Friday, February 16, 2018

CM West :: Conference in Old San Juan {Recap}

It's time for a recap of our annual retreat here in Northern California, which just took place last weekend!  

This year, we held it at a retreat center nestled in the foothills just oustide beautiful San Juan Bautista, so we called it Conference in Old San Juan. (Last year we were in the Redwoods.)

A big group of us, however, met up beforehand for an optional pre-conference tour of the Mission, which was just a couple miles away from the conference site.

It was a hot day but the Mission was so nice and cool, and it was a great way to ease into a fun, full weekend.

A highlight from the mission visit for me was a small collection of watercolors they currently have on display. They were done by a local woman who passed away not too long ago. She was a hobbyist-artist and loved the missions, and her husband and children gifted the mission with her work to share with the community. Her paintings were wonderfully genuine. I found it so inspiring for my own work as a mama-amateur.

We then headed over to the retreat site for our arrival time activities: registration, a used book sale, and a resource fair.

Once again, Amber Vanderpol and I hosted and organized, and we were joined by this year's other speakers: Jessica Severne, Virginia Lee Rogers, and Matt Vanderpol. We had 51 people total (sold out!), and our event lasted from Thursday afternoon through Saturday at lunch.

After dinner, we started with the first of our talks: Amber spoke on "The Gift of a Mason Education." This was about the gift to the mother -- Mother Culture, our self-education. She talked about Mother Culture being about reading, keeping, doing, and sharing. Those categories were such a useful way of considering the way I allocate my time. I also felt like it started off the conference on the right foot: inspiring us to take our own education seriously, build in moments of reflection, of doing and sharing.

And then it was time for folk dancing! :) This was totally optional, but I think all the moms that chose to jump in would agree that it was super fun. Jessica, who leads Charlotte Mason Redding, does folk dancing with her co-op, and she and her daughter taught us the dance they were currently working on: Jenny Pluck Pears. This was taken from a book used by the PNEU and I'm eager to try it with my kids.

The next morning I woke up early and took a walk with Virginia Lee to find samples for her object lesson that afternoon.  We were treated to a lovely sunrise, and I was treated to her hilarious enthusiasm over our natural landscape. It is always fun to explore with someone new to the area.

After breakfast, we began with music (we had a piano on site this year, so alternated between folk song and hymn, played by gals from Charlotte Mason Redding). Then I got to share about notebooks, one of my favorite topics -- as anyone who reads my blog knows!

Then, Amber and I did an immersion/activity session tied to our talks until lunch. Each of our talks this year had a hands-on session associated with it afterward, which both allowed us both to build more rest into the schedule and consider what we had learned by narrating/practicing/experiencing.

First, a group drawn narration of a painting (keeping + Mother Culture!).  This was something I had read about in a Parents' Review article and it was a great way to mix up picture study.  And Amber selected the perfect artwork as well: a seaside landscape of our very own Monterey by a female artist mostly painting in the first half of the 1900s: E. Charlton Fortune.  There is an exhibit of her paintings right now at the Crocker Museum in Sacramento, and in the summer it will be at the Monterey Museum of Art -- which means that many of us at the conference will have the chance to see her work in person.

Then we passed out blank notebooks and a little hand-drawn guide I made for how to turn it into all sorts of different notebooks: a Book of Firsts, a collection of Century Charts, a nature journal, etc. My goal during this exercise was to make it clear that postures, principles, practices matter more than materials. A simple blank notebook can be anything you want it to be!  We also had a whole selection of markers, pens, lettering guides, and such to experiment with or to use in starting the notebook right then and there.

And last, we had a big display of notebooks set out, organized by subject. I was thrilled to see all the variety of age and ability -- and yet the meaty work that is obviously being done in these homes!

At lunch, we held what we called a Mealtime Mentoring session. We asked moms to sign up in advance to sit out one of three tables: Considering Language Arts, Managing Multiple Grades, or Getting Started with Charlotte Mason. Each of these tables was led by an experienced mom to guide discussion and help answer questions.  This was a new addition to our schedule this year and I enjoyed being able to focus on a specific topic.

