A New Relationship With Learning: Charlotte Mason & Heart of Wisdom

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After completing a fairly successful “warm-up to school” agenda the week of Sept. 12, my girls and I were ready to dive into our new curriculum from Heart of Wisdom the very next week.

But before I go on, let me back up for a minute and explain what Heart of Wisdom is — from my point of view. The more I interact with the Heart of Wisdom curriculum, I’m learning that it isn’t really curriculum in the traditional sense. When you hear the word “curriculum,” you imagine a package of books — textbooks, workbooks, and/or “living” books — accompanied by a lesson plan or guide on how to use them in a traditional school year. What I purchased from Heart of Wisdom is a really well fleshed-out lesson plan —787 pages, to be exact, comprising seven chronological unit studies — that provide a road map for a year-long learning journey. The journey starts with the Bible as the foundation and extends out into your traditional subjects (like history and science) and utilizes your core skills (like reading and writing) along the way.

A page from my Heart of Wisdom lesson plan binder from our Ancient History Unit Study.

Heart of Wisdom also provides a large menu of resources to pick and choose from to supplement each lesson and allow you to take various side trips in your journey. The menu includes quite a variety of books (mostly in the living books category), Internet tools and videos, DVDs, etc., that can all be purchased, borrowed, checked-out from the library, or are freely available online. This gives you the freedom to use what’s easily available to you, what fits in best with your personal teaching approach, what resonates with your kids’ learning styles, and what captures your family’s attention most. This feature was one of my favorite components of the Heart of Wisdom plan: I love options, I love changing it up, and I love saving money!

Now that you have a general idea of what Heart of Wisdom looks like, I’ll tell you what we experienced — and what I learned — during our first week of using it.

From the beginning, I was impressed and excited to use Robin’s suggested daily lesson plans, because they were very thorough and well-designed — but also provided a lot of variety and options for the girls to interact with the information in ways that best suited their learning styles. Drawing from a Charlotte Mason teaching philosophy, author Robin Sampson’s lessons provide a four-step approach:

  • Excite — Create an interest
  • Examine — Find out the facts
  • Expand — Do something with what was learned
  • Excel — Pull everything together and share with someone

When I first read about this four-step method in Robin’s book, The Heart of Wisdom Teaching Approach, I couldn’t wait to put it into practice. I imagined how this would meet some of last year’s toughest challenges head on. No more dazed and confused looks during my “lectures” — because this time, they’d be engaged in the topic before our lessons, and the lectures would be shorter. No more doodling distractions taking place on the side while the girls were supposed to be filling in worksheets — because this time there would be no worksheets, but narration and a variety of engaging follow-up activities to accompany the lessons. No more “do I have to?” protests to the assignments that were suggested in our previous curriculum — because this time they’d have a list of optional activities and could choose an “excel” assignment that fit their style. Problems solved, right?

An example of an “expand” activity for our Mesopotamia lesson.

Oh, if it were only that easy! Although the girls really enjoyed our “excite” activities before each lesson, they still drifted away from me during the short lecture portions of our day — even though they were a lot shorter than last year. Although the “expand” projects were much more interactive and interesting than a fill-in-the-blanks review sheet, I still caught my girls playing side games with each other or working on totally different projects. (Example: One was gluing white crayon shavings onto a snow landscape drawn on the back of an index card, while the other was cutting “fringe” into the sides of some bible verse memory cards.)

And of course, the dreaded  “do I have to?” objection was raised a few times. In fact, at one point during a non-optional activity, the protest turned into an outright “I don’t want to!” boycott. My gut reaction was to squelch this uprising with a simple response: “That’s too bad,  but you don’t have a choice with this one.” Received with a pout and shrug, the fight was over for the time being.

I can put up with a little bit of sulking every now and then — in fact, I expect it. One of the “joys” of being a teaching mother is that your kids often respond to you like children, not students. But I found myself becoming quickly frustrated when a few more objections were raised throughout the week. What was I doing wrong? Did I not understand how to use the four “E’s” approach? Are my girls just going through a phase?

