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.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

In praise of 'Living Books'

I wonder if you have heard the term 'Living Book'? I hadn't until I started to read about education, and particularly when considering the Charlotte Mason style approaches. But as with many aspects of educational theory, just because I was unfamiliar with the term, I recognised the concept immediately.

A good summary of what makes a living book is found here. It is a book written by an author who is passionate about the subject. It is gripping, and makes the reader want to read on. Characters are three-dimensional and become like friends to the reader. Specific historical facts are placed in a context whereby the are absorbed and remembered without the feeling of having to learn a list of times and dates. These books can be either fiction or non-fiction.

We've been enjoying 'living books' in our home this past year. None of the children is yet reading independently (beyond the 'early readers' which consist of about 20-30 words). But we spend many hours cuddled up together with either parent reading, and today we took a picnic blanket and some books to a beautiful nearby ornamental garden.

Here are some of my reflections and recommendations:

The Little Lights publications are lovely. My 2 year old particularly like the stories of Hudson Taylor and Mary Slessor. These are illustrated, and contain a very simplified version of the biography. But the gospel truths are clearly presented and not dumbed down at all. I'd highly recommend these.

Then, there are the Lightkeepers books. These are in volumes containing 10 stories each. 10 boys who changed the world. 10 boys who made a difference. 10 girls who didn't give up - etc. These stories focus very much on the childhood of the individual described, and that is helpful as the boys are able to relate to the people on their own level. For example, it was after reading about how Adoniram Judson learnt to read from the Bible when he was 4 years old that my then 4 year old decided it was time he learnt to read from the Bible! I don't know how many of the childhood anecdotes are true, but again they are engaging and clearly present the gospel.

More recently, we have read some Trailblazer books, specifically one about Mary of Orange, and another about Adoniram Judson. The one about Mary of Orange was captivating. I knew little of English history, particularly not about how much was shaped by the reformation. Whilst following the story of Mary, who as a slightly reluctant queen, served God wholeheartedly. A week or so later, when we got a book about the 'Tudors and Stewarts' out of the library, a lot made more sense (to both me, and to the boys). These books do not shy away from the pain encountered by these people - for example in the story of Adoniram Judson, many missionary wives and babies died, with Adoniram himself being predeceased by two wives, and having at least six children die in early childhood. I was a little concerned as to whether I should abridge certain sections, avoiding some of these more difficult topics. But as many of us have observed, children take things at face value. In our family, we have had one baby die, and we know quite a number of similar families. So it actually helps in some ways for them to realise that death is a very real part of life, not something to be afraid of , but something to remind us of the need to make every day count for God.

Other than biographies, we have enjoyed reading aloud some novels which I would also count as living books:

Little House on the Prairie - a fabulous story of a pioneer family moving across America. Life is hard, there is a need to build their own houses, hunt their own food, to be very self-sufficient and for the children to enjoy games without an abundance of toys and 'entertainment'. I was a little uncomfortable about some of the attitudes towards Native Americans, almost that it was right that they be driven from the land which had been their home for generations. However, when I reflected on this, it makes an interesting discussion point. As with the comment above, we tend to want to sanitise things. History can be presented in a revisionist manner. But in fact the attitudes which made me uncomfortable would probably have been the norm for pioneer families.

Swallows and Amazons, and the series of books that follows on. I love these books. I remember loving them as a child, and my boys are no different. Here you have children really celebrating childhood. Good, clean, wholehearted fun out of doors, with a delightful component of imaginative play, but also good common sense and strong moral values. For example, Titty the 'Able Seaman' lives in a little fantasty world at  times, imagining danger on the 'high seas', considering herself an early explorer to a far off land, approaching life with strong emotions. Susan, the 'mate' is very sensible and practical, making sure that everybody eats a regular balanced diet, gets sufficient sleep, is dressed in clean dry clothes and that supplies are packed for every eventuality. All of them worry about causing offence, and honouring their parents whilst having lots of fun is a recurrent theme ('we must not do so and so, because daddy said....'). I've loved watching my boys invent their own games, calling out to one another 'hoist the mainsail' and asking questions about why somebody responded to something in a particular way.

I find these novels which are very much based in 'real life' most appropriate at the age of my children (5, 4, 2). I tried CS Lewis, 'The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe' which is not a book I ever read as a child, but which many friends had recommended. But the boys struggled with the line between fantasy and reality, and couldn't understand why something was not real. (Whereas in Swallows and Amazons, it is clear what is real and what is imaginative play). Additionally, there were times when the siblings were quite unkind to one another, whereas in Swallows and Amazons, there is never any bickering. Regarding the distinction between fantasy and reality I imagine I would find similar issues with Tolkien at their current ages too.

I've been quite amazed to see how these books influence the children - and by selecting books which I hope will have a positive influence, I am seeing what I consider to be healthy play. I'm also noting an expansion in their vocabulary (some of the older books have a much richer use of English) and an appreciation for different characters.

Whilst I don't stick wholeheartedly to a single curriculum or teaching method, I am extremely appreciative of 'living books' and I can see that these will form a cornerstone of our education for years to come. I remember reading about the Shaeffer family (founders of L'Abri ministries, and also proponents of Charlotte Mason educations) that even in adulthood, they would sit round the fire together reading aloud in the evenings. It seemed quaint when I read this, but actually is something which I hope our family will continue with! Also, should I buy into a curriculum in the future, I would lean towards a literature-based method such as Sonlight.

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