Our Homeschool Redoux with Living Books

This year I did something quite drastic as I planned our homeschool year. I sold/donated/or threw away (nearly) all of our textbooks! What caused me to do something so drastic and unconventional? Have I flipped? Before you decide, read on.

This year I have had the lovely opportunity to meet Charlotte Mason in her own writings, and this has led me on a quest to find worthy books for our home school. I find it difficult to give Miss Mason an adequate introduction, because the volumes she wrote to describe her educational philosophy are so broad. She was a British educator who lived at the turn of the twentieth century, and founded the Charlotte Mason College of Education. She was devoted to the training of mothers and governesses, and gave lectures on children and how they learn. The first of these lectures became Volume One, Home Education. (The reader is referred to volumes 1-6 of The Original Homeschooling Series, by Charlotte M. Mason, available at SimplyCharlotteMason.com) Her writings have changed how I view education, and most importantly to the subject at hand, school books.

So back to getting rid of our textbooks. I have come to appreciate that information is not education. (Yes, Charlotte said that!) To illustrate this point, what was the name of the last textbook you read? (Do I hear crickets chirping?) Now can you name a book that has inspired you, that gave you great ideas and food for thought? I’ll wager you can.

Miss Mason spoke of books with living ideas, by authors that knew and were intimate with their subjects, books that inspired ideas and questions. Books that were memorable. She spoke of spreading a wide feast of knowledge for our children, and was passionate about her topic.

imageHere is a quote from School Education (Volume 3, page 171) “I know you may bring a horse to the water, but you cannot make him drink. What I complain of is that we do NOT bring our horse to the water. We give him miserable little text-books, mere compendiums of facts, which he is to learn off and say and produce at an examination; or we give him various knowledge in the form of warm diluents, prepared by his teacher with perhaps some grains of living thought to the gallon. And all the time we have books, books teeming with ideas fresh from the minds of thinkers upon every subject to which we can wish to introduce children.”

I love those words, and they echoed in my ears as I chose what to add to our bookshelves this year, and what to delete! Is this a book teeming with ideas, or is this a book of dry, dusty facts? Reading one page aloud is usually all ot takes to figure this out! If I see my daughter’s eyes getting glazed over, chances are I am not holding a living book in my hands.  image

So many books I felt I should hold onto, because “I might need to look up this fact”, but all the while they were merely cluttering my shelves, and not looking any more enticing than when I first bought them. The term “dusty textbook” was quite literal over here! Miss Mason also said that “it is accepted that the nature of a school book that it be drained dry of living thought. It may bear the name of a thinker, but then it is the abridgment of an abridgment, and all that is left for the unhappy scholar is the dry bones of his subject denuded of soft flesh and living colour, of the stir of life and power of moving.” (Page 169 School Education) (Don’t you love how she writes?) An abridgment of an abridgment, usually written by a committee! Hmmm, doesn’t sound very appealing to me.

To close, I thought I would give you an example of the section in a biology textbook about frogs (I think I will omit the name) and then compare that to a section from A Handbook of Nature Study, by Anna Botsford Comstock.

The Adult Frog

“After the tail shrinks and the lungs develop, the young frog moves onto the land. An adult frog looks very different from a tadpole. The tail is gone and front and hind legs have appeared. The gills are gone and the frog uses lungs to breathe. The eyes have changed shape and now have eyelids. The frog now has an “ear” called the tympanic (tim-pä-nik) membrane which is a small flat disk that vibrates when there is sound…. The skin is smooth and has many glands that secrete mucus. This helps keep the frog’s skin moist.”

(Are you snoring yet?)

Here is the section on frogs from A Handbook of Nature Study:

The Frog

“The stroller along brookside is likely to be surprised someday at seeing a bit of moss and earth suddenly make a long, high leap, without apparent provocation.  An investigation resolves the clump of moss into a brilliantly green spotted frog with two light yellow raised stripes down his back; and then the stroller wonders how he could have overlooked such an obvious creature. But the leopard frog is only obvious when it is out of its environment. The common green frog is quite is well protected, since its color is exactly that of green pools. Most frogs spend their lives in or about water, and it caught on land they make great leaps to reach their native element; the leopard frog and a few other species, however, sometimes wonder far afield.

