History and the Book of Esther

Dear Reader,

I wanted to share with you one more thought I had at the Storyformed Child conference I went to (see my earlier post on it here and their website here). This one came out of the workshop I attended which was entitled “Finding Story in History” and was by a woman named Jane Rattray.

Mrs. Rattray had a number of interesting things to say. She quoted the statistic that history textbooks contain 1.2 million facts (how anyone ever found out a number like that I have no idea) but talked about how easy these facts are to lose, when, for instance, one has taken a test and no longer needs them. But, she said, if you have  a story to go with the facts, you will remember them. Or perhaps a story will even inspire one to want to learn more so that they intentionally seek out facts.

At one point Mrs. Rattray talked about King Xerxes of Persia, the battle he fought at Thermopylae, and his story in the book of Esther (I never connected that this was the same Xerxes myself). And we talked a bit about Esther and how she was placed at a certain time in history to save her people. I remembered being told in grad school that Esther is the only book in the Hebrew Bible that does not mention God explicitly. Some rabbis actually wanted to leave it out of the canon because of this. But there is one point in the middle when Mordecai is urging Esther to step up and speak to the king when he says (paraphrasing here): “But if you do not, help will come to the Jews from another place.” This “other place” is the reference to God. And remembering this, what I thought was that the story of our lives is so often like the book of Esther. We do not walk with God in the garden like Adam (despite one awful hymn which I find particularly annoying, even for a hymn). We do not usually speak with Him like Abraham. Hearing voices from burning bushes is not for most of us. Most of us are Esthers. We do not see God working directly. We have to trust that He is behind it all and that He will provide. I think it is actually a sign of our maturity as a people that God has become a bit of a more hands-off parent in His day-to-day dealings with us. But it does require us to see in a different way, to look into circumstances, both in our own lives and in history, and to use our discernment in order to see His hand at work.


Kids’ Books We’ve Read (or Listened to) Recently

Dear Reader,

Here once again are some of the books we have been reading or listening to lately:

Breadcrumbs  by Anne Ursu – We actually only listened to half of this. We rarely leave off a book in the middle, but I was just not thrilled with it. My older daughter had actually read it before and said it would get better in a  bit, but I lost patience with it. I guess it develops a fairytalish Snow Queen plot later on. I didn’t like the way the kids ans their families were portrayed. The main character in  particular just seemed way too wrapped up in her own head, not in a  good way. Though it has won awards and gets good reviews in Amazon so I may not be in the majority on this one.

The Loud Silence of Francine Green by Karen Cushman — We have liked a lot of Cushman’s books and this one was decent but not the best. It would be good if you were studying the Cold War and the Red Scare in this country. It does a good job of showing how different people reacted to the threat of communism. It was enjoyable just not quite as much so, not as funny, as some of her other books like, for instance, Catherine, called Birdy which was hysterical.

Hazel Green by Odo Hirsch –I picked this book off the shelf because I liked the author’s name. It seemed like with a name like Odo it must be good. It is. This is apparently the first in a  series. I can only speak to the original. It is the story of a girl named Hazel who organizes the other kids in her apartment building to build a float and enter a local parade. It is amusing and heartwarming. Well worth the read. We liked it so much we are not trying another of his books, Bartlett and the Ice Voyage. We are only three chapters in and I can tell it will be a winner too.

The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric Kelly — This is another award-winner but this one deserves the label. It is an older book about Poland in the time of Tartars and Cossacks. The beginning seemed a bit wordy and I think my kids were wary of the longer descriptive passages (they accused it of being homeschool-y), but it ends up telling an intriguing and well-done story. It is definitely worth plowing through the slower bits.

The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop — We are in the midst of this as an audio-book. At first I thought it was a bit dull, but then the main character does something surprising and a bit malicious about a quarter of the way through which made it all more interesting.

