Thursday, January 31, 2013

Children are born persons. So what?

 by Megan Hoyt

The value of a child. I know I touched on this subject in an earlier blog post, but personhood is absolutely crucial to any true understanding of the Charlotte Mason method. So I'm coming around the mountain again, hopefully a teensy bit higher up and further in this time around.

Children are born -- not lizards or apes or giant sloths or butterflies or leopards or zebras. Children are born persons. But just what does that really mean? 

First, let me admit I'm still not completely sure. I suspect it has to do with value, ability of mind, and potential (see volume 6, chapter 2).

But here's something I've been pondering. What is my obligation as a teacher and a parent toward producing within my students a heart that values others as born persons? I'm probably duty bound to hone and inspire all sorts of positive character traits within their precious, malleable hearts, right? That's what the local school administrators say, anyway. They focus on a different trait each month. I've seen it on the marquees out front. Students earn awards for being the most helpful, generous, or kindhearted kid in school. Is this how we teach children to treat one another like persons -- by rewarding them with stickers and trophies when they are nice to one another? Where does that leave the kid whose natural willfulness has not quite been knocked out of him yet on the "value" chart? I can hear his negative self talk beginning even now. (Check out Creep by Radiohead for where he'll end up later in life.)

And while we're on the topic of positive attributes, is being kind more important than being thrifty? Being honest more important than being humble? The lines are rather fine and delicate, and I don't know which ones to place near the top of my behaviorism chart (sarcasm). We can all agree that producing the fruit of the spirit (love, joy, peace, kindness, long-suffering, goodness, self control) is a good idea. But Charlotte Mason doesn't advise us to "produce" anything. Our job is to present ideas, then step out of the way. This task of valuing each child coupled with the daunting task of teaching them to value others seems overwhelming to me.

It all seems to go back to the single question of personhood. We value being good and noble and magnanimous because each one of us is created in the image of God, the Creator of the universe, and thus deserves to be treated with respect, dignity, and kindness. We are valuable because we are persons.

Valuable just for being human? Hmmm.

Can't I evaluate the worth of a human being? Can I grab my jeweler's loupe and take a closer look before I pronounce value upon a child? I'm not so sure we don't do that every day we enter the classroom -- without realizing it of course!

Is "worth" even something we should evaluate? Would it be morally superior to accept that every person is of great value simply because of our shared humanity and leave it at that? But then we have the sticky business of believing Hitler and Osama bin Laden were of equal worth to Mother Teresa and Ghandi. I'm not sure I can rationalize that. 

Does it matter whether or not we do what is morally superior anyway? How do we determine right thinking from wrong thinking? Morally, ethically superior thoughts and beliefs from those that are inferior? Who gets to decide? Have you ever witnessed someone get a tongue-lashing -- maybe a department store clerk or a cashier? Have you ever been the one to dole out the tongue lashing? They deserved to be ill-treated because they opened up a new checkout line and took the guy behind you instead of you. Where does the "he deserved it" stop and the "Because I value you as a person, I am not going to criticize, ridicule, or shame you" begin? Can we train ourselves to respect even those we deem unworthy of respect? Are we always right in our accusations anyway? After all, we can't walk in that other fellow's shoes to find out if his heart's motive was to cause us harm or if he just didn't notice we were next in line at the checkout.

And how do we teach children to evaluate their decisions and beliefs based on ethical guiding principles? Can we do that without bringing faith in God or a belief in a higher power into the mix? Should we even try?

These were the questions swirling through my mind this morning after a long week of soul-searching and prayer. It all started on the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that, via the mechanism of "privacy," created an avenue for abortion on demand to be legally acceptable. As I watched friends prepare to go to the March for Life in Washington, DC, and exercise their right to peaceful assembly, and as I read through social media of the many and varied types of people who attended the March, from feminists, pagans and homosexuals to ultra conservative Catholics and evangelicals, my heart was stirred. Personhood was inspiring people to come together, to drive long distances in frigid weather and stand firmly in favor of affirming life. It moved me.

What makes a person uniquely valuable, inherently of great worth even as pre-born infants? It's our shared humanity -- that spark within that shines out through our words and deeds and yet is present from conception, perfectly packaged and waiting for life to proceed. We're like little acorns, holding within us all the potential to become sturdy trees, with leaves outstretched to the sun and roots grasping and gulping for nutrition within the shadowy soil. Hitler and bin Laden had that same potential we all have. That's how I can equalize the value of every human being and still include these two. It's what happened as they experienced life that twisted them into a contorted mess.

Newly opened acorn
And that's where we come in.

