How to Prepare a Charlotte Mason Lesson

Last time we talked about what role the teacher plays in a Charlotte Mason-style lesson. If you haven’t already read that post, I encourage you to do that. Today we want to discuss how to prepare for a lesson so you can fulfill that role with confidence and freedom.

Now, there is a long-range type of planning that needs to be done as well as this shorter-range preparation. The long-range planning is done once a year or once a term. That includes selecting which subjects to teach, which topics you will cover in each of those subjects, what resources you’re going to use, which lessons you will do on which days of the week, and what each daily schedule will look like. I walk you through those long-range planning steps in the post called 5 Steps to Planning Your Charlotte Mason Education.

This post will focus on the short-term preparation for individual lessons. I encourage you to choose a weekly rhythm that will give you the most confidence as you teach. You might do this lesson preparation once a week or perhaps every day in the evenings, if that works best for you. The important thing is to find a rhythm that helps you head into each day’s lessons feeling prepared and confident.

Preparation Gives You Confidence

Many of you know that the organization that Charlotte Mason founded and directed was called the PNEU (Parents’ National Educational Union). One of the PNEU teacher handbooks gives this great encouragement:

The teacher must carefully prepare her material before presenting a lesson. If she has done this well her own confidence and her pupil’s will be increased.

The PNEU School Teacher’s Handbook: Forms III, IV & V, p. 6

Choose a weekly rhythm that will give you the most confidence as you teach. The important thing is to find a rhythm that helps you head into each day’s lessons feeling prepared.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced situations that we entered feeling unsure of ourselves. It’s not a pleasant state of mind to live in day in and day out. And if someone else is counting on you to lead the way, just as your student is counting on you to be a guide, any uncertainty or apprehension on your part is going to affect the atmosphere of those lessons. How much better to put in the preparation that will enable you to lead your student through those lessons with confidence. 

Yes, you will be learning alongside your student—and that’s great, you should be—but that doesn’t mean you must both learn exactly the same thing side-by-side at exactly the same time. You must prepare ahead of time if you’re going to indicate, stimulate, direct, and constrain effectively, as we discussed last time. You are the tour guide; your student will enjoy each day’s tour of knowledge much more if you lead with confidence. And that requires preparing.

Preparation Gives You Freedom

You must prepare ahead of time if you’re going to indicate, stimulate, direct, and constrain effectively.

The other thing that preparation will do for you is to give you freedom in dealing with the material. You need to gain your own knowledge from the material. If you don’t have your own knowledge of the material, it’s easy to slip into an information mind-set: just focusing on key facts and making sure they have been deposited into your student’s brain. But as we have discussed previously, and as Charlotte liked to remind us, “information is not education” (School Education, p. 169).

What’s the difference? Here’s how Charlotte described the difference:

The distinction between knowledge and information is, I think, fundamental. Information is the record of facts, experiences, appearances, etc., whether in books or in the verbal memory of the individual; knowledge, it seems to me, implies the result of the voluntary and delightful action of the mind upon the material presented to it. . . .

[Now listen to this; here is the result of gaining your own personal knowledge of the material during your preparation time.]

Because knowledge is power, the child who has got knowledge will certainly show power in dealing with it. He will recast, condense, illustrate, or narrate with vividness and with freedom the arrangement of his words.

School Education, pp. 224, 225

A person who has knowledge will have freedom in discussing the material, no matter how old that person is. Charlotte went on to say that a person who has got only information will cautiously stick to using only phrases exactly as given in the resource, or worse, will misrepresent what the author was saying. 

If we want our students to value knowledge, we must take the time to gain a personal knowledge of the material that we are going to guide the student through. And if we have formed a relation with the material ourselves, we will have freedom during the lessons to “recast, condense, illustrate, or narrate with vividness and freedom.” 

That’s what we want: confidence and freedom as we teach. So here’s how to get that.

Preparing a Charlotte Mason Lesson

Once a week or perhaps once a day, maybe every evening, do two things: go over the material and gather the resources. Let’s walk through those, so you know how to get the most out of your preparation time.

