A Charlotte Mason Education in High School: How We Do It

Dear Reader,

I get a lot of questions along the lines of “how do you do . . . in high school?” High school is the time when panic seems to set in for a lot of homeschooling moms. My own take on homeschooling high school (as I discussed in this post) is that we shouldn’t abandon our principles but we need to also consider the “passports” our kids need to move on to the next stage of their lives. Our society expects certain things, like SATs, and we need to help our kids meet those expectations while still giving them the best education we can.

If anything, as I work my way through with my kids, I am more convinced than ever that a Charlotte Mason education is the way to go and that it is not only possible to give them this in high school, but that it is even more important to do so in their teen years than it ever was before. In the early years, the distinctions between the different philosophies are harder to discern. Everybody learns to read, everybody plays outside. It is in these later years that how we view education is going to make the biggest difference.

Before I tell you what I do, I’d just like to share  this excellent resource from Ambling along Together. It tells you what Charlotte Mason materials are out there as well as which other materials can mesh with a CM education. Personally, I cobble a lot of different things together, relying most heavily on Simply Charlotte Mason and the TruthQuest guides and occasionally turning to Ambleside Online.

So how do we do CM in high school? Let me start out with a disclaimer that my oldest just finished 10th grade. My second is right behind him, having just finished 9th. So at this point I’ve done 9th twice and 10th once. I realize that leaves me with a lot to go still before  declare any of this a success. Nonetheless, I will tell you what we have done and what the plan is for the next couple of years. I reserve the right to edit or trash this document if things change as we move forward.

A Charlotte Mason Education in High School

Math — I’ll start with math because it’s one of the simplest subjects to discuss. We have a living math curriculum we love: it’s Life of Fred. If you’ve been in homeschooling circles in recent years, you’ve probably heard of it. Some people love it, some don’t get it. It’s worked really well for my oldest and seems to be working for my two younger ones. My oldest is able to read the chapters, do the problems, check them on his own, and learn what he needs to learn. Unfortunately, this is not the case for my second child. She just can’t get the concepts from Fred’s more indirect approach. She needs something straightforward. We started with an actual textbook this year, though one that emphasizes art a lot more (this was for geometry so there is some natural connection). Honestly, it was a lot of busywork and wasn’t working well. We ended up finishing the year with Math-U-See and plan to try Teaching Textbooks next year. My take on math would be this: I love Life of Fred if it works for the child. Otherwise, just find something that does work for your child. I know there are other living math curricula for the earlier years. In high school, my goal is to get them what they need (which will vary from child to child; one is in calculus, one will probably not go beyond Algebra 2). Self-sufficiency in math (being able to learn the material on their own and check their own work) is an added bonus. We find this is easy with Life of Fred. As long as the child basically gets it, they are able to check their own work.

Language Arts — Language arts is a tough one to sum up because it is so pivotal and encompasses so much. Writing alone sends many homeschool parents into fits and could generate  a few blog posts without even mentioning spelling, grammar, and literary analysis.

Up until this point (through 10th grade) we have continued dictation. I may not continue with it in 11th and 12th; I haven’t decided on that yet. In recent years we have used SCM’s Spelling Wisdom. I am not 100% enamored of it but it is the best single source for dictation passages I have found (and I am much too lazy to find my own). We use these passages to study spelling and grammar, but I don’t approach it in any organized way. I select a passage, usually just the next one in the book; we go over it; I point out any words that I think they might have problems spelling. I also go over any punctuation, especially anything out of the ordinary. This often entails other grammar as well since I’ll say things like “Why do we have a comma here? It’s at the end of the subordinate clause.” Sometimes I’ll point out an interesting construction if the author has done something unusual or lovely with how they’ve structured the passage.  They are meant to review it on their own during the week and then we do dictation at the end of the week (or a couple of days later; sometimes we have done 2 passages a week).

