Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Living Page :: How to Be an "Awakener"

(Today I'm joining the chat about Chapter 4 of Laurie Bestvater's The Living Page.  You can read my thoughts on the first three chapters of this book here.)

At the end of my last post on The Living Page, I said that Bestvater moves from the philosophical to the practical in this next chapter.  And certainly it's true that she provides in this section some helpful suggestions that are both doable and in keeping with the principles she has outlined up to this point in the book.

But what I most appreciated here were the descriptions she has sprinkled throughout about the responsibilities we have as homeschooling mothers.

There's a lot of talk in Charlotte Mason circles about "masterly inactivity."  But I almost always see the term mis-applied to the student and basically defined as the free time a student has to pursue his own interests.  That's not quite what Miss Mason meant.  Pulling from her own words on the topic: 

'Masterly Inactivity.'––A blessed thing in our mental constitution is, that once we receive an idea, it will work itself out, in thought and act, without much after-effort on our part; and, if we admit the idea of 'masterly inactivity' as a factor in education, we shall find ourselves framing our dealings with children from this standpoint, without much conscious effort. But we must get clearly into our heads what we mean by masterly inactivity. ...  Perhaps the idea is nearly that conveyed in Wordsworth's even more happy phrase, 'wise passiveness'. It indicates the power to act, the desire to act, and the insight and self-restraint which forbid action.  (Volume 3, p. 28)

So masterly inactivity is something the teacher does, not the student.  It's a small but important distinction.  The teacher restrains herself and stands aside, letting the child make his own connections, form his own ideas, and progress toward self-education.  Outside of lessons, that means the teacher leaves the child to his own interests and play for part of the day; during lessons, the teacher makes a point of stepping back at times to let the child take possession of the ideas presented for himself.

But we're not just talking about inactivity here.  It's masterly inactivity.  So what about that masterly part?  

Most of us are familiar with the ways in which a teacher in the Charlotte-Mason style is not playing a typically-"masterly" role.  She is not involved in the digestion of ideas; she doesn't do the child's mind-work for him.  She doesn't force connections--she lets the student build his own.  She doesn't coax, cajole, bribe, or use other methods of persuasion or suggestion.  She makes sure to let the child alone when necessary.  She doesn't try to determine and guide every part of the student's learning experience in order to get a particular result.  And so on.

But Miss Mason considers all this to be "masterly" in the sense that the teacher must practice self-control to keep herself from intervening.  But at the same time, she plays an absolutely critical role in the formation of her students in many, many other ways.  In truth, there's quite a lot that the teacher is "master" of in a Charlotte Mason-style of learning beyond her own desire to act.  Her role is much more subtle than we have come to expect from traditional education, but it's not any less crucial nor any less encompassing.

Throughout this section, Bestvater gives us glimpses at this nuanced, varied, mostly invisible (yet undeniably important!) role of the teacher in Charlotte Mason's educational approach.  I want to pull all those glimpses together, organize them, and consider how we might put them into practice in our homes--and not just with our students.


So what responsibilities does a teacher have in a Charlotte Mason education?

:: Understanding the principles that inform our practice.

This has been the thrust of Bestvater's book all along, so it's no surprise that she includes this as one of our first responsibilities.  Anyone can adopt Miss Mason's methods, and sometimes to good effect.  But without at least a basic understanding of the whys behind this approach, the methods fall flat.  They may have piecemeal success but they likely will not form the kind of learners over time and across subjects in the way we are hoping.  

As Miss Mason describes it, we need to approach this kind of education not as a system, but as a method--and the key to a method is the principles that govern it.  Bestvater here suggests that if one doesn't understand the principles, one should perhaps slow down on the how and take that time needed to understand the why:  "If our besetting question is, 'how do I do this? we may need to pause a while ... We may need to review Mason's unhurried rhythms to adjust our pace before considering the practical out-workings I have attempted to gather from her writings and lay out in this chapter." (70)

So first things first: make ourselves "familiar with the parameters and genius of each venue" before we try to adjust those "venues" for our own needs (70) .  I can't imagine that we must understand the principles completely before we even begin; we are constantly learning, after all, and experience helps along that learning experience.  But at the same time, we don't want to get so caught up in putting all the ideas into practice that we forget what the ideas were in the first place.

:: Adjusting our expectations to match our principles.

