From Charlotte, NC to Charlotte Mason: My Philosophy of Education and Teaching Journey
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I’m Holly. I do not think I came into the world of homeschooling feeling it was going to rock. In fact, I was a little scared. You might have heard me cry out about five years ago, “All the weight of not messing my kids up is getting to me!”
Yes, you might have heard me say the aforementioned exclamation. And I understand. I think we parents place an awful lot on ourselves because we have been entrusted with a lot. But that does not mean we must carry the weight all ourselves.
So while I homeschool, I am so much more than a homeschool teacher. I am a friend to just a few, a trusted confidant to even fewer, a dreamer, a visionary, an occasional display of “thinking out loud”, sometimes a little too serious, sometimes just silly, and sometimes… I make things a lot bigger than they really are (it would be redundant to say I’m serious). I am getting to a healthy place where I am more confident and less serious, I believe. That’s what [good] counseling will do. Seriously though, if we homeschool parents could just learn to take ourselves less seriously… that’d be a wonderful place to live. I digress.
I think any adult who is able to know she is accepted and loved by an Almighty God, a Savior named Jesus, is someone who does not try to prove to others (or herself) that she is is worthy. I am beginning to become more of that person.
So I’m here to share a few chapters of my life with you. The “book” is as follows:
- school days
- teaching days
- homeschool days
- philosophy days
If you’d like to comment about your own schooling journey (whether or not you homeschool), I’m all ears in the comments section.
If you’re willing to buckle up and stay a while, then I hope you enjoy the story and that it helps you in some way. If you’d rather skip ahead to the audio version, I understand! Time is a precious commodity. I do hope you jump to the end of this post, though, because we need to connect. I’d love to connect with you. I hope you enjoy this episode of Developing Classical Thinkers. I still feel honored to be a guest on this podcast!
School Days: Going to School
I was born and raised in Charlotte, NC. My parents moved out to the suburbs in 1987 so that my brother and I could attend a “good” public school. Thankfully, I did have that opportunity for most of my childhood. I had some wonderful teachers. When I entered a public university at age 18, my mind was set on teaching in our public schools.
Through the School of Education at my institution (UNC-Chapel Hill), I learned about educational philosophy and pedagogy. My student teaching experience began in the fall of my senior year.
Student teaching proved to be a great way to practice applying the methods I’d been taught. Seeing that I learned under the tutelage of a secular university, a lot of the theorists we studied were secular humanists. One such theorist you may be familiar with was Paulo Freire. Although Freire’s work has some elements of truth, it was influenced by a Marxist ideology, as you can read in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I know that I read some of this work in college. I was also exposed to ideas found in Critical Race Theory (CRT). Had I agreed with all of these ideas and attached myself to the new vocabulary found in the theories and narratives, I would have certainly been applauded and upheld as a ‘progressive’ thinker.
I cannot say that my philosophy of education was not influenced by any of Paulo Freire’s ideas. This might explain why I chose to teach in the public school district that was supposedly the “lowest performing” in our state at that time.
Let me explain some of my experiences there.
Teaching Days: My Years Teaching in Public School
In my student teaching experience, I had a wonderful cooperating teacher. A “Steel Magnolia from the North” she was a good balance between ruler of her classroom and facilitator of thought-provoking dialogue. I gathered some adages from her:
“It’s always best to start with a lot of boundaries, then lighten up as opposed to starting loose and then having to tighten up.”
I’ll shorten it: “It’s better getting to lighten up than it is having to tighten up.”
She was a master of differentiating instruction, having had a Montessori background. She recounted her time as a Montessori teacher, having to craft personalized lesson plans for every student in a 15-person class.
She developed a rotation that I still recall to this day:
- Meet with the teacher for a differentiated lesson in a small group of about 5 to 8 students.
- Practice the skill on your own or with a partner from the same small group of students.
- Work on a project on your own that incorporates that very skill.
I learned this rotation well and applied it to my own lesson plans as a student teacher in a class of gifted third and fourth graders.