We have done various grammar things through the years. I particularly like KISS grammar and would recommend doing it all in one or two years when your child is in 7th-9th grades. We did a lot of it earlier on because I, like you, was stressed about grammar. But in theory I do think it is fine to wait till middle or high school and to do grammar all at once That is really all the attention it should merit. We have used/are using Life of Fred Grammar for high school. This is a set of 4 slim volumes. LOF recommends that one do all 4 volumes every year for high school. We are using them for the first two years (9th and 10th) and then I think we will leave it at that. Beware that after using this grammar curriculum your teen will become really annoying and tell you that you are using the word “nauseous” inappropriately. (That sort of thing really nauseates me.)

We have not done a formal writing curriculum. I made some attempt at one a couple of years ago, but in the end have decided that, like grammar, this is just not that necessary a subject. Let me rephrase that: writing as a separate subject is not that necessary. By high school your child should be doing a fair amount of written narrations plus they are reading and doing dictation from good writing. I know it doesn’t seem like enough, but it really goes a lot further than you’d think to producing good writers (see samples of my kids’ narrations here and here). I don’t critique my kids’ narrations very much at all. I will occasionally point out egregious errors but that’s about it.

I do, however, require some writing of my children which brings us to the next subject: literature. I don’t think one needs a certain scheme for literature in a CM education but I have come up with one for my family. This is partly one of those passports that makes things look good on a transcript. We have a subject for literature so I can write impressive looking phrases like “American short stories, essays and poetry” which is in fact what we do in 9th grade. You can read about how we do that here and here . My son has been doing Great American Bestsellers in 10th grade (link here when I get it). Next year I plan to have both of them do movies as literature which I will devise based on the book Meaning at the Movies (my review here). Because it is easier to do the movies as a family, my daughter will wait to read the bestsellers until 11th grade. In 12th I plan to give my son some freedom in picking what literature he would like to read. It could be sci-fi or Russian literature or English romantic novels (unlikely) or something else. With each of these, I have my kids write something after each piece or unit. It might be answering some questions, writing a short essay, or writing a longer essay. In these cases I do have them revise a bit and edit for errors. With both I found that I had to provide some direction in what is expected in an essay for the first one or two. Honestly, this was pretty basic and straightforward. No curriculum needed. I just said something along the lines of “When we write an essay, it is customary to have an introductory and a concluding paragraph. Each paragraph also has this basic structure — some sort of intro and conclusion and the meat in the middle.”  I have come across a living book on writing which I really love (read about it here) and which I plan to make them read at some point the next year. I love its approach much more than some popular curricula which require certain numbers of adjectives per sentence and the like.

Before leaving language arts, I’d like to say a bit about literary analysis. I’m not sure that analyzing literature is very CM and I don’t like to go overboard with it, but I do like to include a little. We live in a world in which everyone is always trying to convince one of something. I’d like my kids to be able to see what other people are trying to do, both in advertising and in books and movies. Everyone has a worldview and many have an agenda and I want them to be on the lookout for such things. As a family we have done literary analysis of some relatively simple books like Charlotte’s Web and Babe. More recently we have done Animal Farm and Lost Horizon. All these studies I have based on the book Deconstructing Penguins (my review here).  We learn terms like protagonist, antagonist, and climax, but most importantly we try to see what the author thinks and is trying to say. When we study movies in the coming year, my goal is really the same: to see what the director (or whoever makes the movie) is trying to say and how he says it and to get behind that to what he himself believes.

Oh, and we study at least one Shakespeare play a year as a family and read one Dickens novel. The latter is done over lunch and is completely without comment or application. I’m not going to take time now to say how we do Shakespeare, but trust me it is pretty basic. IMO Shakespeare is not meant to be read through; it is meant to be seen and heard. We haven’t done a lot of poetry in high school though I do occasionally read them some. We did more in earlier years and they do some on their own when we do American poets in 9th grade.

