Thursday, January 10, 2013

Awake my soul and sing... How presenting living ideas stimulates the mind of a child.


 A Charlotte Mason education unearthed, explained, and remarked upon...
Towards A Philosophy of Education, Volume 6 of the Charlotte Mason Series, Author's Preface
         "...a soul awoke within a water-sprite at the touch of love; so, I have to tell of the awakening of a 'general soul' at the touch of knowledge. Eight years ago the 'soul' of a class of children in a mining village school awoke simultaneously at this magic touch and has remained awake. We know that religion can awaken souls, that love makes a new man, that the call of a vocation may do it, and in the age of the Renaissance, men's souls, the general soul, awoke to knowledge: but this appeal rarely reaches the modern soul; and, notwithstanding the pleasantness attending lessons and marks in all our schools, I believe the ardour for knowledge in the children of this mining village is a phenomenon that indicates new possibilities. Already many thousands of the children of the Empire had experienced this intellectual conversion, but they were the children of educated persons. To find that the children of a mining population were equally responsive seemed to open a new hope for the world. It may be that the souls of all children are waiting for the call of knowledge to awaken them to delightful living."

         What was it that made the souls of these children from a small mining village awaken at the touch of knowledge? What was this new "technique" or "methodology" that led to such a dramatic impact? Well, as Rome wasn't built in a day, we can't very well give you all the tenets of a Charlotte Mason styled education at one time, so let's focus on just one for today. The awakening of a soul can be affected by living materials, distributed to eager young minds like the Christmas pudding to Bob Cratchit's Tiny Tim. Voraciously hungry for something that is alive, excites interest, and gives meaning to life, the mind of a child is ripe for books that enlarge his imagination, materials that launch him into new and unthinkable realms, magical places where new ideas pop up like fresh daffodils in early spring. He yearns for living books.
                                                    LIVING BOOKS

         To give you an example of what a living book is, I’ve copied out a section of The Life of the Spider by Henri Fabre. Rather than state a series of dry facts about poisonous spiders, Fabre begins his book by engaging the reader with an extremely well-written, amusing anecdote:

         The Italians have bestowed a bad reputation on the Tarantula, who produces convulsions and frenzied dances in the person stung by her.  To cope with ‘tarantism,’ the name given to the disease that follows on the bite of the Italian Spider, you must have recourse to music, the only efficacious remedy, so they tell us.  Special tunes have been noted, those quickest to afford relief.  There is medical choreography, medical music.  And have we not the tarentella, a lively and nimble dance, bequeathed to us perhaps by the healing art of the Calabrian peasant?

         Must we take these queer things seriously or laugh at them?  From the little that I have seen, I hesitate to pronounce an opinion.  Nothing tells us that the bite of the Tarantula may not provoke, in weak and very impressionable people, a nervous disorder which music will relieve; nothing tells us that a profuse perspiration, resulting from a very energetic dance, is not likely to diminish the discomfort by diminishing the cause of the ailment.  So far from laughing, I reflect and enquire, when the Calabrian peasant talks to me of his Tarantula, the Pujaud reaper of his Theridion lugubre, the Corsican husbandman of his Malmignatte.  Those Spiders might easily deserve, at least partly, their terrible reputation.

         Not only is this passage engaging, it is written in first person. The author is speaking directly to the reader, identifying with the reader by using the pronouns us and we, and offering his own opinion about whether or not what he has heard about the frenzied dance of the victim of a tarantula bite is true. We are immediately transported into his world, sitting in his living room, listening to him talk about the spider through the vehicle of story. This is the key to unlocking a child’s memory and capacity to learn. The enveloping of fact and knowledge into story form enlivens the study for the student and hastens its sticking power in the child’s memory banks. This is our goal – to engage children in learning environments all day that will keep them wrestling with knowledge and ideas for the rest of their lives.  

         Now here is an excerpt from what I would consider a non-living book on the same subject as Fabre's. The information is factual, but the sentence structure is predictable (not the repeated use of the phrase "are present in"):

        Almost all of the 30,000 species of spiders are venomous. However, the fangs of most species are too short or too fragile to penetrate the skin. Serious systemic reactions most frequently occur with bites from brown spiders. Brown spiders are present in the Midwest and south central US, not in the coastal and Canadian border states, except when imported through clothing or luggage. Widow spiders are present throughout the US. Several venomous species are not native to the US but may be imported on produce or other materials or through commercial trade in spiders as novelty pets.

         Only a few spider venoms have been studied in detail. Of greatest significance are those having necrotizing venom components (in brown and some house spiders) and neurotoxic venom components (in widow spiders). The most toxic component of widow spider venom seems to be a peptide that affects neuromuscular transmission. The specific fraction of brown spider venom that causes the characteristic necrotic lesion has not been isolated.

          Tarantula bites are extremely rare and nonvenomous, but agitation of the spider may cause it to throw needle-like hairs. The hairs act as foreign bodies in skin or eyes and can trigger mast cell degranulation and an anaphylactoid reaction (eg, urticaria, angioedema, bronchospasm, hypotension) in sensitized people, usually pet owners who handle the spider daily.

        The study of Tarantulas is naturally going to be different for a Chemistry major in a university level class than it would be for a fourth grader in a public school classroom. Still, the enlivening of the study by offering engaging materials benefits all students in that it helps them retain the information and awakens within them a natural curiosity that will take them far. 

         In much the same way, our children became enamored with music when we allowed them to immerse themselves in it by performing in operas, singing in choirs that toured Europe, playing in youth orchestras, taking music lessons to become proficient on an instrument. These worthy endeavors all lead to the birth of dreams, the satisfying of desires, the awakening of the soul. Not every child (especially not one from a small mining town) has access to live opera or a community choir, but if you are so fortunate as to live in an area where you can take your students to see music performed live, do so! But make sure the music is engaging, just as you might choose an engaging living book. I'll leave you with a photo of my husband, daughter, son, and dog performing in La Boheme with the Central Piedmont Community College Opera. May the souls of your students come alive as you present them with living materials. Please share your successes with us! We'd love to hear from you! 

         "Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony;
but we must sustain a child's inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food."        (Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 109.)

"The question resolves itself into--What manner of book will find its way with upheaving effect into the mind of an intelligent boy or girl? We need not ask what the girl or boy likes. She very often likes the twaddle of goody-goody story books, he likes condiments, highly-spiced tales of adventure. We are all capable of liking mental food of a poor quality and a titillating nature; and possibly such food is good for us when our minds are in need of an elbow-chair; but our spiritual life is sustained on other stuff, whether we be boys or girls, men or women. By spiritual I mean that which is not corporeal; and which, for convenience' sake, we call by various names--the life of thought, the life of feeling, the life of the soul."                                    (Charlotte Mason, School Education, p 168.)

Principles on which to select School-Books:

         "I venture to propose one or two principles in the matter of school-books, and shall leave the far more difficult part, the application of those principles, to the reader. For example, I think we owe it to children to let them dig their knowledge, of whatever subject, for themselves out of the fit book; and this is for two reasons: What a child digs for is his own possession; what is poured into his ear, like the idle song of a pleasant singer, floats out as lightly as it came in, and is rarely assimilated. I do not mean to say that the lecture and the oral lesson are without their uses; but these uses are, to give impulse and to order knowledge; and not to convey knowledge, or to afford us that part of our education which comes of fit knowledge, fitly given."

         "Again, as I have already said, ideas must reach us directly from the mind of the thinker, and it is chiefly by means of the books they have written that we get into touch with the best minds."                             (Charlotte Mason, School Education, p 177)

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