Is Charlotte Mason Enough for Older Students?

Is Charlotte Mason only for the younger students? Sometimes we hear people say, well, I’ll do Charlotte Mason with my younger kids, but it’s not rigorous enough for my older ones. Or they won’t say it’s not rigorous enough, they just won’t use it for their older ones. They think it’s only for younger children. We want to address that question today, and joining me is Amber O’Neal Johnston.

Sonya: Good to have you back, Amber.

Amber: Yes. Thanks for letting me be here.

Sonya: Let’s talk about this concept of Charlotte Mason for the younger children, but not for the older children.

Amber: Yes. This is something I’ve gotten feedback on so many times. And as I inch closer and closer, I have a teenager now and she’s been educated this way from the beginning, I get a lot of questions. “Oh, you’re not going to start, you know, real school or real lessons with her?”

Sonya: Wow.

Amber: It’s now that she’s in middle school and has become a teenager. There are a lot of myths surrounding the rigor or the intensity of a Charlotte Mason education. And that’s something that I wish to talk to people about more.

Sonya: Yes. Now for those of us who have studied Charlotte Mason, it blows our minds what she required of the older students. So if you’re studying it, you don’t have that misconception. I was just looking over some of the exam questions that they had for 12-year-olds, and it was “Draw a map of this particular area and describe it.” And it had exam questions in three different languages, plus Latin. That would be the fourth language. And they weren’t easy exam questions either. It’s just astounding to me what the older children studied.

Amber: I agree. It’s really telling that my children love exam week. Despite the difficult nature of some of the questions, it gives them an opportunity to show what they know, rather than that kind of, “Gotcha, here’s that one thing you don’t remember.” It’s not giving you a chance to tell me all that you do know and remember. There’s a sense of excitement students have to share. So it’s not that exam week is easy, and therefore this is great for little kids but not older students, no. In fact, there’s nothing to hide behind. There are no multiple choice questions. There’s nothing you can guess. You are going to know, and be able to share and tell, or you won’t know.

It’s really telling that my children love exam week. Despite the difficult nature of some of the questions, it gives them an opportunity to show what they know, rather than that kind of, “Gotcha, here’s that one thing you don’t remember.”

Sonya: And you can’t cram for it.

Amber: No, you can’t cram for it. You can’t study for it.

Sonya: No way.

Amber: If anything, this is more difficult than what most of us grew up with or what we’re accustomed to. But the demeanor of the students who are being educated with Charlotte Mason’s philosophy can sometimes lead us to believe that they aren’t engaging in deep learning. Sometimes I look at it and say it’s because they’re happy. There’s a level of peace as they go about their studies. They’re typically engaged, highly engaged with a lot of discussions and beautiful writing.

Sonya: That doesn’t look like my high school experience.

Amber: No! And I think about myself and I was stacked up with all these AP classes, as many extracurricular activities as I could possibly fit, studying up all night, cramming and studying, trying to get as many things to fit into my day as possible. I felt like there were a lot of white knuckle moments. I was nodding off and feeling exhausted, but I had to do all the things all the time and do them really well. If that’s what we’re looking for from our Charlotte Mason teens, we’re not going to see that. Sometimes that’s what we are mistaking, that frantic-ness, the difficult-ness, the difficulty, the stressfulness, and we are calling that rigor. And we’d like to see that in a Charlotte Mason education. I have to sit back and think, “Do I really want to see that?” And no, I don’t. That’s not the life that I wish for my children, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t engaging deeply. The students in my home, my children, they’re already reading material far beyond things that I engaged with even through college, and they are able to discuss things. And because I did cram, I’m not able to discuss much of what I studied or learned.

Sometimes that’s what we are mistaking, that frantic-ness, the difficult-ness, the difficulty, the stressfulness, and we are calling that rigor.

Sonya: What’s interesting is when we’re talking about stress and pressure and what that looks like, so many studies have been done that show that when the brain gets under stress, it tends to shut down.

Amber: Yes.

Sonya: Rather than actually work the way it’s supposed to. So of course, yeah, we are not going to remember those things and be able to discuss them freely. It’s the difference between information and knowledge. Being able to work with knowledge is being able to work with that material with freedom—to condense it, to illustrate it, to rephrase it. That’s what we want for our children. So we really do need to take that pressure off. They’re in a better place without the pressure because their brains are going to work more freely.

