Archive for the ‘Homeschool’ Category

Encouragement for the Crazy Homeschool

Dear Reader,

Rereading Charlotte Mason’s first volume, Home Education, I find encouragement for the crazy homeschool. When things are out of control and your little one is screaming and you can’t get anything done and they are running wild and you worry they don’t have any friends and will grow from little maladjusted hooligans to big maladjusted hooligans, Charlotte has encouragement for you:

When your children are running wild —

“Most of us are misled by our virtues, and the entire zeal and enthusiasm of the Kindergartnerin [i.e. kindergarten teacher] is perhaps her stone of stumbling. ‘But the children are so happy and good!’ Precisely; the home-nursery is by no means such a scene of peace, but I venture to think it a better growing place.” (p. 188)

When you worry they are not getting “socialization” —

“Let us follow the little person to the Kindergarten, where he has the stimulus of classmates of his own age. It certainly is stimulating. For ourselves, no society is so much so as that of a number of persons of our own age and standing; this is the great joy of college life; a wholesome joy for all young people for a limited time. But persons of twenty have, or should have, some command over their inhibitory centres. They should not permit the dissipation of nerve power caused by too much social stimulus; yet even persons of twenty are not always equal to the task of self-management in exciting circumstances. What then, is to be expected of persons of two, three, four, five? That the little person looks rather stolid than otherwise is no guarantee against excitement within. The clash and sparkle of our equals now and then stirs up to health; but for everyday life, the mixed society of elders, juniors and equals, which we get in a family, gives at the same time the most repose and the most room for individual development. We have all wondered at the good sense, reasonableness, fun and resourcefulness shown by a child in his own home as compared with the same child in school life.” (p. 191)

When you worry you are not getting anything done —

“Here we come to the real crux of the Kindergarten question. The busy mother says she has no leisure to be that somebody, and the child will run wild and get into bad habits; but we must not make a fetish of habit; education is a life as well as a discipline. Health, strength, and agility, bright eyes and alert movements, come of a free life, out-of-doors, if it may be and as for habits, there is no habit or power so useful to man or woman as that of personal initiative. The resourcefulness which will enable a family of children to invent their own games and occupations through the length of a summer’s day is worth more in after life than a good deal of knowledge about cubes and hexagons, and this comes, not of continual intervention on the mother’s part, but of much masterly inactivity.” (p. 192)

When you think you just don’t have the knowledge or skill for this —

“The educational error of our day is that we believe too much in mediators. Now, Nature is her own mediator, . . .  and the part of the mother or teacher in the early years (indeed, all through life) is to sow opportunities, and then to keep in the background, ready with a guiding or restraining hand only when these are badly wanted. Mothers shirk their work and put it, as they would say, into better hands than their [kindergarten], because they do not recognise that wise letting alone is the chief thing asked of them, seeing that every mother has in Nature an all-sufficient handmaid, who arranges for due work and due rest of mind, muscles, and senses.” (pp. 192-93)

[And because I want to be clear that for CM “Nature” is not some force that works apart from God–]

“The notion of supplementing Nature from the cradle is a dangerous one. A little guiding, a little restraining, much reverent watching, Nature asks of us; but beyond that, it is the wisdom of parents to leave children as much as may be to Nature, and ‘to a higher Power than Nature itself.'” (p. 186)

A little context– Charlotte here is talking about a popular movement in her day: Kindergarten! It represents pressure for early education, the idea that we need formal instruction and trained teachers for littler children, that somehow being home with mom isn’t enough. Sound familiar?







Is it Biblical?: “Education is . . . a Life”

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in which I look at Charlotte Mason’s principles and ask how they line up with the Bible. You can find links to the earlier posts here and my most recent post on “Education is an atmosphere . . . ” here.

What Charlotte says

In my last post in this series, I began to look at Charlotte Mason’s fifth principle:

“Therefore, we are limited to three educational instruments–the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas. The P.N.E.U. Motto is: ‘Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.'”

That post focused specifically on “Education is an atmosphere . . .” I would like to leap-frog over ” . . .a discipline . . .” for now and focus on ” . . .and a life.” (Do not fear — I will return to “discipline” in my next post.)

This idea, that education is a life, is expanded in the 8th principle:

“In saying that ‘education is a life,’ the need of intellectual and moral as well as of physical sustenance is implied. The mind feeds on ideas, and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.”

We could even include in this discussion the 9th through 11th principles which further expand upon this notion and specifically reject some of the counter-views of Charlotte’s own day:

“9. We hold that the child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge. This is its proper diet, with which it is prepared to deal; and which it can digest and assimilate as the body does foodstuffs.

“10. Such a doctrine as e.g. the Herbartian, that the mind is a receptacle, lays the stress of education (the preparation of knowledge in enticing morsels duly ordered) upon the teacher. Children taught on this principle are in danger of receiving much teaching with little knowledge; and the teacher’s axiom is ,’what a child learns matters less than how he learns it.’

“11. But we, believing that the normal child has powers of mind which fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, give him a full and generous curriculum; taking care only that all knowledge offered him is vital, that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas.”

