About Me

I am a Christian mother of five, and our highest goal as a family is to serve God in every aspect of our lives. Jesus promised His disciples 'life in all its abundance' (John 10:10) - that has been our story, a rich life, not devoid of challenges, but certainly abundant. Previously writing at www.homeeducationnovice.blogspot.com, we have come to realise that education is just one area where our faith shapes our choices and direction in life. This blog seeks to share our adventure (using font only to enable access in settings with poor internet)

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Reflections from African village life

Three weeks ago, we packed up our belongings and travelled to live and work in an African village. We left the cold, dark, British winter, and widespread preparations for what seems to have become an increasingly commercial festival of materialism, excess and superficiality (Christmas!). We have replaced a fast pace of life for one where small errands can take a whole morning, walking down dusty paths, stepping by to let the donkey carts pass, exchanging increasing numbers of greetings with the new friends we are making. Instead of Christmas excess, we hear both tuneful and not so tuneful prayer calls five times a day from the nearby mosques, and purchase only the essential items from the local market. In many ways, it is a different world entirely. The change is refreshing, peaceful and beautiful. The children seem so free. From morning to evening, they spend hours running outside, playing intricate games with various kinds of stick or leaf that they have found, and really using their imagination. They come home grubby and hungrily eat some basic, unrefined food, then return to their adventures. Ironically, I am a little more worried about their ‘culture shock’ on returning to the UK than I was about bringing them here!

But perhaps a bigger surprise has been how similar our life is here to that back ‘home’. Since having children, we have consciously examined our lives and sought to provide a solid foundation for them encompassing every aspect of their education. We have stripped away unnecessary clutter, and sought to avoid excessive exposure to unhelpful influences. We take care to live simply and within our means, so that one parent can always be at home, and this too has influenced many of our day to day lifestyle choices. 

Freedom to play. Do many children have that these days? Or have we replaced freedom and imagination with structured activities aimed at developing certain skills in our children? Do we stifle one of their most basic needs? And do we make a rod for our own back by not allowing children to develop their imaginations and resourcefulness?

Walking many miles, keeping physically fit and therefore eating and sleeping well. Do we take time to walk, or does our hectic schedule force us to use cars or public transport as we rush from one activity to the next? Do we fret about rising rates of obesity and sedentary lifestyles, yet feel compelled to follow the current trend?

Greeting others in the neighbourhood. Do we get to know those who live near us? Do we stop to spend time? Do we patronise local shops and services rather than travelling further, and so build the sense of community? Does it really matter? Do our children know any others than their own peer group? Could we make simple changes to increase their security and confidence in relationships with a diverse range of people?

Simple, basic food. Do we buy seasonally? Are we resourceful in the recipes we choose? Do we ensure the children receive excellent physical as well as academic nutrition? Does our lifestyle allow time for this?

Time with the children. Do we need to be as busy as we are? Are there any things which are unnecessary clutter in our lives? What are the greatest priorities in our lives? Is there anything which does not help in reaching these aims?

Living within our means. What is most important? Is it a certain house, lifestyle, holidays, other expensive things? Or is it really true that the ‘best things in life are free’? We cannot have it all. Choices, at times sacrificial choices, need to be made for what is most important.

A holistic education. There is nothing my boys lack here. Every aspect of the sketchy ‘curriculum’ we follow is provided for here. (I use principles similar to those outlined by Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education as an atmosphere, a discipline and a life, and basically try and make sure that we read every day, do Bible every day, and then keep a balance between other things throughout the week). Language comes from reading, and colourful descriptions of their surroundings, the landscape, the birds, the smells, the sounds. Social interaction is a part of daily life. Arithmetic and stewardship are achieved by visits to the market. History and geography are met in response to the many questions they ask. Cooking and craft, other creative arts, can be achieved through the imaginative use of local resources. And so I could go on.

Here, in the village, I feel content. The boys are thriving. Life seems whole and balanced. I pray I can keep the same sense of purpose and priority in the face of many conflicting clamorous voices back in the UK.

Saturday 15 December 2012

Book review: For the Children's Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay

I have become interested in the educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason, and at the same time, a friend recommended I read ‘For the Children’s Sake’ by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay.
The book is subtitled, ‘Foundations of Education for Home and School’, and is basically the author’s summary and interpretation of several key principles as outlined in the full written works of Charlotte Mason. Lengthy quotations from the original work are provided, together with a concise summary of how these principles can be applied in our modern day homes and schools.

I think this is indeed a valuable introduction to a method of education which cuts right across many current trends within both society as a whole and particularly relating to ‘mainstream’ education. In the concluding chapter, the desired result of such an education is stated to be that ‘our children may be so educated in a total life that they are enabled to have clear, realistic and true thinking and action based upon thought and principle. May they be strong personalities, free of self and external pressures so that they will have the power to do what is right.’ What an amazing goal, one which I wholeheartedly share!
The first, basic premise is that ‘children are born persons’. Each is a unique individual, created in the image of a loving God. Anybody who has observed children will see how much young babies and toddlers are able to learn through simple exploration and experimentation, yet somehow at the age of about five, we tend to herd them together in classrooms, talk at them, and expect them to learn the same material at approximately the same rate to a similar standard. It is illogical, and yet few parents question whether it is indeed right and best. Instead, the argument outlined here is that we should continue to allow a child to explore and develop their own impressions and interpretation of the world around them. Reading aloud from good quality literature is recommended, expecting the child’s full attention, followed by asking the child to tell back the story in their own words. Hence the child is encouraged to engage and interact with the material, rather than simply learning a list of facts for the purposes of testing, or of achieving a set ‘level’ of understanding. This approach is extended to many disciplines, including art, music, nature and science, history, geography and many others. Children educated in this way will develop different strengths and interests, but education remains exciting and is primarily driven by the questions the child himself asks; this is a foundation for life-long learning.