In form, the frog is more slim then the toad, and is not covered with great worts; it is cold and slippery to the touch. The frog’s only chance of escaping its enemies is through the slipperiness of its body, and by making long rapid leaps.”

image.jpgWhich would you rather read, or have read to you? Some food for thought as we begin our school year…there are so many beautiful books “teeming with ideas” that we can share with our children, and read for ourselves. Biographies, historical fiction, books of nature lore, poetry and Shakespeare too, the list is long! I hope this has helped elucidate what a living book is, and may inspire you to find books that will inspire and engage your children. I have become so enamored with searching for living books, that I am considering beginning a Living Books Library for homeschoolers in our area. I’ll keep you posted on that topic! But for now, I am excited, as we are perched on the edge of my daughter’s sixth grade year, with our shelves lined with gorgeous living books.

imageAuthor’s note: Selecting our specific books has been made so much easier this year, by having a consultation with Liz Cotrill, from A Delectable Education podcast. She helped me to choose books that would complement our studies this year, and also gave me a framework of what a Charlotte Mason education would include for my daughter’s age and ability level, and also presented me with scheduling help. If you are not familiar with A Delectable Education, but are interested in how to implement Charlotte Mason’s methods in your homeschool, I cannot recommend it enough! My cup overfloweth! *Listening to episode 6 of this podcast will help you to further recognize a living book! Liz, Emily, and Nicole are wonderful.      ~~~Tracy Born


Organizing from Behind and Doing the Deep Dive with Stories

Like many homeschooling parents, I sometimes wonder if I am “doing enough.” Our family has (mostly) bought into the idea that learning just happens and that children are learning all of the time, which is a good philosophy for my fiercely independent, creative, and authority-adverse son. So, while we use learning tools (like these fabulous Star Wars workbooks), we eschew any curriculum that would wield too heavy an influence or plot our months or days, mainly because we know it would become a struggle and get abandoned. While my son has sustained interests, I cannot see him liking anything like a unit study where he felt compelled to focus on a topic, even something he liked. Instead we check out stacks (and laundry baskets full) of all kinds of books from the library—whatever he wants—and read them at will. We do subscriptions (like Science Expeditions) instead of formal studies, watch cartoons in foreign languages that we don’t yet speak instead of watching “educational” language videos (which, yes, I also bought), play games with lots of text instead of doing formal reading lessons, and organize Nerf battles instead of participating in organized gym classes or sports. I know he’s learning. Still, I occasionally find myself wanting to “add up” the learning, to fathom (if not exactly measure) its width and depth.

At times like this, I turn to a practice introduced by the ever-wise Julie Bogart of Brave Writer called “organizing from behind.” The idea is that instead of planning what a child will learn and then helping them learn it, you “live in the joy of the presence of your child” while your child learns things, with or without help, and then you record them as narratives that acknowledge and celebrate that learning.

One benefit of this reverse cycle of learning and then organizing/celebrating is that multiple threads of topics can slowly gather together (better than if they were planned), repeating themselves and getting woven into the tapestry of learning over a longer period of time than is usually spent on a “unit,” or even spent in one school grade. Another is that it is just plain fun.

A recent example of “organizing from behind” in our family has been accounting my son’s deep engagement with classic English children’s books this year. We just returned from a trip to England (where I was doing research for my job as a university professor), which of course provided endless and somewhat overwhelming opportunities for learning. We planned a few things, like going to the British Museum and the Imperial War Museum to learn geography and history, but in hindsight, I think the most interesting learning my son did came from his repeated contact with stories that have been a part of our life for the past several years, including Alice in Wonderland, Wind in the Willows, King Arthur, Harry Potter, Treasure Island, and The Hobbit. Going to the land where these stories were written gave him a chance to perceive the many influences that go into the making of a story, the choices that authors and adapters can make, and the many different ripples and echoes a story can have over time.


