Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Poets in the House

Yesterday, JJ(6) surprised me.

"I know what I want to do when I grow up," he said, big, shy smile on his face.


"I want to be a poem-maker."

"Oh, I like that! They're called poets," said I.

"I know. JJ, Poet," he said, as though dictating a sign for his door. "It's because I keep having ideas for poems in my mind."

I immediately offered to help him write his poems whenever he has an idea. He didn't take me up on it right away, but today he came to me.

"I have an idea for a poem!"

"Go get me a pencil and paper, then, and come tell me your poem."

I folded the paper in half, and sat poised for dictation. He dictated it to me word by word, slowly.

"When I was riding my bicycle,
I saw a snowflake float to the ground.
And when it hit the ground,
It kind of exploded into little pieces."

I read it back to him. "Is there anything you would like to change? I think maybe you could take out the "kind of" in the last line." I read it to him without the "kind of," and he agreed with me. So I rewrote it. His first poem:


When I was riding my bicycle,
I saw a snowflake float to the ground.
And when it hit the ground,
It exploded into little pieces.

He was inordinately proud of it. He made a little book by adding another paper for a cover and stapling the pages together. Then he put the book on the shelf with our poetry books for poetry teatime. Later I saw him take it out to read to MM(4). 

Then he went outside to play with his brothers. When they came in, JJ and MM both had ideas for poems. I had to write two poems down into JJ's book. MM took some time to make a book like JJ's, and then he dictated his poem to me. It bears some resemblance to his brother's first poem.

When I was outside on my scooter,
I saw the branch of a spruce tree.

He took his booklet to bed with him. At some point I noticed JJ was out of bed, had read MM's poem, and was suggesting changes. "You should write 'green' instead of 'yellow,'" I heard him whisper.

"Put your poems away," I said. "You can work on them again tomorrow."

Poets still have to sleep, right?

Monday, March 6, 2017

Boxed Curriculum vs. Charlotte Mason: A Comparison of Results in Grade 3

My mother recently handed me a box of curriculum from my childhood, third grade to be exact. This was especially interesting to me because my eldest son, SA(8), is in third grade right now. My natural reaction was, of course, to compare the work I was doing then with the work SA is doing now.

I was homeschooled using A Beka Book, a boxed curriculum designed for Christian schools. It has a reputation for its rigorousness, and I was a studious child. The work I had put out was beautiful and plenteous: workbook pages filled with gorgeous handwriting, impressive lists of spelling words, pages of mind-numbing math drill, history questions correctly answered in complete sentences.

Friends, I panicked for a minute! SA is not near being able to do what I did in third grade. His handwriting, while it is coming along well, is slow and laborious work. We don't do spelling aside from copywork. I don't require pages of math drill. His output in history and literature lessons, while often impressive, is oral and unrecorded. I began to question my decision to give him a Charlotte Mason style education. Have I been requiring enough of him? Has my focus on a broad and generous education taken away from time we could have been spending on proficiency in the Three R's? Is this a problem? (Am I ruining his life?)

We spend about equal amounts of time homeschooling as I did when I was young. Mostly, work is done in the mornings, leaving lots of time for free play.

Given equal time, what would I give up in our homeschool day in order to give SA more practice in sitting and writing?

Because that is the difference. I had much more practice in sitting down and writing in workbooks. My lesson times were mainly spent reading and writing out answers to comprehension questions, filling out grammar worksheets, copying spelling lists, and filling pages of math drill. Of course I was better at it than SA is...I had much more practice.

In contrast, SA's day is filled with a much larger variety. His main skills for learning have been listening (paying attention), reading, and narration (telling back what he has learned). In addition, careful observation, visualization, handicrafts and drawing have not been neglected. Indeed, given that his handwriting skills have lagged behind since the beginning, I have been grateful that this is no impediment to his learning in a Charlotte Mason education. He simply practices it for a short time every day, making slow and steady progress.

So what am I willing to give up in order to give writing more time?
Oral narration? Nature walks and journaling? Picture study? Composer study? Poetry tea time? Folk songs? French? I did none of these things in my homeschooling lessons, though a few of them were part of the atmosphere of my life (nature and classical music).

Seeing my work was a revelation of the amount and quality of writing that a person can expect of a third-grader. It is quite probable that I do need to expect more in the writing department than I have been.

And yet, I have made a choice. When I fell in love with Charlotte Mason, I chose not to focus exclusively on the Three R's. This choice has consequences...SA is not as proficient in writing as I was, and he has never been required to put out a page of math drill. However, though he is not as proficient now, he will continue to become more proficient until he is fluent in these skills, however many years this may take. Will it matter then how long it took him to get there? (Incidentally, I lost my beautiful handwriting over time ...bored, I expect... and relearned Italic handwriting when I was 20, which I still use.)

