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Starting Charlotte Mason Homeschooling in High School
I recently watched a rehearsal for a folk dancing group. There were only five ladies on the floor, but the dances were quite involved. Each lady held half of a hula hoop in an arch over her head as they all stepped in time to a lulling waltz, forming intricate designs that gently changed into other intricate designs. My companion told me that in performance the dancers would hold beautiful arches of flowers; the hula hoops were only for practice. I could almost picture the lovely colors and fluttering ribbons that they would take with them into the competition.
One of the dancers was new. No one announced it; you could just tell. She appeared to be uneasy, a bit ruffled; and she was constantly craning her neck to watch everyone else for a clue as to what her next step should be. That strategy didn’t work so well, though, because most of the patterns were formed by each dancer going her own way and stepping her own routes at the right times. Our anxious newbie often found herself facing the wrong direction, standing in the wrong place, or, worse, crashing into one of the other dancers.
As the practice wore on, you could see that her flustered feeling was not diminishing and her arms looked like they were getting tired of holding the hoop above her head. But she kept going, valiantly trying to learn how to do something that everyone else had been doing for years.
I don’t know how much time they had before their performance, and I’m curious what happened in the following weeks. Perhaps the new dancer persevered and is making steady progress toward mastering those beautiful designs. Perhaps she grew discouraged and quit. Much of that question depends upon that lady as a unique person, an individual.
I think that’s how it is with starting anything new, and especially trying to learn something new when you are under time pressure. The knowledge that a deadline is looming on the horizon adds extra challenge. How you respond to that challenge depends a lot on your personality, your past experiences, and your individual character.
The same holds true for starting the Charlotte Mason approach in high school. Starting in the elementary grades isn’t quite so daunting, for you have plenty of time to “learn the moves.” But starting in later years, especially in high school, adds time pressure and extra challenges. And how you respond to those challenges will depend on both the student and the parent as individuals.
Today as we wrap up this series on homeschooling with the Charlotte Mason Method through high school, let’s talk through some of the challenges of starting in high school.
High School Question #51: I can’t say I am a CMer. I have heard Sonya speak at a few events, I know many CMers, I even co-op with some! But I do still feel a little… lost. I LOVE the ideas. I even see ways that I could implement some of them with my elementary children, but not with my middle schoolers and high schoolers. Especially starting as a newbie. How can you start a CM education when you aren’t starting at the beginning?
Keep in mind that a Charlotte Mason education is a method, not a system; and that method is built on some basic tenets. Try not to get lost in all the details of various curricula that are available. It might be helpful to take a step back and look at just three broad concepts—three components that make a Charlotte Mason education distinctive: great books, good habits, and a wide variety of subjects.
You might not be able to jump into every facet of a Charlotte Mason education at this point, but those three aspects will go a long way toward enriching your high school student’s heart and mind and helping him grow as a person. You can cultivate an atmosphere of magnanimity in your home, work with your young adult to form helpful habits, and provide wonderful living ideas through great books. And isn’t that what Charlotte said comprise education: atmosphere, discipline, and life?
The next question will give some practical help for dipping your toe into the water.
High School Question #52: It all seems so overwhelming when you look at the big picture of a Charlotte Mason education. What are some good baby steps to begin with?
Let’s build off those three components that were mentioned above—great books, good habits, and a wide variety of subjects—to give you some ideas.
First, great books. Take a look at the time period that your high schooler is studying for history and assign a living biography or classic historical fiction from the same time period. (You’ll find living book suggestions in the SCM Curriculum book lists and in the CM Bookfinder.) Spread the readings out over several weeks and challenge your student to narrate what he reads as he goes along. By incorporating just those two methods—living books and narration—you will be teaching him two powerful tools that will equip him to self-educate for the rest of his life.
Second, good habits. Prayerfully and thoughtfully make a short list of two or three habits that are most needed in your high schooler’s life. Select habits that will have the most impact on his future life as an adult. Then pick only one from the list. Sit down with your student and have a short heart-to-heart discussion. Explain that your goal over the next months is to help prepare him for life as an adult, and one of the ways you want to help him is to focus on good habits that will serve him well in the future. Ask him for ideas of what habits he thinks would be beneficial. If he comes up blank, suggest the one that you thought of and lay out the benefits of that habit. How will it make his life easier and better? Then determine how you two can work together toward that common goal. Agree to focus on that one habit for the next two months; at that point you can reevaluate and pick another habit to work on. You might want to both read and discuss the book, Laying Down the Rails for Yourself, during those weeks. It outlines how habits are formed and gives strategies for cultivating them in your own life.
Third, a wide variety of subjects. Even if your student is using other curriculum for his high school studies, you can easily add a ten-minute picture study once a week. Do it during lunch, if that works best for his schedule. Once you have the weekly picture study in place, you could add an element of music study by playing a certain composer’s music during lunch another day of the week. Mention the composer’s name casually. When you are comfortable with those two elements, you could start reading a poem during lunch on another day of the week. Linger with one poet for several months. Near the end of that time, invite your student to tell you his favorite poem of the bunch. Nothing demanding or strenuous, but each small touch, when done consistently, will contribute to that wonderful wide variety of subjects.
