Classical Meets Charlotte Mason: A Podcast Review

This is not so much a review as me saying: Listen to this! I generally like what Charlotte Mason Poetry puts out there but their latest episode, Classical Meets Charlotte Mason by Shannon Whiteside (7/12/2021), is excellent. I have been hanging around reading and listening the Charlotte mason world for some years now but I still learned things from this 45 minutes presentation. Whiteside covers: the history of modern classical education (spoiler: it is not pretty), how classical narration differs from CM narration, and why Charlotte Mason is a progressive educator and not a classical one.

I don’t want to spoil her presentation so I will leave you to listen for most of that, but I would like to dwell a minute on the idea of progressive education. As Whiteside uses the terms, there are two ways of approaching education: classical/traditional and progressive. The former places knowledge at the center and the latter places the child at the center of education. Now, as Christians, it may sound bad to us to place the child at the center (and Whiteside does touch on this as well), but we need to understand that this does not necessarily mean that we are exalting the child. A Charlotte Mason education is not child-led in the sense that the child selects what he will learn. Nor does it say the child is innately good. [This touches on CM’s second principle, with which I have some issues, but there is no denying that she sees possibilities for both good and evil in the child.] While in human terms, the child is, as Whiteside says, the agent or doer in his own education, it is also important to remember Mason’s 20th principle which tells us that ultimately it is God who is in charge. He is the source of all wisdom and knowledge. So while it may be scary for us as Christian parents not to direct our child’s moral thinking (another subject Whiteside discusses), we can do so because we know that there is Another who is directing them.

The Ideas Behind Waldorf Education

“[W]hat is active within human beings is something eternal that goes through the gates of death, only moving forward into new developmental stages” Rudolf Steiner, The Education of the Child, p. 90

While most of this blog has been about Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education, I have recently looked in more depth at the various varieties of classical education and Maria Montessori’s philosophy. I thought that having tackled these major schools of thought I should also turn my attention to Waldorf education.

The Waldorf approach to education was developed by Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th century (this is the same era in which Mason and Montessori worked; it was a fruitful time in education). Part of the reason I spend so much time on each of these philosophies is my conviction that no one is neutral in their approach. Steiner’s personal beliefs are reflected in his philosophy of education. If we seek to follow his ideas, it is vital that we understand what lies behind them. My goal today is to lay out the essentials of the Waldorf approach and to look at the ideas which undergird it. For Waldorf more than others, the argument has been made that one can accept the approach to education without the religious/philosophical beliefs that underlie it so we will also examine this claim. [1] My primary source for Steiner’s ideas is his book The Education of the Child and Early Lectures on Education (First digital edition, 2016, by Anna Ruggieri).

Big Ideas in Education

Before we dive right into Steiner and his ideas, I’d like to take a moment to discuss some of the big trends we see in educational philosophy. The more I read, the more I am amazed at the influence of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Not that all educational thinkers have agreed with Darwin, but all since his day seem to respond to his ideas in some way. John Dewey, the father of the modern American school, for instance, had quite an evolutionary mindset. In his theory, the child develops like an organism evolving by adapting to his environment. Montessori likewise stresses the role of environment as the major driver of growth but also adds another layer — in her philosophy the individual mirrors in his own growth the evolution of the species.

As much as educational thinkers have adopted the ideas of evolution, they have also reacted to certain aspects of evolutionary theory, and particularly materialistic evolution. A materialistic approach to evolution considers only physical realities. If it does not deny the existence of the spiritual outright, it at least has no place for anything other than what can be seen, heard, felt, and experimented upon. Materialistic evolution is unable to make value judgments. A species “progresses” only in that it changes to adapt to its changing environment, but no change is inherently “good” or “bad.” It is desirable only in that it allows the species to continue. This materialism is hard to reconcile with education which is never value-neutral. We would not bother to educate our children if we did not have some goal in mind, some desired end which we deem more worthy than other ends. Those who approach education with the presuppositions of evolution must grapple with the notion of purpose. If evolution is completely materialistic, no one outcome is ultimately better than any other.

Steiner’s Spiritual Science

Steiner believed in science but also very much in spiritual things. His approach is a “spiritual science” (p. 5) which applies scientific principles to spiritual realms. Just as in modern science, knowledge is gained through the senses. Steiner posits “new organs of perception” (p.7) by which we may sense and thereby apply scientific methods to the spiritual realms as well as the physical. The assumption is made, again as in modern scientific theories, that those laws which operate now have always been in operation: “the only fundamental laws of life that can prevail in the future are those that prevail already in the present” (p.5).

Though accepting scientific principles, Steiner rejects the materialism of Darwinian evolution (p. 34). He blames materialism for much of what is wrong in the world and particularly in the field of education: “If we had strictly followed the dictates of materialism concerning education, medicine, justice, and so on, then human society would have fallen apart long ago” (p. 39). “The fruits of materialism only cause illness in the human physical and higher bodies” (p. 39).

Yet on a fundamental level the assumptions of evolution are in play in Steiner’s philosophy.  As in Montessori’s philosophy, both the species and the individual evolve and the individual’s growth mirrors that of the race: “the embryo repeats all the primordial stages of evolution up to the present, and after birth the child repeats earlier human evolutionary epochs” (p. 52) [3]. Each stage of development is tied to a stage of human history from those considered most primitive — the child’s first three years of life correspond to “the Indian and South Sea Islander” (p. 52) — to those considered most advanced. Not surprisingly the present era (of western civilization, one presumes) is considered the most evolved (p. 53). [4]

It can help us to conceptualize the various theories if we think of them as graphs. Montessori’s philosophy is an upward pointing ray. It is linear but there is forward motion. Steiner’s conception of human development is not linear but cyclical, albeit with elements of forward or upward motion as well, an “ascending spiral curve” [2]. Whatever will be is already present (Steiner, p. 5); whatever the person will become is already in him, a kind of hidden seed which may be discovered and must be developed (p. 4). This development is seen within the individual’s lifetime but also across lifetimes as Steiner believes in reincarnation. With each new manifestation, the human life repeats the same stages of physical and spiritual birth, but with some lessons learned or some advantage from previous lives as it moves towards a “higher and higher evolution” (p. 10).

The analogy of birth defines Steiner’s philosophy. What will be is always present in what is in an embryonic way (p. 5). Life is a series of rebirths. His belief in reincarnation means that, in a very literal way, the soul is reborn, but within a given human lifetime there are also a series of births which occur. The first is the physical birth in which the human comes out of the protection of its mother’s womb. This human is not yet complete. He bears a physical body but not yet a spiritual one. The complete person is birthed in stages which mirror the kinds of created things. The baby who is born is a physical body. Though what he will be is latent in him, later stages are not yet developed but are in their own way in utero. The young child, in whom only the physical is manifest, corresponds to the mineral kingdom which is also only physical (p. 6). The etheric body develops next. Plants and animals both have etheric bodies. Then comes the sentient or astral body which humans share with animals. It is “the vehicle of pain and pleasure, of impulse, craving, passion, and so on” (p. 8). The astral body is connected to the stars and the “forces that permeate the astral body . . . condition a person’s destiny and character” (p. 43). Lastly there is the I or ego which is uniquely human (p. 9). This I seems for Steiner to be something divine if not divinity itself. It “speaks internally” (p.9). It is what we call the conscience (p. 11). It is “the vehicle of the higher soul of humankind” that makes human beings “the crown of all earthly creation” (p. 10). It is “what is god-like in every individual soul” (p. 43). Using Judeo-Christian terminology, Steiner deifies the human being and puts him in the place of God when he says: “That is why in Hebrew esoteric schools [the I] was called the ‘inexpressible name of God, Jahve,’ and ‘I Am the I Am.’ Even the priest could utter it only with a shudder. The soul ascribes ‘I am the I am’ to itself.” (p. 43) Human beings, for Steiner, are “essentially an extract or condensation of the entire cosmos” (p. 83). 

The Practical Details of Waldorf Education

In terms of the practical details of education, the teacher can only work on that level of the body which is available to him. A Waldorf education is very much a staged one. The youngest children are purely physical. The higher levels are latent in them and are in the process of being formed or birthed but the teacher cannot access them because they are hidden. Just as we cannot affect the physical body till it is born out of the mother’s womb, so we cannot affect the later stages until they also are born and come to the surface. Thus at each stage we must know which part we can work on and how to work on it. If a stage is neglected and not developed at the proper time, we can never return and repair the damage (p. 15). 

The first stage of development is that from birth to age 7 when the adult teeth appear. In these early years only the physical is present to be worked upon and the child learns through imitation and example. It is his environment which is important (p. 36). There is no point in engaging in “moralistic talk or wise admonitions” (p. 16). Rules and instruction are not to be given. It is what the teacher does, not what he says, that is important. Children “need teachers that look and act with happiness, and, most of all, with honest unaffected love” (p. 18). Nothing must be done in their presence that they should not imitate. In these years “the physical constitution” is being shaped and we must not “prematurely stuff children with concepts and ideas that relate only to external perceptions” (p. 77). Much emphasis is placed on the imagination. It is through play that they “work on changing, modifying, and mobilizing what lives in their spirit-soul” (p. 77). “Through play, children have a free but definable manner of acting upon the human soul constitution” (p. 78). It is better to give a child a simple toy — a doll without a face or even one made of a folded napkin — so that he is forced to use his imagination (p. 17). “If you give a child a beautiful doll, then the child becomes bound to it. The child’s inner spirit clings to it and cannot develop its own activity; in this way, children almost entirely lose their imaginative powers” (p. 36).  Songs are also very important (p. 19).

As the adult teeth develop, so does the etheric body. The second stage of development is from around age 7 until puberty begins. This is the stage of “the shaping and developing of inclinations and habits, of the conscience character, memory, and temperament” (p. 19) and also for “authority, confidence, trust, and reverence” (p. 47). Inner meaning is discovered not through words but through pictures, allegories, parables, and examples from nature which are able to communicate directly to the mind because they “manifest the world-spirit” (p. 48). “The etheric body is worked on through pictures and examples — that is through the child’s carefully guided imagination” (p. 20). Fairy tales and myths go into the soul and free it (p. 70). Learning is through symbols, not “dry intellectual concepts” (p. 22). Even if these concepts are ultimately forgotten, their effect will “remain in our soul as a kind of mood” (p. 74). This is the age for art, music, the “awakening of the feeling for architectural forms, for molding and sculpting, for line and design, for color harmonies” (p. 29). In this stage there is “an understanding that precedes intellectual comprehension” (p. 26). The intellect will only be born in the next stage as the child reaches puberty (p. 26). Yet is is also the stage for memorization (p. 24). “[T]ables of multiplication, poems and so on should be committed to memory in a parrotlike fashion” (p. 48). Later the child will come to understand what he knows (p. 26).  Good habits must be established at this stage or the child “will later lack character” (p. 37). Children in this stage must not in any way decide for themselves and should not be encouraged to make judgments. This is the time for the learning of letters (p. 46).

As in the early years, the role of the teacher is very important. It is his job to awaken in children their “proper intellectual and moral powers” (p. 20). Discipleship and authority are key in this stage. This is the time for stories of great and noble figures from history (p. 21). Such stories are better told than read as “everything depends on the art of telling” (p. 21) and “a fine spiritual stream” passes from the teller to the hearer (p. 23). Teachers themselves must be spiritually mature so that they can nourish their pupils (p. 23).  Yet there is a limit to what the teacher can do. He must also exhibit modesty before the essence of the individual which has been developing for thousands of years and is struggling to free itself (p. 70).

When puberty begins so does the astral body. In the volume I read, Steiner gives few specifics on this stage. We are told what it contains mostly by what is not allowed in previous stages. Children must not be given theories or asked to make judgments before this stage (p. 32). When puberty hits, it becomes the time for abstract ideas and independent thought (p. 30). Intellect awakens along with the interest in the opposite sex (p. 50). “We should develop the capacity for judgment and reason as late as possible” (p. 38).

Goals and Values

Every philosophy of education assumes a set of values. Where these are not explicitly stated, we can often find them by looking at goals — what is the end the approach works towards? For Steiner, as for many others, there are both individual and societal goals. “The nature of the human soul is directed not only toward the preservation of the species, but also toward the development of the soul and spirit” (p. 69).  For the individual, the goal is “the transformation of habits and temperament, character and memory” (p. 11). Yet there are benefits to the race. “Human beings come into the world not just for their own sake, but also for the sake of humanity” (p. 65). “[B]eings are placed where they have something to do in the world” (p. 65). Thus the individual also has a public role to play. Steiner’s end goals include “the welfare of humankind” (p. 5) and the “service of all humanity” (p. 40). The race too is improved insofar as its lowest members evolve by conquering their passions and rise to higher levels (p. 11).

When we look at Steiner’s goals and at the characteristics he desires in his teachers, we can come up with a list of values. Self-control, the antithesis of passion, is paramount. “[T]he good is beautiful” and “the bad is ugly” (p. 29). Happiness, love, and honesty are valued. Hypocrisy, sorrow, illness, and fatigue are bad. Steiner sets a high goal for himself when he says that through his approach “all the hypocrisy will cease” (p.41).

The Goodness of the Child

Every approach to education makes some assumptions about who the child is and his capacity for good or evil. While his moral character may not be directly addressed, we can get at the question by asking how the child would develop if left to his own devices. As we saw in Montessori’s philosophy, there is for Steiner a faith that the child will develop as he is supposed to: “Generally speaking, we may say that the healthy physical body desires what is good for it” (p. 18). Though the role of the teacher, as we have seen, is important, yet “the children whom we have to educate bear half their world within them, all there and ready-taught” (p. 25) so that we may say there is an inherent goodness in them which just needs to be developed. Given the right environment, the child will develop in right ways: “The child will become a good person when surrounded by good people” (p. 36). Joy and happiness will produce right development while sorrow will stunt his growth (p. 46). 

Discipline as we know it is not a large part of Waldorf education. The child is absolved of moral wrongdoing in the early years because he is purely physical and the category would have no meaning for him. Steiner tells the story of a child who took  money from a cashbox. His parents were horrified at his “crime,” but he was only imitating what he had seen them do (p. 45). Yet there is a moral standard to which children must be brought so that they may be “in harmony with the demands of all humankind” (p. 67). According to Steiner, the best way to teach them these standards is to discuss their previous experiences. Discipline should never be done in anger. Rather, one should speak quietly with the child after the fact when the emotion of the moment (for both child and adult) has passed (p. 67). The goal is not to teach children to do one thing and not another but to develop a sense of what is good (p. 84). Again there is an underlying belief here that this will be enough — that right stimuli will produce right results.

Steiner on the Human Soul

The human soul, for Steiner, is eternal (p. 40) and free (p. 69). Yet because there are stages within one human lifetime, the soul in children is latent and not yet manifest. In each lifetime it is joined with a physical body and has the opportunity to develop. With each incarnation, the soul “steps into earthly existence and, from hour to hour and week to week, increasingly develops its inner capacities” (p. 72). Each individual is a “being who has come to us from the endless distances of the cosmos” (p. 72) and needs to unfold. “[T]hat being’s essential nature is brought into earthly existence through birth” (p. 73). The being is initially “pliable” and “endeavors to absorb the cultural treasures of its environment” which will in turn shape and form it (p. 73). For this reason, the culture into which a child is born is very important. A child raised to speak one language will differ from a child raised to speak another. “[T]he way the a or u sound works in a language tremendously effects the soul’s capacity to feel” (p. 66). “Human nature is organized so that people adapt to the existing cultural processes. We must raise children in what belongs to humanity, and it must take root in them” (p. 66). What has been absorbed in this life “goes even deeper when people pass through the gates of death” (p. 75). “Thus, the ideas we forget during life between birth and death work upon our souls, and when we pass through the gates of death, these forgotten ideas work on the fabric of our next constitution until our rebirth” (p. 76).

The Role of Religion

With its talk of eternal souls, it is hard to deny that Steiner’s philosophy is a religious one in some sense. Yet one gets the impression that for Steiner traditional religion itself is a tool and a stage one moves beyond. On one hand he speaks of religion permeating every subject (p. 55). On the other, he says that just as “[n]ature study and arithmetic train the powers of thinking and memory” and “history [trains] the life of feeling” so “what strengthens the will is religion” (p. 55) and that religion is useful as a tool “to purify and ennoble the etheric body” (p. 11). The “great spiritual leaders appeared among humankind — Buddha, Plato, Pythagoras, Hermes, Moses, Zarathustra” are, for Steiner, associated with the second stage of development (p. 53). Yet because judgment and decision are delayed until after puberty, children should not be encouraged to think about or determine their religion prematurely (p. 38). “All religious subjects must be presented pictorially” (p. 49) until puberty. Religion is personal for Steiner; because the will and the feeling are different parts of the soul, one must not try to convince others of one’s beliefs (p. 85). [5] In the essays I read, there is no clear mention of a specific deity though Steiner once refers to “the External Powers” (p. 28).  The human soul, the I, as we have seen, is deified, or close to it. It is eternal and the language Steiner uses of the I is at best borderline blasphemous from a Judeo-Christian perspective. If there is an active force outside of the human, it is the process itself: “The eternal weaving of the individuality that moves from birth to birth through reincarnation, which is the true architect of human beings” (p. 90; emphasis added). 

