Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Science of Relations :: Lessons from my Seven-Year-Old Son

As I read about Perseus finding Andromeda chained to a rock beside the sea a few months ago, Xavier was sitting on his hands, practically jumping out of his seat. As soon as I paused for narration, he yelled, "I know this! I know this!" And he ran to get D'Aulaires' version from the shelf and flipped right to this page.

This happens daily. It is now so much a part of our routine that we laugh over it. I have started taking photos of the books side-by-side every time he brings them to me.

Apparently he spent years looking at storybooks, not yet able to read them, studying these pictures and wondering about the stories behind them. And now, as he's listening, he's meeting old friends, hearing names for the illustrations he keeps in his mind.

My other kids have not been so insistent on sharing their connections with me, or so visual in their memory. He has these images that have become part of him and this pressing need to make those relationships tangible by showing them to me there on the page. He will pull a book he read months ago, knows exactly where it is on the shelf and what page the picture is on.

Sometimes the connection is obvious: the children on the back of the Golden Ram above, for example. Sometimes it's less so: as I'm reading about the "black stones" the Chinese were mining in Marco Polo, he runs to get Richard Scarry's What Do People Do All Day. "You're remembering something from Richard Scarry?!" I ask him. Sure enough, coal!

Sometimes the images aren't an exact match--just a detail that in his mind connects the two (or three or four!) stories. These are actually the most interesting to me.  When your seven-year-old son starts to form relationships among Greek mythology, Shakespeare, and classic fairy tales all in one breath, you stop and pay attention. You marvel at how a child's mind that is fed on the meat of narrative, poetry, myth--vitality in its many linguistic forms--responds when he has time to lie fallow and space to consider.

These juxtapositions are snapshots of his brain. Or his heart, since they are obviously working together as he validates affinities and grows in knowledge and in care. It's quite an honor to be invited into our kids' souls, isn't it?

Watching this play out day in and out with multiple children at multiple ages, how all these readings intersect and intertwine until this thing we call a curriculum is far bigger than any pile of books or list of assignments, it strikes me that this is the Science of Relations made clear in the daily--in these books set side by side and the young student who placed them there in front of me.

As Mason says herself, this principle is the underpinning of the whole philosophy, the "captain idea," the very definition of education: relationship. It is what leads one to virtue in act and wisdom in thought. How much he cares.

This particular son is not yet an expert narrator. He's in second grade and still building those skills. But I can tell quite clearly in these moments that there are relationships forming that he isn't yet able to express.

While it's true that when Mason used the term "Science of Relations," she was referring primarily to the relationships a student builds with books (and things and people) and not to the connection between books themselves. But I think harping on such a distinction oversimplifies the matter.

Because the process of education doesn't end there, with a child connecting with a book. The book becomes part of the child, and then another book becomes part of the child, and then both books are connected through the child knowing them.

As Mason says, "A small English boy of nine living in Japan, remarked, 'Isn’t it fun, Mother, learning all these things? Everything seems to fit into something else.' The boy had not found out the whole secret; everything fitted into something within himself." (Volume 6, p. 156-157)

The whole secret is that it's a matter of timing, in the end. 

She is warning us that we don't have to present a carefully-constructed curriculum of connected ideas to make sure our children can learn. Their building those connections themselves is their education. That's not our job as teachers; in fact, it would be overstepping our bounds.

But when books change us, we're primed to see "echoes" in the next books to come. And so the books are connected--through the learner and the mind-work he has done. Everything does fit into something else. Everything also fits into him.

 It is a web, not a string, of relationship, with the learner right there in the middle.

When he brings me these pictures, I can't help but feel they represent those lines from Wordsworth that Mason liked so well:
"An intellectual charm; that calm delight
Which, if I err not, surely must belong 
To those first-born affinities that fit
Our new existence to existing things"

This is delightful to watch unfold.

Friday, February 16, 2018

CM West :: Conference in Old San Juan {Recap}

It's time for a recap of our annual retreat here in Northern California, which just took place last weekend!  

This year, we held it at a retreat center nestled in the foothills just oustide beautiful San Juan Bautista, so we called it Conference in Old San Juan. (Last year we were in the Redwoods.)

A big group of us, however, met up beforehand for an optional pre-conference tour of the Mission, which was just a couple miles away from the conference site.

It was a hot day but the Mission was so nice and cool, and it was a great way to ease into a fun, full weekend.

A highlight from the mission visit for me was a small collection of watercolors they currently have on display. They were done by a local woman who passed away not too long ago. She was a hobbyist-artist and loved the missions, and her husband and children gifted the mission with her work to share with the community. Her paintings were wonderfully genuine. I found it so inspiring for my own work as a mama-amateur.

We then headed over to the retreat site for our arrival time activities: registration, a used book sale, and a resource fair.

Once again, Amber Vanderpol and I hosted and organized, and we were joined by this year's other speakers: Jessica Severne, Virginia Lee Rogers, and Matt Vanderpol. We had 51 people total (sold out!), and our event lasted from Thursday afternoon through Saturday at lunch.

After dinner, we started with the first of our talks: Amber spoke on "The Gift of a Mason Education." This was about the gift to the mother -- Mother Culture, our self-education. She talked about Mother Culture being about reading, keeping, doing, and sharing. Those categories were such a useful way of considering the way I allocate my time. I also felt like it started off the conference on the right foot: inspiring us to take our own education seriously, build in moments of reflection, of doing and sharing.

