Inspiring Curiosity a la Mason

Curious minds breed curiosity but often that curiosity comes in varying levels of intensity and trying to plan around an intangibility like curiosity can drive anyone to madness. So how can you plan ahead when everything seems so inconsistent? In order to answer this question while trying to find some structure for Little Man’s focus issues, I delved back into the world of Charlotte Mason. I have always loved her philosophy of education but for so long the tug of child led unschooling was stronger than my respect for Mason’s teachings. Here I will talk about how I’ve melded the two with a bit more of a focus on the structured CM and a whole lot less on the Child led.

In other words, how my whole world of planning got flip-turned-upside-down!

Inspiring Curiosity a la Mason

For us it’s never really been so much about planning ahead. Planning ahead has never been our focus. The end is not our goal. Our goal is to have a journey that is full of inspiration. Our focus is an environment filled with seized teachable moments. Our plan is to inspire curiosity.

How you inspire a child will change depending on the child themselves but parents know their children and what makes them get excited. Some children have their own innate passions. Subjects that need no outside inspiration. Little Man has these burning passions that lead him to constantly explore specific fields while leaving him little to no interest in everything else but Little Miss and Curly Que are bit more like me…just generally curious about EVERYTHING!

In our house inspired curiosity starts like this. Mommy gets fascinated by a new show or subject. The children try to stay up late to see what’s so interesting or catch glimpses of articles that I’m reading over my shoulder. I find something suitable to their age with similar subject matter and if they also find that interesting then we find books to supplement, all while trying to find museum exhibits, shows or local classes.

With all the changes we’ve been making in our homeschool to help Little Man with his focusing issues this process of inspiring curiosity has helped us to create structure without needing a curriculum and but it also requires that I plan far more than I used to.

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One of the first things that I do are to Analyze the Options out there for growth within an interest that is just starting to bud. We start the process of exploration within the topic to see if there is an interest which can support an inspired curiosity. For example, I really got sucked into BBC’s Merlin (like binge watching through weekends into it!) and of course my children started to see glimpses of dragons, magic, knights and swords. I put on the Disney version of the Sword and the Stone to see if their interest was piqued, and it was so I decided it might be time to study the Middle Ages.

That night I began my night long Pinterest Planning Party. Yep, I grabbed a cup of tea, a snack and gave my husband permission to play as much video games as he wanted without interruption while I spent hours of uninterrupted research via my own planning party. I looked up every aspect that I could and tried to see just how much we could get out of a Middle Ages study at these ages.

Once I discovered possible topics the next goal was Resource Gathering. Sticking true to CM principles, I wanted to make sure that we were reading books that were filled with passion and came alive to the children rather than encyclopedias or textbooks. With some help from Pinterest, and friends of mine who have either studied Medieval literature or had done similar time periods with their homeschoolers before, I was able to put together a list of interesting books to use as spines.

 I also go through Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube for a list of possible shows or videos that fit into our over arching theme and I find local shows or classes that are offering options that fit as well. This is one of the reasons that I like to use Pinterest for my planning. There is no need to reinvent the wheel with this and often I can find lists put together by other people where I can pick and choose what works for my family. With our Master List in hand I move from gathering to Planning.

My next step in this process is to take the lists to the Experts. I take all of my detailed notes to the children for confirmation- I may or may not exaggerate the coolness factor and sometimes I even find short youtube videos to back up my claims. They respond with yay or nay and I build a literature/history unit that falls within CM guidelines. Our favorite part of all of this is when we get to attack our favorite second hand bookstore to find what we can at reasonable prices (for me thats less than $3/book- although I did cave in and buy a $6 fully illustrated book of Castle diagrams when I caught my son pouring over every page).

This time around, we settled on a version of King Arthur, Robin Hood, Beowulf, Macbeth and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as our spines with our list of shows, documentaries and a handful of historical fictions set in the middle ages to back them up. I made the executive decision that this would also be a good time to study fairy tales and that we would continue our science study of insects with the show Little Einstein’s as our jumping point for music and art.

Now that the foundation for the plan had been laid, the easy part was up ahead. To plan out our weeks and months I simply Spread Out the Spines so that we would read through three a month over the next three months with the side options there for our enjoyment when we want them. September is King Arthur and Sir Gawain, October is Beowulf and Macbeth and November is Robin Hood. During these months we will also look through descriptions of castles, knights, cathedrals, the crusades, villages vs. cities and anything we can get our hands on- but I don’t need to add that kind of detail to our planner, that would just stress me out, instead we discuss and google when the topic comes up in conversation.

So far this is just basic relaxed planning etiquette, but we want something even more important than planing out a quarters worth of studies, we want to inspire curiosity along the way.

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If you notice, even though I have a unit study of the Middle Ages that spans an entire quarter, each set of books that we read as spines create mini units within the larger context of the whole but we also add Cartoons, Videos and Documentaries into our overall plan because I have four visual learners who need to see it to get into it. This is also why we incorporate Museum Trips (we live outside of DC so they are free and relatively close) and we try to visit at least once a month (if we didn’t have these near by I would be relying a whole lot more on virtual field trips!).

