Tag Archive | Charlotte Mason

First, Character

A modern proverb that we hear frequently is “Don’t compare your kids to other kids.”  It truly is an important piece of advice because every child is different, and each develops at a different pace.  Homeschooling, however, makes following that advice extra difficult, I think.  Since our kids aren’t in a school where all the kids of a particular age are being presented the same material at the same time, we homeschooling parents wonder at times, “Am I teaching what he should be learning right now?”  “Do I have him on track with others his age?”  We homeschooling parents aren’t trying to make a better than/less than judgement call, but just evaluating our own academic plan for our children, compared with what other children are learning.

Of course, in our current society, academics are ranked as Top Priority.  It seems like kids now are learning material a year or two earlier than I did in school.  Even at the kindergarten level, I remember all year learning about the Letter People – focusing on one letter each week.  Mrs. Blakeman’s kindergarten class with the inflatable Letter People hanging from the ceiling is a cherished memory of mine!  But now it seems as though children are expected to know all of the letters by the time they start kindergarten – kindergarten is now time to learn how to read.  (Please correct me if I’m wrong on that.)

The funny thing about that to me is that children are pushed to higher levels of academics at earlier ages, and yet character development is barely in the picture.  Personal responsibility, hard work, perseverance…those seem to have been thrown out the window.  I’ve heard stories of parents contacting their child’s college professors because the work is too hard.  A friend of mine who is a college professor was telling me recently that his students don’t know how to read for comprehension – they can only scan for specific information to answer a specific question.

Last summer as we were preparing for Drama Queen to begin piano lessons, her teacher gave me some assigned reading so I could learn about the Suzuki method.  One quote (from Shinichi Suzuki’s book, Nutured By Love) stood out to me:  “First character, then ability.”  If I remember correctly, it was the motto of his childhood school, and it had a big impact on him.  It really spoke to me as well – to the point that I made it our school motto.

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We love academics around here, we really do.  Drama Queen has made huge improvement in her reading skills over the past few weeks, which is very fun and exciting.  Plus, she is practically giddy over learning any math I put in front of her.  Mr. Bang, meanwhile, isn’t all that interested in his own work, but eats up anything I do with Drama Queen.  When I give her math challenges just in normal day-to-day situations, he almost always spits out the (correct) answer before she even has a chance.  In addition, my little first grade girly-girl has gotten herself interested in some of the major American wars, so at her request, we’re spending this semester focusing on one war a month:  Revolutionary, Civil, WWI and WWII.  Academics are fun; we love learning new things!

However, I regularly emphasize to my children that academics are not the number one priority.  Your character is what really determines what your quality of life will be and what impact you will have on others.  Because of this, I don’t want to leave character development to chance; I want it to be an integral part of the learning that happens in our home.  Last spring at the Great Homeschool Convention (which is much better than its cheesy name implies), I went to a session with Sonya Shafer of Simply Charlotte Mason, focusing on character development.  Her recommendation was to spend a few months really focusing on developing one character trait, which is the approach we are taking.

There are a few different things we do to help develop the trait we’re focusing on.  For one thing, I bought Shafer’s book, Laying Down the Rails, which is a great parent resource to understand what are appropriate expectations within a particular character trait.  I see that she also has one now for children that includes stories and activities and such to help motivate children to develop each character trait.  I don’t have that one yet, but I am certainly intrigued.  (If you have it, what do you think?)

I also bought a We Choose Virtues kit with fun posters to display as we focus on a particular trait.  With each new one we focus on, I hang the larger poster in the upstairs hallway, between their bedrooms.  We keep the smaller cards in the dining room and frequently use lunch time to review them.

Kids of VirtueVille Individual Fan Posters     Kids of VirtueVille Individual Fan Posters    Kids of VirtueVille Individual Fan Posters    Kids of VirtueVille Individual Fan Posters    Kids of VirtueVille Individual Fan Posters

I read lots of stories to them, stories which highlight that particular character trait.  My favorite sources are the Bible and The Book of Virtues, but of course, there are many other good sources.  Two others that we use frequently are My ABC Bible Verses and A Child’s Book of Character Building.

There was one other idea that I received back in February when I was visiting my former church in Virginia.  This idea was sent home with all the parents as a way to continue what the kids were learning at church, and I loved it!  Six months later, I have finally made my adapted version for my family.