Science and Nature — Science is definitely one area where we have to consider what colleges may want. Specifically, colleges like to see a few years of specific sciences (biology, chemistry, physics) with labs. Unless you are really sure your child will not want to go to college ever, I would try to adapt to what they expect here. You can, however, consider less widely covered sciences such as astronomy, anatomy, botany, or forensic science. Personally, I would want to include a couple of the traditional ones, especially for a child who has any interest in pursuing math or science. My approach is pretty traditional: biology in 9th, chemistry in 10th, physics in 11th. Twelfth grade I plan to let them choose. They could do an AP level course in a science they’ve already done or pick something more off the beaten path.

Before I get to specifics of how we do science in high school, I’d like to say a few words about all the years that come before. These years are for nature study and reading living books on science. I know there is a temptation to prepare for high school science with other science-y courses before hand. As mine move into high school, I have become convinced that a lot of what we do before high school is useless. That is, introducing concepts like the periodic table or learning parts of an atom are useless. They will get that stuff again. What is useful is cultivating a spirit of inquiry and observational powers. That is what nature study is for. You can have a focus for a time (we have done, for instance, a year of geology and weather), but I’d keep it focused on living books and hands-on observation.

In my oldest’s 9th grade year, we set out to study biology (see this post for a more in depth summary of our adventures). I cobbled together three things: a lab course (see below), living books (which I couldn’t bear to give up), and a DVD based course (for thoroughness and seeming more like a real science course). I came out of that year more committed than ever to keeping living books as the core of our science. So here is my basic plan for high school science which can be applied to any subject: find living books, try to have one that is a good overview so that you know you are not missing key areas, but keep it living; read and narrate those books; add a lab component. So far we have done biology and chemistry you can find those book lists here.

The lab component is tougher and will depend on where you live and what is available. There are classes in our area which use that very popular Christian science curriculum (which has never enticed me), but I have so far managed to steer clear of them. I thought I was not going to find labs for chemistry near us so I had my son do some labs on his own (actually with his 10 year old sister). You can read about that here. But it turns out we are going to have Landry labs near us so we are going to do that too. My son did the Landry biology 2-day lab intensive and loved it.  They do all the labs for a year of high school science in 2 days. They do send you home with lab reports to write up so beware there is more work after they leave. I have very science-y friends who are skeptical and say they would never use such a thing, but my son dissected more things in those 2 days than most high school kids do all year. I know in “real” schools labs are often no longer hands-on and one can do video labs at home too. This would be a last resort for me. Whatever the schools may be doing, I think the hands-on is important. I just don’t think you are going to learn things in the same way by only observing. For physics next year we did find a co-op that is doing a labs only class every two weeks.

What about nature study in high school? I’m ambivalent on this issue. On one hand, a major purpose of nature study is to lay the groundwork for later science so in high school that becomes moot. On the other, nature is God’s creation and we should keep paying attention to it. I have let this slide with my oldest. My daughter has more of a natural affinity for such things. She will draw and paint birds and flowers on her own and has a love for nature photography as well. We have found a wonderful teacher at a local Audubon sanctuary that encourages this as well so that has been a great fit for her. And in defense of my oldest, he does have the inquisitiveness and interest in science that one hopes to cultivate, he just expresses it differently at this age.

History (and Narration) — History is the core of our homeschool. In an era that values the STEM subjects above all others, we cling tenaciously to a subject which is by definition out-dated. I have 4 kids, and I like to keep them all on the same time period. Though we have reduced the amount of “together time” we include in our homeschool week, this is one of my favorite things and I am not willing to give it up all together. My approach to history is very simple: read and narrate, read and narrate, read and narrate. I pick a “spine” book that covers our time period. Three times a week I read it aloud to all my kids and have them take turns narrating it. This last year I started taking turns too. They get to correct me or say things I have forgotten when I narrate. They love that. I try to gear the spine book to the level of my oldest or close to it. Then they all read books at their own level. Because we have the spine to give an overview, they can specialize in their individual reading and focus on one event or person.

