Posts Tagged ‘homeschool’

Booklist: Living Books on WWII

As we continue with booklists I have put together over the years, today we turn to WWII.

Living Books on WWII

Adler, David A. Picture Book of Anne Frank. Adler’s biographies are decent picture book level introductions. Elementary.

Ambrose, Stephen. The Good Fight. Covers the major battles and movements of WWII in a page each with good writing. He also wrote Band of Brothers and books for adults which could be an option for high school. Elementary +.

Benary-Isbert, Margot. The Ark. Middle years.

Bishop, Claire. Ten and Twenty. Wonderful story. Upper elementary-middle.

Borden, Louise. Across the Blue Pacific, Greatest Skating Race, and Little Ships. Picture books. Elementary.

Bunting, Eve. Terrible Things. Elementary.

Chaconas, Doris. Pennies in a Jar. Elementary.

Coerr, Elizabeth. Sadako and the 1000 paper cranes. Re Japan. Elementary.

Commager, Henry Steele. Story of the Second World War. I like Commager’s books. I am not sure of the level of this one.

Deedy, Carmen. The Yellow Star: The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark.  Elementary.

Gallaz, Christophe. Rose Blanche. Elementary.

Hughes, Shirley. The Lion and the Unicorn. A Jewish boy in England. Elementary.

Hunter, Sara. Unbreakable Code. Elementary.

Johnson, Angela. Wind Flyers. Picture book. Elementary.

Lowry, Lois. Number the Stars. Middle years.

Lutzer, Erwin. Hitler’s Cross. Hitler’s theology examined. Teens.

Marrin, Albert. A favorite author with a number of books on the war: Uprooted (on the Japanese in the US), The Airman’s War, Hitler, Victory in the pacific, A light in the darkness (re the holocaust), Overlord (re DDay), Secret armies (re code breakers). Teens

McSwigan, Marie. Snow Treasure. Wonderful book. Upper elementary-middle.

Miers, Earl Schenk. Men of Valor. An older author. Middle years (?).

Polacco, Patricia. Butterfly. Elementary.

Seredy, Kate. Chestry Oak. Upper elementary-middle.

Stevenson, James. Don’t You Know There’s a War On? Elementary.

Streatfield, Noel. When the Sirens Wailed. Middle years.

Tunis, John. Silence over Dunkerque. Middle years.

Werstein, Irving. Another favorite author with a lot of books on WWI. He has many on specific battles and also The Long Escape (re children in Belgium),  The Uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto, and That Denmark Might Live. Middle-teens.

Whelan, Gloria. After the Train and Summer of the War. Whelan has lots of good historical fiction. Middle years.

Preparing for and Applying to College as a CM Homeschooler

As I write this I have two kids in college and two in high school. They were all homeschooled all the way through and mostly with Charlotte Mason’s methods. Below are some thoughts on how to do high school as a homeschooler, and particularly a CM homeschooler, and how to navigate the college application process. I also have a couple of older posts on this topic:

CM in High School: How We Do It

A CM Education in High School and College Prep

Preparing for College

High School Academics: What to Teach and How to Teach it

What to Teach

It is generally good to have some sort of plan of attack for high school before you begin. If your child plans to go to college or even might possibly some day decide they want to, you will want them to have the requisite classes under their belt. If you have an idea of where they might go, you can look at a few college websites and see what they require. I would say the summer before 9th grade is the time to do this. Things to look at in particular: if they require a foreign language and if so how many years, if they require lab sciences, and if they require any standardized testing beyond the SAT/ACT.

Typical college expectations are: 4 years each of English, Math, and History/Social Studies; 3-4 years of science with labs; 2-3 years of foreign language; 5-11 other courses (fine arts, PE, computers, etc.). The above is what colleges want to see on a transcript. That does not mean you need to do everything as discrete courses that fit these labels. What you need to do is turn what you have done into language they will understand. For instance, my children read a economics book at one point in high school and an American government one at another point. When creating their transcript, I lump these together and call them a half year of civics.

You will want to keep as thorough records as you can along the way. You will be glad you did later when you have to create a transcript. It is surprisingly easy to forget what your kid have read and studied. If you homeschool with the Charlotte Mason method, you will likely find that you have quite a lot of “classes” that you have done over the years. For example, if you read one or two Shakespeare plays a year that can be classified as an English or drama elective. While again you will want to plan for things like foreign language, I found that my CM-educated kids had way more than enough credits when I looked at everything they had done. Creating a transcript was mostly lumping things together and deciding what to call them and what year to assign them to (for more see “Transcripts” below).

How to Teach It

There is a big temptation for CM homeschoolers to change methods as they get to high school. This is not necessary. All the reasons you chose to use living books are still in effect at this point. In fact I would say they are even more so. Now is the time to expose your kids to living ideas in a literary format.

For science, I briefly tried something more traditional with my oldest in 9th grade and found it was boring and we still really liked living books. I did make a point of adding labs. I tried to outsource these as much as possible through local or national groups but one year I got together with other local moms and we did them ourselves. The good news is that there are many engaging, living books for this level. Don’t think school books; look for what is popular for adults. For example, one favorite that I read and made all my kids read for biology was How to Clone a Mammoth by Beth Shapiro. This is a fairly dense, scientific book but it is written in an engaging way by someone who knows and loves what she does. The same is true for history — there are a lot of good adult books out there for you to use.

I did outsource foreign language for all my kids. I let them pick a language (as long as I could find classes for it; one child wanted Swedish and that didn’t happen) and didn’t worry too much about whether it was taught with CM methods. One nice side benefit is that you then have a teacher who has had your child for a few years and can write an academic recommendation when the time comes (see below). If you do choose to use outside providers for certain classes, we found that almost all companies these days have decent platforms and that it is the teacher that matters most. For a list of places with online classes for homeschoolers see this document.

In a CM education, high school is the time to switch gears a little with writing. Up until this point your child will have done a lot of written narrations but not much else. Don’t panic. These narrations really are a good foundation for all other kinds of writing. I found that CM-educated kids tend to have their own voice in their writing (which is a good thing). My son came home from college his first year and told me very proudly that though I had always complained about his writing that his professors said it was very good (I still think he was not a stellar writer, at least in high school). I could tell you how we did high school writing but really the best thing is to get Karen Glass’s book Know and Tell and to follow her instructions. What she did is very similar to how I approached it but she explains it very well. Don’t worry too much about them knowing a certain method for citing things in academic papers. Their college will have its own chosen method and will make sure freshman know how to do it. Grammar can be done in one year in a CM education. If they haven’t done it in middle school, now is the time. My curriculum of choice is KISS grammar.

Standardized Tests

As I write this (in early 2021) the college testing world is in a time of flux. The SAT which just a few years ago made the essay optional will be dropping it altogether and SAT subject tests are also going away. Many colleges are temporarily not requiring SATs or ACTs due to the pandemic. It remains to be seen whether these temporary changes will become permanent and whether anything will arise to take the place of SAT subject tests (when my oldest was applying in 2018, Ivy League and other high level schools required SAT subject tests).

Because my kids never took standardized tests before high school, I had them take the PSAT in both 10th and 11th grade. These you register for through a local school. They are usually offered in October. We found the local Catholic school very accommodating. SATs and ACTs which are usually taken for the first time in the winter or spring of 11th grade you register for online through the College Board.

I found that my CM-educated kids were fairly well prepared for these tests. We did do a practice test or two ahead of time. After one practice test, I was able to see what was confusing to them (just because they had never encountered questions done that way) and to explain what the questions were asking and how they should think about them. IMO practice tests are the best preparation. My second child also used the resources on Khan Academy. Susan Schaeffer Macaulay in For the Children’s Sake speaks of the passports our society requires and that is how I think of these things. They are necessary obstacles but one should not allow them to absorb too much of one’s focus and energy.

Other tests are not necessarily required. It depends on the colleges (and again that all is in flux due to testing changes in 2020/2021). It can be helpful for homeschooled students to have a little more to show for themselves so if they can do an AP class or two that may help. It can also get them some college credit if they do well. We found that AP tests are not a good way to learn a subject. A lot of it is learning how to navigate the test itself. Taking a licensed AP class (anyone who uses the AP label has to be licensed by the College Board), online or in person, can be very useful. It is harder to prepare for these on your own because there are tricks and tips a licensed teacher will know. Less subjective subjects like computer science and calculus may be a little easier. Humanities tend to be very political or trendy in their choices of what is important and needs to be known. As of about two years ago AP registration deadlines have moved to the fall. The tests themselves usually happen the first two weeks of May. You will need to find a local school to accommodate you on this. Often Christian and/or private schools are easier to work with. We found a little Christian school that would even do tests just for my child though public schools will often let your child join if it is a test they are already offering.

High School Timetable

  • Before 9th grade: Think about what you are aiming for and what you need to get there. Look at sample colleges to see what they require, esp. how many years of foreign language and science as well as testing requirements.  If your child will need accommodations to take college board tests, begin the process now.
  • Fall of 10th grade: Take PSATs for the first time. Consider doing an AP subject this year.
  • Fall of 11th grade: Take PSATs again.
  • Winter/Spring of 11th grade: Take SATs or ACTs. Repeat as needed.
  • Spring of 11th grade: Take AP tests if desired.
  • Late Summer/Fall of 12th grade: Begin FAFSA and college apps. Aim for 11/1 deadline for maximum financial aid.
  • Spring of 12th grade: Take AP tests. Reply to schools. Send in final transcripts and scores.

Applying to College

Financial Aid

Almost all schools use the fafsa (not Grove city and a couple more). This is mainly about parents’ finances and can be a pain in the butt if you have multiple checking/retirement/college accounts. It is usually available online around August. Start early. The good news is that in subsequent years it remembers your info and gets a little easier. Some schools also require the College Board’s financial form which isn’t much better; check the College Board site on this. I found out late that they wanted this extra form from me. Deadline for merit aid for many schools is 11/1 so aim to get all applications and financial documents in by then.

Transcripts and Course Summaries

As the homeschooling parent, you also get to function as guidance counselor. There may be slight differences among colleges in terms of what they ask for but generally you will need to provide: a transcript, course summaries (optional), a school profile, and a counselor recommendation letter. Many colleges today use the common app which allows you to enter all this information once and have it sent to participating schools.

A transcript is a once page document that lists the courses your child has taken and their grades. There is a fairly standard format for these and it is best to not be too creative. You want schools to be able to quickly look at your transcript and understand what it is communicating. You can format your own. I used a program that did it for me for $12/year (only one year is necessary). Such a program will also calculate the GPA for you. It seemed well worth the cost.

A traditional transcript lists courses by year, eg. all the ninth grade courses in one section, 10th grade in the next and so on. Some homeschoolers choose to group courses by subject — eg. all social science courses together and all science, all math, etc. I have heard of one parent who was asked for a more traditional transcript when she tried this.