I have to say I am somewhat relieved to cover this particular principle; it seems fairly straightforward compared to some of the other ideas we have discussed. Children need intellectual and moral sustenance, and intellectual sustenance consists of ideas; they are the food of the mind:

“. . . the mind, like the body, digests its proper food, and it must have the labour of digestion or it ceases to function.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 26)

“The life of the mind is sustained upon ideas . . .” (Ibid., p. 25)

This feeding of the mind is a spiritual exercise. Indeed the food itself, the ideas, are a spiritual thing:

“‘Education,’ said Lord Haldane, some time ago, ‘is a matter of the spirit,’––no wiser word has been said on the subject, . . .” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 26)

“. . . .the mind, in fact, requires sustenance––as does the body, in order that it increase and be strong; but because the mind is not to be measured or weighed but is spiritual, so its sustenance must be spiritual too, must, in fact, be ideas (in the Platonic sense of images). I soon perceived that children were well equipped to deal with ideas . . .” (Ibid., p. 10)

Ideas are contrasted with information, that is, facts to be memorized:

“But the children ask for bread and we give them a stone; we give information about objects and events which mind does not attempt to digest but casts out bodily (upon an examination paper?).” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 26)

Notice the comparison between information and a stone; a stone is not a living thing; it is inert and cannot be consumed. But an idea is “[a] live thing of the mind” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 105). It is not, of course, that our children will not learn facts, but that these facts must come in the form of ideas:

“Our business is to give children the great ideas of life, of religion, history, science; but it is the ideas we must give, clothed upon with facts as they occur, and must leave the child to deal with these as he chooses.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 40)

It is as if we were to say, “my child needs potassium to live” and so we give him the mineral potassium to ingest. Modern science (conveniently for the purposes my of analogy) has shown that our bodies to not absorb vitamins and minerals so well in pill form. But if that potassium comes clothed as a banana, the body can take it in and gets a lot more pleasure in doing so.

But we cannot take this analogy too far. Ideas are more than an attractive way to get our children to ingest facts. Ideas themselves are what move us. Ideas have consequences. Charlotte tells us that “[a]ll action comes out of the ideas we hold . . .”(Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 80).

Ideas, these spiritual things of the mind, come from God Himself. Charlotte references Isaiah 28:24-26 (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 106-7) :

Does he who plows for sowing plow continually? Does he continually open and harrow his ground? When he has leveled its surface, does he not scatter dill, sow cumin, and put in wheat in rows and barley in its proper place, and emmer as the border? For he is rightly instructed; his God teaches him.” (All biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.)

Note that the ideas here are not high-falutin, philosophical things. The idea that comes from God in this case is when the farmer should plough and harvest and how he should arrange his crops.

This passage, I think, sums up  most of what we have seen already and adds a new concept as well:

“Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food. ”  (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 109)

Note how these spiritual ideas, which originate with God, are transferred — they go from person to person, from mind to mind, through the media of speech, writing, music and art.

The main points, for our purposes seem to be:

  • Children are spiritual beings with minds as well as bodies.
  • As such, they need spiritual food for their minds.
  • Ideas are this mind food. They are contrasted with dry facts which provide no nourishment.
  • Children are well-equipped to deal with, to digest if you will, these ideas.
  • Ideas are spiritual, living things.
  • Ideas have consequences; they inform what we do.
  • Therefore it is important what ideas we convey to our children.
  • Ideas come from God.
  • Ideas are communicated from person to person through speech, the written word, and other media such as music and art.

What the Bible says

As we turn to the biblical evidence, we can’t expect it to use the same language which Charlotte does. But I do think we can look at these points and see if they have any counterpart in the Scriptures. If you have read my earlier posts, you will know that we need not find every principle Charlotte poses expressly delineated in the biblical text; it is not primarily a manual on education. Our goal is only to see if her ideas are “founded on and agreeable to” the Scriptures.

I am going to take the points above mostly in order (with one exception)–

  • Children are spiritual beings with minds as well as bodies.

We have discussed what the Bible has to say about children before (see this post). Suffice it to say that children are viewed as full people. And people, we are told in both the Old and New Testaments, are made up of various parts, of which mind is one (Deut. 6:5; Mk 12:30; Lk 10:27).

  • As such, they need spiritual food for their minds.
  • Ideas are this mind food. They are contrasted with dry facts which provide no nourishment.
  • Children are well-equipped to deal with, to digest if you will, these ideas.

Not all these points are addressed directly. But note the passage known as the Shema from Deuteronomy 6 (shema means “hear” in Hebrew):

 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deut. 6:4-7)

In Hebrew thought, the heart was the seat of thought (the liver was actually the seat of emotion). So after referring to this seat of thought (which they call the heart and we call the mind), God says to keep His words on your heart (read: mind) and to teach it diligently to your children. If children can handle the Word of God, the ultimate living book, then surely they can handle other spiritual matter.

  • Ideas have consequences; they inform what we do.

The Bible tells us that it is what is within us that influences our behavior:

“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Lk 6:45)

“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” (Mt 15:19)

  • Therefore it is important what ideas we convey to our children.

We have already seen in Deuteronomy that parents are instructed to teach their children the things they have learned from God. We find this again in the Psalms:

“Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
    incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a parable;
    I will utter dark sayings from of old,

things that we have heard and known,
    that our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
    but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
    and the wonders that he has done.” (Ps 78:1-4)

And a verse I quote a lot in this series, tells us it is important what we put in our minds:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8)

  • Ideas come from God.

Charlotte herself quotes Isaiah 28 to support this claim. Remember that in that passage, the knowledge spoken of had to do with the particulars of how the farmer does his work. Elsewhere we are told that artistic knowledge and skill come from God (Exod. 35:1-5).

Proverbs and James both tell us that knowledge comes from God:

“For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” (Prov. 2:6)

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. ” (Jam. 1:5)

  • Ideas are communicated from person to person through speech, the written word, and other media such as music and art.

This idea is again not expressed directly in the Scriptures. But, as we have already seen, parents are to communicate ideas to their children. And when it comes to the Word of God, at least, we are told how knowledge is passed from person to person:

“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? . . . For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”  So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Rom. 10:14-17)

We see this again and again in the book of Acts — that people hear and then believe (Acts 4:4, 13:48, 21:20).

  • Ideas are spiritual, living things.

This is the one point I wanted to save for last. Up until this point, I hope we have established that children, as spiritual beings, are capable of receiving and should be given, the Word of God; that what we put in our minds is important and that it affects what we do; and that all wisdom and knowledge come from God though they may do so through the mediation of other people.