We do not read massive amounts of each book, each day, all at once. I read aloud from a book for a period of almost 10 minutes and I never end the reading in a conventional place but If we have extra time towards the end of our day we might pick up the spines and do it again. Because I always end in the middle of a sentence, or right in the middle of the most interesting scene this allows the curiosity to continually be piqued. It’s a perpetual cliffhanger and my children love it! In fact, all of our lessons are less than 20 minutes total which gives them just enough time to get really into a topic before their focus wanes. It surprises me sometimes how in depth we can get with just a short conversation if the children are interested and engaged.

Then one of the three older children will Narrate (or tell me in their own words what they heard- as they get older this will turn into a writing assignment, but right now we are working on teaching them how to organize their thoughts.) or practice their Copy Work (copy a sentence on lined paper while we discuss grammar or other aspects of writing as written in the original sentence). After about 30 minutes of reading and Narrating or copy work we move onto an activity that requires movement followed by math and that is the end of our formal day. Our school day is finished by 1030 almost every morning and some mornings we finish at 10.

We do not end our learning experiences here but we do end the formal portion of school, which is important for my guys because they get a sense of accomplishment knowing that they finished for the day. The rest of the day is dedicated to nature walks, museums, piano lessons, playdates, cartoons, documentaries and poetry tea times- which in one way or another might remind them of something we read, but I don’t point it out either. If they get it, great! If not, then that’s fine too.

The point of all these extra experiences is not to pull together all of the different aspects of what we are learning but instead to challenge them to see the world from a new angle. I am raising children who will one day be adults and they need to know how to think for themselves, so while they are little and impressionable, I plan on showing them as many different sides of the world as I can- which in practice has morphed into inspiring curiosity.umbrella

This is how we do it, but how about you?

Share your favorite ways to get curiosity flowing in the comments below, I am always ready for more input!

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Change the Story

 2015 has been a year of change. Anytime this much change occurs in such a short amount of time there will be effects that could last a lifetime, but that’s not a bad thing either. Sometimes things that we love or things that used to work for us just stop working positively in our lives and in those moments we need to take charge and change the story.

Over the past few years we have created a lovely learning environment that was child led, interest led, and very much passion driven. It was (and still is for three of my four children) the perfect introduction to lifelong learning. We had just enough structure to get us from curiosity to exploration, just enough balance between masterly inactivity and living books all while staying true to our child led and interest led passions. For our family it was perfection, but perfection is momentary and does not last, nor should it last because as we grow so too do our needs, and that is where we find ourselves right now.

We have, for a very long time combined our favorite philosophies (as noted here) while leaning most heavily on the unschooling side of things, because that is what worked for us. Lately however, Little Man has begun struggling. He struggles with executive functioning, focus, and attentiveness in a manor that can be best described as being “an absent minded professor.” With him now at 8 years old and in what would be 3rd grade at the public school, we feel like we need to address these habits before they get any worse. We are also well aware that if he were in a more traditional setting, his behavior might be flagged as either a disorder or a disruption. We have no plans of going down the path of diagnosis unless he himself tells us that the issues are hindering him, but both his father and I feel as though we do need to do something to help him learn how to cope.

So here we are, in the midst of a major lifestyle change once again. The philosophies which we have still hold true, but right now we are experimenting with how much of each method is needed to best help him while also experimenting with diet, to see if that helps. All while trying to keep things as similar as possible for the younger three who do very well in the current environment. It may work for us to become a little more CM based as he gets older, or it may work better for us to regiment our time more often, rather than the subjects within them. I can’t say where we will be in a week, let alone months down the line or years but I trust that we will find a way that works for us and so we head into the unknown…again.

If anything, I have learned through all of this, that the first step to changing the status quo is recognizing that it doesn’t work. In this age of blogs, pinterest and youtube tutorials it is easy to see that there are a million ways to do the same thing but so often we get stuck in our pride or the ease of that which is familiar and we don’t want to admit to ourselves that things no longer work under that paradigm. We do it all the time, especially when it comes to education.

I’ve seen it first hand on a large scale, when a failing public school system refuses to allow a new option in, even if the new option will help the students.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to start a Charter school in some states?

After years of planing out a vigorous curriculum using all of the newest information about how students learn best, after months of recruiting the best teachers (who you can’t actually hire until the school has been accepted by the multiple school boards), creating a budget based on possible figures and estimates that will be scrutinized down to the penny by multiple boards, finding a building thats just right but you can’t yet lease, choosing all of the needed furniture or supplies but being unable to buy anything without funding… only to put years worth of work and collaboration before a school board, that is possibly corrupt or at the least doesn’t want to lose money from their own budgets (not every state works this way but some do) but has been labeled as a failure by the DOE. Let’s just say there is a reason why there is a lack of choice when it comes to schools in many districts. The bureaucracy is maddening and often reminds me of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Even when change is needed, even when change is the only option, we stare it in the face and ward it off as if it is some superstitious evil.

The status quo makes things comfortable, I get that, but comfortable people never affect real change in the world. Recognizing that something does not or no longer works is a positive thing. It is proof of growth. It is proof of a life being lived. Worn out shoes mean the owner is well traveled. Pants that are too short mean that a child is healthy. New jobs, new homes, new cities…new adventures… all are a part of growth. Without growth a story is boring to read.

Change the story. Add a plot twist. Take charge as the author of your life and change that which no longer works, even if you don’t know what is going to replace it.

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