Charlotte Mason said, "Who shall measure the range of a child's thoughts? His continual questions about God, his speculations about 'Jesus,' are they no more than idle curiosity, or are they symptoms of a God-hunger with which we are all born, and is a child able to comprehend as much of the infinite and the unseen as are his self-complacent elders?" If young children ARE born able to hunger for God, to reflect and meditate on ideas, then perhaps our limited forms of education in the early years need to be turned on their heads or at least rethought. Children are image-bearers of God. Human beings with souls. The acorn bursts open, roots seize at the earth, digging ferociously for nutrition, gasping breathlessly for water. And what that child, newly formed and hungry, finds on his desperate quest is of the utmost importance.

And we are their guides.

As teachers, moms and dads, friends, sisters and brothers, grandparents, and human beings, we have a holy responsibility toward our fellow man, woman, and child. We are obligated by our faith in God and compelled by our belief in the ethical treatment of others to value every child as a "born person," with all the gifts and talents buried within them that God and genetics have granted them. What a serious task is set before us! We can make or break a person with our words and actions. This is quite a strong power God has granted to us, this ability to use words and deeds to help form a child's view of the world (or to hinder it greatly). There really should be a warning label on this gift! "Handle with care. Brutality will render children psychologically crippled. Kindness will raise children to heights previously unknown."

I like my friend Leslie's modern paraphrase of Charlotte Mason's views on the matter: Children are born persons - they are not blank slates or embryonic oysters who have the potential of becoming persons. They already are persons. As Miss Mason says, "...the most prosaic of us comes across evidence of mind in children, and of mind astonishingly alert." We might say, "Children are born thinkers." And what are they to think about?

Velasquez' Sibyl with Tabula Rasa (blank slate)
"Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—think on these things." (Philippians 4:8)

We are not embryonic oysters! All the potential for great and high living is within every child.
"I am anxious to bring before teachers the fact that a child comes into their hands with a mind of amazing potentialities..." (vol 6, p. 38) We can either draw this tremendous potential out of our students gently, with guiding principles from Miss Mason or we can bore them to death with endless pablum-filled, regurgitated lectures. We can offer them well-written living books that spark creativity, depth of thought and feeling, and compel them to read further by inspiring their curiosity. Or we can force textbooks down their throats and give them heartburn, both literal and figurative. I'm not talking here about spoon-feeding children morals and ethics or forcing them to read stories with obvious moral themes in an effort to channel their thoughts into some sort of stilted morality -- all because we're afraid they won't value others as born persons when they grow up. We instead need to create educational paths for them to stroll down that instinctively form them into Valjeans rather than Javerts. We need to get to their hearts by whatever means possible, to challenge them to think, perceive, intuit, sense, learn, judge, and evaluate -- all while making sure we are not "preaching" to them. Tough job, eh? Not if we remember that our job is to give them ideas, then step out of the way as they grapple with them:

Charlotte Mason Community Co-op study of Michelangelo

"Education, like faith, is the evidence of things not seen. We must begin with the notion that the business of the body is to grow; and it grows upon food, which food is composed of living cells, each a perfect life in itself. In like manner, though all analogies are misleading and inadequate, the only fit sustenance for the mind is ideas, and an idea too, like the single cell of cellular tissue, appears to go through the stages and functions of a life.

Olivia remembers how to make Jacob's Ladder

We receive it with appetite and some stir of interest. It appears to feed in a curious way. We hear of a new patent cure for the mind or the body, of the new thought of some poet, the new notion of a school of painters; we take in, accept, the idea and for days after every book we read, every person we talk with brings food to the newly entertained notion.

'Not proven,' will be the verdict of the casual reader; but if he watch the behavior of his own mind towards any of the ideas 'in the air,' he will find that some such process as I have described takes place; and this process must be considered carefully in the education of children. We may not take things casually as we have done. Our business is to give children the great ideas of life, of religion, history, science; but it is the ideas we must give, clothed upon with facts as they occur, and must leave the child to deal with these as he chooses." (vol 6, pp 39-40)

Hannah makes an Elizabethan collar
Take a look at the fruit of presenting living ideas to our children, especially those that provide an ethics framework for them:

This is how he [the poet Thomas Traherne] deals with Geography, for example:––

"When I heard of any new kingdom beyond the seas the light and glory of it entered into me. It rose up within me and I was enlarged by the whole. I entered into it, I saw its commodities, springs, meadows, inhabitants and became possessor of that new room as if it had been prepared for me so much was I magnified and delighted in it. When the Bible was read my spirit was present in other ages. I saw the light and splendour of them, the land of Canaan, the Israelites entering into it, the ancient glory of the Amorites, their peace and riches, their cities, houses, vines and fig trees . . . I saw and felt all in such a lively manner as if there had been no other way to those places but in spirit only. Without changing place in myself I could behold and enjoy all those. Anything when it was proposed though it was a thousand years ago being always present before me."

And in the words of Comenius: "The proper education of the young does not consist in stuffing their heads with a mass of words, sentences, and ideas dragged together out of various authors, but in opening up their understanding to the outer world, so that a living stream may flow from their own minds, just as leaves, flowers, and fruit spring from the bud on a tree."