The Bible does not tell us, that I can see, that all ideas are living, spiritual things. But there is one body of knowledge which the Bible calls living — the Word of God itself:

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebr. 4:12)

God Himself is living (Deut. 5:26, among many others), and something that is spoken of as living, in the Bible, comes from Him and is living in the sense that it gives spiritual life(cf. John 4:10-11 in which Jesus speaks of the living waters). Here we see that the Word of God too is living.


What then can we say? I don’t think every aspect of what Charlotte means when she says “education is a life” can be fully substantiated by the Scriptures. But I do think she is firmly in the realm of biblical thought. God is Spirit. We, originally created in His image, are spiritual beings. Wisdom and knowledge come from God. The Word of God, the ultimate body of ideas, comes from Him and is said to be spiritual and living. And it is communicated from mind to mind through human speech and through His written word, just as Charlotte describes. I don’t think that we can get quite to where Charlotte is from this; we have not shown that all ideas are spiritual, but I think we get very close.

I’d like to close with a verse Charlotte quotes from the gospel of Matthew. Note that Charlotte is not the first to speak of ideas as a kind of spiritual food:

“But [Jesus] answered, “It is written,‘Man shall not live by breadalone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’””  (Mt 4:4)

Next time: Discipline!


My Literature List

Dear Reader,

Like a lot of you, I have collected lists of books, some form here, some from there. I had one document but it was very rough and unedited. Promoted by a friend, I took the time recently to edit it as best I can. I have tried to keep this list for books that we would consider literature/fiction/free reading/read alouds, but a few non-fiction books have crept onto the list. The line between history and historical fiction is a particularly fuzzy one.

There are many authors who have written more than one good book; some are quite prolific. For the most part, I have not listed every work so if you see an author listed here and then find other books of theirs, you may want to check them out. I have also tried to indicate in the “notes” column if I know the author has more to offer.

The “code” column relates to who in my family has read a book; you can ignore it.

I have gone back and forth on “level” and opted in the end for the simplest divisions. I have four main categories: picture (books), elementary, middle and high school (HS). Picture books are the most obvious. Elementary books are intended to be those an elementary student could read on their own. This includes a wide range from easy readers to chapter books to slightly more substantial but still relatively simple works. Middle is almost a catch-all between elementary and high school. Books on the high school category are placed there for various reasons relating to both reading level and content.  I also have middle+ and HS+ for those books which seem at the upper end of their age brackets; again this may be about content and not just reading level.

One last note: don’t be bound too much by levels. If a book is truly living, it will likely be enjoyed by all ages so your middle schooler can still listen to a picture book. And when read aloud, kids can understand and appreciate books well above their level. Some of our favorite read alouds were books that I thought were well above my kids at the time — I’ve read Don Quixote and Robin Hood and Dickens to elementary students to good effect.

I will try to update this list as we find more books we like. There are a few on the list which we haven’t used but which I have heard of so much that I felt they could stay (we never read Pinocchio, for instance).

Here then is the list:

My Big Literature List (opens a google doc)

If you have suggestions or corrections, let me know. It may be there are books I forgot (I think there must be a lot!) or haven’t heard of and we are always looking for new choices.

Happy reading!


All the CM Curricula Compared

Dear Reader,

I have done a series of posts comparing various Charlotte Mason curricula. As the number of them has expanded, I realize this has become a bit cumbersome for you, the reader. So this is my attempt to put it all in one place (plus one additional curriculum is included!).


A little background — my goal has been to present what each curriculum has to say about itself rather than to give my opinions. I tried to choose the questions I would have when comparing curricula. Topics range from What does it cost? to How does it deal with high school science? to How Christian is it?

There is a lot out there for homeschoolers these days and the list seems to be ever-expanding. The curricula I have chosen to compare are all from Ambling along Together’s list of CM curricula.  Each purports to be a Charlotte Mason style curricula (as compared to merely “CM influenced” or adaptable). Though I have made use of many of these websites and have taken bits and pieces from various sources, I do not use any of these curricula exclusively. I do have some opinions, but I don’t have one favorite curriculum.

The Curricula

I have gone back and forth on even putting this section in. I don’t want to bias you with my own opinions but I do realize it is helpful just to have some sort of list of everything with brief introductions. Let me say from the start that I am overwhelmed by the work and generosity of all the people behind these curricula. Most are homeschool moms who have taken the time to put together quite extensive resources that they either give away or sell quite affordably (I can’t imagine anyone is getting rich off of any of these). Most are also works-in-progress; even old stand-bys like Ambleside Online are still improving and changing.

Here then are the curricula I will look at, in no particular order:

Ambleside Online (AO) — If you have been at this for a while, Ambleside may have been your first introduction to CM; it seems like it has been around forever. As with all these curricula, you buy the books, but otherwise AO is free online. While they are still updating and perfecting AO, it is a relatively complete curriculum with a reputation for being rigorous.

Simply Charlotte Mason (SCM) — Simply Charlotte Mason is another one that has been around for a while. There is much here that can be used for free but the biggest expansion on the SCM site seems to be in the store where more and more ready-made materials are available. A modular approach, it has a reputation for being a little less intimidating and easier to adapt for families with multiple ages.

The Alveary — A newer curriculum with a lot of buzz (pun intended). It’s big selling point is that it is a CM curriculum for the 21st century. Though the curriculum is newer, the folks at CMI who are behind it have been around for a while.

A Delectable Education (ADE) — The biggest part of ADE is the podcast, but one can also get a consultation for personalizes curriculum help and suggestions. This personalization is one of the big selling points. The other is a commitment being “purely CM”; the ladies at ADE will admit that this too is a work in progress but their goal is to ask how CM herself would have done things and to, in some sense, return to those roots.

