25 Feb 2015
AO is a free lunch
If you've read Richard Maybury's Whatever Happened to Penny Candy, you'll be familiar with the acronym TANSTAAFL. It stands for There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch, and it basically means that it is impossible to get something for nothing. Which is true, right? The free lunch part of the saying, according to Wikipedia, refers to the nineteenth century practise in American bars of offering a free lunch to patrons who had consumed at least one drink. The plan was to lure you into the bar, and to feed you salty food so that you'd keep drinking their overpriced drinks. So you see, in reality, the lunch wasn't free at all - you just paid for the drinks instead. Most things are like this, aren't they? Maybury in his book uses the term to explain the economic concept, opportunity cost, but it relates to everything. Everything costs, doesn't it?
Well no, actually, it doesn't. Back when Jemimah was three years old (she turned 13 yesterday, so I guess that was ten years ago), I stumbled across AmblesideOnline during an Internet search. The website described AO as a free Charlotte Mason style homeshooling curriculum, and so I was immediately on my guard. "TANSTAAFL," I muttered to myself. "There ain't no free lunches. What's the catch? There has to be a catch. Nothing is free." Only, ten years on I'm still looking for that catch, because there isn't one. AO is the exception that proves the rule. There Is Such A Thing As A Free Lunch. Or a Free Curriculum, at any rate.
AmblesideOnline was started back in 1999 by a group of amazing Christian homeschool mamas. These mamas have names too, and today they're known as a group as the AmblesideOnline Advisory. Their names are Wendi, Karen, Anne, Leslie, Leslie, Donna-Jean and Lynne. They have husbands, and children, and some of them even have grandchildren. In fact, apart from their amazingness, they're actually pretty normal ladies. Anyhow, these (amazing) ladies researched and compiled a whole CM curriculum for families to use. It consists of a booklist, schedule, poetry, folksongs, hymns, a nature study rotation and suggestions for curricula for maths and foreign languages. In short, it has everything you need to teach your children from Year 1-12. And then, get this, they decided to put it online for free. Free. FREE.
These mamas ( did I mention they are amazing) have worked for fifteen years for no remuneration. They receive no fees or dues, and they make utilising the curriculum as free as they can make it. They have worked to put Charlotte Mason's own writings online for free. They provide an online community for AO users called the AO Forum. They have created a library of additional materials, and they have done it for love. They have done it because they have seen how Charlotte Mason's methods have helped their own families, and they want other families to see this benefit too. (Okay, just to be completely transparent, they receive a very small amount of money from people who chose to purchase books through their affiliate link at Amazon. They use these proceeds to keep the website and the online support forum up and running. They do not make a profit from this money. There, I said it.) These ladies have given us an amazing, no strings attached, free lunch.
As I see it, there are two groups of people who choose to make great use of the Advisory's free gift. The first group use elements of AO. Some of these would call their homeschool a Charlotte Mason homeschool, but not all. Some might call themselves Charlotte Mason inspired. Some are Neoclassical, or unschoolers or eclectic. Some might wish to supplement their traditionally schooled children's education. These people are of all types. They may use the booklist as a source of excellent living books on history or geography or economics or science. They may use just the literature. This is wonderful. The AO booklists contain much of what could be called the Canon of Children's Literature - those classic books every child should read, and if that's what you choose to use AO for, the Advisory will be delighted. Others may choose to print off the poetry selections, or the hymns or the folksongs. Great idea! You may choose to use Anne's sublime Plutarch study guides, or print off a study guide of a particular book your kids are struggling with. That's fine. They're free. You may choose to load Charlotte Mason's volumes onto your kindle for free, or read through old editions of the Parents' Review journal. You may do any or all of these. You can do any of these things provided that you remember that while AmblesideOnline is free, it still belongs to those amazing ladies - to Karen, Wendi, Leslie, Leslie, Anne, Lynne and Donna-Jean. Use it, but don't forget that it's copyright, and don't put parts of it online pretending it is yours.
There is another group who choose to make use of AO, and those are people like me, people who use the AmblesideOnline curriculum in its entirety. The AO curriculum was created to match Charlotte Mason's high standards, and is designed to be as close as possible to what the Advisory believe Charlotte Mason's students would have used were she alive in 2015. It is a work in progress, and is continually being refined and improved as knowledge about Miss Mason and her methods has grown, but I think it is pretty amazing (did I say it was free?), and I have used it with confidence for the education of my daughter. There are thousands of others like me, and you'll find many of us congregated at the AO forum, where we discuss all sorts of things relevant to our children's education. The people like me who use AO in its entirety mostly regard ourselves as Charlotte Mason purists. We aim to make our children's education as close to the ideals Miss Mason laid out in her 6 volume series of books as we can, with adaptions for time and family and religious differences. We discuss her writings. We talk through issues we are facing in our own schools, and brainstorm solutions. We gain support from those who have gone before. Most of all, we develop and maintain close friendships with kindred spirits. We feel warm and cozy and safe.
Which is why a couple of weeks ago I had a rude shock. I was visiting another online homeschooling site that is open to casual browsing. I'd come across the site during a google search, and was somewhat surprised to discover a discussion about Ambleside Online and its forum. Only the forum they were describing didn't align with my experience of my lovely online home at all. These people were disparaging of AO. They described AO and its curriculum and its forum as elitist and snobby and unfriendly. They looked down on CM's methods and they maligned AO. It was really harsh. Especially because I recognised the names of some of the people from my own beloved AO forum. Why were they saying these things? I was really hurt.
I've pondered the reason for this alone for the last couple of weeks, and I think the answer is that, as I've just said, AO means different things to those two different groups of people. To some it's just a booklist, or a nature study plan, or a list of songs, whereas to the others it is something to be adhered to and followed as closely as we can. If you fail to recognise this distinction you're in trouble. See, AO's Forum and Facebook group exist primarily for the second group. There are many Charlotte Mason generalist sites; these two are AO specific. Now you can visit AO's forum or AO's Facebook group no matter which group of AO users you fall into. You can be a dabbler or a purist, but if you do, please remember that AO's volunteer moderators and Auxiliary workers (of which I am one), are going to assume that you're using the curriculum as written - or that you want to. We're going to encourage you to read Miss Mason's books and to educate your children the CM way because that's what we believe works so well for our children. If you post to the AO Facebook group about something that's not related to AO, then it will probably be deleted because the AO Facebook group is primarily for AOers, and if people visit AO's page, they need to be able to learn about CM and AO without being confused. When a mama on the AO FB group or on the forum corrects your understanding of CM, they are not meaning to be rude. They may not phrase it as well as they could, but they are taking time out of their busy day to try to help you. Do try and take their reply that way.
This, to me, explains the issues of the ladies on the other website. They were not first and foremost CMers, they were using the methods of the site I was visiting with a bit of AO thrown in, which is fine, but I think they were surprised when they discovered that the answers they were given on AO's forum encouraged the use of AO. They shouldn't have been. I think people are surprised when their suggestions to use alternative CM curricula are not taken too well on AO's FB group page. They shouldn't be. Why would you encourage people to use another curriculum on AO's site?
Whatever you think of AmblesideOnline, and I do hope those thoughts are nice ones, I want you to remember one thing. AO is a free lunch. It is a beautiful gift of love given to you free of charge by Lynne, Donna-Jean, Leslie, Anne, Leslie, Wendi and Karen. Use all of it or only some, but please do remember what you're being given, and just how rare it is to get anything at all with no strings attached.
AO is a free lunch. And that breaks all the rules in the book. Take it and use it with thanks.