22 Nov 2010

The Passage of Time

Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon 1543 by Lukas Cranach the Elder Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Lately I've been thinking a lot about time. Not so much the passage of time and how old I'm feeling, nor why it is that the weeks leading up to Christmas get shorter each year (see how I whispered so as not to offend those of you who don't celebrate?), but the concept of time in the teaching of history.

It is clear that even very young children have some understanding of time. "Once upon a time" begin the fairy tales of our preschoolers, and the child understands that the story takes place in times long ago. "When grandpa was a boy" explains the war and the development of motor cars; and daddy's childhood covers the invention of space travel and computers.

But time is more than this. Time is a highly complex concept, and a clear understanding of the chronology of time is something that develops as the child grows and matures. Which has significant implications for the teaching of history to our young children. And that's what I've been thinking about.

One of the problems of homeschooling only one child is that I will always be a learner. A beginner. Never do I come into a new stage of development with the benefit of sibling experience. Which is why my experiences in the understanding of time will be, by necessity, based on the large sample size of precisely one: eight year old Jemimah.

Given that, let me try to explain where my daughter is at in her understanding of time:

Jemimah has begun assembling the building blocks of history. This year, during our study of the Reformation, she has learned how Michelangelo studied as a young boy with the sons of Lorenzo the Magnificent - Lorenzo de' Medici - and that one of his class mates was to go on to become Pope Leo X - the supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church. She can imagine his frustration when Leo cancelled the decoration of the facade of Florence's San Lorenzo Basilica and how he felt when Leo later commissioned him to work on his family funerary chapel in the same uncompleted building.

Jemimah knows that it is this Leo X that conferred on King Henry VII the title of Defender of the Faith as a reward for his issuing of a pamphlet against the German monk, Martin Luther. She can imagine Leo issuing a tirade of abuse over the Luther and the controversy over indulgences. She knows about John Tetzel's "Get out of Jail Free card". From Luther she leaps easily to the Nuremberg artist, Albrecht Dürer, and from there to Dürer's friendship with Lazarus Spengler, Secretary of the Nuremberg City Council and his role in the Reformation in that city. She knows that Spengler and Dürer's childhood friend, Willibald Pirckheimer, were accused as heretics in the papal bull that demanded Luther's recantation or excommunication. She knows that Dürer pleaded with Desiderius Erasmus to help his friends, and she can tell of his friendship with Philipp Melanchthon, Luther's close colleague and fellow Reformer. From there is the leap to Calvin, and through him to Farel, Viret and Bucer. She learns about the amazing Reformation of Geneva, and with it the terrible plague...and the list of names goes on...and on...and on.

It has been a terrific year of history in our peaceful home, this year of immersion in the exciting period of the Renaissance and Reformation. We have come to know the lives of Michelangelo, Luther, Dürer, Calvin, Knox and Mary Queen of Scots in intimate detail, and through them we have leaned about their world. We have learned about all these people in action together, and, much like characters in the same book, they are remembered together. Never until now, well into my middle age, did I know as much about this pivotal period of church history as my daughter knows and understands at the age of eight.

Will a child who learns history like this ever say, "History is dry and boring."? Can a child who has his imagination excited by fascinating characters, exciting battles, tragic illnesses, beautiful art, wonderful music and relevant geography fail not to be moved by a study of history?

Charlotte Mason thought not. I have spoken before of her feeling about the study of lives, not dates and events:
The fatal mistake is in the notion that he must learn 'outlines,' or a baby edition of the whole history of England, or of Rome, just as he must cover the geography of all the world. Let him, on the contrary, linger pleasantly over the history of a single man, a short period, until he thinks the thoughts of that man, is at home in the ways of that period. Though he is reading and thinking of the lifetime of a single man, he is really getting intimately acquainted with the history of a whole nation for a whole age. Let him spend a year of happy intimacy with Alfred, 'the truth-teller,' with the Conqueror, with Richard and Saladin, or with Henry V - Shakespeare's Henry V - and his victorious army. Let him know the great people and the common people, the ways of the court and of the crowd. Let him know what other nations were doing while we at home were doing thus and thus. If he come to think that the people of another age were truer, larger-hearted, simpler-minded than ourselves, that the people of some other land were, at one time, at any rate, better than we, why, so much the better for him.

Charlotte Mason, Home Education pp 279
Using this suggestion, I would consider our study of history this year to be entirely successful...so far as it has gone. But a study of the Reformation as a period of history cannot be made in isolation. Although we may date the Reformation from the nailing up of Luther's 95 Theses on the doors of the Castle Church doors in Wittenberg on October 31st 1517, it didn't just begin on that day. What of the day before, and of the one before that? What was happening before that one momentous event that lead to the Reformation? What of its chronology? What of its sequence?

