Friday, December 12, 2008

Charlotte Mason Basics: Short Lessons

Photo courtesy of apdk

As we have discussed, narration is invaluable for building a host of skills, one of which is the habit of attention. This habit is one which will serve our children well for their entire lives. It will allow them to gain all kinds of knowledge from the things they read without having to tediously review and quiz themselves.

The habit of excellence is another wonderful servant. When we keep our children's lessons short, we help them cultivate this important habit. We do this when we end a 'lesson' before our child becomes 'dull', as Charlotte would say. In Charlotte's schools, lessons were very short for young children (15 mins, for example) and lengthened as the children got older. It is tempting for me to give you a list of appropriate ages and their corresponding lengths of time, but this misses the spirit of the idea. Charlotte's schools had to be timed for practical reasons. There were many students in a classroom that needed kept moving along, aiming to serve the majority of students. In our homeschools, however, we are free to move at the pace we deem appropriate for each individual child.

How do you determine what the appropriate pace is? Like so much of parenting and homeschooling, you watch your child. The concept of short lessons is very simple. We are aiming to end the lesson while the child is still fresh and before the work starts to become tedious or sloppy. We do this regardless of whether an entire math page has been completed or a whole copywork selection copied. Let's look at the example of handwriting for now.

Let's say our young child is practicing her 'C's. If she copies 5 lovely 'C's and we notice she is starting to become fidgety and the next couple of 'C's aren't quite as nice as the previous ones, it is time to end the lesson (and to aim to end it a little earlier next time). I know it is difficult when the page is not finished, but this concept makes sense. If we allow her to continue past the point where she had enjoyed printing and has done beautiful work, we teach her two things. First of all, we teach her to produce poor-quality work without a good effort. She learns that working for the sake of working is more important to us than her taking pride in her work and doing her best. When she is no longer able to give her lesson her full attention, we have effectively handicapped her from being able to do excellent work. Secondly, we leave her with a bitter taste in her mouth for the task at hand since it has gone on for longer than she has the ability to concentrate. We leave her wanting less of the work and not more.

Charlotte believed that it was better to write a few letters beautifully than a page full of sloppy ones.
I agree wholeheartedly. In this way, our child learns that she can produce beautiful work and this becomes the standard, as opposed to the work produced from a half-hearted effort. She enjoys her work because it has been interesting and she knows she has done something worthwhile and beautiful.

This is another one of Charlotte's concepts that I find very freeing. It allows me to be free from the prescribed length of a handwriting page or a math page. It allows me to encourage a child to take a break from a very challenging read to do something else for awhile, regardless of whether or not the chapter is finished. A big task is always better completed when we take regular breaks, divide the work into manageable chunks and arrive back with fresh perspective. I think this is an excellent life-lesson.

Does this mean our children are never encouraged to persevere when something is difficult? Not at all. Finding something difficult is different from finding something boring. However, when something is very challenging, it is can quickly become boring or frustrating if we don't refresh ourselves regularly by taking a break. I believe that keeping our lessons short will actually help, not hinder, our children to develop the ability to persevere because they will learn the skills they need to get through difficult tasks.

Another question I am often asked about short lessons is what to do when a child is fully immersed in something they love, wanting to keep working on a particular task. The concept of short lessons is a servant, not a master. If a child is truly fresh and enthusiastic, they can certainly work longer. However, we don't want to allow the work to continue until we are starting to see boredom set in. If so, the lesson has already gone on too long. You are a student of your child. Learn when he needs to switch gears and help him do so while he is still fresh and attentive, not when his attention is beginning to wane. It makes homeschooling so much more pleasant, and efficient I might add, when our children enjoy their work.

God bless and enjoy your weekend! I have a busy weekend ahead of me with two of our girls in a Christmas Highland Dance recital. They are just adorable in their full Scottish outfits! We are also celebrating several family birthdays on Saturday. I am so grateful that I have such a wonderful extended family on both sides.

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