My student teaching gave me the opportunity to create unit studies that were thematic. I made an “Adaptations” unit that I taught during my student teaching from January to April. It tied together the interdisciplinary studies: social studies (geography, history and culture of NC), science (animal adaptations), and literature. I remember that I loved writing and teaching this unit! The overarching concept (adaptations) was taught in the context of the Cherokee Natives in NC, European settlers in NC, and animal adaptation in the NC mountain region. The key idea was that adaptations are necessary for survival.
I was somewhat of an idealist when I graduated from UNC in May 2008. My cooperating teacher was supportive, but asked me “Why?!” when I told her I would teach in the lowest-performing school district in NC. She didn’t understand my optimism. Coming out of a classroom of high-achieving third and fourth grade students, I had to face the reality of teaching students in this new school district, some of whom lacked basic physical resources.
My first year of teaching was challenging in many ways. I loved my students and truly wanted to apply the principles and even incorporate my unit study from student teaching. Some of this was just not feasible. Many of my students came to me reading at a lower grade level and had to be met where they were. I had trouble doing that for so many.
One thing from college that influenced my teaching in a positive way was the practice I had had with differentiating instruction in the classroom. My students had so many needs, though.
I truly felt like I had failed some students but I was such an idealist. I really thought I was going to go in there and change the world. I did care about those students that first year. It was so different from the more controlled environment I found in my student teaching class! Remember, I had professors’ children in my student teaching class, and the ones who were not of that ilk had very supportive home environments, conducive to student flourishing.
With each progressive year, it became more and more evident that meeting students where they were in smaller groups is what I had to do. On the other hand, my whole-class lessons had to be crafted so I would be teaching “to the top”. Remediation would follow for those who did not understand the first time.
The idea from Abraham Maslow that we must meet the physiological and safety needs of students before their emotional/social and self-fulfillment needs can be met is actually something I observed in my four years of teaching in the NC public schools.
This led me to believe that a whole person, a student, can only be truly nourished from the roots up. The roots begin at home. At the time, I also agreed with the secular theorists that the child is not a “blank slate” or empty reservoir to be filled with knowledge from an “authoritarian” teacher, as Freire had put it. His problem-posing education sounded good on paper. Of course, I didn’t support the banking model of education. If given a choice between the two theories, I had to choose the more “progressive” one because it sounded more humane, more modern. Critical thinking is a popular buzzword in education, is it not? You hear that term used a lot in public education circles.
As I actually look at Freire’s philosophy from a classical Christian perspective, after a few years of self-education and learning about the classical tradition, I see that it lacks a key component: God. The actual implementation of questioning and working together to solve a problem is not bad. I have seen how student engagement increases when students are able to see the application of math in real-world problem solving by working on a group project, for example. But what does this philosophy have to say about the lecture? Isn’t there some level of humility involved in being a recipient of a lecture, if its source is an expert in that field? Or, is the lecturer “the oppressor”?
Also, the problem-posing educational model still recognizes an authority in the teacher, correct? Even if the knowledge is “equally” distributed among the students and teacher alike, surely the classroom cannot be completely devoid of authority, since the authority (the teacher) has to choose the problem he or she will pose to the students. It is an interesting philosophical conundrum.
Where was the humility?
Who is the authority?
What is a student?
What is education?
I did have a good teaching experience overall in the Durham and Wake County public schools! Some of my fondest memories involve the experiential learning in which we were able to participate with our students. I remember our study of the phases of the moon and how I enjoyed teaching my students a corny song I composed about the moon’s phases (Email me, and I’ll send it to you). Corny, but it stuck! Each afternoon, we went outside to chart the moon. Yes, those late winter afternoons allowed us a glimpse of the moon!
The sweet, handwritten notes made coming to work on a day that I knew would be packed with parent-teacher conferences worth it!
I loved learning about my students- their likes, favorite books, cultures, family lives.
I will always remember a good portion of the students I taught in those four years for the rest of my life.
The field trips, the field days, the family fun nights and teacher talent shows are all good memories.
I loved the parent volunteers. They were game changers. My love and appreciation for these parents will always remain strong. My husband came in once a week to my school to remediate a group of students in my last year of teaching. He’s a keeper.