Part of understanding Miss Mason's principles is making sure we're not falling into the expectations of traditional schooling.  Bestvater directs these comments at schoolteachers, suggesting how they might handle parents at their schools who might not be used to the way a Mason education works.  But I think this is also relevant to us homeschoolers, even those of us who are Charlotte Mason devotees.  Although we might understand and embrace the principles of a Charlotte Mason education, we might not have fully reformed the expectations that we (consciously or unconsciously) bring with us to this homeschooling journey.  Sometimes those expectations are just natural inclinations; sometimes they stem from our personality or parenting style; sometimes they're left over from the traditional schooling we went through as children.

These expectations might show up in many different ways.  For instance:

We might get so caught up in the idea of "perfect execution" that we forget that we should "hold that expectation with good humor, in tension with the fact that the children's abilities will continue to improve" (70).

We might have our eyes on the beautiful Keeping we hope our child will embrace, forgetting that our "child's notebooks are not primarily products or even mainly for the display of the student's learning" (70) and as such, may not meet our vision of what a notebook "should" look like.

We might forget that the most important response a student can have to a text is to "allow personality to work on what has been taken in" (72) and that the product such a convergence produces might not be  "particularly attractive in itself" but is nevertheless "indicative of a great mental effort" (71).

We might be in a hurry to see our work bear fruit, and "in our eagerness for the beauty we see revealed in Mason's view of education, we can forget that many of these layers are built up over years, not weeks or months" (80).

We might not be tempted to intervene when we don't see the tangible results we're looking for, when instead we should consider Bestvater's advice: "We look for ways to scaffold and are patient.  We let the children do their rightful and meaningful work" (70).

We need to trust that the "work" is happening even when the results aren't quite what we expected.  We need to back away from needing proof of learning, whether for our own satisfaction, or to show family and friends, or to meet state requirements, or to excel at testing.  Part of being a Charlotte Mason parent-teacher is coming to terms with a method of schooling that produces different kinds of results than what we're used to or what our friends' kids might be bringing home.  That may mean that we need to reconsider our own habits and desires to see if they are in line that the principles we claim to practice.

:: Using discretion and creativity to curate the feast.

The teacher who understands Miss Mason's educational principles and has the proper expectations of her students is then free to adapt the particularities of the feast to suit both her own tastes and the needs of her students.  Indeed, she is encouraged to make what decisions she deems suitable--and there will be a lot of them.  I definitely don't mean you need to create an individually-tailored booklist for each child or DIY your own Charlotte Mason curriculum (though you could if you wanted to).  But even if you use a booklist nearly or completely as-written (as I do with Ambleside Online), there are still plenty of decisions that the teacher must make, relying on her own "discretion and creativity."  As Bestvater puts it: 
We follow the spirit of the law and not the letter; maps, narrations, math tests--there is no perfect way to order it all, no Mason 'system.'  We are after the 'suitable, 'tasteful' solution to 'good effect' all the while keeping the particular notebook and principles of her pedagogy in mind ... We can be flexible and creative.  Once the principles and options are understood, variations and adaptations are not only possible but desirable in the face of individual needs. (82-3)
We should consider thoughtfully how we design and approach the teaching of each subject.  In the case of narrations, that means "looking over the day's work to see where certain kinds of narrations suggest themselves ... balancing the written, drawn, sung, painted, acted, etc" (70).  And in the case of Keeping, Bestvater tells us: "By now it will be apparent that there are few hard and fast rules about using most of Miss Mason's notebooks.  We survey the possibilities, watch for the student's spark of connection, and use our discretion and creativity to suggest a 'form'" (80).  She adds later, "when to add a notebook and how to organize student work must still be organic to the school, teacher, and student.  Personality is involved." (82).

It goes back to the forms of vitality discussion from last week but on a different level.  Just as the notebook gives form to the student's ideas and education (the vitality), Miss Mason's methods and principles give form to the personality, creativity, and discernment of the teacher (the vitality).

:: Providing support for self-activity.

The more hands-on part of our teaching role is supporting our students.  Our goal in the end is self-education; our goal along the way is self-education too.  But ironically, self-education doesn't necessarily happen without preparation and scaffolding from the teacher, at least at the beginning.  That includes cultivating the proper atmosphere, building good habits, providing physical and emotional support, and so much more.  As always, though, the level of our "support" is in keeping with Miss Mason's principles.  It not only respects the child by refusing to overstep boundaries but also respects the child by giving him the support he needs to succeed.

I'll use the Nature Notebook as an example of how we might hit that properly-balanced level of support, quoting copiously from Bestvater's suggestions:

When the habit of nature journaling is first introduced, "the teacher can give a little of the rationale for the book or introduce its use in an interesting way ... [and] let the children in first form know they are embarking on a school-wide, cherished tradition in keeping a Calendar of Firsts or that their Nature Notebook will be with them, hopefully all their lives" (77).  The teacher takes care in "choosing paper that answers both for writing and brush drawing" and "each student should ideally have his own notebooks and supplies" (73).  And more: "The wise teacher will give various supports so that a child is not frustrated by an expectation beyond his ability; he is assigned only that which he is fully able to do" (76).  The teacher provides the materials, lines out the expectations, and builds interest.

