If you know anything about Charlotte Mason, the founder of a liberal arts method followed by millions of homeschoolers all over the world, you know that she famously described education as "an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."

We here at "Skylark School" (the name of our home school, inspired by CM's skylark emblem) are firm in our adoption of this attitude to education, and I thought our experience today would underscore how this might look in practice.

OK -- the date today is 22nd July. Most schools in the UK broke up for the summer last week. We, in fact, stopped sitting around the table every day at 10 am on the 14th of May. (Long story -- we went out to the US for a holiday, and since they broke up from term while we were there, we sort of declared the year was finished, too).

It's summer! Start the party!

However, we still maintain a life of education in other ways, since our home is a learning place in which we pursue living ideas.

So, for today's lessons.  First, the kids studied some card tricks on YouTube and worked on perfecting them. Seeing that they were interested in magic tricks today, I found a few videos of Christian magicians who mix their magic with their message. They studied a couple of them to work out the secrets behind the illusions.

Next, we watched a documentary about bees on BBC iPlayer. After lunch, we took part in the Big Butterfly Count, using the smart phone app to total our spottings for a fifteen-minute period (21 -- a darn sight better than last week's 5!).

In the afternoon, their friends came over, some of whom then worked on a money-making business idea. Later, they chatted on Skype with the new au pair from Spain, took part in a little ceremony that celebrated the experiences we've had with the old one, packed up for summer camp, and now we're finishing with a bedtime reading of Tom Sawyer.

So, while it's true that there are seven hallmarks of a CM-style education (habits of learning, style of lessons, living books, narration, dictation, art & music, and nature study), they are merely a set of tools for carrying it out. The key to them all, however, is the underlying and pervasive desire for learning all day, every day, whatever the weather or the date on the calendar!

Join us in our No-Screen-Time August Challenge of reading top-notch books instead of wasting time with TV and computer games. Pop over to Facebook and let us know what books you'll crack open on the 1st of August. (While you're there, "like"our page, please!)

August will be our books-only month

I was inspired to do this challenge by two things: first, despair at how much of our lives is wasted by living in the virtual world -- telly, computer, email, and even my children's legitimate desires to write books and design 3-D animations are eating up the hours that could be better spent on reading the hundreds of excellent books that currently lie forlornly on our shelves, gathering dust.

Second, I was inspired by Charlotte Mason's writings, especially her 6th volume about a philosophy of education -- as I understood more and more that a child's innate desire for knowledge is ignited through living books, I realised that we couldn't spark a flame if we kept all the matches in the box!

How many books can we get through in a month? That's the big question! We normally have three or four books on the go for our homeschooling, another one or two for pleasure, my elder two in CM Live courses will be reading three more every week, and finally, my eldest was taking the Honours Level of CM Live and its additional 400-plus page novel. We also usually spend hours in the car and the pool for swimming training, but all these activities stop in August, so there should be a chance to tackle at least three substantial books for each child's level.

Some thick; some thin; all brilliant!

Phoenix is now 14 and is taking on Middlemarch ahead of her Great British Novels course this year, The Screwtape Letters and the Doris Lessing Canopus in Argos series are also on her shelf (or, virtual shelf, since some are on Kindle).

Killer at 11 is going to have a choice of books from the Ambleside Online list for independent reading: titles like The Borrowers, Puck of Pook's Hill, The Chronicles of Narnia series, a selection of Edgar Allan Poe stories, and Treasure Island.

Rocky, having just now come into her own as an independent reader, has a lot of catching up to do in terms of a twaddle-free zone. Out go the Unicorn School and Flower Fairy books, and in come Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Billy and Blaze series, Doctor Doolittle, and one of my favourites, Pippi Longstocking.

Busy Timmy is 7 and, after getting glasses last year and a Kindle with its adjustable type-face, has started reading books for pleasure when there's time for doing so. He devours the Burgess animal books, but I'm going to try him with a Pocketful of Goobers (about George Washington Carver), Little Owl's Book of Thinking, and a beautiful edition of Hans Christian Andersen tales.

