Learning As You Homeschool with Charlotte Mason

Let me tell you, most Charlotte Mason homeschoolers are learning as we go. Sometimes we look at other Charlotte Mason homeschoolers around us and we think, “Wow, look at everything they know.” We think they’ve always known about the artists and the composers and the nature and the handicrafts, but that’s not the case. Let me assure you. All of us have had to learn as we go along. Here to help me discuss that topic is Amber O’Neal Johnston.

Sonya: Thanks for joining us again, Amber.

Amber: You’re welcome. I’m excited to be here.

Sonya: This whole idea of learning as we go, can you relate to that at all?

Amber: Absolutely. It’s something I feel like I’m constantly letting moms know, experienced and new Charlotte Mason moms, that I have not always known what I know today and I’m still learning.

Sonya: Let’s back up. Tell us how long you’ve been doing Charlotte Mason and how you got started. So we’ll kind of back the camera up a little bit and start at the beginning.

Amber: We’ve been doing this for six years and then I had a year of study before we started. I’d been introduced to her principles and ideas really early on. Thankfully, I had a year where I was nursing a baby and had time to sit and read and read and read. Since then we’ve been actively pursuing it for six years.

Sonya: So when you started in, I’m assuming you didn’t know everything about everything in the Charlotte Mason approach. What subjects would you say were the biggest learning curve?

Amber: All of them. Everything except math. I’m joking, but in a way I’m also serious. I was not what you could consider to be an expert on anything other than the basic subjects that I had in school. But even then, the way that we do them is so different than how it was. I took AP History in high school and did well with it. This is totally different than that, this is not that. What we’re doing—we’re just living it out through our books. So I would say I wasn’t an expert at any of them. Some of the more challenging ones for me were the artists and composers. Part of it was the pronunciations. These were words that I had seen before in my reading but I really was never around a group of people who were talking out loud about these people.

Sonya: I always joke about how I had heard of Monet [pronounced “moh-NETT”].

Amber: Yes, that’s basically it. I always share a story that I took my kids and we went to the Art Institute in Chicago, and we got an Airbnb and we made this big deal about it: “We’re going go see people!” And I went to the desk and asked, “Can you please show me the direction to the pictures by David?” [pronounced “DAY vid”] And he was like, “David?” I said, “Yeah, these, I want to show my kids.” And he was like, “Oh, it’s David.” [pronounced “dah VEED”] And I was like, “Okay, thank you.” So that was just like, this is me right here. But you know what? I was there with my children and I showed them those pictures and I laughed at myself and I said, “You don’t know what you don’t know. It looks like David to me.” That was an area.

I grew up playing the cello and so was exposed to all types of classical music, but I approached my music as a subject in school just like “Check it, you play it and move on.” I never listened to that music. So being accustomed to hearing it and hearing it and playing it around the house and connecting it with certain artists was different.

Nature study: I tell people I was raised in the air conditioning and so, “Go out in nature and do what?” I don’t fish. I don’t hunt. So I couldn’t really possibly know. So I think almost every subject that we do for our lessons now, almost all of it was new to me.

Sonya: As you said, there’s the body of information in that subject. You had taken AP History, so you had memorized the facts, I’m assuming. You had some of the information, but you didn’t have all the information. But then there’s also that whole body of the methods being used, and so when you put those two together, there’s a change. I think most homeschool parents have to deal with the content. “I don’t remember how to do algebra,” those types of challenges. But when you throw in, “Now we’re going to do it a whole different way,” it can seem like a scary obstacle.

Amber: It feels overwhelming, and what I found is just getting started is the hardest part, because with history for example, I’m like, “I don’t know.” But when we started reading the books, it was so interesting and it started coming alive in such a tangible way that it became almost like the subject taught itself.

Sonya: Yes.