Just because of where we are in our studies, we have been going through American history. Next year, my oldest’s 11th grade year, we will do the 20th century. For 12th grade I may either have him try to do a flyover of ancient history (which we did years ago as well) or let him pick a period of history that interests him. My next one will get a slightly different course of history as she will be doing the 20th century in 10th grade. That means she has time to do ancient in 11th and medieval in 12th. Though I would also be okay with her picking what she wants to study in 12th. In general, in line with CM’s ideas, we are not interest-led but my idea is to allow more freedom in 12th grade as a kind of transition to being on their own in college.

When they read their history books, the scheme again is just read and narrate. Generally, I give a chunk of about 20 pages, depending on how hard the book is and how it naturally divides up, to my high schoolers to read per day. My intent is to give them about 30 minutes of work with reading and narrating though I could see moving that up to 45 minutes. History is definitely an every day subject. At least up until this point I have told them “give me a written narration x times per week and vary which subjects you write for” and let them decide what they are doing orally and what they are writing. My second child actually prefers written narrations and does them more often than not. They both do their written narrations on a device and email then to me. My oldest has also done oral narrations as a voice memo and sent them to me at times. This works well if I have to be out or busy with other things. When I am not home, I will also have them narrate to one another.

I don’t correct their written narrations though occasionally I may point out some error of grammar or spelling, especially if it is something that I think they really don’t know. Once in a while we will get a mistake along the lines of using “would of” for “would have/would’ve” which seems to be a case of them never having realized what the real phrase is. These things I correct because it is something they have learned wrong, but I don’t nitpick about other errors. For the most part they are decent writers, though we have focused on it very little (see “language arts”) so I am not inclined to put too much into it in the context of another subject.

We probably should do some sort of end of the term/end of the section review by having them answer open ended essay questions about what they have learned. My understanding is that this would be a very CM way to do testing, but I haven’t been good about actually doing it. I should clarify as well that the sorts of questions I have in mind would be along the lines of “tell me what you know about Reconstruction” or perhaps something slightly more specific which allows the child to tell what they know and to integrate information but does not require them to remember specifics that I deem important.

How do I decide which books? I rely heavily on the Truth Quest guides. I start with the guide in front of me and search for what my library has. I also look up favorite authors to see if they have anything on the topic. If I really like the sound of a book, I will order it used from Amazon if I can. If you are interested in what books we have used on a given period, check out my list of living book lists here.

Foreign Language – If you have any idea where you child wants to go to college or what they would like to study, I recommend you research what might be required of them in the realm of foreign language. If you want to keep your options open, I’d aim for at least three years of one foreign language.

Charlotte Mason would have recommended two languages starting in the early years (1st and 3rd grades, I believe). Latin and French were the big ones for her. I don’t think we need to be bound by this. I think this is one of those areas where the changes in the world can affect how we go about things. In late 19th and early 20th century England French was probably the most practical modern language. That is no longer the case (unless you live in certain parts of Canada perhaps). In terms of what one hears every day, Spanish is probably top of the list for most of us (though depending on where you live there might be other choices). On a global scale, Arabic or Chinese could be very practical. You might also consider what career your child is likely to pursue and what languages would benefit them there. Military? Consider Arabic. Business? Maybe Chinese. What about an academic subject like math? I’m not sure if things have changed, but in my day the most likely other language to find academic papers written in was German.

And then there are the dead languages. Is Latin still necessary? I think CM would say yes. Afficiandos of classical education would argue that there is a lot of benefit to studying it. Of course English itself is indebted to Latin for a lot of its words. And if one is going to learn another Romance language, Latin will come in handy. It is used in the sciences. And beyond that, Latin, with all its cases and endings, is good for the brain. Having said of all which, I have never made my kids learn it. I am not opposed to dead languages – I have a Master’s degree in biblical Hebrew — but I’ve never particularly thought it worth the time involved. My oldest chose to study Latin as his language for high school so we do have some experience with it. Before that, he did Koine Greek (he really would have liked to do classical Greek but I thought he was too young for any of the classical Greek curricula out there when he started).