Fancy one of these??

And me? Well, I will still be checking my emails and FB since we'll be coming up to final enrollment for CM Live classes and I need to stay connected for my job, but I will be sure to a) limit my time on the screen, and b) do it only once the kids have gone to bed.

Book-wise, I usually have about five books on the go at any one time. On August 1st, though, I'm going to crack open George MacDonald's Sir Gibbie. The recommendations for this novel are very high, and the reviews on Amazon are glowing. Others on my list are Thomas Merton's Seven-Storey Mountain and Fahrenheit 451.

Will this be too much for thirty-one days' worth of reading? Too daunting to try? I'm expecting a few days' of screen withdrawal and another day or two as they get into the habit of reading for pleasure. My hope is to avoid incentivising them, threatening, or cajoling. I really want them to feast on the pleasure of reading, just for the sake of the dishes in their grasp and not the whip behind nor the carrot in front of them.

Truly, watch this space!
While my "Boyschooling" family classroom is taking a bit of a summer holiday, I'm hard at work on preparing to teach online classes to homeschoolers via CM Live Online this September.

Both Phoenix and Killer joined a class each last year -- Renaissance and Middle Ages respectively -- and I was wholly surprised at their dedication and improvement in their studies. Let's face it: Killer is 11 1/2 and was reading Ivanhoe, Canterbury Tales, and a bit of Tennyson, trying to keep up with his online classmates and aiming to win some of the virtual badges on offer.

The main point of this blog post, however, is to point followers to the CM Live Online UK Edition website, which I've just been creating and tweaking this week.

CM = Charlotte Mason (a Victorian educator whose 6-volume series of her pedagogical method sets the standard for delivering a thorough liberal arts education at home)

Live = Webinars delivered synchronously on-line.

CMLive = Online education for homeschoolers all over the world, based on CM's methods: you'll find structure and inspiration while the student finds motivation and a friendly peer group to study with.


Come have a browse and learn about our exciting new British Novels course for September -- Phoenix has already put her name down on the list for it!

Now taking bookings for September: a $25/£15 registration fee guarantees your student a place in either Middle Ages, Renaissance, or British Novels literature classes. Don't delay as some classes are nearly full already, having a 90% retention rate from last year's cohort of students and the enrollment now of their younger siblings.

Some things are not too good to be true:
they're just true!
A bundle arrived in the post from New Zealand, the contents of which included a little teddy bear, a selection of souvenirs from the Far East, Hawaii, and New Zealand, and a letter which requested we show him a good time in our country before posting him back to his homeland of San Diego, California.

Isaac arrives in Britain:
Notice the red phone box in the background,
and all the cars driving on "the wrong side".

Isaac Bear is part of a project for an elementary school in the US, and we were very excited to take part in it. He joined us for everything: our homeschooling co-op with the Aberkats, swimming training, meals out, cinema trips -- it was a great time for him to be with us, as it was our Easter holidays.

Aberkats Co-op

We especially enjoyed bringing him along to the various Easter celebrations: Good Friday walk around Banbury, doing the stations of the cross, and an Easter sunrise service in the fields of the Cotswolds, not to mention an all-you-can-eat Thai buffet with our friends.

Stations of the Cross

Sorry, Isaac -- a sunrise service
in England doesn't always mean
there will be sun!

The piece de resistance was taking him to the Castle Inn at Edgehill on Easter night, looking out over the hills where Charles I had begun the English Civil War in October of1642. Too bad it was really foggy!

Isaac's such a ham, he forgot to look at the view!

As per instructions, we sent him packing on the 22nd, hoping he'll make it back to his headquarters by the May 1st deadline.

