There was a time, not awfully long ago, when you could call yourself a Charlotte Mason homeschooler if you read living books, narrated occasionally, and went for a nature walk once a week or so. How things have changed.
Nowadays, in order to call myself a CM homeschooler, it seems my daughter must keep a Copybook, a Commonplace Book, a Nature Notebook, a Century Chart, a Book of Centuries, a Map of Centuries, a timeline, bird and flower lists, a Motto Book, a Scripture Book, a Maths Notebook and a Science Notebook. She should narrate creatively, sometimes in iambic pentameter, sometimes in the form of a dialogue between two great men of history, sometimes in the form of a letter home. She should read stories in French, Latin and Japanese and narrate, preferably in the same language. She should recite perfectly verses in French and English, as well as long passages of scripture and poetry. She should sing folksongs in French, Latin, Japanese and English. She should spend all of every afternoon outside, and complete a nature entry on most days. Are you feeling a little daunted yet? Shall I go on?
The reason I chose the examples I did in that last paragraph, is that my daughter has, in fact, done all of these things as some stage or another during the 8 years or so that she has been home educated using Charlotte Mason's methods and the AmblesideOnline curriculum. There is absolutely nothing wrong with children doing these things - they are all, individually, very worthwhile activities. But, and you knew it was coming, so I'll say it again for emphasis, BUT, you do not have to do all of these things at once to be a CMer. You do not need to do some of these things ever. Some will be great for a season, and then be left behind as something - or nothing - takes its place.
Laurie Bestvater, in her wonderful book, The Living Page, has introduced lots of us to the idea of keeping notebooks for the first time. Her writing is intoxicating - it leaves people unable to get enough of note booking, and many have been inspired to become, along with their children, Keepers for the first time. That is wonderful, but notice that even Laurie, crazy notebook-lover all her life, says the following:
In our eagerness for the beauty we see revealed in Mason's view of education, we can forget that many of these layers are built up over years, not weeks or months...they were almost certainly never used all at once.
Laurie Bestvater, The Living Page p 82I am beginning to worry that there is a very great danger of all of these extra requirements, all valuable in and of themselves, becoming busywork. Charlotte Mason busywork. Did you notice that that's what I called this post - not Charlotte Mason and busywork but Charlotte Mason as an adjective describing the busywork itself? CM purists are all too ready to condemn those who choose unit studies or lap book activities for their precious students, but I wonder how many of these well-meaning ladies, me included, have failed to notice the busywork in our own school lives?
Some people are natural Keepers. Laurie is one; I am too. My friend, Heather, and her beautiful daughter are natural Keepers. I look at Heather, and her young lady, and I can't imagine a day that they would ever, ever choose to stop doing what, for them, brings such contentment to their lives. Keeping a nature notebook and a commonplace book could never be considered busywork in their days. For the rest of us, the time when valuable work becomes busywork may depend on how it is presented. A couple of weeks ago, I scheduled all of Jemimah's 'keeping' assignments together on a Friday afternoon. She was really irritated with me. She rolled her eyes and flounced around, and, yes, accused me of busywork. Me. She was right though. It is delightful adding to a commonplace book a quote that has just struck you as worth keeping; it is really hard trying to find one for the sake of finding one. Following a journey on a map is painful if it is contrived; it is wonderful when the book you are reading geographically lends itself to the exercise. Adding a drawing to your Chart of Centuries is fun when you decide you want to add something, it is a chore if you just have to do it because it is Fridays and Mum tells you you have to because it is Friday. Duh.
So what do we do about all this then? Often the most sensible idea is to look at why Miss Mason suggested an activity, rather than what she suggested. Books of Centuries, timelines, Century Charts and the like are intended to help you visualise the flow of time. Which one will best suit your child, and his studies right now? A Century Chart works really well in AO8 when you cover the 16th C for most of the year. It doesn't work so well in AO7 when the time period is from the arrival of Julius Caesar in Britain in 55 BC right up to the death of Richard III some 1400 years later. On the other hand, a timeline, or a Book of Centuries may illustrate this perfectly. How much map work should you do? Have you studied this area of the globe before? Are you perhaps reading two other books that would better lend themselves to map work? Are you coming on a visit to Australia later in the year, and would your child be better off learning about where you are going to visit? (I'm in the south east corner...) Map work has its logical uses, but you don't need to cover the whole world in AO4. Leave a little corner for later years as well.
May I encourage you to take a knowing look at the activities you're doing in your homeschool. Are they CM in nature? If not, what are they adding to your day? Are they just busywork? Is there something Miss Mason recommended that you're leaving out so you can fit it in? Do you want to change that? Next look at the activities that are CM - things I included in the list above, for example. Do you love them? Do your children? If so, chances are that you're going to keep doing them whether they're necessary or not. I don't think Heather would take any notice of me if I told her her nature notebook was taking too much time from her history books, do you? If, on the other hand, you don't like doing them much, or if your kids don't, consider carefully why you're doing them. If you're doing an intensive Latin programme five times a week, do you really need that grammar one as well? If you're keeping a commonplace book regularly, do you need to do daily copy work in addition? Do you really need to do every example on the MEP maths worksheet?
Sometimes it is good to go back to basics. Read living books. Narrate every reading. Do dictation and copywork and maths. Sing some folksongs. Get outside and look at a beetle. Reappraise where you are at. Then, when you're comfortable with the basics, look at the extras. Which ones will add to your understanding of the subject? Which will your kids enjoy? Which can you manage without having a nervous breakdown?
It is a really exciting time in the Charlotte Mason world right now. The opening up of the archives has introduced us to layers of this wonderful method that we never knew existed. Each of them has merit. Each of them can make your children's education more complete, and yes, more Charlotte Masonish, but not all together, and not right now. Save some of them for tomorrow, and plan on doing some of them never. You won't be missing out. Neither will your kids.