A letter reached my mailbox from a mother who shared that she had once been overly burdened by homeschooling. Then came a turn of events: she started to follow the gentle art of learning prescribed in A Charlotte Mason Companion. As a result of her reading, she said, His Spirit reminded me over and over My yoke is easy and my burden is light. After two years of application, peace, joy and a love of learning are the fruits she enjoys.
Her letter also had an inquiry. I could not turn away from it: "Do you have any recommendations for helping children with emotional problems? I have been trying to apply the gentle art of learning with not only with my own five children but also with my foster childrenwho come from severely dysfunctional homes. What about a boy they say cannot attach or bond with people due to the extreme neglect and abuse he suffered at the hands of his parents?"
For the Humanness of Us All
I knew I wouldnt be able to supply a complete remedy but after some careful thought I replied with a personal letter offering, I hoped, at least one encouraging recommendation. In this article I offer the same recommendation. It applies not only to hurt children but to the humanness of us all.
An Awakening by Way of Words
This year we watched the old black-and-white movie The Miracle Workerstarring Anne Bancroft and Patti Dukeabout Helen Keller and her teacher, Miss Sullivan. Im losing her a little more everyday, lamented Helen Kellers mother. Miss Sullivan knew that if Helen could understand that the letters of the deaf alphabet (that she was using to spell to Helen the names of the things she was touching and smelling) were actually forming wordssymbols of language then Helen would cease to be lost. Miss Sullivan believed what she read about the awakening of a persons soul through one word. It only takes one word just one word and the whole world will then be open to Helen! she kept reminding herself. For Helen to understand what a word was would introduce her to languagea thing Helen still did not know existed. Miss Sullivan was quite determined, and spelled to Helen relentlessly, using the alphabet for the deaf, even though one by one the family members stated that it would probably not do any good. It was tiring work, but Miss Sullivan knew Helen was a bright, intelligent child underneath her handicap. She would not give up. What an encouraging story! Helen did learn to communicate and understand the communication of others. The film was well done and gave an accurate portrayal of Helens awakening. Helen Keller tells her story from her own perspective in her book The Story of my Life.
What does this paragraph about Helen Keller have to do with my reply to the homeschooling foster mother? It illustrates the truth that words fitly spoken can do many things.. Here is an example of just two: The written word can open the door of
A childs mind
And a childs heart.
You are probably reading aloud to your children. Please allow me to affirm the enormous value of this. The gentle art of learning draws profoundly on well-written books. Real books are intrinsic to the curriculum. A good book earns the right to be called a schoolbook, and in the early years, textbooks with their chapter by chapter compendiums may be entirely replaced with a variety of well-written books on a given subject. Why am I convinced of this?
Opening the Door of a Childs Mind
The Power of Real Books as Schoolbooks
Most textbooks are written by a committee whose principal concern is to impart facts. Tending to be overviews and outlines of their given topics, textbooks pride themselves in what they cover. Parents may worry that their children arent covering all that needs to be covered. Therefore, almost everything to be studied is studied by way of a textbook. But it isnt how much a child covers that matters most. It is how much he cares. Consequently, when the student begins to not care for anything he is studying, a parent has something new to worry about. Living books can remedy this. They make the homeschool come alive.
A living book has more of the human touch. Usually only one author is writing, sharing his favorite subject with us. We pick up his enthusiasm for his subject as he writes affectionately about what he knows. These books are living in the sense that they are alive with ideas. Ideas give us something to ponder. It is better to ponder than to parrot.
Living books take their time with their subject. They are in no rush to cover a whole years worth of outlined information. As we would walk bare-foot in a shallow mountain stream of cool bubbling water, stepping carefully on smooth rocks, we take our time with living books. We wade pleasantly through their details and ideas. Covering material becomes less of a worry. Understanding and satisfying an interest in the material is the new practical concern. Children naturally take to living books because of their unhurried details, especially when they have a story aspect to themwhether the topic is particularly science, geography, or history. This being the case, mothers are amazed with what ease a stack of real books are consumed and digested, when trudging through just one month of the textbook-workbook grind was a dreary chore.