Bon voyage, Isaac.
(Banbury Cross in the background)

For me, the best part of the project was that we received our bear from a homeschooling family in New Zealand, some of whom are currently my students for the CM Live literature courses I run. It's making global connections like these that are the future of homeschooling, so I liked showing how it works in practice to my kids.
Bikeability Begins
It isn't often that we ask the local council for anything, other than to be left alone a la rights for homeschooling families. This last week, however, we worked with some very nice people at the county who helped us to provide cycling proficiency classes for twelve local homeschoolers.

The Tutor with her Watchful Eye

Since most kids in England are put through cycling proficiency at their schools, it's sometimes hard to pin down the same opportunity for the home-ed community. When my eldest wanted to do it, she had to carpool with a neighbour to Banbury, a town about 16 miles away. This time, we made arrangements for it to happen right on our doorstep.

Raring to go!

Monday was a bleary, dreary morning -- the first day of schools' Easter holiday period, but we were up and out the door for a (generous) 10:30 am start, meeting at the car park to the local Bowls club. Bike checks. Helmet checks.  How's them brakes? A bit of obstacle course, and then over the next few days, the kids were even sent to tackle THE BIG HILL.

Navigating real roads.

By Friday, they were all duly passed for their right turns, their left turns, their stops and signals, their road sense and judgment.  Yes, even Rocky passed on all these skills, and now I have only one more child to make safe on the roads before my job can be considered done.

Happy Trails.

That's not for another few years yet.

Thanks to all the local homeschooling families who took part, and to another home-ed mum who took the lead on the afternoon group of 6. The process was all very painless in the end, and I'm happier to let my kids pop to the shops on their bikes, knowing that they will be visible and communicative to the other vehicles around them.

(Now if we could just get the same support for exam centres and fees for our secondary students, we'd be quids in!)
This past week, we took a holiday in the Lake District, a week before schools let out for Easter holidays. We often do this to avoid the traffic, the crowds, and the holiday surcharges -- chalk up yet another advantage for homeschooling.

Homeschoolers in the Hills

On this trip, though, I became much more aware of how homeschooling is a whole package, that even on holiday, we are still teaching, learning, exploring, and best of all, growing as people.

Let's take Lesson Number One: how you have to persevere, even when it's hard.

Ascents can be exhausting!

This is a great lesson to learn as you climb up mountains. Yes, it's hard, and yes, it's tiring, and yes, it sometimes hurts -- but you can never quit, because there's no other way to get home! Encourage each other; make up games like how many steps you can keep going in a row, or who can suck a sweetie the longest; keep your eyes on the goal ahead (ten more minutes, or keep going till that crag up there, or the summit's just around the corner); above all, put one foot in front of the other till you succeed at your goal.

Life can be like this.  Whether it's swimming training or races, which is our sport of choice, or reading a long novel, or later on, when one is in business, at university, or trying to keep a marriage going -- JUST KEEP GOING!!! It may be hard at times, but you can do it if you don't quit.

Lesson One: Never give up!

What about Lesson Number Two: climbing mountains is a team game. We have particular difficulties with Rocky and Timmy, trying to push past each other to the summit and knocking each other to the ground. Tears, cuts, dangerous behaviour, not to mention embarrassing arguments on the hills which reverberate throughout the quiet valleys.

Winning is not always the goal.
Having recently discovered cooperative board games like Pandemic, this concept was readily accepted once we discussed it at length: there are no individual winners or losers when climbing mountains, but we ALL win when we get to the top.  Conversely, if anyone loses (ie, injured), we ALL lose, we ALL fail to reach our goal, we ALL have problems in trying to get back to the safety of the car/cottage/cafe.

Work Together to Achieve the Goal!
We even had a Lesson Number Three that was specifically about school -- what do you do if you read books but don't understand them? Rocky is particularly keen to keep up with Killer and Phoenix in their book choices, tackling titles like "Dracula" and "Divergent" on her Kindle, but not understanding what's happening in them.

This lesson was for me: "Clearly," I said to her as we trudged up the 2600-foot summit of Grisedale Pike, "I need to spend more time reading aloud to you so you can better understand these hard books."