Concluding Thoughts

As we draw our examination of Steiner’s philosophy of education to a close, I’d like to revisit a question raised in the introduction: Can one make use of Steiner’s approach to education without adopting his philosophical and religious views? Of course, to some extent we can always do this. Personally, I largely adhere to Charlotte Mason’s approach though I have some definite theological differences with her. The key to Steiner’s approach to education seems to be the stages he delineates and their characteristics, particularly the emphasis on the physical alone in the early years, the intuitive –all that has to do with pictures and nature and allegory — in the middle years as well as the memorization, and the reserving of logical argumentation and abstract thought until the final stage of education. If one does not at least to some degree subscribe to his view of human development, there would be no reason to follow his program as far as this staging is concerned. There is an implicit trust ion the goodness of children inherent in his philosophy, a belief that they will develop as they should, even that there is a driving force within them that causes this development. One might accept Steiner’s approach without accepting all of Steiner’s views on reincarnation and successive births but one should share his basic understanding of the child and his growth.


[1] See also this earlier post on Waldorf education.

[2] Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of Seven Gables (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2007) p. 224.

[3] Steiner rejects the idea that human beings evolved from ape-like ancestors and says that: “Spiritual science points back to a time when human beings inhabited Atalantis” (p. 53). These early Atlanteans were primitive and could not reason but they were not animals.

[4] We see in Steiner the racism common to his age when he notes that more primitive peoples are carried away by their passions but that in more civilized. European peoples, he says, exhibit self-control and suppress desire as opposed to those other peoples who are “only beginning to rise above the animal” (p. 10) and are still controlled by their passions. There is some hint here of potential physical change as well as at higher stages “we come to acquire forces whereby we can work upon the physical body and transform it” (p. 12).

[5] This provides Steiner with a reason why others do not subscribe to his “spiritual science” — “due to  . . . the nature of their will and feeling” they “cannot see the reality of the spiritual world” (p. 86). While there seems to have been a spiritual science movement or school of thought of which he was part, there also seems to have been a fair degree of opposition to such ideas in his own day (p. 5).

A Reason for Science (and My New Instagram)

I often run across quotes I love and want to save in some way but which may not be enough to generate a whole post. As another way to preserve these and to share them with you, I have recently created the Letters from Nebby Instagram account (find it @lettersfromnebby). I hope to use it to share favorite books and quotes like the one below.

The following is from a man named Work Carithers who was a pastor and missionary to the Native Americans in the Oklahoma Territory starting in the late 1800s. Science was not his field but this passage shows wonderful insight and a love for knowledge that is inspiring. I also recommend the book which this comes from, The White Chief of Cache Creek, which tells the story of the mission and of Carithers specifically. I love that it is not just the story of a missionary to be emulated — though certainly he should be — but that it shows all the weaknesses and failings that occurred as well, the things that worked and the things that didn’t. Though not written for children, I would say it is appropriate for all ages.

Work Carithers, as quoted in The White Chief of Cache Creek by Faith M. Martin and Charles R. McBurney (Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant, 2020)

Book List: Philosophy

Many of these books have been mentioned previously in my lists on theology and political philosophy but I wanted to put them all in one place. Most of these books are high school level.

Philosophy Living Books

J.F. Baldwin. The Deadliest Monster. This is a mild, not an enthusiastic recommendation. The book is not philosophy as such but does get into where we view evil as coming from.

Rut Etheridge. God-Breathed.  A book addressed to college age and young adult people (but also appropriate for high school) from a former campus minister and reformed Presbyterian. He is addressing those who have perhaps been raised in t he church but not found its message attractive. I was not crazy about the book but the bits on philosophy (which are scattered throughout) are the best bits. My full review is here.

Jostein Gaardner. Sophie’s World. A history of philosophy written as a girl’s journey.

Grant Horner. Meaning at the Movies. This book is not philosophy. It is about movies and how the different genres show man’s suppressed knowledge of God. I think it lends itself well to philosophical thinking in that it shows how to discern the underlying beliefs behind a piece of art (in this case a movie).

Philosophy Adventure. This was a little traditional and workbook-y for me but my oldest two did do the first book.

Francis Schaeffer. How Should We Then Live. Everyone should read Schaeffer. We used both the book and video for this. Schaeffer traces western thought from Roman times to 1980 or so (when he lived) and shows how it played out in the arts as well.

R.C. Sproul. The Consequences of Ideas. Similar to Wiker’s books (see below). I find Sproul a little less engaging as a writer. He is, of course, Protestant and reformed.

Benjamin Wiker. 10 Books that Screwed up the World and 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read. Wiker is a Catholic and one of my favorite authors. His books are well-written, engaging, and easy to understand.

Book List: Poetry

I realized I did not have one good list of resources for studying poetry and poets. Many of these books may be listed in other places as well. Check out all my booklists for history, science, and other subjects. You might also be interested in this post in which I discuss how we do poetry in high school.

Poetry Anthologies (these books have lots of poems from a variety of poets; they tend to give less background on each one):

For Young Children:

Mark Daniel. A Child’s Treasury of Poems. Shorter poems for younger children. Illustrated. Divided into sections, eg. animals, play time, friends.

Pretlutsky, Jack and Arnold Lobel. The Random House Book of Poetry for Children. Picture book collection for younger kids. Elementary.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. A Child’s Garden of Verses. The classic anthology of poems for younger children. There are many editions out there. Elementary.

For All Ages:

Ogden Nash. Everybody Ought to Know. Nash is the collector here, not the author of all the poems. Some poems are shorter and some go on for a few pages.

101 Famous Poems. Compiled by Roy Cook.

The Book of 1000 Poems. The title pretty much sums it up. Mostly shorter poems. Includes nursery rhymes and Christmas poems plus much, much more.

William Harmon. The Concise Columbia Book of Poetry. 100 poems, each with a brief intro.

John Brewton. Under the Tent of the Sky. Illustrated by Robert Lawton. Poems about animals.

Poetry Series:

For most well-known poets there are going to be many editions of their works available. Most of these are going to be acceptable since they are simply reprinting the works of the original author. The list below is not meant to be exhaustive but to give some suggestions for books we have used and liked.

Poetry for Young People (series; various poets). Wonderful, illustrated introductions to many great poets. Elementary+

Poetry or Kids (series; various poets). Similar to the series above. Elementary +

The Dover Thrift line of books also includes quite a number of volumes on particular poets as well as some collections like 100 Favorite English and Irish Poems. These can often be picked up for a few dollars each. I like that they are small volumes.

Picture Book Versions of Poems/Books about Poets:

Robert Frost with Susan Jeffers. Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening. Lovely illustrated picture book version of this classic poem.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with Ted Rand. Paul Revere’s Ride. Illustrated version of the classic poem.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with Susan Jeffers. Hiawatha. Another long poem by Longfellow in an illustrated picture book edition.

For some reason there are a lot of picture books about Emily Dickinson. Here are a few we read:

Berne, Jennifer. On Wings of Words. Re Emily Dickinson. Elementary.

Winter, Jeanette. Emily Dickinson’s Letters to the World.  Elementary.

Yolen, Jane. My Uncle Emily. Re Emily Dickinson. Elementary.

Favorite Long Poems

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The Courtship of Miles Standish. Longfellow has a number of long poems. These are often found abridged in other editions.

Reynard the Fox. A French story in poetic form. Our edition was published in 1919 by John Masefield. Middle-teens.

Edmund Spenser. The Faerie Queen. An old British story in poetry. We read selections. Middle-teens.

Alfred Lord Tennyson. Idylls of the King. Book-length epic poem about King Arthur. Tennyson has many other long poems as well. We also own the Dover Thrift Edition for him which includes the must-read “Charge of the Light Brigade” among others.

Silly Poems (for young children and those hesitant to get into poetry, or for anytime you want something light-hearted):

These are not going to be the finest poems ever written. They are often humorous and make use of a lot of rhymes. The idea with these is to inspire children with the rhythm of the language. They should be fun to read. Don’t neglect the value of poetically written picture books as well. I am not here thinking so much of tongue twisters like Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks but of those books that you as the adult enjoy reading aloud for the sheer feel of the language. Nursery rhymes are also appropriate for younger children.

Roald Dahl. Dirty Beasts and Revolting Rhymes. From the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach.

T.S. Eliot. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Cat poems.

Ogden Nash. Various. Nash is known for is “light verse” and unusual rhyme schemes. His poems may occasionally have more mature themes but kids will often like his silliness even if they don’t understand it all.

Jack Pretlutsky. A Pizza the Size of the Sun.

Shel Silverstein. Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, Falling Up, more.

Books about Kids who Love Poetry:

The kids in these stories really get into poetry and we found them quite inspirational for our own poetry studies.

Lois Lowry. Gooney Bird Greene series. All the books in this series are worth reading but in Gooney Bird is So Absurd poetry plays a prominent role. These are elementary level but I think older kids can appreciate the humor too.

MaryRose Wood. The Incorrigibles series. The children in these books are taught by their governess who seems to have quite a lot of Charlotte Mason in her. Their study of poems like “the Raven” and “the Wreck of the Hesperus” contribute majorly to the plot. These are bizarre but they our favorite books so if you are among those who don’t like them, please don’t tell me..

Online resources (there are many great sites that will give you free access to printable poems and/or give you some hint of what a poem means if you yourself are clueless):

The Poetry Foundation website — This is my go-to website when I am looking for a particular poem. There is tons here and it is very searchable. from The Academy of American Poets — Another site with lots of poems.

There are also many sites designed for students and teachers to read about and analyze specific poems. Some of the ones I look to are (in order of preference): Cummings Study Guides, Shmoop, Enotes, and GradeSaver.

How I do Charlotte Mason, Part 2

Last time I shared with you some of the ways that my approach to homeschooling differs from Charlotte Mason’s. Those were my exceptions to her philosophy; most of what she suggests I am on board with. I am no purist, however, and I think we all adapt in some ways to what works best for our families. Today I’d like to go through subject by subject and share how we have done things. This is somewhat of an idealized version. Sometimes it is what we actually did and sometimes it is how I would do it if I could do it all over again. While I have used materials from various publishers at times, I have always put together my own thing rather than using a set curriculum. [There is nothing wrong with using a curriculum, of course (see here for what CM curricula are available). It is really just that I am bad at following other people’s directions and I would end up tweaking anything I used anyway.]

If you are transitioning to CM or even just getting started with littles, don’t feel like you have to do everything at once. See also this Getting Started with CM post on how to wade rather than dive in.

Structuring the Day & Year

Before getting into specific subjects, it is probably helpful to know how we structured our day. When they were little, every school day (4 or 5 days a week) started with our “together time” when we would all sit together on the floor and do certain subjects, well, together. This would usually include what is called in CM circles the extras or the riches — picture study, music study, poetry, etc. as well as some core subjects like nature lore and history. We would always begin this time with prayer and some sort of Bible or theology study (see below). Not every subject is done every day. Usually history and science/nature would alternate so they would each be 2-3 times per week and art/music/poetry/etc. would alternate so they are all only once a week. I would also try to alternate kinds of work so they don’t for instance have to listen to me read a book twice in a row. I never required my kids to sit up (I have often wondered if homeschoolers grow up with weak spines for lack of desks) and I would allow them to fiddle with quiet toys, I found some concentrated better with things in their hands and some found anything like that a distraction.

After our time together, they would have their individual subjects. When they were younger, I just told them what to do. Usually there was a standard sequence like do your math first, then your history reading, and so on. Again alternating kinds of subjects is good. As they got older I had schedules for them. I tried this various ways but we settled on a sheet that tells them what to do for each day (see pic). They didn’t like having to flip to different pages to know what to do. Because little ones often had less to do, they would be done earlier and could go play. The early years especially are a good lesson in patience for everyone. There were a lot of times one child would have to wait while another was working with me or narrating to me. There was often a fair degree of chaos when they were little, but it got better and we all survived it.

Part of a high schooler’s schedule. The abbreviations refer to specific books or classes. At the time she was taking Italian and Forensic Science (FS) online. “Tiner 3,” for example, means “read the third chapter of the book by Tiner” (a science book).

I always had a hard start time for the school day, usually 8 am, and I would wake up my kids so they would be ready in time. (I did not require chores or other things before school time.) Usually we were all done by lunch time. As they moved into middle and high school they had a lot more flexibility in when they would do their own work though I found 3 out of 4 kids just liked to get it done early and have the rest of the day to themselves.

I would also take advantage of any times they were a captive audience like lunch and time in the car to either read to them or have us listen to audio books. Mostly these were just good fiction books. Some times I tried to tie them to our period of history but it got so my kids were suspicious of historical fiction and would say, “Hey, is this a school book?!” in very distressed, betrayed tones. We kept up audio books until we reached the point when some kids were staying home alone because when one missed part of the story it threw the whole thing off. We kept up lunchtime read-alouds until kids starting having online classes that interfered with lunch time (this was in late high school).

As kids moved into high school, we still kept “together time” at the start of the day as part of our routine but it went down to 2 or 3 days a week. It also got some more interesting subjects, though, like reading Shakespeare’s plays, Homer’s Odyssey, and Calvin’s Institutes.

In terms of the overall school year we have done various things but eventually settled down to three terms a year, one in the fall up till Christmas and two in the spring. When they were little we kept some work going over the summer but that stopped as they got older and had more camps and things.


Narration is a core part of what we do so it is also worth mentioning upfront. If you are unfamiliar with CM style narration, it is how the child processes and responds to what they have read or heard. Almost every reading is narrated. Karen Glass’s book Know and Tell is excellent for describing what narration is and why it works. Narration fills a lot of roles. It is reading comprehension and composition all in one. Most importantly it is about what the child gets from a reading, not what we think he should get from it. For more, see this post on Synthesizing Ideas.

Narration starts when kids start formal schooling which is age 6. I found, as is often said, that Aesop’s Fables were wonderful texts for first attempts at narration. It starts orally and around age 8 or 9 they can start to add in written narrations as well. They are supposed to continue to do some oral narrations even through high school. I found it really varied what I got from my kids. One child just preferred written narrations and by the last years of high school I almost never got an oral one from her. For other kids written narrations were like pulling teeth and while I said once a day in high school I was lucky to get that.


History is the core of a Charlotte Mason education (no STEM here; well, we do those subjects, of course, but they are not the backbone). I prefer to start with local history and then to go back and start again at the beginning with ancient history and to move through chronologically. I have no particular allegiance to a 4 or 6 year history cycle. We take however much time we need to get to modern times and then we go back to the beginning. I do try to get some variety in during high school so I can put down that they did both American and world history in those years. I like starting more locally because I think kids can relate more easily to what is near them. It also allows for a lot of field trips in the years when they really enjoy them. As we live in New England, it was very easy for us to start locally since local=early American history.

I keep all my kids at the same place in history. This is easier for me and leads to good discussions at times when one kid hears another narrating and says, “Hey, that guy was in my book too but it said . . . about him.” Often we have had one history book going as a part of our together time (see above). More often than not this would be a “spine book” which gives an overview and chronological narrative of the period we are studying. Then they could read books at their own level on specific events or people from that period or historical fiction related to it. Typically I would say they would have 2 history books going at a time plus the one we are doing together. At other times what we read together might be historical fiction. Everything would be narrated. For the books we did together they would take turns narrating. Since I have four kids this would usually mean I would read four chunks a day and each would get to narrate one. I often geared the size of the chunk to the kid and what I knew he or she could handle. Some times I would take turns narrating and while narrations are usually not corrected they loved to find my mistakes and omissions. I have one child who would occasionally narrate something that had absolutely nothing to do with what was just read — I mean ABSOLUTELY NOTHING– it was very hard in those situations not to be critical, especially with other kids there to tell him what is wrong with him. I should say here that while narrations should not be interrupted, if there are wrong facts it is good to correct them, but one generally should not tear apart the whole narration as it is about the child’s mental work and not ours.

One big question is how to find books. Early on it is helpful to use booklists (my history booklists are here btw). I used Truthquest for a number of years. It is not cheap but it is the most comprehensive bibliography you will see. (I didn’t use their questions, just the list.) You can also look at many of the CM curricula to see what books they use. I found it helpful to search my library’s online catalog and then to sort to see the oldest books first. I would check out a stack, thumb through them to decide which seemed the most living, and return the others. Over time I found go-to authors I liked and could skip a lot of the lists.