I learned that hard work is not necessarily rewarded on this side of heaven, but I am fine with that. It felt thankless sometimes, but some stations in life feel that way, from time to time. I knew my students cared for me, and that was enough to keep me going. I also cared for them. A lot of them were simply phenomenal. And don’t get me wrong, a lot of the parents were wonderful and cared immensely.
There are few days when I do not see their faces, shining brightly, as my own son is approaching the very age my students were then. Now, my former students would be 19 to 23 years old!
Homeschool Days: Did You Say Homeschooling?
We did not come into our marriage with the clear expectation that we would homeschool our children (it was on the radar, but we had no resolve). Although Andrew was homeschooled from kindergarten through the twelfth grade, and I was a product of public school all the way through, we did not have any strong conviction on the subject. In fact, I doubt we were seriously thinking about the schooling of our children until the first was born. (Read our story)
I (Holly) did some research ahead of time, before I found out I was pregnant with our first child. I knew that the school district in which we lived was not considered prime. I also knew that I had a teaching background, and I was dedicated to doing whatever it took to help my children flourish. The fall I found out I was pregnant with our first child, I decided to volunteer in the public schools about once per week to scope out the scene. I had to put my money where my mouth was. After my experience in that school, it was not hard to rule out public schools for my children.
It was clear that freedom was limited in the public schools: the mandates on what had to be taught and when, the shrinking time dedicated to running, jumping, playing and just being a kid all in the name of “TESTING”… all of these things played a role in convincing me that public education was not the best for my child.
Another BIG take-away for me is this: I did not need to make decisions for my family that were fear-based. Therefore, we began to homeschool in order to give our kids something, not to protect them from the outside. My reason for homeschooling was to give my children something they could not get anywhere else (in the public or even private schools). I do believe habitually pointing them to Christ’s beauty and goodness and truth is paramount to any other cause in our homeschool. Noble ideas can be found in good, living books and in the Bible. The majority of what we had to read with our classroom students in the public schools was not considered wholesome.
I believe it is a common misconception that homeschooling parents decide to educate at home to prevent their children from “turning out” like the products of public schools. It was not really for moral reasons that we began homeschooling, even though I think that parents can spend more time teaching virtues in context in the homeschool, if they embrace the lofty, noble ideas found in great literature and practice good habits. Newsflash: my children are already sinners, just like any other child, no matter the environment. Homeschooling would not change that simple fact. On the other hand, the home environment can nurture a child. Like poison to the human character is any performance-based education (no matter if it’s at home or in the schools).
What lasts in a person? The amount they learned for a test and then later forgot? If we teach students to CARE, doesn’t that yield better results? Doesn’t that last for a lifetime?
We began homeschooling because we could. We believed in more freedom and more time. We do not believe homeschooling is the only way. We do believe it is right for us, right now.
Philosophy Days: Why Classical and Charlotte Mason?
My philosophy of education is linked inextricably to my lifelong pursuit of the eternal perspective (that which is true, good, and beautiful, with God at the center). I draw from some varied ideas, but have recently taken to a lot of the principles surrounding the classical tradition, as outlined in Karen Glass’s 2014 work, Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition. The philosophy of education starts with defining THREE key principles:
- The definition of the teacher.
- The definition of a student/learner/child.
- The definition of education.
Let’s look at the first definition. What is a student? “The manner in which a society or culture answers that question [what is man?] will drive its educational practices,” (Glass, p. 11).
Therefore, it all makes sense to me now that Paulo Freire would think about students in a more humanistic way, given he did have to endure being imprisoned by an authoritarian, fascist government for his dissident views. He was shaped by his experience, undoubtedly. But, the question remains, “Where is God in all of this?”
Given that I am a Christ-follower and have a presuppositional Christian worldview, I believe that God is at the center of all knowledge. Knowledge is power, and Mr. Freire is definitely accurate in asserting this. But the giver of knowledge is indeed an authority. He is the loving, just, holy God of the Bible.
My children are persons. How do I define “person”? Who does God say my children are?