Early lessons in nature Keeping should involve how to use the paints properly, not because a perfect product is expected but because our goal is to set the student up for success: 
"Watching a seventh grader who had obviously never held a paintbrush struggle with a dry brush painting in his new nature notebook showed his teacher that all that paint mixing and big brush work at the easel in the early years has its place, is actually a way of showing respect to a child, as it would eventually enable him to be at home with his old friend the paintbrush." (77) 
So at the beginning, "instruction about dry brush technique, positioning the specimen on the page, observing quietly and carefully before starting will be part of all early lessons with a goal of independence."  And  "the teacher will help the students create life lists and calendars of sightings in the back of the book, students and teachers agreeing on a format that is simple and useful" (80).  At this stage, the methods and habits are taught, but still, the content is always the student's.

As the student grows in his notebooking, "the teacher respects her students by recalling how to proceed before the notebooks are opened" each day.  She also makes sure to give "enough time for an activity; frustration ensues when beginning a dry brush drawing that one cannot finish because the bus is here" (77).  And farther down the road, "The teacher will also work to transition the child from being asked if there is anything he wants to include in his Commonplace to handing over responsibility for its use to the student" (79).

In short, it is the teacher's role to "intuit the right level of support and encouragement for each child's best discovery and growth" (69) and to create "a place that preserves a pace and structure for mindfulness and human flourishing" (75).  We want to build friendships between our students and their work.  Part of helping someone build a friendship is making proper introductions, and part is nourishing the habits that will make that friendship grow.  It's a critical role indeed--and even more than that, a sensitive one: "In these simple and unassuming ways, the teacher can introduce and create the means for the budding friendship or conversely create a distaste or aversion with rigid remarks or disapproval" (77).

:: Being a co-learner.

In addition to helping the student form friendships, we as teachers should be cultivating friendships ourselves.  This is another way in which Charlotte Mason's methods diverge from traditional thought.  We as parent-teachers are responsible for our own paper postures, "mother culture," and so on.  In the case of Keeping, this means making at least the three main notebooks part of our routine:  "The teacher in a Mason learning community is a co-learner, and it is very helpful for a teacher to model to his students (and parents) that his own learning also includes some comfortable notebook friends" (72).  

But the goal isn't just to model good educational practices for our students--at the same time, we're also being formed by those practices ourselves.  And actually, the two goals build on each other: "materials have the most influence on learning when they are used together with another human.  More than just together with, children learn best when an adult interacts in the process of using materials and when learning takes place as a social or collaborative process" (72, Lewin-Benham quoted in Bestvater).

Through setting ourselves up as co-learners, we are showing our students how learning happens and we are learning as we do it--the best of both worlds!

:: Assessing and responding.  

As a child moves toward self-activity, we teachers have a new role to play.  Our "creativity and discretion" aren't limited to curating the feast; we should also be constantly re-considering the needs of our students, marking their struggles and successes, assessing where we might support them better and where we might move them further toward independence, and responding to their work and ideas.  

I have always thought of end-of-term exams as my main mode of assessment, but Bestvater is talking about more immediate feedback--you see an issue one day, you're able to address it the very next.  In this way, Keeping provides a special opportunity:
In observing the child's connections to the material unfold with the notebook, the teacher quickly knows how to adjust the next day's lesson, provide a visual aid, have a weaker child narrate a shorter passage, or go more deeply into an unexpected area of interest.  This is feedback at its most immediate and effective, largely eliminating the need for disembodied and tiresome tests and quizzes. (84)  
They provide an chance to check in with a student, see where he's struggling, see where "targeted interventions" might help.  In this way, a notebook is a powerful tool indeed.

And beyond responding by providing support and scaffolding for areas of difficulty, we can also literally respond, interacting with our students in a mind-to-mind way.  As Bestvater says, "We don't want students to depend on our approval but we do want to share the experience with them" (84).  We're not talking about marking with grades or corrections; rather, we might note alongside their writing our own "genuine thoughts on the Great Conversation represented in the student's book," "the occasional respectful comment," and thoughtful questions that will encourage each child "individually to stretch just a little above his level" (84-85).


So looking back over those categories, one might say that:

Before we begin educating,
we work to understand Miss Mason's principles,
we adjust our expectations to match those principles,
and we then use discretion and creativity to curate a feast for our student.