If anything I regret trying to do too much with my kids when they were little. I wish I had been more relaxed and enjoyed our time more. Here is how I did (or would have done) science by age:

Elementary: Part 1: Go for nature walks. Spend lots of time outside. Maybe keep nature journals. We did a family one when my kids were little for cool things we saw together like rare birds. My older kids still like to look back at it and can remember the experiences. A few things I learned: If you want to observe nature, going with other families doesn’t help. Having friends there is a complete distraction. Walking too much on a nature walk doesn’t help either. There is a time for a good walk in the woods, but to observe things slow or even still is better. “Nature walk” is really a misnomer. Think of it more as a nature sit. Going back to the same places over the course of a year is a wonderful practice as you can see how the flora and fauna change seasonally.

Part 2: Read nature lore. These are books that describe nature in various ways, sometimes fiction, sometimes one person’s experiences. Narrate them. We always did these together at the elementary level.

I think sometimes there is a misconception that science experiments are not CM. They are not a big organized part of the curriculum until high school, but she was all for fun experiments with household products so make those baking soda and vinegar volcanoes, people. [See “The Teaching of Nature Study,” by V.C. Curry from The Parents Review (1925).]

Middle school: More of the same but I tended to pick a topic for a term to focus on for our reading. Good topics include: geology, meteorology, astronomy and the like. (See my science booklists here.) If you want to get into more traditional science subjects like biology and chemistry, Tiner’s books are nice for this age. Ignore the end of chapter questions; just have them read and narrate.

High School: After a brief foray into trying something more traditional, we decided we still liked living books for high school science. Living doesn’t necessarily mean easy. The good news is at this age there are a lot of engaging books written for adults that they can use. I generally did 9th grade biology, 10th grade chemistry, 11th grade physics, 12th grade pick what you want to do. One child did meteorology, one did geology, one will likely do environmental science, and the fourth already knows she wants to do an in-depth nature study. I know some people do the main subjects (bio, chem, physics) all at once spreading them out over three or four years. I like that idea too and might try it if Providence sends me four more kids. I always added in hands-on labs for high school. Colleges like to see lab sciences (see this post on applying to college as a CM homeschooler). My preference is to outsource them to someone else but once I led a local group in doing biology labs and now we have a pandemic so it is harder to find things.


I came to CM when my oldest was 8 or 9 and we already had something going with math. Our transition was gradual and it was a while before I even thought of trying to do math in a more CM way. There were also fewer CM math curricula out there in those days. I did look at one seriously once but decided that as it would require me to have sit-down time daily with each of four kids that it was just not going to happen. If I had to do it all over again, I am pretty sure I would make the same decision. When my kids were in elementary years we used Math-U-See (MUS) and I would use it again. I will say we didn’t always use it according to manufacturer’s directions. We didn’t use the videos and I often had my kids do just a few problems out of each set. This was especially true for long-division. If they could get 2 or 3 problems correct, I wasn’t going to make them labor through more. At some point we added in the Life of Fred (LOF) elementary books. I would also do this again. My kids are close in age so it worked well to read them the chapters and do the exercises aloud together. I would not use LOF as a stand alone curriculum in elementary though the author says you can.

Once you hit upper elementary/middle school LOF gets more substantial with more practice problems so starting with the fractions book you could use it alone. I like the LOF pre-algebra books too though they have multiplied and it is a lot to do them all for a subject that frankly doesn’t even need to be a subject. I do like that they introduce economics and physics (and one more subject, I think?).

We did various things for high school math depending on the child and their abilities. My oldest used LOF right through (he is now a math major in college). My second, who is in art school, could just not learn math from LOF though she liked the stories. She ended up using a number of different resources including MUS and Teaching Textbooks, each of which has their value. My favorite approach is what I did with my 3rd and 4th which was to use Ray’s algebra and to sit with them and do it together. I did edit some as I went. We did algebra at the same time as geometry, a few days a week each, but spent two years on that schedule. I really liked that too. We used Ray’s geometry too though I was less enamored of that so if I had to do it again I might use LOF or MUS for that. Algebra 2 can also be done alongside Trigonometry in this way. My second two used LOF for trig. My oldest did LOF calculus but for others we have found other avenues. I do think if you want them to do an AP test, you should use an AP course. That is true for any subject. Official AP courses (which have to be licensed by the College Board) give invaluable tips on how to navigate the actual test. (Again see this post on high school and applying to college.) Multiple children ended up doing AP statistics senior year through an online provider. Though I might not use it again, I would also give a shout out to Teaching Textbooks which got my artsy child through algebra 2 as pain free as possible (she would say it still involved a fair amount of pain).

We also occasionally added in living books for math which the child read and narrated. See the list in this post. I also had them use LOF’s Financial Choices in high school.

Literature, Literary Analysis, Fiction, Living Books

We have read so many books over the years we have been homeschooling and many have been real treasures. There are a lot of good books out there. There is also a lot of junk. My very general advice is to not waste time on the junk. You may begin with little sense of what a good, well-written, living book is, but you will develop a taste for it. Your kids will too. After we had finished a long Dickens novel (pardon my redundancy) during our lunch read-alouds, I chose something shorter to give my kids’ brains a break. My older daughter told me whatever the new book was was badly written and that we should just stick with Dickens.

If you are beginning and don’t have a feel for what is good yet, there are lots of books and lists out there that will point you in the right direction (I have booklists for fiction here). Whether to give up on a book that is just not doing it for you is a tough question. If you are experienced and really think you have a feel for what is living and you don’t like a book, I’d say drop it. But if you are newer it might be worth persisting a little, especially if you have it on good authority that the book you are attempting is worthwhile. It’s a bit like getting kids to eat vegetables; there needs to be a little persistence till they develop a taste for them. Once they eat a good variety, if they really just can’t stand broccoli, it is okay for them to skip that one. For general tips on identifying and selecting living books, see this post (if you are in a hurry, scroll to the bullet points at the end) and this one. FYI all the books you use should be living books, not just the fiction ones. Living does not mean fiction. It means well-written books that convey ideas and not just information.

Some of the books we read at lunch or listened to in the car were certainly literature (like that Dickens), but we also made time as part of the school day for literature as a subject. I went back and forth on whether literature was coordinated with history. I don’t think there is one right answer here. It depends on what period you are studying and the ages of your kids. It makes more sense to coordinate lit and history for older kids and also for some periods like 20th century American history. Just to be clear, I am not talking about historical fiction here. There is a place for that too, but I am primarily thinking of books that were written at the time period one is studying, eg. The Great Gatsby for the 1920s (it is, of course, also about the 1920s). As kids get older, there is also a place for reading books about a time period specifically with an eye to seeing how later people portrayed that period. A good example for this is Gone with the Wind. It shows a particular picture of the pre-Civil War South which is ripe for discussion.

Generally, in a CM education there is not much time if any devoted to what we might call literary analysis. Kids read a lot of books and the idea is that they will develop a feel for them and they do not need instruction in how to read literature and that it can even be dangerous as it tends to tear books apart and make them less enjoyable. Having said which, we did do some literary analysis and I would do it again. Starting around middle school we did some studies based on the book Deconstructing Penguins which is the story of a library book club. It uses mostly easier books (like Mr. Popper’s Penguins) and I think that is very helpful. The child is not trying to understand the book; they can just focus on discussing it. The book is not a step-by-step guide but I found it pretty easy to lead a discussion with my kids based on it. I read the book aloud to them all, chapter by chapter, over a period of weeks without any discussion and then at the end of each book we discussed it as a whole. Along the way you will introduce concepts like setting, climax, protagonist, and antagonist. A big part of what I like about this and why I feel the need to add it to a traditional CM education is that it helps one think about the author’s point of view and what message they are trying to get across. This was probably true in Mason’s time as well, but it seems everyone has an angle these days. They may be trying to convince you of something or they may just be coming from a very different worldview. What we learn about reading books can carry over into other areas of life as well. You can read about what we did in these posts: Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Charlotte’s Web, Babe, Bull Run, Animal Farm, Lost Horizon.

In high school, I introduce a little more intentional literature study. I have done this in slightly different ways but generally I have had my kids look at American poetry, short stories, and essays in grade 9 and American novels in grade 10. I have them read a work in its entirety (without narrating it) and then do an essay on it. I have sometimes used Great Courses lectures after the essay is done to give another perspective on the book as well (but preview; some of their series contain adult content where you might not expect it). You can see examples of what we did in these posts: American poets, Short stories and essays, American novels. In 12th grade, I let my oldest two pick a kind of fiction to study. My oldest chose Sci-Fi and my second one chose short stories.

We also did one year in high school of “movies as literature” using Grant Horner’s Meaning at the Movies. Horner is a Christian and discusses movies genre by genre and talks about the creator’s intent and what worldviews they are communicating and how they show an innate knowledge of God even if they don’t have faith. I highly recommend the book and it is easy to read, discuss, and watch a movie for each section. Again, the ability to distinguish another’s worldview, to see where they are coming from, is a valuable lesson that will carry over into other areas of life.

Language Arts

Language arts is a huge umbrella. Traditional schooling separates it into discrete subjects like spelling and grammar. CM teaches the same material but through broad techniques like narration and dictation. For more on how it all fits together and works see this post.


I came to CM’s methods when my oldest was 8 or 9. My oldest two were certainly reading by then and the third may have been as well (I can’t remember the exact timing). I never really looked into CM reading methods. Honestly, if I had to do it all again I would probably not change anything. We used a couple of things but I liked The Reading Lesson best. At the time I used it it was a free pdf book. I think it may have added some bells and whistles since. We also read Bob Books which we loved. After the basic reading instruction, it is really just about finding them new books that challenge them more, little by little. Reading does not have to be a big, ongoing subject and you don’t need special readers that teach it. Some early readers that are also good living books include Arnold Lobel’s books, the Cobblestreet Cousins and Lighthouse Family series by Cynthia Rylant (I don’t like her other series as much), and Thornton Burgess’s shorter books with titles like “The Tale of . . .” The latter are very easy chapter books with nice short chapters. For slightly longer chapter books we liked Dick King-Smith’s books. He has lots about animals.

Handwriting, Copywork, and Dictation

In terms of initially teaching kids to write, we used Handwriting without Tears and it worked pretty well. After that, one moves into copywork. There are many resources out there for copywork and later dictation. I don’t have strong preferences. I never found anything that I thought was the best resource for such things. If I had to pick one again now, I would probably go with Simply Charlotte Mason’s Spelling Wisdom.

As kids get older, they move from copywork, in which a passage is in front of them, to dictation, in which you read to them a passage that they have prepared. (Some people talk of transcription as an intermediate stage; transcription is copying a passage from one piece of paper to another so that one has to look back and forth and naturally starts to remember longer and longer chunks). I found that kids did much better when I let them pick their own dictation passages from books they were reading. When they did so, they had a connection to the passage that made them enjoy it much more. This is probably not strictly CM, but I would have them pick a passage to copy maybe 2 or 3 times a week and then once a week I would pick one of those passages to use for their dictation. Actual dictation was done just once a week. We weren’t rigid in methods but I would encourage them to look over the passage ahead of time and to notice anything that might be unusual in terms of spelling or punctuation. Some times I would point things out to them. Often we would discuss why something was the way it was.


In a perfect CM world, spelling is taught through copywork and dictation. This allows the child to see words in context. What I have observed with my children is that my visual learner was naturally an excellent speller but that the others had more struggles. We used a couple of spelling curricula over the years not so much as an intentional rejection of CM’s methods on this but because it was one of those subjects for which we transitioned more slowly to CM’s methods. If I had to do it again, I would probably give copywork and dictation a chance to work, but if I had a child who really struggled with spelling I would also not be opposed to using a spelling curriculum with them for a couple of years. One we used which I would use again is Spelling Power. In one way it is very non-CM in that it has spelling tests daily. In another way I think it can combine with CM methods in that that it gives kids steps to go through to help them visualize words. These steps can be tools they then take back to their copywork and dictation to help them remember words that they think would be a problem for them. Spelling Power groups words by rules and tells you those rules at the top of the section. They are not complicated rules but along the lines of “shun can be spelled -tion, -sion, or -cian.” The options are given in the order of their frequency. Once these rules have been introduced to a child, you can also refer to them in the future as in: “Physician is a tough word. You remembered that that shun sound is usually -tion, but here it is the more rare -cian.” I read the book The Logic of English for myself. I have not used their curriculum, but I found the book very helpful for me to help me understand why some words are spelled they way they are. This gave me tools to help me explain unusual spellings to my kids. Older kids could also read the book themselves.


Both CM and modern theories of child development say that kids are not ready for grammar till around middle school age. All the formal grammar they need to know can then be taught to them in a year or two at the middle or high school level. My preferred grammar curriculum is KISS Grammar which is free online. The website is a little hard to navigate so I created this document to help on that end. What I like about KISS grammar is that it takes a functional approach. That is, it looks at how words are used rather than starting with parts of speech (which ends up being very confusing in English anyway). I have read some articles by the creator and his goal is very much to create a grammar curriculum which actually improves students’ writing (he is a university professor so I guess he has a personal interest in this as well). KISS also uses sentences from real books, from fairytales to Dickens, in all its exercises. It can be done together as a family as well. We often did this. If there were a new concept I would introduce that briefly (which is all KISS requires) and then we would look at a few sentences together. Because it is one overall sequence, it is very easy to use with multiple ages. Though you don’t need formal grammar till middle school, you can start KISS in grade 2 so that helps if you have kids of multiple ages as well.


We never do writing as a separate subject. Until high school their writing comes in the form of written narrations (which start around age 8-10) and end of term exams (see below). If a child wants to write and/or do creative writing on their own, that is fabulous, but it is not something I required. Often thinking of what to write can be the hardest part. Some kids are fine with it and for some it is a major source of stress. Narrating something you have read gives you the what and allows you to focus on the writing itself. There are a lot of skills involved in composition and narration allows one to separate those out and to build them gradually. (Again, see Karen Glass’s Know and Tell for much more on this.)

When my kids reach high school age, I introduce the idea of a five-paragraph essay. This takes at most five minutes. It is not a hard concept to grasp. Then I start requiring these of them. I am not terribly strict on the form beyond maybe the first assignment or two. It is more important to me that they have their own style and I found that they usually do. At times I have seen it quite influenced by what they have most recently been reading. They are still writing narrations and end of term exams which are longer works which require them to pull information together. I also assign essays as a part of their literature (see above). Occasionally I require revisions but I try not to make writing too much of a chore. Writing can be very personal and having someone else criticize your words can be hard. We never did a research paper as part of their schoolwork though the idea of citing sources came up in conversation so they knew that you should not use another’s ideas without giving them credit. They often had online classes that required papers with some degree of research. Colleges like to tell all freshman how to cite sources — each college usually has a system it uses — so they will be shown that at the right time.

The Arts

The Arts have never been my strong suit, either in terms of my own abilities or in terms of me fitting them into our schedule regularly. In a perfect world, we would have been doing picture and composer study weekly. We were a little better at the former than the latter. Here are some of the things we did do over the years that at least kind of worked:

Artist/picture study — In a perfect world (and some terms we did this) we would pick an artist and just spend 5 minutes once a week looking at one of their works of art. I do really feel like you can get a feel for an artist this way. Perhaps the simplest form of picture study is to let kids look at the picture for maybe 5 minutes (big prints are helpful for this) and then to turn it away and ask them to “narrate” the picture to you by saying what they remember from it. Because I did not grow up looking at art very much, I found it helpful to have some resources occasionally that directed our attention by pointing out techniques the artist may use like having the figures in a painting all look at one point or constructing a picture in a triangle arrangement. One very good resource we used for this was Adventures in Art from Cornerstone Curriculum (I got it at one point as a free pdf; I believe it is fairly pricey now). It is designed to be used with a number of different approaches including CM. It looks at art from various time periods and does not group things by artist but I don’t think you need to approach it that way every term.

Books on art and music — At times we read biographies of artists and musicians. These ended up feeling tedious after a while. In turns out a lot of artists had dads who wanted them to be lawyers but they bucked tradition and, lo and behold, became famous artists or composers. For something quick and fun (and silly) I do like Mike Venezia’s biographies (he has them of presidents too). There are some nice picture books on artists too (see this booklist).

For art history I highly recommend V.M. Hillyer’s Child’s History of Art. It comes as either one complete volume or three separate ones on painting, architecture, and sculpture. For older kids Van Loon’s history of art is also good. My older daughter (who went on to art school), did an art history course specifically which you can read about here. For older kids Sister Wendy’s art videos are also good (they can a little risque).

Music — If I know little about art, I know even less about music. What music study we did was when my kids were littler. We used some CDs made for kids that play bits of classical music and put words to them. This is probably not very CM but to this day they remember those bits of music when they hear them. Again, you can see this post for resources. One nice resource is a radio program called Classics for Kids that you can find here.

Art Instruction — With one child who was just a natural artist, art just seemed to happen in our house. My kids did do some formal instruction or lessons over the years, some more than others. This is something I like to outsource if possible. There are some nice resources for creating art as you learn about it. They may not be very CM but I like MaryAnn Kohl’s books for this.

