Getting Started with a Charlotte Mason Education

Dear Reader,
This is one of those topics I find myself always typing answers for on various forums (fora?) so I thought I’d just make a post so I have something to refer to.
How do you get started with a Charlotte Mason (CM) education? If your kids are young (below 7) I would encourage you to spend some time reading, reading, reading and learning all you can about it first. But if your kids are older and have already been in school or been homeschooled, then you are probably eager to jump in (you should still read as much as you can though; first about CM and then reading her own writings).
There are more and more CM resources out there. This article has a great summary of what is CM, what is partly CM, and what could be CM. Some people like to have everything laid out for them and that is fine. It is often helpful at the start. If you are looking to just pick one source and follow what it says, this thread from the Simply Charlotte Mason (SCM) forums gives a good comparison of SCM and Ambleside Online. The other big option out there is a new curriculum, A Modern Charlotte Mason, which aims to update the CM approach with some more modern books.
You don’t need to follow one of these curricula, however. And a Charlotte Mason need not be difficult to implement.
In an age of STEM and STEAM, history remains the core of a CM education. If your children have been in school or been homeschooling, there may be a next logical period of history for you to study. This may mean somebody repeats or has some gaps for now; that’s okay.  If your kids are in high school or approaching high school, you may want to think about what they need to get done and where you want to end up. But the main thing is to just pick something, whether it’s 20th century history, the age of discovery, or the ancient Egyptians.
I like using a spine book for history. This is a book which is fairly general and broad and which covers the whole time period. I recommend gearing it to your oldest or next to oldest’s level. You will be reading this book aloud to all your kids. When my kids were younger, we had this “together time” every day. Now we do it 2-3 times a week. When you get together, you read to them from your spine and have them narrate what you read back to you. I won’t get into the particulars of how to narrate here. You can search this blog or look at any good CM site for more on that (I do have a recent post on the theory behind narration here).
In addition to a spine book, you will need one book (at a time)  for each child to read on their own. This should be at their own reading level. Younger children may get through a book a week or even a day. Older kids may spend a month or more on a longer book. Because your spine gives an overview, you can pick more narrow subjects for their individual reading. Biographies are always good choices (how to find and pick books is another topic again; you can see all out recent reads on American history here; I rely heavily on the Truthquest guides for finding books). The procedure is the same for whatever you do– read and narrate, read and narrate, read and narrate. If your children are new to narration, they should begin with oral narration no matter what their ages. Older kids might move to written narration in a month or two if oral narration is going well. Younger kids might spend a few years narrating orally before attempting written narrations. If you have  a lot of kids lining up to narrate to you, have them narrate to each other occasionally or record their narrations for you to listen to later.
Once you are in a routine for history, you can add other subjects one at a time. Because it is viewed as so essential in our culture, math is probably one you want to include early on. We love Life of Fred for a living approach to math but it doesn’t work for all kids (my second one can’t seem to learn from LOF). Math-U-See is my second choice but one child is also using Teaching Textbooks this year to good effect. There are more CM math curricula out there but they can be harder to implement and more teacher-intensive. I recommend just picking something for math at this stage and not worrying too much about making it CM.
Continue to add one or two subjects at a time. Though often viewed as less essential, artist and music study can actually be fairly easy to work in. Each should only take about 10 minutes week.  Many families alternate so one day they do art, one day music and another maybe read a poem. Again there are resources out there but you need not make things complicated. Pick an artist you like, look at one of their paintings once a week for a while till you think you have a feel for them or you get sick of them. Read a poem once a week. You can pick one poet to do for a time or you can just get a book of favorite poems and pick one at random each time. Similarly, with music; pick a composer and listen to their music for 10-15 minutes at least once a week. There may be times you can put on your composer while your kids are playing or eating for a little added background education. I have often put Shakespeare in the rotation as well. You can begin by just reading abridged, narrative versions of his plays from Lamb’s or Nesbit’s books. How to Teach Your Child Shakespeare is another wonderful resource which deals with memorizing Shakespeare and can be done in 10-15 minute chunks.
You may feel like you need more in the realm of language arts. You don’t. At least, you need less than you think. Copywork or dictation (depending on your child’s age) is the main thing. Narration, whether oral or written, is already doing more than you know towards composition and writing. If you are just beginning, I recommend getting one source for your copywork/dictation passages. There are many choices out there, Queen homeschool has  a lot of resources. For more modern books your kids might be familiar with the Arrow from Brave Writer is good (though I was disappointed with the language and grammar in the passages they chose).  I like Spelling Wisdom from SCM. Don’t worry about other grammar or spelling or writing curricula unless they are 10th grade and up. SCM has some wonderful resources on how to do prepared dictation. If you have a lot of kids, try to put them into groups for this (maybe early elementary, later elementary, middle school, and high school) so you are not doing completely different passages for each. Need more time in your day? Have older kids dictate to younger ones or check their copywork.
Science depends on age but if they are below high school I would just pick living books to read and then try to get out for nature walks once in a while. The reading can be done individually at their own levels or all together when you do your history spines. The latter is probably better for younger children. Either way the procedure is the same — read and narrate, read and narrate. Science often lends itself well to drawn narrations, but always ask them to explain to you what they have drawn too. If you have high schoolers, labs are probably 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 and civics and foreign language, to name a few. But if you start with the above subjects, history first an then the others added one at a time, you will have a pretty good basic CM education in place.
Any questions?
Nebby
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4 responses to this post.

