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What Does it Mean to be “Pure CM”? — and Why Should We Care?

Dear Reader,

I have been getting out of my little bubble recently and reading more from different sources and schools of thought about Charlotte Mason (CM) and her educational philosophy. As I have, I have come to the somewhat sad realization that there are differences and disputes in the CM world. (It is a bit like realizing that there are different Protestant denominations.)

My recent posts on the different CM curricula (here and here) are the fruit of this realization as I try to wrap my head around what the real distinctions are. In those posts, I tried to just present what each source had to say for itself, without my interpretation or commentary, and without judgment as to which is closest to Charlotte’s original ideas.

One phrase I have seen thrown around is “pure CM” or “purely CM.” Everyone I have read is very gracious but it is hard to hear one curricula or approach called “purely CM” without taking it as an implied judgment on others.

There have been two contributions recently to the debate on what it means to be “purely CM” (I have no idea if they planned this; it seems too coordinated to have been mere coincidence). Art Middlekauff has written an article at Charlotte Mason Poetry entitled “Towards an Authentic Interpretation” in which he discusses how we can determine if something is “pure CM.” And the ladies from A Delectable Education have a new podcast is which they discuss what it means to be “pure CM” and why it is important. Middlekauff looks mainly at the criteria we use — how do we know if a given practice is true to Charlotte’s intentions? The short answer to this, and I think it is a good one, is that if Charlotte did something or if her close (both in time and in relationship) followers did it, then it can merit the label “pure CM” (he uses the word “authentic”). If, however, we only find it mentioned in later sources, even PNEU sources, it does not get the coveted designation.

The ladies at ADE — Emily Kiser, Liz Cottrill, and Nicole Williams —  seem to be responding in their podcast to a pejorative use of the term. Apparently they have been accused of being “CM purists,” that is, of being too harsh or strict in what they call CM.  Their object is two-fold: to explain why it is important to try to adhere as closely as possible to CM’s methods and to draw a distinction between being “purely CM” and “perfectly CM.” With regard to the first, I will not rehash their arguments but I will say that, in my own homeschooling journey, I too have found that the more I make an effort to stick to Charlotte’s methods, the more I am rewarded with positive results. Having said that one should try to follow CM’s ideas as closely as possible, the folks at ADE make a point to say that, nonetheless, “pure CM” is a goal we aim for and which many, if not all, of us still struggle to achieve.

In large part, I like what both Middlekauff and ADE have to say. I do feel, though, this niggling sense that there is something below the surface which we are not addressing. So this post is my attempt to work out (through writing) what it means to be “pure CM” and why we should care, if indeed we should care at all.

To begin, I think we need to consider what sorts of things Charlotte Mason actually had to say and where she got her ides from. Charlotte’s philosophy of education is really more of a philosophy of life. It works on many levels; it is not just about education. In the practical details, Charlotte discusses everything from nutrition and exercise to the knowledge of God and man to interior decorating. The topics she covers are so all-encompassing because her thought is all-encompassing. What she gives us is not just a way to teach, or even an approach to child-rearing, but a theory about how we work and who we are. As she is a theist (and, of course, a Christian), one might even call it a theology.

Charlotte’s essential ideas — the basis on which her philosophy rests — come from two sources: special revelation and general revelation. In this she is very much in line with orthodox Christian thought.We know about God and His Creation from the specific things He has told us in His Word, the Bible, and from the information we can gather from His works, that is creation. She speaks of both “the three educational laws of the New Testament” (Home Education, p. 12) and of “a method of education based upon Natural Law” (p. 8), by which she means those which we discern from Nature itself. At times, Charlotte also says her ideas rest on scientific principles. By this we must understand science as that knowledge which we gain through an examination of Nature. It is often proven by testing, in Charlotte’s case by her experience as a teacher “in the field.” Such knowledge fits under the broader heading of “general revelation” though it may not be so easily acquired but requires some effort to obtain.

Perhaps because her wisdom comes from these two sources, the one directly revealed and the other discerned, we find that the sorts of things Charlotte has to tell us range from broad statements about God and man to practical details for daily teaching. On one hand, she tells us that “Children are born Persons” and that “The Holy Spirit is the Great Educator.” On the other, she tells us that early lessons must be no more than 10 minutes long, that spelling should be learned through dictation, or that lessons in grammar must not proceed proficiency in reading. As we begin to ask what it means to be purely CM and why it matters, we need to keep in mind that there are these very different kinds of statements that Charlotte makes.