Hymn study — CM’s approach calls for hymn study, Our church sings only psalms, not hymns, so we did psalm study instead You can read all about that here. Because the Hebrew Bible is my area of expertise, we were able to do more with this. You could also just pick a psalm and read through it and discuss it. Most of these things don’t have to be fancy.


Poetry is really pretty simple. Once a week (in a perfect world, but certainly no more often) we read a poem and maybe talk about it a little. Sometimes we have picked a poet and stuck with him or her for a bit; sometimes we have gone through books of favorite poems and just done what is next. When we have done one poet, I found a 12 week term was just too long. We might spend 3 weeks on one poet and then move on. Discussions are open-ended — Did you like this poem? What did you like about it? What was happening in this poem? In high school I do tend to assign some poetry with questions that introduce more literary ideas. You can read about that here. We were never terribly consistent on memorization of anything but my kids also chose poems to memorize some terms. I usually gave them some degree of leeway in their choice. Occasionally we read a longer poem, the kind that takes more than one sitting to read. Some we did were Reynard the Fox, the Fairie Queen, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. As a side note, one of our favorite fun series is MaryAnn Wood’s Incorrigibles. The children in the book learn many poems from their governess and this got my kids interested in certain poems, like Poe’s “Raven,” as well. Another series that gets kids interested in such things is Lois Lowry’s Goonie Bird Greene series. NEW: Find my booklist for poetry here.

Drama, including Shakespeare

My firm conviction on Shakespeare is that his plays are meant to be seen. Also it helps to know what is happening before you see the play. We started reading narrative versions of Shakespeare plays when my kids were in elementary school (Lamb and Nesbit are two good authors to look for). This would be one of those subjects that alternates with others like poetry and music and doesn’t get done more than once a week. Though the narrative versions are short, we would read them over a number of weeks in very small chunks. Usually there is a lot of plot even in a small passage. We often kept lists of characters and who they are and their relationships to help us keep them straight. My kids loved these stories at this age. There are a lot of crazy mix-ups and my kids always ate that up. For a while we also used the books How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare which also lends itself to having them memorize some portions. This book is very helpful for adults who are Shakespeare-shy to help them appreciate and understand the language.

Starting around middle school (probably when my youngest was in middle school) we began to read Shakespeare plays aloud. I would intentionally assign smaller parts to younger kids or those worse at reading aloud. A play would usually take a term to read, reading it maybe twice a week. Then if at all possible we would see a live performance. Movies are a second choice but live is much better. In fact, we often picked which play to read based on what would be available near us.

Which plays to pick? They actually vary a lot (though some plot devices get reused a fair amount too). Titus Andronicus which my kids insisted on reading is the slasher film of Shakespeare plays. My kids loved it. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is often one people start with with younger kids. Some parents object to the fantasy aspects in this one. Romeo and Juliet seems like a must do but I just always want to slap those teens upside the head. My problem with Romeo and Juliet is that the teens are too much like real life teens. The big names really do tend to be the best: Julius Caesar, Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night and Much Ado about Nothing. I wasn’t crazy about All’s Well that Ends Well and As You Like It. Some of the others like Coriolanus, The Tempest, Comedy of Errors, and King Lear are in the middle for me. In recent years we have been working our way through some of the plays about England’s history. We like Falstaff but overall they are not my favorites (thus far).

Not through any design of my own my kids ended up reading plays with a local group. Another mom lead and they would read a play together in one or two sittings and then see a production of it (most live; virtually during COVID). Plays were picked based on the availability of performances. They read and saw a lot of plays this way.

Civics: Plutarch, Government, Economics

Civics is a very broad umbrella. For Mason the study of Plutarch’s lives fills the place of civics in the curriculum. Many of the lives covered are of political leaders and they are also very much geared towards showing how good or bad leaders behave. Plutarch is meant to teach one how to be a good citizen. We did some Plutarch using the readings and guide available at Ambleside Online. I am not a huge fan of Plutarch. I think there is some value there, but I also think there are better things (like Calvin’s Institutes) to spend our time on. A few notes if you do attempt Plutarch: Don’t start too early. The simpler versions for younger kids I found too watered down. I would wait at least until middle school with this. I was reading Plutarch aloud to all my kids together. They were having a tough time with it. I found it went a lot better when I printed out copies for each of them so they could follow along. It uses a lot of paper but it was worth it. Also, there is a lot of variation in the lives and how interesting and/or easy they are so if one is not working for you, maybe try another. The life of Julius Caesar is a good one (and clearly Shakespeare’s source). One plus: Plutarch really helped my one son who took the National Latin Exam with the history/culture portions.

Other subjects that usually come under the civics heading include government and economics. We covered government periodically in the course of our history studies, and then when my children reached high school I had them use The Everything American Government Book which I am not sure is completely living but Ambleside Online uses (and has the readings broken up for you here; we did the 18 week version). Three of my four kids also participated in the iGovern camps run by HSLDA.

For economics we started with the Uncle Eric series but soon discovered that its philosophy was not to our taste. I still had my kids read the first book in the series, Whatever Happened to Penny Candy?, but then my husband (who is an economist) chose another one, Lessons for the Young Economist, for them to do after that. This was done in high school in the same year as the government book, one each semester. [The two economics books do actually come from similar perspectives; they are both of the Austrian school of economics, but Lessons takes a more general approach.]

Geography and Current Events

Geography was another one of those subjects that I sometimes managed and which sometimes went by the wayside. Geography in a CM education consists of two parts: map drill and reading about various locales. It can also include physical geography (i.e. studying about land formations, map features, and the like). We used various resources when my kids were younger including Simply Charlotte Masons’ Visits to . . . series (I think we just used one of these). In elementary we used (I think this is the right one) C.C. Long’s Home Geography. Mason herself also has a geography she wrote but I found this redundant after having done Long. Often we just got books about different places and read and narrated them. When my kids were older, they also read some books about navigating and finding one’s way around including Tristan Gooley’s books and Dava Sobel’s Longitude. A word on Holling C. Holling’s books (which one tends to see recommended frequently): I did not find these overly helpful or engaging. We liked the ones on cowboys and Native Americans, but most of them my kids did not connect with until middle school age.

We did some map drill when my kids were in elementary. We probably did not do it in the CM approved way. I never had my kids draw maps of the world, or even the country. We did go through continent by continent and learn the countries as well as learning U.S. states and their capitals. We tried to come up with mnemonics for remembering them and just reviewed until we had each one down. I would print out blank maps of the region we were on for each of my kids. At the time the older ones had to write in the names and the younger ones had the names pre-printed and had to tape them on the right locales. We used a few games and digital resources for geography as well. For the U.S. the Scrambled States of America is a fun game.

When my kids were a bit older, we would occasionally just look at maps of various statistics and briefly discuss why things fell as they did. We also combined geography with current events for a while and would just read a current news story and look at the map and again perhaps discuss why the situation was as it was (eg. is there a resource two nations are fighting over?). Some previous posts on geography which explain a little more are here and here.

Foreign Language

When my kids were little, we did Spanish all together. We used La Clase Divertida curriculum (at the time we had DVDs and even VHS tapes; today I think it is all available online). Though it is not a CM curriculum, I think it lends itself to a CM approach. We skipped most of the worksheets. There are some CM foreign language curricula out there now and if I were doing it all again I would be tempted to try them.

In terms of what languages to learn, I am a fan of whatever works best for you. That means especially whatever you are most likely to stick with. A language you have some connection to is always a good choice — because mom or dad knows it, because you have family that speak it, because it is close to you geographically, because it is just easier to learn. We never did the multiple languages at once thing.

For high school I let my kids pick a language (within reason; I had to be able to find resources for it). For one this meant a private tutor; for the others, online classes. I required at least three years of the high school language (for more on high school to college planning, see this post).

Bible, Theology, Church History

We usually began our time together with prayer and some kind of Bible study. As the kids got older we studied things other than the Bible at this time, including reading through Calvin’s Institutes (over many years) and some theology and/or philosophy books. I don’t think one necessarily needs resources other than the Bible. You can simply read the Scriptures and spend a minute either having them narrate or discussing what you have read. My kids at times also read and narrated theological books I assigned. Church history was not a subject we did constantly, but we did read and narrate books on it at various points. You can find a list of resources for all of these here.

This is one area where I have some mild disagreement with Mason — I do think we are told to teach our children about the Lord, and to do so at every opportunity (Deut. 6:1-9), and so I am a little more deliberate than she would have me be in making sure they understand what they are reading and know the plan of salvation (see this post on where I disagree with Mason).

Quite a lot of learning in this area also comes from non-school time. For brief periods I assigned my kids specific Bible reading to try and get them in the habit. This was not narrated in any way but was for their own benefit. But after a while I trusted them to have their own time of Bible reading and prayer. Weekly church attendance, participating in church Bible studies (with all ages, preferably), Sunday school, and family worship are all part of their religious education. I don’t think enough can be said either about just sharing your own life and faith with them as a part of everyday life and conversation.


I tried to introduce philosophy beginning in middle or high school. My goal was to give them a sense of the viewpoints that are out there, how to recognize them, and how to evaluate them. It was not to give them a thorough grounding in classical philosophy. We used a number of resources over the years. Some are included in my theology list (above) and some are mentioned in this post on political philosophy (this was a one year class my oldest chose to do). I particularly found books that teach one to discern the worldview behind various media to be helpful. We covered some of this when we did literature based on Deconstructing Penguins and more when we did movies along with Grant Horner’s book Meaning at the Movies (for both, see “literature” above).


I left technological considerations to my husband. He started the kids out learning turtle (do you remember that little guy from the ’80s? He is a small triangle that you have to program to give commands and make him move in certain ways). They then used a book called Hello, World and finally moved on to learning Java.

Physical Education

Charlotte Mason used something called Swedish drill in her schools. I have seen references to this in other books and it seems to have been something of a movement at the time (i.e. it was not unique to Mason). It is a kind of calisthenics but with deliberate movements designed to build good habits of observation and control. Personally, I never got very far with Swedish drill but of you want to look into it, Brandy at AfterThoughts Blog has some resources on it.

My children got physical exercise through some combination of ordinary life and classes they took at local places like the Y and a local gymnastics academy. These things varied over the years according to their personal interests. We did do some exercises as a part of our together time when they were young. These were as much to vary their activity and to get the wiggles out as anything else. I had a set of cards called Fit Deck Junior which has individual exercises on them and would let the kids take turns picking them at random to see what we would do that day. The exercises are things like a crab walk and jumping jacks.


This is another aspect of a typical CM education that we were never good at getting in in a formal way. On the other hand, there were always a lot — and I mean a lot — of crafts happening in our house. Handicrafts in a CM education are not integrated with the curriculum per se. There are no dioramas showing how Native Americans lived or Styrofoam ball models of the solar system. Personally, though I enjoy crafts, I am very glad for this. I find doing crafts as part of the curriculum very fiddly and distracting and I can never get my act together for it. But we always had lots of craft supplies around. At times we outsourced arts and crafts classes (eg. pottery). I do really like the CM idea that crafts should be practical, i.e. that one should make things that are actually useful. With four kids, the house very quickly gets filled up with things that have been made and sit around with no purpose and yet can’t be thrown away. There is only so much one can give to the grandparents. Crafts we did over the years include: pottery, working with polymer clay, making folded paper suncatchers, knitting and crochet, sewing, felting, origami, twirling, paper mache, paper making, tie dye, painting and decorating glass, cross-stitch and plastic canvas, mosaics, basket weaving, jewelry making, friendship bracelets, quilting, scrapbooking, calligraphy, wood burning and wood carving, soap carving, and candle making.

CM also includes something known as paper sloyd which is kind of like origami but more deliberate and is supposed to contribute to geometrical understanding and again to attention to detail and direction following. We never did paper sloyd. Honestly my kids are just not that good at following directions. We are a lot more freeform in our crafting. You can see some examples of paper sloyd and a link to a book with directions at Crossing the Brandywine.


We did not initially do exams but over time I introduced them and I actually find them quite a valuable part of the educational experience. My kids tend to like exam week. We do a three-term school year so three times a year, every 12 weeks or so, we have an exam week. During this week they do not do their usual work but for every subject or every book that have done that term, they are given an exam assignment. When they were younger, I told them what to do on what day but as they aged I would just give them a list and let them do the things in whatever order they chose. For subjects like grammar and math, the exam would be akin to a traditional test with a page of problems reviewing the range of what they had learned that term. For most subjects, they would be given an essay type assignment for every book they had read. I tried to give choices for exam questions and to keep them open-ended. If a child really had no idea what to write, they could come to me so we could try to talk through the topic together before they wrote and/or they could suggest another topic. The point is not for me to evaluate them but for them to further integrate the knowledge they had gained that term. This is also a time when their writing skills are called on a bit more as I expect, at least with older children, a decently written essay. I found I had to give my kids lengths of what I expected for each assignment. I did not grade these exams (except perhaps math ones) but would offer some degree of verbal feedback. I might occasionally ask for a rewrite from an older child if they handed me something clearly unedited or very poorly edited, but this is not meant to be a time for criticism. Again, exams are for the child’s benefit, not mine. Below are some pics of exam sheets for my high schoolers.

Pursuing Individual Interests

Despite common misconceptions, CM is not an interest-led kind of learning (see this post). The idea is to spread a broad feast and to give children what they need, not necessarily what they want. Yet we did find lots of time for kids to do and study things they were interested in. Sometimes this was done outside of the formal school curriculum; sometimes it was included in what we did. I often geared what we did to an interest I knew one child had. For example, I have one who loves birds so that might be something we spend more of our nature lore time on (and all children would have to participate, not just the one who is most interested). I might gear the particular books they read on a broader subject to their interests — eg. we are all studying the Gilded Age but the child who is into art reads a book on the art of that era. When they got to high school, I usually let them pick some of their classes. I would say they need a literature or a science class but they would pick the specific subject. I did this particularly in their senior year but also occasionally before that. They might also pick elective classes, either through an online provider or that I prepared for them. Classes that kids ended up doing include: science fiction, short stories, constitutional law, meteorology, environmental science, diseases, art history, AP art history, AP music theory, the history of country music, Hamlet, and political philosophy.

I think I have covered every subject but I am sure there is more that can be said. Feel free to comment or to contact me if you want any clarifications or have further questions.

Reading: Should You Repeat?

I had an “aha” moment recently thinking about repetition in a Charlotte Mason education. As with most such epiphanies, this was a new thought to me but it may have been obvious to everyone else for a long time. If it is, feel free to be amused at my expense and then to move on.

We are always told in a Charlotte Mason education that a single reading is important. In fact, it is enshrined in Mason’s 20 Principles that ” . . .  children should ‘tell back’ after a single reading or hearing . . .” (Principle 14). The idea behind this is that to allow them to hear or read a text twice really just teaches kids that they don’t have to pay attention the first time.

The question inevitably arises: What if my child wants to read a book more than once? Little children in particular love to hear favorite picture books over and over again. One of my rules for deciding what is a living book at this level is that if the adult doesn’t mind reading it more than once, it is probably living. And then too, living books are books we should expect to get more out of with each reading because they do contain vital — that is life-giving — ideas.

These two ideas — the importance of a single reading and the continuing value of living books — seem to present a contradiction. But the solution is really a very simple one: The principle of a single reading is for school books that are to be narrated. That is, narration is to be done after a single reading of a passage. But in the rest of life — whether we are reading that favorite picture book to a preschooler once again or re-reading out own favorite classic — there are no limits. As long as you (or your young audience) is getting something out of the book, by all means read it again.

Book Review: The Making of Biblical Womanhood

Perhaps because I have reviewed similar books [1], I was recently sent a free copy of Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2021) to review. I will say from the start that I am not on the same page as Barr on the issue of women’s roles in the church. I do think she has some useful information to add to this debate. In the end, I find her argument unconvincing, but I do think that her work can help us understand some of the issues and how we should discuss them. If I have one major criticism of her approach, it is that it lacks nuance. Issues are conflated and distinctions that should be made are not.

Barr’s Story

The Making of Biblical Womanhood is as much about Barr’s personal story as it is about the theological issues. She weaves the two together. No chapter fails to mention her own, mostly painful, experiences. I don’t think this has to be a negative. I do believe that we all come to issues — no matter what the argument of the day is — with our own preconceptions which have been influenced by our experiences. It is often better to admit our baggage than to try to pretend we can be neutral on an issue. But at the same time, we need to acknowledge that our experiences can slant our perceptions. [2] That is why it is so good in the church to have people with different experiences and backgrounds. We balance each other and hopefully somewhere in the middle we find the truth.

