Reading Hamlet with my Daughters

Brandy, at Afterthoughts, is conducting a series of posts entitled Learning how to Live, becoming a Charlotte Mason teacher in a utilitarian world, and she has invited some willing moms to write about their experiences on continuing education or learning something new while still homeschooling our children. She even says, “if the lessons spilled over as a blessing to the children, even better”.

“I fit there!”, I thought.

A couple of weeks ago, in a video interview, an honest listener told me that from my blog, she gathered the idea I was this snobbish person, or this uppish type of mom. But she was quick to add that, once she saw me in video for the first time, she changed her preconceived idea, and she saw me as approachable, and ‘normal’, 🙂

I appreciate that sincere admission very much. When others hear you from what you write, they are meant to be trapped in a false image of your persona. I can tell you what I type for my blog, and the pictures I take and add to my writings, look ten thousand times prettier, artificially prettier and perfect. The Internet dilemma, I guess.

What does this have to do with the title of my post, and with Brandy’s series? Simple. There is a group of moms out here in the Web, out there, in ‘real life’, who have become Charlotte Mason teachers in a utilitarian world, as Brandy puts it. We come from different backgrounds, live in different states, have different beliefs, but we also share common goals, common aspirations, same views on how to grow and live this life we have chosen of taking care of our children and continue educating them primarily at home and with our guidance. While we are like any other mom, we have chosen to educate ourselves along with our children, not only in disciplines we are interested at and we never had the time to explore, but in the gentle art of teaching. We also have chosen our teacher of teachers, Miss Mason. And I suspect we have made this choice because we can see that Miss Mason had a teacher in Him first and foremost. She clearly and beautifully laid out in her numerous writings, what a true education is, and how to be an honest and good teacher.

Now to the particulars and details. When I first read about a Charlotte Mason’s education, through Karen Andreola’s book, A Charlotte Mason Companion, I was attracted to what it appeared as a beautiful and rich education, but at the same time, it all looked to me a bit foreign. (I am not a knitter, or gardener, I am not born in the States or England, I had not read most or none of the books she mentioned, I knew next to nothing about painters, or classical music… it looked a bit too ideal, too perfect, too unobtainable). Keep in mind, Karen tells us about her journey and how she made Charlotte Mason’s principles meet her personality and her family, with their peculiarities, their strengths and their personal needs. I still thought there were some general principles and ideas to put in practice that I could rescue and bring to my home, to my daughters.

At that time, I still thought homeschooling was their affair, and my responsibility was to find some books, resources, and curriculum, and be the glue, or the person to put the girls in contact with that corpus or content they HAD to know to be at the level of her public school friends, or better if they could surpass them. My heart and my love for homeschooling was blinded by that acclaimed academic success homeschooled children were said to have, and also by that moral superiority too. There is that thought that goes like this, “my children are not corrupted by the world, we are a christian family, and they are homeschooled, we have found the secret recipe for raising brilliant christian children”. I was going to use the Charlotte Mason books and resources to obtain this perfect children product in return. Notice the word USE. One can be in the “Charlotte Mason world” with a utilitarian view of education. At that time, I looked at other methods with some disdain, I used to theorize a lot at the blog, and view my fledglings no less than perfect. I found Ambleside Online, and I was happy making friends, reading about others successes and failures, and secretly thinking we would follow the Ambleside Online schedules perfectly and thus we would sort and avoid all those failures. Surely those moms had not read, or prepared as well as myself.

A Kindergarden Girl.

My daughter was 6 years old, and I decided to do a “light” kindergarten year before starting with Ambleside Online year 1, since she would have been in kindergarten if she were enrolled in a school. My year was much more ambitious than a true Charlotte Mason year. Ambitious in the utilitarian or accountable sense. I was worksheet hungry, and script hungry. I pictured myself doing those neat math scripts, and my daughter will follow by filling her worksheet to perfection. I will introduce the proper formation of the letters, and she will write day by day, no complain, with a big smile in her face. I will do all that others did and more, and she will be this perfect student, eager for more “school work”, and reading at all times after our lessons were over.