It feels like were cheating, said one mother, yet my children are learning so much more this way. They really like their new schoolbooks. And the older children voluntarily talk about what they are reading silently. I do believe their minds are truly sparked. This so encourages me, because just last year my sons curiosity and interest in everything seemed to be entirely schooled out of him by the textbook-workbook grind. Letters are sent to me regularly, written by mothers from Australia, South Africa, England and all across America, reporting the very same findings. It is so good to hear that reliance upon living books is making a difference. The brave are rewarded.
Free lending libraries are filled with odd and interesting books! Yet too often, even though comparable facts can be found in each, real books play second fiddle to the authoritative textbook, if they are read at all. Careful offerings of books (fiction and non-fiction) are also made available in homeschool catalogs.
Although there isnt a precise grade level printed on the cover of most living books, they can typically be used by children of various backgrounds and capabilities. Their value lies in their power to hold attention and their ability to open the doors of a childs mind. Some students learn slowly. Some learn in leaps. Others carry on at a middle-of-the-road pace that is recognized as normal. Pace is of less concern. Each child has his own hill to climb and will gain knowledge from his lovely books through the narrating of themand benefiting from whatever facts and ideas he gleans.
The Chief Business of the Parent
The chief business of the parent is to be an inspirer. Every child is born with wonderful possibilities, but because he has inherited a sin nature, he needs to be trained and inspired. To try to teach a child without inspiring him can be compared to a blacksmith trying to work with a cold piece of iron. The mind is fired by the kindling ability of ideas. When facts are present with their accompanying details and ideas, a child will be gaining knowledge and developing a conscience. His lovely books will inspire him. He will care. This is to be prized.
No one can induce a hurt child to bond, of course. Certainly the prayer of many a Christian foster parent is that when unselfishness and love surround him, he will be inspired to hope and trust. It will take timeprobably yearsbut I do believe it is possible, because I am a believer in the power of love.
Opening the Doors of a Childs Heart
The Power of a Good Story
I am also a believer in the power of stories. Jesus method of teaching was by parables. Stories have a way of making more understandable those spiritual qualities in our lives. Thus they also have the power to open the doors of a childs heart.
A compelling plot and characters we can identify with allow us to live alongside those other persons and participate in the unraveling of the story. It is okay to see the movie version, but the book will always be more satisfying. Things happen sometimes ridiculously fast in a play or a movie. Characters whiz through situations and struggles. The book still moves along faster than real life, but one benefit of the book is that it stays with us longer than a movie. And all the sumptuous detail describing the people (their thoughts and feelings as well as their physical characteristics), , their reactions to circumstances, the scenery, etc. invite us to use our own imaginations. We take our time and stroll along leisurely, absorbing the carefully chosen words of the author. Such a well-written story, read aloud over weeks, becomes unforgettable. A really good book that was read aloud in childhood is remembered with special fondness into adulthood. How can it be that most of us cannot remember the textbook we crammed in fifth grade, but we can remember a well-written biography or historical novel that someone read aloud to us? Ill leave you to answer that.
Now comes the most important point of my message. Living books have a way of living with us. They speak to us. During the weeks of hearing a biography or a story of fiction read aloud, the listener may ponder between episodes and look forward to the next episodeguess at future episodes. He may even grow fond of the characters. If so, he begins to wish for the wellbeing and success of the characters. This fondness is the result of his doing something absolutely wonderfulthat of sympathizing with the characters. And this is what will open a childs heart. To sympathize with another human being, even if it is the character of a story, is a very good thinga healing thing. Sympathy draws us out of ourselves to look and care for another. Sympathy ushers in unselfishness. It chips away at the shell we may think we are safe to hide in. It chips away at our self-pity and self-centeredness.
A really good story has moral value. It doesnt have to be a goodie-goodie story in order to develop the conscience in various ways. A good plot paints its morals rather than pointing them at us. We pick up ideas along the way. Furthermore, if any character experiences a circumstance that is similar to our own, we do more than sympathize: we empathize and relate. The little word relate is within the word relationship. In order to bond we need to first relate. Gradually and intuitively we begin to understand something about relationships.
Stories, though fiction, give us a peek at realitya peek at the kinds of things that life brings to us. If the circumstance is not one of our own, we wonder what we would do if we were in a similar circumstancesor what God would have us do. Jesus parables invited people to ask questions. How about this one: which character is a little like ourselves?
What Makes a Good Story?
