“Does everyone have a copy of the painting? Perfect. Sunflowers was painted by Vincent van Gogh, the artist from our story Camille and the Sunflowers, by Laurence Anholt. Has anyone ever seen a painting by van Gogh before? No? Really? Oh, this is going to be so much fun . . .”
This was day four of a week-long teacher training English Immersion trip to Burma, also known as Myanmar. I had been invited by a friend to serve as one of the English instructors. Back home, I’m a husband, a father of four wonderful whirlwinds under the age of nine, and I happen to be a pastor. I’m also married to a homeschool teacher. But boiled down, I’m just me.
And there I was about to lead a picture study through three of my favorite works by Vincent van Gogh. This was quite a personal story arc. I’ll openly admit that I was more than reluctant to move in the direction of home educating. When my wife Amy first started talking to me about Charlotte Mason, I actually asked her to give a pitch for CM, like an entrepreneur looking for start up capital for that product that really would change the world. I began as a skeptic, but over these years I’ve come around . . . and now after Burma, I’d say I get it.
I’ve heard my wife refer to Charlotte Mason’s quote that says, “We spread an abundant and delicate feast in the programs and each small guest assimilates what he can.” I love that in another place Mason likens the teacher to one who brings “a continual holiday to their doors.” It’s a wonderful and dangerous thing to bring the beautiful to center stage and trust that the child really will make it their own.
For a week this September, I had the privilege of being incredibly over my head teaching teachers in a former military complex–turned medical clinic–temporarily made education institute in northwestern Burma. I wasn’t there because I had any formal ESL training. In fact, I wrestled with doubts that I was wasting everyone’s time. My wife is the educator, not me. I was struck with the grand scope of what was happening, what I had the privilege of being a part of in that moment. And I had to move forward on the trust that there was truth in this educational philosophy that crossed barriers, even cultural ones.
These teachers would come together for a short week and then would be going back to some very difficult situations–villages where education is not valued, and certainly not living. These teachers are being challenged to try something different. They are young men and women who, through choosing to teach English to children, are pushing back against a cycle of poverty that can be very difficult to escape.
My Picture Study lesson began with a reading of Camille and the Sunflowers by Laurence Anholt. It’s a children’s story introducing the Dutch Master Painter through the lens of Camille and his father the postman who befriends the lonely artist when he comes to live near them. The story provided some excellent opportunities to work through many English words the teachers were unfamiliar with. But really, this book was the laying out of a blanket for, perhaps not a great feast, but for sure a rich picnic of the beautiful work of van Gogh.
The forty teachers were separated into eight groups based on their English skills. Every day I had a group for a fifty minute class before rotating on to the next group. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. The highest group had a very healthy grasp of the English language. I could pick just about any topic and have a full conversation with them. From there it went down to the lowest group, which was reluctant to use any of their limited spoken English at the start of the week. It was a wonderfully wide spectrum of English skills from group to group.
There I was, standing in front of this small group of teachers, struggling to bend my lesson to their limited English skills, believing there was something beautiful and worth it in this painting that crossed the chasm of cultural differences between us. To be honest though, while handing out the first of three prints, I did think to myself “I hope this works, because I’ve still got 30 minutes to fill.”
There was a moment, earlier in the week, as I prepared my lessons where I wondered if I had made a big mistake. I questioned whether my plans to use some of Charlotte Mason’s methods in this third world culture would really be successful. Sitting at my dining room table with Amy, planning each day’s lesson while back in Wisconsin, all of this just seemed to be the right thing. Read rich stories. Have the teachers use narration just like I’ve seen my kids do time and again. Share beautiful art and let it serve as a springboard for language practice. But all of those good ideas felt a million miles away there in the heat and humidity of Burma.
Now, I don’t know what picture study looks like in your environment. I may not have followed the pure “look at the painting for three minutes and turn it over, now tell me what you saw” Charlotte Mason formula; but as far as I know, Mason didn’t make it to the tropics so I figured I could tweak things a bit. They studied three paintings (Sunflowers first) and then we talked about what they saw using the limited English these teachers had available to narrate with. “I see the flowers are yellow.” “I count fourteen sunflowers.” “The wall is green.” “One flower is down.” It was amazing to hear each group of teachers, regardless of their English confidence and fluency, begin to find their voice describing this “never before seen” piece of art most of us in the West probably take for granted.
Next, came one of my favorites, Bedroom in Aries. We talked about blankets and how van Gogh painted some of his paintings hanging on the walls of his room in this painting. They opened up about favorite colors and what things might be found in a typical Burmese room.
We finished with The Starry Night, and now the groups came alive. “I see a temple.” Yes, we would call that a church in English. “What is this dark?” (pointing to the shadow in the foreground) which opened the opportunity for me to say, “I don’t know” – something teachers don’t say in Burmese culture.
It would have been so easy to have given in to my doubts and just printed off a week’s worth of vocabulary worksheets. I could have easily run my classroom the way I remember my first grade teacher doing it and defaulted back to the model I knew. But when you’ve soaked in the CM philosophy of education, even vicariously through another, like I have, worksheets just felt like a short change. So, instead, I chose Vincent van Gogh.
Charlotte Mason wrote, “Every child should leave school with at least a couple hundred pictures by great masters hanging permanently in the halls of his imagination.” No matter how you do the math, those three paintings I was able to share fell short of a couple hundred by more than a few. But, does something beautiful and true suddenly become not worth doing when in the moment, it seems small? Why bother with van Gogh in a culture that I’ve heard accurately described as “resource poor” – a setting where, as of right now, things like books are considered a luxury in a classroom? Is it even worth it?
In the big picture of things, this little educational project in the south Pacific could be labeled insignificant or a waste of resources. But what I witnessed in that tiny room with those forty teachers – their smiles, the risks they were willing to take to share their thoughts, their questions, their quiet and contemplative looking at the works of an artist completely unknown to them until that moment, the gratitude they expressed when I told them the paintings were theirs to keep – all of these things tell me it was worth it.
So as someone who recently “dipped my toe in the water” through my experience with van Gogh in the tropics, can I say to you, “It’s worth it”? The scope of what you’re doing – the shaping and influencing and storytelling and listening – it’s no small thing. You’re spreading a feast and it’s worth it, even if some days, it feels more like a picnic.
The hours you’ve spent looking for a living book when you know with a few mouse clicks you’d have shipped to your door multiple geography text books filled with nicely organized facts . . . it’s worth it.
The conversation you engage yet again with that loved one who isn’t quite on board with your little homeschool experiment, I can attest, it’s worth it.
The pushback you experience when you turn down the pop music in order to expose the folk and the ancient sacred . . . this is the laying of the continual holiday. This is your feast. It’s worth it.
“Never be within doors when you can rightly be without.” The hassle of actually making this happen in a real world family . . . it’s worth it.
Jason Fielder is the husband of Amy Fielder. Amy, a photographer, has attended CMI’s Charlotte Mason Education Conference and has frequently taken many excellent photographs. Jason, a pastor and homeschool dad, spent some time recently in Myanmar teaching teachers.
© 2015 by Jason Fiedler