse in this idea are apparent; a teacher or parent identifying a character trait a child needs to 'fix' and assigning a notebook on the topic is an impertinent project" (32).  It's not enough that the subject matter is inspiring; it must also be chosen freely, or the effect falls flat no matter how objectively inspiring the content.  Certainly this requirement can be met no matter what the format.

:: Culled from learning.  Bestvater herself notes that Miss Mason's instructions for notebooks were not particularly regimented, "allowing copybook principles to be upheld with creativity and variety.  Mason feels that moral impetus has to come from an idea striking the child and that 'the culling' is the most important and personal feature of the activity." (29)  The ideas should be taken from the context of one's own learning but can take a variety of forms, depending on one's preference.  Might digital culling fall under this category?  I think so.

:: A faithful companion.  The Keeping of a Commonplace is meant to be constant and lifelong, "a daily posture of reception and response" (31).  She calls the Commonplace "a personalized notebook that crossed subjects and was meant to go with them everywhere as a dear companion and a record of their reading/learning" (33).  Can e-notebooks be a daily habit, no matter where or what age we are?  Yes.

:: A form of narration.  Part of a Commonplace's purpose is to remember what we have learned: "We never forget the book that we have made extracts from, and of which we have taken the trouble to write a short review" (33).  And as Bestvater notes, "The practice of noticing and narrating is again more important than the specific notebook chosen" (34).  Can we narrate digitally?  Oral, written, typed--all are sufficient styles of narration.

:: Meditative.  This is where Bestvater is most forceful: "As an idea is spiritual, it needs a place to intersect with the student's own spirit, in this case, in the slowly emerging text of the meditative copy work ... taking time to write by hand slows us down and allows the truth to seep in" (30).

And that's the stickler. :)  She definitely sees the writing process itself as essential to the Keeping of a Commonplace, which comes as no surprise since she hinted as much in the first chapter.  I'll be thinking more about this as we move through the rest of the book, and as a model to my children, I plan to start a physical Commonplace soon.  I'm wondering whether that experience will convince me of writing's meditative effects.  Right now, writing doesn't feel all that meditative to me, perhaps because I often have little hands grabbing at the page. ;)  But I'll be the first to admit that I could use a little "slowing down"!

What did you all think of this chapter?  I thought I might find the discussion of so many different kinds of notebooks to be overwhelming, but I found instead that it inspired me to think creatively and branch out in the kinds of Keeping I have been doing.


  1. Having my own notebooks have been quite inspirational to the students in our school. They see me doing my own entries. Morever, I can refer back to when the Carolina jessamine usually blooms to show how late they are this year. I look up Latin names that I have already recorded. I can tell them when I first saw something they saw on the last walk. Plus, they get a hint that this is not something to abandon with workbooks and worksheets. This is something that can become a part of your life.

    1. Thank you for sharing this! Yes, you're absolutely right. I have had the same experience when it comes to nature journals, so I do want to model other kinds of copybooks both for my own benefit and in the hope that it will be inspiring to my children.

  2. Appreciate your thoughts here, Celeste. A good mix of inspiration & application.

  3. I agree your last point in particular, that the meditative quality of physical commonplacing is the sticking point. I know I can transcribe something onto the computer without even thinking about what I'm typing, but I cannot write something carefully without thinking about it carefully too. I also find my reviewing of my physical record of notable quotes is more rewarding and intellectually stimulating than reading over a digital record. There's something about reading handwritten notes that makes me slow down and think more carefully about what I'm reading.

    1. Yes, even though it doesn't always feel meditative, there is definitely something different about sitting down and writing something out. My Type A personality feels like it's much less efficient--and it is. ;) But efficiency isn't the (main) goal, obviously. I think it goes beyond the physicality of the action (though that's there too, especially in the context of sacramentality and whatnot) and also includes the simple difference that taking extra time to do something suggests that the thing is worth doing and gives it greater value. That's a thought I've been considering since the first chapter, and I think it's worth consideration. And that's a great point about reading things that are handwritten--I hadn't thought about that, but you are right.

  4. This is wonderful! May I ask how you made these?? =)

    1. Hi there -- I printed them using the Startwrite software, which is what I have been using for all our copywork, both cursive and printing.