Barr grew up and spent much of her adult life in complementarian Southern Baptist churches. Now there can be a range of beliefs among Christians as to what the role of women is. We speak of complementarianism versus egalitarianism but in reality there is a spectrum of belief (more on this below). Within this spectrum, it sounds like Barr’s experiences were all on one side, what one might call extreme complementarianism. In addition to growing up in a culture with some fairly extreme views, even in Christian circles, Barr had two specific formative and traumatic experiences which she shares. One which she relates only briefly in the last chapter of the book had to do with abuse by a boyfriend before her marriage (pp. 201ff). The other, which in many ways dominates the book, was the rejection she and her husband experienced by their church when they expressed their views on the role of women. I don’t want to spend too much time judging Barr’s experiences. I have no doubt they were genuinely painful. At the same time we need to realize that there are two sides to each story. Barr’s husband was a youth pastor at this church. He came to another leader with his newly found views on the role of women and agreed that those views could be shared with others in leadership (p. 190). Given that he himself was in a position of authority and that he was expressing a view contrary to the position of the church he served, I don’t think it is at all unreasonable that he was asked to leave his ministry in that church. Nor was it unreasonable that he was asked not to share or teach his views to others within the church (p. 84). To me these seem like foreseeable outcomes. It sounds like in many ways the whole experience was handled badly, and that Barr’s husband, who should at least have been given counsel, was not even invited to discuss his views in person. But in the end, the outcome perhaps had to be what it was. That these experiences shaped Barr’s own beliefs is something she readily admits: “This experience, along with my husband’s firing, frames how I think about complementarianism today. From both of these traumatic experiences, one much more recent and one fading farther and farther into the past, I am scarred.” (p. 204)

A Spectrum of Belief

Barr grew up in a church at one end of the spectrum when it comes to “women’s issues.” The position she presents in this book is at the other end of that spectrum. It is perhaps not surprising that one who has been hurt on one end would then find themselves moving to quite the other end. But while Barr’s personal experiences no doubt show us some of the deep problems with extreme complementarianism, the rejection of one position does not mean that we need to do a complete 180. There is a lot of room in the middle on this issue.

Terminology can be a problem. It used to be that we could speak of egalitarianism on one side and complementarianism on the other. Over time the range of views included under the complementarian umbrella has expanded so that it now covers quite a lot of ground and includes people who would not agree with each other on much. This is where we need nuance.

The position which Barr describes in the churches she knew is one I am calling extreme complementarianism. One might also call it patriarchalism. [3] It says that not only is a wife to be subject to her husband’s authority but that all women owe some degree of submission to all men. The qualities of authority and submission are inherent in the natures of men and women respectively and are unchanging. The husband is the head of the family. Only men lead in the church. Even in society more broadly speaking, women are not to have positions of authority over men. At its most extreme this position includes a doctrine known as Eternal Submission of the Son (ESS) or Eternal Functional Submission (EFS). This view compares the relationship of men and women to that of the Father and the Son. It says that the Son has always been and will always be subordinate to the Father just as women are inherently subordinate to men. While it is propounded by some big names in reformed Christianity, among them Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware, EFS is not orthodox Christianity in the sense that it is not the historic position of the church. It presents a different, and I would say unorthodox, view of the Trinity. [4]

On the other end of the spectrum, stands egalitarianism. At its most extreme egalitarianism says that there is no distinction between men and women, either in their value or in their roles. Anything the one can do — in marriage, the church, or society — the other can do.

I will not say that Barr sets up a straw man, because there are people, probably quite a lot of them, who hold to the extreme complementarian position which she argues against. But this is one area where she fails to allow for nuance. In rejecting the former position, she ricochets to the latter, but in reality there is quite a lot of room in the middle. I will not spend time here on the EFS controversy which represents perhaps the most extreme complementarian view. I agree with Barr that this warping of the Trinity to conform it to our views of human gender goes too far and there are others who have argued the point far better than I could. But there are still many places we can land. We can, for instance, say that a wife should submit to her husband without saying that all women are not called to submit to all men. We can also restrict the role of women in the church without restricting their roles in society as a whole. Most importantly, we can say that while there may be lines of authority and submission in the home and the church that they are not characteristics inherent to the natures of men and women. There are times when men submit, as to their pastors and bosses, and there are times when women have authority, as over their children. This view is sometimes called soft complementarianism (or just complementarianism as opposed to patriarchalism).

I believe the issues at stake can be boiled down to these 5 questions:

  1. Are men and women equal in value before God? Are they the same as regards their salvation?
  2. Are there distinct roles for husbands and wives within marriage?
  3. Are there distinct roles for men and women within the church? And if so, what defines those roles?
  4. Are there roles in society which a woman should not fill? (eg. a woman should be a political leader or a university professor)
  5. Are there characteristics we can tie to all men and all women which determine their relationships or roles vis a vis each other even if they are not in any kind of intimate relationship? In other words, are all women inherently submissive and all men inherently authoritative?

The one thing Barr has in common with her opponents is that they both view these questions as an all-or-nothing proposition, either women are equal in all areas or they are subject to men on all levels. While she quotes others, like Russell Moore, who give more nuanced positions, she quickly dismisses their views because she, like her opponents, cannot seem to see that there could be any middle ground. “Moore,” she says, “may claim that women only owe submission ‘to their own husbands,’ not to men ‘in general,’ but he undermines this claim by excluding women as pastors and elders” (p. 18). There is a false equivalency here. To say that a woman must submit to her pastor does not necessitate that she submit to all men. There are lots of lines of authority in life. In the early church some men’s slaves had authority over them as leaders in the church. They were able to distinguish the arenas in which they operated, and authority in one area did not necessitate authority in another. Neither Barr nor her opponents can accept the idea that two people can have unequal roles and yet be of equal worth (p. 18).

Barr conflates patriarchy and all complementarianism. Patriarchy she defines as “a general system that values men and their contributions more than it values women and their contributions” (p. 16). But this is not the way the church has to look. There are other models and I would argue that they can and do work. This again is where it is helpful to have Christians with different sets of experiences. Barr’s critiques of the system she knows are largely on target, particularly in the opportunities they create for abuse (pp. 203, 207), but there are other ways that churches can function, even with male-only leadership. I would disagree with Barr when she says that “[p]atriarchy doesn’t stay confined to one sphere” (p. 15). There are many churches which have maintained male-only leadership for centuries, if not millennia, without devaluing women.

The Historical Evidence

Barr’s views on men and women began to change because of the negative experiences she had but also because of her studies. Barr is a professor of medieval and early modern history, and she saw that the view of men and women which she had been taught had not always been the position of the church. In particular, she saw that there had always been tension over the role of women in the church and that at many times and in many places, women had been allowed to have a larger role and even to preach.

I am not qualified to evaluate the historical evidence that Barr gives. I trust that when she tells me that such and such a female saint preached that she really did so. What I will say is that again I did not find a lot of nuance here. Every example of a woman preaching or otherwise having authority in the church is taken as another stake in her enemies’ coffin. There is no effort to distinguish and to ask whether these women were orthodox or heretics. I hate to say it but historically a fair number of women have been the progenitors of heretical movements. [5] Barr does not discuss what the women she cites were preaching so I cannot tell if they were orthodox, but many of them have stories which make tend to make me as a reformed girl a bit uncomfortable. Margery Kempe, for instance, had an “extravagant worship style, which included disrupting services with crying and sobbing” (p. 73). God (allegedly) spoke to her and said, “‘I will come to your at your end, at your dying, with my blessed mother, and my holy angels and twelve apostles, St Katherine, St Margaret and St Mary Magdalene, and many other saints that are in heaven . . . ‘” (p. 76). I understand, of course, that Margery Kempe lived in a different time and that she would have believed in the blessedness of Mary, the saints in heaven, and all of that, but for us who do not view things in quite the same way, does it sound plausible that God came to her and said this? Margery Kempe also refused marital relations with her husband, saying she would rather be decapitated (p. 75). Now again I am not saying women need to always be at their husband’s beck and call but this is not sounding like the best example to me. Nor are the stories that have come down to us always believable. Margaret of Antioch is said to have battled a demonic dragon. At her death by martyrdom, the Holy Spirit is said to have descended in the form of a dove to anoint her (p. 80). Barr’s more modern examples also cause me problems. Katherine Sutton in 1655 “began to preach and prophesy through singing” (p. 182). As one who believes that prophecy as an ordinary means in the church ceased with the age of the apostles, this is a problem. Without knowing what Sutton said, I am already predisposed to find her theologically suspect. The long and the short of it for me is that the sorts of things that Barr tells me about these women do not make me say, “Oh, yes, these were orthodox believers whose example and words I want to learn from.”

We must also ask what the meaning of preaching was for these women and their society. As Barr speaks of it, preaching is equated with authority, with having a role equal to men, and yet, as the church has changed over the millennia, what authority means had also changed. In the medieval church, the priests were the leaders. They preached, yes, but more importantly they administered the sacraments. To tell me that a woman preached and that priests and bishops listened to her is not the same as telling me that her authority was equal to that of men. In Protestant churches where the sermon is central we equate authority with preaching but that is not true in Roman Catholic churches in which the sacraments are central to worship. If we are going to say that such-and-such a woman preached, we must ask about the significance of her preaching. What did authority in the church look like at the time and would the people of the day have seen her preaching as implying authority?

The answer to this question changes over time. In the medieval Roman Catholic Church, all the women who led or taught were all in some way exceptions. They were allowed to preach because they did not fit the normal mold. They were not married (p. 117) and they were often seen to have a special prophetic gift (p. 118; again, a problem for those of us who do not see prophecy continuing beyond the apostolic age). Interestingly, Barr does give the example of one woman who was ordained by accident (p. 89). Because it is of God, the ordination could not be revoked, but it is clear from the story that what is notable about it is that women were not usually ordained and that this was an exception. By the late middle ages (the 11th-13th centuries) clear lines were drawn. Women could teach but not preach (p. 98) and could not be ordained as priests (p. 99). With the Protestant Reformation, celibate communal life (=being a nun) was no longer an option (p. 107). Marriage was esteemed and a wife’s submission to her husband was emphasized (p. 105). The primary role of the minister was no longer to administer the sacraments (though that was surely part of it) but to preach the Word. In modern times, Barr emphasizes that early evangelicalism allowed women to preach but again there are qualifications. Often she needed to claim some special spiritual blessing (which again may be a problem theologically). In medieval times she needed to be unmarried; in modern times she needs to demonstrate her wifely subjection and feminineness so it is clear she is not crossing a line (p. 185). In any time, she needed to somehow qualify herself beyond the norm. Ordinary women never had leadership roles. 

In the end, Barr’s historical evidence does not make the case which she thinks it does. Her argument is pretty simple: Women had a role in the church in the past; therefore they should today as well. But in reality what she shows us is that the role of women in the church was always less than that of men and that it was always controversial. The tales of extraordinary women in unusual roles — and there were unusual — were designed to elevate women “‘above the traditional roles assigned to them'” and to give “‘them power of their own’” (p. 83, quoting Larissa Tracy). In Barr’s own words: “The medieval church, even though it accepted women’s roles as leaders, was nonetheless uncomfortable with women actively serving in these roles” (p. 90). Whether in medieval or modern times, a woman’s authority was qualified in some way (p. 183).

The Biblical Evidence

Barr demonstrates well that there has always been a tension around women having authority in the church. In every era, we can find women who preach but also discomfort with women’s leadership. Barr’s assumption is that the discomfort, and the tendency to quash women’s voices (as she would put it), comes from societal influences. The church, she would say, is always influenced by patriarchal culture. There are definitely societal forces which have affected the role of women, in and out of the church — Barr shows this quite well when she discusses the political and economic factors at work in the time of the Reformation (pp. 106ff). The problem we have is to determine what is appropriate in the church and what is cultural influence. Barr herself gives us an idea of how to make these determinations when she says: “It is also impossible to maintain consistent arguments for women’s subordination because, rather than stemming from God’s commands, these arguments stem from the changing circumstances of history” (p. 186; emphasis added). Circumstances change; God’s Word does not. When we cannot distinguish between what is coming to us from our culture and what is really true, Scripture must be our touchstone. Now I understand that that is not a simple statement. As Barr makes clear, people throughout history have understood the same biblical passages in very different ways. Nonetheless, we can try to find what the rabbis would have called the peshat, the “plain sense” of the text. For us as Christians, the plain sense does not look at a verse by itself but in its scriptural and historical context. Barr would, I think, agree with this approach.

Though her main goal seems to be to give historical evidence, along the way Barr actually gives us interpretations of quite a number of biblical passages having to do with men and women. Because it is these which must ultimately answer the questions proposed above and because it is more in my area of expertise [6], I am going to spend some time on them. These are not all the texts which may have some bearing on gender issues nor will we address all the issues they present. Because this is meant to be a book review, I am going to focus primarily on the texts Barr brings up and the issues she raises.

Genesis 1-3

Gender appears in chapter 1 of the Bible. From Creation through the Fall to the Curse, we have lots to talk about with regard to men and women, their relationships and roles.

Genesis 1:27

Barr’s discussion of Genesis 1 comes in the context of what she has to say about Bible translation. Her argument is that this verse is best translated as: “God created humans in His image, both men and women” (p. 140; emphasis original).

The Hebrew of Genesis 1:27 reads as follows:

“And God created ha-adam in his image. In the image of God he created him. Male and female he created them.” [7]

The issue is the translation of the Hebrew ha-adam in the first part of the verse. Adam is, of course, the name of the man who is created but it is also a general word for man, either a specific man or mankind broadly speaking. The ha- on the front of that word adam is the definite article in Hebrew. Just as in English it would be awkward to call the person “the Adam,” the ha- in Hebrew makes it clear that it is not the person Adam by name that is referred to here. Our options for translation are: “God created the man”; “God created man”; “God created mankind”; or, as Barr prefers, “God created humans.” 

There are three words for man/male in Hebrew:

  • Adam can be translated as “Adam,” “man,” “mankind,” or, as Barr does, “human.” It is a term particularly associated with Creation and distinguishes man(kind) from God. It also ties man(kind) to the earth (adamah).
  • ‘Ish connotes both humanness and maleness. It may be translated as man or husband. It distinguishes man/husband from woman/wife (‘ishah).
  • The words for male and female, zakar and nqebah, used in the latter part of Genesis 1:27 are more technical terms. They convey gender but not humanness. These terms can be used of animals as well whereas the words man/husband and woman/wife imply gender but also humanness.

In Genesis 2 (ha-)adam, is used in parallel with ‘ishah, the woman, and clearly refers to “the man” (i.e. Adam) as opposed to “the woman,” aka Eve (Gen. 2:22-23, 25). In most of the Hebrew Bible, however, when speaking of man as opposed to woman, the word ‘ish would be used instead. [8] When adam is used, it is often clear that not just male humans but all humans are in view. Consider Genesis 9:6: “The spiller of the blood of man (ha-adam) — by man (adam) his blood will be spilled. For in the image of God he made man (ha-adam).” And again: “And [God] said, ‘You will not be able to see my face, for man (ha-adam) cannot see me and live.'” In both of these instances, it is clear that both men and women are included in the thought — women’s blood will also be avenged and women will also die if they see the face of God.

Though Adam is ha-adam, “the man,” in Genesis 2 and 3, it seems clear from the context that it is not only the man, the male human, who is created in Genesis 1:27. In fact, this is exactly what the latter part of the verse is telling us — “Male and female he created them” is added so that we have no doubt that both the man and the woman are created in the image of God.

My verdict on this one is that I do substantially agree with Barr. I think the intent of Genesis 1:27 is to tell us that both male and female humans were created in the image of God. I am less inclined to go with her translation which uses the word “human.” As we have seen, there is ambiguity in the Hebrew. While all translations are ultimately interpretations, our goal should be to be as faithful to the original language as possible. Sometimes this means intentionally allowing for ambiguity because it is there in the original. The Hebrew adam has a range of meanings. The English word which best captures this range is “man” or perhaps “mankind.”

Genesis 2:22-24

The King James Version of the Bible translates Genesis 2:22-24 as follows:

“‘And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.'” (KJV as quoted by Barr, p.150; emphasis is hers).

The issue Barr raises is that the word which is translated “woman” on verses 22 and 23 is translated as “wife” in verse 24. On this point she is correct. It is the same word, in this case the Hebrew ‘ishah (see above). Barr alleges that by translating “wife” in the last instance, the KJV is inferring marriage into the context (p. 150).

I have to say that I find this one a bit odd. If we were to translate ‘ishah only and ever as woman the Bible would begin to sound a bit like a bad country song with every man having “his woman.” Nonetheless, I am sympathetic to the translation issue here. I do not like it when translations render a word one way in one verse and another way in the next. That usually bothers me because it tends to obscure meaning for the English reader. In this case, however, we have a word that just doesn’t map the same way in English as it does in Hebrew. Hebrew has one word for what are two concepts in English. This is cultural. In Hebrew a woman is assumed to be a wife. Similarly, Hebrew has one word for young woman and virgin because it assumes all young women are virgins. Sadly, that is not something we can assume in our culture. This should not be prescriptive for us. We may wish young women would stay virgins, but we cannot take the lexical field of the Hebrew word for woman/wife and make it a policy — all women should get married. Even if we were inclined to do so, we have other passages of Scripture which argue otherwise — Paul in the New Testament extols the virtues of singleness (I Cor. 7:8).