Here are some concrete ways to show that you value a child:

1. When speaking to a small child, stoop down and look him in the eye directly. Let kindness (but firmness) blaze through your eyes to his so that your shared humanity is recognized but your distinct authority is also noted. 

2. Give the child your full attention. So many times we're reading a text, cooking dinner, running errands, or otherwise preoccupied when that moment comes that a child is ready to open up his heart and soul to us. Each precious child deserves our full and undivided attention.

3. Bring your children (students) alongside you as you learn and grow in knowledge.Your appetite and curiosity will be contagious.

4. Be careful what you say. Choose your words carefully because not only are children sponges who will pick up the words and phrases you use and run with them. They are also delicate creatures who can easily misunderstand or misinterpret the words you say. And generally speaking, they will twist their hearts into a knot, worrying over what you meant when you said thus and so. Be very clear. As Richard Mitchell said in The Underground Grammarian,
"We do the business of the mind in language." Children are born with alert minds, so please choose your words carefully. 

Tommy, second from the right, behind his sister
You may be wondering why I titled this post "Children are born persons. So what?" Well, there's a story behind the catch phrase, "So what?" My nephew Tommy has had quite a struggle in this life. He was born with a congenital heart defect and hydrocephalus. He had three or four heart surgeries and at least two brain surgeries before the age of two. He wasn't expected to live, but he surprised us all by surviving! And he is greatly treasured.  

Tommy doesn't talk much. He CAN talk, but he doesn't have a strong grasp of vocabulary and finds it difficult to grab the words he needs to communicate his thoughts and feelings to us. He struggles with typing, too, but desperately wants to be a part of our lives via social media. One of Tommy's favorite phrases is "So what?" He doesn't mean it in the typical sense (sarcasm, a challenge to whatever sentence came before). What he means is "So what does this mean for me?" He's trying to tell us he needs an authentic way to relate the knowledge to what his soul cares about. Tommy craves authenticity. He wants to know why what I'm telling him is important. He lacks much of what we consider the normal ability to evaluate, intuit, or perceive truth. So he takes everyone at their word. Interacting with Tommy is, in a way, a holy experience because he is so totally and completely open and raw and able to be harmed by the words we speak without knowing any harm was on its way.

Thomas Traherne's words ring true here:

"Our Saviour's meaning, when He said, He must be born again and become a little child that will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven is deeper far than is generally believed. It is not only in a careless reliance upon Divine Providence, that we are to become little children, or in the feebleness and shortness of our anger and simplicity of our passions, but in the peace and purity of all our soul. Which purity also is a deeper thing than is commonly apprehended. For we must disrobe ourselves of all false colours, and unclothe our souls of evil habits; all our thoughts must be infant-like and clear; the powers of our soul free from the leaven of this world, and disentangled from men's conceits and customs."(

May we all disrobe ourselves of false colors and unclothe our souls of evil habits; all our thoughts becoming infant-like and clear, the powers of our souls free from the leaven of this world. Is there someone you need to talk to today? A child you scolded impatiently or a friend you disrespected? A family member who made you so angry that you gave them "the silent treatment" for ten years? It's never too late. Call them! We are all persons, endowed supernaturally with great value. Some are diamonds in the rough while others have had their rough edges smoothed, but we are all of great value! Go find that pearl of great price that you have inadvertently marred and apply the salve of human kindness. Even if they don't choose to accept it, you will have expressed an important truth to them and to yourself. You will have said, "You are a person of great worth and potential." The rest is up to God.

"We are all citizens of one world, we are all of one blood.  To hate a man because he was born in another country, because he speaks a different language, or because he takes a different view on this subject or that, is a great folly.  Desist, I implore you, for we are all equally human....  Let us have but one end in view, the welfare of humanity; and let us put aside all selfishness in considerations of language, nationality, or religion." John Amos Comenius

Friday, January 25, 2013

Soaking in the Soothing Pools of Poetry (or something like that)

 by Megan Hoyt

 "Poetry is, perhaps, the most searching and intimate of our teachers." Charlotte Mason

"It is, however, true that a poem, to be real poetry, must express passion, or, at least, emotion; and another definition, which is perhaps nearer, is that poetry is 'man's thoughts tinged by his emotions.' Even this, however, does not distinguish poetry from eloquence." from What is Poetry by H. A. Nesbitt, (Parent's Review, vol 14, pp33-42)

I still remember the sighs and audible groans of my classmates (and I must include myself if I'm honest) whenever the teacher announced it was time to do a unit on poetry -- even in my high school honors courses. The words used to swim on the page as I dozed through lesson upon lesson. Then I decided to major in English in college. And guess what? Every single course I took included at least one or two poets. It was also a requirement that we memorize several lengthy poems each term. AND analyze them. My head spinning, I managed to do the memory work required but always (at least I was consistent) got low scores on poetry analysis. I had NO IDEA what most of these poems were about. None whatsoever. I know I should have "gotten" at least one or two of them, but from Endymion to Ode on a Grecian Urn, it was ALL Greek to me. If poetry is supposed to be the most searching and intimate of our teachers, I must have been doing something very wrong.  