The ADE podcast gives us two reasons why we should care about what is “purely CM.” On one level, it is a matter of terminology. There is a concern in the CM community at large, which the ADE talk makes clear, that the term “Charlotte Mason” be kept pure, that is, clearly defined. In modern terms, we might say we don’t want the Charlotte Mason brand to be diluted. If too many other things come to be attached to the name, then it eventually ceases to mean anything. I think we see this with “classical education.” It is used to mean so many things, that it soon means nothing. Because the Charlotte Mason method originates with one person, we have a certain leg up in this area. We can go back to the original person, or her writings at least, and say what is and isn’t “CM.” This is where Art Middlekauff’s article, mentioned above, comes in useful; it gives us guidelines for determining what is “authentic” CM and what is not.

The second reason ADE gives us for speaking of “pure CM” has to do with the nature of her approach. They say it much better than I can (and you should listen to the podcast linked above to hear them do so), but, simply put, the CM method is a unified whole. More perhaps than other approaches to education, it is designed in such a way that its parts all work together. When we tamper too much with it, we lose its benefits. This is good as far as it goes and I don’t think it is too controversial, at least within CM circles.

Thus far we have been on a fairly practical level, discussing how we implement the Cm method, but we have not discussed an even more basic question: Why we would even want to listen to a hundred-year-old educator from Britain? Middlekauff in his article provides an answer:

“Mason claimed that she developed a theory of education that conforms to divine law, that is, the way things are. And unlike the theories of man, divine law never changes. To the extent to which Mason succeeded in her aim, her method is as relevant today as it was a century ago. And if we wish to benefit from the results of her method, we must seek to understand and apply it authentically.

… The quest for an authentic interpretation begins with the recognition that in Mason’s twenty principles, she has summarized a method of education that conforms with divine law.” (“Towards an Authentic Interpretation,” from Charlotte Mason Poetry)

Middlekauff here goes well beyond what we have said; it is not just about keeping clear terminology or adhering to a unified method. It is vital to keep Mason’s theories pure, he says, because they are true. They are “the way things are” and are in accordance with unchangeable divine law.

The clause “to the extent to which Mason succeeded in her aim” is key. Mason claims, as I discussed above, to get her ideas from divine revelation which, as Middlekauff says, is immutable. If she has succeeded, then what we have are not just the theories of one woman but divine principles.

I am teetering here on the edge of some really big questions that can not easily be answered in one post. Simply put, we may ask: Has Mason succeeded in her aim? Are her ideas an accurate reflection of divine law? To truly answer this question we would need to break it down. Mason looked at both special and general revelation. She dealt with both big, broad principles about human nature and particular theories about how education happens. The former may be tested against God’s special revelation, that is Scripture. We may ask, for instance, if God’s Word tells us that children are indeed “born persons” and if the Holy Spirit is the source of wisdom (to both of these I would answer yes, and I have discussed in the past why I do think CM’s approach is biblical). But we should not expect Scripture to tell us much about the practical details. These things Charlotte derived not from special but from general revelation. They are the fruit of her experience and knowledge.

When it comes to evaluating Charlotte’s work and theories, then, we must distinguish between those propositions which we may hold up to the light of Scripture and those upon which the Bible offers us no particular insight. These latter we may still test but through more mundane means. It may be that more recent scholarship confirms or denies Charlotte’s methods (and I think it often does, in trying to build something new, come back to the principles Charlotte espoused 100 years ago; see this post). In practice, I think we homeschooling parents turn not to the educational research of our day but to our own experience: Do Charlotte’s ideas resonate with us? Do they seem to reflect our own instincts and experiences? Do her methods work for us? Do our children thrive with them?

There is a bit of a chicken and egg problem here. We may come into this endeavor with certain notions of what will work, but at some point we must trust Charlotte enough to apply her methods in order to see that they do indeed bear fruit. But to even begin to trust her with something as vital as our children’s education, we must first have some sense that this is the right path and that there is at least some measure of truth to what she says. This is perhaps why so many of us come to CM’s ideas bit by bit. We try a little, we find it works well for us, so we try a bit more, adding on piece by piece until we decide to commit fully to her philosophy.