Go Over the Material

First, go over the material. That sounds simple enough, but what does “go over” mean? It means grab each resource that you will be using during the next day (or the next week) and read or listen to or study the portion that you will be covering in the upcoming lessons.

As you read or listen or study, ask yourself five questions:

How am I going to Review the previous lesson?

If the upcoming lesson is continuing in a book or a resource, you want to encourage your student to recall the previous section. Charlotte likened it to drawing the rope out of the well so it is ready to tie on the next lesson. You want to help your student connect the different sections so that, when you’re done with the book, the knowledge will form a continuous thread in his mind. The lessons won’t be just random bits, floating around, but a cohesive train of thought or flowing narrative.

This review does not have to be elaborate; in fact, it shouldn’t be. The teacher’s handbook that I mentioned earlier suggests that the review can be as simple as asking, “How far did we get last time?” Just a minute or two of review, in order to connect today’s lesson to the previous thread.

How am I going to Introduce this lesson?

Again, nothing elaborate or lengthy. We talked about this last time when we were discussing how to “stimulate.”

Before the reading for the day begins, the teacher should talk a little (and get the children to talk) about the last lesson, …

That’s the quick review, then

with a few words about what is to be read, in order that the children may be animated by expectation.

(Home Education, p. 232)

That’s the introduction.

This is also the time to draw the student’s attention to any key words or ideas and explain them if needed. The teacher’s handbook says:

Teach any new names of people and places or other difficult key words before beginning the reading so that there will be no need to break off to give explanation and so disturb the child’s concentration. Any difficult names should be written up somewhere where they can be seen during the reading.

The PNEU School Teacher’s Handbook: Forms I & II, p. 8

So as you are going over the material, look for those new names or key words and think about what “few words” you might say to fuel your student’s anticipation for the day’s lesson.

How am I going to Present this lesson?

Now, don’t get confused on this one. You are not going to read the material and then try to convey to your student all that you read. No, that kind of oral lesson is not the presenting that I’m talking about. That’s probably the kind of presenting that you experienced in school, but the Charlotte Mason way of teaching is different. Our job is to present the living book or work of art or piece of music to the student and get out of the way. We let the book or art or music piece be the teacher, and we encourage the student to form a personal relation and learn directly from the author or painter or composer.

But there are ways that we can bring the student and the author together that will enhance that mind-to-mind connection. Part of preparing a lesson is determining how to present the resource in a way that will help your student form a meaningful relation. 

One aspect to consider is the length of a passage to be read. We can sabotage a student’s attempts at forming a relation if we read too long of a passage. A beginning narrator will struggle with recalling and retelling a long passage and may give up and check out mentally. So a good practice when you are going over the material and preparing a lesson is to determine how much you’re going to read before pausing for a narration. You know your student better than anyone else, so adjust the readings to fit your student. We’ve talked in previous posts about adjusting the length of the reading, so I won’t go into it again today.

Another way you can smooth the way for your student is to use pictures or maps or diagrams to help him get an accurate image in his mind’s eye. The PNEU Teacher’s Handbook says, “Good pictures are useful, e.g., photographs of the places mentioned or pictures of objects that may be unfamiliar such as yokes and wineskins [in Bible lessons]” (The PNEU School Teacher’s Handbook: Forms I & II, p. 9). Some concepts can readily be imagined from a description, but other concepts will be clearer if you show a picture.

Then also determine if there are any concepts that you may need to summarize, explain, or enlarge. You know from last time’s episode that this type of oral teaching should be done occasionally. Be careful not to overdo it, but be open to the possibility that your student might benefit from a brief comment or two sometimes.

Those are the types of things that I mean by “How are you going to present this lesson?”: How are you going to portion out the readings? Would any pictures, maps, or illustrations help? and Do you need to briefly summarize, explain, or enlarge anything?

How am I going to encourage my student to Relate to this lesson?

And this question is all about what you will do to hold your student accountable for paying full attention and giving best effort. Remember, Charlotte said that it is a great motivation to the student to know that he will be required to give a narration. 