And then it was time for folk dancing! :) This was totally optional, but I think all the moms that chose to jump in would agree that it was super fun. Jessica, who leads Charlotte Mason Redding, does folk dancing with her co-op, and she and her daughter taught us the dance they were currently working on: Jenny Pluck Pears. This was taken from a book used by the PNEU and I'm eager to try it with my kids.

The next morning I woke up early and took a walk with Virginia Lee to find samples for her object lesson that afternoon.  We were treated to a lovely sunrise, and I was treated to her hilarious enthusiasm over our natural landscape. It is always fun to explore with someone new to the area.

After breakfast, we began with music (we had a piano on site this year, so alternated between folk song and hymn, played by gals from Charlotte Mason Redding). Then I got to share about notebooks, one of my favorite topics -- as anyone who reads my blog knows!

Then, Amber and I did an immersion/activity session tied to our talks until lunch. Each of our talks this year had a hands-on session associated with it afterward, which both allowed us both to build more rest into the schedule and consider what we had learned by narrating/practicing/experiencing.

First, a group drawn narration of a painting (keeping + Mother Culture!).  This was something I had read about in a Parents' Review article and it was a great way to mix up picture study.  And Amber selected the perfect artwork as well: a seaside landscape of our very own Monterey by a female artist mostly painting in the first half of the 1900s: E. Charlton Fortune.  There is an exhibit of her paintings right now at the Crocker Museum in Sacramento, and in the summer it will be at the Monterey Museum of Art -- which means that many of us at the conference will have the chance to see her work in person.

Then we passed out blank notebooks and a little hand-drawn guide I made for how to turn it into all sorts of different notebooks: a Book of Firsts, a collection of Century Charts, a nature journal, etc. My goal during this exercise was to make it clear that postures, principles, practices matter more than materials. A simple blank notebook can be anything you want it to be!  We also had a whole selection of markers, pens, lettering guides, and such to experiment with or to use in starting the notebook right then and there.

And last, we had a big display of notebooks set out, organized by subject. I was thrilled to see all the variety of age and ability -- and yet the meaty work that is obviously being done in these homes!

At lunch, we held what we called a Mealtime Mentoring session. We asked moms to sign up in advance to sit out one of three tables: Considering Language Arts, Managing Multiple Grades, or Getting Started with Charlotte Mason. Each of these tables was led by an experienced mom to guide discussion and help answer questions.  This was a new addition to our schedule this year and I enjoyed being able to focus on a specific topic.

Friday afternoon was all about the outdoors!  Virginia Lee did a wonderful talk on nature study: walks, object lessons, and our posture as mother-educators in investing in our children's relationship with Creation. Lots of quotes from Mason and the Parents Review for us to think through.

Then Matt Vanderpol gave us a fascinating look at how Mason incorporated scouting into her educational scheme and how we might do so with our own kids. His suggestions were doable even for those of us clueless about kind of thing. ;) And I was so struck by the parallels in intellectual and physical habits that nature study and scouting aim to build in students. (That wasn't something we anticipated when we paired these talks!)

After a break and snack, it was time to head outside to see the lessons in action! We did a rotation of three activities in small groups:

(1) An object lesson led by Virginia Lee on one of my favorite local trees, the horse chestnut. She made using the Handbook of Nature Study seem simple and doable. She is also a wealth of down-to-earth, no-nonsense, realistic encouragement.

 (2) A mapping exercise with Matt. He taught us how to orient a topographical map using a compass and read it to get to know your local landscape. He actually had a zoomed-in topo map of the retreat center to work with, which was so cool! I have plans now to buy a map of our favorite county parks to use with the kids in our nature study group.

(3) A nature walk around the pond. I wrangled my local friends into leading small groups. Lots of our plants are just starting to burst into bloom and releafing, so it is a great time of year to just walk and explore.

Did I mention that this whole weekend had absolutely perfect weather? Sunny and in the 70s. The retreat center grounds were extensive and beautiful, and that was a big highlight for me on this trip. It would have been such a shame if it had been raining. (Remember last year?!)  So we really tried to take advantage of the outdoor space since we could.  We got back just before sunset and headed straight into dinner.

We kept the evening simple with casual chats on the presentation topics from that day: Keeping, Scouting, and Nature Study. This took the place of Q+A during the talks -- we just slotted in this evening Q+A time.  I had an hours-long conversation about keeping with a bunch of mamas. We got out watercolors, we looked through samples, discussed common was a great time.

On Saturday morning, we arranged an optional hike for before breakfast. I was out early to see the sun rise again, and then we did a short climb into the foothills and back down.  We saw some of the early bloomers of the area: wild cucumber, shepherd's purse, shepherd's needle, miner's lettuce...

After breakfast, some of the group went to journal by the pond, and the rest spent time on the patio, paper cutting, commonplacing, or painting in the sunshine.

In our last session, Jessica Severne guided us through an exploration of how ideas inspire Mason's approach to every subject of the curriculum.  We read literature under the trees, we listened to Bach, we did math problems... :)  Such a hopeful, vision-casting final note.

And then it was time to pack up and head home!

I'm grateful that these ladies (and Matt! and all the babies!) came to join us. I think I had a chance to sit down and chat with almost everyone, which is why I love this size of event.  I have enjoyed looking through the #conferenceinoldsanjuan tag on Instagram and seeing the lovely moments and takeaways people have shared. Amber and I are already brainstorming for next year!