I often get asked, "What should I read first?" in a rather panicked voice once a family has decided to explore CM as an educational option. Obviously, each family's needs are different but over the years I have come to a rather standard answer...and here it is.
1. A Charlotte Mason Education by Catherine Levison.
2. More Charlotte Mason Education by Catherine Levison.
Combined these give a nice, not overwhelming, overview of Charlotte Mason's philosophy and methods. The back of the book also has some nice schedules for those who wonder how it all fit together.
3. Watch the All Day Seminar and The Books and Things Seminar DVDs from Simply Charlotte Mason.
The All Day Seminar is the best overview of CM I have come across. I highly recommend it and think it is worth every penny. It is geared toward those with elementary aged children. It's even great for husbands and grandparents who are wondering what homeschooling is all about. The Books and Things Seminar is great for those who are not sure how to go about picking out quality materials or making up your own reading lists. Those who truly want their hand held might also like the Planning Your Charlotte Mason Education DVD which walks you step by step through planning your very own CM education.
4. Charlotte Mason Study Guide by Penny Gardner. There is a secular ebook version available on Penny's website. I found it to be mostly a collection of quotes from Ms. Mason's books which is nice for those who have not read Ms. Mason's books yet. I hear it is excellent for reading with a study group.
5. A Charlotte Mason Companion by Karen Andreola. This book is more religious than I like but much of the information is quite helpful. I am very partial to the chapter on narration and go back to it often. This is a must have--even if you are secular--as the ideas are practical and easy to understand. I do have to admit that I find it amusing that she has chapters justifying the study of Shakespeare and Dickens.
6. Be sure to check out the websites of these authors as many of them have links to articles published in various homeschool magazines, free ebooks and/or links to CM friendly websites. Many of them also list any workshops or conventions that they are attending that year.
You will notice that I did not include any of Ms. Mason's own books on this list. For most people who are completely new to Charlotte Mason the archaic language and emphasis on the mother's role can be daunting and overwhelming. While some folks are comfortable with reading the original series right away most of us benefit from waiting until we have a general understanding before taking on that endeavor. I tend to use my set more like a reference book than reading it cover to cover. Ambleside Online does have a modern translation of Ms. Mason's books but I must admit I have not really looked at these.
100 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum: Choosing the Right Curriculum and Approach for Your Child's Learning Style by Cathy Duffy is not a CM specific resource. Those who are not sure if CM is a good fit or wonder if they should blend CM with another approach will find the chart on pages 11 & 12 invaluable. It really helps you sort out your goals and what approach is mostly likely to be a best fit. Actually it may be beneficial to redo the chart as you plan for the next year. This might help you see how your homeschooling changes over time and whether your current approach is still the best fit. I suspect that if I had done this we would have moved from our WTM/CM blend to a mostly CM approach much earlier than we did.
When people first begin a new educational method or philosophy they often feel some, usually self-imposed, pressure to "do it right". In my book there is no way to do a CM education exactly as Ms. Mason did. It is easy to forget that Ms. Mason lived in a very different world than the modern world we find ourselves in. In our modern experience I think that you can do a CM education as loosely structured or as structured as you want depending on your family's preferences. Personally, I think CM is one of the more adaptable educational philosophies.
I have also found that how some of Ms. Mason's writings have been interpreted by modern writings can be somewhat limiting when compared with Ms. Mason's own writings.
Here are the things I keep in mind when planning my children's CM education:
1. Ms. Mason advocated using the best of what is available to you. This means she would have taken advantage of today's technology but, much like with books, she would have used only the best she could get her hands on. Remember, resources available to parents and teachers were far more limited back then.
2. Ms. Mason lived at a time when having house servants was common. The mothers and governesses she worked with did not have to worry about keeping the house clean and organized in addition to educating the children. Roles were more clearly defined back then and that influenced what she expected of the mothers, governesses and teachers she worked with. I believe that modern mothers have far more on their plates than the mothers Ms. Mason knew.
3. Ms. Mason was never a mother herself so it is unlikely that she was up all night with a sick child and then had to turn around and teach the other children the next day when you are sleep deprived. Personally, I find her attitude towards mothers quite demanding and uncompromising. No modern mother can fully meet Ms. Mason's expectations so go easy on yourself!
4. No you do not have to keep a nature journal as part of your nature studies. During the Victorian Era it was common practice for children, esp. girls, to have training in watercolor painting as well as keeping pressed flowers and so on. The nature journal was a natural extension of this cultural practice. If Ms. Mason lived today I think she would have had a wider repertoire of activities for nature studies/journaling. I can't help but wonder if she would have had a blog if she lived today. Ms. Mason's main goal for nature studies was to use them as a vehicle for training children in observation skills. There are many ways in which you can meet this goal with your children. This is one area where I think we can go beyond Ms. Mason's suggestions.
5. I am finding that many people do not truly understand why Ms. Mason advocated short lessons. The intent of the short lessons is to keep the child engaged and focused on the topic at hand. If your child can focus longer than the recommended time limits then go ahead and make your lessons longer. Just remember to stop the lessons BEFORE your child's eyes glaze over or start wandering to the window!!! THAT is the key according to Ms. Mason and in her books she does say to never stop a child who is actively engaged in the lesson even if the lesson lasts for an hour or more. Personally, I use the short lessons for my children's least favorite subjects and let them hyperfocus on their favorite subjects.
6. A Charlotte Mason education is inherently weak in the sciences. When it comes to science Ms. Mason focused only on nature studies until the higher grades. At the time this was appropriate as most of her students would not go on to higher education but they did need to understand the world around them. Today it is far more likely for students to go on to higher education which means our kids have to meet higher standards in the sciences as well has have actual lab experience. Our family does not do math or science in a CM fashion. Instead we tend to outsource these subjects or use traditional textbooks in addition to living books.
7. Narration is so much more than just writing a summary of what was read! That is only one kind of narration that Ms. Mason advocated yet it is the only one people seem to focus on. See this site's history page or narration page (once it is up) for ideas on other ways of doing narration. Karen Andreola's narration chapter in her Charlotte Mason Companion book is particularly helpful.
8. A Charlotte Mason education can be religious or secular depending on what your family prefers. Ms. Mason was a fairly open-minded Episcopalian who did not seem to look down on other people's faith. Her writings include a lot of religious references because that is how the Victorian world thought and spoke. I can't help but wonder if she would be appalled at the limited way in which some have chosen to interpret her writings.
9. Ms. Mason did not believe in stagnant book lists!!! This is a huge factor that is often overlooked. Most people who ask me about CM ask me for book lists. While Ms. Mason did provide book lists for her teachers she revised and updated these lists often, occasionally changing the entire list from year to year. The books I recommend on my site are just to get you started and should never be considered a required book list. If you are focused on getting through specific booklists than you are missing out on the true benefits of a CM education!