Stories of Courage, Hope, Love, and Joy
There are many wonderfully inspiring biographies, stories of struggle, determination, hope, joy, courage, and growing up that would make for very good reading aloud. I am sorry to say that none of these were part of my learning experience. Teachers provided lackluster lectures in place of reading aloud. We worked almost exclusively with textbooks. These dry manuals often dulled my sense of wonder. In their haste to cover, my textbooks were quite stingy about background information, glossing over the people-aspect of history and science. Furthermore, the required reading in high school English class was dark, depressing, and hopeless. Therefore, reading a novel was a burdensome chore. As a sixteen-year-old girl I had a difficult time with the popular and prize-winning American authors books we were required to read: Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, and Tennessee Williams. They are considered to be excellent writers, but their stories often deal with sordid characters and depressing situations, or are written from a perspective of the hopelessness of the human condition, and it is the story young people are mainly concerned about. If depressing stories without hope are all a young person is assigned to read, he will become impoverished, and his outlook on life will be taintedor overcomeby a lack of hope. Too many young people in public school learn or absorb through their teachers and their reading that God is dead and that their lives are of no more value than a twig. Stories in which no hope is reflected in the characters or the message blight Americas children. (Read David Quines stirring words on the importance of our children developing a Biblical worldviewa worldview of hopein this issue of Homeschool Highlights.)
One lovely story for young students is The Secret Garden. There are four main characters in the story. In the first chapters we hear about Mary, a ten-year-old orphan whose parents have died in India and who has been sent to England to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven. He lives in a manor house on the Yorkshire moors. The mood at the beginning of the story is gloomy. Not only is Mary tired and grumpy but the winter weather is gloomy, too. Over the empty moors it is cloudy, bleak, and grayvery dull to a girl who was used to Indias sunshine. We learn that Marys mother had not been affectionate to her daughter and that love and attention were not given to her. Servants attended Mary and she was spoiled. Her Uncle Archibald, we find out later, is remorseful over his wifes death, and in his insecurity and remorse has not bonded with his son, Colin, the second important character. Colin, also ten years old, is secretly kept in his bedroom, convinced he is an invalid. He is as spoiled and as selfish as Mary is. Because his father goes away for months at a time, Colin, left to servants, feels rejected. When Mary discovers Colin in the big dark house, she is curious. He is curious of her as well. She is appalled at his tantrums and bad behavior. Mary is shockingly honest with him and less patient with him than the servants are required to be. The third main character is Dickon, the twelve-year-old brother of one of Marys servants. Hard working and affectionate parents have raised him in a small cottage nearby. His family lives by simple means. Dickon was loved but has not been spoiled. (A good combination, isnt it?) Mary meets him out on the moor. She thinks he is the kindest and friendliest person she has ever known, and tells Colin about him. The fourth character of the story is the secret garden itselfor, we can say, nature. Springtime is such a symbol of life and hope. It is in the garden that the characters change and become less sour. We might even say they blossom.
I recommend making room for hero admiration in the homeschool curriculum by providing an ongoing supply of biographies.
In the story The Secret Garden, the characters find friendship, and trust, and this warm companionship is healing to them. The magic of nature is mentioned as having healing benefits as well. The parent who reads this story aloud (or allows her child to read it) should make clear to his listeners that God has made nature for our benefit and pleasure, that He is the creator of its beauty, and that nature is one way God reveals Himself to us. But nature alone (without its Creator) cannot regenerate a persons soul. God had to send his Son to earth as atonement for our sin. Even though God is not mentioned in the story, it would be good to mention that He is the one who brings people together, and that all goodness is from God. Near the end of the story the children chant a wish while thinking hard that Colins dad would return home. A little skipping (or further discussion) would be good here. The dads eventual return brings about the happy ending.
A Step of Faith
The Secret Garden is a story that illustrates the fact that in life there is hurt, loneliness, fear, and worry. These cripple the soul and stifle the heart. Foster children probably can relate to this. When we take a step of faith we can overcome our fears. Faith is one of the only things in the world greater than fear. Stories show us that life brings us unwelcome (even distressing) circumstances, but we can, with faith and some growing pains, learn to struggle through and find friendship and love. Books help us grow by adding to our life experience. They give us a sense of spiritual conviction, of mercy, justice, and love, by putting into words the greater things in life.