The real question here is: Are the translators, as Barr claims, inserting marriage into this passage? To answer this question, we need to first ask how the Bible talks about marriage. I did a quick search and the KJV only uses the words “marriage” and “marry” a total of 10 times in the Old Testament. Now we know there are people getting married all over the place in the Old Testament so that it not very many occurrences. The reason the word “marry” occurs so few times is because that is not the language the Scriptures normally use. Consider Genesis 24:67: “And Isaac brought her [Rebekah] into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife [‘ishah]; and he loved her: and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” (KJV) Notice first of all that we have that word ‘ishah again. If Barr has her way, this verse would say that “she became his woman,” but again this sounds worse to modern English-speakers. Clearly what is happening here is that Isaac and Rebekah are married, but the Bible does not say the word married. It simply says that Rebekah came into Isaac’s tent and we are left to assume the rest. This is how the Old Testament normally describes marriage — it implies consummation and that lets us know the people are married. Consider one of the most famous marriages in the Bible, that of Ruth and Boaz. This is how their marriage is described: “So Boaz took Ruth, and she was his wife [‘ishah]: and when he went in unto her, the Lord gave her conception, and she bare a son.” (Ruth 4:13; KJV) Again consummation implies marriage. Finally, let us look at another passage about Adam and Eve. In Genesis 4, we are told: “And Adam knew Eve his wife [‘ishah]; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord.” (Genesis 4:1; KJV) Knowing in the Bible is intimate and in the context of the relationship between a man and a woman, knowing means consummation, and again consummation equals marriage.

So with all that in mind, let us look again at Genesis 2. What we are told in verse 24 is that the man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his ‘ishah and the two shall become one flesh. How do a man and woman become one flesh? This is clearly a reference to consummation, and as we have seen in the Old Testament consummation equals marriage. We do not need to read marriage into this passage, it is already there. If we had any doubt, Genesis 4 also makes it clear that Adam and Eve are indeed married.

My conclusion on this one is that it is false. Marriage is already in Genesis 2; we do not need to read it into the passage. We may not like that one word, ‘ishah, is translated two ways within a short passage, but we don’t have one English word which includes both meanings. What is happening in this passage is clearly that the woman who was made is becoming a wife. We do not need to read more into this and say, as Barr claims her opponents do, that therefore women only find their fulfillment in marriage. But we cannot deny that Adam and Eve were married, that she became a wife and he a husband.

Genesis 3:16

The question that arises in Genesis 3 is, in Barr’s words: “What if patriarchy isn’t divinely ordained but is a result of human sin? What if instead of being divinely created, patriarchy slithered into creation only after the fall?” (p. 25) My answer to this question is another one: So what if it did? Barr seems to think this is a pivotal question and that if we can show that Eve was subject to Adam only after the Fall that that negates patriarchy. But let us consider the other effects of the Fall: the serpent goes on his belly (Genesis 3:14), the woman has pain and sorrow in childbirth (v. 15), the earth brings forth thistles (v. 18), and the man sweats when he works (v. 19). None of these consequences of the Fall is immediately negated in this world by Christ’s sacrifice or by our salvation. So my answer to Barr’s question is this: even if wifely submission is a consequence of the Fall, it is still with us today, here in this world. Barr tells us that: “The first human sin built the first human power hierarchy” (p. 29), but even if it did, it is not the case as she says that “[p]atriarchy is created by people, not ordained by God” (p. 29). While the dynamic between Adam and Eve post-Fall (which I am not sure I would call patriarchy, but I’ll give her that for now) may not have been original, it is nonetheless part of a curse imposed by God. It is very literally ordained by God when He says in Genesis 3:16, ” . . .thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (KJV).

The New Testament

Mary Magdalene (Matthew 28)

Barr’s assertion is that “Jesus’ authorization of Mary Magdalene [to tell the apostles about His resurrection] ‘bestowed upon the feminine sex’ the right not only to speak but to speak with authority” (p. 77; cf. Matt. 28:5ff). She repeatedly calls what Mary did preaching (p. 87). Yet this is simply not the case. Again there is a lack of nuance. All believers are called to defend their faith and to give an account of it. The discussion I may have with a coworker about the Bible is not preaching. Preaching is something very specific and authoritative that happens, often in the context of corporate worship. Even if what Mary did here was preaching, it no no way authorizes all women to preach and have authority.

Phoebe and Junia (Romans 16)

In Romans 16:1 Phoebe is called a deaconess and in Romans 16:7 Junia is said to be “among the apostles.” Not surprisingly, Barr understands both these women to be officers in the church and therefore takes them to be precedent-setting for later female officers (p. 69). 

I actually understand these two verses in different ways. On the one hand, I do not believe Junia was an apostle. Note that Adronicus is also named with Junia. Yet we do not know of an apostle named Andronicus. Apostle, the technical term as we use it, has a very specific meaning. There are 12 apostles (cf. Acts 1:12ff), and later 13 with Paul (I Cor. 15:7-9), and they have all seen Christ in the flesh (Paul in a vision). Either Paul is using the word “apostle” loosely here and not in its technical sense or he is saying, as most if not all translations do, that Andronicus and Junia were esteemed among the apostles, not that they themselves were apostles.

Phoebe is a different story. I actually have no problems with saying that Phoebe was a deaconess My denomination, the RPCNA, has women deacons and, despite dire predictions of the slippery slope some 100 years ago when they adopted this practice, has managed to keep the line firm and not have women elders. For the record, while this verse in Romans may be helpful, the primary argument for women deacons comes not from Phoebe’s case but from I Timothy.

Silence in the Churches (I Corinthians 14:34-35)

I Corinthians 14:34-35 is a tough passage no matter how you take it. Barr offers an intriguing but ultimately unconvincing explanation. With a little bit of its context, this is how the passage usually reads: “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?” (NIV)

Barr spends some time on historical context, noting that Cato the Elder some time before AD 17 complained of women running wild in the streets and speaking to other women’s husbands and asked: “‘Could you not have asked your own husbands the same thing at home?'” (p. 59) She believes that when Paul says “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” that he is not giving his own opinion but quoting something that was being said in order to refute it (pp. 60-61). In this interpretation, the next verse — “Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?” — is taken as the refutation of the saying.

Now certainly this quoting of a saying to refute it is a rhetorical practice Paul employs and uses particularly in I Corinthians, but I am not convinced that this is what he is doing in this case. The passage just does not read smoothly if we take it as Barr would have us do. Most of the sayings Paul quotes only to refute are brief and pithy. Consider: “food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” “it is well for a man not to touch a woman,” and “all things are lawful for me.” In each of these cases, it is abundantly clear that Paul is quoting and responding to the saying in question. They are followed by a “but” as in: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not” (I Cor. 10:23; KJV). Similarly, “it is good for a man not to touch a woman” (I Cor. 7:1) is followed by a “nevertheless” in verse 2. In the verses we are looking at, this is not the case. In the third example — “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food” — Paul does not so much contradict as add additional information: “and God will destroy both one and the other” (I Cor. 6:13; ESV). The quote from I Corinthians 14, if that is what it is, is of a different form. It is much more extensive, and there is no direct contradiction of the sentiment it expresses. Barr herself acknowledges that this is somewhat of a tenuous interpretation, saying that she “cannot guarantee that this is what Paul was doing” (p. 62). She seems to find it enough to raise the question “Could we have missed Paul’s point (again)?” (p. 62) without giving hard or overly convincing evidence that this is the case.

The Household Codes (Ephesians 5:21ff and Colossians 3:18-19)

Ephesians 5:21ff and Colossians 3:18-19 are two very similar passages known as the household codes. You probably know them — these are the ones that tell husbands to love their wives and wives to submit. They also have instructions for children and slaves. They are household codes because they tell the people within the household how to relate to one another. A household at the time might have been much bigger than just a nuclear family. Let’s deal with one objection from the start: just because our households no longer include slaves, does not mean we need to get rid of the whole passage. Families, for instance, often still include children (though fewer and fewer these days it seems) and most of us still want our kids to exhbiti some level of obedience. If we are not ditching the parent-child relationship, we have no cause to ditch the husband-wife one even though the slave-master one may (thankfully) no longer be part of our normal experience.

This is not Barr’s primary argument, however. The main point she makes is that these passages would have read very differently to a New Testament audience than they do to us: “Paul’s inclusion of the statement for women to be subject to their husbands is exactly what the Roman world would have expected.” (p. 46) Paul is giving counter-cultural instructions here, but they are for the men, not the women: “As modern Christians, we immediately hear masculine authority. Wives, be subject to your husband. Yet as first-century Christians, Paul’s original audience would have immediately heard the opposite. Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. The focus of the Christian household codes isn’t the same today as it was in the Roman world.” (pp. 47-48; emphasis original) On this point, I agree with Barr. In the original historical context, women were being given more value and are more protection. Throughout history, across cultures, this has been the effect of the gospel. [9] Yet the Scriptures are for all people at all times. What we need to hear may be a little different, but there is still a message in there for us. Paul may be tempering the patriarchy of his day but he does not do away entirely with the household order. The command to wives to submit to their husbands still stands.

Church Leadership (I Timothy 2&3)

The first half of I Timothy 3 contains qualifications for church officers. This section divides into two main parts: verses 1 through 7 discuss elders (aka bishops aka overseers, depending on your translation), and verses 8 through 13 discuss deacons (and mention women though who these women are is a point of contention).

Barr focuses on the first part of the passage, verses 1 through 7 about elders. Her main argument is that our English translations have slanted our view of who can be in leadership by using male pronouns in this passage where the Greek uses gender-neutral words like “anyone” and “whoever” (p. 147). The one segment which seems to indicate that a man is being spoken of is in verse 12 when we are told that an elder must be a “‘one-woman man'” (p. 148), that is, the husband of only one wife. While this phrase may be taken to indicate that only men should be leaders, it does not have to be taken that way. It is something of an idiom in Greek and as such need not be taken so literally. We do not usually, for instance, take it to mean that an elder has to married, only that he can’t have been married more than once. Though it is not my strong suit, Barr seems to be correct as regards the pronouns in this passage. In the Greek they are neutral and there is nothing in this set of verses which indicates clearly that only men can be elders.

We take the Bible as a whole, however, and interpret passages in the light of others. In the case of I Timothy 3, we do not need to go far to find more on the role of women. Perhaps the reason Paul did not need to specify in chapter 3 that only men can be elders is because he had just discussed the same issue in chapter 2. I Timothy 2:11-12 are perhaps well-known verses: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” (NIV) Oddly enough, Barr does not seem to directly address these verses though she spends a little time on the next couple of verses, I Timothy 2:14-15 (p. 119). There are, of course, different interpretations of what it means for a woman to not teach or have authority over a man. Though I don’t agree with all his conclusions, I think Douglas Moo does a good job of explaining the passages and the issues it raises. I particularly like his discussion of what it means to teach — that this is official teaching, i.e. preaching in the church. [10]

The Priesthood of All Believers (I Peter 2:5-9)

I Peter 2 calls believers in the church “a holy priesthood” (v. 5) and “a royal priesthood” (v. 9; NIV). From these verses we get a doctrine known as the priesthood of all believers. Barr takes this doctrine and argues that if all believers are priests then all should preach. But this is not what the verses in I Peter say nor is it how the church understands this doctrine.

In the context of the chapter, the priesthood means the offering of sacrifices (v. 5) and “declar[ing] the praises of him who called you” (v.9; NIV). While preaching may declare God’s praises, the two are hardly synonymous. One may declare God’s praises without preaching. Furthermore, the descriptions here are general. It is not necessary that each individual believer do these things (though we hope they all praise God!), but it is the work of the church as a whole. The focus is not so much on the individual stones, if you will, but the “spiritual house” into which they are being built (v. 5) and the people that has been newly formed (v. 10).

The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers does not say that all are ministers. We still have church officers (at least most of our denominations do). All are priests in one sense but not all — not even all men — are or ever will be preachers and leaders. Here we see another lack of nuance which pops up consistently in the book: Barr asks: “So couldn’t women now preach and teach just like men? Didn’t the priesthood of all believers apply to women just as it applied to men?” (p. 115). These questions contain some false assumptions. She equates the priesthood of all believers with preaching and she assumes that all men preach and teach. But this is not the case. Only qualified men are ordained and hold office. Other men submit to them just as women do. The priesthood of all believers does not mean that all preach or are ministers but that all have access to God through Christ. [11] In the Old Testament, only the high priest could enter the holy of holies. Now, through Christ, all believers have that access.


You have probably gathered by now that by and large I am not convinced by Barr’s arguments. She makes some good points in her analysis of the historical and biblical evidence and her critiques of the extremes of complementarianism are good. But she lacks nuance. Like those she criticizes, she always assumes an all-or-nothing approach. This leads her to ricochet from one extreme to the other. Having rejected patriarchy, she ends up at egalitarianism without seeming to realize that there are many possible positions in the middle. Ironically, it is her acceptance of the categories that her opponents use and of their assumptions that leads her to end up in the completely opposite position. She, like the extreme complementarians she argues against, assumes that submission in one area equals subjugation in all.  If Barr were to think less like her opponents, she might end up in a more moderate place.

Near the beginning of this post I said that there are five questions we need to answer:

  1. Are men and women equal in value before God? Are they the same as regards their salvation?
  2. Are there distinct roles for husbands and wives within marriage?
  3. Are there distinct roles for men and women within the church? And if so, what defines those roles?
  4. Are there roles in society which a woman should not fill? (eg. a woman should be a political leader or a university professor)
  5. Are there characteristics we can tie to all men and all women which determine their relationships or roles vis a vis each other even if they are not in any kind of intimate relationship? In other words, are all women inherently submissive and all men inherently authoritative?

What we need in order to answer these questions is a lot more subtlety and a lot more study. It is not enough, as Barr often does, to raise the questions, we need to find the answers as well, as best we are able. The historical evidence, as Barr shows in spite of herself, is mixed and does not point us in one clear direction. The answer then is in the biblical text. We have looked at some passages in a little detail. There is certainly much more that could be said both on these passages and on others that relate to the issue. I would suggest that the church right now in particular needs a better answer to the question: What is the difference between men and women? We are pressed by a rise in patriarchalism within the church on one side and a complete obliteration of traditional gender definitions in society on the other. If we are to reject the position that gender distinctions are ontological and yet also to maintain that there are two distinct genders and that gender matters, then we must be able to answer the question of what gender is and what distinguishes male from female.

[1] See particularly my review of Aimee Byrd’s Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

[2] In all fairness, I feel I should say something about what my background is so you know where I am coming from as well. I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church which of course has only male clergy. My mother, however, worked for the church in charge of the Sunday school program for most of my childhood. I knew many priests — they were frequent dinner guests and my sick days were often spent at the church. On the one hand I saw them as human with all their foibles; on the other I saw that a woman, my mother, though she could not be a priest could play a role within the church and contribute to its ministry. My adult life has been spent in Protestant churches. For the most part male leadership has been the policy in these churches. At has at a time been a subject of discussion. One church had a female preach at least a few times. If my ideas were sometimes dismissed, I never connected that with my gender. 

[3] As I have been writing this, I ran across a recent podcast episode from R. Scott Clark that uses the term patriarchalism and explains many of the issues behind the debates very well. You can find that here: “Heidelcast 178″ Responding to Criticisms Regarding Ontology, Feminism, Nature and Grace.”

[4] Just a couple of the many articles of EFS:

Kevin DeYoung, “Distinguishing among the Three Persons of the Trinity in the Reformed Tradition,” Gospel Coalition (Sept. 27, 2016).

R. Scott Clark, “How the Athanasian Creed Can Help Contemporary Evangelical Theological Discourse,” Heidelblog (April 10, 2021).

[5] Mary Baker Eddy, as an example, started Christian Science. Female prophetesses were also a major influence in Monatism.

[6] I have a BA and an MA in biblical Hebrew and was ABD (“all but dissertation”) in a Ph.D. program.

[7] All Bible translations are my own unless otherwise noted.

[8] One exception is Ecclesiastes 7:28b: “One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found.” (ESV) I don’t know of other exceptions outside of Genesis 2-3 but I have not done a thorough search.

[9] I am currently reading a book on missions to the Native Americans which makes just this point: “‘I think we [women] are under far greater obligations to our Savior than are our brothers, when we see the contrast between the women in gospel lands and the heathen. It is the gospel that has lifted us to the level of our brothers and allows us to stand where we do tonight.’” [Mrs. S. M. Blackwood as quoted by Faith M. Martin and Charles R. McBurney, The White Chief of Cache Creek (Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant, 2020) p. 138]

[10] See Douglas Moo, “What Does It Mean Not To Teach or Have Authority Over Men?” from Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, chapter 9; published online at (While I like this chapter, or at least parts of it, this is not my endorsement of the whole book). Moo also acknowledges the pronoun issues Barr raises in regards to I Timothy 3:1-7.