Moon over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool — I don’t know a lot about this book but my 12-year-old daughter read it and really seemed to like it so I thought I would mention it. It is an award-winner too.

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper — My 12-year-old read this for a book club. I read it too. At first I found it a bit contrived. It is about a girl with cerebral palsy who is very smart but can’t communicate so no one knows it. It seemed overdone at the beginning but over time the characters grew on me. The ending is disappointing though and the lessons learned are a bit obvious for my tastes though my daughter said that there was no message to the book so perhaps it was not so obvious to a child.

Winter Danger by William O. Steele — We have listened to a number of books recently about kids who lived in pioneer times. In this one a boy has grown up in the woods with his father, completely apart from settled life. But then one winter he is left with relatives. He learns what it means to depend on others. William O. Steele’s books get recommended a lot and I could swear we read one in the past though I couldn’t tell you what it was. I didn’t adore this book but it was decent. The beginning seemed a bit slow but it got better when there were more characters added.

Mr. Tucket by Gary Paulsen — This was the best of the “in the wilds/pioneer time” books we listened to. There are sequels too which I wouldn’t mind checking out. A boy is kidnapped by Indians and ends up traveling around with a mountain man. Of course as in all these books, he does a lot of growing up and learning. The one down side for me was the ending which I found a bit too preachy again.

Weasel by Cynthia DeFelice — This book was not bad. I’d say I liked it better than Winter Danger but worse then Mr. Tucket. Two kids this time. Their mom is dead, their dad is injured, they meet a silent friend and a real bad dude named Weasel. There are lots of potential deeper issues about what it means to be civilized and how violence shapes people. I’m not sure my kids took in a whole lot of that.

Whew! That’s quite a list. I obviously need to do these posts more often so they don’t build up.

Until next time




The Story-Formed Child (A Review)

Dear Reader,

I had the privilege recently of attending the first ever (I believe) Story-Formed Child conference.  The main speaker was a woman named Sarah Clarkson who was homeschooled herself and has studied children’s literature. Her main thesis is that we are all living our own stories and that we need to play the parts of heroes in them. For those of us raising or teaching children, or even with children in our lives, we should be filling their lives with stories, great stories, so that they too can see themselves in this way and can learn to be heroes.

The day was very enjoyable, gave me a lot to think about, and was all very Charlotte Mason-friendly. It was not primarily about education and homeschooling but more about parenting or dealing with children in general. So while Charlotte was mentioned a number of times, this was not really an educational theory that I can conveniently compare to hers ;) But I do think she would have agreed to almost everything which was said.

The conference also made me think many times of the book Children of a Greater God by Glaspey which I have reviewed here. Glaspey gives a number of suggestions of how to raise moral children but reading good books is the major one.

Here, then, based on my notes, are the main points:

  • Great stories help children understand themselves to be heroes. Children need to see that life is a story and how to live it out.
  • Stories like Anne of Green Gables can change how we see the world.
  • Our culture has lost its stories and doesn’t know what to do with heroes. We have lost our overarching or meta-narrative.  It occurred to me as I heard this that we have lost our stories because we have lost our Storyteller. With no Supreme Being or belief in anything larger than ourselves, we are left with no purpose and therefore no story.
  • Narrative gives us the “why” to what we do. And again I would say we can have no “why” if we are all there is and are mere products of evolution.
  • If we aren’t deliberate in giving our kids stories, they will get them (or the lack of them) from the culture.
  • The two big ways we give our kids stories are through the Bible and literature. We are all part of the story of Scripture.  And here is a quote I love (paraphrase really as its hard to write the exact words in time): Literature is our human conversation through the ages about what it means to live well. I think Charlotte would smile at this.
  • God is the first Storyteller and we echo Him when we tell stories. From another later talk also came the idea that God much have imagined His creation before He began to create and that when we imagine and tell stories we are showing one way we are made in His image.  I have commented before that I find it striking that God chooses to communicate with us through words. We can also say He communicates through stories since that is a lot of what the Bible is and is also how Jesus taught.
  • Atmosphere matters. Beauty matters and we should surround our kid with it in nature, art, music and especially stories. Again, very CM.
  • Children need time to be alone, even to be bored. This is what Charlotte calls masterly inactivity.
  • Happy endings are good. Children need to see that they are going towards something beautiful.