A Modern Charlotte Mason (MCM) — As the name suggests, MCM also aims to combine more modern works with the classics in a CM education. Flexibility in terms of use with families or individual students is another big selling point.

Living Books Curriculum (LBC) — A CM approach, living books based curriculum with a vision for and ministry to those in less developed countries as well (especially in Africa).

Higher Up and Further In (HUFI) — Book lists and schedules for CM learning.

Gentle Feast — A newer contribution to the world of CM with a gentle, family-centered approach with personal consultations available.

Wildwood — Still fairly new with a lot still to be done, this is the only inherently secular CM curriculum I know of.

Ambleside Schools International — Despite the name, this curriculum is not affiliated with Ambleside Online. Like Charlotte’s PNEU, it trains teachers and provides curricula for schools as well as homeschoolers. Heavy on training and support with weekly mentoring. Though less well-known, they have been around quite a while.

The Charts

Though the goal of this post is to put everything on one place, I still can’t figure out a good way to put it all in one document. Here then, in three documents, are all the CM curricula compared:

SCM ADE AO Alveary 5-8-17


Gentle Feast Wildwood Ambleside Schools 9-5-17

As always, let me know of updates and revisions. Consider this page a work in progress; I will try to update as there are new curricula available or changes in current ones.


The Best Free-Read Books

Dear Reader,

Rereading Charlotte Mason’s first volume, I ran across this quote:

“By the way, it is a pity when the sense of the ludicrous is cultivated in children’s books at the expense of better things. Alice in Wonderland is a delicious feast of absurdities, which none of us, old or young, could afford to spare; but it is doubtful whether the child who reads it has the delightful imaginings, the realising of the unknown, with which he reads The Swiss Family Robinson.

This point is worth considering in connection with Christmas books for the little people. Books of ‘comicalities’ cultivate no power but the sense of the incongruous; and though life is the more amusing for the possession of such a sense, when cultivated to excess it is apt to show itself a flippant habit. Diogenes and the Naughty Boys of Troy is irresistible, but it is not the sort of thing the children will live over and over, and ‘play at’ by the hour, as we have all played at Robinson Crusoe finding the footprints. They must have ‘funny books,’ but do not give the children too much nonsense reading.

Stories, again, of the Christmas holidays, of George and Lucy, of the amusements, foibles, and virtues of children in their own condition of life, leave nothing to the imagination. The children know all about everything so well that it never occurs to them to play at the situations in any one of these tales, or even to read it twice over. But let them have tales of the imagination, scenes laid in other lands and other times, heroic adventures, hairbreadth escapes, delicious fairy tales in which they are never roughly pulled up by the impossible––even where all is impossible, and they know it, and yet believe.” (Home Education, pp. 151-52)

Based on questions I see on CM discussion boards, I would say many of us find that once we have got a handle on how to pick “living books” for school, we are still at a loss when it comes to our children’s “free reading.”

“Free read” is not a term Charlotte used, but the “Christmas books” mentioned above seem to fill the same role. This phrase implies that books were treasured and given as gifts and that they were for the child’s pleasure. Nonetheless, standards still apply. Charlotte allows a place for “funny books,” but a small place.

Part of the problem in our own day is the immensity of what is available. I don’t think Charlotte could have even begin to imagine the large libraries our children would have access to. But even if she had conceived of public libraries with whole children’s rooms, would she have dreamed of how truly awful so many of those books could be? We are as those adrift, surrounded by a sea of undrinkable water. To those of us faced with so many unreadable books, what are we to do? How do we discriminate and find the gems in the oceans of trite chapter books?

Charlotte’s standards here are so much higher than our own. Many of us would be happy with Alice in Wonderland, considering it a classic that has stood the test of time. But Charlotte suggests that, while amusing, it is not reliable sustenance. For her this was a popular silly book (Can you imagine what she would have made of Captain Underpants?!). She recommends instead Swiss Family Robinson. Think about this for a minute: despite its unusual events and fantastical nature, Alice is incapable of inspiring the imagination the way Swiss Family Robinson can.

Lewis Carroll’s classic is too far out there, but other books may be too realistic. Charlotte mentions books about “George and Lucy.” George and Lucy do ordinary things and while the child could well imagine himself in such circumstances, he doesn’t need to. There is nothing new or extraordinary involved. On the other end of the spectrum, Alice is entertaining because it is so silly and unexpected, but one still doesn’t imagine oneself as Alice simply because it is all so extraordinary. Swiss Family Robinson is in the middle. It sucks us in because these are ordinary people like us but in very different circumstances. We can imagine ourselves there and live through the adventures with the characters.

But fantasy is not entirely to be rejected. Charlotte speaks of fairy tales “in which [children] are never roughly pulled up by the impossible––even where all is impossible, and they know it, and yet believe.” A book like Alice is so bizarre and the events in it are so incongruous that we cannot somehow settle into the story. In contrast, E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It includes fantastical elements but we can and will readily suspend belief and imagine that we too have found a Psammead to grant us our wishes. The Lord of the Rings series posits a whole fantastical world, much as Alice does, but again we can imagine ourselves in this world. The key I think is that in this kind of fantasy, though the world may be so different from our own, the characters, the motives and the outcomes are still very much from our world. Though they be hobbits and wizards, yet there is something very human here.

If you are a reader, you probably do not need me to tell you what a good book is like. You have no doubt felt it for yourself — If you are sorry to leave it when it is done, if you are interrupted in your reading and look up surprised that you are not on that desert island or in that igloo, if the characters become friends you are sorry to leave, then you have experienced such a book.

As I prepared this post, I realized that I am reading such a book myself — My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. I would tell you more but I am anxious to get back to Corfu so . . .  another time.