Character flowers

We’re using these face flowers as a way to encourage us to watch for the current character trait in each other.  Each morning, the flowers start out flat on the table.  As one of us sees another family demonstrating the focus-area character trait, we get to put that person’s flower in the pot.  During dinner, we are able to share how we saw family members demonstrating that trait.  For instance, right now we’re focusing on one trait a week, reviewing the three we emphasized last year.  This week our character trait is obedience.  When Mr. Bang put his dishes away after breakfast without being reminded, he was showing obedience, so his flower went in the pot.  When Drama Queen put her clean clothes in her dresser as soon as I told her to, Ethan saw that she was demonstrating obedience, so he put her flower in the pot.  Now, obedience is a little different from honesty or self-control or others, because you have to be showing obedience to someone in authority over you.  As Christians, The Brain and I believe that our obedience is to our Lord, so we had the kids brainstorm with us what it looks like when we are being obedient to God.  They are able to watch for those things (disciplining in a calm manner instead of yelling, teaching them diligently, working hard to provide for the family, etc.) to be able to put our flowers in the pot.

The Brain and I took some time at the beginning of this school year to list our highest goals for our children.  Academics, of course, were in the list, but at the very top was that they grow into adults of strong character.  The thing about character development is that all children are constantly learning the level of character that is expected of them.  We want to be intentional about our children’s character development so that positive character traits become just a natural part of who they are.  Charlotte Mason made a great statement about that:

“Every day, every hour, the parents are either passively or actively forming those habits in their children upon which, more than upon anything else, future character and conduct depend.”

What do you do to develop strong character habits in your children?   Are there any relevant children’s books that you recommend?


Book Review: Biographies of art and music

Both within the Charlotte Mason and the Montessori worlds, there is an emphasis on exposing children to beautiful things.  One large aspect of that is allowing them to experience the works of famous artists and musicians.

In our home, we focus on one musician and one artist each semester.  This semester, we chose Bach as our composer, simply because one of my friends was doing a Bach presentation at a local school at the very beginning of the semester.  She invited us to attend that presentation, where we were able to learn facts about his life and listen to some of his music.  She also sent us home with a CD of some of his pieces.  Drama Queen and Mr. BANG absolutely love listening to the CD during meals, and also prefer for me to have a picture of him for them to see as they listen.  (I just pull up a picture on my computer and set it where they can see.)

Our artist this month is Georgia O’Keefe simply because Montessori Print Shop had free O’Keefe nomenclature cards at the beginning of the semester, and I had previously purchased a calendar of her paintings which meant I had some of her artwork on hand. (January and February are perfect times to get discounted artist calendars.)  I let each child choose one painting from the calendar to display in each of their bedrooms, and put the others up in the playroom, their bathroom, and the hallway connecting their bedrooms.

   The nomenclature cards

I also definitely wanted to include some child-appropriate biographies to allow us into O’Keefe’s and Bach’s lives a little bit.  l had previously discovered a series of composer biographies that are wonderful.  My first experience with these books, by Anna Harwell Celenza, was a book about Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” my own favorite piece of music as a child.  The book tells the story of how that particular piece of music was written and then introduced to the public.  It came with a CD of that piece, so we could listen and pick out the aspects of the music that were described in the book.

This time, I knew to go to her for a book about Bach, and she didn’t fail me.  I purchased her book, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which tells the story of a young boy, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who played harpsichord for Bach’s friend, Count Keyserlingk.  The Count gave Goldberg a new musical challenge each week, and the boy worked hard to find or write an appropriate piece and practice it until he was ready to play it perfectly for the count.  One day, the Count asked for a piece that was “filled with dances and difficult runs.  It must also have canons and something quite new.  A surprise that will trick me – how about a riddle?”  In despair, Goldberg went to his teacher, Bach, who pulled out a piece he had already written, which fit the bill perfectly.  (Bach’s name for the piece was “A Keyboard Practice Consisting of an Aria with Thirty Variations for the Harpischord.”  You can see why the name “Goldberg Variations” is the one that stuck!)  The book also comes with a CD of the piece.


Celenza herself is a music professor at Georgetown University.  She has written 6 children’s books (the most recent was released this year, so hopefully she’ll write more!), telling the stories of pieces by Duke Ellington, Beethoven, Mussorgsky, and Haydn, in addition to Bach and Gershwin.

The other fabulous series that I’ve discovered is both written and illustrated by Mike Venezia.  My children absolutely LOVE his books, because in addition to pulling together an interesting short biography of the person, he includes funny cartoons throughout the books.  We have the ones for Bach and O’Keefe, but he has written nearly 50 biographies of artists, 14 biographies of composers, 43 biographies of U.S. Presidents, and 16 biographies of inventors and scientists.

Johann Sebastian Bach includes portraits of Bach, some of his family members (including one of him playing harpsichord with many of his numerous children around him), and places he lived.  Venezia tells about Bach’s musical family (more than 70 of his relatives were professional musicians), his early experiences (he got a good job as a violist in a royal court, but also had to remove slop from the kitchen every morning), and several of the different jobs Bach had during his lifetime.