High School Question #53: Is it possible to start in high school?
Absolutely, yes. It is possible to start using Charlotte Mason methods in high school. It is also most likely going to be a challenge, because much of a CM approach in high school builds on the foundation that should have been laid in earlier years. But as we discussed earlier, different people respond to challenges in different ways.
A lot of the answer depends on your student. Here are some things to think about. These are not necessarily show-stoppers, but they are questions that should be taken into consideration as you evaluate how large of a challenge may lie before you.
- What is the student’s attitude toward reading good books? If he enjoys reading good books, he will have an easier time transitioning. If, however, he is used to reading easy novels or used to just reading enough of a textbook to get by, or if he dislikes reading books altogether, he will most likely have a hard time viewing any assigned living book as good. If his attitude toward books is bad, his default mind-set will be to view those assignments as punishment rather than a pleasurable experience.
- What is the student’s attitude toward writing? Written narrations are not easy. They require a much higher thinking level than true/false, multiple choice, and fill-in-the-blank answers. If the student is used to those simpler requirements and not used to the attention and effort required to narrate, the transition might be difficult for him. Also, keep in mind that he has most likely missed out on the years of experience of reading good books and doing narration to develop his writing voice. Now, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but he will be starting with a big disadvantage. On the other hand, if the student naturally enjoys writing, narration might not be as big of a challenge.
- What is the student’s attitude toward poetry, Shakespeare, picture study, and music study? Usually by the time the student is high school age, he has already formed an opinion about those types of studies; and depending on how those studies were approached, that opinion may not be a great one. The good news is that those subjects are simple to introduce in a Charlotte Mason way. Just keep in mind that the student’s past experiences are possibly going to taint his view of those subjects.
- What is the student’s attitude toward knowledge? This one is going to be key. If the student has been immersed in a system that reinforces learning for the sake of competition or winning a prize or earning a passing grade, you might meet a lot of resistance and be inundated with questions about Why do I have to know this? or Why are we doing that? The Charlotte Mason approach to education emphasizes knowledge for the sake of knowledge, learning because it is delightful in itself. If the student has lost that desire for knowledge, you will be facing an uphill battle. If, however, he recognizes that the typical cycle of remembering some facts only until the test and and then dismissing them from your mind is futile and he’s tired of jumping through the hoops of that system, this might be a prime time to introduce real learning and give him the tools of Charlotte’s wonderful methods.
High School Question #54: What if high school is where you are starting with a CM approach—when a high school-level child doesn’t know how to do even oral narration, or isn’t interested in nature study, or whatever else? Is there a way to transition to CM without feeling hopelessly behind because of all the basic things a child brought up in CM would already be comfortable with?
Here are some practical tips and ideas to help your student adapt to a Charlotte Mason approach.
First, keep in mind that you have the option of doing a hybrid approach at first. By that I mean, you might use the high school student’s existing curriculum for some subjects and introduce CM methods for other subjects. A hybrid approach will give you the luxury of time, so you can make the transition gradually. Some students (or parents) need that kind of gradual transition; others will be ready to jump in all the way from the very beginning.
Next, consider your student’s reading level and past experience when you are selecting living books to assign. Yes, the books should be on a high school level, but typically a student who has grown up with Charlotte Mason methods feels more at home with a calibre of books that others might struggle with. For example, think about Pilgrim’s Progress and Great Expectations. A student who is used to reading good literature like that would be familiar with their older, classic style of longer sentences and the different vocabulary and expressions. However, a student who hasn’t read much good literature may find those aspects intimidating or confusing at first. So be careful to choose good living books that will feed your student’s mind and possibly stretch him a bit but not frustrate him.
Narration may be one of your biggest challenges, depending on the student. It will probably be best to start with oral narrations. That approach will give the student opportunity to practice the mental work of composition. Oral narration will give you the benefit of listening to the student’s thoughts, evaluating his comprehension, and guiding him through the process of learning how to narrate in “real time.” Once he understands how narration works and feels comfortable with it, he can move to writing his narrations for your time-delayed feedback.
I would highly recommend that you explain ahead of time what narration is, what you expect, how to do it, and especially why you are asking him to do it. Let him know that it is a powerful tool that he can use to really learn something. Acknowledge that narration is harder than what he might be used to with fill-in-the-blank or short-answer questions. But make sure he understands that it is the way to cement the content in his own mind as well as demonstrate to the one listening what he has learned. You could even share with him that some college professors are abandoning the typical assigned-papers route and moving to oral narrations, because papers can be hired out (and are being at an alarming rate) but an oral narration cannot be faked.