The three foundations of the philosophy of education are that it is an ‘atmosphere’, a ‘discipline’ and a ‘life’. I have written more about this elsewhere on this blog. 

I was interested to read that although holding a strongly Christian worldview, neither Charlotte Mason nor Susan Schaeffer Macaulay would recommend using only resources that are consistent with Biblical thinking; in fact they would caution against such an approach.  Having witnessed a slightly claustrophobic approach from some well meaning Christian families, who seek to protect their children against any possible ‘worldly’ influence in their methods of home education, I was refreshed to see it stated clearly that such an approach is simply short-sighted. ‘Have they thrashed through the reasons why the Bible is true? Do they understand the fallacies of other positions? Can they remember numerous occasions where the Bible was seen to fit like a key into the keyhole of reality? Do they know about the historical and archaeological evidence? Are they amazed at home the philosophical ideas of the Bible fit into the way we find reality to be? They should not be left only with a feeling.... That is not enough... Do they KNOW?’ Wisdom should be exercised regarding when exactly to expose children to certain concepts and challenges, but ‘At some teenage stage, the young person should also read and appreciate good secular twentieth century literature. He needs to understand where our culture is, why the questions are so acute, and how lost and desperate so many people feel today. It helps these older children to understand why some people write like this, what they think about the human being, God, morality, society’. This is what I want for my children – not to separate their ‘faith’ into some type of box, not fully integrated with who they are as persons and with the world around them. Instead, I want them to learn and understand how all things are created by God, and how much of education is about understanding the world that He made, but that there are also many incorrect ideas and values which they will encounter. 

On a similar theme is her argument for drawing from a wide range of source material. If we believe that all persons are created in the image of God, then all human creativity and expression is an expression of that nature. Again, to quote Macaulay, ‘We have tolerated a separation between the “secular” and the “religious”. Thus people have had to close their minds to all other aspects of life and intellectual questions when they entered the “faith” box, or that of “experience”. It is as if they were called upon to leave philosophy, literary questions, art, social questions, historical views, political action, since and so on in a sort of mental parking lot outside the “religious experiences”. Charlotte Mason allowed no such division between the “secular” and the “religious”. She understood that the whole of reality is part of God’s reality.’  Beauty, excellence, talent, creativity – all these should be celebrated as being part of the expression of God-created humanity.

Do I have any criticisms of the book? There were occasions when I felt a little discouraged, as though the author spoke from a perspective of having achieved that ideal balance in her own home and family without challenge or obstacle! However, she does clearly explain early on that she and her husband discovered Charlotte Mason after several frustrating years where their older two children were not experiencing the ideal, rounded education they sought. I would have perhaps been more encouraged had she described some of her own challenges as she moved to this different form of education. From my perspective, that might simply be the challenge of time and energy that is required. It is one thing to describe the beautiful freedom of children as they are provided with the rich nourishment of a diverse curriculum (often described by Charlotte Mason as a ‘feast’), but it does require energy to select resources, read stories, answer endless questions, go on field trips, allow the time and space for the children to grow and develop, and generally make choices within the home and family structure which may go against the grain not only in society as a whole but also within our churches. In the concluding paragraph, she hints at the effort required as the question, ‘Would you be willing to give your home so much vitality, life, through your creative time and effort that it becomes the “centre of gravity” in the child’s life?’ Although absolutely worthwhile, it does require time, effort, energy, perseverance, wisdom, prayer, and many other resources. As I have described here on this blog, challenges I face sometimes include loneliness and feeling misunderstood and at times exhaustion and difficulty in looking after my own health.

So, what changes might I make to what we are currently doing with our children?

Firstly, I am encouraged yet again that the choices we have made are right for our family, and worth the investment of all the God-given resources that we have. Already, I am starting to see fruit in terms of our children exploring, questioning, developing many fascinations with the world around them, and showing an incredible memory of the answers they are given in response to such questions. 

Secondly, I am encouraged to consider more carefully the resources I use. I particularly like the concept of ‘living books’, whereby (for example) a period of history is best studied by reading a biography or historical novel from that time, as it truly captivates the life of a real, knowable individual in that time period, rather than being an abstract list of facts. I am encouraged not to ‘dumb down’ material for my children by deciding what I think is within their grasp, but rather to use the most excellent, most beautiful literature and allow my children to interact with it directly rather than trying to tell them how I think they should interpret it.

Thirdly, I am yet again encouraged to read the full works of Charlotte Mason, which I recently got hold of. There seems so much robust truth and wisdom contained within these writings, and I wish to learn more! I particularly am interested to read how she addresses some of the challenges that may arise during this educational approach.

(Slow internet from west Africa; I will insert crosslinks later!)