What then does it matter what is “pure CM”? Middlekauff’s answer is simple even as it opens a giant can of worms: It matters because she is right.  If Charlotte’s ideas do indeed reflect unchangeable divine law, then we should not expect substantial changes or improvements and we should care very much what is “pure CM.”

I’d like to end for now with a different question than that which we started with. I began by asking: What does it means to be “pure CM”? Middlekauff has given us very good criteria with which to answer this question but it leads to another: Why should we care what is authentic? To that ADE gives two good answers. But Middlekauff again alludes to something even bigger: Was Charlotte Mason right? Can she lay any claim to having put before us the immutable divine law as regards education? I am not prepared to fully answer that question in this post. Personally, Charlotte’s ideas resonate with me as reflecting both the broader ideas I see in Scripture and my own observations of how learning works. I don’t intend to spend much time defending the practical details – the use of living books, how we learn spelling, and such. I would like, for my own benefit, to spend more time looking at all the Scriptures have to say about the big ideas – the nature of children, the role of the Holy Spirit in education, and even, where applicable, how learning works. You can be sure I will blog about anything I find 😉



Three More CM Curricula Compared

Dear Reader,

I recently shared with you a chart comparing four of the biggest Charlotte Mason based curricula out there (find it here). I have less familiarity with this next batch of programs but in order to be as fair as possible, I have also tried to find the same information for them. This time we will consider A Modern Charlotte Mason (MCM), Living Books Curriculum (LBC), and Higher Up and Further In (HUFI) from Charlotte Mason Help. These three, with the four I look at previously, make up the bulk of the “Charlotte Mason Curricula” listed by Ambling Along Together in their list of CM resources. The two I did not include had particular religious bents (Catholic and LDS) and there are also CM “adaptable” and CM “influenced” curricula which I have not looked at.

Here then is the pdf chart of these three curricula compared:


As before, feel free to let me know what can be added or corrected, as long as it is true to the philosophy of the curriculum itself.


Four Charlotte Mason Curricula Compared

Dear Reader,

I feel like I don’t have a great grasp of the finer differences between the different Charlotte Mason curricula out there so I set myself to try to learn more about each. Personally, I tend to read and pull from different sources but mostly to “free-form” what I do — i.e. to find my own resources and piece things together. I don’t have a strong tie to any one of these so I hope I am not too biased.

I began by looking at 4 CM curricula: Simply Charlotte Mason (SCM), Ambleside Online (AO), A Delectable Education (ADE), and the Alveary from the Charlotte Mason Institute (CMI). In another post, I plan to look at A Modern Charlotte Mason, Living Books Curriculum, and Charlotte Mason Help. The topics I have chosen speak to general concerns (“how much will this cost me?”) as well as specific concerns I have (“how is high school science approached?”). I haven’t touched on every possible subject. There are a lot of areas in which they all say pretty much the same thing — e.g. “spelling is learned through copywork and dictation.”

I have tried as much as possible to let the curricula speak for themselves — to use quotes from their own materials. For some, this was easier than others. AO gives a lot of detail about their curriculum. ADE, which is primarily podcasts, is harder logistically to get direct quotes from. The Alveary, which is very new and works on a subscription basis, is hard to find specifics on though I have managed to glean some things from the sample lists I could find.

With all of these, we should acknowledge that people will alter and combine what they find. I am trying to give you what each curriculum is — what it offers and claims to be. But you may, as I have always done, adjust and tweak at will.

I am not making judgments about which curriculum is best — or most purely CM– here. I may be tempted to give some of my own opinions in another post.

Without further ado, then, here is Four Charlotte Mason Curricula Compared:

cm curricula compared 3-10-17

I realize there are gaps here and there may be things I have misrepresented (I have tried my best but no doubt misunderstood some things; there is a lot to take in). Please feel free to comment with edits and emendations. I would ask, however, that you make sure any additions are representing the intents of the curriculum itself rather than its interpretations by users.



Cool Websites for Geography

Dear Reader,

Last year I was trying to merge geography and current events. That worked okay for a while but I had a hard time getting the prep work done that I needed too. This year we are taking a slightly more laid back approach. I am simply using interesting maps. We look at one or more at a time, once a week (ideally), and discuss it. (My younger two also still do map drills; I have dropped this for my high schoolers.)