There was one point I disagreed with. I don’t want to make too big a deal of it. I did e-mail the organizer and got assurance that we are not really on different pages theologically. Still, I think there are some larger implications so I think it is worth mentioning. It was said a few times that parents write their kids’ stories, that they are the first storytellers in their lives. I do obviously think parents have a lot of influence in their children’s lives. But I would not say this. I would say, rather, that God is the Storyteller in all our lives. Just as we cannot give our children saving faith so we cannot force them to learn, and so also we do not write their stories, not even the beginnings. In fact I think it is important for parents to realize that their kids are whole, complete people and that God is working in their lives and shaping them as much as He is in our own. And sometimes, as hard as it is, we need to step back and let Him do that. The woman I communicated with acknowledged that of course God is sovereign in our kids’ lives. And honestly, it is not so much the purely theological part that concerns me because I think most Christians can see that. But I see parents who either come between their children and God, usually with quite good intentions, or even more commonly who do not recognize that it is God who teaches them (Charlotte Mason again, the Holy Spirit is the great educator). Now, don’t get me wrong, they did not touch on these issues. I just see ways in which the comment that we write our kids’ stories could be taken too far and so I want to caution against it. But in everything else, I was really pleased with what I heard.

I don’t want you to think I’ve old you everything Sarah Clarkson has to say. I have barely touched on the second and third talks she gave, and at any rate it is worthwhile to hear her yourself if you get the chance. She also has a book out and I believe they aim to build up the website. I am very excited that they will be publishing out of print books and also offering book reviews.


Shameless Promotion

Dear Reader,

My 12-year-old daughter has recently started a blog to help promote her business. She makes and sells knitted and crocheted things. Her specialties include girls’ headbands, water bottle holders (great for nature walks!) and wrist pets (felted pets that you can wear and take with you). She can make many other things as well and is branching out into baby onesies and kids’ t-shirts. Please check it out if you get a chance.

Selling at a local craft fair

Selling at a local craft fair

We will also be at the MassHope homeschool convention in Worcester, MA later this month. She will be selling in the “young entrepeneurs” section. Come say hello if you are there.



Reading Comprehension, or What to Study and How to Study it

Dear Reader,

Do you do reading comprehension in your homeschool? Do you have a curriculum for it? In a Charlotte Mason Education, such things are not needed. Narration takes the place of reading comprehension. In narration, a child tells back what they have read as they see it. The key difference here is that the child decides what is important and chooses what to tell rather than having to anser preset questions in which the teacher (or textbook) decides what is important.

There is often a different in purpose as well. Through narration, the child processes the information and forms a relationship with it as they narrate. With reading comprehension, there may be a desire that the child learn the facts the teacher is asking about but it is also a kind of test to see if they have understood what they have read. Narration is not a test for the teacher’s benefit (so they can assign a grade) it is part of the learning process and is for the child’s benefit. Furthermore, Charlotte Mason would say that reading comprehension type questions are useless for really knowing what a child has learned. They may be able to parrot back facts but that does not mean that they have let the material sink deep into them. Here is how she puts it:

“The mind appears to have an outer court into which matter can be taken and again expelled without ever having entered the inner place where personality dwells. Here we have the secret of learning by rote, a purely mechanical exercise of which no satisfactory account has been given, but which leaves the patient, the pupil, unaffected.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 202)

You, like I, have probably experienced this sort of thing — cramming for  a test only to forget it all the next day when it is no longer needed.