Here's what I think was happening -- I had no clothesline in my inner brain closet on which to hang the understanding of any type of poetry. So when faced with ballads, elegies, sonnets, and idylls, I was utterly and completely lost.

Here's what I see as our goal as Charlotte Mason educators, right from the very start: 

Hang a sturdy rod in our students' brain closets and then show them how to hang the great poets on it. 

That's it. Simple, right? Or is it? Let's brainstorm together for a minute. What would this sturdy rod look like? When would we begin? How would we accomplish this task? 

Well, if I could put a name to it, the rod would be called context. In order to create context, we need to offer them access to the personhood of the poet by sharing a bit about his or her life. We can give them visual manna, auditory manna, and prepare them for the feast of ideas they are about to receive with a few simple instructions before they dig into the poems. And there are other ways to prepare them, besides just reminding them to access the habits of attention and concentration. We can dim the lights and turn on soft music to set the tone for the lesson. We can have the students close their eyes and focus on what the poem is saying to them. They can write down their responses or narrate orally or to a certain extent just sit and soak. In fact, that is what Miss Mason would prefer they do -- experience the poet for themselves without our constant interference. 

But not until we have provided that all-important context on which to hang what they are about to receive can they really access poetry. And don't forget that concrete learners are going to have a rougher time of it. Have patience with their starts and stops. They are not so fortunate as their more philosophical peers. It will take some exercising to build up their "deep feeler" muscles. But everyone can enjoy poetry. I know because I finally learned how. (Yea!)

It happened when I least expected it. I was reading through The Oxford Book of English Verse, and this poem leaped off the page at me. It's called A White Rose, by John Boyle O'Reilly, 1844-1890: 

The red rose whispers of passion,
And the white rose breathes of love; 
O the red rose is a falcon,
And the white rose is a dove.

But I send you a cream-white rosebud
With a flush on its petal tips;
For the love that is purest and sweetest
Has a kiss of desire on the lips.

These metaphors made sense, unlike the more difficult poems I had been asked to analyze at college. Slowly and meticulously, I began to create some context and background for myself. And bit by bit, I began to understand even the longer poems. It worked!


" is the part of parents to bring the minds of their children under the influence of the highest, purest poetic thought we have."

"...some one poet should have at least a year to himself, that he may have time to do what is in him towards cultivating the seeing eye, the hearing ear, the generous heart."

"Yet be it confessed, that in the matter of reading, this sort of spoon-feeding is not the best thing, after all. Far better would it be that the young people should seek out their own pastures, the parents doing no more than keep a judicious eye upon their rovings. But the fact is, young people are so taken up with living, that, as a rule, they do not read nowadays; and it is possible that a course of spoon-meat may help them over an era of feeble digestive power, and put them in the way of finding their proper intellectual nourishment." (vol 5, p 224)

What? Spoon-feeding is sometimes necessary? According to Charlotte Mason herself? To help them over an era of feeble digestive power? What a relief! With that in mind, I'll share a few of the highlights of our poetry studies.


"Let us learn and inwardly digest..." Charlotte Mason

The first year I taught poetry appreciation to 8-10-year-olds we started with Eugene Field (click on his name for a full, free audiobook of his work), who I believe is a great poet for beginners. We watched a short film clip that included photos of the house where he grew up and other sights that gave the students something to work with visually. They listened to an audio storybook dramatization of his life to put his work in context. They learned that he lost a child tragically and grieved alongside him while listening intently to the story. When we read Field's Little Boy Blue, the audible sniffles from the children broke their tender silence. It was hard not to cry. Here's the poem:

Little Boy Blue
by Eugene Field (1850-1895)

The little toy dog is covered with dust,
   But sturdy and stanch he stands;
And the little toy soldier is red with rust,
   And his musket moulds in his hands.
Time was when the little toy dog was new,
   And the soldier was passing fair;
And that was the time when our Little Boy Blue
   Kissed them and put them there.
"Now, don't you go till I come," he said,
   "And don't you make any noise!"
So, toddling off to his trundle-bed,
   He dreamt of the pretty toys; 

And, as he was dreaming, an angel song
   Awakened our Little Boy Blue--- 

Oh! the years are many, the years are long, 

  But the little toy friends are true!
Ay, faithful to Little Boy Blue they stand,
   Each in the same old place---
Awaiting the touch of a little hand,
   The smile of a little face;
And they wonder, as waiting the long years through
   In the dust of that little chair,
What has become of our Little Boy Blue,
   Since he kissed them and put them there.

They were hooked. The rod was hung, and it was time to sit back and watch them hang the poems on it!

