Some of you have asked about notebooking and whether that is a Charlotte Mason method. It’s a good question, and the answer all depends on what you’re thinking of when you think “notebooking.”

For some people, notebooking is like scrapbooking. You tuck postcards and maps, stickers and photographs, pamphlets and articles from magazines on the pages in an attractive arrangement.

For some, notebooking is more of a portfolio. You include samples or pictures from all kinds of assignments that your child has completed: book reports, board games, jigsaw puzzles, movie reviews, paper dolls, flattened paper crafts, posters, diagrams, and science experiments.

For other people, notebooking is a collection of worksheet-type assignments. The child completes word puzzles or cut-and-paste-style mini books or coloring pages or fill-in-the-blank guides—any kind of pre-printed sheet with step-by-step instructions for the child to complete it.

But none of those descriptions of notebooking accurately reflects the notebooks that Charlotte Mason used with her students. Charlotte’s students used notebooks in a variety of subjects. They had a nature notebook, a Book of Centuries, a math notebook, and a Book of Mottoes, plus notebooks for beginning reading, handwriting, and spelling. But all of those notebooks had one thing in common: they were all blank.

The students began with a blank journal and an idea: record what you are learning. Give it your full attention and do your best work. There was no busywork, no uniform step-by-step instructions to make each student’s page look just like everyone else’s. What those notebooks became—what those pages were going to look like—was up to each student. Now, the teacher might give some guidance, but the notebooks became a personal reflection of each student’s knowledge.

You see, blank pages require the learner to think more deeply. “From all of those ideas that I’ve been reading or observing or thinking about, what exactly do I want to put on this page? How do I want to word it? What do I want it to look like?” Giving the student the scope of a blank page offers countless options for creativity and for the child’s individual personality to shine through. It also requires deeper thinking than if he is simply filling in the blanks on a pre-printed page or following the step-by-step instructions to cut and paste and color just like so.

It’s also supporting a very important habit: the habit of self-education. A person who has learned how to read or observe for himself, and then to record his ideas and observations from that learning, can continue to do that for the rest of his life. He is not dependent on others to tell him what he should be writing or drawing or remembering. He has the tools he needs for self-education. And if a student can practice those skills—use those tools of self-educating—all the way through his school years, they will become a habit and he will naturally develop fluency in self-educating. That’s why Charlotte’s notebooks were blank.

Let me give you a quick rundown of how each notebook that I mentioned was used in a Charlotte Mason education.

Nature Notebook

The nature notebook was a blank journal with thick paper that could support painted illustrations. The child was required to record what he personally observed about different nature friends. Entries could be made in writing (If the child was unable to do the writing himself, the parent or teacher could do the writing as the child dictated what he wanted to say.); the entries could also be made in drawing or painting. These notebooks became personal records of each child’s growing relationship with nature.

Book of Centuries

The Book of Centuries was a timeline journal. It had the dates across the top of the pages, and the older students would create their own Century-at-a-Glance tables. The blank pages were for recording key people and events that the students came across in their reading assignments. As they flipped to the appropriate pages and filled in different people or events, they formed their own connections as they noticed the people and events that were already recorded there. “Oh, look at that! Jonah went to Nineveh about the same time as the first Olympics were held in Greece.”

Each student can also enter pertinent milestones and trace the history of personal interests or hobbies. Perhaps she’s interested in fashion or furniture or architecture or trains. She can add sketches of what that item looked like in each century, personalizing her Book of Centuries even more.

Math Notebook

The math notebook was full of blank grid paper. Especially in the elementary years, most of the math was done orally. Once the student demonstrated that she had grasped the concept, she was allowed the privilege of recording one of the problems in her math notebook after she had solved it. The amount of writing was increased as the student progressed. In this way the math notebook became a record of each student’s personal growth in arithmetic. And using grids is a brilliant idea! Grids help the student keep the numbers neat and keep place values aligned, plus the grid size can be adjusted to fit your student’s handwriting ability as she grows.

Book of Mottoes

A Book of Mottoes, sometimes called a commonplace book, was a journal that the older students created from their reading. It encouraged them to stay engaged in the reading and to look for ideas and quotations that stood out to them. Those quotations or excerpts were to be transcribed into their Books of Mottoes. Again, the journals started out blank and became a personal reflection of the ideas that struck each child individually. The teacher would simply check to make sure that at least two lines had been written into that journal each week. Which lines were added was up to the student. Do you see how this practice also sets up this mind-set of self-educating and encourages it to become a habit?

Beginning Reading Notebook

The beginning reading notebook was called My Word Book. It was a blank journal in which the parent would record the words that the child had learned how to read. It was like the child’s treasure chest of words that he knew. Again, a personal record of that child’s individual growth and learning.

Handwriting and Spelling Notebooks

Then the handwriting and spelling notebooks are similar. They were journals in which the students wrote their copywork and transcription and dictation passages as they progressed through those stages. 

As you can see, Charlotte Mason notebooks are nothing fancy, nothing that requires a lot of preparation on the teacher’s part. Yet they can become cherished records and beautiful reflections of each child’s personal growth and develop that important habit of self-educating.

That’s notebooking the Charlotte Mason way.