Black Beauty is a story about a horse that is loved and cared for but later is neglected. Much later he is abused by overwork. Dont tell the children that the story has a happy ending, that Beauty spends his retirement in the green pastures of a good and conscientious owner. In their suspense they will be hopeful for Beauty. Joe is the boy who, early in the story, grooms Beauty. Beauty must be sold and is separated from Joe. He is sold several times to different owners throughout the story. In one of the last chapters of the book, Beauty is overworked to the point of exhaustion and almost utter ruin. He escapes being taken to the slaughterhouse by the recommendation that he be taken to market to be gotten rid of for a little better price. Bought for a Mr. Thoroughgood (dont you like his name?), he is rested and fed well and is able to be used as Mr. Thoroughgoods carriage horse. It is at the market that Beauty is recognized by Joe, now a man. Beauty is comforted by the reunion. Mr. Thoroughgood is a kind of savior in the story.
It may be years before foster children take steps of faith. Keep reading good stories. Like Helen Kellers teacher, Miss Sullivan, dont give up. When the child is left to apply gently to his own life whatever example, sentiment, or lesson he absorbs from his reading , he is taking his head out of the sand. Daily read-aloud times will bring to previously neglected children a steady and gentle awareness. The awareness of the virtues in stories could lead to healing. But this, my opinion, is only the opinion of a homeschool mother who has read quantities of books aloud and somehow missed Psychology 101 in her brief college career. (For the weary, there is an article dedicated to perseverance here at Homeschool Highlights.)
Children will pick up various lessons from Black Beauty. Here are just a few:
My husband, Dean, read Little Britches aloud this year to our son, Nigel. It is the first of a series of true stories from the life of the author, Ralph Moody. It is a thrilling story of struggle and living by principle. The father of the story is a God-fearing man. The main character is Ralph, who, in 1906, at the age of eight, lives a life (in 1906) that is far more challenging and dangerous than what is experienced by the average American boy today. There was a bit of swearing done by unsavory characters, but if you are concerned, these few words can easily be omitted when read aloud. Homeschool families we have met that have read the Ralph Moody books have been left with a strong reminder of the virtue of perseverance. Even though at the end of the story Ralph loses his father to sickness, the father does not leave his son an example of a character that is weak and defenseless. He leaves Ralph a legacy of manly character, which continues to shape his life and offer him hope and courage for years to come.
- Bad things happen to good people (or good horses). Eventually most of us are, in some way or another, bruised by someone who is careless, jealous, selfish, or greedy.
- Even if we have to struggle in a sinful world we are all meant to be of service to others, and one day, we hope to (we are fully convinced we will) live happily ever after (because heaven is not a fantasy).
- We dont need very many friends and acquaintances in life but everyone needs a friend to love and someone to love them. And of this fact we shall not be ashamed.
A reliance on Godas well as obedience to himis so necessary in life. Where else can we best learn this but in the Bible stories? The Word of God is the best of books because it is the only book inspired by God and without fault. It is Gods story to us. Its stories are a lifter of mankind. I love the story of Joseph in Genesis. It is a powerful one. It is such a wonderful true story. Joseph was abused by his own brothers. Though he is sold into slavery, he does not hate his brothers. On the contrary, he is only concerned for their good. When he gives them a hard time upon their arrival in Egypt to buy grain, it is only to lead them to repentance, not to be vindicated by any means. There are various lessons to be learned by reading Josephs story and youll know what they are when you read it aloud slowly. In the end Joseph is their savior. He is a picture, or type, of Christ. We are reading it (at the time of this writing) ten verses at a time with some commentary and a few questions.
In a good story, characters survive lifes difficulties. If they have little else but hope, they have a good beginning. Hope is one of the seven cardinal virtues. May my re-emphasis here be comforting. When foster children begin to have hope, they will have taken a big stepa step that will one day, God willing, lead to other steps. Great books are like counselors and the Bible is the best counselor. There is no greater hope than the hope of eternal life with God through the atonement of his Son.
Look for stories of struggle, hope and courage. I have highlighted a small selection for you below. These books have had a special place in our homeschool over the years. They should prove to be inspiring and adventurous reading for boys especially, but girls will appreciate them, too. Because the first story is not well known, I am giving you a short description of it.
Lost on a Mountain in Maine by Donn Fendler (true story). A retired schoolteacher recommended this story to us. She is a greatly admired member of our congregation. In 1939, as a young girl, she remembered hearing about the incident. Years later, she read it to her class every year without omitting the Christian content, which in newer editions has been edited out.