And the answer to the "where" question? If at all possible, visit the very places where the poet wrote. But if not possible, you can visit through photos and youtube videos (Click for a lovely, lingering look at Field's boyhood home).

"Think of how the better half of English literature has a local colouring; think of the thousand spots round which there lingers an aroma of poetry and of character which seems to get into your brain somehow, and leave there an image of the man, feeling of his work, which you cannot arrive at elsewhere. The Quantocks, Grasmere, Haworth Moors, the Selborne 'Hanger,' the Lincolnshire levels––it is needless to multiply examples of spots where you may see the raw material of poetry, and compare it with the finished work." (vol 5, p. 128)

The next week we watched a cartoon version of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod to lighten the mood. (They loved that, although to me it wasn't educational so much as a fun way to help them form an even stronger relationship with Eugene Field, the poet.) Then I offered them choices. Kids love choices! I showed them several different poems by Eugene Field and asked them each to choose one to memorize.

The next week was a shocker. Instead of memorizing the first stanzas like I had asked, several of my students had memorized their entire poem. Not only that, they were excited about the man who wrote the words. They wanted to learn even more about him. A couple of them researched him on the internet. Each week, I brought a couple of photos of him.

At this point, I became even more secure in the idea that children of all ages CAN access poetry. And boy, can their little minds memorize! Emboldened, we began allowing even younger children to enjoy poetry along with their older siblings. Here's the result.


I worked with a class of 6-8 year olds one year -- charming, precocious children with eager hearts but younger than the first group I taught. We were studying William Blake, and I knew these kids would not know anything about the time period in which he lived. So we talked about printing presses and how paper was made. We looked at some of Blake's art. We learned about his life, how from an early age he told his parents he could see angels (they thought that was pretty cool). They narrated back as much as they remembered, which was, well, everything.

But our most successful day together involved something a little more hands-on. We were reading The Lamb and talking about its meaning. Then I decided to have them all get on their hands and knees and act like lambs while I read the poem. Oh, how their attitudes and demeanors changed! It became sheer joy. They lapped it up like panting dogs at their water bowls after a hot summer romp. Success. Delight. Wonder. And bliss. 

Armed with such success, I did what any respectable teacher of William Blake would do. I read The Tyger to them. Of course, they paraded around the room as tigers while they listened. But the important thing is that they connected with the poem, the poet, the somewhat lofty ideas, and the English language. Before we began, I pulled out a few vocabulary words that I knew they wouldn't understand. I explained what an anvil was and we listened to The Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore. I can't help but throw in a little composer study whenever I can. (That link is for your benefit, not the children in your life. They, er, might get ideas -- and not the good kind!)

From The Tyger:

Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee? 
Tyger, Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry? 

With this initial whetting of their poetic appetites, we moved on to the memory work. I decided for the first project to have each of them memorize two lines only. I left class unsure of what to expect when I returned the next week, but these young children came back to class with their lines memorized! And they were beaming with pride in their accomplishments. They couldn't wait to recite them for the older kids during assembly time. Here's the poem we chose (We had moved on to Wordsworth):

"Think clear, feel deep, bear fruit well." Matthew Arnold
Okay, all these beautiful poems, filled with artistic supremacy and loftiness evoke an emotional response even in the youngest of children -- just as the doctor ordered (the doctor being Miss Mason). Why can't I leave well enough alone?

I was now smitten by poetry, and my adoration was proving contagious. So I had to dig deeper and learn more. 


You are either going to love this part or hate it -- depending on how you feel about free verse. I was once not as great a fan as I am now, I'll admit. I love the rhyme, rhythm, and predictability of Emily Dickinson and the natural flow and beauty of Wordsworth and Blake. And I'm convinced Miss Mason would agree with me:

"We must read our poets and learn them by heart till our minds are full of the best thoughts and the loveliest expressions that the world has yet uttered; and be sure that as we read and learn, our own appreciation will grow, and we shall begin to understand more fully why we must teach our little ones only what is good, and why we are doing them a real wrong if we let their minds be filled with what is poor and trivial, while all the world's richest treasures are lying ready for them to take and use as their own possessions."  from The Teaching of Poetry to Children by Mrs. J. G. Simpson (Parent's Review, Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 879-883)

But in order to open ourselves to a wide banquet of living ideas, a feast for the senses to broaden the mind, I think we have to look at ALL types of poetry and at the continuum of poetry throughout history. Some time early in the twentieth century, poets began bucking the system much like the Impressionists bucked it fifty years earlier. And the results weren't half bad. Here's what poet Marianne Moore said:

 "I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle. 
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it after all, 
a place for the genuine." from Poetry by Marianne Moore 

But she also said: "...not till the poets among us can be literalists of the imagination, above insolence and triviality and can present for inspection, 'imaginary gardens with real toads in them,' shall we have it." from Poetry by Marianne Moore

Imaginary gardens with real toads in them. Hmmm. Lots to ruminate on here. Her poetry is rich, yet funny. Charming, yet full. I've come a long way from those early college days. I am actually enjoying free verse! Who knew this was even possible? Oh wait, Charlotte Mason said that if we applied her principles, great connections would be made, strong relationships formed, and life well-lived. She knew!

