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When I was taking piano lessons, my teacher started with some basic, foundational points: keep your fingers curved; sit tall on the bench with both feet on the floor; listen to your playing. No matter what piece I was working on—from Row, Row, Row Your Boat to Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata—those principles remained constant.
If I neglected those foundational principles, my playing would suffer. Without them I would never achieve the degree of success that I desired.
The same is true in a Charlotte Mason education. Three principles are foundational. No matter what school subjects you are teaching, you want to be sure to keep these three principles in place. They should be a constant as you provide a generous curriculum for your child.
Three Basic Principles to Remember
A key component of a Charlotte Mason-style lesson is that it is short. But there is a reason behind the short length: short, interesting lessons build the habit of attention. The more often your child pays attention for the whole lesson, the more that habit will become engrained. Once the pay-attention-for-the-whole-lesson habit is established, you can start nudging out the length. But start short.
It’s just like training to run a marathon. Start short and build. You want to stop the lesson before you lose your child’s attention. If he ends up daydreaming at the end of each lesson, that will become his habit. The more often he daydreams, the more it will become engrained. But if you stop the lesson before his eyes glaze over, he will develop the habit of paying attention for the whole lesson.
In Charlotte’s schools the lessons for grades 1–3 were no longer than 15 or 20 minutes maximum and some subjects didn’t take that long. Grades 4–6 nudged the maximum length out to 20 or 30 minutes, and grades 7–9 increased to 30 or 45 minutes maximum.
Short, interesting lessons build the habit of attention.
Quality Over Quantity
Many of Charlotte’s methods are designed to cultivate good habits, particularly the habits of attention and perfect execution. Perfect execution means working toward perfection, or giving your best effort.
The second basic principle will encourage both of those habits: emphasize quality over quantity.
For example, rather than requiring your child to copy a whole page of handwriting—and watching as the child gets sloppier and sloppier as he moves toward the bottom of the page,—require a shorter portion but let him know that only his very best work will suffice. If he writes one or two words (or lines, depending on his level) and puts forth his best effort, he will be done. If, however, he does slipshod work, he will be required to do it again until it is right.
Once again you are trying to instill a habit by repetition. The more times he concentrates on doing his best, the more it will become a habit. But the more times he is allowed to be sloppy, the more that action will become engrained. Emphasize quality over quantity every time.
A Varied Order of Subjects
Another basic principle that will encourage full attention and best effort is to sequence the order of subjects that you do throughout the day to use different parts of the brain and body. You want to avoid over-fatiguing one part of the brain.
For example, if you come to the couch with a stack of books for your child to read and narrate, as you work your way through the stack you will find that it gets increasingly harder to pay full attention and narrate well. Why? You are overusing the read-and-narrate part of the brain.
Instead, try to vary the order of subjects. You might read and narrate one book; then switch to a different part of the brain and do some math; then use some fine motor skills and do a little copywork; then do a picture study; then do some singing; then come back and narrate another book. Do you see how that works? Use different parts of the brain and body as you order your day and you will make it easier for your child to pay full attention.
Short lessons, quality over quantity, and varying the order of subjects. Whether you are just making the transition to incorporating some Charlotte Mason methods into your home school or are an old pro at CM, these three basic principles are foundational. Get these three principles firmly established and your days will go much more smoothly.
To learn more about habit-training, download the free e-book, Smooth and Easy Days. You might also find helpful a recording of the Laying Down the Rails workshop, available in audio or video; the complete reference book, Laying Down the Rails: A Charlotte Mason Habits Handbook; and a treasury of motivational readings and ideas, Laying Down the Rails for Children: A Habit-Training Companion.