Posts Tagged ‘Narration’

Three Big Ideas about Narration

Dear Reader,

I can’t really take credit for these ideas. They are al things I gleaned from the reading for my local Charlotte Mason discussion group. But then again that’s very CM of m, isn’t it? To get ideas from living books (and living blog posts — can you have living blog posts??) is what it’s all about.

Three Big Ideas  about Narration

  1. We don’t teach them to think; we give them something to think about. Charlotte was a firm believer that kind are born fully formed. Unlike her contemporaries, she did not see kids as blank slates or as beings whose faculties need t be developed. They are born able to think and, as they learn to speak, able to narrate. In fact, narration comes quite naturally to kids. When they do something fun or watch a movie they like, they want to talk about it endlessly. That is narration. Charlotte did not invent a new thing with narration; she harnessed a power kids already have. Our job is to provide something meaty for them to chew upon. We give them god materials (living books, fine art, etc.) so that they have something worthwhile to narrate.
  2. Narration is about what you know, not what you don’t know. The modus operandi of schools today is for the adults to decide what it important and then ask to demand the children regurgitate it. Fill-in-the-blanks, true and false, reading comprehension questions all ask kids to tell us what we think is important. And if they can’t, they are deficient. Narration says not “let me look for what you don’t know” but “tell me what you do know.” It values what children do take from the material, even if it is not what we think they should take.
  3. A narration creates something new; narration is interpretation. No two people will narrate the same passage the same way. As we visualize a story, we may see the characters differently. We will get different things from a passage. And as we retell, we will make connections with what we already know and add our own unique spin to whatever we are telling.


Reading Comprehension, or What to Study and How to Study it

Dear Reader,

Do you do reading comprehension in your homeschool? Do you have a curriculum for it? In a Charlotte Mason Education, such things are not needed. Narration takes the place of reading comprehension. In narration, a child tells back what they have read as they see it. The key difference here is that the child decides what is important and chooses what to tell rather than having to anser preset questions in which the teacher (or textbook) decides what is important.

There is often a different in purpose as well. Through narration, the child processes the information and forms a relationship with it as they narrate. With reading comprehension, there may be a desire that the child learn the facts the teacher is asking about but it is also a kind of test to see if they have understood what they have read. Narration is not a test for the teacher’s benefit (so they can assign a grade) it is part of the learning process and is for the child’s benefit. Furthermore, Charlotte Mason would say that reading comprehension type questions are useless for really knowing what a child has learned. They may be able to parrot back facts but that does not mean that they have let the material sink deep into them. Here is how she puts it:

“The mind appears to have an outer court into which matter can be taken and again expelled without ever having entered the inner place where personality dwells. Here we have the secret of learning by rote, a purely mechanical exercise of which no satisfactory account has been given, but which leaves the patient, the pupil, unaffected.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 202)

You, like I, have probably experienced this sort of thing — cramming for  a test only to forget it all the next day when it is no longer needed.

One may, in a Charlotte Mason education, give some sort of question as an impetus to narration but these should be open-ended questions such as “Tell me all you know about this character.” At times I think such questions may help the student to ferret out information they didn’t even know they had. I am thinking of examples such as when one reads a fictional account of life in colonial America and then is asked “tell me how they lived then.” Rather than just recounting the story, the child must now think about what they have read and pull together different parts to create  a picture of colonial life that was not just clearly laid out for them. But we must also recognize that whenever we ask questions, we are focusing attention, to some greater or lesser degree, on what we think is important, perhaps to the detriment of what the student actually got out of it all. Charlotte does not speak well of such questioning:

“Questions, as Dr. Johnson told us, are an intrusion and  a bore . . . ‘The mind can know nothing except what it can express in the form of an answer to a question put by the mind to itself.’ Observe, not a question put by an outsider, but, put by the mind to itself.” (p. 202)

Indeed, our questions often betray a lack of confidence in the child. We are not trusting them to interact with the material on their own and to be able to get their own ideas out of it. Charlotte says,

“He believes that children cannot understand well-written books and that he must make of himself a bridge between the pupil and the real teacher, the man who has written the book.” (p. 204)

Charlotte often compares education to a meal. The teacher provides the food, but the student must eat it. They cannot be force-fed nor can we control what they will put in their mouths. There is no coercion. In this analogy, our questions areas if we are trying to chew their food for them:

“We must feed the mind as the body fitly and freely; and the less we meddle with the digestive processes in the one as in the other the more healthy the life we shall sustain.” (p. 203)

We return again here to the idea that narration is how the student learns; it is not just for our (the teacher’s) benefit. And since it is how they learn, how they digest the material if you will, we should be very wary of stepping in and telling them how to do it.