Is it Biblical?: CM’s 5th Principle, Part 1: Atmosphere

Dear Reader,

In my most recent post in this series, I looked at what Charlotte Mason calls the “gospel code of education” (see this post to get up to speed and to find links to all the previous posts in the series). This “code” consists of three injunctions which Charlotte takes from Matthew chapters 18 and 19. They tell us what we may not do in raising and educating our children. From these negative commands, she says we may derive corresponding positive commands:

“. . .  the positive is included in the negative, what we are bound to do for the child in what we are forbidden to do to his hurt.” (Home Education, p. 13)

Next up for us then is to look at what we may do in educating our children. I am excited to dive into this topic because there is something here that has always puzzled me. As Christians, we begin to read Charlotte’s philosophy of education and there is a lot to appeal to us — the child as a person, the Holy Spirit as the Great Educator. So far so good. But then somewhere along the way we are talking about whether to use a spelling curriculum or to rely upon dictation, about whether it is wrong to use a formal grammar curriculum, about how long lessons should be, and on and on and on . . .  How did we get from these theological concepts to the nitty-gritty day-to-day specifics? How does “the child is a born person” lead us to short lessons and living math? (We won’t get to all the answers today but I am excited to start getting into the practical details.)

What are the positive principles? Some were implied in the negatives we looked at last time — When she says that we offend a child (i.e. cause him to sin) by laughing at his infantile wrongs, we may reasonable conclude that we must discipline without smiling on wrong-doing and that we must follow through on our “no”s. Charlotte tells us that to despise a child is to not take him or his sin seriously; we may again reasonably conclude that we must deal with and not ignore his early sins. Lastly, Charlotte tells us that we hinder a child when we call him wicked, do not teach him of God’s love and fill his life with ” listless perfunctory prayers, idle discussions of Divine things in their presence, light use of holy words, few signs whereby the child can read that the things of God are more to his parents than any things of the world” (Home Education, p. 20). For each of these we can readily supply the opposite — we must teach the child of God’s love, introduce him to meaningful prayer, spare him idle conversations and allow him to overhear real ones, use holy words reverently, show him that the things of God matter more to us than the things of the world.

Though we may come to some such conclusions on our own, Charlotte herself does not immediately lay out for us positive principles. So to see what Charlotte says we may actually do in education, I am going to return to her 20 Principles and specifically to the fifth principle with its well-known phrase, the very motto of her schools: “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.”

Education is an Atmosphere

My methodology has been to look first at what Charlotte herself has to say and then to hold her ideas up to the Scriptures. I have asked in each post if Charlotte’s ideas are “founded on and agreeable to the Scriptures,” a phrasing I like which comes from my own church’s membership vows. We do not expect the Word of God to directly address every issue but we, as Christians, should seek out an educational philosophy which, where possible, is founded upon the Scriptures and which is otherwise in agreement with biblical principles and thought. Because this threatens to be a huge topic, I am going to divide it into three posts. First up: Education is an atmosphere.

This term tends to cause some confusion for those new to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. To  a large degree, this confusion stems from terminology. In her fifth principle, Charlotte speaks of “the atmosphere of environment.” At other times, as in her sixth principle, she uses the word “environment” pejoratively as a counterpoint to atmosphere:

“When we say that ‘education is an atmosphere,’ we do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a ‘child-environment’ especially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the child’s level.”

Charlotte reacts here against certain educational trends of her day (some of which are still popular in our own) which said that if you just put the child in the right environment “he is to all intents and purposes educated thereby” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 94). An environment is something artificially constructed and brought down to the child’s level; an atmosphere “nobody has been at pains to constitute” (Ibid., p. 96).  Charlotte gives this wonderful description:

“It is there, about the child, his natural element, precisely as the atmosphere of the earth is about us. It is thrown off, as it were, from persons and things, stirred by events, sweetened by love, ventilated, kept in motion, by the regulated action of common sense. We all know the natural conditions under which a child should live; how he shares household ways with his mother, romps with his father, is teased by his brothers and petted by his sisters; is taught by his tumbles; learns self-denial by the baby’s needs, the delightfulness of furniture by playing at battle and siege with sofa and table; learns veneration for the old by the visits of his great-grandmother; how to live with his equals by the chums he gathers round him; learns intimacy with animals from his dog and cat; delight in the fields where the buttercups grow and greater delight in the blackberry hedges. And, what tempered ‘fusion of classes’ is so effective as a child’s intimacy with his betters, and also with cook and housemaid, blacksmith and joiner, with everybody who comes in his way? Children have a genius for this sort of general intimacy, a valuable part of their education:  . . .  no compounded ‘environment’ could make up for this fresh air, this wholesome wind blowing now from one point, now from another.” (Ibid., pp. 96-97)

There is a lot to take in here but I think the key phrase is “the natural conditions under which a child should live.” That is really all atmosphere is. Put thus it sounds simple but not every child is raised in the atmosphere he should live in and even in the best homes there is much that is not ideal (given that we are all sinful people in a fallen world).

I said I would let Charlotte speak for herself, but I am going to digress a bit and give you some of my own understanding of this issue because I think it is so often misunderstood — Atmosphere happens when our lives spill over into our children’s. If I go and select edifying paintings to put on the walls and classical music to play during snack time but have no interest in these things myself, that is an artificial environment. If, on the other hand, the same paintings and music are present because I love them and enjoy them myself, that is atmosphere.  I met a family recently; the father is a public school physics teacher and the children all go to public school. But in the few hours I visited their house, they discussed the books they were reading and built ramps from wooden blocks to amuse the youngest family member. These things were all done naturally and casually. There was real interest and intellectual curiosity that the kids had clearly picked up from their parents. This is atmosphere. On the flip side, we can see the effects of a poor atmosphere — How many parents withdrawing their kids from public school complain that the child has no desire to do schoolwork or to learn? We have even come to expect this of children and are surprised when a child beyond the age of 10  (or 8 or 6)still loves to learn. The child’s (bad) atmosphere has taught him not to love knowledge and to be embarrassed by learning. [Digression within a digression: Many homeschoolers argue that the antidote to such an attitude is “deschooling.” I do not think Charlotte would have agreed. I think in such cases when the child has already been damaged by a negative atmosphere, we need to do more than let them alone; we need to be proactive. See this post.]