Rocky marches to her own drum.
She's such an independent soul that she often gets cut loose on projects herself, but I need to remember that she's only 9 and still needs the same level of nurturing that my more needy kids need.

In homeschooling, no child need be left behind.
Education, like life in general, should be a team game, and sometimes, the coach needs to do a bit of coaching to ensure that we're reaching our goals.  For me, the goal is to make education an atmosphere, a discipline, a life -- these are the words of Charlotte Mason, a Victorian educator and originator of a popular homeschooling method, and the words that we live by, whether in the school room, in the living room, or in God's great outdoor room!

Traipsing around Oxford in the pouring rain in the wettest
winter on record (almost), we met up with 11 other homeschoolers at the Museum of Oxford for a workshop on the English Civil War.

Flood Times in February
Our hands-on portion was led by Kate of the Education Department, and she had the children try on replica clothes and think about what it would be like if suddenly 6000 extra people were billeted in a city of 10,000.
Kate Dresses a Cavalier

This discussion session usually takes about 45 minutes (so we were told), yet you know what homeschoolers are like:

  • What do the beeswax candles smell like?
  • How tall were the pikes?
  • Did soldiers have to carry their blankets and food with them?
  • What would water taste like if you drank it out of a leather flagon?
  • Why would you even drink the water, if 6000 extra people were throwing their sewage into the Thames?

Look at all those raised hands!

So the 45-minute session turned in 1 1/2 hours, capped off by the chance to write with quill pens on parchment paper.

Getting the Knack with Quill and Ink
"Dear Mom, I gave my wife the
keys and she won't let me in
the house. Thanks."

The last part of the 2-hour workshop entailed some time in the museum collection, but unlike the previous incarnation of the museum, with lots of bits and bobs from the Civil War era, the current displays have very little to see of any era, and was very disappointing. Judging from the website, this is only temporary as the real galleries are due to open next month after refurbishment.

Killer in a Bowler

To me, the best part of these workshops are meeting other homeschoolers in the area. Today's group seemed especially wonderful, for some reason. Attentive and inquisitive, knowledgeable and keen, the kids seemed to get a lot out of it, and let others get a lot out of it, too (including the four mums and dads who stayed to join in).

A Mum Lurking for Her Turn
with the Quill Pen!

Following the Charlotte Mason method as I do, we are always reviewing our reading and studies for the day by using a technique called narration.  In simple terms, this is just "telling back" what we've just read, and is undoubtedly a brilliant way of remembering information: much better than fill-in-the-blank, or short answer, or even asking kids questions and having them respond.

Narration is telling back what you've just read.

(As an aside, I recently did a test of its effectiveness by narrating some of my own reading to myself by writing down summaries, versus just carrying on without reviewing after I'd read. My memory and understanding of the material I narrated was far superior to that which I didn't narrate, and I still remember now the things I summarized, but not the things I didn't!)

Today's task was based on the Chemistry and Physics book, new from Apologia Science, in which we have been studying matter, and more recently, different properties of gold and iron pyrite such as magnetism, hardness, smell, and reactions to chemicals.

Using a graduated cylinder to observe volume.

We narrated this yesterday by discussion, but today, Killer has gone one step further and made a Pivot video. I think he won't be forgetting this science lesson in a long time!

Hope you enjoy!

At the beginning of the year, I made a mistake. I told my kids we wouldn't school on Friday.

Hooray! No school on Fridays!
There was method in my madness -- the year before, Fridays had been Busy Timmy's day to have private swimming lessons, and by the time we all trooped back home, it was about 11, and shortly thereafter, we would all head off to the afternoon youth group I run.

Busy Timmy gets ready to collect
children from the local school
to come to the youth club

Needless to say, that doesn't leave a lot of time for study.