Here are some of the sites we have found with maps that teach about the world:

16 Maps that will change your understanding of the world forever

Mother Tongues

32 Maps that will teach you something new about the world

40 Maps that will help you make sense of the world

40 More Maps that Explain the World

And lastly, GeoCurrents — This website is a bit different from the others; you might have to dig around a little more but it has some interesting maps and a lot of resources. Consider, for instance, this map on milk and meat consumption in India. They are not currently adding new material.




Living Books on the 1960s

Dear Reader,

You can find all my posts on the living books we’ve been using for history (and other subjects!) here.

Our spine series is, as it has been this year Our Century. You can look at those earlier posts to find out more about it and why we are using it.

The big topic for the 1960s is the Vietnam War. But there are  a few other topics as well so let’s start with those:

I couldn’t find a lot of living books on the Cuban Missile Crisis. I chose the one in the middle — Cuban Missile Crisis: In the Shadow of Nuclear War by R. Conrad Stein — above for my 6th grader to read. Stein is an author I have used before (but only from other series, I think). He does pretty well with making history interesting, not too dry.

Living through the Cuban Missile Crisis is actually a series of essays and first-hand resources. I didn’t end up using it but it could be good if you’d like your child to use original sources.

I checked out Thirteen Days Ninety Miles by Norman H. Finkelstein but it seemed to dry to me; my eyes began to glaze over on the first page. Did you ever notice how living books let the facts come at you slowly? I think this would be a hard book to read if you don’t already have some background knowledge of the people and events of the time.

I like the series Cornerstones of Freedom for brief intros to various topics we don’t have more time for. Be sure to look for the ones that begin “The Story of . . .” They are older and better-written. There are probably more on this time period but these are the two my library system had. FYI these are really elementary level books.

Turning then to the big topic, Vietnam, I was able to find quite a lot on both the war and the society or culture.

My 10th grader is reading Albert Marrin’s America and Vietnam: The Elephant and the Tiger. Marrin’s book are mostly high school level (though some are simpler). He does a good job of incorporating a lot of elements and strands in a cohesive narrative of his topic. We use his books a lot.

(My 11th grader, btw, is still working on a book on the Cold War, a more comprehensive account that will take him longer.)

My 7th grader is reading Captive Warriors: A Vietnam POW’s Story by Sam Johnson. This is an autobiographical account. It would not be for the squeamish but seems quite well-done.

I looked at but did not use A Place Called Heartbreak by Walter Dean Myers and The Wall by Eve Bunting. The latter is (you may have guessed) about the Memorial Wall. Bunting is an author I like but this is really a not too hard picture book and my kids are too old for it. Myers’ book is a chapter book for grades 3-5 or so. Again, I thought my kids were beyond it. I am not sure how good the writing is but it looks like a story at least, not just facts.

The Lotus Seed by Sherry Garland is another picture book which we skipped; this one is about a family escaping civil war in Vietnam.

My 6th grader read A Boat to Nowhere by Maureen Crane Wartski. It tells the tale of a family of boat people fleeing the Communists.

For a read aloud for my younger two I debated between The Land I Lost and Water Buffalo Days both by Quang Nhuong Hyunh. They both looked so good. I chose The Land I Lost. It tells about life for a boy in Vietnam before the war and is humorous  and entertaining. I can’t speak for Water Buffalo Days but I suspect all books by this author will please.

Happy Reading!


Living Books on Anatomy and Medicine

Dear Reader,

Rather inadvertently, my 7th grader has ended up reading a number of books this year on anatomy and medicine so I thought I would share what he has read this year as well as some books we used in the past. You can find all my lists of living books here.

Though not the first book he read, John Hudson Tiner’s History of Medicine would be a good place to start.


Tiner’s books are generally middle school level though I have used them in high school as well (especially for non-science kids). Though they have lists of questions at the end of each chapter, we just use them as we would any other living book — read and narrate, read and narrate. Though they may appear textbook-y, they really are quite readable. I like the history of science approach of this one.

Another middle school age book — I am Joe’s Body by J. D. Ratcliff — goes through the body systems one by one. Though older (and perhaps harder to find), it is quite detailed. There may be some things which have changed in our understanding over the years though I think it’s always nice to be able to point these out and show that science is not static.  I would not use this book for elementary but you could use it in high school as well.

One of my favorite books was a use book find from a number of years ago: Spare Parts: From Peg Legs to Gene Splices by Wendy B. Murphy (pic below) is about all the ways we alter the human body, from ancient prosthetic noses to modern genetic engineering. Middle school level again though I use it as part of my high school biology reading list.