And that's where we run into difficulty, because although Jemimah can tell you more than you probably ever wanted to know about the Reformation, she doesn't even know what century it happened in. After Jesus and before her Grandparents. That's where she'd place it. (In fact, that's where she did place it, because I just asked her!)

Jemimah is totally unable, at the age of eight, to arrange the dates and events of history in order. This is despite the fact that she has studied British History sequentially for the past three years. She is unable to understand the basic framework on which history hangs. And without this framework there is no cause and no consequence. There is no flow and no change. While she can tell you that the church of the early 1500s needed to change, she cannot tell you why.

I am not all that surprised that this is where we're at. Before I began my Ambleside Online education three years ago (as opposed to teaching my daughter), I was in the same boat as she is in now. I understood history from the 1700s onwards. Modern history, as it were. The Australian History I had studied at school. History since Captain Cook visited the east coast of Australia in 1770 was my history. Before this was just a blur. I knew many of the events prior to this time, of course, but they were not alive for me. I knew them as incidents, not as part of the passage of the history of mankind. As a Christian this has particular issues, because I also failed to be able to place the years of our Lord into the pages of history. To me, his life as history was little more than unrelated stories. Please don't conclude from this that my faith was questionable - or worse, that it still is - it is the history of his life that I was confused about - not the content of it.

When we started AO, the first thing I was excited about was developing a timeline. At the end of our first year I enthusiastically blogged about our experiences with what I erroniously called our Book of Centuries, but which was actually a cross-curricular timeline book. I explained that it was at this stage a parent-lead activity, and that the book would become Jemimah's in AO4. Which is next year.

I loved this activity. The chronology of history opened up before me. For the first time I began fitting together cause and consequence. I learned about change. I could see what events happened together and what things lead to others. It was fantastic.

So why is it that at the beginning of AO3 I made a conscious decision to discontinue our timeline book?

I'll tell you.

This year we have pasted nothing in our book because to Jemimah it made absolutely no sense. She failed to gain any order of history by using this book. It was a waste of time. My time.

Part of the problem was that we were using a book of pages, not a single page of paper. That's what Miss Mason suggested for the early years - one piece of paper. Why, oh why, don't I listen to this woman?
In order to give definiteness to what may soon become a pretty wide knowledge of history - mount a sheet of cartridge-paper and divide it into twenty columns, letting the first century of the Christian era come in the middle, and let each remaining column represent a century BC or AD, as the case may be. Then let the child himself write, or print, as he is able, the names of the people he comes upon in due order, in their proper century.

We need not trouble ourselves at present with more exact dates, but this simple table of the centuries will suggest a graphic panorama to the child's mind, and he will see events in their time-order.

Charlotte Mason, Home Education p292
One sheet of paper. Names in order. No dates, just the right century. Pasting pictures of people into a book of pages failed to become a visual representation of time for Jemimah. So we stopped using it.

Which is why recently I've been thinking about the concept of time and the teaching of history. And this is what I've decided. Next year we will begin work on our Timeline book again. But in addition to this cross-curricular timeline we will creat a specific timeline for the period of history that we're studying. The book, for example would show merely Luther's nailing up of the 95 Theses. The specific timeline would show him at the Diet of Worms, influencing Dürer, disputing the Lord's Supper with Calvin, Zwingli and Rome and so on. One shows people; the other events, focussing on a specific time and with a specific bias - in this case its relevence to the Reformation.
I can see this approach being useful for our reading of George Washington's World. I envisage another for the discovery of Australia. Perhaps there will be some overlap - Captain Cook, for example. I hope so. Because I am hoping that in this way Jemimah's building block might get bigger and eventually merge into one chronological history block joining up with the wonderful Reformation block that we have created this year, the sixteenth century joining to the seventeenth and so on. That's what I hope.

I can't imagine that Jemimah will attach a particular year to the events we study any time soon. But to be honest, it doesn't really matter if she doesn't know the date if she knows what came before and what its consequences were, does it? History is just so much more than memorising dates, after all.

As the homeschooling mother of one child I may get it wrong again, but these are my plans for next year. We'll see how they go. For those of you with multiple children or of kids of older ages, what's your experience of teaching the chronology and sequencing of history? What did you do right? Where did you go wrong? Please tell - this mummy at least could use your experience. I'm just a learner after all. Always a learner.

Here is our lovely Record of Time. I still like it, but if I were buying a timeline today, I would seriously consider this one.

Read Laurie Bestvater's fascinating thoughts about Charlotte Mason's Book of Centuries here. Interesting stuff. What do you think? Personally I think this Book of Centuries works better than our timeline books. Personally. You?

PS Any of you interested in hearing more about our in depth Reformation study as part of AO3?