[11] “This doctrine [the priesthood of all believers] underscores that Jesus Christ is the sole Mediator between God and humanity; the Spirit’s anointing gives every believer personal access to God in Christ.” [Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), p. 135]

Is It CM?: Master List

In an effort to make this site more user friendly, I am combing all my “Let’s Play ‘Is it CM?”” posts into one. These are my quick takes on Charlotte Mason-ish curricula. This list does not include the most strictly CM curricula (links to my charts on those can be found here). It is for those which are CM-inspired, CM-adaptable, or frankly not CM but claim to be. For convenience sake, this list is alphabetical. If you know of other curricula I should add, please comment below or contact me. You can find a chart with basic info on all the CM and CM-ish curricula I have reviewed here. [In the chart I actually give these curricula (very subjective) grades for their CM-ness.] For even quicker overviews of what’s available in LDS, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim curricula, see this post.


A few caveats before we begin: This is going to come off as inherently negative because a lot of what I need to say is how each curriculum falls short of the CM ideal. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad curriculum or that you can’t use it and still be CM.  At a homeschool conference I once attended, the keynote speaker said “I never give curricuum recommendations. I could tell you what my family uses but I would also have to tell you how we use it.” Which is to say, it’s not just what you use but how you use it. There may be good reasons to choose any of the resources below. You may use a little from here and a little from there. You may buy a curriculum but adapt it and use it in your own way.  I am supplying this information because I think it is useful to know where a given resource lines up with CM’s thought and where it doesn’t. I also think it is fine to deliberately choose to diverge from CM’s thought and methods. Personally, I may have used parts of some CM curricula but I have mostly put together my own thing so I don’t have a clear favorite here.

Finally, a note on methodology: My goal here is not to analyze the philosophy behind each resource but simply to look at its methods (though the two are always going to be related). The sorts of things I am looking for are pretty basic: Does it use living books? Does it use narration and if so, is it CM-style narration? Does it make use of non-CM methods like worksheets and unit studies? How does it approach language arts? Does it use copywork and dictation or other methods like spelling tests?


So what makes a curriculum CM? How do you get a good grade on this test? Here are some of the things I look for:

  • Does it use living books?
  • Does it use books that might be classified as living but are from one particular publisher and/or are anthologies of readings? Trying to devise an all-in-one sort of curriculum for parents seems to come with a trade-off in the quality of the living books. Because it is presumably hard for parents or curriculum developers to gather a large number of living books, there is a temptation to create readers which either aggregate selections from materials already existing or to use other publisher’s pre-existing curricula.  The result is something that is a little less living. These books may be relatively engaging and be written in a narrative style but they have some drawbacks. Selections are taken out of their literary context. Books and series that are used as a “spine,” possibly even over multiple years, give one point of view and one literary voice to the exclusion of others. Note particularly the quality of science books. They tend to be of even poorer quality than history books.
  • Does it use enough living books? Though Sonlight (which does tend to use good books) may require too may books in a year thus rushing the reading, many of the these other curricula require too few. They don’t give a good variety and breadth of reading.
  • Does it include Nature study?
  • Does it include the arts?
  • Does it use worksheets? It is really, really hard to get away from the worksheet mindset (see this post on worksheets, their history and why they are bad). The core thought may be “CM isn’t enough” or it may be “just in case, let’s add …” but either way one ends up with a lot of fiddly extra work which serves to detract from what a CM education should be. There is probably a tipping point here– one worksheet a week will likely not derail a CM education but twenty might undercut what one is trying to do.
  • On a related note, how does it do language arts? This is one subject where, if a curriculum is going to diverge from CM’s methods at all, it is likely to. Again, worksheets are not CM. Copywork and prepared dictation are. CM would not have taught formal grammar until around age 12.
  • Does it use narration and if so, what does it actually mean by narration? Often a curriculum claims to use narration but misunderstands or misuses the term. “Narration” may be replaced by notebooking and the like or it may become something that is guided or which looks for particular outcomes. True CM narration is the child’s work (Karen Glass’s Know and Tell is a wonderful resource on this.)
  • Does it use unit studies? Unit studies are quite popular. Unfortunately, they are not CM and Charlotte herself specifically argues against them in her rejection of Herbartianism (Herbart’s philosophy was something more comprehensive than unit studies but amounted to largely the same thing). The central problem with unit studies is that they aggregate material for students and end up spoon-feeding them. They do not allow the student to form his own relationship with the material or to see the connections between the subjects for himself. Reading literature or looking at art from the same time period you are studying for history is not necessarily unit studies and is not un-CM but there tends to be a slippery slope and many curricula call themselves CM but proudly tout their unit studies.

So, without further ado, let’s play: Is it CM?

Is it CM?

Beautiful Feet Books

Beautiful Feet has also been around a while and offers study guides correlated with living books. This is not a complete curriculum.

What’s CM about it?

Subjects like geography and science are taught through living books and the book choices are good.

What isn’t CM?

I think some of the methods used are not CM (i.e. things like short answers instead of narrations) but it is hard to tell online.

Quick Take Summary:

Though it is not a complete curriculum, BF uses good living books and its packets could certainly be a good supplement to a CM curriculum.

Blossom and Root

 Currently just PreK-2. Secular. Nature-based. “Living books inspired language arts.” Hands-on and play-based.

What’s CM about it?

Includes nature study and copywork. Narration is given as one option of how to implement the curriculum. Many of the recommended books seem to be good living ones. Includes picture study.

What isn’t CM?

Many of the activities are not CM and are more worksheet-like.

Quick Take Summary:

Overall this is not a CM curriculum but it offers a lot of options and could be adapted fairly easily.

Book Shark

Secular. Literature-based curriculum with a hands-on element. Based on a 4-day school week. Children within three years of each other can be combined.

What’s CM about it?

Most of the books are good, living ones. For language arts, there is an emphasis on reading good writing and some copywork and dictation (though also other less CM practices).

What isn’t CM?

Uses reading comprehension questions and worksheets instead of narration. Optional hands-on elements like lapbooks. Especially for science some of the books are less living. No fine arts as far as I can see.

Quick Take Summary:

Many decent books. One could do narration in place of the reading comprehension questions and many of the hands-on activities are optional.

Build Your Library

Build Your Library (BYL) is a secular curriculum that I’ve seen recommend more and more in the past year or so. According to the website it it “literaure based” and “Charlotte Mason inspired.”

What’s CM about it?

BYL uses real literature and narration. They have narration cards to mix it up a bit but seem to stick pretty well to narration as CM would have liked it. They also include a Book of Centuries. It is history-based and incorporates art study and copywork.

What isn’t CM?

They offer unit studies though these seem to be shorter supplements to the main curriculum. There are a lot of great books here but some I am less enamored with or don’t know the living-ness of. I have never been a huge fan of Joy Hakim’s books which are used for history (though others love them so that may just be me). Science tends to use more comprehensive spines from other publishers (in addition to living books). I am not familiar with all of these so I can’t evaluate them.

Quick Take Summary:

Though the creator makes clear that BYL is only CM-inspired and has some ecclectic elements, this is actually among the more CM curricula I am looking at.  There is little here that you would need to tweak. Lesson plans are laid out for you so if that it what you are looking for in a curriculum or if what you want is something secular, this could be a good choice for you.

Easy Peasy

The appeal of Easy Peasy seems to be that it is a) free online and b) all laid out for you. I don’t believe it claims to be CM but it is often cited as being CM-adapatable.

What’s CM about it?

Easy Peasy says it takes a lot of its books from Ambleside Online, an old standby in the CM world (as well as from the Robinson curriculum; I never reviewed this approach but have some bullet points on it here). It also keeps lessons short and allows for free time in the day. After doing readings, children are asked to repsond in some way. Occasionally this takes the form of “tell someone about what you read” which is essentially narration though it is not done always or even often.

What isn’t CM?

Language arts is pretty much worksheet-based and science seems to include a lot as well. It also makes use of online components which seems to be a grey area. Of course CM could not possibly have addressed this issue but my inclination is that she would have limited such things.

Quick Take Summary:

Easy Peasy makes no claims to be CM. There are some good books in use here and some exercises are narration-like but there is little that is truly CM about this curriculum.

Five in a Row

Five in a Row (FIAR) and its early education version, Before Five in a Row (BFIAR), maintain some popularity, especially among those who are looking for more structure for themselves (not necessarily for their children) in the early years. Charlotte Mason doesn’t advocate formal learning before age 7 or so, but often this is just not enough. It may be your mother-in-law is nagging you or that our state requires something more but for whatever reason, BFIAR is a place people turn for a gentle, CM-friendly resource for the early years. FIAR is not a full curriculum but suggests you supplement with math and phonics and later spelling and grammar.

What’s CM about it?

FIAR and BFIAR use good, living books

What isn’t CM?

The gimmick behind FIAR is that one reads the same story five days in a row (hence its name) each time doing various activities which highlight different elements from the story.  For example when you read The Story of Ping you learn about ducks and about China. This violates CM’s principle of one good reading and building the habit of attention. It is also essentially a unit studies approach which she also rejects.

Quick Take Summary:

The books used are good, but the approach is really not CM.

Gather Round

Christian. Family-oriented. All children work on same unit at same time at different levels. Math is not included. 

What’s CM about it?

Lessons are kept short.

What isn’t CM?

Unit studies, which are inherently not CM, are the major part of this curriculum. It is not clear to me that it uses living books and it looks to be worksheet-oriented.

Quick Take Summary:

Many families seem to like the family-oriented approach but as unit studies curriculum this is inherently not CM.

The Good and the Beautiful

The Good and the Beautiful (TGTB) tends to cause a lot of controversy because it is a Mormon-owned curriculum. Whether that is a good thing or not is beyond the scope of this post. I will say that though I believe Charlotte Mason herself was a solid Christian (though I have some theological differences with her; see for instance, this post), her philosophy of education is theist in that it assumes a God but does not assume a lot of specifics about Him. I think it is quite possible to use her practices to good effect whether you are Protestant or Catholic or Muslim or Mormon or a-religious.

What’s CM about it?

TGTB emphasizes literature, nature, and beauty as well as short lessons.  It doesn’t push curriculum in early grades. Its read-aloud books are often good, living book choices.

What isn’t CM?

TGTB combines subjects like language arts and art. I find that this is always a bit of a fine line. There is a point at which simply selecting things from the same time period devolves into unit studies. Though CM does not speak about unit studies by name, she rejects Herbartianism, a philosophy of her day which was very similar. The main problen with such things is that they make connections for kids, often artificial connections.  Though TGTB uses dictation-like exercises for spelling, overall the langauge arts approach does not rely on copywork, narration, and dictation but on worksheets and little exercises. Most reading seems to be in the form of readers which take selections out of their living book context. It also uses a unit study approach to science and doesn’t seem to include time for nature study.

Quick Take Summary:

TGTB claims to use many philosophies but to “pull mainly” from CM. Some of the read alouds it uses are good, living books but beyond that I see little that I would call CM.

Heart of Dakota

Heart of Dakota (HoD) has been around a while. It’s main claim is to be Christ-centered and to address the child’s heart. It is popular in reformed Christian circles. Under philosophy, the creators do say that they are heavily influenced by CM but they stop short of claiming to be a CM curriculum.

What’s CM about it?

HoD emphasizes the habit of attention and short lessons. It also makes use of copywork, dictation, and narration and uses living books.

What isn’t CM?

Though HoD uses copywork, it also adds spelling lists and grammar instruction. Especially in the early years, science is coordinated with history in a way that smacks of unit studies. It includes hands-on activities in the early years. Though narration is used so are notebooking and questions. There is no mention of nature study.

Quick Take Summary:

HoD has a solid basis in living books with narration. I find that there is a bit much added for my taste including lots of fiddly projects, overly much guidance for narrations, and spelling and grammar lessons. There is some tendency toward unit studies, and though it does seem to use some good books, I am not sure it uses enough good, living books. I also have some concerns about the emphasis on appealing to the heart. There seems to be an overemphasis on limiting exposure to “bad” things and on discussing and drawing moral conclusions for and with kids though I am not sure how this plays out on a day-to-day basis.

A Humble Place

Offers resources and a CM-inspired kindergarten curriculum.

What’s CM about it?

Includes copywork, art, music and nature study. Lessons are short 20 minutes per day, 4 days a week plus morning times. Many of the books are good and it uses MEP math.

What isn’t CM?

CM herself did not advocate formal education at this age (which the site acknowledges). A few of the books, particularly in geography, I am less enamored of.

Quick Take Summary:

Though a kindergarten curriculum is in itself not CM, this seems to be a very good option if you need one (possibly to satisfy legal requirements).

Invictus Classical Press

Invictus covers K-5 (though as I write this only one year, Ancients, is available). It claims to blend CM and classical but taking the classical emphasis on memorization in the grammar stage and contextualizing the information in a more CM way. It is Christian and the biblical viewpoint seems fairly integrated into the curriculum.

What’s CM about it?

Invictus includes picture and music study and gives read aloud selections which seem good. It encourages narration of these books. As far as I can tell there doesn’t seem to be any specific guidance in terms of how to include the readings or how to do narration. It also includes nature study.

What isn’t CM?

While some memorization fits with CM’s ideas, Invictus seems to include a lot more that goes beyond just CM. A lot of the memorization seems to be done through songs (eg. history, math songs) which is classical and not CM. The nature study lessons seem overly scripted.

Quick Take Summary:

Invictus seems to be what it claims to be — a good dose of classical with a bit of a CM flair. It’s book choices are good and it could certainly be used in a more CM way. It seems fairly flexible.


Like Easy Peasy, MasterBooks seems to be used by those new to CM or hovering on its edges. It is another easy, relatively cheap resource. It is a distinctly Christian site but uses resources from different authors or sources (i.e. math from one supplier and history from another) so its CM-ness varies. Many of its components claim a “CM flavor.”

What’s CM about it?

MasterBooks uses Math Lessons for a Living Education at the elementary level. It also uses morning baskets which, while not purely CM, are popular in CM circles. It’s history component claims to be CM and the book it uses does seem to be written in an engaging, living style and asks for periodic narrations.

What isn’t CM?

Though the history has some CM elements, it also includes activity sheets and gives expectations for what kids will narrate which tends to undercut what narration should be (i.e. it should be about what they get out of it, not whether they get what we think is important). Though the history books are decent, they use their own books and don’t make use of  the many other wonderful living books out there. For science I found the text very busy, with lots of boxes with different blurbs of material. Again, worksheets are used for review. Language arts uses various resources. For example, at the junior high level it uses Writing Strands which, though I have heard it mentioned in CM circles, does not seem particularly CM. At the elementary level, Language Lessons for Living Education is used (among other resources). This again is touted as a CM resource and it does urge oral narrations but also uses worksheets and the like.

Quick Take Summary:

MasterBooks uses resources from many different educators/writers. Many of its components claim a “CM flavor” and I would say that is about what they have, a vague flavor. More than the other resources we have looked at above, there is an empahsis on narration but there are also a lot of worksheets and not a lot of living books.

A Mind in the Light

A Mind in the Light is a CM-inspired curriculum with elements from classical.

What’s CM about it?

A Mind in the Light uses living books, narration, art and music studies, and nature study as well as copywork and dictation.

What isn’t CM?

Grammar is added though how it is done is not clear to me.

Quick Take Summary:

The website seems to be under construction as I write this and I can’t see many particulars as to how subjects are done. From what I can see this is a quite CM curriculum. Its book choices seem very good.

My Father’s World

Like FIAR, My Father’s World (MFW) is also popular with those seeking some structure in the early years though it also includes higher grades. It claims to combine “the best of Charlotte Mason’s ideas, classical education, and unit studies.”

What’s CM about it?

From the CM world, MFW takes living books and nature walks. It rejects twaddle and worksheets and favors narration. Many of the books it uses do indeed seem to be good, quality living books. Its language arts curriculum has some good elements including picture study and poetry and some narration.

What isn’t CM?

As MFW acknowledges, aspects of CM are combined with unit studies and classical. The part of classical present here seems to be the division into three periods of learning as the child ages (though I am not sure how this plays out in what they do). The writing curriculum seems very twaddly and scripted.

Quick Take Summary:

A number of the books used, especially history books, are good ones. The worksheets seem to be fairly benign as such things go, less twaddly than most. I am not clear from looking at the samples how much narration is done. One is meant to add on language arts and math so though they are recommended they are not part of the core curriculum.

Queens Homeschool

Queens has been around selling resources for a long time. They claim many of their resources are CM. They now offer “Charlotte Mason in a Box Kits” which combine these resources into one package by grade level.

What’s CM about it?

Includes picture study and dictation. Books are in a narrative style.

What isn’t CM?

The methods do not seem to be particularly CM, eg. grammar exercises and vocab lessons. They use their own books which are written in a narrative way but this is not the same as using real, living books IMO. Seems to use more of a question and answer format with no mention of narration.

Quick Take Summary:

The materials are not awful but they are not real living books and there is no mention of narration that I can see. I am judging this one not very CM.