When Donn Fendler was twelve years old, he decide to find his own way back to camp in the fog and lost his way. He searched for his family for two weeks while many searched for him. He hiked (and tumbled) down Maines Mt. Katahdin, getting bitten by bugs and eating very little. Although he was near death when he was found, he says he did not despair. A little Boy Scout training was some help to him, but it was his faith in God that kept him going. He traveled over a ten-mile area of some of the most rugged wilderness in America.
The black-and-white movie of this storystarring Spencer Tracy, Frederick Bartholomew, and Lionel Barrimoreis a classic film. A spoiled rich boy aboard an ocean liner falls overboard, and is picked out of the foggy waters by a fishing boat. He bonds with a seaman and at the end of the story is reconciled with his father (who didnt seem to have much time for his son earlier). Some characters speak in dialect, making the book more difficult to read aloud and the book on tape a welcome option.
For High School
I know that dishes pile up, laundry piles up, and meals need to be made, but if you put all hands on deck to pick up and clean up, you can make time for reading aloud. One mother told me that she sits and reads aloud while her children fold all the laundry. She rarely ever folds, sorts, or puts clean clothes away. Favorable circumstances will not present themselves to us; we have to make them. This is how many of us have learned to make way for reading during typically unfavorable hours. After some months of making way, a habit will be formed. Then force of habit will more easily carry you through your reading-aloud times.
To feed your lambs, aim for one to two hours a day of reading aloud from various books. Of necessity, this time will be split up. Some reading in the morning (history, or perhaps a biography of a scientist) is to be expected, some after lunch perhaps, and some near bedtime (with chores, exercise and fresh air in between). Some mothers slip in twenty minutes of history or science reading to older children while the crawlers and toddlers are napping in the afternoon. Do you have wiggly children who seem to be always fiddling with something? Let them quietly build, weave, knit, or do a jigsaw puzzle while you read. For my children drawing while listening is the usual thing. They will draw while they listen to a book on tape when Im fixing supper or writing an article such as this one. This drawing-listening pastime has continued up through high school.
Mothers have often shared with me that a favorite aspect of homeschooling is that of getting cozy with a good book. Getting cozy is one of those little things that can be undervalued. Getting cozy means learning together. It proves that mom or dad thinks that the book is, indeed, interesting. Getting cozy is sharing knowledge in a more intimate circle, where questions can be asked without ridicule. Using a book of the parents choice, the parent is more apt to deliver his or her phrases to the listeners with a touch of the dramatic, with emotion, a bit of dynamics, and a hint of suspense. In her book, The Hidden Art of Homemaking, Edith Shaeffer asserts that family read-aloud times are the most together thing a family can do. (The emphasis is hers.) During the reading, family members imagine alike, exchange knowing glances; they cheer or laugh together, get watery eyes together, share opinions with one another. Reading aloud ties families together.
In the evening, reading aloud takes place after bedrooms are tidied, teeth are brushed and pjs are on. Setting stipulations such as these for young children helps the evening move along more pleasantly when by this time you are quite fatigued. (When my children were small, I was tired enough to get ready for bed when they did.) Impetus for getting ready for bed is to hear more of the storymaybe a Bible story read by the dad.
Some days are bound to be discouraging ones. You will not always be able to do as much of the reading as you plan to. High ideals are rarely perfectly reachedthats what makes them ideals. But do plan, because as someone once told me: Fail to plan, plan to fail. The road to success in homeschool is to confirm the value of good books and make a way for the reading of them.
Plenty of encouragement on the virtues of reading aloud can be found in the chapters of Honey for a Childs Heart, by Gladys Hunt. I love the title of this book, because it supports the same concept that Ive tried to bring out in this article. Mrs. Hunt goes into some detail about which books to read and why. She starts by describing books she recommends for the very young. There is a chapter on the enjoyment of poetry. Most of the reading suggestions are fictional titles for the elementary to middle school years. There are some recommended titles for teens. My copy has been handy on my shelf for over ten years.
A Resource for Good Stories
The Gentle Art of Learning
If you would like to know more about the gentle art of learning, you will find numerous chapters covering a range of subjects in my book, A Charlotte Mason Companion.
Discussion is invited.