The two things I value in a foreign language curriculum for high school are: minimal parental involvement and oral interaction. The only truly CM curriculum I know of for languages is Cherrydale Press’s Spanish and French but these are for younger ages. We have used various things for my daughter up to this point, including the infamous Rosetta Stone, and I have not been happy with any of them. I am very wary now of any online-only curriculum. I think it is tough, not to mention boring, to learn any language without human interaction. I am looking into both local and Skype classes for my daughter for next year.

For Latin, we chose the Cambridge Latin Course (CLC) for my son. We got the books used from Amazon and relied heavily on the website which is quite thorough and for a small cost allows you to do all the exercises online. But even with a dead language, he struggled without live feedback. Now he is doing the same curriculum with a tutor. Though he struggled on his own, I do like CLC; the stories are fun and one jumps right into them.

Social Studies – Social studies is a pretty broad term. The three things we do which fall under this category are economics, government, and geography. Geography is an on-going thing for us; economics and government need only happen once. I combine the two in 10th grade and call it one credit of social studies or civics (or a half credit of each). My husband is an economist and he picked Lessons for the Young Economist for us to use. I divided up the readings for a half year and just have them narrate each chunk. For government we use The Everything American Government Book which, though not a living book, is used by Ambleside Online. You can even find it all divided up nicely into readings for you on their website.

My son has now gone twice to iGovern East which is a camp run by Generation Joshua, the teen branch of HSLDA. He has loved it. He has also asked to study comparative government next year so I am preparing that. But these are optional and my daughter won’t do them.

In younger years we do map drills for geography, but I drop these for high school. I have floundered around a bit for geography. You can read what my intentions for this year were here. I really love the idea of combining geography and current events. It hasn’t worked out quite as well as I had hoped.  More recently, we have just been looking at maps and discussing them, not in a formal way, just whatever seems interesting about them. You can find some cool maps here, here and here. This is a once a week thing at best.

Technology – Technology is not a subject CM considered but it is one we might want to include today. For the most part, I think given exposure kids will get what they need. Letting them play around with computers (that doesn’t mean games!) is probably the best way to go about things. My son is of the math/science bent so my husband had been working with him on programming for a while. This year he took AP Computer Science through PA Homeschoolers. It was a good experience and I would recommend them. My daughter has little interest in such things so we have not required her to do any programming. She does have an online business so she has some proficiency with the internet in other ways.

My general advice about technology would be: consider including it. Think about how your child is likely to use it and how you can give them a taste of that. Look for open-ended approaches that allow the child to explore. I am wary of things along the lines of “learn xxx through playing Minecraft.” That idea seems very unit studies-ish and tricky to me. It’s not very CM to try to sneak the education in with other things.

Fine Arts – I have decided that for fine arts in high school I will let my kids not do what their younger siblings are doing. We have done composer and artist studies, and it was time for a change. My daughter wants to go to art school so for her the arts are still a big subject; for my son the goal is just to get a fine arts credit for the transcript. I know that CM would say we should continue with the arts in a more serious way, but, well, one has to choose where to spend one’s time and energy. And in our house it is hard for him to be completely ignorant of art anyway.

I know CM isn’t supposed to be interest-led but I decided to go with what my son is into for his fine arts – Country Music. I got him a big thick book on country music, had him read it, and then required a term paper on a subject of his choice. This is still in progress so I will get back to you on how we did that and how it turned out. I’ll probably call this a half credit in fine arts for transcript purposes.

For my daughter, I put together an art history course for her 9th grade year. You can read about that here (link coming soon). Next year the plan is to have her do AP Art History and then after that AP Studio Art. She also takes lessons with a drawing teacher. And pretty much makes things (crafts and art) constantly in her free time.

Handicrafts – Handicrafts are not something I deliberately incorporate at this point. My daughter has her own business making and selling things and is always eager to try a new craft when it comes within her purview. My son has never particularly been into handicrafts. I don’t push it at this point. He does occasionally do things of his own accord. For instance this year he has been making stop motion videos and had to construct his own tripod to make it work. My encouragement to you would be to look at what your child is already doing and to have a broad definition of handicrafts. There may be more that fits the category than you have considered.