Using Alice in Wonderland as an example: My son first heard this story from his overzealous parents as a toddler, and then encountered it again (and the sequel) last year as an audiobook, long before we had made travel plans. He interpreted the Jabberwocky with my husband and memorized much of it without trying. Soon they were battling with “vorpal blades.” Family jokes about “outgrabing” and other nonsense words began to punctuate our dinner conversations. We watched the Disney version of Alice and compared it to the original. In England, we happened to have a chance to travel to Oxford, where the book was written. My son saw Lewis Carroll’s photography equipment at the Museum of the History of Science, toured Christ Church college where Carroll studied and taught, saw stained glass windows filled with characters and a portrait of the “real” Alice, and played Mad Hatter’s Tea Party at the wonderful Oxford Story Museum.


We saw a theatrical version of the story that remixed the characters and ended with Alice battling the Jabberwocky to conquer what these adapters interpreted as her fear of growing up, which was a great chance to learn about literary interpretation.


The Wind in the Willows also got a deep dive. I also read this to my son when he was a toddler, but this year we read two versions of the story at home, side by side—a graphic novel version and Inga Moore’s beautiful illustrated version—because we couldn’t choose between them. Of course, we then jumped on the chance to see the new musical written by Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame) with a London homeschooling group and loved it. We have been listening to the soundtrack constantly since we returned, debating which characters are our favorites (my son’s is definitely Mr. Toad) and which sing the best (and what it means that there are so many female characters and singers in the musical version vs. the book being mostly male characters). We played in an amazing exhibit version of Badger’s house, again at the Oxford story museum, complete with a picture of Neil Gaiman dressed as Badger and a blurb saying why he idolizes the character. (We also went through the train station at Oxford near where Kenneth Grahame’s son killed himself, though I didn’t tell my son that. And I happened to read about the debates over Grahame’s fitness as a parent and to see some of the original letters that Grahame wrote to his young son telling the story of Mr. Toad on display at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.)

And this is all without even talking about our side trip to Glastonbury to see mythological King Arthur sites!

I don’t think I could have planned this better. Each repeated exposure to the different stories reinforced and deepened my son’s thinking and learning. “Organizing from behind” is a chance for me to savor this depth, to know that it is more than enough and to understand, even better, that it will continue to expand.


Back to School, Baby!

Last Monday, we began our family’s sixth year of home education.  Things have changed since our rookie season.  Back then, one child was homeschooling (second grade).  One child was attending a local pre-k program, and our baby girl was one year old, happily coming along for the ride.  I jumped into the classical method because I had friends using it.  It also made a lot of sense to me, a former doctoral student in education.  The classical philosophy meshed well with what I believed about learning, so we dove right in.  We belonged to a small but inspiring little co-op that met in a fabulous botanical garden.  It was positively dreamy.

Now, our home life–and thus, our educational atmosphere–looks quite different.  We have four homeschooling students.  This “school house” of ours contains a seventh grader, a fourth grader, a first grader, and a 3-year-old preschooler.  We have a one-year-old daughter who complicates things while also helping us to keep a light, cheerful spirit and a humble perspective.  While I still value many elements of a classical education, we have shifted into a Charlotte Mason style of learning and living.  We live in a different state with a very different climate.  We belong to a far larger co-op inside a lovely church.

So much change.  But our love for learning at home remains strong.  Some of our motivations are the same, and new ones have come.

Now we begin 2017-2018.  I love planning a new year of books, activities, and exploration.  I love that Charlotte Mason folks think of education as a “feast” with many tantalizing offerings to taste and enjoy.  Isn’t that a terrific image as we approach education as a joy and an adventure?


I’m excited to have a preschooler again.  His natural curiosity is delightful, and his growing hunger for books warms my heart.  In week one, we read and played with Blueberries for Sal.  This week, I’m offering him Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.  I’m planning simply, low-preparation activity boxes to help keep him engaged while I attend to other kids, but I also hope to maintain the sense of fun as we dig into new stories.


Whether you are simply exploring homeschooling, continuing a year long schedule, or returning “back to school” as I am, I wish you peace, growth, and happiness on your journey.