No time for Life of Fred
on a Friday, I'm afraid.
It's true that, over the years, I've come to the conclusion that it's actually a good idea to carve out a day where you can a) have social calls from other home-ed people, b) invite newbies over for a chat, c) schedule workshops without disrupting the other school days, and d) catch up with chores, laundry, and housework.

So, why am I now re-thinking my announcement of a free-day Friday? Because Busy Timmy's swimming lessons got changed to Thursdays, and my lovely plans for afternoon reading with one child at a time got scuppered when I moved my CM Live classes to meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays ... our long-standing Monday afternoon play-date ... music lessons ... Wednesday afternoon youth-group leaders' meetings ... thus, afternoon school has just disappeared from our schedule entirely, which was never part of my original plan.

The temptation is to renege on my original announcement about Friday, and reinstate it as a normal school day in our home -- that is, chores before 10, then Blocks 1 to 3 until lunch. Yet, I have discovered recently that Friday is not a dead loss after all, and for two reasons:

First, we are actually covering a lot of ground in our studies during the rest of the week, even though we only sit at our school-room table on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday mornings. The two older ones have additional work for the CM Live Online classes which they do in their own time, and Thursdays is a Bible study/literature co-op with another family in a town about 14 miles away.

Do we really need to give up our Friday free-day if this is the case?

Oh, no! Say it isn't so!!!

The second reason is that Friday can actually be a really lovely time to spend some low-key one-on-one time with each child. With one of them, I'll read a book (I love reading "Money Mystery" with Phoenix). With another, we'll play a card game like Zeus on the Loose (sneaky way of strengthening maths!). Another one wants to show me his video animation, and the fourth wants to do food technology.

Rocky's taste test:
carton orange juice, or fresh-squeezed?

Meanwhile, they're each having a session of Spanish with the au pair.

Phoenix (aka Ellie Firestone on Amazon)
 gets translation help with her short stories

So Friday is not lost after all. It's just a different route to the same destiny, and that is trying to create an atmosphere of learning in our household a la Charlotte Mason. So we'll keep free-day Friday, and all will be glad!

Most every year, we travel to Texas from England to visit my family, most of whom still live there. The cost and hassle of travel means that we like to stretch the holiday as long as possible -- sometimes as much as a month -- and this is of course only tenable because we homeschool (reason number mumbly-six for homeschooling, right?!).

Off to Grandma's House!

This year, we had a most exciting educational experience along with our family visitations. A baby horse was born, and we got to see it.

Not only did we get to see it from start to finish, but we endured the grueling build-up to the baby's birth, camping out in a one-bedroom apartment in the barn for four cold nights, testing the mare's milk to see if we could predict when it was due, waking up throughout the night to see if she was getting restless, and feeling a great sense of relief and elation when she started to pass amniotic fluid and to get really aggressive.

Time to Test the Milk

Hooray, the baby is coming!

The two front hooves first appeared from the birth canal at about 10 o'clock at night. The kids had started getting ready for bed, but with their two cousins joining us in our cramped accommodations for the night, they were all still a bit too wound up to sleep.

A Kind of Camping

"Hurry, Kids! Grab your coats and come see -- the feet are sticking out!"

"Stop watching TV and come see this baby!"

Not too long after this, the mare lay down on the hay-strewn stable floor, and started grunting and rocking. The water sack bulged, the nose emerged, and Grandma got down on her knees and started pulling on those little hooves, helping the baby's fat shoulders past the usual sticking point of any equine birth.

Plop! The whitest little face, one brown eye and one blue, and we were all introduced to Sparky at about 11 pm. Everyone got to pet him, especially Grandma who started her "horse whisperer" imprinting routine.

Sparky meets his Mommy

I grew up on a horse ranch in Texas throughout my teen years and saw several foals born, so I was thrilled to pieces when my children were able to experience this as well. Not just the birth, but the long. slow wait beforehand, and the training in handling, gentleness, and trust that began in the weeks afterward.

First Moments of Training
("Now where does that milk come from?")

Studying nature first-hand is just so awesome!