The usual practice for high school is to assign full-year courses 1 credit and half year courses 1/2 credit. Ambleside Online has a section which discusses how many hours of work equal one credit. In general you can assume that one standard course — eg. algebra or 9th grade English — is one credit. Other subjects that you have spent less time on, perhaps Shakespeare or art history/appreciation, might be a half credit. Generally you want to aim for 22-26 credits.

As CM homeschoolers our courses did not always fit the standard categories. As noted above, I looked back at what we had done and grouped things together. If a course spanned multiple years, I just assigned it to a year. I tried to make the years fairly even so there would not be 3 credits in one year and 8 in another.

While my kids had a few classes that they had done with outside providers and had grades for, I had never given them grades so I assigned grades retroactively as I made the transcripts. Basically, I just thought back over the work they had given me. Had they done all the required work and done it diligently? That’s an A. If they didn’t quite get everything done or didn’t do their best work, that’s a B and so on. You can use your school profile (see below) to explain your grading strategy.

There is usually a place on the transcript to add notes about particular classes. If your student did a high school level class before 9th grade (eg. algebra), you can include it as an “early earned credit” (EEC). I also marked classes that were done with outside providers and noted which sciences had lab components. Be sure to indicate which classes are AP level even if your student didn’t take the exam but don’t use the AP label if it was not done with a licensed AP provider (again, they strictly regulate the AP label).

There will also be places in the application to list activities that your student has participated in. There may be some things that could be called a class or an outside activity. For example, my kids have done play reading with friends. This could be considered a drama class or a recreational activity or club. You can choose which category these go in but be sure to only use them once. It can’t be both a class and an activity.

The common app allows you to upload a few transcripts (I think the number is 3). If you have transcripts from outside providers, you can use one of these slots for them (you may want to combine them into one document). If you chose, you can also use one of these slots to upload course summaries. None of the colleges my kids applied to specifically asked for them but I had heard they might so I created and uploaded them proactively (it’s possible if I hadn’t done so that they would have asked). While this is more work, it is also an extra way to show what your student has done and give some idea of how your homeschool works. I created one document that listed all my children’s classes by school year (corresponding to their transcript). Two examples from my son’s course summary:

“English 9: American Writers

A year-long course covering literature, composition, grammar, and spelling. The emphasis for this freshman level course is on American essayists, poets and short story writers.  Discussion and identification of poetic devices including meter, rhyme, alliteration, anaphora, paradox, anastrophe, metaphor, personification and hyperbole. Assessment through class discussions, weekly assignments in writing and grammar, and essays and short answer assignments on works read.

Reading list: Selected poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and T.S. Eliot; Selected stories by Washington Irving; “Self-Reliance” and “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson; “Resistance to Civil Government” by Henry David Thoreau; Selected stories by Edgar Allen Poe; “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber; “Leader of the People” by John Steinbeck; “The Bear” by William Faulkner

American History: the 19th Century

A full-year course on 19th century American history with a mini-unit on Victorian England.  Assessment was through class discussions, oral presentations, and written reactions to reading assignments.

Reading list: A Volcano beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War against Slavery and Virginia’s General: Robert E. Lee and the Civil War by Albert Marrin; The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick; “The Red Badge of Courage” by Stephen Crane; Ghost Towns of the American West and Light for the World: Edison and the Power Industry by Robert Silverberg; Seven Fires: The Urban Infernos that Reshaped America by Peter Charles Hoffer; The Crimean War by James Barbary

Other resources: The Presidents, video series by the History Channel; The American Destiny, multi-volume series, edited by Henry Steele Commager; Civil War: America Divided, video series”

As you can see, the reading lists from CM homeschoolers end up looking quite impressive.

Recommendation Letters and School Profile

As the guidance counselor, you will provide one recommendation for your student. You will likely need 1 or 2 others, one of which must come from an academic instructor (this is where it is useful to have had at least one outside class). I acknowledged up front in my counselor letter that I was the homeschooling parent and just tried to be honest about their particular strengths. This is also a good place to explain any extenuating circumstances like learning disabilities.

The school profile is usually a standard document the guidance counselor would upload that would be the same for all the students in a school. It usually provides demographic information for the area and statistics on how many of its students take AP classes, etc. I found this was a good opportunity to explain a little bit about our philosophy of education. This is the basic format I used:

School Profile

Name of Homeschool

Parents’ names and contact info

Demographics: View brief info on our town and parents’ degrees.

Philosophy of Education: Use your own words here. I explained that we used “living books.” I used words like interdisciplinary to explain how we encourage connections across subject areas and said that our education was “liberal arts based.” I explained our use of narration because it allows the child to teach what they have learned to others.

Graduation Requirements: I provided a chart showing how many years I had required in each major subject area (ELA, science, math, etc.). I made this up retroactively.

Educational partners: I listed any outside providers we had used.

Grading: I explained how we graded — that we taught to mastery and that an “A” grade indicates that work was completed satisfactorily and that the student demonstrated a good understanding of the material, etc.

Other Parts of the Application

There are lots of other little bits to the common app (or other applications). One school required my son to upload a resume. They all ask about outside activities and awards. They will have places to enter in class rank and the like. I just always checked “not applicable” or “we do not calculate class rank.” Of course your student will also have to write an essay. Some schools will require extra essays and some scholarships may require them as well. The common app essay will go to multiple schools, but if a given school requires an extra essay, try to gear it to that school specifically.

Applying to Art Schools

My second child was aiming for an art school from a fairly young age so I thought I would add a note about applying to art schools specifically. While your child will likely have to do all the standard things as well, the biggest factor in their application will be their portfolio. It is good to start this as early as possible; 9th grade is ideal. A lot of their 9th grade work may not end up in the portfolio but you will want them to have a lot to choose from. Elite schools will want to see many media. Even if your child knows what they are aiming to do they will have to show that they are well-rounded art-wise. Trendy media like anime are not going to go very far towards getting them in. Schools will likely want to see 12-20 pieces. Some can show their ideas in progress but most should be finished pieces. You can find videos online of students who have been accepted showing their portfolios. You can also get portfolio reviews ahead of time. In non-pandemic years, there are portfolio days across the nation that multiple schools come to. Some schools will do a sample review for you ahead of time. It is not binding but gives you some feedback (my dd did this at MassArt; this is not the school she ended up at). There is also an online site that you can get reviews through (see here).

Charlotte Mason and Montessori: A Comparison of Principles

I have a great new yard sale find book I am reading: Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius by Angeline Stoll Lillard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). I read a fair amount of developmental psychology last year with an eye to seeing how it jibes, or doesn’t, with Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education [1]. This book essentially does the same thing for Maria Montessori. I will at some point return to the science, but for today I’d just like to start with a principle-by-principle comparison of the two women’s approaches to education.

The similarities and differences between Mason and Montessori are a frequent topic on CM forums at least. Mason herself wrote some articles objecting to aspects of Montessori’s philosophy [2] yet from our more modern perspective the two may seem similar in points. This is my attempt to do a systematic comparison. Mason boiled her philosophy down to 20 principles [3]. Montessori has eight [4]. They do not line up perfectly (that would be too easy), but we can attempt to compare them.

Before we get to their ideas, let’s take a minute to look at the ladies themselves. Mason and Montessori were contemporaries, though Mason was older and began her career first. Mason lived and worked in England; Montessori in Italy. Both worked as teachers and were fairly hands-on in the schools they established. Mason began her career as a teacher. Montessori began as a scientist and doctor (in fact, she was the first female doctor in Italy). Mason was a member of the Church of England. Montessori had leanings towards a spiritual movement called theosophy, especially towards the end of her life. Because they were near contemporaries and because in many ways they were reacting against the same trends in education, there is much that will seem similar between the two, but they did not agree.



There is a certain similarity between the two women when it comes to methodology. Both women were experimental in their approaches in that they adapted what was going on in their schools based on what was actually working. For Montessori, with her scientific background, this was a deliberate decision (Lillard, p. 186). Mason began her work when she as a teacher saw what was not working in the schools. Later as she trained teachers, she adapted the curriculum based on what was and wasn’t working. For example, she would reject books that students had not been able to remember well at their end-of-term exams.


Each woman tells us what she thinks the basis of her philosophy is. For Mason, the foundation is 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 . . .” (Home Education, p. 12; emphasis added) [5]. Montessori, on the other hand, strove to make her approach to education as scientific as possible: “‘The basis of the reform of education and society . . . must be built upon scientific study'” (as quoted by Lillard, p. 3). Now science and faith need not be at odds, but we can still say that in terms of motivating principles, there is a fundamental difference.

Worldview/Religious Foundations

The framework of a Montessori education, from which it arises and to which it returns, is a set of five stories called “the Great Lessons.” These stories, which are told regularly to children and to which all the curriculum is related are five key developments in human civilization as Montessori saw it. They are: the creation of the universe, the beginning of life, the rise of human beings, the development of language, and the development of numbers (Lillard, p. 130). Note the evolutionary structure. Children are taught that it all began with a Big Bang and that life evolved on earth (p. 132). These events certainly could be told in a Christian or biblical way, but the underlying beliefs are not inherently Christian but are based in an evolutionary mindset. All learning is connected to these stories so that children receive a “Cosmic Education” (p. 144).

Though Mason does not have an equivalent, overarching narrative, her Anglican theology clearly influenced her philosophy. As Montessori’s approach can be adapted to Christianity so Mason’s can and has been adapted to other religions and to a secular worldview. In its essence, however, Mason’s approach is at the very least inherently theist. It assumes a “Divine Spirit” who is not distant but actively involved in the lives and the educations of children and who has access to their hearts and minds (principle 20).

The Child and His Nature

The Child as a Person

When we think of the child as a person, we can distinguish a few different issues: uniqueness/individuality; the parts of the child (body, mind, soul); innate abilities and stages of development; and his moral nature.

Both Mason and Montessori reject the idea common in their age that the child is a blank slate or an empty vessel to be filled up. Inherent in this image is the idea that each child can be molded or filled up the same way. That is, what a blank slate or an empty vessel becomes is not a factor of how it began but of what is done to it. All empty vessels are essentially equivalent until something is done to them.

Mason’s first principle states her view that “Children are born persons.” This is not a primarily statement about the child’s individuality and uniqueness but is meant to express that the child is a fully formed human being sharing all the faculties and abilities of adults. Nonetheless, it is clear that Mason does acknowledge the uniqueness of each child. She says that “the child’s mind is no mere sac” (principle 9). His education is not dependent upon his circumstances or environment (principle 15), but each will attain such knowledge as is fitting to him (principles 11 and 19). Each will develop relations that are unique to him because he is born not as a blank slate but with certain affinities (principle 12).