Georgia O’Keefe includes pictures of many of her paintings, as well as a couple of photos of O’Keefe herself.  Venezia describes what types of paintings O’Keefe liked to make and what inspired her.  He tells about the different places she lived, and how each impacted her artwork.  He also walks through the development of her relationship of photographer Alfred Stieglitz, whom she eventually married.  And, of course, it has plenty of silly cartoons!


If you know of other great biographies for children, please share!

Living and Active

As a child, I grew up in a church-y home, but not necessarily a personal faith kind of home.  As I’ve grown and matured over the years, it’s become clear to me that there’s an enormous difference between being religious and actually being an “apprentice of Jesus” (as labeled by Dallas Willard inThe Divine Conspiracy).  My desire is for my children to learn from the beginning how important knowing God’s Word and spending time with Him in prayer are.

When Drama Queen was just a little bitty crawling thing, we would start each day by reading a chapter or two or three from the Bible.  I was doing a read-the-Bible-in-a-year plan, so I would just read that day’s plan.  Of course, I had no expectation of this sweet girl sitting still and listening, but I wanted to set that foundation of starting the day with God – both for her and for me.  She would crawl all over the room and me as I read – with periodic tickle and zerbert breaks.

(20 months old, looking through a Bible at a doctor’s office)

Once Mr. BANG was born, I didn’t know quite how to continue that routine – so I didn’t.  For over a year, we didn’t have any routine Bible reading.  Of course, we read plenty of Bible story books.  Also, Drama Queen was obsessed with a few different Bible story stories (David and Goliath, Paul’s conversion, and the first 6 chapters of Daniel were the main ones), so to be able to act them out multiple times a day as she wanted, we also read them from the Bible multiple times a day.  That was actually very cool, because I learned the details of those stories so much better.

Last fall, though, with the help of Charlotte Mason ideas and my friend Corrie who introduced me to the idea of doing catechism (I thought it was “just a Catholic thing”), we began starting our days with a Bible study time.  The kids and I immediately loved it!  I remember one day early on when the kids were playing in the dirt in the backyard (their favorite activity).  I told them that in one minute, it would be time to come to the front porch for Bible study.  Drama Queen immediately dropped her digging tools and ran to the porch yelling, “Yay!  Bible study!!  I LOVE Bible study!!”  THAT’S what a mom wants to hear!  🙂

We have 5 aspects to our Bible study:  catechism, memory verse, Scripture reading, hymn, and prayer.

For catechism and memory verse, I made two separate binders.  I introduce one new catechism question and one new Bible passage a week.  (For longer passages, I just do a section each week until we’ve learned the whole passage.)  The catechism I use is written for children and is very simply worded.  It covers the basics of the Christian faith in a very clear manner.  I love that pretty much every time Drama Queen has a question about what it means, the next week’s question explains that detail.  Here are some examples of the questions and answers:

  • Who made you?  God made me.
  • What else did God make?  God made all things.
  • Are there more gods than one?  There is only one God.
  • In how many persons does this one God exist?  In three persons.
  • Who are they?  The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
  • Who is God?  God is a Spirit and does not have a body like men.
  • Can you see God?  No.  I cannot see God, but He always sees me.
  • Who wrote the Bible?  Holy men who were taught by the Holy Spirit.
  • What is your soul?  My soul includes all of me that should know and love God.
  • What is sin?  Sin is any transgression of the law of God.

(She said this illustration is a banana tree with bruised bananas.)

For Bible verses, I typically go by a specific list of verses I found on a Charlotte Mason website.  However, I do vary from that some.  Last December, we focused on learning the original Christmas story from Luke 2:1-18.  There have also been times that the children were learning a particular verse at church, so we focused on that same verse at home.  In the binders, I leave space on the pages for the children to illustrate it.  So far, Drama Queen has always been the illustrator, but now that Mr. BANG’s artwork is moving beyond complete scribbles, it’s probably time to give him that opportunity as well.

(This is Adam and Eve.)

For Bible reading, again I follow a plan I found through a Charlotte Mason site.  I like this plan because it provides short passages through the whole Bible and kind of makes each one it’s own little story.  For instance, in the “Moses vs. Pharaoh” section of Exodus, each plague is it’s own story.  In the New Testament, each parable of Jesus is its own story.  The passages are never overwhelmingly long, but they do give the children the opportunity to hear the whole Bible over a period of time.  We read an OT and NT passage each day.

Now, again, my children are only 2 and 4 years old.  I have absolutely no expectations of them sitting and quietly listening and participating during all this!  We sit in the reading corner of the playroom/school room (or the front porch swing, or on a blanket in the back yard), and sometimes they do just want to sit and cuddle against me.  However, they usually are climbing across the pillows behind me, or fixing my hair, or doing flips over my legs.  That is perfectly fine!  I don’t require them to give the answers of the catechism questions or say the Bible verses, but they frequently do on their own as they’re climbing, flipping, and sometimes diving.  My rules for them in that part of Bible study are that they stay in our reading corner, not play with toys (unless it’s something small for them to have in their hands), and not talk or make loud sound effects unless they’re joining in with the study.