Nothing happened as expected. Defeated, I took up an appealing project, I accepted Stephanie’s proposal to translate her Charlotte Mason Made Easy course into Spanish. This time I translated portions of Charlotte Mason original writings, a biography of her that Stephanie put together from her reading of Essex Choldmondeley’s book, The Story of Charlotte Mason. Ideas started to sort out and make sense in my head. I rethought some of my doings, and concluded I had done this wrong, that I had to start smaller, build up from there, and this time I did not miss the idea of having to LIVE all this myself to inspire it on them. I still held to the wrong and dishonest thought that, if I modeled x, y, and z, they would automatically produce x, y, and z. My motives for wanting to learn about nature, or read certain books, or getting a deeper understanding of math, were still wrongly fueled.

AO Year 1 Girl.

And then, we started with Ambleside year 1. The magic began. It did not last long. While I was amazed at how interesting the books I was reading aloud were, some were very difficult for me, and I was not that “entertained”. Our lessons required an effort and preparation, and I did not yet see why to spend that time for something the girls should like themselves, even if it was difficult, or if I had not explored it before myself. After all, I heard how other children did wonders, the children and families at the yahoo forums at the time, -before we had a unified big forum for all the topics, we had yahoo groups for the different cycles-, all those children were voracious readers, academically excelling children, and the moms seemed to be this super women. And that was a cold and sad awakening.

I pitied myself for being such a mediocre mom and learner. Even though I could whisk and bake a beautiful post, things were not going all that well at home. My girl was not perfect. She resisted narrating, she did not like or understand a good chunk of her books, she did not even like Charlotte’s Webb, or most of the books other children adored, she did not want to draw after a walk outdoors, she lost interest in math. Never mind. I was still happy discussing all this homeschooling world with friends all over the world through our blogs, and that kept me happy and busy. I kept writing advice right and left, even when we were not applying it in my home. We went to Europe that winter, and back from Europe we survived from January to May or June, and we, “did year 1”. In all fairness, I have to say there were great moments, but not enough to sustain our days or to keep my sanity. I planned her second year in the summer, we took a break, the girls had lots of pool and lots of movies and cartoons, and life went on.

AO Y2 Girl

Year two did not prove much better than year 1 for my daughters. The books were difficult, math impossible, and I was even questioning if this Charlotte Mason “thing” was for us. I don’t know what made me persist and insist with all this. Maybe I was too invested to quit? Scared? Ashamed? How was I, the Charlotte Mason face for Spanish speaking people, going to become unschooler, or drop the practices, the rigor? Something in the way of the books kept me close to them. I remember several times when I started reading, my girls wandered, and I stayed finishing the chapter by myself. I remember being caught in the interest and force that knowledge for the sake of knowledge emanates.

At that time, I also switched my focus. I lifted my policing watch and my obsession for my oldest daughter’s performance and relation with her ‘studies’ to my own pursues of knowledge. I participated at the time in two of Brandy, Misty, and friends, book club readings, where we would read together and blog about the books. Without an epiphany, just by accumulation of little drops, like Cindy says, I started noticing how beneficial, -poetically speaking, not quantitatively productive speaking-, educating yourself, and learning is. I also found me in all this, I stopped feeling sorry for my deficiencies when I compared myself to others, and I got a strong hold of my strengths. I will not echo the world’s empty message that says we are all artists, we are all special, and everything is awesome, but I can assure you that we all have more inside to give and to nurture than we think. It requires meditation, prayer, and introspection, -not necessarily self help books, make overs, or motivational speakers-, to find out these strengths and qualities unique to us all.

AO Y3 Girl, and an AO Y1 Sister

Now I “got it”. Charlotte Mason’s talks about Mother Culture, about atmosphere, discipline, life, about children as persons. It all resurfaced in my head in a new light. I “got it”. I had to become that learner myself first and foremost, with no ulterior or hidden motives, just for the profound communion of falling in love with knowledge and restoring that order of affections in me. It had to become my life. And then, my girls will follow, in their time and fashion, and I was not to judge when, how, how much, or what. I was only to gently offer them this feast, lay it at their feet. I was to demand certain attitude, their attention, their trust, and the rest will happen by the force of knowledge, by the love that it all encompasses, because it is in our nature to praise Him, to learn about His created world and man. And this is a perpetual fire that helps you live through burn outs and low times.