In the meantime, his days are full of richness. He knows what he has narrated --the Bible, living books on history and nature lore, and great literature-- knowledge and ideas that have so much more value than the textbooks I answered comprehension questions on. I don't know if he will remember all of this long-term, but he is making connections in his mind because of this that I could not have done at his age. He has a few great works of art stored in his mind, and he enjoys poetry in a way that (aside from a CM education) he would never have naturally been attracted to.

Last week I was reading in Charlotte Mason's A Philosophy of Education and was delighted to find this quote there:

"a knowledge of reading, writing and arithmetic is no education and no training but merely the elementary condition of further knowledge. In many schools the boy is labouring on with these mere rudiments for two or more years after all reasonable requirements have been satisfied. The intelligent visitor looking at the note-books of an average class will be amazed at the high standard of the neatness and accuracy but he will find the excellence of a very visible order. The handwriting is admirable, sixteen boys out of thirty can write compositions without a flaw in grammar or spelling. Yet it will occur to him that the powers of voluntary thought and reason, of spontaneous enquiry and imagination, have not been stirred." (A Philosophy of Education, p. 120. Charlotte Mason is quoting A. Paterson's Across the Bridges.)
What do you choose to fill your lesson time with? Your choices will have consequences. Are the benefits of the choices you are making outweighing the drawbacks? Would you trade any element of a Charlotte Mason education for more time practicing writing and filling out workbooks?

All things considered, I like the choices I've made. I'm going to stick with them.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Canadian Living Book Review: Cartier Sails the St. Lawrence

I thought Esther Averill's Cartier Sails the St. Lawrence was special when I first opened it last year. Now that we have read and narrated it in our homeschool, I think it is my very favourite Canadian living book (so far) for the elementary years.

Is it written by a single author with a passion for her subject?
Esther Averill clearly communicates a deep interest in Cartier's story. In several places she quotes Cartier's logbooks directly.

Does it have ideas, not just facts?
There were many connections with the other books we have been reading about this time period. There was also discussion of the motives of kings and explorers. Averill presents these as they were without either glorifying or excusing them.

Is it well-written?
The writing gets five stars from me! It is beautifully written, and my children were completely engaged. They narrated well, and remember details several months later.
I must also mention the gorgeous black and white maps and illustrations from Caldecott winner Feodor Rojankovsky. They add immensely to the appeal of the book.

Is it inspiring?
Cartier's interests and observational skills are illustrated in several quotes from his own logbooks. His sense of purpose and his leadership skills are seen very clearly, particularly in contrast to Roberval in the latter part of the book. At the same time, Averill does not play down Cartier's act of claiming the new land for France, though she does place it in context, calling it "a practice common among European explorers." That was good food for discussion at our house!

For what age group would this book be a good fit?
I think this book is perfect for lessons in grades 1-3, and (like any living book) interesting for all ages. We used this book over one term with a grade 1 and 3 student. This was a fairly fast pace, and some may wish to take it a little slower. (You can see my schedule at the bottom of this post.) I read it aloud to my children, and beyond replacing the word "Indians" with "First Nations" (or a specific tribe name), I did not have to edit anything out. In addition to the history, it covers a fair amount of Canadian geography, from Newfoundland down the St. Lawrence to Hochelaga (Montreal).

Where can I find this book?
Sadly, the edition I have is out of print, but it's worth checking out at the library or keeping an eye out for at used book sales. I noticed on that there is a print on demand edition available that is fairly affordable. I'm not 100% sure if this edition includes Feodor Rojankovsky's beautiful artwork, though I expect it does (usually these editions are facsimile copies of an old book). You can also borrow it online at

Bonus: A One-Term Schedule for Cartier Sails the St. Lawrence
Most of the time, I did three 20-minute lessons per week. I agree, that is pretty heavy, but keep in mind that I used only this book to cover this time period in Canadian history. I did not use a Canadian history "spine" during this term. My purpose was to co-ordinate my Canadian studies with Ambleside Online Year 3. Because of that, I planned to cover the years 1509-1598 in Term 1, 1598-1685 in Term 2, and 1685-1759 in Term 3. If you are using this book for a Year 1 student only, I definitely recommend slowing it down and taking two or three terms to finish it. In my case, I decided to do this with my Year 3 and 1 students together, and I don't regret that. Also, keep in mind that when you add a book into the curriculum (AO in my case), it is essential to take something else out. This replaced This Country of Ours for my Year 3 student, and Our Island Story for my Year 1 student (I decided to start with Canadian history instead of British with him.).

Here is my 12-week schedule. Where I stopped in the middle of a page, I included the words to end with.

Week 1: pp 3-12
Week 2: pp 15-22 "...glossary of them."
Week 3: pp 22-29
Week 4: pp 33-41 "...may still be felt."
Week 5: pp 41-48
Week 6: pp 49-56 "...league away."
Week 7: pp 56-64
Week 8: pp 65-71
Week 9: pp 72-78
Week 10: pp 81-90
Week 11: pp 91-100 "...Indian language."
Week 12: pp 100-108

I hope you find this book and read it in your home! It is a delight.