The person/child/man/woman is a living soul created in the image of God (see Genesis 1:26). So, the educational task is not a utilitarian one. We are not machines. We are not empty reservoirs. We are not social mechanisms for the advancement of a political view or movement. This quote from Glass’s work, “We seek to discover all the potential in each child so that he can become everything that God meant him to be”, resonates with me.
If children have such potential to become everything they were meant to be, then who determines what they are meant to be? I believe in the Author of all wisdom and knowledge and understanding as the Holder of our potential. God Himself (the one, triune God in the Bible), is the Author of our personhood. If He holds all our potential, then He must hold all the keys to wisdom. Goodness, truth and beauty are His. Therefore, while wise thinking is an end in some ways, “good conduct was the desired end of wise thinking,” (Glass, p. 21).
So, unlike our “modern” utilitarian view of man as a machine, I choose to view man as a person, created in God’s image, with a soul that can never die, and a lifelong call to pursue wisdom, and in that, right conduct. The Holy Spirit is obviously the key player for the Christian in producing right conduct, as a result of the wisdom he or she obtains.
In my current educational philosophy, I draw heavily from Charlotte Mason (1842-1923, Victorian era, England), but I also realize she was a product of her time, and there are potential errors in her way of thinking on some points. I choose to not be a purist, but I do draw heavily from her principles.
A quick history on Charlotte Mason:
-born in Wales, siblings much older than she
-a quiet, thoughtful girl
-came from a line of Irish Quakers, who were teachers and textbook writers
-felt called to teach the poor (later, she set up her first Parents’ National Education Union in an industrial Yorkshire and taught the lower class children because she believed in a liberal education for all.
-orphaned by age 16
-earned the Queen’s Scholarship at age 17, which paid for two years of teacher training
-stress sent her into a panic while being observed during her first year in college, so she was sent to an Infant School to teach, and would earn her teaching certificate upon finishing that year of teaching
-as she was teaching, she started gathering ideas and creating principles: every child should have a chance to connect with many areas of study (the feast), children gain understanding through narration, short and varied lessons, power of observation, living books brought an ease and joy of learning that a textbook or teacher-focused lecture did not, children are great at making connections across subjects, de-emphasizing grades led to eager learners.
-wrote her first book at age 40
-lectures given as a church fundraiser were compiled into her famous Home Education
-parents who supported Charlotte’s ideas and wanted to learn how to apply them formed the PNEU (The Parents’ Review magazine publication)
-taught students in Yorkshire
-moved her teaching training to Ambleside and called it the House of Education
There is actually one question to answer first: WHO IS THE TEACHER?
“God is the teacher.” In Charlotte Mason: The Teacher Who Revealed Worlds of Wonder by Lanaya Gore illus. by Twila Farmer, the story recounts when Miss Mason encountered a fresco in a Spanish chapel on her visit to Florence, Italy. This fresco answered the question, “Who is the teacher?”
Mason responds: “The great recognition, that God, the Holy Spirit is Himself personally the Imparter of all knowledge, the Instructor of youth, the Inspirer of genius, is a conception so far lost to us that we should think it distinctly irreverent to conceive of the divine teaching as co-operating with ours in a child’s arithmetic lesson. But the Florentine mind of the Middle Ages believed that every fruitful idea, every original conception whether in Euclid or grammar or music, was a direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit…” (Gore, p. 32).
We conclude that all knowledge belongs to Creator God and is given by Him to the pupil.
Charlotte Mason has been a mentor of sorts to me over the past three years. I have especially been impacted by Karen Glass’s works about the interconnectedness between Charlotte Mason and the classical thinkers who came long before her time. She and her methods do not belong to one era, but take their place in a timeless tradition. Her principles and methods were not of her own invention – Charlotte Mason and her colleagues had “discovered” them, because they represent universal truths about education that have their roots in the classical world. Like the classical thinkers, Charlotte Mason asked the question about the conception of man: “What is man?”
Because of her conclusion that children are born persons, with the capacity for good and for evil, Charlotte Mason joins the educators throughout history who have also made wisdom and virtue a primary goal for educators. Miss Mason was pushing back against a prevailing view of children of her day: that since babies were undeveloped in physical body and lack the strength of a grown person, they were also undeveloped in mind and did not yet possess the intellect of a person. Her objection to this idea is an educational application. Children have minds of their own. Therefore, the role of the educator is not to produce the mind.