PPS I'm going for a swim now!
Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:12 NIV


  1. We recently finished going through US history and are starting over with ancients. I had been pondering how to do some kind of timeline so this was very helpful. Thank you.

  2. I'm sure Jemimah is and will be recieving a most excellent education...you put your whole self into it and constantly re-evaluate when necessary. Admirable.

    psspspspps: hey. post scripts are catching, eh?

  3. I hate to throw a spanner in your works but some of us don't learn chronologically {sssh ~ that's Star'n'me}. I can, however, tell you what comes before & after most periods in a general sort of way & more than you'll ever want to know about my favourites.

    For me it works more like a jig~saw. I can pick up a random piece & slot it in by knowing in a general way the overall Big Picture. I've taught the *flow of history* so Star has an overall good idea but doesn't get bogged down in the details. Not a detail oriented girl, my Star. ☺ I tried it a number of ways before settling on this while only looking more in depth at what interests her.

    Like most things Star tackles she's very uneven but then so am I & the poor child has ended up with most of my faults & drawbacks. Like me she remembers the quiky & that's always the interesting stuff. lol

    No doubt Jemimah learns more like you do & you have hit on exactly the right method for your learner.

  4. I don't know where I got the idea to do a long single timeline - as in computer paper that comes folded for a printer that we would simply unfold to where ever we wanted to be in history. That is what we used. Each boy had their own. I also had one for myself for them to model their work on. I would do my entry with them watching and then they would go off to do their entry. It was a bit of work as we had included about 4 different civilizations. Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Rome.

    I think that I might have gotten it out of a classical educational book perhaps? That is how we started with timelines.

    They would stretch from one side of a room to the other. Clearly marked from the beginning of creation to the end of creation with time slots for each century.

    Then as we read we would fill in things.

    My favourite resource for the timelines are Amy Paks CD of History Timeline figures. I was actually looking for them yesterday - as I am organizing things for Chloe for next year - and I have currently misplaced one of the CD's - waaaaa, waaaa. I am hoping to have it found in time. That's what happens when one uses them and forgets to put them back into the case. :)

    Smaller timelines are good for getting up close and personal with particular events and peoples.

    We haven't done a timeline since I chucked in the formal classical education journey. It is a bit of extra work on top of reading, narrations, outlines, writing, drawing etc... I sort of miss it though.

    They are good for getting the overall picture, but I never worried about making the boys learn any of it by heart.

  5. Yes, well I've just had a peek in at "The Well Trained Mind" by Susan Wise Bauer and she suggests one big long timeline and gives directions for that on pages 270 - 272.

  6. Sounds as though Jemimah knows more history then I do!
    We did the long continous line with the older girls and had it up for years adding to it. History has not figured very formally with my boys :-( I try to read historical stuff to them and that about sums it up. Hopefully, we will make up some of that over the years. Perhaps like me they will become more interested post schooling.

  7. I love history and it is never boring. I have learnt all different stages of history all out of order, but I don't think it matters much. Plus learning history is a lifetime exercise, I continue to learn things now and have no plans to stop. Once I have finished the History of Britian I am moving onto the Wild West, history of the USA.

  8. We had a timeline of human history from Rod/Staff. We had a poster [one page] that we did. We tried the Centuries book. My daughter, still, at almost 15 just does not "get" time! Which came first Richard Nixon or Thomas Jefferson--blank stare!!! And, in spite of living books etc, she doesn't care at all about history. Guess we're all just different. Happily, she DOES say she liked history "much better" at home [AO] than in public school. Glad Jemima likes it all!

  9. I love History. I was homeschooled, but the curriculum that my mother used (in those days there were very very very few choices available) did not offer a very good History course. So I learned History from living books because I loved to read.
    Now that I am teaching my kids, and using living books on purpose to teach them, I am somewhat confused that they could really care less about History! Is this a personality thing? Am I not using the right books? Are they just too young to get it right now and will learn to love it as they get older?

  10. Well, since M & L still don't get that "lights out" follows right after bedtime stories and prayers, I'd say Jemimah is doing pretty well with chronology.

    Really, though, it is probably much more important that Jemimah understands that there are bright and shining stars even in the darkest nights of history.

    Connections don't always happen at exam time or during the readings or while filling out timelines. They will most likely happen when we aren't even with them to record it.


  11. yep. love this idea:

    "Next year we will begin work on our Timeline book again. But in addition to this cross-curricular timeline we will creat a specific timeline for the period of history that we're studying."

    and yes. the book of centuries... mine should be called a timeline in a notebook too. I REALLY like the description of what CM used as book of centuries as described in the childlight article...

    I really don't feel that the placing history 'in order' comes until a later age anyway timeline/boc or not, but certainly I can't figure out how having one could really hurt besides the time invested... :)


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