Montessori also clearly rejects the idea of the child as a blank slate or empty vessel. Relative to her time, she gave the child quite a lot of freedom to choose to do as he would wish (Lillard, p. 80), an implicit acknowledgment of his uniqueness. For Montessori the child is “a motivated doer, rather than an empty vessel” (p. 28).

Physical, Intellectual, Spiritual

Though both Montessori and Mason would say that they seek to educate the whole person, their perception of the person and how his parts relate to one another differs.

Mason calls the child a “spiritual organism” (principle 9) [6]. Inherent in this phrase are two parts: the organic or physical and the spiritual. The spiritual for Mason is closely tied to the intellectual [7]. In practice, the physical is not ignored but seems to fall into a secondary role while the intellectual is paramount.

For Montessori the child is “a motivated doer” (Lillard, p. 28). The first principle of a Montessori education is that “movement and cognition are closely entwined, and movement can enhance thinking and learning” (p. 29).”‘Mental development,”‘ Montessori tells us, “‘must be connected with movement and be dependent on it'” (as quoted by Lillard, p. 38). Though the two are closely linked, it is the physical which must come first and leads to the intellectual. “Cognition is born from manual movement” and “the body is an active entity that moves in the service of the mind” (Lillard, p. 57). There seems again to be an evolutionary ideology underlying this belief, at least as Lillard presents it. “The mind and hand are closely related,” she tells us, “and we learn best when we can move our bodies in ways that align with our cognition. This is no wonder since our minds evolved for action, for behaving in an environment” (p. 326).

Thus while both see the child as some combination of physical and intellectual, they weight them differently. For Montessori the physical is emphasized because all education must spring from it. For Mason the intellectual (which is also the spiritual) is paramount. It should not surprise us then that Montessori’s approach is more hands-on than Mason’s. Yet we must not push this distinction too far; Mason also incorporates hands-on elements and Montessori moves toward the intellectual as the child progresses, but there is a clear difference. [8]

The difference in approach can be seen in how they teach reading and writing. For Montessori, writing is taught first because it is physical. The child manipulates letters before his mind processes them (Lillard, pp. 23ff). In the process of learning to write, the child is given certain manipulatives which he is to use in a certain order and in prescribed ways. Each is designed to break down the task of learning to write into distinct motor skills which build into the actual writing of letters. It is a very detailed, orderly process at the end of which “[r]eading emerges spontaneously during the months after writing begins” (p. 27). [9]

For Mason reading is first. When writing is taught, there is a hands-on element — children are taught to trace letters in sand for instance — but there are many fewer manipulative activities throughout the curriculum. Thus while handicrafts are considered part of education, one does not engage in hands-on activities as a part of one’s history lesson.

The Child’s Nature, Good and Evil

Mason’s second principle says that children “are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.” As I have argued elsewhere, Mason applies this principle to the whole person. She is speaking of both moral and intellectual ability when she says that the child has “possibilities for good and for evil.” [10]

Montessori does not offer a corresponding principle. She approaches education from a materialistic point of view [11] and does not directly address the child’s moral nature. Lillard argues, however, based on Montessori’s approach to discipline [12] that she “believed there was no such thing as a bad child, only children with unfulfilled needs” (Lillard, p. 283).

We may also compare the two on the question of what we might call intellectual goodness. For comparison’s sake, let us consider another thinker into the mix for a moment — Rousseau held that the child left to his own nature would develop along the proper lines (as he defined them) and that it was adult interference that corrupted his nature. [13] So we may ask for Mason and Montessori, what is the child’s nature? How would he develop if left to himself?

For Mason, as her second principle states, there are two possibilities before the child. He is neither naturally good nor naturally evil but either is possible. As we will discuss in the next section, he has certain innate abilities but whether he turns out good or evil depends on what is put before him. If he is presented with good, wholesome materials then they will act as nourishing food to his mind and he will develop along good lines. If he is presented with the intellectual equivalent of junk food then he will not. [14] There is no middle ground here. The child who is presented with nothing will stagnate and wither for lack of sustenance.

For Montessori, education is a natural process and the child will develop along the right lines given the right environment. “‘All we have to do is set [the child’s developmental] energy free . . . It has a guiding principle, a very fine, but unconscious directive, the aim of which is to develop a normal person.'” (as quoted by Lillard, pp. 106-7) And again: ‘”education . . . is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being'” (p. 255). There is for Montessori a natural, inborn trajectory which leads the child to develop along the right lines though, in contrast to Rousseau’s ideas, there is a role for the teacher to prepare the right environment that will allow this development to happen as it should. Lillard speaks of the child in evolutionary terms as an “organism . . . particularly primed to develop in certain ways, given certain environmental stimulations” (p. 33).

It is important to note before moving on that for both Mason and Montessori, all children are educable. Even the most “backward” child can and will develop along proper lines if given the right education. Montessori, you may know, began her work with those children who had been deemed hopelessly uneducable by her society due to physical and mental delays. Mason too advocated for the education of those children whom her society despised, among them the poor and illegitimate.

The Child’s Abilities and Stage of Development

As stated above, Mason’s first principle that children are born persons, is primarily meant to convey that they have all the abilities and faculties an adult has. They have, as she says in principle 11, the powers of mind to deal with the ideas that are given to them. Still there is no doubt that Mason saw some sort of progression in the child’s ability to learn. Formal education did not begin until age 6 and she was not teaching seven-year-olds algebra or even formal grammar. Nonetheless, hers is not a staged approach that sees distinct changes in mental ability as the child grows [15].

Montessori, on the other hand, divided the child’s development into four distinct stages, each six years long (ages 0-6, 6-12, 12-18, and 18-24). Within each of these there are further subdivisions as well as “sensitive periods” in which the child is more responsive to education. The major stages are distinct enough that we can speak of the infant becoming the child and later the adult: “From 0 to 6 the infant is forming the child, and from 6 to 12 this person consolidates; then from 12 to 18 the child is forming the adult, and from 18 to 24 this person consolidates.” (Lillard, p. 254).

The Role of the Senses

The different views of the child as a person come together when we look at how each woman viewed the development of the child’s senses. Mason, with her emphasis on the intellectual/spiritual over against the physical, is explicit that the child comes equipped with the abilities he needs to learn and that his senses do not need to be trained. In fact, this is one point of which she is critical of Montessori [16].

Montessori’s approach, on the other hand, quite deliberately spends considerable time training the senses (Lillard, p. 57). For her the senses are linked to intelligence. “Sensory intelligence feeds into a multitude of higher-level abilities” (p. 318). Practically speaking, one needs a high level of sensory discrimination to, say, appreciate music or to distinguish fine gradations of color which may have practical applications to things like diagnosing disease. Thus the Montessori manipulatives are designed to train the senses more and more precisely (p. 323).

In practice we should say that there is some overlap here. Mason does not ignore the senses altogether. Her curriculum would include ear training which teaches the student to distinguish musical notes accurately. Other parts of her curriculum also, among them picture study and nature study, also aim to sharpen the child’s observational skills.

How Education Happens

Motivating Learning

Both Mason and Montessori spend three principles on what we might call “motivating students” or “how we get kids to learn.” Both women were reacting against a culture in which children were highly controlled and had little choice and in which their interests were not considered.

Both clearly reject rewards as a kind of external motivation. Montessori’s fourth principle says that “tying extrinsic rewards to an activity, like money for reading or high grades for tests, negatively impacts motivation to engage in that activity when the reward is withdrawn” (Lillard, p. 29; cf. p. 116). And in her own words: “‘The prize and punishment are incentives towards unnatural or forced effort, and therefore we certainly cannot speak of the natural development of the child in connection with them'” (as quoted by Lillard, p. 152). It should be noted that grades also are a kind of reward and are to be avoided. Mason likewise speaks of not playing upon the child’s natural inclination to best his schoolfellow or to look good in the eyes of others. She speaks of the use of “prizes, praise, place, success, distinction, whether in games or examinations” (Formation of Character, p. 124) as government through the child’s desires and says that the schoolboy thus educated will have a crude character and “develops into a person, devoid of intelligent curiosity, who hates reading, and shirks the labour of thought” (Ibid., p. 125).

Montessori says that children learn best when they have control (principle 2) and when they are interested in what they are learning (principle 3; Lillard p. 29) and find meaning in it (p. 50). She rejects the controlling nature of her society and says of her schools that: “‘These children have free choice all day long'” (as quoted by Lillard, p. 80). It should be noted that this this not an unlimited choice, however, but choice within certain parameters. Lillard speaks of a “sense of control” (p. 84) and to some degree this is what Montessori’s approach gives. Too much choice can also be debilitating (p. 93). Children in Montessori schools are given access to certain materials which have been carefully selected for them according to their abilities. Among the things a given child has access to, he may choose what he wants to use, but he is to use these materials only in the prescribed ways and without disturbing the other children (p. 332).

For Mason, the core principle is that we must not trespass upon the personality of the child in manipulative ways. We cannot, for instance, say things like, “If you love mommy, you will do your math worksheet.” Mason’s fourth principle says that one must not “encroach” upon the child’s personality “by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire.” Her fifth principle states what methods we may use which she defines as “the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas.” [17] She clearly here rejects the degree of control and even manipulation imposed by her society. She seems less invested in giving the child free choice — in her approach children have a common curriculum though they all get different things from it.

While both women speak of interest as being a factor in education, they do so in very different ways. For Mason it is not the child’s individual interests which are considered. The material itself is assumed to be interesting and the child is believed to be born with an innate desire for knowledge so that he will be attracted to what is given him. Though Mason speaks of “first-born affinities” (principle 12), her curriculum is a common one. Each child reads the same books or views the same art. His individuality is expressed in how he relates to what is given. This is the meaning of her maxim: “Education is the Science of Relations” (principle 12). Each will form his own relationships with the material. Though some may have unique and particularly strong interests, Mason cautions against catering to these as they lead to eccentricity. She argues instead for a broad, well-rounded curriculum (principle 13b) for all students regardless of their particular interests.

For Montessori all motivation is intrinsic, that is, it comes from within the child. As Lillard explains, she distinguishes two kinds of interest, general and personal. The former, as its name suggests, is shared by most people while the latter is personal and includes things like hobbies (Lillard, p. 114). Personal interests tend to come at certain ages known as “sensitive periods” (pp. 122-23). There are also periods when the child is more sensitive or receptive to learning more universal concepts like language and math (p. 126). While there is a common process in Montessori education, the child is allowed to choose his daily activities and to pursue individual interests as they arise. “The Elementary child invests a great deal of time researching and writing about topics of personal interest” (p. 326). For older children, “Going Out trips” (something like field trips) emerge from personal interests (pp. 253, 327).