Sonlight is a long-term resident in the homeschooling world. I don’t see as many people these days asking if it is CM but I do see a fair number who say, “I have been using Sonlight but now want to move to a more CM approach. Can I adapt what I already have?” The short answer to this is yes, you can adapt it. The question is what needs adapting so let’s look at what in Sonlight fits the CM approach well and what might need changed.

What’s CM about it?

Sonlight starts with history as the core of the curriculum and rejects textbooks in favor of living books. It also rejects worksheets (though uses “activity pages”) and uses some copywork and dictation.

What isn’t CM?

Sonlight encourages parent-teachers to make connections for students. Though it uses many good, living books, it uses a lot of them in one year whereas CM favored a slow approach that allows children to better digest what they read. It uses reading comprehension questions instead of narration.  Though it says it doesn’t use worksheets, it does use “activity sheets” for language arts and science. I like the idea that one learns to write well from good writing, but in practice it seems quite worksheet-heavy.  Sonlight’s science is fairly traditional, involving books on various science-y subjects and hands-on activities.  It does not seem to include nature study. Its Timeline is similar to but not the same as CM’s Book of Centuries. Sonlight uses notebooking (I believe) which, while perhaps CM-adaptable, is not an inherently CM concept.

Quick Take Summary:

I wouldn’t buy Sonlight if you are looking for a CM curriculum (and it doesn’t claim to be one). It can be a good resource if you are looking for books on a particular time period. Many of its history books are good, living ones (I am less impressed by the science choices). If you already own Sonlight and are looking to get more CM, you can certainly use what you have. My suggestion would be to begin by reading the books (though perhaps more slowly) while introducing narration which will help your children digest what they read for themselves and will also begin to build language arts and writing skills.


Secular. Literature-based and family-oriented. Claims to be eclectic and to make use of games, hands-on activities and car-schooling. Currently K-3.

What’s CM about it?

Torchlight does not claim to be CM but is literature-based so it may be used by those who think it is in the CM spectrum. Includes literature, art and poetry.

What isn’t CM?

The books for science and history do not look particularly living to me. The methods are not CM (and don’t claim to be).

Quick Take Summary:

I’m including their curriculum here because many people come to the CM world using things like this and think that they are CM. Some of the books and resources in Torchlight are good (but not all) and the methods are not CM.

Train Up a Child

Train Up a Child claims to be CM-inspired and to use living books.

What’s CM about it?

Train Up a Child uses living books and narration. Its book choices seem good and it also incorporates nature study.

What isn’t CM?

Spelling and grammar instruction are added in though I am unable to see what these look like to know if they use worksheets or how they are done. Copywork is used but it seems to be copying of sentences about what one is learning not sentences taken from good literature.

Quick Take Summary:

Train Up a Child goes through all of history every year. I am not sure if this is technically un-CM but it seems rushed to me and to not fit the spirit of CM. I like the books they use and the narration. I wouldn’t call it CM but I think it would be one of the more easily adaptable curricula. There seem to be two options, the unit programs or the daily lesson plans. The latter seems to lay things out more and the former to be more flexible. The unit programs would be easier to adapt.

Under the Home

K-4 only. Secular. Claims to be CM-inspired and child-friendly. Free. Uses digital resources so there are no books to purchase. Uses many older books (think McGuffey’s readers)

What’s CM about it?

Includes fine arts and geography. Plans to include Shakespeare as they add more grade levels. Uses copywork and dictation. Nature lore and nature study for science.

What isn’t CM?

Uses notebooking and review questions (both of which are not CM).  It’s not clear to me if they use or encourage narration.

Quick Take Summary:

The materials seem good. The methods seem a little less CM but if narration is used in place of notebooking and review questions it could easily be adapted.

Wayfarers (from Barefoot Meandering)

Their self-description is “Homeschool curricula with a classical education, Charlotte Mason, twaddle-free flair.” Like Build Your Library, this is a secular (non-religious, but not areligious) curriculum. It touts living books, copywork, and narrations and rejects textbooks and busywork. .

What’s CM about it?

Wayfarers emphasizes literature as the most important element. In older years it uses a commonplace book. It also uses daily oral and written narration. I particularly like that they stick with living books and not textbooks for high school science. The arts are included.

What isn’t CM?

Wayfarers uses notebooking pages which as I have said before are not strictly CM. It also adds language arts curricula and the creator makes clear that she views it as ideal to teach grammar concepts in the earlier years when children memorize easily (a classical concept). Hands-on activities are optional extras. From the classical tradition, Wayfarers takes the division into logic, dialectic, and rhetoric stages and a 4-year history cycle. It also uses the progymnasmata approach to writing.

Quick Take Summary:

There is a lot here that is CM and I like that the added bits are largely included as optional extras. Its book choices seem solid and it relies heavily on narration (though it is unclear to me if every book is narrated). I also like that the creator is clear on her theory and seems to know which bits she gets from CM and which from classical.

Winter Promise

Winter Promise claims to be CM-inspired but also includes “classical principles,” “themed resources” (read: unit studies), and real-life experiences.

What’s CM about it?

Winter Promise uses “good books” and emphasizes nature study. History and science books are touted as the backbone of the curriculum.

What isn’t CM?

Winter Promise uses a unit studies approach. It also uses worksheets. Though narration is mentioned, notebooking is the main way to process information in Winter Promise and is cited as a narration method. It deliberately adds “the experience approach” to CM which practically speaking means a lot of added hands-on activities.

Quick Take Summary:

Again, as I have said for many of these curricula, there may be good books used but not a lot of them. Winter Promise uses Mystery of History (among other resources) which may be fine (I have never looked at it extensively) but I would rather see a curriculum that uses a wider variety of living books. Though it touts narration, I didn’t see anything that explains what CM style narration is. Notebooking seems to substitute for narration almost entirely.

Montessori’s Ideas, part 2

Last time we looked at some of the big ideas behind Maria Montessori’s philosophy of education. Today I’d like to just quickly go over some of the more mundane ideas which have to do more with how she educates than her overall metaphysics. As we shall see, the two are not distinct but Montessori’s metaphysics informs the more practical aspects of her approach to education.

As we saw last time, Montessori values order, elevating it to the level of a moral virtue. Adults who prefer disorder do so through ” wicked impulse” (p. 148). Discipline is largely aimed at correcting disorder (p. 53). The child’s work as well as his behavior is to be orderly. He cannot, for instance, advance to the next stage until his coloring is orderly: “Only those children who know how to keep the colour within the outline and to reproduce the right colours may proceed to the more ambitious work.” (p. 103)

Along with order come calm and quiet. Lessons are given in silence and being the most quiet (p. 92). Musical education teaches to child to prefer harmonious sounds and to abhor discordant ones which are associated with a lowering of humanity: “In this way one whose ear has been trained by a musical education suffers from strident or discordant notes . . .The new generation would be more calm, turning away from the confusion and the discordant sounds, which strike the ear to-day in one of the vile tenements where the poor live, crowded together, left by us to abandon themselves to the lower, more brutal human instincts.” (p. 90) At every stage the goal is that the child proceed calmly to the next and to create a calm and ordered environment” (p. 120).

In this calm, quite, orderly environment, it is a strain to the child to be in disorder: “When a child acts only in a disorderly, disconnected manner, his nervous force is under great strain; while in the other hand his nervous energy is positively increased and multiplied by intelligent actions which give him real satisfaction.” (p. 149) This points to another overarching value: rest or lack of effort. A premium is placed on the child not having to strain or overly exert himself: “[The child] is a traveller [sic] through life, who observes the new things among which he journeys, and who tries to understand the unknown tongue spoken by those around him. Indeed, he makes a great and voluntary effort to understand and to imitate. The instruction given to little children should be so directed as to lessen this expenditure of poorly directed effort . . . ” (p. 101) With regard to her writing curriculum, which she viewed as her unique contribution to the field of education Montessori said that the aim was to “to relieve future generations of all effort in the matter of learning to write” (p. 107). “The majority of our children become calm as they go through such exercises, because their nervous system is at rest.” (p. 151)

This emphasis on lack of effort and repose arise from Montessori’s view of how education happens. As we saw in the previous post, there is an internal driving force behind education, a kind of personal evolution. To be at rest is to be in harmony with this force. If one is having to exert an effort, it is likely because one is not allowing this force to operate as it should. Effort then equals a lack of order and a resistance to the life-force which drives one. “To act in obedience to the hidden precepts of nature — that is rest; and in this special case, since man is meant to be an intelligent creature, the more intelligent his acts are the more he finds repose in them.” (p. 149) Nothing must be done to interfere with the child’s natural state. The teacher must not “make the child feel that he has made a mistake, or that he is not understood, because in doing so she will cause him to make an effort to understand, and will this alter the natural state . . .” (p. 49)

Because the goal is to have rest by working with the motivating life-force, no external rewards or punishments are to be used to motivate children. Children are motivated by the desire to learn and do not need, even choose to forego rewards. They have their own “peculiar spiritual pleasures” which motivate them (p. 92). Not only is no coercion used, but Montessori says: “We not only do not force a child, but we do not even invite him, or in any way attempt to coax him to do that which he does not wish to do.” (p. 123)

On a related note, we discussed last time also the principles of freedom and independence. For Montessori the child needs to have freedom to act in his environment as he will. Freedom is also a goal of human society as a whole, an ideal it is moving towards. Freedom and independence are linked. To be dependent on anyone else is, for Montessori servitude. “In reality, he who is served is limited in his independence . . . ‘I do not wish to be served, because I am not an impotent.’ And this idea must be gained before men can feel themselves to be really free.” (p. 44) Thus the child is given freedom within the bounds of the classroom and its rules: “The fundamental principle of scientific pedagogy must be, indeed, the liberty of the pupil, — such liberty as shall permit a development of individual, spontaneous manifestations of the child’s nature.” (p. 20). And he is encouraged to move towards independence.

Because of these principles — the desire for the natural forces to do their work and the goals of freedom and independence — for Montessori all education is self-education. “The teacher has thus become a director of the spontaneous work of the children.” (p. 154) She aids in the student’s development but is not the cause of it. Education is through “spontaneous psychic activity” of the child and not through the teacher’s efforts (p. 98). “It is necessary that the pupil perfect himself through his own efforts . . . It might be said that the same thing is true of every form of education; a man is not what he is because of the teachers he has had, but because of what he has done.” (p. 71) This at least is the ideal for normally developing children. When presented with the right environment, they develop according to their inherent nature. Montessori’s methods “provoke auto-education” (p. 70) for them. With “deficients” the same methods make education possible though there may need to be more coaxing and encouraging the child to stay focused. [Remember that Montessori first worked with children with various intellectual challenges.]

Again as we have seen previously, the physical precedes the intellectual in a Montessori education. There is a progression, in the words of Seguin: “‘from the education of the senses to general notions, from general notions to abstract thought, from abstract thought to morality'” (p. 24). So for Montessori the first stage of education is the training of the senses which precedes “superior intellectual activity” and “will prepare the ordered foundation upon which he may build up a clear and strong mentality” (p. 93). The child is led from “sensations to ideas — from the concrete to the abstract, and to the association of ideas” (p. 97).

So there are developmental stages in Montessori education. This is the reason that Montessori teaches writing before reading — because writing is “psycho-motor” (p. 122) but reading “makes part of an abstract intellectual culture, which is the interpretation of ideas from graphic symbols, and is only acquired later on” (p. 110; cf. p. 122). [The interesting result is (as she admits) that her students can write well before they can read and actually make sense of texts (p. 124).] Montessori argues that the child develops ideas only little by little in parallel with his language skills. This is “the wisdom of Nature” for if it had allowed the child to develop ideas before he could speak “[t]he result would have been a species of sudden madness, under the influence of which the child, feeling no restraints, would have burst into an exhausting torrent of the most strange and difficult words” (p. 120). Again, we see that one must wait for the child to be ready for the next stage. He cannot be pushed ahead, and if he is, the result is madness.

Though there is movement from the physical to the intellectual, environment is always important. Education initially adapts the environment to the child but ultimately, as he gets older, prepares him for his environment (p. 93). Education is to be practical. The “chief end of education” is to “put man in direct communication with the external world,” not to isolate him in a world of his own thoughts (p. 96).

Nature plays a key role in Montessori education, a concept known in modern “forest schools.” “[I]t is also necessary for his physical life to place the soul of the child in contact with creation, in order that he may lay up for himself treasure from the directly educating forces of living nature” (p. 66). From nature the child learns to observe and to be patient and to care for nature and its creatures (pp. 66-67). He develops a “feeling of trust and confidence in living creatures, which is, moreover, a form of love, and of union with the universe” (p. 67). But, as we saw last time, nature is not the child’s permanent habitat. It is for the early years when the child is less civilized. The child too must move on to a more artificial yet civilized state (p. 68).

In terms of how the teacher actually teaches, Montessori identifies the characteristics of lessons as: brevity, simplicity, objectivity (p. 48). The latter quality means that the personality of the teacher should not be on display. The teacher calls the child’s attention to the object, not to herself. Brevity and simplicity have to do with not using extraneous words and with presenting one concept at a time. For instance, if Montessori manipulatives are meant to teach about shape, they will not also vary in color lest this variation confuse the child as to what concept is being taught. Activities for sense training and muscular development thus isolate individual attributes (p. 151). She assumes that children will be confused by being bombarded with multiple pieces of information. She provides discrete pieces of information so he does not need to expend “undue effort . . . Opportune and rational instruction prevents such an effort, and therefore does not weary, but relieves, the child and satisfies his desire for knowledge.” (p. 101)

Montessori’s methods try to avoid error through self-correcting exercises and manipulatives. Perfection is the goal: “There is educational value in this idea of preparing oneself before trying, and of perfecting oneself before going on. To go forward correcting his own mistakes, boldly attempting things which he does imperfectly, and of which he is as yet unworthy dulls the sensitiveness of the child’s spirit toward his own errors.” (p. 120).

Repetition is also a key element in Montessori education. “To have learned something is for the child only a point of departure. When he has learned the meaning of an exercise, then he begins to enjoy repeating it, and he does it an infinite number of times, with most evident satisfaction. He enjoys executing that act because by means of it he is developing his psychic activities.” (p. 149) Just a pianist learns his craft primarily on his own through repetition and practice of his skills (p. 72) so the child must learn by a kind of muscle memory which develops with repetition. “The exercise which develops life, consists in the repetition, not in the mere grasp of the idea. When a child has attained this stage, of repeating an exercise, he is on the way to self-development, and the external sign of this condition is his self-discipline.” (p. 150)

Some Reflections

All these practical aspects of Montessori’s approach to education flow from and further her overall conception of the child and indeed of life itself. Because there is a natural driving “life force” inherent in the child, the teacher’s job is to prepare the environment but she neither pushes nor punishes. The child must be free to develop as the inner force dictates. Effort is not expected or wanted since it implies some struggle against what should occur naturally. Order, calm, and quiet are highly valued.

My own observation would be that while the driving force in Montessori’s philosophy is one inherent in the child, yet there is a lack of trust in this force. Much of a Montessori education is geared toward helping the child learn basic human skills. For instance, the teachers through gymnastic exercises “encourage in the children those movements which are useful in the achievement of the most ordinary acts of life” (p. 58). Montessori says at one point that no one previously had attempted the kind of methodical training of the senses which she proposes (p. 93) which makes one wonder how she thinks previous generations learned anything. Yet this is explained if we consider her overall philosophy which assumes a continuing evolution of the human species. In her view, it is likely previous generations did not possess the skills which she seeks to inculcate.

Though Montessori places intellectual development second, after physical development and particularly sense training, yet many of her anecdotes show that young children do actually make quite complex intellectual decisions. For instance, she tells the story of a little boy playing with letter shapes. Older children around him say the sounds of the letters as he lifts them and he is able to discern that they make one particular sound for the letter F and to associate the sound with the letter for himself. Montessori elsewhere speaks of the need to isolate pieces of knowledge for children so that they are not overwhelmed and do not have to exert effort but here we see that all on his own the child was able to isolate the piece of knowledge he needed from “out of the great confusion of sounds which he had heard” (p. 114). Again, she tells also the story of a child playing with various size cylinders which are supposed to be stacked in a tower from largest to smallest. If any one is in the wrong order, the tower will not work out. The child goes through a very complex process of trial and error to figure out which cylinder is needed in which order (p. 71).

Wrapping it Up

You may be able to tell from all this that I am not a huge fan of Montessori’s philosophy. I do think there are things we can glean from it and use. While I don’t think her approach of isolating specific bits of information and teaching them without distractions is necessary for most children in most situations, I do think it can be helpful to revert to her techniques when a child is struggling with some area. I also like that she has an overarching narrative that frames everything she teaches (see the bit of the Five Great Lessons in this post) though I would certainly tell a different narrative. I also agree that rewards and punishments aren’t the way to motivate learning and I would agree that all education is ultimately self-education. (Well, actually it is God-education, but the point is it is not the teacher putting information into the student’s brain.)