  1. Love this post even though I am far from being new to CM. Your explanation sounds so simple yet in real life it’s feels so complicated! My question revolves around selecting readers. I have 6 children, and at this point I have 3 school age. We are using SCM Modern which means 2 days American, 2 days World, 1 day Geography. In theory this sounds wonderful but I’m juggling quite a few books. I also have a 4th grader who isn’t reading up to a level where she’s satisfied with what she can read. She loves me reading the higher level books that she can’t read yet. And I have a 1st grader and preschoolers that also love being read to. And just one of me! So how would you handle this? Select readers they can read alone or read aloud at all the different levels? And do you separate Modern American and World history? Or juggle that era at the same time as SCM does? I also have another question I’d love to ask privately. May I PM you on Facebook?

    Reply

    • Absolutely, you can PM me. Btw, I think you are the one who recommended Classes by Beth to me. Thank you for that. The Spanish 1 is working out great for my dd.

      While I have spent more time on SCM, I’ve never truly used it or AO. I’ve always kind of made up my own thing. I have never done two periods of history at once (I use “periods” loosely — it could be two different locations or scopes). I understand that Charlotte said we shouldn’t be afraid to mix different things together. Unit studies are not what we want but I also think that two different history strands in our homeschool at once would be confusing. Not so much confusing intellectually — I am not worried about the kids mixing up what is happening in each story — but confusing in terms of the logistics of our homeschool. (There is sort of an exception now as I do have my oldest doing more of a focus on world history while the rest stay focused on the US; this is all 20th century history).

      Geography I have always done as one of our alternating extra subjects along with art, music, poetry, Shakespeare and when they were younger science.

      In terms of the work you all do together, I would say this: Now, with no elementary students, we do a lot less together but when I had littles we did a lot together and, yes, it was more stressful and felt like a lot more juggling. So first thing is: it will get easier. Pace yourself and be patient. IMO homeschooling only gets more enjoyable as you go (though I do miss some aspects of the littles days).

      When we did/do stuff together, I tend to think in terms of clots in out schedule. So maybe we have 3 slots every day. One is history and we do that every day. The next might be arts and we alternate music, art and poetry. The last might alternate geography, science and literature (this is just an example; through the years we have worked with different numbers of slots). What you are doing is essentially having a slot that is modern American alternating with world history and geography. There is nothing wrong with this. But what you are telling me is that it is not working well for you. If that is the case, there is also nothing wrong with changing it. If you want to stick with the curriculum you have, why not do all the modern stuff in the first half of the year and all the world stuff in the second half (still doing geography once a week)? It’s really about what works for your family.

      While this post is meant for those new to CM, I think it could also apply to anyone who is feeling overwhelmed. Scale back. Return to basics. Maybe even take a week or two off and then when you come back, re-introduce one or two subjects at a time.

      Do you have books, for history for instance, that you read to all your kids at once? My kids are all within 5 years so while I know the littler ones have at times had books go over their heads, we have had a relatively easy time of staying all together. I would try as much as possible to make any reading you do apply to them all. Don’t worry too much about littler ones not getting it. They get more than you think and honestly, they don’t need to get it all right now. If you have kids from elementary to high school, I would read at a middle school level. Some of the books my kids have enjoyed most (mostly in the literature arena) are ones I thought were going way over their heads. Kids that can read should also be reading at their own levels. Re your daughter who wants harder books but can’t read them, use audio books as much as you can. They can even be for her main schoolwork but we have also done so many in the car or she can listen to them as she plays.

      I’m sort of rambling with thoughts that pop into my head; take what you will from it all. I wrote this post mainly to show that CM need not be hard and overwhelming, that it can be simple and I really believe that is true but as with parenting in general, there will be hard seasons. I also wouldn’t want anyone to read my posts and think “it’s not this easy for me so I must be doing something wrong” or “this is not for me since it’s not so simple.”

      Reply

  2. […] I see a lot of questions from new CMers along the lines of “Do I really need all these books?? This is getting expensive. I am not sure I can afford to do CM.” Well, a Charlotte Mason education need not be expensive. In fact, it could be virtually free. Personally, I choose to save time by spending a little more money on some things. Below is my analysis of what it costs to do a CM education and some resources for how you can do it most inexpensively. If you are new to CM, check out my easy and quick start guide here. […]

    Reply

  3. […] that get asked a lot on lists/forums” (anybody noticed?). We have discussed, for instance, how to get started with a Charlotte Mason education and how must does a CM education cost? (Okay, in reality, those are the only two posts in the […]

    Reply

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