Amber: I was able to take a back seat; and I can say I learned history, but I never heard these stories. I learned about things and events and dates, but not people. So this is a different beast. I feel like in a lot of ways I’m guiding my children but I’m also sitting next to them. We’re on this trip together. We’re taking a trolley ride and I’m maybe the seat in front of them, but I’m still on the same trolley and we’re following this path together.

I feel like in a lot of ways I’m guiding my children but I’m also sitting next to them. We’re on this trip together. We’re taking a ride and I’m maybe the seat in front of them, but I’m still on the same trolley and we’re following this path together.

Sonya: So is that where you started—history? Is that the first subject?

Amber: It is. Because I had read that so many things were rooted in that and you’re going to really go into your time period. Also, we had been spending a lot of time out in our community. Before formal lessons started, we were used to going to the local museums. We’re in Georgia where there’s a lot of rich history all around us, pretty much everywhere we go. So that was the easiest thing for me to grasp hold of and to root some of those other things. I didn’t know which artists to pick, I didn’t know which composers. But once I saw what we were doing in history, it made it easier for me to at least have an idea where to start with some of the other lessons that we would add in.

Sonya: So then how did you approach that? Do you remember?

Amber: Yes.

Sonya: How did you go out about it?

Amber: I went to the Simply Charlotte Mason website. (I hesitate to say that, but I also can’t think of something else fast enough!) But just because with the composer studies and the artist folders, I could look at the dates on them, because I really didn’t know. Yes, I had heard of Beethoven and Bach and Mozart, but I didn’t know what years they were born and lived in honestly. I didn’t know how to match up artists and which pictures to pick. I was still trying to figure out what a living biography is. I wasn’t sure what to look for even at the library. I wanted this so badly, but I couldn’t do it all at the same time. So where there were opportunities, where some of this had been organized for me, I went with that. I looked and asked, “What are other moms doing?” I didn’t just blindly pick that, but at least it narrowed down the playing field for me where I could say, “These are the artists, these are the composers. This poet has wonderful poetry for children that may relate to some of the things or some of the experiences that we’re talking about.” It gave me an opportunity to narrow down the playing field where I could select from a smaller group of things. That was an important part for me.

Sonya: I often think of it like spinning plates. It’s like, “Okay, we’re going to get the history plate spinning. Once we’re comfortable with that, then we’re going to add in the music study plate and get that one spinning. Okay, now let’s take a dive into composers and add that in.” But then, as I was going through, I went through the same process. I didn’t have Simply Charlotte Mason to go to, but I went through the same process of finding other people and just doing research. It’s a journey. And I’m still learning more things now. I remember, I got history going pretty well and one of the first things I did was narration, learning how to do narration. But about five years into it, I discovered I’d been doing the narration lesson wrong. I knew the concept of “tell it back in your own words,” but I had not fine tuned it into “First you review, then you set up today’s reading. Now we read and narrate.” I was missing that whole first chunk. We’re still learning as we go, and I’m still learning as I go. I’m still trying to figure out new handcrafts, and it took me many years before I realized how Charlotte actually taught spelling. I was using a spelling curriculum because that was one area I hadn’t researched yet. Because there are so many subjects we put into a Charlotte Mason education, there are so many subjects to research.

Amber: Yes, you can’t become an expert at all of them all at the same time. I found that same situation with me. You brought up spelling. When I was doing dictation, I was just like, “Here you go. Study this. I’ll be back.” I wasn’t walking through that passage with my children. We weren’t looking at what some of the words were that might trip us up or talking about it. It was just, “Here’s something that we’re going to do next and you’re going to study this and then I’m going to come back and I’m going to read it to you one time and you’re going to write it all out.”

Sonya: “And it’s going to be perfect.”

Amber: Yes. I was like, “It’s just not working.” That’s just something that we’ve had to grow into, and it’s been okay. One thing that has given me a lot of peace is that, even with all of the subjects that we don’t execute perfectly from the very beginning—let’s just take what we are doing well, and then all of the other things that we’re learning and growing on—I still feel, even at the baseline, it’s a beautiful education my children are receiving. That’s one of the things that helps center me, so I don’t start feeling anxious about what I don’t know or what we haven’t done or when I find out that we should’ve been doing something differently. I think what we were doing is so far above and beyond what I did when I was growing up, that it’s still good. I think that helps.