Then, whenever possible, give the student a voice in what is being studied. Some assignments or books will have to be non-negotiables, but others could be opportunities for his ideas and preferences. Young adults, especially young men, appreciate having some ownership over their fields of study and tend to put forth more effort with less grumbling when they have had some say in the matter. You could, for example, show your student two good book options and let him decide which of the two he wants to read. You could allow your student to choose the artist for the first term and the third term; you get to introduce one of your preference for second term. If he has no clue about art or artists, give him a few possibilities and let him see a sample of each one’s work. You could do the same with composers and poets. Choose a handicraft that interests him. You get the idea. With the wide variety of subjects, you should have room to allow him to make some of those decisions.
Perhaps most importantly, make sure you explain the benefits of Charlotte’s methods as you introduce them to your high school student. Make sure he knows why you are doing what you are doing and why you are requiring him to do things differently. Describe how the methods you are introducing will equip him to learn anything for himself—to self-educate. Explain how a wide variety of subjects will help him become a well-educated and well-balanced individual who can relate to many different people and topics. Let him in on the secret of using different parts of his brain in sequence and how good habits, formed with these methods, will make his life easier. Keep those lines of communication wide open; encourage respectful discussion.
And then model what you say. If you want your student to embrace the idea that knowledge is attractive for its own sake, make sure he sees you continuing to learn for yourself and delighting in knowledge for knowledge’s sake. A living example can be a powerful motivator.
High School Question #55: It is frustrating to have read aloud and assigned wonderful books for years and to have a 15yo, 13yo and 11yo (all boys) who claim that they don’t like to read. They do not read for pleasure. Even on evenings when they have zero access to screens they would simply do other things or go to bed. They read a lot of good things during the day for “school” so I guess that it burns them out.
When I reflect on my own attitude towards reading, I was an English Lit major and after getting my degree there was a long stretch when I did not read for pleasure. I suppose I was burned out on so much assigned, challenging reading that I lost a passion for it. I can’t imagine that now as I have a whole pile of books going for my own enjoyment currently.
I posted these thoughts here because I would like to read something encouraging for a mom who loves CM’s methods but the high school-aged kids are not so much into it. They just want to get through it.
We also have 3 little girls (8, 6, almost 4) who DO get excited about learning, nature hikes, etc. I should mention that the boys were in school for a number of years before we started homeschooling whereas the girls don’t know anything of the “system.”
Some encouragement in helping with negative attitudes would be great. Yes, we have wonderful moments but for the most part I am not seeing the boys “delighting” in their learning.
The fact that the boys were in a school for a number of years probably contributes a lot to their lack of enthusiasm. Unfortunately, I often see that attitude in children who have experienced a traditional classroom education. In that atmosphere, their tastes have been cultivated in a different direction and much of their natural curiosity and love for learning has been stifled. (Not all classrooms or schools have that effect, but sadly, most do.) Depending on how many years they were in that environment, it might be a struggle for them to regain that curiosity and to love knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
Some students will not regain that curiosity or eagerness to learn, no matter what methods are used. Charlotte Mason methods are more pleasant, in some respects, than other approaches, but they are also more demanding in some ways. Not every child is going to appreciate the effort that is required, and not every child is going to love to do schoolwork. It’s a fact of human nature that we don’t always recognize what is best for us. But I would encourage you to keep offering what is best, just as you would continue to offer healthful food to a child who doesn’t appreciate his vegetables nor eat them with delight. Sometimes we have to operate on the faith that we know what is best, and whether they realize its worth or not, we will continue to give them that best. We can always hope that someday they will understand how good they had it.
So I suggest that their current attitudes are not necessarily the result of the wonderful books and methods you are giving them now. I don’t think you are burning them out. Their lack of love for reading is probably a combination of those early influences and possibly their personalities. Not everyone finds reading refreshing and relaxing. Some gravitate more toward art or music or working with their hands when they have discretionary time. And that’s not a bad thing. That is part of respecting the person.
So even if they do not become avid readers, settle it in your own heart that all the good ideas you are presenting to them are shaping who they are becoming in more ways than they or you can ever know. Keep on keeping on. You are doing a good work. You are developing each precious child as an individual person, an eternal soul with so much potential to glorify God in his unique way. Keep that focus and you’ll do just fine.
Well, folks, this post wraps up our series on Homeschooling with the Charlotte Mason Method through High School. I hope you have found helpful information, practical ideas, and new courage to keep spreading the feast. You can homeschool your students all the way through high school with the Charlotte Mason Method, endowing them with a wonderfully enriching education that prepares them well for adult life.
More About Starting Charlotte Mason in High School
In this video from our YouTube channel, Sonya answers another question about getting started with Charlotte Mason’s methods in high school. She gives some tips for what to consider if your student has already had traditional schooling experiences.
For more videos answering questions about homeschooling with the Charlotte Mason approach, visit our YouTube channel.
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Thank you so much for this article. You make a late start in CM sound doable! You brought up great points and helped me have realistic expectations. You answered my muddled thoughts and also questions I didn’t know to ask. I’ve read this several times already and I’m sure will be referring to it more in the future.
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