Amber: Speaking of brains working freely, I think that that is part of what we see when we talk about some of the delight in this type of education. They are doing so many different things with their brains. They’re not just going from one class, to the next class, to the next class, with us asking them to exhibit the same skills and the same level of attention to the same type of material. Whether it be a lecture, or just write, and then go write, and then go write some more. But they are singing folk songs and hymns, and reciting poetry and Bible verses, and creating art, studying art, listening to music. Those enrichments are an important part of their education. You could be doing math and giving your full attention to that, but then you’re singing a hymn, and then you are studying a historical time period using historical fiction or a biography, and then you are using watercolors and painting, These are things that make your day flow and your week flow that may appear as if, “Oh, they’re not really working all that hard.” But working very effectively is what we’re doing.

Sonya: Yes, working smart. One of the places where people might get the misconception that CM is not rigorous is from the low stress level, let’s put it that way, that our children have. Let’s talk about those enrichments as well. Sometimes when people who have not studied Charlotte Mason very deeply, when they think of CM, all they think about is the enrichments. Yes, we’re still giving those to our children. Maybe they’re just zeroing in on that aspect of it.

Amber: That could very well be. Perhaps that’s fair because I know as a Charlotte Mason mom, when I’m with my other CM mom friends, we do spend a lot of our time talking about enrichments. That’s what we share about on social media, that’s what we chat about and write about. A part of it is because they are delightful and they bring a lot of joy to us as well as our children. It’s also because those are the things that are part of what makes this education so different than what we all experienced. We have a higher learning curve, a lot of times, with incorporating those things and “spreading the feast,” as we like to say. So we talk about the things that are getting a lot of our attention, but that doesn’t mean that the core academic subjects that people consider to be more traditional aren’t being done. They absolutely are. We just don’t talk about them.

Sonya: We don’t effuse about algebra. It’s like that’s almost taken for granted.

Amber: It’s a given.

Sonya: Yes, in our heads. Just because, as you said, the enrichments are new to us. So that’s what we tend to discuss more like, “Hey, which artist are you doing? And which composer are you happy with now?” And things like that. That is what tends to bubble to the top.

Amber: Yes. There’s a level of creativity around the enrichments too. So we are swapping notes and wondering “Where have you heard this, and how have you come to this?” I can see why some people may think that that’s what they do. They run and frolic in creeks and read poetry all day.

Sonya: If that’s all we did, it would not be rigorous.

Amber: No, it wouldn’t. That’s why we’re here talking about this today, to dispel that myth. We are doing so much more than that. For older students, if anything, Charlotte Mason’s programs were very progressive. At each level the children got exactly what they needed for where they were at that time. And it was such a good match. So you don’t see the tension and the stress of overreaching, or the boredom of not being fulfilled with good ideas, and thoughts, and things to interact with. With that progression, it continues on through middle school and into the high school years. It never stops. I actually am impressed. I used to feel intimidated, but now that I have older students, rather than feel intimidated about what they’re working on, I’m impressed and really enjoy engaging with them on some of these pursuits and their readings.

Now that I have older students, rather than feel intimidated about what they’re working on, I’m impressed and really enjoy engaging with them on some of these pursuits and their readings.

Sonya: When we first started out with CM, I don’t know about you, but when I thought of high school, it was like, “Whoa.” But as you said, it is so progressive, and we are learning along with our children. When you get to middle school, it’s like, “Oh, well we’re just doing one more step from where we’ve been and this isn’t so bad. We’ll just keep going.” Then you get to high school, and it’s like, “Oh, well it’s just one more step.” So it’s not intimidating to us as we go along with our children.

Amber: It’s true. And you’re ready for it. Your children are ready, and you’re ready. It’s almost that you tend to hunger for that next step, that next revelation of, “What will this next year reveal to us in terms of what we’ll be learning and talking about?” It’s exciting. There’s a role in that too. In our society, we’re not necessarily used to people speaking so enthusiastically about education and lessons. We do tend to be enthusiastic and excited about what we’re learning. That’s a very positive thing, but sometimes it can scare people. They think if they are speaking this positively and this enthusiastically, it must be because it’s easy. That is an area where we could all grow as we shift our understanding that a life full of ideas is exciting. Being stretched feels good.

Sonya: Yes. As long as they’re not stretched, like, on a rack, you know? (laughs) And, and that’s when we talk about how it’s just the next step. It can be misinterpreted as we’re taking baby steps. So we never get past a certain level, you know? So what we’re calling high school really isn’t that hard because we’ve just been taking these little baby steps. In reality, when we talk about taking the next step, it is, as you said, challenging and fulfilling at the same time, because it is causing us to grow in so many different areas, and stretch.