One may, in a Charlotte Mason education, give some sort of question as an impetus to narration but these should be open-ended questions such as “Tell me all you know about this character.” At times I think such questions may help the student to ferret out information they didn’t even know they had. I am thinking of examples such as when one reads a fictional account of life in colonial America and then is asked “tell me how they lived then.” Rather than just recounting the story, the child must now think about what they have read and pull together different parts to create  a picture of colonial life that was not just clearly laid out for them. But we must also recognize that whenever we ask questions, we are focusing attention, to some greater or lesser degree, on what we think is important, perhaps to the detriment of what the student actually got out of it all. Charlotte does not speak well of such questioning:

“Questions, as Dr. Johnson told us, are an intrusion and  a bore . . . ‘The mind can know nothing except what it can express in the form of an answer to a question put by the mind to itself.’ Observe, not a question put by an outsider, but, put by the mind to itself.” (p. 202)

Indeed, our questions often betray a lack of confidence in the child. We are not trusting them to interact with the material on their own and to be able to get their own ideas out of it. Charlotte says,

“He believes that children cannot understand well-written books and that he must make of himself a bridge between the pupil and the real teacher, the man who has written the book.” (p. 204)

Charlotte often compares education to a meal. The teacher provides the food, but the student must eat it. They cannot be force-fed nor can we control what they will put in their mouths. There is no coercion. In this analogy, our questions areas if we are trying to chew their food for them:

“We must feed the mind as the body fitly and freely; and the less we meddle with the digestive processes in the one as in the other the more healthy the life we shall sustain.” (p. 203)

We return again here to the idea that narration is how the student learns; it is not just for our (the teacher’s) benefit. And since it is how they learn, how they digest the material if you will, we should be very wary of stepping in and telling them how to do it.

I once knew a child who until the age of 5 couldn’t chew solid food. There was an undiagnosed medical issue and his mom would have to puree his food or serve him very soft things, like well-cooked pasta, long past toddlerhood. This is a normal diet for a one-year-old but not for a five-year-old, and over time his facial muscles weakened from lack of use and his face began to have a slack look to it. Fortunately, they eventually got a diagnosis and the problem was able to fix itself, but what if we are doing this same sort of thing to our kids intellectually? We are keeping them from hearty meats that they are old enough to comprehend and thereby weakening their intellectual muscles. They are not growing and developing as they should.

But, you may say, I put books to my child and they are unable or unwilling to narrate. I have to ask them specific questions or all I get is shrugs and “I don’t know”s. If a child has been used to a traditional school diet or dry textbooks and boring questions, it may be, as in my analogy above, that their intellectual muscles need a little building up. Beginning narrations with simple, easy to tell stories is always a good idea, even if the child is older. We have found Aesop’s fables wonderful for as and also the book by Thornton Burgess along the lines of “The Tale of so-and-do the such-and-such” (not his longer books like The Bird Book or The Animal Book).

Once a child has gotten used to the idea of and the practice of narration, we must make sure that we are feeding them real books and not cardboard simulations. Textbooks and, in my opinion, most books of the Usborne and DK variety are not good food. Charlotte says of such things:

“Persons can ‘get up’ the driest of pulverized text-books and enough mathematics for some public examination; but these attainments do not appear to touch the region of mind.” (p. 201)

In other words, even if a student can tell what they said or answer questions about them, they do not nourish and are not suitable food.

And if we are using a book that we think is higher quality and should be suitable but the child cannot seem to narrate it, I think one of the first questions we should ask is still is it a living book? Is it a living book for them? A book may appear to us to be living and a good choice but the surest test is to give it to the child to read. If they can narrate it well, and do so with enthusiasm, it is a living book. Here is how Charlotte sums up the whole matter:

“Given a book of literary quality suitable to their age and children will know how to deal with it without elucidation. Of course they will not be able to answer questions because questions are an impertinence which we all resent, but they will tell you the whole thing with little touches of individual personality in the narrative.” (p. 204)

It is really a wonderful thing to see (or hear) when it all comes together and they do narrate with enthusiasm. A Charlotte Mason education is a process, one that often seems long, but when things begin to come together it is very rewarding.


