“The Soul is able to apprehend God; in that apprehension is life, liberty, fruition. Knowing God, the Soul lives in its proper element, full, free, and joyous as a bird of the air. Without that knowledge, ‘the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world’ crushes out life . . . we must labour to get our best good, knowing that, if we ask, we shall receive; if we seek, we shall find; if we knock, all shall be disclosed to us. But the seeking must be of single purpose; we must not be bent upon finding what we take for dross, whether in the Bible, in the ordering of the world, or in that of our own lives. Our search must be for the grains of gold, and, as we amass these, we shall live and walk in the continual intimacy of the divine Love, the constant worship of the divine Beauty, in the liberty of those whom the Truth makes free.”
–Charlotte Mason, Ourselves
In the summer of 2016 a small group of home educators in Roanoke, Virginia banded together to create a Charlotte Mason-based co-op. We named ourselves “Grains of Gold” based on the above passage from Mason’s Ourselves. It seemed to encompass what we’re going for when we talk about educating our children according to Mason’s principles: knowledge of God, trust in His provision for us, and the search for love, beauty and truth.
With high ideals and hopes we began to meet together. The first meetings sometimes felt a little clunky, a little unnatural, as our children tried to get to know each other and become comfortable in the group, and as we teachers tried to learn their personalities and individual needs. I distinctly remember teaching Shakespeare early on and trying to coax a narration out of a bunch of shy kids who didn’t know each other; fortunately Dr. Smith came to my rescue and suggested we narrate in pairs, which helped the children get more comfortable with narrating in this new setting. We slowly began to become familiar with each other, to learn our students’ varying personalities and needs, and to live in community.
Our first year we met for about four hours in the afternoon, every other week. This worked well as a starting point, but we found ourselves wanting more time together, particularly to allow our children to socialize and play. So this year we set our co-op to begin at 10:00 am and end around 3:00 pm, and we have begun to meet three days per month instead of just two. This allows us to have ample time for lessons as well as lunch together. We have divided our group of fourteen students into three groups based loosely on age and/or form (or grade). There are also four “littles” (preschoolers or toddlers) who sometimes join in with a lesson and sometimes play with each other. We begin our day together with prayer and composer or picture study, and then the groups split and enjoy a variety of lessons, including Sloyd, Shakespeare, Plutarch, fables and games, math, contra dancing, and science. We come together again for recitation and lunch, and we also do nature study together. After co-op is over, these children who were once strangers to each other spend time playing and talking while the moms can sit and chat, troubleshoot school-related issues together, and just get some refreshment and encouragement from each other. I look forward to this every week!
We are now wrapping up our second year of our “Grains of Gold” co-op and the initial shyness and newness have given way to happy familiarity. Group narration is no longer so daunting. Our children have wondered together over birds’ nests, learned about Fibonacci numbers, danced the Virginia Reel, cackled at Malvolio’s yellow stockings, listened for the storm in Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” drawn parallels between Philopoemen and Titus Flamininus, played soccer, recited poetry, and created beautiful paper craft projects . . . among so many other things! But these beautiful things do not happen overnight, and they do not happen without effort.
With that in mind, I’d like to share three interwoven ideas that I believe have been helpful as we have forged new relationships and established a Charlotte Mason co-operative learning community: showing grace, recognizing a vision, and taking time.
First, showing grace is vital when embarking on something new. When a group is just getting started, things may be rocky and unfamiliar. Teachers may be teaching something completely new, and they may be teaching students they don’t know very well. It takes a while to settle in and become comfortable. It is so important to remember that any “plan” or curriculum must be subordinate to the workings of the Holy Spirit. The people we are teaching are born persons, and so are we. No member of a group should have a “my way or the highway” attitude. I attribute much of the health and happiness of our own co-op to the fact that grace abounds. Although we all use the same curriculum (CMI’s Charlotte Mason’s Alveary) and although we all try to follow Mason’s principles, we all do it a little differently. We each have our own style, preferences, family dynamics and personalities. Not all home educators are the same and not all of our children are the same, and all of us are imperfect beings! We co-exist peacefully when we exhibit grace.
Second, recognizing a shared vision is helpful. Our group has never organized ourselves into having a “mission statement” or anything formal, but I think we all want our children to become the people God created them to be, and to love God. Our group embraces Mason’s principles and uses her methods, but it’s not just about academics. We want our children to blossom into the human beings God created them to become, and we understand that they’re all unique. Keeping this vision at the forefront of our minds can keep us from getting tangled in the minutiae and can prevent us from becoming obsessed about things that don’t matter. All of the things we do ultimately should point to the shared vision of helping our children become who they are meant to be and helping them have knowledge of and love for God.
Finally, building relationship takes time. I continue to return to a comment that Dr. Smith’s wife, Andy, made during one of our early meetings. She said “you can’t hurry relationship.” Although it’s a simple statement, I felt it was profound. Seeing the fruit of any worthwhile endeavor takes time. I teach Plutarch to our older students, and I see the fruit of their labors each week: their narrations come more readily than they did last year, they draw parallels between our readings and current events, they make interesting observations on our subjects’ character traits. It’s rewarding to see our students blossom in so many ways, but Andy is right: you can’t hurry relationship . . . not even with Plutarch! Building relationships with each other and with ideas takes a commitment of time, and it’s worth the investment.
My ten-year-old son recently exclaimed “co-op is the highlight of my week!” I know his seven-year-old sister agrees. I have also benefited so much from our Charlotte Mason co-op. Although it sometimes takes a Herculean effort to pack lunches, gather supplies, remember books, prepare for classes, et cetera, I gain so much from my participation in our group. It helps lighten my load of teaching at home, it has provided me a group of like-minded friends who are a wonderful support, and it’s a classic “iron sharpens iron” situation, because I leave co-op each week feeling optimistic and encouraged (and yes, sometimes I also feel ready for a nap!). Charlotte Mason said that education is a “life,” and it’s a privilege and a blessing to live this life in community with our friends.
© 2018 by Polly Pauley