Reading Hamlet with my Daughters

In the world of Charlotte Mason families, our children are a sample of any other children. Some of us have children with learning challenges like dyslexia, to name a known one, voracious readers, reluctant readers, children truly gifted -not just bright-, and everything else in between, -slow learners, fast learners…- But it is very common in those families who become constant with Charlotte Mason’s educational principles, and whose moms are always there, side by side with their children, learning new things, rediscovering old passions or finding new ones, reading to grow as persons and teachers according to their style and inclinations -and possibilities-, it is very common to hear their children bloom and go to highs hard to believe. But if you are just looking at a product without submitting yourself to the process, trying to look for a practical shortcut, a quick fix, I wonder if you will ever get your children to “perform all those impressive academic feats”, or “display that moral and christian character”, and even if they do, they will not have changed from within and sooner or later they will become disinterested in their studies, and that varnish and external moral coat will be smeared and gone at the first storm they face.

Our children are not weird or geniuses, we are not intellectual moms, or people who read to show off. We simply have made a crack into a world of captivating classics, a world of observing, loving, living, and empowering and encouraging one another to become complete, human, poetic, inspiring persons.

I no more want my girls to read Shakespeare, Plutarch, Bunyan, learn Latin, or do higher level math because it is their obligation, because they are homeschooled and they must excel. Now I know first hand the value, the joy, the existential importance of exploring these authors and disciplines because I am constantly engaged in the process of learning this myself. And it is hard to believe what, drop by drop, as Cindy says, one can achieve. I look back at these past three, five years, and I hardly see the old Silvia who could not name a plant or bird to save her life, who had not read -fill the blank with what you prefer-, who had not wrestled with a math problem just because she wished to challenge her mind. Many times they challenge us, homeschooling moms, saying that there is no way we can learn or know all the content in a proficient way, such a math teacher, or a science teacher, or a literature teacher… we cannot be all those teachers at all those levels, they tell us, so we cannot successfully homeschool our children.

My wrapping thoughts… there is truly no way I can learn all those facts, all that content. Frankly, as much as I am interested on a wide variety of disciplines and topics, I know I will not have time to become an ‘expert’ in all those, but I do not want to be an ‘expert’ either, just the best teacher I can be. The teaching art does not rest upon amassing facts and knowledge, but in wisdom. We, moms, any mom, -no matter how faulty education she has-, any mom who is willing, that is, can become that excellent teacher. Not only, we have a moral obligation to become the best teacher for our children. And I am not talking about teaching styles, or right or left brain learners. I am talking about teachers who are living blazons of the lost art of learning for the sake of learning. If we are true learners, we will become honest teachers, if we can model and inspire that work and effort, hard but rewarding, our children will attain it, enjoy it, and all of us will have no difficulty in finding those facts, that content, that will build up our foundation. As a matter of fact, Ambleside Online so graciously has put together that “curriculum”, content and resources to pick from in our personal expression of this Charlotte Mason education.

As children grow with this foundation, they will become learners at our side, and they will soon surpass our old age efforts, 🙂 I have seen this when I picked Hamlet, all skeptic, bringing a full baggage of doubts and insecurities, not too “convinced” this is even worth the effort, and all that utilitarian fog that still plagues my head, and I saw a nine year old girl all interested, relating to Hamlet without analyzing or asking for permission, comfortable in the fact you do not need to know the meaning of every.single.word in a book to enjoy it, a girl so humble by her own inexperience to know that reading Hamlet is supposed to be a mark of intellectualism, or academic superiority. A girl who thinks Shakespeare is here for anyone to grasp and enjoy, -even though her mom has some troubles reading some words-, and who last week exclaimed after listening to Pilgrims Progress, “mom, he -the author- surely had a long dream!”.

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