Though it is assumed that there is a general interest which all children share, much effort in a Montessori education seems to go into generating children’s interest in what is taught. Lessons are “made interesting via connections to other aspects of the world and curriculum, hands-on activities, and personal involvement” (Lillard, p. 135). Note the language used: Lessons are made interesting. This is in contrast to Mason’s approach which assumes that lessons are inherently interesting. There is a much greater role for the teacher here (see below). She connects material to the child’s interests (p. 150) and even she herself must be interesting! (p. 141)

Facts and Contextualization

Montessori’s sixth principle is “that learning situated in meaningful contexts is often deeper and richer than learning in abstract contexts” (Lillard, p. 29). Facts are not presented without some context for, in Montessori’s words: “‘The mind of the child . . . is not satisfied with the mere collection of facts; he tries to discover their causes'” (as quoted in Lillard, p. 271).

Again there is a rejection of the common practice of her day here. Both Mason and Montessori reacted against a factory-like model which saw the child as an empty vessel into which facts could be poured. In their day, as in ours, school subjects were often disconnected — one teaches history and another science and another Latin. The result is that learning becomes very compartmentalized. Both women sought connections across academic disciplines, though again there are differences in how they went about it.

For Montessori there was the overarching framework of the Five Great Lessons to which the whole curriculum was tied. Each year the child would be brought back to these Lessons so that there would be a structure both across disciplines and throughout his academic career (Lillard, pp. 130-31). The structure of Montessori schools also supports connections. Rather than having multiple teachers every year, the child is in the same classroom with the same teacher for three years. This provides continuity. The curriculum itself was devised by one person, Maria Montessori, and is applied in all Montessori schools. This “lends Montessori education a remarkably high degree of rationality and coherence . . . An advantage resulting from having a single person develop the entire curriculum across topics and age span is that knowledge is connected” (p. 235).

Montessori’s “Going Out Trips” are one way that contextualization is provided. “‘Let us take the child out,'” she said, “‘to show him real things instead of making objects which represent ideas and closing them in cupboards'” (as quoted by Lillard, p. 252; cf. p. 327). Inside the classroom, contextualization can be seen in the study of vocabulary and spelling. Words are not learned in an abstract way in lists and from workbooks but “Montessori children learn words they personally need to know, because they misspelled them in a report or other writing . . . not just the spelling and vocabulary, but all facts and relationships, are learned at the point of need” (Lillard, p. 240).

Mason likewise spurns traditional spelling tests and teaches such things in the context of real writing. In her approach spelling and vocabulary are taught through the reading of “living” books and through copywork and later dictation of passages from such books. Mason’s 11th principle instructs that “facts are not [to be] presented without their informing ideas.” ” Knowledge,” she says, “should be communicated in well-chosen language, because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form” (principle 13c).

Though both reject the memorization of facts for their own sake and argue for contextual learning, there is a fundamental difference in how they view these contexts. For Montessori, the emphasis is more on practical, real-world contexts while for Mason the context is primarily intellectual — facts are enclosed, if you will, in ideas which are presented in a literary format and are communicated from mind to mind (though for some subjects such as geography she may also have understood “context” more concretely).

The Teacher’s Role

When we look at the role of the teacher, we again find that both women reject the common practice of their day in which the teacher was the font of knowledge, lecturing and spewing out facts and information that the child was expected to take in. When the child is an empty vessel, it is the teacher who pours forth knowledge and the vessel simply receives. If we view the child as more than a vessel, we must ask what his role in his own education is and what is left for the teacher to do.

For Mason, the role of the teacher is to select good materials and to lay them before the child. This is often referred to as “spreading the feast.” Unlike Unschooling in which it is assumed that the child can select what is best for him, the role of the teacher in a Charlotte Mason education is a vital one, but yet it is less than we are perhaps used to. In a Charlotte Mason education learning happens when the child takes in what is put before him (principle 9), admitting some ideas and rejecting others (principle 19), through the help of “the Divine Spirit” (principle 20). The child makes his own connections with the material before him (principle 12).

For Montessori, the main role of the teacher is to create the proper environment for learning. In Lillard’s words, “particular forms of adult interaction are associated with more optimal child outcomes” (Lillard, p. 29). Specifically, adults provide clear limits or boundaries within which children are free (pp. 32-33). These limits are changing as the child’s needs and abilities change so the teacher must be observant and responsive (p. 34). In a Montessori education learning happens when the child responds to his environment. It is not through the teacher’s words (p. 196) but through the materials he is exposed to in his environment that the child learns (p. 148).

Yet there is a fairly large role for the teacher here. In contrast to Mason’s model, the teacher often makes connections for the student (Lillard, pp. 115, 146). She must be interesting (p. 141) and model interest to the child (p. 131). She herself must be a generalist (p. 146). Though her delivery of information may be somewhat personalized, as in the telling of the Five Great Lessons, the curriculum itself is independent of the teacher, being originally prescribed by Montessori herself (p. 235). In Montessori’s words, “‘The teacher’s task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child'” (as quoted in Lillard, p. 255).

Assimilating Knowledge

We have seen that in a Charlotte Mason education the child makes his own connections while in a Montessori education the teacher makes these connections or at least guides the child in making them. We may ask as well how the child assimilates material, learning it and making it his own. Both women would say that children do not learn simply by being told information.

In a Charlotte Mason education, the child narrates what he has read (or what has been read to him). Mason believed that “knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced” (principle 14). It is through the process of verbalizing (or writing) a version of what he has read that he “digests” the material.

For Montessori, children learn by watching and doing (Lillard, p. 198). Imitation plays a large role in their education. Montessori placed a strong emphasis on peer interaction. One way this happens is when older children tutor younger ones (remember that Montessori classrooms include a range of ages). With regard to the older child, the one in the role of the tutor, Montessori says, “‘teaching helps him to understand what he knows even better than before. He has to analyze and rearrange his little store of knowledge so he can pass it on'” (as quoted by Lillard, p. 209). The principle behind this is the same as in Mason’s narration, though narration for Mason happened after every reading, multiple times a day whereas the Montessori-educated child only tutors his fellows occasionally.

Environment or Atmosphere

As we have seen, for Montessori the role of the teacher is largely to create an environment in which learning can happen. This concept of environment may sound a lot like the atmosphere which Mason speaks of in her sixth principle (“education is an atmosphere . . .”). However, there are some distinct differences between the environment of Montessori and the atmosphere of Mason.

For Montessori, the proper environment is essential to children’s healthy psychological development (Lillard, p. 107). Environment is “carefully prepared” (p. 91) and always under the adult’s control (p. 272). Order, both in the physical environment and conceptually, is essential (principle 8; p. 33). This order, it should be noted, applies to the things in the environment. The child is free to make use of his time as he wishes, within broad parameters (p. 292). But the classroom is kept orderly, with everything in its place, and the materials are to be used in only the prescribed ways (p. 300). It is clear when Montessori speaks of such a controlled orderly environment that she is talking primarily about the classroom. Older children may also venture out to work on a small farm, “a protected yet real-world context” (p. 254) or the like as part of their education. The purpose of all this order is so that the child may “develop an appreciation of precision” through the “articles and routines” of the “artificial environment” (p. 304). “‘The underlying structure and order of the universe must be reflected in the classroom if the child is to internalize it, and thus build his own mental order and intelligence'” (quoting Paula Polk Lillard, in Lillard p. 309).

In contrast, Mason says that: “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” (principle 6). This seems to be specifically a rejection of Montessori-like environments which Mason saw as artificial. “It stultifies a child,” Mason says, “to bring down his world to the child’s level” as Montessori does with her child-sized implements. Instead Mason aims for a “natural home atmosphere” where the child may “live freely among his proper conditions.” In elucidating this principle, Mason speaks of the relationships the child has both with his family — “how he shares household ways with his mother, romps with his father, is teased by his brothers and petted by his sisters” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 96) — and with other members of society, both “his betters” but also the “cook and housemaid, blacksmith and joiner” (Ibid., p. 97). Atmosphere is above all “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). Such an atmosphere is capable of inspiring “habits of gentleness, courtesy, kindness, candour, [and] respect for other people” (Home Education, p. 137). It is “the air [the child] lives in and must grow by” (Ibid.).


As we near the end of our comparison, it seems fitting to discuss the goal of education as each woman saw it. One’s goal will reflect and be influenced by one’s principles so as we look at goals we can begin to draw together some of the principles that inform each philosophy.

For Montessori, the purpose of education is for the child to “normalize” (Lillard, p. 112), that is, for optimal development to occur so that he will be a normal, psychologically healthy person (p. 107). Normalization includes making good, constructive choices (pp. 95, 112). “[D]eviations and misbehaviors go by the wayside” and children “become kinder and more interested in work” (p. 102). They learn to self-regulate, to concentrate and to avoid impulsivity (p. 103). Over time they are able to have more and more freedom until ultimately they achieve independence.

Every child has the potential for right development. He is biologically programmed to develop (Lillard, p. 126) as he adapts to his environment (p. 342). We can see in this the importance of environment in the Montessori system and why the main role of the teacher is in constructing the environment and helping the child to interact with it in appropriate ways. We can also see the emphasis on the physical. Because education is about the child interacting with his environment, the cultivation of the senses, through which he perceives his environment, is very important as is the hands-on element. It is through physical action that he first interacts with his environment. The intellectual follows the physical.

Almost every philosophy of education involves goals on two levels, for the individual and for the society. As we have seen, for Montessori the goal for the individual is that he develop properly. But she also speaks to the benefit of the society as a whole: “‘Our principal concern must be to educate humanity — the human beings of all nations — in order to guide it toward seeking common goals . . . The efforts of science must be concentrated on [the child], because he is the source of and the key to the riddles of humanity.'” (as quoted by Lillard, pp. 345-46). The larger goal, then, is to educate humanity for the common good. Living as she did in the wake of World War I, Montessori’s concern was no less than world peace — a large goal indeed. Like many of her time she believed that education was the key to preventing future devastating wars (“Montessori’s Message of Peace through Education,” Age of Montessori).