And as we educate,
we provide support for our student's self-activity,
we act as a co-learner,
and we assess and respond to their learning.

But of course, one of the lovely things about a Charlotte Mason method of education is that it's organic.  These steps don't happen in a vacuum.  Personality is at play.  Connections and ideas form and reform.  Real mind-work is happening, all the time.  We don't put the student into our educational machine (even one with a CM-friendly booklist!) and expect a particular result to pop out at the end.  Yes, we need to learn the "fine art of standing aside."  But our role is not a hands-off one, even during those times that we are "inactive," and we're responsible for actively teaching as well.  So we continue to learn more about Miss Mason's principles while we provide support to our students.  We adjust our expectations as we assess our students' work and learn alongside them.  These steps all build on each other, and as we move along this homeschooling journey, we become better, wiser, more thoughtful teachers.


And to go on a bit of a side note before I close, I'm struck by how so many of these habits would serve us in other areas of our lives.  I'm not suggesting, of course, that we treat our husbands, families, or friends as our students/children. ;)  

But, for example, what if we more often:
:: discerned whether "standing aside" might be the best approach with a tricky family situation rather than immediately jumping in to intervene?
:: used our creativity to troubleshoot a problem in our home routine?
:: were patient with ourselves in what we're able to accomplish, trusting that our own progress will occur at the right time and rate?
:: encouraged our husband in his individual progress without comparing him to others?
:: realized that the process of learning and growing can look quite messy from the outside?
:: assessed regularly our relationship with each of our children, introducing targeted interventions as necessary?
:: approached our husband as a co-learner, even in areas about which we might know more?
:: scaffolded our children's chore training, providing the training and materials needed to set them up for success?
:: asked thoughtful questions and responded with genuine interest when someone shares their thoughts with us?
:: allowed respect for the personhood of each member of our family to govern our interactions?

What our role comes down to as a Charlotte Mason teacher is mindful, careful, thoughtful interaction with our students--and our role as a wife, mother, and friend is much the same.  So I think there is definitely something to be gained from approaching all our relationships in this spirit.  

Knowing when to let alone, when to adapt, when to be honest, I often don't have the wisdom to make those kinds of decisions.  But the Holy Ghost does, and he has put me in this place at this time in relationship with these people.  With His guidance, along with experience, continued learning, and my own faithfulness, I can be the kind of "awakener" that I long to be for my children.


  1. I was struck by my role as a parent/educator in this section too. I've struggled with what to say about it, groping about to figure out how to frame the quotes that jumped out at me, particularly in the midsts of returning to everyday life after our trip and Holy Week.

    One of the things I've really noticed is that when we are doing more out of the house, it becomes much harder for to model these habits of notebooking and attentiveness and it makes me much more likely to give my oldest (my 12 yo) a checklist and walk away - then get disappointed and/or frustrated when she's not using the tools adequately. But I'm not giving her a fair chance or a good environment to do this sort of work.

    And can I just say how hard it is to do this sort of education when no one else around you is doing it? I know this is better, but yet I have such a hard time maintaining a clarity of vision in the thick of things. It is so easy to get over committed, to feel like I need to over-teach or make the connections for the child or to add in unnecessary materials out of anxiety or because other people around me are using them.

    1. Yes to everything! :) The way you described your interaction with your daughter is a trap I fall into my older two, even though they're only 7yo! They are advanced in many ways, and that often means that my preparation of the environment and tools is the first thing to go when I'm busy--I always think "they can handle it." But that's just a swaying from one end of the educational pendulum to the other; yes, we want to work toward independence where we can and refrain from over-teaching, but no, it is not fair to have overly-high expectations that set our students (and ourselves as teachers) up as failures. This chapter gave me a good idea of what that balance between the two extremes might look like, and I'm really taking it all to heart as I plan for next fall. I see a lot of ways in which I can be a more effective teacher to my kids.

    2. I'm really trying to take it to heart too - and also trying not to self-flagellate too much. Apparently there's a lot that I think I needed to learn the hard way. All in all, I'm fairly content with where my children's education has gotten us so far, but I can see now that if I had been more dedicated to core ideas and practices we'd be in an even better place. But I still have a lot of time to get better at this, and I'm trying to keep that in the front of my mind... trying to look forward much more than looking back.

    3. I know, Amber, just think--like mine, most of your kids haven't even started schooling yet! I feel really blessed to be learning all of this, at this time, when I have so much time left to apply it. And I think our oldest kids will always be guinea pigs, no matter how prepared we are. ;)