To return to the main topic, there may be things which contribute to atmosphere, but it is not primarily physical. In the quote above Charlotte mentions some things: ” . . . his dog and cat; . . .  the fields where the buttercups grow and . . .  the blackberry hedges,” but she does not mention home décor or even having the right books. Atmosphere is about people and experiences and above all attitudes.

Atmosphere includes the moral aspect or attitude in the home:

“[H]abits of gentleness, courtesy, kindness, candour, respect for other people, or––habits quite other than these, are inspired by the child as the very atmosphere of his home, the air he lives in and must grow by.” (Home Education, p. 137; emphasis added)

It includes the intellectual attitude, what Charlotte calls the thought-environment:

“There is no way of escape for parents; they must needs be as ‘inspirers’ to their children, because about them hangs, as its atmosphere about a planet the thought-environment of the child, from which he derives those enduring ideas which express themselves as a life-long ‘appetency’ towards things sordid or things lovely, things earthly or divine.” (Parents and Children, p. 37)

It also includes a heavy dose of the real world, with its pains and sorrows. Charlotte says that “children must face life as it is.” The atmosphere is one of “truth and sincerity” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 97). Elsewhere she puts it thus: “I do not say that we should wantonly expose the tender souls to distress, but that we should recognise that life has a ministry for them also” (School Education, p. 184).

The hardest part of atmosphere is this: If the atmosphere in your home is not what it should be, the solution needs to begin within you, the parent, for:

“[E]ducation is an atmosphere––that is, the child breathes the atmosphere emanating from his parents; that of the ideas which rule their own lives.” (Parents and Children, p. 247)

Before we move on, we must remember that there is a context for this principle. Charlotte does not say only “education is an atmosphere” but adds “a discipline” and “a life.” Atmosphere alone, she tells us, will not accomplish education:

” . . .suppose that all this is included in our notion of ‘Education is an atmosphere,’ may we not sit at our ease and believe that all is well, and that the whole of education has been accomplished? No; because though we cannot live without air, neither can we live upon air, and children brought up upon ‘environment’ soon begin to show signs of inanition; they have little or no healthy curiosity, power of attention, or of effort; what is worse, they lose spontaneity and initiative; they expect life to drop into them like drops into a rain-tub, without effort or intention on their part.” (School Education, pp. 149-50)

Atmosphere lays the groundwork for education but it alone is not enough to produce education.

[Another digression: Here I think we see a difference with the unschooling movement. Briefly, before I had read much on the Charlotte Mason method, I was captivated by the idea of “strewing” which I got from unschooling sources.  To strew is to leave good materials — books, pictures, music, etc. — laying all around in the hopes that the child will pick them up or will somehow absorb their good content. This is an artificial environment, but, even if it were not, and even if it were accompanied by the right intellectual environment, it would not be enough.]

To sum up, atmosphere, as Charlotte describes it:

  1. comes about naturally and is not contrived
  2. includes exposure to creation (those dogs and hedges she mentioned), to various sorts of people (she mentions cooks and blacksmiths), and to ideas (particularly those ideas which rule the lives of the parents)
  3. is more about an attitude than about things
  4. includes exposure to what we might call virtues: “gentleness, courtesy, kindness, candour, respect for other people.” By exposure here I do not mean lessons but that children see and experience these things.
  5. includes exposure to that which is “lovely” and “divine” as opposed to what is “sordid” and mundane
  6. might be equated with the real world with its sorrows and pains

(7) Lastly, we may say that a reason given for atmosphere is that God works in the lives of children as well as that of adults.

Atmosphere and the Bible

Having looked at how Charlotte defines atmosphere, the next step is to see how this jibes (or doesn’t) with the biblical evidence. As we move further from the theoretical and more towards the practical, we do not expect to find as many biblical verses directly addressing our problem. We are more in the realm of “agreeable to” than “founded upon.” And that is okay. The Scriptures are “the only infallible rule for faith and life” but they are not the only rule nor should we expect them to tell us everything about every aspect of life. They tell us all we need to know of our sinful natures and the plan for salvation; they do not tell us all we need to know about other topics such as diet or education.

Looking at the points above, then, we can ask both Are there biblical passages which tend to support these ideas? and Are there passages which tend to contradict them?

I’ll begin at the end — Point 7 above was the reason for atmosphere (at least in part): God works in the lives of children as well as that of adults. In one of the early posts in this series I looked at what the Bible has to say about children. I won’t rehash the evidence here (you can look back at that post for the verses) but what we saw was that children are included among God’s people, that they can sin, and that they are held to the standards of holiness and righteousness. I think we can add now that the Bible gives us some clear descriptive evidence of God working in the lives of children from John the Baptist in the womb (Luke 1:44) to the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 1:4-8) to the boy David (I Sam. 17).

Some problems arise when we look for Bible verses on this topic. I would say there is a basic harmony between what Charlotte says and the Scriptures but we are not going to find anything that uses her language of atmosphere verses environment or makes the distinctions she is making.  The following passages seem to lend support to Charlotte’s view:

  • Rom. 1:20 “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted) and Prov. 6:6 “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” — The Bible tells us that we can and should learn of God through His creation. I think it is reasonable based on this to say that exposure to creation should be part of the child’s atmosphere (see the first part of point 2 above).
  • Deut. 6:7 “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” — The picture I get here is of the things of God being integrated into life; they are spoken of throughout everyday life and as such might be said to form part of the atmosphere. This sounds a lot like the last part of point 2 above, the ideas of the parents form the atmosphere.
  • Gal. 5:22-23 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” and Eph. 4:1-2 “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,  with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, . . .” — I am sure we could find many more verses on such virtues. If these are praised and we are instructed to treat one another in such ways, then it seems logical that our children also would be surrounded by such things (point 4).
  • Phil. 4:8 “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”– One of the most on point verses; it seems to support point 5 above, that we are to provide our children with what is divine and lovely.