Mason also has goals for the individual and the larger society though the individual takes precedence [18]. We begin to find the goal of education hinted at in her 20 Principles. Principle 19 says that children’s “chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas.” In other words, one goal of education is for children to gain the wisdom to know which ideas to let in and which to reject. Principle 12 tells us that  “Education is the Science of Relations” and speaks of the need for the child to form as many relationships as possible. We might say that they are to let in as many good ideas as possible. Mason herself expressed the goal of education thus: “The question is not,––how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education––but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?” (School Education, pp. 170-71). [19] In this idea of the wide room, we find the reason for Mason’s insistence on a broad education. If the child is to make as many relations as possible, he must have a broad exposure. The ultimate goal for the individual is not purely utilitarian but that the individual have fulness of life: “how good it would be if we could devise an education which should be not only serviceable in making a living, but should enable young people to realise, use, and enjoy fulness of life!” (Formation of Character, p. 296). This concern Mason locates firmly in a biblical understanding of the person and his spiritual needs: “As for his own use, what he should be in and for himself, why, what matter? Because, say we, if we fit him to earn his living we fit him also to be of service to the world and what better can we do for him personally? We forget that it is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God shall man live,––whether it be spoken in the way of some truth of religion, poem, picture, scientific discovery, or literary expression; by these things men live and in all such is the life of the spirit. The spiritual life requires the food of ideas for its daily bread.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 125).

Summing Up

If you were to print out this post, you would see that it is almost 12 pages long (not including footnotes!). That’s a lot to have thrown at you. If I had to sum up the differences and similarities we have seen between the two women, I would say this:

Both Maria Montessori and Charlotte Mason reject the idea prevalent in their day that the child is an empty vessel into which information can be poured with no concern for the individual’s personhood or uniqueness. They reject as well any kind of direct manipulation in education as through the use of extrinsic motivations.

In broad strokes, the two women have similar approaches to education. Both see the role of the teacher in providing what is needed for education and trust that the child himself is equipped to make use of what is given him.

Yet there is a profound difference in their philosophies. Maria Montessori treats the child as a physical being who is educated first and foremost through his responses to a carefully controlled physical environment. Charlotte Mason assumes the child is a “spiritual organism” who is educated by the ideas — spiritual/intellectual things — to which he is exposed.

As we bring this long post to a close, I have a few smaller topics I have not had time to address but will save for additional posts. One will look at Mason’s criticisms of Montessori and one will look at a few other smaller areas of disagreement between the two including their views of fantasy, books, and discipline, and their use of time in the classroom.


[1] To find those posts go to this page on reformed theology and education and scroll way down to the developmental psychology section.

[2] See for instance Charlotte Mason. “The Montessori System,” The Parents Review (1915) pp; 30-35 as transcribed by Charlotte Mason Poetry (April 10, 2018). In modern times, I have no idea if Montessori educators ever discuss Mason’s philosophy. Since Mason is less well known, especially beyond homeschooling circles, I doubt it is as frequent a topic of conversation.

[3] Just as God’s law cannot be entirely summed up by the Ten Commandments, so Mason’s philosophy cannot be entirely contained in her 20 principles. Nonetheless, she did give us these principles so they are a useful starting place for understanding her ideas. You can find them conveniently laid out in the beginning of each of the six volumes of her Home Education series as well as on Ambleside Online here. (In truth, they were not originally 20 but after some revisions, that is how they ended up.)

[4] While Mason herself boiled down her philosophy to a number of principles, Montessori did not (as far as I know). Montessori’s ideas have been summed up in various ways by others. The list I am using is Lillard’s and can also be found online here.

[5] I discussed Mason’s “gospel principles,” as she calls them, in this post.

[6] Though the words are Lillard’s and not Montessori’s, it is interesting to note that the child is referred to as an “organism” multiple times (Lillard, pp. 33, 122). This would seem to highlight the emphasis on the physical. He is an “organism” but not as Mason would have it “a spiritual organism.”

[7] I discuss the interplay of the intellectual and the spiritual in Mason’s philosophy in this post.

[8] A Montessori education really begins at birth while Mason does not begin formal education until age 6. Until that time children should have freedom. In her words: “certainly, no child under six should go to school unless with full freedom to run or squat or lie face downwards if the mood seize him” [Charlotte Mason. “The Montessori System,” The Parents Review (1915) pp; 30-35 as transcribed by Charlotte Mason Poetry (April 10, 2018)]. In her first volume, Home Education, Mason encourages some degree of hands-on activity for younger children, saying, for instance, that they should all be well acquainted with mud and sand and the like. Mason also had children learning to write do some hands-on activities such as tracing letters in sand. We have to remember as well that, though this seems very basic to us, in their day it was a bit revolutionary. Any amount of hands-on was a new concept. Just as Mason includes more hands-on education than she is often given credit for, particularly in the early years, so Montessori also includes more books as the child progresses while still maintaining that movement precedes cognition. We can say three things then: (1) both Montessori and Mason seems to have introduced more hands-on activity for young children than was generally accepted at the time; (2) it is hard to compare what they did in early childhood, before age 6, as Mason’s education did not cover those years; and (3) nonetheless, Montessori’s approach is more hands-on than Mason’s and continues to emphasize the physical element as the child grows.

[9] It is easy for us, in a day when manipulatives for math and other subjects are standard, to take this for granted. In Montessori’s own day, the use of such things was quite revolutionary. In fact, much of what we know today in early education comes from Montessori, even such basic things as child-sized chairs and tables.

[10] On this point I disagree with Mason. I believe she goes much beyond reformed theology in her assessment of the ability of the child, apart from saving grace, to choose and do good. I have discussed this issue at length; see this post and this one.

[11] By “materialistic” here I mean that she considers the physical world only and does not address the child’s spiritual nature.

[12] I will discuss each woman’s approach to discipline in a subsequent post.

[13] See this post. In modern times, it is the unschooling movement which best reflects Rousseau’s beliefs.

[14] Mason uses this analogy of food in principles 8 and 9 and expands upon it in her other writings.

[15] For some discussion of stages in CM versus classical education see this post.

[16] Mason’s criticisms of Montessori will be discussed in an upcoming post.

[17] For Mason these are her “gospel principles” on which she founds her philosophy. See note 5 above.

[18] My own opinion is that in her sixth volume, which was written after WWI, Mason, like many of her contemporaries, went into a bit of a tail-spin and began to see education more as the solution to the world’s problems. I don’t think this was as large a theme in her earlier work. See this post for a little more on that.

[19] I find that “caring” tends to be used in a slightly different sense in modern contexts, as when we talk of caring for the environment. I understand Mason here to be speaking simply of the relations one forms. This may of course lead to more tangible ways of caring such as environmentalism but I do not think this is her primary intention.

Booklist: Living Books on the 1920s & 1930s

As we continue with booklists I have put together over the years, today we turn to the period between the World Wars, roughly 1918-1940. 

Living Books on the 1920s and 1930s

The 1918 Spanish Flu 

Lasky, Kathryn. Marven of the Great North Woods. Elementary.

Marrin, Albert. Very, Very, Very Dreadful: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918. A favorite author. Middle-teens.

The Roaring Twenties

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. You can’t discuss the ’20s without Fitzgerald. Teens.

Hoobler, Dorothy. And Now, A Word from Our Sponsor : The Story of a Roaring ’20’s Girl. Middle years (?).

Prigger, Mary. Aunt Minnie McGranahan. Life in the 1920s. Elementary.

Rawls, Wilson. Where the Red Fern Grows. Not roarin’ but set in the ’20s. Middle years.

The 1930s, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression

Brown, Fern. When Grandpa Wore Knickers. Life in the early 1930s. Elementary.

Burch, Robert.  Queenie Peavy. Elementary-middle.

Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time. Re the Dust Bowl. I loved this book. Teens.

Gates, Doris. Blue Willow. Life in the ’30s. Middle years.

Hoff, Syd. Scarface Al and His Uncle Sam. Easy reader. From the wonderful author of Danny and the Dinosaur. Elementary.

Lied, Kate. Potato: A Tale from the Great Depression. Elementary.

Marrin, Albert. FDR and the American Crisis and Years of Dust. A favorite author. For international history, also try his Stalin: Russia’s Man of Steel. Middle-teens.

Peck, Richard. Long Way from Chicago and Year Down Yonder. Historical fiction; life in the 1930s. Middle years.

Peterson, Jeanne. Don’t Forget Winona. Elementary.

Stanley, Jerry. Children of the Dust Bowl. Elementary-middle.

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. The former is shorter and easier to read. Both are classics. Teens.

Taylor, Mildred. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Middle years.

Turner, Ann. Dust for Dinner. Elementary.

Werstein, Irving. Shattered Decade 1929 and A Nation Fights Back. A favorite author. Middle-teens.


Borden, Louise. Good-bye Charles Lindbergh. Elementary.

Dalgliesh, Alice. Ride on the Wind. Re the Spirit of St. Louis. Elementary.

Quackenbush, Robert. Clear the Cow Pasture. Re Amelia Earhart. Elementary.

Ransom, Candice. Fire in the Sky. Re the Hindenburg disaster (1937). Elementary-middle.

Wells, Rosemary. Wingwalker. Elementary.


Bunting, Eve. Pop’s Bridge. Re the Golden Gate. Elementary.

Clinton, Patrick. Story of the Empire State Building. From the Cornerstones of Freedom series (be sure to get the older books that begin “Story of . . .”). Elementary.

Movies on the 1930s:

We watched a number of movies relating to this period. The movie industry really took off in the ’30s so one can find both movies made in the ’30s and those set in the ’30s.

Gone with the Wind – Though set in the Civil War and Reconstruction, Margaret Mitchell’s classic was both a best-selling book and movie in the 1930s. I made my kids discuss why people living through the Depression might have been so attracted to this story.

Bonnie and Clyde – Enough humor and violence for my kids. A slightly older movie, it does not really show much nudity or blood but there are a couple of “adult” scenes and Bonnie and Clyde’s deaths at the end are vivid (though again not bloody). The movie does a good job of showing that crime does not pay though it also hints at why people supported outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde at the time.

The Untouchables – Criminal activity was booming in the ’30s. This movie tells the story of Scarface Al Capone and his capture.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? – We watched this a few years ago. It is the story of Homer’s Odysseus set in 1930s America. Humorous and and ultimately wholesome. I don’t remember how much adult content there was, not too much I think. Great soundtrack too.

The Grapes of Wrath – We didn’t want to take the time to read Steinbeck’s (long) classic but the classic movie covers a lot of the bases. My kids enjoyed it.

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl – We watched this movie last time we studied this era, when my kids were much younger. I am not a fan of the American Girl franchise but I think this movie is one of their better pieces. When we watched it, our neighbor’s house across the street was being foreclosed on.

To see what people in the ’30s were watching (and for a more wholesome choice), try some Shirley Temple classics. The Little Colonel (set in post-Civil War south) is one of our favorites.

Happy reading (and watching)!


Myth: Charlotte Mason is Interest-Led

As more and more people turn to homeschooling and as a number of them are also drawn to Charlotte Mason’s methods, one of the biggest misconceptions I see is the idea that a Charlotte Mason education is interest-led and/or child-centered. It is not. But that does not mean that there is no place in it for interest or for the individuality of the child to come through.