I once knew a child who until the age of 5 couldn’t chew solid food. There was an undiagnosed medical issue and his mom would have to puree his food or serve him very soft things, like well-cooked pasta, long past toddlerhood. This is a normal diet for a one-year-old but not for a five-year-old, and over time his facial muscles weakened from lack of use and his face began to have a slack look to it. Fortunately, they eventually got a diagnosis and the problem was able to fix itself, but what if we are doing this same sort of thing to our kids intellectually? We are keeping them from hearty meats that they are old enough to comprehend and thereby weakening their intellectual muscles. They are not growing and developing as they should.

But, you may say, I put books to my child and they are unable or unwilling to narrate. I have to ask them specific questions or all I get is shrugs and “I don’t know”s. If a child has been used to a traditional school diet or dry textbooks and boring questions, it may be, as in my analogy above, that their intellectual muscles need a little building up. Beginning narrations with simple, easy to tell stories is always a good idea, even if the child is older. We have found Aesop’s fables wonderful for as and also the book by Thornton Burgess along the lines of “The Tale of so-and-do the such-and-such” (not his longer books like The Bird Book or The Animal Book).

Once a child has gotten used to the idea of and the practice of narration, we must make sure that we are feeding them real books and not cardboard simulations. Textbooks and, in my opinion, most books of the Usborne and DK variety are not good food. Charlotte says of such things:

“Persons can ‘get up’ the driest of pulverized text-books and enough mathematics for some public examination; but these attainments do not appear to touch the region of mind.” (p. 201)

In other words, even if a student can tell what they said or answer questions about them, they do not nourish and are not suitable food.

And if we are using a book that we think is higher quality and should be suitable but the child cannot seem to narrate it, I think one of the first questions we should ask is still is it a living book? Is it a living book for them? A book may appear to us to be living and a good choice but the surest test is to give it to the child to read. If they can narrate it well, and do so with enthusiasm, it is a living book. Here is how Charlotte sums up the whole matter:

“Given a book of literary quality suitable to their age and children will know how to deal with it without elucidation. Of course they will not be able to answer questions because questions are an impertinence which we all resent, but they will tell you the whole thing with little touches of individual personality in the narrative.” (p. 204)

It is really a wonderful thing to see (or hear) when it all comes together and they do narrate with enthusiasm. A Charlotte Mason education is a process, one that often seems long, but when things begin to come together it is very rewarding.


IEW and CM

Dear Reader,

Since I had talked about the institute in Excellence for Writing (IEW) in another post, I thought I should actually look at it  a little and form a more considered opinion rather than relying on just what others have told me about it. In particular, I was interested in whether this curriculum is Charlotte Mason-friendly or not.

Having poked around a little, reading many articles on their website and looking at some of the samples of their materials, I do have a more favorable opinion of IEW but I also think that it is not for us.

I like that IEW does not throw children out on their own and say “write something creative.” Instead they do basically what we have been doing, they have children base their compositions on good writing. The end result that an IEW lesson aims for is a retelling of the passage that has been read. This is narration, isn’t it? Narration, first oral and then written, is the backbone of Charlotte Mason’s writing program (if you can call it that). Thus far, IEW does seem CM-friendly.

I had some concerns about the kinds of passages that IEW uses in its lessons. This was based on the remarks of a friend who used the program for a while. But having looked at IEW’s online samples, I think I was led a bit astray in my opinion of it. I believe my friend substituted her own passages and that she did not choose what I would call living materials. Based on the few samples I can see online, it does look like the selections IEW uses are decent. The early ones appear to be essentially fables, something which we have found excellent for early narration exercises. My one complaint about their choices might be that they are all taken out of context. If one were really diligent, I suppose one could use selections from books that were being read already so that it would not feel so much like children are getting a piece here and a piece there.

Where it all starts falling apart for me is in the getting from point A to point B bit. Starting with examples of living materials is great. The end result being the child’s own retelling of those materials is also great. But how do we get there? In Charlotte Mason’s approach, the answer is really just “narration.” The specific steps are not laid out for the child. There is a progression in that they hopefully begin young and narrate simple passages orally (Aesop’s fables again are a wonderful place to start). Then as they grow, they begin to do periodic written narrations. But there are really no steps in between. You read, you narrate. The child is not told to make an outline (though this could be a kind of narration one teaches at some point) or to use certain kinds of words (eg. adverbs). They are not told how to find the key points in a passage because the whole point is that they should tell you what was key or important or interesting to them. There is a lot of trust in the CM approach in the child’s inherent abilities to find what is key to them, to organize their thoughts and to be able to give a coherent narration. Perhaps early efforts will not be so coherent but they more they do it, the more they learn.

In my estimation, both approaches are trying to get to the same place, but IEW does not trust in the child’s abilities as CM does. It does not assume that the child can discern what is important or that they can order their thoughts on their own. I can see that for someone who has not regularly included CM-style narration, that a program like IEW could be really beneficial. If the child has not had practice narrating what they have read, with all the many mental tasks that involves, then they may not take naturally to writing, and IEW could fill in skills that they have not had the chance to develop. But my own opinion is still that it would be better to just begin narration, even at a late date, and to take the time to build skills that way.