We see then that there are some verses that tend to support Charlotte’s idea of atmosphere. For the most part I would say that they support it in a general way, that they make her idea plausible, but they do not address specifics of how.  The second question we asked if there are any verses that argue against the points; I honestly cannot think of any (if you can think of any against or any more for, please comment below!).

Myth Busters style I am going to say that this principle is plausible. I don’t think we can say that the Bible supports a CM view of atmosphere over against the environment of, say, a Montessori classroom, but the basics of what a child should be exposed to and surrounded by seem to be quite biblical.







CM’s “Gospel” Principles

Dear Reader,

I have been slowly working my way through Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education in an effort to answer the question: Are Charlotte’s ideas founded on and agreeable to the Scriptures? To catch up and get some background, check out these posts:

On the reasoning behind this series: What does it mean to be pure CM?

Is it biblical?: CM’s first principle (plus a digression: Man in the Image of God, or Not?)

Is it biblical?: CM’s 20th Principle

Is it biblical?: CM’s 2nd principle, part 1, part 2, and part 3

CM’s first principle revisited

“The Greatness of the Child as a Person”

Whew! Up to speed yet? Until now, we have been fairly theoretical, discussing the ideas behind Charlotte’s approach to education. Having laid a groundwork by discussing who the child is, his nature, and his relationship to his Creator, I’d like to move on to more practical considerations.

My original plan had been to work my way through Charlotte’s 20 Principles. I am finding, however, that I know would like to take a slightly different tack. I will be skipping over Charlotte’s third principle entirely — not because it is not important but actually because it seems one of the least controversial. This is the one, you may recall, which discusses authority and obedience. These concepts are so central to the Bible, to parenthood, and to our relationship with God, that I hope we will have no dispute in them (though if you have specific questions, please speak up).

As we move on to numbers 4 and 5, we begin to get into the practical details which is where I’d like to spend my time now. In her fourth principle Charlotte lays out what we may not do in education and in the fifth she gives us the tools which are at our disposal. Here she uses that phrase so familiar to CM educators: “an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” As her fifth principle follows the fourth, so these positive ideas arise from negative commands. In other words, when we cross out what we cannot do, we are left with what we can do.

Where does Charlotte get these ideas? The wording is not quite the same but the concept — first eliminating the negative and then seeing what, positively, is left to us, is very similar to what Charlotte calls “the gospel code of education.” Here she finds a series of prohibitions telling us what we may not do in educating and training our children; from the negatives she then derives the corresponding positives. Here is how Charlotte explains it:

“So run the three educational laws of the New Testament, which, when separately examined, appear to me to cover all the help we can give the children and all the harm we can save them from––that is, whatever is included in training up a child in the way he should go. Let us look upon these three great laws as prohibitive, in order to clear the ground for the consideration of a method of education; for if we once settle with ourselves what we may not do, we are greatly helped to see what we may do, and must do. But, as a matter of fact, the positive is included in the negative, what we are bound to do for the child in what we are forbidden to do to his hurt.” (Home Education, pp. 12-13)

Charlotte’s Gospel Code

My modus operandi has been to let Charlotte speak for herself, to look at the biblical evidence, and then to try to evaluate her idea in light of the Scriptures with an eye to answering the question: Is Charlotte Mason’s philosophy founded upon and agreeable to the Scriptures? Let us begin then by looking at what Charlotte calls “the code of education in the gospels.”

“It may surprise parents who have not given much attention to the subject to discover also a code of education in the Gospels, expressly laid down by Christ. It is summed up in three commandments, and all three have a negative character, as if the chief thing required of grown-up people is that they should do no sort of injury to the children: Take heed that ye OFFEND not––DESPISE not––HINDER not––one of these little ones.” (Home Education, p. 12)

This code, Charlotte tells us, is not just derived from the gospels but is “expressly laid down by Christ.” I take this to mean that, in her view, Christ here deliberately gives us commandments regarding how we may treat children. The overarching theme is “do not sort of injury, ” a theme which is filled out by the three negative commands: “offend not, despise not, hinder not.” Let us take each of these three in turn, then, and examine both its biblical basis and how Charlotte defines it.

Offend Not

To Offend Not concerns “sins of commission” (p. 13). Here the active sins we may commit against children are in view. “An offence,” Charlotte tells us, ” . . . is literally a stumbling-block, that which trips up the walker and causes him to fall” (p. 13). Charlotte begins in this section by telling us that children are “born law-abiding “and with “a sense . . . of right and wrong” (p. 14), that is, a conscience. [I have dealt extensively with Charlotte’s view of the child’s nature in my posts on her second principle; I will not revisit the topic here.] The parent begins to “offend” the child  when she laughs at his transgressions, thinking them cute, and when she fails to follow through on a “no” she has given. By these she teaches him that he may be bad.

But it is not only in the moral realm that we may offend. As we have seen, Charlotte’s philosophy encompasses all areas of life. On this point too we may speak of the physical and intellectual realms and of the affections as well. In the physical realm, we offend when we give “unwholesome food” or otherwise disregard “the simple laws of health” (p. 16). In the intellectual realm, we offend when we allow a child to dawdle over their lessons. We offend their affections when we play favorites among the children.

In each of these ways then, and in many others, we offend in that we cause sin to spring up in the heart of a child. It may be the sin of being a bad steward of one’s body or mind, of not working diligently, of jealousy of a sibling. Whatever the sin, the parent has had some role in allowing it to begin and to come to fruition.