The goal of an educator, according to Mason, is to facilitate the child’s use of his or her mind, as an instrument of his or her own education, in the pursuit of wisdom and virtue. The education does not produce the mind.
Mason uses a lot of analogies pertaining to food when she speaks about the mind. We “feed” the mind lovely, noble, and true ideas. We give students the chance to “digest” what they take from the “feast of ideas” we lay before them. We cannot “chew the food” for them; they must do this for themselves. Students are to make sense of the world as they are exposed to the best thinking from the best thinkers in history. After all, the ideas of our culture’s best thinkers will shape our own ideas. “You are what you eat”: the things we love and hold dear to our minds will make us who we are. I think you can see the point.
We should probably try to step inside Charlotte Mason’s Industrial Revolution era England to see what Mason was up against, in terms of her day’s prevailing attitudes about education. Karen Glass writes, “Modern education has been plagued by utilitarianism for a very long time and both teachers and students have come to think that schools should teach only what will be useful in the pursuit of a career.” Modern education was overshadowing the classical tradition around the time of the Victorian Era. A new buzzword emerged: “science”. As an aside, we have progressed in many ways as a result of the development of new technologies and industry related to such technologies. I am so thankful for antibiotics. But is our education system going about teaching the person as a whole?
So, what is man? If the answer is “man is a machine”, then the goal of education is to make that “machine-man” most efficient and least troublesome. We cannot have glitches in our machine’s operations, after all. “A machine-child must learn what he needs to know in order to perform with optimum efficiency those tasks which fall to him, and little else is needed except perhaps some entertainment to keep him content between tasks,” Glass asserts. There were many people in Mason’s day who really thought of men as so many cogs in a machine. Utilitarianism was infiltrating the way we started to educate.
Teaching to the test sounded like a good idea, because it was “efficient”. Maybe this is why we see such failure in our schools today. By and large, in America we observe high rates of illiteracy, college remedial courses, and if you’ve seen how Jimmy Kimmel’s stupidly simple geography questions baffle pedestrians on an L.A. street, then you know exactly what I mean. Our education system has failed.
Charlotte Mason embraced the Great Conversation. She was a part of it, and held hands with the thinkers of the past as well as with the reformers of her time who shared her commitment to teaching the classical languages and literature. Victorian England was turning more to science, though. When we look to Mason’s time or even the time of Plato and Aristotle, we tend to ask “how” they educated. The question we moderns focus on is probably the wrong one. Maybe the question “how?” should be replaced with the question “why”? Why did they educate in that particular way? I think it is a difference of purpose, not just methods.
Mason knew that Plato and Aristotle linked knowledge to action (virtue). Knowledge was viewed as a process of learning how to live rightly. Therefore, virtue was the goal of the classical educators. Mason supported this goal, as well, and defined virtue in the same way as Plato and Aristotle:
“We are aware that good life implies cultivated intelligence, that, according to the Platonic axiom, ‘Knowledge is virtue’, even though there be many exceptions to the rule.” (Philosophy of Education, p. 235)
The second big principle that is related to the first is, “Education is the science of relations”. Charlotte Mason called this the guiding principle of education. Glass writes, “Education is the science of relations means that relations are the primary concern of education, and we must explore all that this means.”
I can think about countless connections with what I’ve learned over the past two-to-three years. Of course, knowledge can certainly be utilitarian – useful – without creating any interest, wonder, or delight. However, Mason asserted that “Education should aim at giving knowledge ‘touched with emotion’”.
Practically-speaking, this looks like many things in a Charlotte Mason homeschool. For example, we just finished reading a picture book about Beethoven’s Heroic Symphony – one that he wrote for his own struggle with deafness and for all of humanity struggling and finding strength and inspiration at last, through their struggles.