Yesterday, I found myself drawn to a couple of poems by Marianne Moore. I chuckled at first as I read Poetry. But as I reread it, I saw such strong imagery, such mastery of words, that I found myself envying her skill. I dug a little deeper. I read about her life, her affinities, read her Arctic Ox. Again, I laughed. Actually, I listened to her read it here. While it was interesting to hear her voice, I much prefer a lilting British accent. But I digress.

I'm sharing Marianne Moore's work with you today because, as Charlotte Mason said, "Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another..." So you see, I am compelled by Miss Mason to convey these ideas to you! 

Here are a few snippets from Poetry that snagged my attention. (Do click on the link, though, because it has an audio recording of her reading her poem.)

Hands that can grasp, eyes that can dilate, hair that can rise if it must, these things are important not because a high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are useful. 

...we do not admire what we cannot understand: the bat holding on upside down or in quest of something to eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the baseball fan, the statistician...

The imagery here is fantastic. In one brief sentence, we are surrounded by vivid glimpses of animals (and human beings) in action. I love that. I'll explain why she loves to write about animals a little later.

Here's a short poem Ms. Moore wrote about dragons:

If I, like Solomon, could have my wish- 
O, to be a dragon, a symbol of the power of Heaven-
of silkworm size or immense; at times invisible. 
Felicitous phenomenon!  

Ms. Moore studied Biology at Bryn Mawr College. She loved animals and even kept nature notebooks. She was a very Charlotte Mason type poet, eh? Here's a sample page:

Since Marianne Moore loved animals so much, it's not surprising that she wrote many poems about them. Here she is discussing Arctic Ox in an interview and reading from it. It's well-written and yet silly. You can get that sense of passion and emotion and high-mindedness even while enjoying this free-flowing verse. And her interest in nature shines through, offering the student a glimpse into the natural world along the way. Brilliant! 


And now for the really juicy bits. After studying various poets, older children, ages 12 and up, can begin writing in the style of their favorites. This is where you can tell what they've learned, whether they have absorbed the depth and breadth of each poet. This is where it gets exciting. The proof is in the telling back and how wonderful that they can tell back in the style of a poet by the time they reach high school age. Check out the end of Volume 6 for some samples from Miss Mason's day. But try not to be discouraged. It takes the slow progress of careful and continual practice to be able to do this. 

And you never know where a high school student will go, how deeply he will mine the depths of poetry, how high she will rise as she learns and grows in her ability to craft her own verse. (Check out Bryana Johnson's Having Decided to Stay.)

And that brings us to Shakespearean sonnets. I can't not share this version of Sonnet 73. It's Dallas Bill, ya'll! He gives brief explanations of each stanza, which I wouldn't advise unless you have a student who is lost as I was and in need of a "guide" to rescue her after an "era of feeble digestive powers." It happens.

We asked our older students to write a Shakespearean sonnet. They needed a little instruction first in form so that they would know HOW to do it. You can learn that here. The results were amazing. I wish I had one of them to share with you. If I can get my hands on one, I will update this post. They also memorized Sonnet 73. But not as quickly as the younger children memorized their poems! 

While we're on the subject of sonnets, and lest we choose to believe that all noble poets of long ago existed on a higher plane than the rest of us, I want to share two sonnets by John Donne. The first exemplifies all that is great and noble and carries within it beauty, honor, and religious fervor. If this was all we ever read of John Donne, our hearts would be singed, our emotions enraptured by his eloquence, our souls lifted to the mountaintops, the winding ascent seemingly complete.  

Sonnet XIV

Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

"A few months before his death, Donne commissioned this portrait of himself as he expected to appear when he rose from the grave at the Apocalypse. He hung the portrait on his wall as a reminder of the transience of life." (Lapham, The End of the World, p. 98.)

But here is where we can all identify with Donne -- from those less apt to read poetry to those magnanimous souls whose lives are poems in and of themselves. Alas, poor Johnny. He would most assuredly rather I not share this one. But here it is. It's titled The Flea.

 Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead;
    Yet this enjoys before it woo,
    And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two;
    And this, alas ! is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.
    Though use make you apt to kill me,
    Let not to that self-murder added be,
    And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck'd from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
'Tis true; then learn how false fears be;
Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.

I'll end with a list of poets from Ambleside Online that Miss Mason believed were not to be missed. May your journey into the world of emotionally evocative poetry lead you toward magnanimity, noble thinking, and great joy. I hope your aha moments will be many and that your heart may be full.

Poetry aids in the planting of soul-touching ideas. And Who is the author of those?