If you would like some craft ideas for older kids, here are some we have tried: Ukrainian egg dying (see this website for materials), fabric painting (we got a kit here), rag rug braiding (try making trivets for a small project), paper curling, zentangleupcycled t-shirts, paper beads, DIY lip balm, jewelry from old credit cards, and then of course there are the old stand-byes like sewing, knitting and crocheting.

Side note: I love how this article talks about introducing kids to new crafts. My kids are beyond the ages considered in the article but I love the balance between “follow me and do exactly what I do” and “here’s some clay” with absolutely no instruction.

Physical Education – We haven’t done a lot with physical education in a formal way. When my kids have been interested in an activity, we have pursued it, and they have weekly homeschool park days where they get plenty of exercise. Charlotte Mason used Swedish Drill. You can read about that at the Afterthoughts Blog here. The best I can say is that to include some sort of exercise routine seems quite CM. She believed in being well-rounded and would not have neglected the body.

Home Ec – We have never done home ec as a subject.My kids have had chores for years. Recently we went to a new system where they switch monthly and they have a lot more to do. In fact, they do almost everything and I do way less than I was (though not as little as they think I do). I have had no regrets and no guilt on this. Their college roommate will thank me. My own kids haven’t yet.

Bible/Religion/Theology/Philosophy/Church History – We have done a lot of different things in this category (you can see it is very broadly defined). Some of it I have liked;  a lot of it is floundering again, trying to find something I like. For my younger ones, I assign Bible readings; the older two I expect to find and read something on their own though I’m willing to give direction if they ask. This year I also tried to incorporate books on religion or theology. I let them read these at their own paces. They didn’t get through much 😉 But they did both read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and What is the Christian Worldview?, which is really just a book of basic reformed theology (see my review here).  I think we will continue with this but I may give them some guidelines so they don’t neglect it and let it drag out. I also had them do church history and philosophy this year. I don’t think we will continue with the latter for my younger two. We used Philosophy Adventure and I was not enamored of it. For church history we used Sketches from Church History. Once I gave up having them do the accompanying workbook and had them just narrate what they read it wasn’t too bad. My plan is to have them both do Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then  Live next year. There is a video version as well which we will use; I haven’t decided if I will also have them read the book. My plan going forward for the other two would be to do church history in 9th, perhaps some other sort of philosophy or theology in 10th, and Schaeffer in 11th.

Am I forgetting anything? I am sure I am. What would you like to know more about?



6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Melanie on July 11, 2016 at 4:29 pm

    Hi Nebby.I enjoyed reading your post and all the linked posts as well. I would really like to hear more about your opinion concerning Philosophy Adventure.


    • Good question. I had heard good things about this curriculum which is why I bought it. It has two parts really — info on the philosophers and writing activities. I was eager to do both because we haven’t done much writing instruction at all. I really wasn’t crazy about the writing assignments though and found them hard to enforce. Some the assignments were just hard to do because they have you write speeches for instance and we don’t have much of a forum for presenting them. Mostly my kids were of the “I just don’t know what to write” school. I will admit I didn’t do much of the readings but from their narrations I can tell they weren’t overly enthused by it. I can usually tell by narrations how they like a book. It may be a matter of not every book is living for everyone. Or perhaps my kids didn’t have enough of a framework to hang it all on? My oldest likes Greek stuff though so I thought it would intrigue him more. I think the whole thing is more classical than CM.


  2. Posted by Melanie on July 12, 2016 at 5:41 am

    Thanks for the input Nebby!


  3. […] For 10th grade literature this year I had my oldest do a course on Great American Bestsellers. (You can read about all our Charlotte Mason-y homeschool plans here.) […]


  4. […] had posted on our high school plans for the four years, but I realized I never did anything on what we are doing this year. In 2016-17 I […]


  5. […] expected. You can read up on how we’ve done high school science (and other subjects) here. There are other subjects you can add in over time, of course — map drills and handicrafts […]


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