It is a universal truth: struggles can make us stronger and can inspire us to do great things. One discussion you can have about this could be with your own children about an obstacle they’ve had to overcome through God’s help. Or, you can point to examples from the Bible regarding a deep, dark valley a person had to walk through in trust and obedience before finding redemption (Job, Jesus Christ, Paul, etc.) Let’s examine this big idea in the context of A Pilgrim’s Progress. How are Beethoven and Christian’s experiences similar and how are they different? Do you see what I mean? The students are making personal relationships with not only the subjects they read about, but also about the big, universal truths which God has placed into our world.
Therefore, Mason says that education is a relational pursuit in our:
- Knowledge of God
- Knowledge of man
- Knowledge of the universe (firsthand exposure to nature, physical possibilities, etc.)
Our family finds ourselves outside in nature a lot. We have become well-acquainted with the cicadas in our pine trees out back. We study their shells (exoskeletons), know where they like to hang out, and have studied them up close. Ask my 3.5 year old what he knows about cicadas. Has he read any nonfiction on cicadas? No. He does know a great deal about them, and he could probably write a small chapter on cicadas, if he could, as a result of his firsthand experience.
To wrap up this principle, we must understand that the intellectual and spiritual are connected by God. Nothing intellectually true can be unspiritual. Miss Mason believed in the sacredness and the unity of knowledge: “Knowledge is, perhaps, a beautiful whole, a great unity, embracing God and man and the universe.”
Some things I truly love about our schooling that are Charlotte Mason-inspired:
-poetry study (check out my free poetry mini-unit)
-sol-fa sight singing
-literature selections (this year we are focusing on fairy tales and legends)
–the habit of [attention] (habit training)
–history as “a grand story”, filled with smaller narratives
-education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life (unity of knowledge, connecting us to living ideas)
-Charlotte Mason map drills – get some geography teaching ideas here
-copy work and dictation (make it excellent the first time)
I am a big fan of purporting that classical education and Charlotte Mason are great friends, and are often mistaken as opponents.
There is a big movement within the classical realm, as you’ve probably heard about the Classical Conversations program. We did attend our local Classical Conversations (CC) group for three years, and benefited from the community aspect of it. I personally gleaned a lot over the time I was there from the practicums, which dive deeper into the “why” behind the methods. A classical homeschool has three main elements: it follows the pattern of the trivium, is language-focused rather than image-focused, and is centered around the story of history.
Classical Conversations has a lot of great resources, if that’s what you’re looking for. We loved practicing our history sentences to songs. Many of the songs are cemented our brains!
I believe that some people would call Classical Conversations a “neo-classical” approach, but I really do not like to be too picky about this, and do not want to support an “us” versus “them” culture among homeschooling moms.
One thing I think is really important is self-education for all homeschooling families. Read more books about something, watch more informative videos, listen to more podcasts, I say!
Books I recommend:
In Vital Harmony: Charlotte Mason and the Natural Laws of Education by Karen Glass
Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition by Karen Glass
A Charlotte Mason Companion by Karen Andreola
Teaching from Rest by Sarah Mackenzie
The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise
Podcasts I recommend:
A Delectable Education Podcast
Ten Minutes to a Better Homeschool w/ Pam Barnhill
What is My Little Brick Schoolhouse?
My Little Brick Schoolhouse started as my personal blog. My goal in creating a blog was to allow myself a place to process and share my thoughts and experiences about homeschooling.
Now, I have narrowed my focus. I write mainly on motherhood/homeschooling, Charlotte Mason methods, and share a lot of book recommendations! Last year, I created a week-by-week Classical Conversations book list composed of living books from History Cycle 1 (Ancient Times). I include math, geography, history, science and fine arts books on the CC Cycle 1 book list. I also include favorite living biographies, holiday favorites, and links to the books we read together in CC Cycles 2 and 3.
My hope is to provide some glimpse into the way we do things, as well as to educate and create quality resources for homeschooling families. I create Charlotte Mason-inspired unit studies, some of which have been free to my email community!
I love networking with other bloggers and currently blog with the iHomeschool Network. I enjoy reviewing homeschool curriculum, and cannot wait to review more of what we love using at home this school year!
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Did I miss anything? Just email me if you want to talk about homeschooling or books or Charlotte Mason or G.K. Chesterton… firstname.lastname@example.org