So think about narration prompts. For each lesson, determine what kind of narration will work best? Perhaps the chapter or the music or the poem will lend itself well to drawing a picture or acting out the story or writing a diary entry or sketching and labeling a diagram. There are many ways to ask for a narration. Here’s a list of narration prompt ideas that will help you start thinking of possibilities so you can select narration prompts that will work well.

You can also determine whether you want to include a discussion question after the narration is done. Remember, a discussion question is more along the lines of asking the student’s opinion. You might ask, “What do you think will happen next?” or “Do you agree with the choice this person made? Why?” or something like that. You don’t have to include discussion questions, but some lessons might lend themselves well to those types of questions. So as you prepare, consider whether you want to include a discussion question and what it might be.

Then also keep an eye out for any significant dates that your student can enter into his Book of Centuries. That little exercise will help him form relations between different lessons he has studied. As he enters a new name, he will see all the other names he has already entered during that same time period, and he will be able to form his own connections.

The main thing to remember for this part of the preparation is to provide an opportunity for your student to form relations and to share what he has learned through narrating, through discussing, and through recording something in a personal notebook. 

All right, the last question to ask yourself when you are preparing lessons is

What should I briefly Recapitulate at the end of this lesson?

As I was studying the sample lessons in Charlotte’s writings and in the Parents’ Review publications, I noticed that most of those lesson plans had a time of “recapitulation” at the end—a time for the teacher to briefly recap (which is short for “recapitulate”) key ideas that the lesson had conveyed. It’s just a nice way to wrap up the lesson rather than letting it sputter to a stop or maybe even finish with some random question your student asked. (You know what I mean.)

Again, this portion of the lesson should not be lengthy or elaborate. Some lessons might not need a final summary, or recapitulation. But if you have identified a key idea or two from that section of the book (or that art piece or whatever), you can quickly mention that idea again. It’s a great way to wrap up the lesson.

So those are the five questions to ask yourself as you go over the material for upcoming lessons:

  1. How am I going to Review the previous lesson?
  2. How am I going to Introduce this lesson?
  3. How am I going to Present this lesson?
  4. How am I going to encourage my student to Relate to this lesson?
  5. What should I briefly Recapitulate at the end of this lesson?

(And that was a recap of five key points in this post. See how quick and easy it is to recapitulate at the end?)

Gathering Resources

Now, really quickly, let’s talk about gathering resources. If you can make this a habit, it will contribute greatly to your feelings of confidence and freedom as you walk through your school day. Just take a few minutes the night before to collect all of the resources that you will need for the next day. Stack them in the order in which you will be using them, then put the stack where you can grab the resources quickly and easily as you go through the lessons. If you do some lessons at the kitchen table and some on the sofa, you might have two stacks. But make sure you have everything you will need collected and close at hand. That little tip will help you move from one subject to the next without those last-minute searches and frantic scrambles that can interrupt the flow and be so distracting.

And here’s a bonus tip. This is a way you can expand on that habit. Once a week or so, take a look further ahead at lessons for the next two or three weeks and see if you need to order any resources or put any books on hold at the library for those upcoming lessons.

So that’s how you prepare lessons in a Charlotte Mason way: go over the material, asking yourself those five questions, and gather the resources.

Save Yourself Some Time

The good news is that most of this preparation is already done for you in the Simply Charlotte Mason lesson plans. You will find reviews, introductions, key words, corresponding pictures or maps, brief explanations, and reminders of upcoming resources already written into those guides. And our narration notecards give you ready-made narration prompts. We created those resources specifically to save you time as you prepare and teach.

Even with those helpful ready-to-go plans, you will still gain confidence and freedom if you set aside a little time to go over the material, customize it for your student, and gather the resources for each day. Remember, as with any new habit, preparing for your lessons will get easier the more you do it. It will take practice, and it might feel a bit awkward at first. But don’t give up. The more you do it, the easier it will get. And I think you will notice a big difference in yourself as a teacher. You will feel more confident and have more freedom in the lessons when you prepare. Try it and see.