I think it is helpful in discussing this point to compare CM with Unschooling INSERT LINKwhich is perhaps the most interest-led, child-centered modern approach out there. Unschooling says that the child will naturally gravitate toward what is right for him, toward what he needs, and that we should follow his lead in all areas. If he wants to study turtles, we go to the library and gets books on turtles and go to the local pond and maybe even get a pet turtle. If he needs to learn fractions, he will at some point also discover that need himself and ask to learn about fractions.

Charlotte Mason, on the other hand, said that children will not necessarily be drawn to what is best for them. In fact, if left to their own devices, it is quite likely they will choose the intellectual equivalent of junk food. The main role for the teacher in a CM education is to spread a diverse and wholesome intellectual feast (CM herself used the food analogy and I think it is a very helpful one). She believed all children need a broad education covering a wide range of subjects. So in a CM school all the children would be exposed to the same materials — living books, art, music, etc. The curriculum is not determined by their individual interests.

That does not mean that the material is not interesting to them. CM did think interest was important but she saw the material itself as being inherently interesting. She believed children would have a natural appetite for knowledge. I believe this idea was rooted in her Christian faith which said that all knowledge comes from God. It is His general revelation to us and should naturally be attractive.

The individuality of the child comes through in a CM education not in the curriculum but in the response to it. The teacher spreads the wholesome, varied feast, but each child takes from it what he is able. One child may latch onto one idea and another to another one. As they learn, they build their own unique relationships with what is set before them. That is why we do narration. Traditional reading comprehension questions ask the child to parrot back what the adult thinks is important. Narration asks the child what he got from his reading and values his contribution even if it is not what an adult would think is important.

Charlotte Mason FAQs

This document is a work in progress. If you have other questions or other resources to suggest, please comment below or contact me.

What is the Charlotte Mason approach to education? How can I learn more about it?

For a brief introduction, see this post introducing CM and her principles.

I recommend everyone read CM’s own writings: CM’s 20 Principles and her 6-volume Home Education series (there are also many good new published editions of her books if you like a hard copy)

Books about the CM approach:

A Charlotte Mason Companion by Karen Andreola

A Charlotte Mason Education by Catherine Levison

For the Children’s Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay

Where should I start reading CM’s volumes?

CM wrote 6 volumes. Numbers 4 and 5 are a little different and can probably be skipped in the first go through. The big debate is usually whether to start with volume 1 or volume 6. The argument for the latter is that because it was written last it is the most complete version of her philosophy. Personally, I think her emphasis had changed by the time she wrote it so it is not my favorite. My general suggestions would be to start with volume 6 if you have older kids but with volume 1 if you have elementary aged kids. Even better start with Brandi’s Start Here guide at Afterthoughts blog which will take you through topically. It is great for study groups too.

Is a Charlotte Mason education a good fit for my child? Can CM work for my child with learning challenges? Will it work for my visual/auditory/kinetic learner? What about a child with dyslexia, autism, . . . ?

The answer to all these question is : Yes! Though is is heavy on books, a Charlotte Mason does incorporate different learning styles. More importantly, it views each child as a unique and valuable person who deserves a rich and varied education. It can be flexible as well — children who can’t read or write well can listen to their books and narrate orally. This is not my area of expertise but here are some great resources:

“Dyslexia: Our Homeschool Story,” from Sabbath Mood Homeschool — This site is a wonderful resource for living science books and now the author shares a bit about homeschooling her dyslexic son using CM’s methods. A favorite quote:

“On the contrary, by homeschooling, he got a one-on-one education tailored to his level in all areas. And by using Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, he had a feast laid before him. An accessible feast, but not one that was dumbed down.”

Another great, but older, resource is Aut-2B-Home in Carolina, a blog chronicling one mom’s journey using the CM method with her autistic daughter.

A Delectable Education also has episodes on CM and Special Needs and CM and Dyslexia

Curriculum questions: What curriculum should I use? Is ….. curriculum CM? How do I put together my own curriculum?

There are lots of CM resources out there these days and even more than claim to be CM and/or CM-inspired. This is a chart I put together to get you started. It lists tons of CM curricula and tells you how CM they are and what their religious affiliation is. It will help you narrow down your choices and also contains links to find out a little more about each one.

CM, CM-Inspired, and CM-Adaptable Curricula

Of course, you don’t need to buy an all-in-one CM curriculum. You can use CM’s methods by completely putting together your own things. In fact, the approach lends itself fairly well to that. How do you begin? Check out:

Getting Started with a CM Education

How do I transition to CM if I have been using another method?

If you are looking for a more gradual transition from another homeschooling approach to CM, check out these posts:

How to Switch to Charlotte Mason Homeschooling by Sonya Shafer

Getting Started with a CM Education

What is a living book? What is twaddle?

Living books are the core of a CM education. Living books are the nutritious food of the mind. They are written in a literary way and contain ideas which CM called the food of the mind. Twaddle is a word CM herself used for books which are not living but are basically the junk food of the book world. Check out these posts on living books for more:

Living Books and Language Arts in a CM Education (link coming soon)

Myth: Twaddle and Light Reading are the Same Thing by Lizzie Smith

What is a Living Book? by Brandi Vencel

What a Living Book Sounds Like by Sonya Shafer

Can you recommend a good living book on . . . ?

There are lots of great resources out there for finding living books on every subject imaginable. Over time you may develop your own list of favorite authors. Until then, check out these resources:

Truthquest history guides are very dense bibliographies. They are not cheap but IMO are well worth the cost. We used them for a number of years. Their only drawback is that they are so thorough you end up feeling like you need to be covering every little subject. Don’t. You need to be discriminating.

Christine Miller’s All Through the Ages is a one volume guide to good books on history and geography. I found that not all the selections were the most living but it is still a great resource.

There are many people who have published lists on living books online.

You can find all my booklists here: history, science/nature, fiction/literature, and other subjects.

Sabbath Mood Homeschool has lots of great lists for science.

Simply Charlotte Mason has a bookfinder function.

Of course many of the CM curricula use good, living books and even if you don’t use their whole curriculum you can often see the books they use online. Check out Simply Charlotte Mason, Ambleside Online, and Sonlight (Sonlight is not a CM curriculum but does have lots of good lists available) for their lists.

Heritage History has lots of older books in a digital format. Most can be downloaded for free.

Literature by Grade is a nice, short list for fiction from Charlotte Mason Home.

And don’t forget the power of your local library. I have often found books by doing a subject search on my library’s system and sorting it to see the oldest books first. I then check out a number of the older books, skim them, and keep the ones that seem good.

How long should lessons be? What is meant by short lessons?

This varies by age and experience Brandy Vencel has a good article on it with some specifics: “What Did Charlotte Mason mean by ‘Short Lessons’?”

“How to Finish Lessons by Lunch” by Sonya Shafer also contains some useful timetables for comparison

How much should my kids be reading?

There are various answers to this question. Some go by page count and some by time. I have also heard that words per page in CM’s day are not the same as in ours (there were fewer words per page in older books) so we need to take that into account.

“How Fast Do We Read Books in a CM Education?” from Juniper Pines

“Scheduling Books and Pages” — a chart from Wildflowers and Marbles

“A Schedule vs Page Counts” from Sabbath Mood Homeschool

Language arts questions: What about spelling? Why doesn’t CM teach grammar?

It is a myth that CM does not teach grammar or writing in the early years. Her method does work on these things but does so in non-traditional ways. We can think of language arts as a group of skills: reading comprehension, writing, vocabulary, spelling, and grammar. All of these skills are taught form the beginning in a CM education using a group of tools: living books, narration, copywork, and prepared dictation. The general idea behind all language arts education in CM is that things are taught in the context of real, good writing. To find out how all this works and why it works, check out these resources:

Living Books and Language Arts in a CM Education

Know and Tell by Karen Glass — This is my new go-to resource for narration and more. Glass explains how and why narration works, how to transition to other kinds of writing, and why it is counter productive to add extras.

Charlotte Mason Language Arts from the Common Room

Spelling by Dictation,” by Art Middlekauff at Charlotte Mason Poetry — Middlekauff reveals that even in CM’s day, teachers were asking this question. He talks about the pitfalls of spelling curricula and how to do dictation in an effective way.

What is Copywork? by Jen Snow

How to Do Dictation

On Grammar by Brandi Vencel

The Natural Progression of Language Arts

My goal here is not recommend particular curricula but I am going to break that rule this time and point you to my favorite grammar curriculum which is KISS grammar. I like it because it takes a functional approach ro grammar which I think gels well with CM’s principle. Becase it can be hard to navugate, I created this getting started guide.

How do I do narration? Is it enough? What about reading comprehension?

Again, my go-to resource for all things narration is Know and Tell by Karen Glass. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. But to answer your other questions — yes, narration is enough. It takes the place of traditional reading comprehension in the curriculum. Reading comprehension questions pre-determine what should be learned. The adult decides what is important and asks the child directed questions. If the child can’t answer those questions, they fail. Narration asks “what did you get out of this?” It allows the child to show what they have learned, even if it is not what an adult would expect. Narration is actually a lot of work. It is composition, first orally and then in writing.

Other articles on narration:

What a Lesson Looks Like” by Jen Snow

The Method of Narration,” by Stanley Boardman in The Parents Review (1927), transcribed by Charlotte Mason Poetry

How do I teach writing, especially high school level essay writing and research papers?

Narration is the beginning of writing in a CM education. Nothing else is needed until high school and adding on extras can actually be counter-productive. Again, Know and Tell by Karen Glass is going to be your best resource on this. She discusses how to transition to other kinds of writing in high school.

What about high school science?

High school science is one of those points when many are tempted to abandon CM methods and to go to something more traditional. My own experience is that we tried this when my oldest was in 9th grade and discovered that it was boring and we really liked living books still. You can do high school science with the same methods you have always used — living books and narration. You may want to add labs (many colleges want to see at least a couple of years of lab science). We found various ways to get the labs in depending on the child and the year — a local coop that offered labs only, 2-day science lab intensives, and once even getting together with other local families and doing it ourselves. Some on the more purist end of the CM spectrum advocate for doing the major sciences simultaneously — so some biology, chemistry, and physics gets done every year for three or four years. I never tried this but find it a very intriguing approach.

Resources for high school science with living books:

Sabbath Mood Homeschool

My lists of living science books

How do I do artist/picture study? How do I do music?

This is not my area of expertise so I am going to go right into the resources:

“Artist Study, Picture Study” by Brandy Vencel

“How to do Picture Study” and “How to do Music Study” by Sonya Shafer

“Picture Study,” by Marjorie Evans from The Parents Review (1913), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry

Harmony Fine Arts: “Homeschool art and music plans for busy families”

Picture Study and Composer Study from Charlotte Mason Help

Musical Appreciation,” by Mrs. Howard Glover from The Parents Review (1922), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry

The Mason Jar #32: Megan Hoyt on Composer Study” (podcast)

What we study and why: fine arts (includes bibliography of resources at the end)

Why study poetry? And how?

