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Today I’d like to discuss a question that I hear frequently. It goes something like this: “The more I hear about the Charlotte Mason method, the more I become convinced that this is the method that’s going to fit my family best. This is what I want to do. Currently, I’m doing ____. How do I make the transition?”
Usually people who ask me that question fall into one of two camps. Some of them are ready to dive in with both feet. Others want to make the transition a little more gradually.
Think about a swimming pool and all the kids at the pool. Some of them run to the deep end and jump right in. They’re ready for a change right away. Others want to go down one step at a time and get used to the temperature of the pool; they prefer to approach the change a little at a time and ease into it.
It’s the same for transitioning to the Charlotte Mason method. Some of you are ready to dive in. That’s great. We have some help for you. Take a look at our curriculum. We’ll give you our favorite book lists and, if you want daily lesson plans to help you work through those resources, those are available too.
But others of you want to ease into it and break it down into smaller segments. So what I want to do over the next few posts is break down that transition into five stages. I’m calling them “stages” rather than “steps” for a reason. To me, a stage is a broader area. You’ve got more wiggle room. You can take several steps on that stage, and you can linger on that stage until you are comfortable and ready to move on. That’s what I want you to do with this transition.
Today let’s talk about the first stage in making the transition to the Charlotte Mason Method. We’re going to call this one “The Basics.” The basics include just two foundational methods, two techniques that I want you to start implementing in your homeschool: living books and narration.
First, living books. You might have heard that term before, but you might not be as familiar with what it actually is or how you can find one, or even how you can identify one when you see it. In its simplest terms, a living book is a book that makes the subject come alive. It fires your imagination; it touches your emotions; it makes you feel like you are living beside the person who is being talked about or in the event that is being described. That’s why we call it a living book.
Let me give you a couple of examples to help you see the difference. Both of these examples are biographies about Albert Einstein and both are aimed toward a middle-elementary age. Read both examples below and I think you will easily notice the difference between a regular, “textbook” biography and a “living” biography.
Here’s the textbook version:
“Einstein was a scientist during the early 1900s and came up with some of the greatest discoveries and theories in science. People referred to him as one of the most intelligent people of the 20th century. His name and face are often presented as the description or picture of the consummate scientist.”
Now read the first few sentences from a living biography:
“Have you ever wondered what it would be like to ride upon a beam of light? In the first years of the twentieth century, there lived a young man who wondered about that. In fact, he wondered about a lot of things, and what became of his wondering you shall see.(Stories of the Nations, Volume 2, “On a Beam of Light” by Lorene Lambert)
“In 1905 Albert Einstein spent his days in an office in the Swiss city of Bern, working as a patent clerk. He helped inventors fill out the paperwork so they would own their creations and no one else could claim them. He typed out the forms and filed them in their proper places, chatted with his friend in the office next door, and ate his simple lunch every day at his desk. When evening softened the sky, he walked home and greeted his wife and newborn son, and then shared with them a dinner of beef and potatoes, or pea soup and cabbage.
“But all the while he was doing these normal, homely deeds, his mind was somewhere else. He might be typing or chatting or eating, but he was thinking about light and time.”
You can tell the difference, I’m sure. In the second example you feel as if you are walking alongside Einstein. You can see the action in your mind’s eye. You can imagine it. That is a living book.
So I want you to use living books during this stage—just in two subjects. We’ll ease into it. Use a living book for history and a living book for Bible.
Bible is going to be easy, because the Bible is the living Book. So you can just read the accounts, the narrative portions: the account of Adam and Eve, the account of Noah, the account of Jacob and Joseph, of the life of Christ, of the early church. All of those wonderful accounts are living books, living narratives, living stories.
Then I also want you to use living books for your history. You might need to go through this in steps, and that’s fine. Maybe you are not yet ready to let go of a textbook completely. That’s all right. What you can do first is look at what history time period you are covering in the textbook, and bring in living books on the side that will elaborate on that same time period. Living books will make that time period come alive to your children. And gradually, I think you will find that you become more and more comfortable with those living books, because the facts are still there; they are just presented with all of the living ideas that come with the story.
Where can you find living books for history? Here are some of our favorite titles for the different time periods.
Now, as you read living books for history and Bible, remember the second technique that you will be implementing at this stage. Rather than ask the kids questions and quiz them over what you have read, I want you to use narration. Narration is having the children retell what they just heard or read, in their own words.
It is not parroting what they just heard or reciting it in the author’s words. You want them to do a much higher thinking level than that. True/false and multiple-choice type questions are at one thinking level; narration takes it to a higher level. You are requiring your child to listen attentively—you’re only going to read it once—take it all in, remember it, mix it with ideas that they already have of other books that they have read, put it in the correct sequence, form it into coherent sentences, and then give it back to you. Charlotte Mason called it “oral composition.”
At the end of this post, we will give links to several articles on our website that will help you with the details of narration, but really that’s all there is to it: you will read a short passage and then have the children tell it back to you in their own words.
I recommend that you start short. Narration is something that is natural for kids to do when they’re excited about something. If your little one is interested in a certain topic, he’ll talk your ear off about it! But what we’re asking the children to do is intentionally use that method as a learning tool. So start short.
Don’t read a whole chapter at once; maybe start with a paragraph or two and have your child narrate that. Then look at the clock and see whether you have time to do another couple of paragraphs. You don’t want to go longer than twenty minutes to begin with, and that includes both reading and having the children narrate. As they get more accustomed to this method, you will be able to nudge that length out and read longer portions for narration. But take your time with it.
So that’s your assignment for Stage 1: start using living books and narration for just the two subjects of history and Bible. You can do it!
Next will be Stage 2, but there’s no hurry to move on until you’re ready.
Helpful Narration Articles
- 5 Steps to Successful Narration (free e-book)
- Using Living Books Effectively
- Charlotte Mason Answers Your Questions About Narration
- Narration with Auditory and Speech Issues
- Narration and Composition in the High School Years
- Narration Notecards: A Fabulous Written Narration Idea