(I have made video of them reciting the catechism and memory verses, and I would love to post that here, but unfortunately I don’t have a clue how!)

The next part is probably their favorite: hymns.  For that, they get to choose an instrument from the music shelf and dance around the room while I sing.  (They always bring me an instrument to play too, and, yes, I sometimes do dance around with them!)  I introduce a new hymn each month, and normally toward the end of the month, Drama Queen is joyfully singing along with me.  Usually, once we finish that hymn, they ask for more hymns, so we sing one of the hymns we’ve learned previously.  Drama Queen gets excited at church on Sundays when we sing hymns from our morning Bible studies.

For prayer, we gather back over at the reading area.  We use this time for intercessory prayer.  I ask them who they would like to pray for that’s not in the room with us.  The most common response is “Daddy,” but at times they also mention a friend or an extended family member.  I always ask if either of them wants to say the words, but 90% of the time, they want me to do it.

This Bible study time is such a precious time with the kids.  I love getting to start our day this way, and pray that it creates a foundation for Drama Queen and Mr. BANG of always making that daily focused time with God a priority in their lives.

Nature – on shelves and beyond

Everyone in the homeschool world knows that no two homeschools are just alike, which works out well since no two families are just alike.  And, come to think of it, I can’t think of any homeschool family I know who only uses one approach.  Every family seems to make their own homeschool cocktail out of the approaches that appeal to them.  (If you’re interested in learning about different approaches, 100 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum by Cathy Duffy is THE book to start with, in my opinion.)  In our home, that cocktail is about 70% Montessori, 30% Charlotte Mason at this point.

As I’ve stated previously, I haven’t thoroughly studied Charlotte Mason’s approach yet, but my understanding is that in the primary ages, she recommends that children spend hours outside each day and not have any formal, structured learning time.

Dr. Maria Montessori also had a strong emphasis on spending time outdoors, but also encouraged having a specific nature shelf within the community.  (She used the term “community” instead of “classroom.”)

I certainly do not carry out either to the full extent that those two ladies envisioned.  Drama Queen and Mr. BANG practically never spend six hours outside in a day, as Mason recommended.  And I don’t have a wide variety of plants around the room/house for the children to independently take care of, as Montessori encouraged.  I certainly do not have a variety of pets for the children to learn to care for!

But I do try to let the children spend at least one hour outside each day.  Sometimes we do structured things, like gathering up some sand from the back yard and making land and waterforms, but usually that’s pure free time for the kids.  We have a fabulous area in the back yard that is pretty much pure dirt and rocks.  Mr. BANG could easily spend hours digging in that dirt (and has done so many a time).  They play in mud and dirt and rocks, and gather leaves and acorns, and swing on a tree vine, and get absolutely filthy, and have a BLAST!  We also have a nice wooded area right next to our house where my husband cleared a path for us to go on little hikes down to a rain-water creek.


Another thing that I’m wanting to do is put together a nature pack for each child, filled with tools to help them really focus in as we’re exploring nature outside.  Those will contain magnifying glasses, some field guides, plastic baggies for collecting things, a notepad for drawing what they see, and a few crayons.

Inside, we have the aforementioned nature shelf.  It’s pretty simple.  Soon after we moved in last summer, our new neighbor brought over some plants for the children, which they water twice a week.  I also keep a little nature tray with things the kids or I find outside.  Right now, it has a collection of the different types of leaves we have in our back yard.  My personal favorite was sea shells and coral we found on the beach during a recent Caribbean vacation.  We have two magnifying glasses for the kids to study those objects more closely.  We recently added a bug catcher for the kids to be able to closely examine insects.  The only other thing on the shelf is a little tray with animal/insect/fish cards that come in our aquarium’s monthly magazine.

In another part of the house, we have our only pets:  two little dwarf-frogs.  I’ve never been much of a pet person, so I figured this was a good way for me to begin building my pet skills.  These little guys barely need ANY attention!  You feed them four little food pellets twice a week, and change their water every three months.  (When changing the water, you don’t even have to take the stuff – or frogs – out of the tank!  You just suck out most of the old water, then pour in the new water!  Can you GET an easier pet?!)  At this point we all work together both on the feeding and the water changing.  They both come running when they see me getting things ready or hear me say that it’s time.  We’ve had those little frogs, Nathan and Isabella, for over a year now, so I guess it may be time for me to branch out and add a second pet that takes just a little more effort!


(This was when we first brought them home last year.)