"We may be poor things, but we are ready to break forth into singing should the chance open to us of a full life of passionate devotion. Now, all our exigent demands are met by words written in a Book, and by the manifestations of a Person; and we are waiting for a Christianity such as the world has not yet known. Hitherto, Christ has existed for our uses; but what if a time were coming when we, also, should taste the "orientall fragrancie" of, "My Master!" So it shall be when the shout of a King is among us, and are there not premonitions?" (vol 6 pg 337)


Friday, January 18, 2013

The Power of the Outdoors: A Magic That is Deeper Still

by Megan Hoyt

"For we are an overwrought generation, running to nerves as a cabbage runs to seed; and every hour spent in the open is a clear gain, tending to the increase of brain power and bodily vigour, and to the lengthening of life itself." (Charlotte Mason's Home Education, vol 1, p 42)

To those of you who know me, this is going to sound utterly ridiculous. Me? Spend time outside enjoying nature? Palefaced, tea and toast, read a book by the fire, indoors Megan? Well, yes. 

I've learned a few things along life's journey, and one of them is that staying inside all day is depressing. Living inside is not what God had in mind when He created the garden of Eden. I'm pretty sure of that. If He had, He would have created the cottage of Eden instead. The hut of Eden? The skyscraper of Eden? The office building of Eden?

In our early years of homeschooling using Charlotte Mason methods, the one area that I always felt I was failing in was Nature Study. I didn't take the time to provide any form of organized study -- learning about trees, birds, plants, wildlife, flowers, etc. We studied from books, mostly, and we did it inside. It wasn't until I began reading aloud a delightful book called Plants and Their Children and found a crumpled apple blossom within its pages that I had my first aha moment. This book wasn't meant to be read inside at the kitchen table but outside amidst the fragrant apple blossoms of early autumn whilst sipping fresh apple cider!

Our lives were never the same.

I have to credit my good friend Stephanie McGuirk for really invigorating my enjoyment of outdoor life with that first gorgeous nature walk we took together in Nashville, despite the fact that for much of it I was carrying a tired ten-year-old on my back. By the way, I strongly suggest that you find a nature mentor to help you begin your journey into nature study -- someone who lives the outdoor life, someone for whom it's as second nature as breathing to meander through the woods identifying each and every plant and explaining its medicinal and aesthetic value as well as its history. In fact, I highly recommend finding a mentor for every subject because they are likely to ignite a passion for it within you, too. And YOU can be that person to your own students.

I'm so thankful that we made that first foray into outdoor life, even though it's been mostly baby steps and starts and stops for this big city girl ever since. Here are a few highlights from our early years to whet your appetite for this ultra-important facet of a Charlotte Mason education.

In Open Fields of Wildflowers

One day, in the middle of a rushed journey to either ballet class, gymnastics, or violin lessons, we drove past a park that had been overtaken by wildflowers. It was tucked away in an older neighborhood subdivision and had been somewhat neglected. I glanced at my watch (before the era of cell phones) and realized if we stopped we would be late.

We stopped anyway.

I watched my two girls skip, run, and dance through an open field of wildflowers, laughing giddily as they ran. And I took a mental picture that I will cherish as long as I live, just as Miss Mason said I would:

"Fifty years hence, they will see the shadows of the boughs making patterns on the white tablecloth; and sunshine, children's laughter, hum of bees, and scent of flowers are being bottled up for after refreshment." (vol 1, p 43)

Miss Mason was right. And she wasn't the only one to suggest it. Wordsworth stored a nature memory and later wrote about the value of it in his poem, Daffodils:  

I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

A band I like, Jars of Clay, wrote a song called Love Song for a Savior that embodies the idea of this carefree enjoyment of God's creation. The lyrics include "She thanks her Jesus for the daisies and the roses in no simple language. Someday she'll understand the meaning of it all." I think that's the most important reason to enjoy the natural world. It leads us to a stronger understanding of God, the Creator who left this planet in our keeping.

Treasured Moments

Our children once made a hammock out of an old sheet and hung it in the willow tree in our backyard. When I went outside to check on them, I found one of my sons reading aloud to his three-year-old brother in their newly formed sheet hammock. I was tempted to take it all down. After all, it was precariously hung and they might at any moment fall to the ground (which wasn't terribly far from where they had put the hammock). But I stopped and listened instead. I savored this moment between my two sons. Drew was cradling Jesse in his arms and reading from The Blue Fairy Book. He had only just learned to read a few months before, so it was quite an accomplishment.

The hammock swayed gently in the fragrant spring breeze. It was another one of those special "take a mental picture to savor later" moments. Actually, I went beyond that. I grabbed the video camera and captured it on tape. I could tell it brought Drew great joy to use his newfound reading skills to create a happy experience for his brother up in the willow tree. I didn't want to forget this day. And what a blessing that we CAN document these treasured times. That's a tool that Wordsworth and Charlotte Mason didn't have at their disposal.