Two points I love from the articles below: that exposure to poetry should start early and that poetry is meant to be heard.

“On the Teaching of Poetry to Children, ” by M.H. Simpson from The Parents Review (1908), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry

“On the Teaching of Poetry,” by M.A.W. from The Parents Review (1919), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry

What is nature study? Why do we do it and how?

Again I don’t feel like this is my area of expertise, but I will add a couple of tips that I learned over the years– Focus more on the nature and less on the walk. You don’t have to go far to do nature study and it is often a distraction. Having one environment that you come back to throughout the year and really get to know is invaluable. Nature Journaling does not have to be all about drawing. For those (like me) who are poor at it, a few quick sketches and more notes can make a far more satisfying journal.

For more advice from the experts, see:

“The Teaching of Nature Study,” by V.C. Curry from The Parents Review (1925), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry— This Parents Review article covers it all — nature lore, nature walks, and even science experiments. Because the last of these is not often discussed it is worth quoting here:

“We are apt to overestimate the value of experiment . . . But Miss Mason does not set Chemistry at naught. She would have us do all the experiments possible. But the experiment needing a well-equipped laboratory is probably something for the few, while the common-sense experiments are for the many—the answer to all the many whys of to-day. Why do we build a fire in a certain way, what is a vacuum, why do leaves fall in the autumn? I think practically all the experiments described in books we use can be done without more apparatus than can easily be obtained in an ordinary household—until the more specialised work of Forms 5 and 6 is taken.” In other words, do what experiments you can with household objects and materials until high school when they will begin “real” experiments.

“Nature Study,” by Christine Cooper from The Parents Review (1909), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry

“Nature Study,” by Agnes Drury from The Parents Review (1913), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry

Will CM prepare my child for college? How do CM-educated kids do in college?

The answer to the first question is a resounding yes. As I wrote this, I have two in college who were educated (mostly) with CM methods (as well as two in high school). Everyone — no matter how they were educated — has gaps and deficits in some ways. Homeschooled kids may be prone to certain ones, perhaps not being adept at navigating classroom discussions, but they will also have some advantages. They are often sued to managing their own work which serves them well. They are comfortable talking to adults. And perhaps most importantly they like learning and it shows (and so their professors like them). CM’s methods of listening to books read and narrating them back lends itself pretty well to the college lecture format. CM-educated kids are good at remembering what they have learned, even if they haven’t been taught traditional study methods. They also tend to be good writers who have their own voice.

CM speaks somewhere of the passports one needs in society to advance to the next level. That is how I have thought of the requirements our society imposes like SATs and AP tests. They are necessary so we obtain them but we don’t waste any extra time on them. My two oldest ever took standardized tests before they did the PSATs but they both did fine on the SATs with minimal prep and explanations.

Ambleside Online has a useful discussion of credit hours and how to figure them

What should early education look like?

Formal education does not begin until age 6 for Mason yet we may ask what we should be doing with our children before that age. Mason herself argues that young children should have freedom when she says: “certainly, no child under six should go to school unless with full freedom to run or squat or lie face downwards if the mood seize him” [Mason, “The Montessori System,” from The Parents Review (1915), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry].

Mason says that young children should spend a lot of time in nature — hours a day — and become acquainted (first-hand) with mud and sand and the like. See: “Nature in the Nursery,” by J.R. Smith from The Parents Review (1917), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry

We must also read to them: “Reading in the Nursery,” by V.M. Hood from The Parents Review (1917), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry

And begin to train them: “Babies’ Habits,” by A Grannie from The Parents Review (1917), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry

What is habit-training and how does it work? What did CM have to say about discipline?

When CM says that “education is . . a discipline” she is talking about habit-training. CM herself was not a parent. She was opposed to physical discipline. Habit-training is a proactive kind of training in which (hopefully) one nips bad habits in the bud or even prevents them before they can start. Done rightly, habit-training should produce a calm, orderly household in which parents don’t even feel the need to yell.

One side note I’d like to add: though CM aims to teach character through the use of living books featuring characters that display good character (or sometimes ones that display bad character and it comes back to haunt them), she was never targeted or preachy in how she did this. If you wait until your child has a certain problem — let’s say he’s having issues sharing — and then read books about siblings sharing he is going to be wise to you and it will backfire (or it will go completely over his head). These books are meant to form a kind of background to what we do, not to be targeted lessons when needed. Remember kids need to make their own connections; we can’t do it for them and they will resent it if we try.

Resources on habit-training the CM way:

What CM had to say about discipline

Formation of Character — CM’s fifth volume is a compilation of essays, many of which deal with habit-training.

Habit Formation 101″ by Brandy Vencel — be sure to click the links at the end for her other articles on this topic

“Why Nagging Doesn’t Work” by Sonya Shafer

How is CM different from Montessori/Waldorf/Classical/Unschooling? Can I combine CM with unit studies/interest-led learning/ Montessori/Classical etc.?

Let’s answer the second half of this one first. You can combine CM with anything you like. It is your homeschool and you can do what you want. Some approaches are going to be more compatible with CM than others. Sometimes there are fundamental philosophical disagreements underlying the differences in methodology that we see on the surface. It is possible you will undermine what CM if you mix things up too much. That is why is it quite helpful to understand the theory behind any approach to education, so you can understand what it is trying to do and not inadvertently short-circuit yourself.

Which brings us to the first part of the question. What are the differences between CM and various other philosophies of education? Here are some resources to check out:

CM relative to other philosophies of education

The Montessori System” and “The Three Educational Idylls,” by Charlotte Mason from The Parents Review (1915 & 1912 respectively), as transcribed at Charlotte Mason Poetry –CM and Maria Montessori were contemporaries. Mason was critical of Montessori’s methods.

Is CM Classical?

This gets asked so often it deserves its own answer. The short answer is: it depends who you ask. This is actually a big, on-going debate in CM circles. On one side Karen Glass in Consider This argued that CM should be included under the label classical. On the other, Art Middlekauff at Charlotte Mason Poetry has argued that CM is not classical. A large part of the battel centers on how we define classical. You can read my own take on how to define classical and if CM fits the bill here.

Booklist: Living Books on WWI

As we continue with booklists I have put together over the years, today we turn to the Great War, aka World War I.

Living Books on WWI

Buchan, John. The Thirty-Nine Steps. Not specifically about the war but a wonderful, don’t-miss fiction book. Middle-teens.

Granfield, Linda. Where Poppies Grow. Picture book. Elementary.

Harnett, Sonya. Silver Donkey. Set in France. Elementary-middle.

Marrin, Albert. The Yanks are Coming. Marrin’s books tend to tell all about an era and make good spines for older kids. Middle-teens.

McCutcheon, Patricia. Christmas in the Trenches. Elementary.

Mukerji, Dhan Gopal. Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon. Middle years or a good read aloud for younger ones.

Reeder, Red. The Story of the First World War. Middle-teens.

Seredy, Kate. The Singing Tree. Hungarians. Middle years.

Vinton, Iris. Story of Edith Cavell. Re a British nurse. Middle years.

Werstein, Irving. Over Here and Over ThereThe Lost Battalion, The Many Face of WWI and 1914-1918: WWI Told in Pictures. If you can find him, Werstein is a wonderful older author. Middle years-teens.

And some movies . . .

I’d also like to mention some movies set in this era. The Humphrey Bogart classic African Queen is set during WWI.

Sergeant York is a fabulous a WWI movie everyone should see.

While looking for things to watch, I also ran across the Young Indiana Jones series. There are apparently two seasons, one set before WWI and one during WWI. From the reviews I read they are high school level for both violence and adult situations. We haven’t watched them but they sounded good.


Booklist: the Early 1900s

Today we are looking at books on the early 1900s up to World War I. Some of these topics overlap with my previous list on the late 1800s.

Living Books on the Early 1900s

China and the Boxer Rebellion

Preston, Diana. The Boxer Rebellion. Teens.

Silbey, David. The Great Game in China. Slightly shorter and more accessible than Preston’s book. Teens.

Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909)

Foster, Genevieve. Theodore Roosevelt. Foster’s books made wonderful spines for a wide range of ages. Elementary +.

Fritz, Jean. Bully for You Teddy Roosevelt. Elementary.

Kent, Zachary. The Story of the Rough Riders. Cornerstones of Freedom series. This series is good if you get the older books whose titles all begin “The Story of . . .” Elementary-middle.

Marrin, Albert. Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of Modern America. Teens.


Crew, Gary. Pig on the Titanic. Picture book. Elementary.

Stein, R. Conrad. The Story of the San Francisco Earthquake. Cornerstones of Freedom series. This series is good if you get the older books whose titles all begin “The Story of . . .” Elementary-middle.

Women’s Suffrage

Fritz, Jean. You Want Women to Vote Lizzie Staunton. Elementary.

Stein, R. Conrad. The Story of the Nineteenth Amendment. Cornerstones of Freedom series. This series is good if you get the older books whose titles all begin “The Story of . . .” Elementary-middle.

Wise, Winfred. Rebel in Petticoats. Middle years (?).

Woolridge, Connie. When Esther Morris Headed West. Elementary.

Immigration and Immigrants

Bartone, Elisa. Peppe the Lamplighter.  Elementary.

Bunting, Eve. Dreaming of America. Elementary.

Estes, Eleanor. The 100 Dresses. A Polish girl in Connecticut. Elementary-middle.

Forbes, Kathryn. Mama’s Bank Account. Norwegian immigrants in San Francisco. Elementary-middle years.

Judson, Clara Ingram. The Green Ginger Jar. A mystery set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Middle years.

Stein, R. Conrad. Story of Ellis Island. Cornerstones of Freedom series. Elementary.

Wells, Rosemary. Streets of Gold. Elementary.

Industry and Invention

Judson, Clara Ingram. Andrew Carnegie. Middle-teens.

Quackenbush, Robert. Along Came the Model T and Ahoy! Ahoy! Are You There? A Story of Alexander Graham Bell. Elementary.

Silverberg, Robert. Light for the World: Edison and the Power Industry. Teens.

Spier, Peter. Tin Lizzie. Elementary.

Yolen, Jane. My Brothers Flying Machine. Elementary.

Factory Life

The Lowell Mill Girls: Life in the Factory. Letters. Elementary-middle.

Marrin, Albert.  Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy. Marrin manages to tell quite a bit about the whole era. Middle-teens.

Paterson, Katherine Lyddie. Middle years.

Selden, Bernice. The Mill Girls. Middle years.

General Life

Steig, William. When Everybody Wore a Hat. Elementary.

