Charlotte Mason always gives us a gentle way to handle our home learning quandaries- and, for that matter, our life. Sometimes it takes thought, time and stretching to find, but it is there if we interrupt our habits, cease our incessant march, and get outside our normal box to bring in fresh Living Ideas.
One quandary in our day that needed a Living solution had been occurring during one of my children’s reading lessons. This had reached the point of becoming an irritation because I felt boxed in. Boxed in to old habits of dealing with the issue, boxed in to old ways of thinking. There seemed no other way to deal with it, other than for me to either grin-and-bear-it or become irritated to the point of being upset which would thus bring about the desired change.
The situation was this: My child was scheduled for a 10 minute reading lesson. The purpose of this lesson was to strengthen reading skills, so the child would read aloud and I would follow along helping as needed. As the lesson time began, it never failed that when the timer was set, the book would fall off the child’s lap, or a fly would buzz by, or a gigantic itch would surface, or a pencil would roll off the table, or the child would fall off the chair…. or… you name it. Day after day, lesson time after lesson time this circus occurred. For one of us, the grin-and-bear-it period was losing its luster, and this was quickly becoming an irritation; the other of us was quite oblivious.
One might advise at this point to remove the distractions. But I didn’t even try, because it is impossible. If I take away the pencil or the bookmark, there is always the chair that slips out from under us, or the sibling that runs through the room, or the phone that rings, or the…. or the….
“…who is to keep humming-tops out of a geography lesson, or a doll’s sofa out of a French verb? Here is the secret of the weariness of the home schoolroom––the children are thinking all the time about something else than their lessons; or rather, they are at the mercy of the thousand fancies that flit through their brains, each in the train of the last. “Oh, Miss Smith,” said a little girl to her governess, “there are so many things more interesting than lessons to think about!”
Where is the harm? In this: not merely that the children are wasting time, though that is a pity; but that they are forming a desultory habit of mind, and reducing their own capacity for mental effort.” Home Education Volume 1 p.139
Isn’t it encouraging to know Charlotte Mason experienced situations similar to mine!? So somewhere Charlotte must address it. There must be a Charlotte Mason way to solve this. But what has she said? Unfortunately, after this quote she doesn’t give a step by step solution to the spinning top. She heads back to the infants nursery and in her usual way gives us her wide, long term outlook. But I needed some practical, hands-on help for today.
I have found when there is a problem during our home learning, there a few questions to ask before changing course or becoming irritated.
-First, ask, Are my requirements reasonable?
“Again, the lessons are short, seldom more than twenty minutes in length for children under eight;” Home Education Volume 1 p.142
We met this guideline, even being under-achievers according to the time standard. And I know this child is fully capable of 10 minutes of focused attention, having had the gleanings of older siblings learning in a CM home and my understanding and application of Charlotte Mason for the child’s early years. The question was not whether the child had built up enough attention muscle from his prior years to accomplish this, but whether we were having a lapse in habits- the habit of attention.
-Second, ask, Am I implementing the CM method incorrectly?
There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with my method. Reading along side a budding reader seems to follow a CM path, though I’m not sure I’ve read those specific directions anywhere. The lesson was attractive as it could be. The book chosen was at the child’s capability level, and while not riveting, was a good classic. The short 10 minute lessons were varied as much as I could manage, not perfectly, but it is always at the forefront of my mind to try to vary them.
“In every case the reading should be consecutive from a well-chosen book.” Home Education Volume 1 p.232
“… and if the lessons be judiciously alternated—sums first, say, while the brain is quite fresh; then writing, or reading—some more or less mechanical exercise, by way of a rest; and so on, the programme varying a little from day to day, but the same principle throughout—a ‘thinking’ lesson first, and a ‘painstaking’ lesson to follow,—the child gets through his morning lessons without any sign of weariness.” Home Education Volume 1 p.142
-Third, ask, How can I approach this differently?
There’s a lot of room for thought and creativity here. But we must always start with the foundation of Charlotte’s educational paradigm. Our foremost thought must be, as Charlotte Mason tells us, not to Offend, Despise, or Hinder our children. She draws this from the Holy Scriptures and uses it to form her philosophy of education. She explains it at some length in Home Education Volume 1 on pages 12-20. It didn’t take much thought to know irritation and where it will lead, is not part of a Charlotte Mason Education solution.
So then one looks to the flip side, which is what I had been doing. Patiently, sitting, smiling, waiting for the pencils to be found, for the fly to leave, to get back on our chair; wait till we were quiet and settled to begin the lesson again…and again… and again. I assumed if I wasn’t upset I wasn’t Offending, Despising or Hindering. I assumed patiently smiling no matter what the child did during the lesson, was following Charlotte’s code of education.