Charlotte does not cite chapter and verse for her “gospel code.” I take this a stylistic point at best. She clearly is immersed in the Scriptures and uses their language. So, while she does not directly refer us to the Gospel of Matthew, I think we can see in her language that she bases this first prohibition on Matthew 18:6:

“But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Emphasis added; All biblical quotes are taken from the King James Version unless otherwise noted.)

Despise Not

Charlotte closely links the first two prohibitions. As offend not warns against sins of commission, despise not cautions us against sins of omission. To despise, Charlotte tells us, is to have to low an opinion of. Parents despise their children when they do not give them the best of themselves; when they do not guard them against bad influences (Charlotte speaks particularly of poor nursemaids); when they do not take their sins seriously enough, that is, when they allow their sins to pass as mere childish behavior and do not address it (pp. 18-19; cf. School Education, p. 49). This is very similar to the offense Charlotte spoke of; the difference seems to be that in one the parent says “no” but undercuts their own command and in the other, the parent fails to even address the sin. To despise, then, is to neglect, not in a criminal way, but to fail to truly attend to the child’s spiritual needs for good influences and correction.

Again we may find the reference Charlotte alludes to in Matthew 18:

“Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 18:10; Emphasis added)

Hinder Not

Children, Charlotte tells us, naturally come to their Savior “when they are not hindered by their elders” (p. 20). Hindering, as she here defines it, is a particularly grievous subset of despising. When we despise the children, we impede their moral training; when we hinder, we, perhaps unknowingly, forbid the children to come to the Lord.

How do we hinder children? We speak to them of God’s judgment and not His love. We show them only “listless perfunctory prayers, idle discussions of Divine things in their presence, light use of holy words, few signs whereby the child can read that the things of God are more to his parents than any things of the world” (p. 20; cf. School Education, p. 48). In other words, we do not show them God or give them access to the real things of God. The highest function of parents, Charlotte tells us elsewhere is to be “revealers of God to their children” (School Education, p. 50).

In  introducing this issue, Charlotte uses the words “suffer” and “forbid.” These show us that the passage she has in mind is Matthew 19:13-14:

“Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Emphasis added)

These, then, are the three points that Charlotte calls “the gospel code of education” — we must not cause children to sin, we must not overlook their sin or allow them to fall into sin through our neglect, and we must not prevent them from coming to God. In this last especially we begin to see the positive injunctions that Charlotte promised us as well — we must show them God.

The Biblical Evidence: Matthew 18-19

Charlotte has made my task easy this time. Though she does not give us references, her language clearly shows us that she is basing her ideas upon Matthew 18-19. I have already spent some time on these chapters in my post on The Greatness of the Child as a Person. In that post, looking once again at Charlotte’s view of the child’s nature, I did not agree with her interpretation of these chapters. Today, however, though we cannot entirely distance ourselves from the question of the child’s inherent nature, our focus is slightly different. The question is not who the child is but what we should, or should not, do to him.

Charlotte has isolated three phrases from the biblical text and given us an interpretation of each. The question before us then is whether in each of these she rightly represents the biblical text. Now interpretation is, well, a matter of interpretation. But I think we can at least ask if the interpretations Charlotte gives us are reasonable, if they seem to make sense in the context of the passage and to be in line with the rest of the Word of God.

In Matthew 18:6 Christ tells us that it is better to be drowned in the sea than to “offend one of these little ones.” In the preceding verses, a child has been placed before Jesus. In the verses that follow, Jesus speaks of cutting off one’s hand if it “offends” one. It seems quite clear, and indeed it is the common interpretation, that to “offend” is to “to cause to sin.”

To despise, as we said above, comes from verse 10 of Matthew 18. It is not clear from the biblical context what this means which is perhaps why Charlotte resorts to her dictionary. It is a unclear how much we should make of the immediate context. These chapters have the feel of a series of utterances that may not have originally been spoken together but which have been grouped together because of some common words and themes. Nonetheless there seems to be a link with what follows as verse 11 begins with a “For . . .” — “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.” What follows is a brief parable about a man who has 100 sheep and loses one yet leaves the 99 to go look for the lost one. And then in verse 14, we read:

“Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.”

The connecting words (“for” and “even so”) seem to make these verses a unit as does the return to the idea of “little ones” in verse 14. Does this help us understand what it means to “despise”? The shepherd, it would seem, “despised not” his sheep when he noted its absence and went in search of it.  To despise may then be the opposite of to notice and to care for. The shepherd does not want his sheep to be lost; the Father does not want a little one to perish. If the shepherd had despised his sheep, he would have allowed it to stay lost. If we despise “one of these little ones,” does that mean we allow them to perish — spiritually perhaps, if not physically? I think these are reasonable conclusions from the immediate context; I don’t feel rock-solid in them. Though Charlotte does not draw out these connections, her idea of “despise” seems very similar and I would have to  say it seems in line with the little context we have.

The following chapter, Matthew 19, is seen by most scholars to begin a new section. Still the subject of “little ones” appear again here. In the midst of verses about divorce, eunuchs and eternal life, we find this short section of three verses:

“Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence.” (Matt. 19:13-15)

On the most literal level, Jesus here tells his disciples to allow children to physically approach him. It is common, and not to great a stretch I think, to extend this to a more spiritual application — children are able and encouraged to approach their Savior. We are not to forbid them from doing so. Charlotte adds that we are not to hinder and again I think this is a reasonable addition.


I have only thus far touched on the negative commands which Charlotte calls the “gospel code” — offend not, hinder not, despise not. Though I am not convinced that these are laid out for us as the rule of education, they clearly have a firm biblical basis and in each case Charlotte’s interpretation seems to fit well with the biblical context.

Next time I would like to look at the positive principles which she derives from these negative commands.

Until then


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