Booklist: the Late 1800s, Pioneers and the West

In my ever-growing lists of living books we are now up to the late 1800s (i.e. post-Civil War). We are including in this period pioneers and the settlement of the west. Some topics which span the turn of the century, including industrialization and immigration, will be saved for the early 1900s list.

Living Books on the late 1800s


Robinet, Harriette. Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule. Middle years.

Taylor, Mildred. The Land. Book 1 of the Logan family saga. Middle years.

Werstein, Irving. This Wounded Land. Middle years-teens.

California Gold Rush

deClements, Barthe. Bite of the Gold Bug. Elementary.

Roop, Connie. California Gold Rush. Elementary.

The Pony Express (1860-1861)

Bulla, Clyde Robert. Riding the Pony Express. Elementary.

Coerr, Eleanor. Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express. Elementary.

Great Chicago Fire (1871)

Hoffer, Peter Charles. Seven Fires: The Urban Infernos that Reshaped America. Teens.

Quackenbush, Robert. They’ll be a hot time… Elementary.

NYC Blizzard of 1888

Stevens, Carla. Anna Grandpa and the Big Storm. Elementary.

Chicago World’s Fair (1893)

Lawson, Robert. The Great Wheel. Elementary.

Peck, Richard. Fair Weather. Middle years.

Blizzard of 1896

Bird, E.J. Blizzard of 1896. Middle years (?).

Spanish American War (1898)

Marrin, Albert. The Spanish-American War. Teens.

Werstein, Irving. 1898: Spanish American War. Middle-teens.


Lomask, Milton. Andy Johnson (1865-1869). I really like this older author. Middle-teens.

Venezia, Mike. Venezia has a series of humorous books on the presidents. Elementary.

Pioneers & Pioneer Life

Avi. Prairie School. Elementary (?).

Brinks, Carol Ryrie. Caddie Woodlawn. Don’t miss the sequels too. Elementary-middle.

Bunting, Eve. Dandelions and  Train to Somewhere. Elementary. (re orphan trains). Lovely picture books. Elementary.

Cather, Willa. O Pioneers and My Antonia. I love Cather. Teens.

Caudill, Rebecca. Tree of Freedom. Elementary (?).

Coatsworth, Elizabeth. Sod House. Elementary.

Coerr, Eleanor. Josefina Story Quilt. Easy reader. Elementary.

DeFelice, Cynthia. Weasel (series). We listened to the first one and found it a little freaky so not for the timid child. Middle years.

Fleming, Alice. King of Prussia and a Peanut Butter Sandwich. Russian immigrants make their way to Kansas. Elementary.

Fritz, Jean. Cabin Faced West. Middle years.

Gregory, Kristiana. Legend of Jimmy Spoon. Middle years.

Hays, Wilma Pitchford. Trouble at Otter Creek. Elementary.

Holm, Jennifer. Our Only May Amelia and Boston Jane (series). May Amelia is set in Washington state in 1899. Middle years.

Larson, Kirby. Hattie Big Sky (series). We loved these. Middle years.

MacLauchlan, Patricia. Sarah, Plain and Tall. Check out the rest in the series as well. Elementary-middle.

Rounds, Glen. Sod Houses on the Great Plains. Elementary.

Steele, William O. This favorite author has lots of books on pioneer and Native American life that will appeal to boys. Some are: Flaming ArrowsWinter DangerWestward Adventure, Buffalo Knife and Wilderness Journey. Middle years.

Stein, R. Conrad. Story of the Homestead Act. From the wonderful Cornerstones of history series. Look for the older books whose titles start “Story of” NOT the newer ones. Elementary.

Turner, Ann. Grasshopper Summer (A plague of locusts hits the prairie) and Dakota Dugout. Elementary.

Whelan, Gloria. Next Spring an Oriole. Easy reader. Elementary.

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie (series). Little House in the Big Woods is a fairly easy read. Elementary-Middle.

Yates, Elizabeth. Carolina’s Courage. Elementary.

Cowboys and Such

Dewey, Ariane. Narrow Escapes of Davy Crockett. Tall tales. Elementary.

Fritz, Jean. Make way for Sam Houston. Elementary.

Holling, Holling C. The Book of Cowboys. Elementary.

Hurley, William. Dan Frontier. A Davy Crockett type character. Elementary.

James, Will. Smokey the Cow Horse. My librarian was very excited about this one. elementary (?).

Miers, Earl Schenck. Wild and Woolly West. A wonderful older author if you can find him. Middle years (?).

Marrin, Albert. Cowboys, Indians and Gunfighters and War Clouds in the West (re Native Americans and cavalrymen). Marrin is a favorite author.  Middle-teens.

Quackenbush, Robert. Quit Pulling My Leg. Re Davy Crockett. Elementary.

Rounds, Glen. Cowboys. Early elementary.

Silverberg, Robert, Ghost Towns of the American West. Teens.

Steele, William O. Story of Daniel Boone. Elementary (?).

Steig, Jeanne. Tales from Gizzard’s Grill. Poetic. Elementary.

Werstein, Irving. Marshall without a Gun. Middle years-teens.


Dalgliesh, Alice. Bears on Hemlock Mountain. Elementary.

Glubok, Shirley. Art of America in the Gilded Age. Elementary-middle.

Marrin, Albert. Saving the Buffalo. Middle years.

North, Sterling. Wolfling. Middle years.

Roop, Connie. Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie. Lighthouse keeper. Elementary.

Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi.  There is also an abridged version called The Boy’s Ambition. Middle-teens.

Whelan, Gloria. Wanigan. Life of a girl in timber country on Lake Huron in 1878. Middle years.

Yolen, Jane. Mary Celeste. Shipwreck in 1872. Elementary.

Happy reading!

CM: Living Books and Language Arts

Previously I gave an overview of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education through her 20 Principles. Today I’d like to look at one of the subjects that seems hardest to adjust to in a CM education: language arts. It can seem very counter-intuitive to those of us who were educated in more traditional ways and often one feels like one is not doing enough. 

Living Books

Let’s begin with one of the cornerstones of a Charlotte Mason education: “living books.” Living books are used in almost every subject from history and science to literature and art history. Because they form the basis of so much of what we do, we must begin by looking at these living books, what they are and why we use them.

As we saw, Mason’s 13th principle states that knowledge should be conveyed “in well-chosen language . . . in a literary form.”  The main criteria for living books, why Mason chose to use them, is that they convey ideas from one mind to another. Ideas are “caught” in this way from the authors of our books and become our own. One helpful analogy, which Mason herself uses, is that of food.  Ideas are the food of the mind (principle 8). Just as there are different kinds of foods, so there are different kinds of books. The best ones, these living books, are well-written and contain the vital ideas our minds need. Just like wholesome, tasty foods nourish our bodies, so they nourish our minds. Books which contain facts but in a dry, textbook-like form are more like dry fiber bars. There may be something in them but they are not enjoyable and we will not thrive on them. The junk food of the book world are what Mason calls “twaddle.” Twaddly books may be enjoyable; kids often like them, especially if they have not developed a taste for the finer things, but there is no real nutrition in them.

 Throughout her volumes, Mason expands upon the notion of living books and gives us some guidelines as to what are and aren’t living books and how to recognize them. 

  • Above all, living books are known by their effect; they are living because they give life to the mind.
  • Living books are well-written. They use fine language.
  • Living books have a literary style. This can be true whether they are fiction or non-fiction. They tell things in a narrative fashion.
  • Living books usually have only one author. Books written by committee are almost never living.
  • In general, books should be whole books, not abridged, excerpted, or children’s versions. (One notable exception is narrative versions of Sakespeare’s plays.)
  • Living books are written by someone who knows and loves their subject. 
  • Living books can be of any level from picture books to Shakespeare and Moby Dick
  • A helpful test for picture books can be whether the adult wants to read it, or to read it more than once. If you as the adult are sick of it quickly, it is probably not living. 
  • Living books are true. This applies to non-fiction, of course, but even fiction can convey truth through completely made-up stories. 
  • Living books are not preachy. If a moral lesson is very obvious to you, it probably is to your child as well. Messages that lie on the surface are not the same as ideas which must be dug out of books. Remember that reading and narrating living books is meant to be work. 
  • Living books are worth reading more than once. If you can read a book a second or a third time and get something new out of it, it is probably living.

Language Arts in a Charlotte Mason Education

Language arts itself involves a few different skills or knowledge areas including: reading comprehension, grammar, spelling, and writing. In a Charlotte Mason education, all these areas are covered through living books, narration (oral first, then written), and copy work and later prepared dictation. 

Living books are the key to CM language arts. Children who are educated with such books will develop a taste for and an innate recognition of what makes good language. As they read their school books, children slowly imbibe good writing. They come to understand harder and harder texts (reading comprehension) and they develop and feel for what makes good, well-written language (writing, grammar, and spelling).  As with many elements of a CM education, this is a gradual process that takes place over a number of years so that one may not see progress on a day-to-day or even a month-to-month basis but progress is being made. 

Narration in a Charlotte Mason education takes the place of reading comprehension and builds writing skills. Rather than asking a child to answer set questions about what he or she has read, narration lets the child tell what they have gotten from their reading. When we pose questions to a child, they fail if they don’t get the answers. They may actually have gotten quite a lot from the reading, it just wasn’t what we expected them to get. Narration lets the child tell what he has gotten in a positive way rather than measuring him by adult expectations of what is important. At times one may guide narration to some extent by asking open-ended questions or allow a child to narrate in other ways, eg. by drawing a picture or acting out a story, but the most basic form of narration is just to say “tell me what that was about.” Living books, again, are key. It is hard to narrate form bad books. Well-chosen books give the child some meat to dig their teeth into.

Narration is really composition, first oral composition and then as the child progresses, written composition. While some children love creative writing, many find it hard to know what to write. Narration gives the child a subject, because they are composing based on what they read, and takes off some of the pressure many feel when faced with a blank piece of paper. Narration is not easy. It is meant to be challenging and to require one to dig deep and to learn to put one’s thoughts together and to communicate them. One usually begins with oral narration and transitions to written after a few years. Oral narration never completely ceases, however, but continues alongside written narration. In the high school years, narrations can become more guided and a transition to other kinds of writing can occur. Karen Glass’s book Know and Tell is a wonderful resource for all narration questions and describes the process of transitioning to other kinds of writing. 

Young children begin copying short passages, at first even just a couple of words, and then move on to longer passages and then to prepared dictation. Again these passages may be taken from living books, either from their school books or from other good writing. As always, the idea behind the CM method is to provide language in context. Spelling in particular is very visual and prepared dictation teaches children to see words so as to be able to recognize if they are written correctly in their own writing. One helpful resource for how to do prepared dictation is Sonya Shafer’s video at Simply Charlotte Mason