I decided to take my questions into the social media cloud and ask my Facebook friends for advice. (And by the way, I do have a lot of homeschooling friends on Facebook, so this wasn’t a bad idea!) I received lots of great responses. Although a few were ideas on how to address the assignment objections specifically, most revolved around the idea that dealing with school objections isn’t very different from dealing with parenting objections. In life, there isn’t always a “fun” substitute for work — no matter what the work is.

“I try to make assignments enjoyable but sometimes that just isn’t possible,” my sister-in-law Rosanna Ward posted. “You just gotta get it done.”

Another friend added: “I just tell him that in life, there are always going to be things we don’t like to do, we just HAVE to do them, and the end result is always worth it.”

Many similar comments followed. I was very grateful for the feedback, as well as the confirmation that this wasn’t entirely a teaching approach issue, but a teaching your kids issue. However, before I decided to let it go and simply try again this week, I remembered a book I just picked up at the library — a Charlotte Mason Companion book called “Personal Reflections on the Gentle Art of Learning” by Karen Andreola. So I crawled into my armchair and started reading.

Educator and Author Charlotte Mason (1842-1923)

One of the first lines that jumped out at me was a quote from Charlotte Mason herself: “Education is a science of relations.” It was an “ah-ha!” moment that seemed to address the heart of my frustrations. For whatever reason, those six words dispelled the bit of fog that was lingering in my mind like a ray of sun. It was a concept that made crystal clear sense to me.

I realized that I had the opportunity to help my girls develop a new relationship with learning — as well as a new facet of their relationship with me.

The new relationship with learning starts with ability to take your children out of the box of what they are expecting school work to be like and give them the chance to learn in unexpected ways — and learn all the time! I realized that the Heart of Wisdom lesson plan is designed to do exactly that, and that it was my opportunity to mix and match even Robin’s lesson plan suggestions and let our days flow more organically with the learning journey that our family was on.

The added bonus with the Heart of Wisdom teaching approach — for me — is that my girls are also getting a chance to relate to their school subjects in another new way: Putting them in context with their faith in God. Now “Bible” isn’t a stand-alone subject that basically feels like Sunday School at home: It’s the foundation on which we are building the rest of our knowledge quest, constantly relating what we’re learning back to what we believe about God and His relationship with His creation.

I think it’s interesting that as parents, we teach our kids from the day they enter our lives without even thinking twice about it. We teach them through everything we model, everything we say, and how we relate to them and to others. Sometimes we read books about it, or ask for the advice of others, but on a day-to-day basis, we’re making instinctive decisions about how to parent our children.

For some reason, the idea of adding formal “school” to the picture seems to throw us off (or at least it did me), and we think we have to create a different learning relationship with our kids than the one they’ve come to know since the day they were born. Although it’s true that we are adding lots of new information and subjects to the equation, we’re still doing the same job we always have: We’re helping them connect with the world around them — “education is a science of relations.”

When it comes to the objections over some of the day-to-day practicalities of school work, like the ones I was experiencing, the answer seems to boil down to consistency. As a teaching parent, you can approach “school time” dilemmas the same way you address every other bump in the road with your children. The issues are basically the same, just surfacing in a different venue! And there’s no need to rush out and grab another book or another new strategy to fix that, because instinctively you already know what to do — and have been doing it for years.

I am just scratching the surface of understanding Charlotte Mason and what her educational philosophies were all about. Given that she wrote six volumes on the subject, I don’t see myself becoming a Charlotte Mason teaching expert anytime soon. But I am very grateful for a few words from her personal reflections that popped out of the pages of this book. Those words reminded me of the heart of my homeschooling mission and helped put me back on track with this mission.

One week down, many more to go! I look forward to seeing what we will all be learning in the weeks to come.