Let’s Play “Is It CM?” (Part 1)

Dear Reader,

I have in the past shared some charts which compare the various Charlotte Mason curriucla out there (see this post). I chose to limit what I included to those that fit the bill “strictly Charlotte Mason” but the truth is there is a lot more out there can either claims to use the Charlotte Mason approach or to be CM-inspired. [1] In the various online forums I belong to (and some I help moderate) many of these “inspired” materials get discussed and so I thought it would be useful to try to give a quick summary of each with a particular eye to saying how faithful it is to Charlotte Mason’s own ideas and approach.

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 (I actually consider myself post-CM and have my own philosophy of education though I really like her epistemology).

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? How does it approach language arts? Does it use copywork and dictation or other methods like spelling tests? Because there have not been a lot of CM math resources out there till recently, I am not going to spend much time analyzing the math component of these resources. Many refer you to other companies’ math curricula any way.

Because there is so much out there, I am going to begin with six of the biggest names. I will likely get to others in a “part 2” so if you have particular resources you’d like me to review, feel free to comment below.

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

Sonlight

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 particiular 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.

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 somewhat deist 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.

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.

MasterBooks

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. There are not a lot of CM math resources out there and were even fewer when my kids were little so I feel less equipped to judge their CM-ness. 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 udercut what narration should be (i.e. it should be about what they get out of it, not whether they get what we thnk is important). Though the history books are decent, they use their own books and don’tt 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. Langauge arts uses various resoucres. 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.

Five in a Row

Five in a Row (FIAR) and its early education version, Before Five in a Row (BFIAR), maintain some populatrity, especially among those who are looking for more structure for themsleves (not necessarily for their children) in the early years. Charlotte Mason doesn’t advoacte 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 (see my comments on TGTB above).

Quick Take Summary:

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

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 priods of learning as the child ages (though I am not sure how this playes 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 artas and math so though they are ercommended they are not part of the core curriculum.

Wrapping Up

If I had to sum up all of the above curricula, I would say that many use good or at least decent books for history. It is harder to find one with quality books for science. Most use worksheets and if they use narration at all, it tends to be sporadic.

Again, there are many more CM-ish curriculum choices out there. If there are particular ones you’d like to see included pelase do let me know.

Nebby

[1] I am indebted in all this to Ambling Along Together’s Resource List which divides what is out there into groups based on their level of CM-ness.

3 responses to this post.

  1. […] second post giving quick surveys of Charlotte Mason-inspired curricula. You can find the first one here. I also have charts on the various “pure” Charlotte Mason curricula (see this post). […]

    Reply

  2. […] have a few posts now looking at the various Charlotte Mason (here) and Charlotte Mason-inspired (here and here) curricula out there. My goal in all of this is just to provide you with resources for […]

    Reply

  3. […] 4/8/2020 to add: I also now have two posts which look at CM-inspired curricula. They are here (Sonlight, The Good and the Beautiful, Easy Peasy, Masterbooks, Five in a Row, My Father’s […]

    Reply

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