Getting Started with a Book of Mottoes, or Commonplace Book

I just pulled a notebook off my little reading table and opened to the first page. And I can’t stop smiling at the diversity of wisdom and wit recorded there.

First is a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt:

“I decided to accept the fact that a man must be what he is, life must be lived as it is . . . you can not live at all if you do not learn to adapt yourself to your life as it happens to be.”

Next is an outstanding sentence from a letter Jane Austen wrote to a friend; it gives such a perfect example of her wit and her wonderful way with words:

“Excellent sweetness of you to send me such a nice long Letter; it made its appearance, with one from my Mother, soon after I and my impatient feelings walked in.”

And last on the page is this idea to ponder from Michelangelo:

“There’s no hurt that’s equal to time lost.”

This little notebook is full of excerpts and quotations and poetry that have quickened my enthusiasm and touched my heart over many years of reading. I keep it on my reading table right beside the stack of books that I’m currently reading, so it is right at hand to record any ideas that jump off the page at me. 

Some people call it a Commonplace Book; Charlotte Mason called it a Book of Mottoes. Whatever you want to call it, this notebook is a valuable tool for your student’s (and your) education.

Charlotte said,

“In the reading of the Bible, of poetry, of the best prose, the culling of mottoes is a delightful and most stimulating occupation, especially if a motto book be kept, perhaps under headings, perhaps not. It would not be a bad idea for children to make their own year-book, with a motto for every day of the year culled from their own reading. What an incentive to a good day it would be to read in the morning as a motto of our very own choice and selection, and not the voice of an outside mentor: ‘Keep ye the law; be swift in all obedience’!”

School Education, p. 135

That line, “Keep ye the law; be swift in all obedience” is from a Kipling poem. So the idea is that, as your student reads all of these great authors, he records any ideas that strike him in the words of that author. In this notebook, he can collect all of those great ideas in one place for quick reference and repeated instruction and inspiration.

This simple practice is a wonderful technique of self-education for several reasons. It encourages the habit of coming to a book with a mind on the lookout, alert and engaged, looking for good ideas. The exercise of handwriting the quotations provides regular practice in good penmanship. The quotes that are recorded offer continual moral encouragement and inspiration. And I love how Charlotte once again demonstrated her foundational principle of “respect the child as a person” by letting the student pick and choose those quotes that are meaningful to him. 

Think of it this way: We purposefully introduce to the student many great authors with living ideas. The student, then, purposefully records his favorite living ideas from those great authors. That’s a Book of Mottoes, or a Commonplace Book.

So let me give you three practical suggestions for how to help your student get started in this delightful lifelong practice. As with any writing exercise, some children will be ready earlier than others. I like to make it an optional activity beginning about fourth grade, then an actual assignment beginning about seventh grade. 

  1. Schedule an outing with the child. Stop at a favorite cafe for a bit and introduce the idea of the Book of Mottoes, discuss what it is, and mention some of the benefits of keeping one. Present this notebook as a practice that indicates a rite of passage into a grown-up’s activity. Maybe show the child your own Book of Mottoes or Commonplace Book and briefly share how it has enriched your own life. Then go shopping for a special journal of the child’s choice.

  2. Try to think of the Book of Mottoes as a helpful life habit that you want to instill in your child, rather than just a school assignment that must be completed. To help your student wrap his head around this practice, you’ll want to demonstrate how to cull inspiring quotes from books that you are reading.

    So perhaps when you are doing a family read-aloud, you will have your radar tuned for any potential quotes. After the reading is finished, you might take the child aside and point out that sentence or passage as a potential. But don’t force it. The Book of Mottoes is your child’s own collection, so defer to the child’s decision of what to include or not include in his notebook. 

    You could also scan a book that the child will be reading independently and look for potential excerpts. Then when you have your narration and discussion time together, you could point out that excerpt as a possibility or ask him if he found any.

  3. Use accountability to help your child cultivate the habit of adding to his Book of Mottoes. Whenever you decide to make it an assignment, you might set up a designated time to work on it. A good place to start is to require two or three lines per week. So maybe on Friday, you will gather at the table with your notebooks and some of the living books you have read from that week. Discuss some of the ideas that were read and together identify some possible passages for adding to the Book of Mottoes. Then let your student decide which quotation or passage he wants to transcribe that week, and give him time to do it right then. 

    As he gains experience and confidence in identifying what kinds of ideas he can put in his collection, remind him that he can add to his Book of Mottoes anytime; he doesn’t have to wait for the designated Friday sessions. In fact, if you start requiring two or three lines per week when your student is in seventh grade, by the time he is in high school, he will probably be ready to continue his Book of Mottoes on his own time. At that point, you might just do a check-in every week or so to make sure that he added at least three lines and to encourage him to keep going with the habit.

Keep in mind that it will be a gradual process for some children; others will take to it like a duck to water. With some, you will need to help them ease into it; others will jump in with a splash. Either way, use the Book of Mottoes as an opportunity to knit your hearts together over great words that communicate great ideas.

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