A Common Curriculum?

Dear Reader,

With all the talk about the Common Core these days (most of it negative from what I read) I was intrigued to find that Charlotte Mason discussed the idea of a common curriculum in her sixth book, Towards a Philosophy of Education. She comes out in favor of such a curriculum:

“What we want is a common basis of thought, such a groundwork as we get from having read the same books, grown familiar with the same pictures, the same musical compositions, the same interests; when we have such a fundamental basis, we shall be able to speak to each other whether in public speaking or common talk . . . ” (p. 207)

The main idea here seems to be that a common body of knowledge, which comes from having read and studied the same materials, provides a common ground so that men (and women) may effectively communicate with one another. It enables the public discourse a society needs.

It should be noted that this sixth and last volume of Charlotte’s was written after the First World War. That seem to have been an event which really upset the civilized world. They seem to have seen something in themselves which they did not know was there and did not want to ever have to face again (oh, how little they knew what was yet to come!). This can be seen also in the writings of Charlotte’s contemporary and fellow educator, Maria Montessori. For Montessori the whole point of education was world peace.  While they overlapped, I believe Charlotte began before Montessori and certainly her earlier works were written before the global and ethical crisis of WWI. So while her main goal for education, that the child should learn to care and  have  a broad range of relationships with materials (to have their feet set in a wide room, as she says), remains the same, she seems here also to have adopted the idea, at least to a certain extent, that education can help fix the world’s problems.  That is, that a common education will lay the groundwork for a common understanding and a dialogue by which society’s leaders may work towards  . . . well, whatever they need to work towards. My impression is that more than anything these Europeans were shocked by how much killing there was and how much evil was in their own souls and they are seeking a way to once again be “civilized” and to never  again let the baser side of human nature show through to such an extent.

My point here is that I think Charlotte’s thought and especially the fervor with which she advocates for her view of education has altered in this volume. I am not sure that we find just the same idea in her earlier books and I don’t know if she would have argued for a common curriculum then.

But we may still find here some fodder for our own discussion of a common core curriculum. On the one hand, Charlotte makes a good point that a common body of knowledge helps us talk to one another. This is not the argument I hear for the Common Core. We seem to have more the idea that all children need a common foundation so that they are all on a level playing field. It is about educational equality, not about future political dialogue. One may also ask since the U.S. today is so large and diverse if such a common core is even feasible. Perhaps we are just too big and too different from one another. Or one may argue the opposite, that our bigness and diversity are exactly why we need a common body of knowledge.

But if we opt in favor of a common ground, we must then ask what common ground? What should children be learning and who decides? I am amused that Charlotte’s answer to her contemporaries was basically that her way should be adopted by everyone (hence the fervor we find in this volume):

“My bold proposal is that the Heads of Secondary Schools from the least to the greatest should adopt a scheme of work following the lines I have indicated  . . . and that they should do this for the nation’s sake.” (p.216)

Now if all schools in America all of a sudden had to use a Charlotte Mason education I would be very pleased. But our Common Core seems to be more about facts than ideas. I haven’t looked into it extensively, but I assume it is more of the same — dry facts — and does not include things like the reading of Shakespeare and Plutarch. Because when we talk of a common body of knowledge, we need to use knowledge in Charlotte’s sense, a relationship with the material, not just a bunch of details memorized. If we want to, say, avoid future wars, it does us no good to know when the War of 1812 happened or who was president then or even that Washington was burned. What we need is to understand the whys and hows behind it all, to know how people acted and why they did so and what in human nature led to those events.