Friday afternoon was all about the outdoors!  Virginia Lee did a wonderful talk on nature study: walks, object lessons, and our posture as mother-educators in investing in our children's relationship with Creation. Lots of quotes from Mason and the Parents Review for us to think through.

Then Matt Vanderpol gave us a fascinating look at how Mason incorporated scouting into her educational scheme and how we might do so with our own kids. His suggestions were doable even for those of us clueless about kind of thing. ;) And I was so struck by the parallels in intellectual and physical habits that nature study and scouting aim to build in students. (That wasn't something we anticipated when we paired these talks!)

After a break and snack, it was time to head outside to see the lessons in action! We did a rotation of three activities in small groups:

(1) An object lesson led by Virginia Lee on one of my favorite local trees, the horse chestnut. She made using the Handbook of Nature Study seem simple and doable. She is also a wealth of down-to-earth, no-nonsense, realistic encouragement.

 (2) A mapping exercise with Matt. He taught us how to orient a topographical map using a compass and read it to get to know your local landscape. He actually had a zoomed-in topo map of the retreat center to work with, which was so cool! I have plans now to buy a map of our favorite county parks to use with the kids in our nature study group.

(3) A nature walk around the pond. I wrangled my local friends into leading small groups. Lots of our plants are just starting to burst into bloom and releafing, so it is a great time of year to just walk and explore.

Did I mention that this whole weekend had absolutely perfect weather? Sunny and in the 70s. The retreat center grounds were extensive and beautiful, and that was a big highlight for me on this trip. It would have been such a shame if it had been raining. (Remember last year?!)  So we really tried to take advantage of the outdoor space since we could.  We got back just before sunset and headed straight into dinner.

We kept the evening simple with casual chats on the presentation topics from that day: Keeping, Scouting, and Nature Study. This took the place of Q+A during the talks -- we just slotted in this evening Q+A time.  I had an hours-long conversation about keeping with a bunch of mamas. We got out watercolors, we looked through samples, discussed common was a great time.

On Saturday morning, we arranged an optional hike for before breakfast. I was out early to see the sun rise again, and then we did a short climb into the foothills and back down.  We saw some of the early bloomers of the area: wild cucumber, shepherd's purse, shepherd's needle, miner's lettuce...

After breakfast, some of the group went to journal by the pond, and the rest spent time on the patio, paper cutting, commonplacing, or painting in the sunshine.

In our last session, Jessica Severne guided us through an exploration of how ideas inspire Mason's approach to every subject of the curriculum.  We read literature under the trees, we listened to Bach, we did math problems... :)  Such a hopeful, vision-casting final note.

And then it was time to pack up and head home!

I'm grateful that these ladies (and Matt! and all the babies!) came to join us. I think I had a chance to sit down and chat with almost everyone, which is why I love this size of event.  I have enjoyed looking through the #conferenceinoldsanjuan tag on Instagram and seeing the lovely moments and takeaways people have shared. Amber and I are already brainstorming for next year!


  1. I'm so grateful to have attended this & meet you in person. My soul was fed in a way I've never had at any other conference! Thank you (& Amber & all the speakers) for organizing it! I'm excited for next year!

    1. I am so glad you came, Heather. There are so few mamas of THAT many that I know (my friends usually top out at seven kids LOL), and it's lovely to have that connection with someone. <3

  2. How beautiful! And how I miss the California Missions. I wish I could go back.

    1. Perhaps you can join us next year, Eva! :)

    2. Well, I think I will be in Europe then . . .

  3. Such a blessing; the women, the ideas, the mother cultue, the setting. So glad it's every year.

    1. So agree, VL. I always get so much more back from the other mamas than I give!

  4. Hi Celeste, would you be willing to share the hand drawn guide you created on how to turn blank notebooks into all the various iterations that Charlotte Mason mentioned? This is something that has always overwhelmed me. I'm just not clear on what is supposed to go in which notebook and some idea of how to utilize each one would be so helpful. Thank you.