Amber: The proof is in the pudding too. So anyone who’s had the pleasure of being at a conference or somewhere where there’s a gathering of Charlotte Mason teens, you can just sit back and watch and listen. Any fear that you may have will dissipate. That happened to me early on. I was at an event and the teens had tables set up where they were sharing different things they were working on throughout this school year. It was varied; some of them were artistic pursuits, some of them had laptops open showing the businesses that they had created, and some had collections of things–arrowheads and different things that they were collecting. I was fascinated. I was fascinated by the varied degree of passions the children had developed. I was fascinated by the degree of just how good everything was. I was thinking “My goodness, these are young people. But they are presenting with their passions and the things that they’ve studied deeply and have engaged with; they are presenting them like you would expect a professional to present, in that way.”

Sonya: That might be because they’ve been narrating.

Amber: It could be, and it worked. That let me relax. I felt my shoulders go down because I got a glimpse of the future. And I said, “Okay, I see where this is headed. And it looks so different than anything that I’ve ever seen before.” It’s understandable that there could be some fear, and perhaps that’s another argument for community—being able to walk this journey with other people at different stages so that we can be there for each other to say “It’s okay,” and give a glimpse of what’s coming next.

Sonya: As you said, it looks different. That might be also what can contributes to a misconception: we don’t have all of the multiple choice tests. We don’t have all of the textbooks. We don’t have the backpack, whatever it is. But instead we’re looking at pictures. We’re reciting poetry. So, talk a little bit about how we can encourage non-Charlotte Mason people, or those who are new to Charlotte Mason and have this idea of, “Well, that’s okay for the little kids.” How can we encourage, aside from saying, “Here, come sit in my home. and listen to my older kid”? We don’t want to put our kids on the spot. Right?

Amber: That never goes well.

Sonya: They don’t appreciate that at all. So what are some ways that we might be able to come alongside in community and encourage the younger moms, encourage the not-as-familiar-with-Charlotte Mason moms who, as you said, “It’s going to be okay. It’s all going to be, even though it looks different.”

Amber: One thing, of course, and I know a lot of new moms get tired of hearing us say this, but studying the volumes will do wonders, because that is where you really get a vision for the full progression. And the further on you get, you may see fewer people, you may hear from fewer people out in the public, on social media, or wherever you’re listening. You’ll hear from a lot of people with little kids and maybe a little bit less and a little bit less. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not there. I find that sometimes they have pulled back a little bit from being out in the center and talking about it all the time. But in the volumes, you can see just how these teens are spending their time. And you see this progressive independence. That’s another thing, in the younger years, some people feel like in Charlotte Mason, the mom is so intense that she’s right there on every move. And you are, you’re building this foundation but the teens become very independent.

Sonya: Self-education is the goal.

Amber: Yes. And you see that, almost to perfection. And you see it, what she talks about, and how she describes in her volumes. Reading the volumes is number one. Joining a group is very, very helpful because if you’re just out here trying to make all these connections on your own, sometimes that can be very difficult. But in a group you’ll see the seasons of education from other families. And the beautiful thing about it is that as you’re learning from the families around you, there’s someone else watching you. Even if you think you have nothing to give, you’re brand new, there is someone who can learn from where your child is or where you are, and maybe even just learn from your questions that she hasn’t thought to ask. Those are a couple of things. The last one would be: don’t skip the enrichments. Sometimes I see people clamping down and they’re like, “Okay, I have to really do this. And we have to do all the real stuff. And we’re just only going to do math, history, science, and grammar.”

Sonya: Just get ready for the ACT or the SAT.

Amber: Yes, and I want to really discourage that. Not only for the sanctity of the Charlotte Mason education, but she didn’t make any of this up just to be flowery or just to be impressive or sound good. It all really does work together. I see the elements of the poetry playing out in the written narration that are also bringing in grammar. I see the stories from the historical fiction interacting with the geography that they’re talking about and really understanding what was happening in this time and place. I see geography models being informed by biographies they’ve read. It’s like a web. So as hard as it may be, because it is so different than what most of us had, I would encourage all moms to give every bit of it a try and just allow your child to marinate. You might not see all of this come together right away. But as they get older, you sit back, and you listen to them and you read what they’re writing, and you’re like, “Oh, this is it. Now I get it.”

Sonya: Yes. Good word. Thank you.

Amber: You’re welcome.