If Charlotte Mason were here now, I would love to have her whip us all into shape. But she isn’t and I don’t now who else I would trust with such a responsibility. And you and I might not trust the same people. In some ways we can’t even begin to have a common core unless we already have enough in common to allow us to agree on what the requisite body of knowledge entails. And for that, I think America is just too diverse. I also tend to think that there is just so much to be known that we do need to spread ourselves out a bit. We may all need to learn to read and multiply but when it comes to things like reading novels, who is to say that I cannot read A Tale of Two Cities while you read David Copperfield? Surely we will both still benefit and we may all gain by sharing our different experiences more than if we all share the same experience.

I get where Charlotte is coming from in this section, at least I think I do. But I am not sure she was right even for her own day, much less so for ours. I agree that all children should have a broad, liberal base of knowledge. But I am not at all convinced that they all need to same base. I tend to think everything is more wonderful when we all have our own, slightly different bases.


How to Win People Over

Dear Reader,

I wanted to share with you a couple of passages that struck me from Frank Boreham’s book Faces in the Fire. They are on slightly different topics, and actually in some ways are saying opposite things, but they both have to do with how we can manage to reach people.

Elucidating on “The Word became flesh,” Boreham talks about the necessity of putting a human presence behind our message. I do not want to downplay the power of God’s Word which we are told is sharper than a two-edged sword, for certainly it alone has brought men to repentance and faith all on its own, but in our ordinary lives I think we do best in winning those around us when our lives show forth the Word we preach. Here is how Boreham puts it:

“Generally speaking, you cannot make a man a Christian by giving him a Bible or posting him a tract. The New Testament lays it down quite clearly that the Christian man must accompany the Christian message. The Word must be presented in its proper human setting. Our missionaries all over the planet tell of the resistless influence exerted by gracious Christian homes, and by holy Christian lives, in winning idolaters from superstition. ” (pp. 270-71)

In the second passage, Boreham speaks not of winning over unbelievers but of successfully confronting a brother who is in sin. This is never an easy thing to do and there can be lots of emotions on either side. He recommends in this case, not necessarily a direct face to face confrontation, but a written letter as oftentimes the best approach:

“But if I go to that young man and abruptly introduce the matter to him, I at once put him in a false position, and greatly imperil my chance of success. We are face to face; I have spoken to him, and he, in common decency, must speak to me. It would be a thousand times better if, having opened my heart to him, I could withdraw before he uttered a single word. But as it is, I have forced him into a position in which he must say something. His judgement is not ripe, his mind is not made up, the whole subject is new to him, and yet my indiscretion has placed him in such a position that he is compelled to commit himself. He must say something without due consideration; I stand there like a highway robber, with my pistol pointed at his brow, and he must give me words immediately;  . . .  He speaks; and however he may guard his utterance, his final decision will inevitably be compromised by those hasty and immature sentences.

. . . I meant to do him good, and I have done him incalculable harm . . .

Now see how much better the postman manages the matter. I sit down at my desk and write exactly what I want to say . . . I pause to consider the exact word that I wish to employ . . . And the advantages that come to me in inditing the letter are shared by him in receiving it. He is alone, and therefore entirely himself. He is not disconcerted by the presence of an interviewer. He owes nothing to etiquette or ceremony. . . . If he is vexed at my intrusion into his private affairs, he has time to recover from his displeasure and to reflect that I am moved entirely by a desire for his welfare . . .” (pp.117-19)

Boreham has quite a bit more to say on the virtues of letter-writing, both in this particular case where one must confront  a friend, and in general. It really makes me long for the revival this now hardly used practice. E-mail with its immediacy does not seem to engender the same thought and careful choosing of words. Isn’t it funny how we always say “you can’t tell one’s tone in e-mail; it leads to misunderstandings” but this is never said of letters? Now more than ever a letter says that the sender has taken time and composed their thoughts whereas an e-mail so often says “I don’t have time for you.” An e-mail gets lost in the inbox; a letter, even  admist piles of junk mail, is an event. It is, as Boreham goes on to say, something to be savored and not rushed through.



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