An Atmosphere for Learning


Our ultimate goal as a family is to immerse ourselves in any form of learning that stretches us, soothes us and inspires us.

This is the last sentence that I wrote in a post about Charlotte Mason and Classical teaching methods on the Well-Trained Mind Forum. I thought I would further expand on it here.

~~~

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline and a life"

-Charlotte Mason

I'd like to focus on what education as an atmosphere, a discipline and a life looks like for us and why it should include methods which stretch, soothe and inspire children. Why does an education which pervades every aspect of a child's environment and life mean more? What benefits are brought to a child who is surrounded by learning that stretches them or disciplines them? Why would a method need to soothe children and their teacher? What role does inspiration play in learning? How do these methods fit inside one of the guiding principles of a Charlotte Mason/Classical education?

Stretching

" A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its original dimensions"

~

Oliver Wendell Holmes

To stretch the mind is to present it challenges, but the key to making this meaningful to children is striking the right balance in challenge. For example, when choosing reading levels for your student, select a couple of books that are slightly too difficult, a couple of books that are exactly the right level and a couple of books that are just slightly below the right level. This approach, repeated every year, will allow your student the right level of growth without overwhelming or causing frustration. This curriculum is designed with very special consideration of this approach and I've used this same approach with my own children.

The methods we use which offer challenge are as follows:

  • Deliberate and concentrated study of math daily

  • Study of a foreign language (French) in the early years with consistent study

  • Copy Work followed by a Copy Book and then by a Commonplace Book

  • Studied dictation which gradually increases in challenge

  • Study of Latin

  • Consistent inclusion of narration work beginning with oral narration and then moving to written narration when appropriate but yet keeping oral narration at all levels

  • Consistent progression of levels in book selections for all subjects

  • Discussion as a major component of all lessons and adding more depth to these discussion as the child advances

  • Using journal articles, lab notebooks, lab work, lectures and documentaries with living books and a focus on observing, drawing and writing for science

  • Adding primary sources to our study of history in the upper levels (as well as some primary sources in the upper lower levels)

  • Concentrating supplemental books in the categories of biography, autobiography and non-fiction over historical fiction. (We use historical fiction for light reading pleasure.)

  • Consistently locating places on a globe or map as we encounter them in all subjects

  • Study poetry and literature which is full of complex sentence structure, high vocabulary, literary elements and complex story elements and gradually increase the exposure (whether through reading aloud, reading together or reading independently) and expectations as the child advances-and do this consistently

  • Include plays, ballets, museums and other cultural events as a major focus of family outings

  • Watch movies, plays and documentaries very regularly all together as a family and discuss them together

  • Read a chosen book together as a family and discuss it

  • Expect the girls to participate in activities which add to their growth and challenge them (ballet and piano)

I think the most important word to take away from this list is the word "consistent". It is because this approach to learning has been important in our family for many years that we now see the growth in our children from it.

Soothing

"The pursuit, even of the best things, ought to be calm and tranquil."

~

-Marcus Tullius Cicero

A curriculum which lends itself to an atmosphere which is calm, tranquil and reliable is one which soothes and brings peace to the hearts and minds of its recipients. Hearts and minds are at peace when immersed in an environment which is predictable, but yet is flexible enough to adjust seamlessly and is challenging in a gradual and inconspicuous manner. This requires quite the balancing act! One who teaches from a state of rest is one who is prepared and one who consistently checks to see that the learning environment is soothing. One who teaches from a state of rest is flexible!

Consider these questions to ensure that your environment is reflective of a peaceful and calm atmosphere:

  • Am I prepared for all that I need to teach today?

  • Do I have time set aside or can I be flexible with unexpected detours and delays?

  • Am I diligent about keeping the larger picture in mind? For example, does it really matter if my student wants to write the narration from the perspective of Antony rather than from the perspective of Calpurnia?

  • Can I accept that some days will be more productive than others, but yet know that I must start each day with the intent of being as productive as possible?

  • Is the day balanced with regard to levels of intensity and concentration? For example, do I follow a period of focused work with a period of joyful and/or relaxing work?

  • Have I noticed and have I attended to the student(s) who are either becoming frustrated or are losing their concentration?

  • Am I giving each of my students enough practice, time and/or attention on a particular skill so that they may continue to improve or grow, but yet not confuse or overwhelm them? (Tip: I keep a notebook which is similar to a lesson plan book but that has been altered over time to best fit me. I write notes in the margins when I've noticed something that I want to go over again with one or both girls.)

  • Can I play classical or other types of soothing and non-distracting types of music while we are working?

  • Is the television off and am I keeping interruptions to a minimum?

  • Do I have a basic structure for a schedule so that times slotted for learning stay available?

Inspiring

"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."

~

-William Butler Yeats

A curious teacher, an ambience of thoughtful study and most importantly, a curriculum with compelling books and intriguing ideas will do more than capture a student's attention. It will captivate their heart. Inspiration sparks imagination and fuels persistence, of which both are important in an atmosphere of learning.

But, it would be unrealistic to suggest that students who love learning will be motivated and excited at every task set before them and even more unrealistic to suggest that students who view the state of learning less favorably will be interested and engaged in all tasks. Some days, some books and some tasks will be better than others. The overall goal is to provide a curriculum coupled with teaching methods which brings as much of inspiration to the student as possible.

The following are some aspects to this curriculum and my teaching methods which contribute to inspiring students:

  • Carefully chosen books, based on years of study, which set forth the great ideas such as justice, love, liberty, beauty, truth, etc.

  • Including music lessons, listening to music, studying art, practicing art, viewing live plays, watching television productions of plays, ballets and operas, museums, etc.

  • Nature walks, time outside enjoying nature as well as admiring, wondering over and sketching nature

  • Memorizing and reciting poetry, speeches, excerpts from Shakespeare and other inspiring passages because committing them to memory makes them a part of us

  • Keeping sketchbooks, copy books and commonplace books to record nature and literary excerpts that we find particularly striking

  • Narration notebooks which are filled with a personal translation of what is taken from those carefully chosen books

  • Adapting the curriculum to include the specific topics of study to which my students are drawn as often as possible

  • Using methods of learning which are best suited to my particular children and allowing some sense of control over how something is learned, but checking, when needed, so as not to prevent true growth

This curriculum and these teaching methods, which pulls from some of the very best ideas available, endeavors to make the creation of an atmosphere of learning which stretches, soothes and inspires accessible to those who choose to follow it and, in turn, a student whose heart and mind are in the light.

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