So let those moments come. Don't interfere even though it's not official nature study and notebooks aren't being filled with detailed analyses of trees and plants, fully illustrated. That will come later. The initial "falling in love" with nature is important because the habit of living life outdoors is being cemented and established. Just be. That's okay to do sometimes. I know as homeschoolers we doubt it, but it's true.

A Moveable Feast

Thomas Cole's The Picnic
 Some people love picnics, and others, like me, are bug avoidant and can't stand them. But if I'm going to follow a Charlotte Mason education, I have to fight my tendency to avoid this (ahem) pleasant pasttime:

"Besides, the gain of an hour or two in the open air, there is this to be considered: meals taken al fresco are usually joyous, and there is nothing like gladness for converting meat and drink into healthy blood and tissue." (vol 1, p 43)

I'm working on this. I make no guarantees! We are all works in progress, right?

Creating Beauty

This is the most exciting part for me. I know cataloging plants and learning about different types of bugs and birdwatching are all part of nature study as is drybrush watercolor painting and just the overall scientific study of the natural world. But I am very right-brained by nature so for me, creating things outdoors (painting like the Impressionists amid nature, for example) is key to forming relationships.

That's why I'm so excited about Andy Goldsworthy. And I hope you soon will be, too.

I first learned about Goldsworthy when my husband was searching for what to make out of bamboo. Our son had come home from a walk in the woods with several long sticks of bamboo, and they wanted to make a shishi odoshi. But google took me elsewhere. I found myself immersed in the art of Andy Goldsworthy. Here's a clip from his website:

For me looking, touching, material, place and form are all inseparable from the resulting work. It is difficult to say where one stops and another begins. Place is found by walking, direction determined by weather and season. I take the opportunity each day offers: if it is snowing, I work in snow, at leaf-fall it will be leaves; a blown over tree becomes a source of twigs and branches. 

Movement, change, light, growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work. I need the shock of touch, the resistance of place, materials and weather, the earth as my source. I want to get under the surface. When I work with a leaf, rock, stick, it is not just that material itself, it is an opening into the processes of life within and around it. When I leave it, these processes continue.

Andy Goldsworthy is extraordinary. Rather than placing his art in a gallery or museum or on someone's coffee table or above their sofa, he creates art outside in nature. Take a peek:

                               "Art, for me, is a form of nourishment." Andy Goldsworthy

The beauty of nature is encapsulated within Goldsworthy's art. He calls himself a naturalist artist, and I think that's a very appropriate name for what he does and who he is. Learning about his life and art opened up so much of the natural world to me. It showed me that I can express myself through nature as well as observe its systems. Charlotte Mason's insistence that education is the science of relations makes this man's work especially important. It helps students relate creating to understanding the natural world. It insists on careful observation rather than zoning out and ignoring the world around us. His art is inspiring but not out of reach. So much to consider! To learn more, watch his Rivers and Tides documentary.

I wish you joy in the journey. And may much of it come from a life lived outdoors.

“In this time of extraordinary pressure, educational and social, perhaps a mother’s first duty to her children is to secure for them a quiet growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it spent for the most part out in the fresh air.” (Vol. 1, p. 43)

"Supposing we have got them, what is to be done with these golden hours, so that every one shall be delightful? They must be spent with some method, or the mother will be taxed and the children bored. There is a great deal to be accomplished in this large fraction of the children's day. They must be kept in a joyous temper all the time, or they will miss some of the strengthening and refreshing held in charge for them by the blessed air. They must be let alone, left to themselves a great deal, to take in what they can of the beauty of earth and heavens; for of the evils of modern education few are worse than this––that the perpetual cackle of his elders leaves the poor child not a moment of time, nor an inch of space, wherein to wonder––and grow. At the same time, here is the mother's opportunity to train the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and to drop seeds of truth into the open soul of the child, which shall germinate, blossom, and bear fruit, without further help or knowledge of hers. Then, there is much to be got by perching in a tree or nestling in heather, but muscular development comes of more active ways, and an hour or two should be spent in vigorous play; and last, and truly least, a lesson or two must be got in." (vol 1 pg 45)

For a practical look at how to implement Nature Study, click here
For a closer look at how to study great works of art, click here
For a nice, meaty biography of William Wordsworth, click here.  
To download a PDF of Wordsworth's A Guide Through the District of the Lakes, click here. 

Also, since I wrote this blog post, I have discovered that there are several naturalist artists worthy of recognition. Here are a few names to research for yourselves. Enjoy!

Richard Long

Nils Udo
Robert Smithson
Richard Shilling
David Nash
Michael Heizer

From Richard Long:

"In the nature of things:
Art about mobility, lightness and freedom.
Simple creative acts of walking and marking
about place, locality, time, distance and measurement.
Works using raw materials and my human scale
in the reality of landscapes.

The music of stones, paths of shared footmarks,
sleeping by the river's roar."