But upon closer examination of the pages on Offending, Despising, and Hindering one finds:
“Parents may Offend their Children by Disregarding the Laws of Heath.—…And of the Intellectual Life.—
Through ignorance, or willfulness, which is worse, she may not only allow wrong in him, but do wrong by him. She may cast a stumbling-block in the way of his physical life by giving him unwholesome food…
Almost as bad is the way the child’s intellectual life may be wrecked at its outset by a round of dreary, dawdling lessons in which definite progress is the last thing made or expected…” Home Education Volume 1 p.16
“The Teacher’s part is, in the first place, to see what is to be done, to look over the work of the day in advance and see what mental discipline, as well as what vital knowledge, this and that lesson afford; and then to set such questions and such tasks as shall give full scope to his pupil’s mental activity.” School Education Volume 3 pp.180-181
Dawdling, lack of progress, and not reaching full potential in our mental capacity would certainly describe these reading lessons and my permissiveness in allowing it. Clearly, in order to follow a Charlotte Mason Education a change was needed.
But how to change without swaying into the other extreme of Offending the child?
Of course, Charlotte does not leave us high and dry. She gives us a path, if we will look for it. My thoughts kept coming to this quote as I pondered a solution.
“Time-table; Definite Work in a Given Time.—I shall have opportunities to enter into some of these points later; meantime, let us look in at a home schoolroom managed upon sound principles. In the first place, there is a time-table, written out fairly, so that the child knows what he has to do and how long each lesson is to last. This idea of definite work to be finished in a given time is valuable to the child, not only as training him in habits of order, but in diligence; he learns that one time is not ‘as good as another’: that there is no right time left for what is not done in its own time; and this knowledge alone does a great deal to secure the child’s attention to his work. Again, the lessons are short, seldom more than twenty minutes in length for children under eight; and this, for two or three reasons. The sense that there is not much time for his sums or his reading, keeps the child’s wits on the alert and helps to fix his attention; he has time to learn just so much of any one subject as it is good for him to take in at once…” Home Education Volume 1 p.142
Time is the theme that keeps reoccurring. Definite work- definite time.
Charlotte’s answer to the spinning top during geography and the doll’s sofa during the French lesson is to train the attention. It is not in telling the child what to do, or making the child sit still and read. It is training attention to keep thoughts from wandering.
“The help, then, is not the will of the child but in the habit of attention. “ Home Education Volume 1 p.139
But how would the child get this sense that there is limited time? How could I impress that there is definite work for definite time? Was it my job to ‘impress’ in the first place? (Hint: no) Would this help to fix his attention?
Here is the plan I devised for the next reading lesson and the ones to follow:
A place to sit next to each other.
A real clock with real time.
A dummy clock with moveable hands not keeping time.
A digital timer with an audible beep.
A Living Book.
Beginning the lesson:
We sat at the table next to each other.
I pointed out that this lesson was for 10 minutes.
We looked at the clock and noted the current time.
We noted what time this lesson would finish – 10 minutes from the current time.
I moved the dummy clock hands to show the finish time.
I set the digital timer for 10 minutes.
I told the child because we needed to read for 10 full minutes, if we needed to stop reading, I would just stop the timer clock till we were ready to get back to the reading- in a casual way – one short, neutral sentence.
Here is how the lesson went:
When child started reading, the digital timer started.
Woops – pencil on the floor.
Child stops reading.
Timer stops with one audible beep while child retrieves pencil.
Mother~teacher remain quiet.
Child back on chair.
Woops- chair cushion is sliding, child slumps to the side of the chair, and loses place in book.
Child stops reading.
Timer stops with one audible beep while the child finds place in book.
Mother~teacher remain quiet.
Phone rings- who is that?
Child stops reading.
Timer stops with one audible beep while child finds place in book.
Mother~teacher remain quiet.
At the end of the lesson when the digital time is up, we checked the dummy clock’s time against the real clock’s time. We found that we missed the dummy clock’s set end time by 6 minutes.
End of discussion.
End of lesson.
Lesson on the next day= Same procedure.
It took 3-4 days for this to take monumental effect. The child easily picked up on the fact that they were reading for a longer time than was scheduled due to all the stops during the lesson. The diversions stopped miraculously.
I continued the procedure for about 2 weeks to strengthen attention.
I continue to use the digital timer, because that’s what we do for all lessons to keep us on schedule as much as possible.
Every once in a while I add in the dummy clock for a subtle reminder especially after we’ve had a break or even on Mondays. I don’t call attention to its use. I use it in a casual way.
Now, overall, clocks and keeping track of time, other than for staying on schedule, are not needed. The child is happy because they are putting in their 10 minutes and no more. Mom is happy because the child is putting in their 10 minutes and no less.
“Definite work, Definite Time.”