Sonya: It does, and you hit on a good point. It’s so easy for us when we discover, “Oh I haven’t been doing this exactly as Charlotte Mason outlined or in a way that would work best with my child, there’s still more to learn about this particular subject.”—it’s so easy for us to fall into what I call Bad Mommy Syndrome. “Just give me the bad-mommy trophy; I’ll put it on the shelf with all the others.” How can we encourage our listeners in that area—that we’re all still at this together? Nobody is doing everything perfectly in all of the subjects.

Amber: It’s so true, and for a long time, especially if you’re someone who watches a lot of videos or reads online a lot in the Charlotte Mason community, you start feeling like Charlotte Mason moms are these amazing people who know everything about everything. I was feeling bad about myself, but I started really looking. And I was like, “She knows a lot about nature and nature study. Another mom knows a lot about different types of handicrafts. And this mom over here is really, really excellent with the living math.” And separately, they are all kind of sharing with the community within their gifting; but this is not just one composite woman who knows all of these things at top level. We all have different gifting, and for some of us, and myself I would use as an example, it’s not this one subject area of Charlotte Mason where you are gung ho about that area. But some of us are a little bit “Janes of all trades.” In my house, we hit everything; we do a little bit of everything and it’s good and we’re getting better, but I don’t have a “Wonder Woman” area that I really stand out in, and that’s okay too. I think being more realistic about the fact that none of us has a super power in being able to know everything about every lesson that Charlotte Mason laid before us, but part of the fun and the learning is the journey, it’s getting there. So I think there are resources we can depend on and lean into to help with those things as we go.

Sonya: Yes, absolutely. It’s funny that when you say you’re kind of the “Jane of all trades,” it’s like you are rising the tide across the board. It looks like that to other people. Everything’s going up at the same time and other moms really excel in this area or excel in that area. But when we were talking earlier you mentioned that people who know you, your longtime friends who know you from pre-Charlotte Mason days, look at you, and what do they say?

Amber: “Who are you?” The person I am today is totally different than who I was before I started on this path, and it amazes even me. I’m kind of like, “Who am I?” But it gives me so much hope in that, each day taking the next step. And I do set goals, and I’ll think, “For this school year we are going to watercolor and we are going to love it and be good at it.” In some years we do dig in deeper in a certain area where I see that I haven’t been, maybe I’ve been shying away because I have no idea what I’m doing, and I’ll just intentionally lean in there. So I think that we can change. That’s the one thing, we can legitimately change over time if that’s what we’d like to do. A lot of the change comes naturally. It doesn’t all have to be clawed for through really hard work. For me, I think more than it being hard, it’s about being consistent. I am consistently working to learn more, but I’m not scrambling or forcing it. It’s just coming along as we go.

Sonya: That is so much what we want our kids to learn, isn’t it? That science of relations is a gradual process, those small constant touches are going to add up to something great. And we don’t want to force and pressure our children: “You must learn all of this in all of these areas, and you better do it whether it’s fun or not.” It’s the same for us as we are learning these things. I like how you highlighted that aspect. It is a journey, and we can enjoy the journey instead of saying, “I haven’t got to that goal yet,” and get tunnel vision and not even look at the journey as we go.

Amber: That’s what’s making me enjoy what I’m doing. I’m having fun and I’m growing as a person, and my children are growing too.

Sonya: And that’s something we’re showing our kids too. Learning, growing, and continuing to grow and learn throughout our entire lives is enjoyable.

Amber: That’s right, it’s pleasurable. Something that’s worthwhile and it feels good.

Sonya: Thanks, Amber.

Amber: You’re welcome.