Another winner: Phineas Gage by John Fleischman. This is the true story of a New Hampshire man who got (I think) a railroad spike through his head, the problems he faced and what his doctors learned about the brain from him. It is not long and is engaging reading.

Albert Marrin is one of our favorite authors. Many of his books are on history, but he has a couple on science. One I’ve used for high school biology is Dr. Jenner and the Speckled Monster, a book about smallpox. Another to consider is Little Monsters: The Creatures that Live in Us and on Us. I may have my son do this one next.


Again, probably a high school level book: Mr. Tompkins Inside Himself by George Gamow. My Tompkins literally goes inside himself and explores all his bodily systems.

Lastly, a few books for younger kids: The Brain: What it is, What it does –well, you can guess what that’s about and Your Insides by Joanna Cole (oh she of Magic School Bus fame; I won’t even begin to list Magic School Bus books; you can look them up on your own if you like them). The latter is one of these flip and see inside books. Both are elementary level. Blood and Guts which is from The Brown Paper School has text and simple experiments. We used it a few years ago. I would call it upper elementary to middle school level. Not perhaps a true living book but it is written in an engaging manner. There is one illustration of mammals and their brain sizes that I can still picture in my head. Lastly, if you have a boy resistant to reading, you might try the Andrew Lost series by J.C. Greenburg. My oldest enjoyed them for a time. They are chapter books on about the level of Magus Treehouse. I am sure they will strike some as not real living books. A boy and his friend (cousin? It’s been a while and I’m not sure) get shrunk and go on some gross adventures — but at least they are gross in a finding out about anatomy and plumbing sort of way.

Happy reading!



Living Books on the 1950s

Dear Reader,

This is part of a continuing series as we work our way through American history. You can find all my booklists here.

Our spine series this year is called Our Century. Though perhaps not living by some definitions, it is well written. You can read the earlier posts for more on why we are using this series (which has a lot to do with availability).

I am finding that there are some eras for which little is available. The 1950s is one of these. When we come to the 60s and Vietnam, there is a ton out there, but there seems to be a dearth of good books for kids on the 1950s. Even in the Truthquest guide for the period (which I use as a bibliography), I couldn’t find much. We are only spending a week or two 50s, but I will still disappointed with the selection.

The two big topics for this decade are the Cold War and Civil Rights. I am trying to give my 11th grader a more global perspective so I am him read The Long Peace by John Lewis Caddis.

The book really covers much more then just the 50s and it will take him at least a month to read so this will be his history for a while. We had this book on our shelf, I assume from some class my husband did in college. I read the beginning and while it is dense I found it quite readable.

My 6th grader read The Story of the Cold War from the Cornerstones of Freedom series. I like this series for upper elementary and early middle school to get a brief introduction to a topic we can’t spend a lot of time on (see this post for more on the series and why you should look for the older editions).

My 7th grader read The Berlin Wall by Lisa Mirabile. He says it was a “decent sort of book” which is high praise from him 😉 It could be used for upper elementary as well. I think it does a pretty good job of showing the impact of the wall.

The second big topic from the 1950s is Civil Rights.

I had my 10th grader read The Barred Road by Adele Leeuw. It is fiction — the story of a white girl who, against her mother’s wishes, works with black children and makes friends with the new black family next door. This is a book to give the feel of what it was like to be black, or white, then, not to get specific historical information from. She seems to be enjoying the story.

My 6th grader also read Bright April by Marguerite de Angeli. The book itself was not hard and could be used at a younger age. De Angeli is a well-known author so I had high expectations but I’m not sure my daughter got as much from the book as I would have liked.

I read North Star Shining aloud to my two younger ones. It is poetry showing the plight and progress of African Americans in the US. It talks about both the general and about specific people. I enjoyed reading it for the sound of the poetry. One could certainly use it with elementary age but you could also use it even in high school I think if you wanted to take the time to learn a little about each of the people it mentions.

I looked at but did not use two other books on the plight of African Americans: Going North by Janice N. Harrington and Time of Trial, Time of Hope: The Negro in America, 1919-1941 by Milton Meltzer. The former seemed too simple for my children; it has relatively few words but might be good for lower elementary. The latter, as its subtitle suggests, really covers the period of the world wars. It looked good but wasn’t quite what I was looking for right now.

That’s all I’ve got on the 50s. Next up: the 60s and the Vietnam War (lots of books there!)


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