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Monday, October 28, 2019

L'Harmas Talk on Imagination in the Curriculum, part I

How ideas work themselves into a talk: 
I've gotten to speak four different times to four very different groups this year, and I enjoyed it every time. I don't consider myself a gifted or a natural speaker, but I love my topic and am always eager to share the things I have learned or am learning about Charlotte Mason with anybody who will listen. This is not a slyly veiled request for compliments. I know my limitations and I consider myself in the learning stage of public speaking. This is one reason I don't charge anything. Every time I speak I learn something new and I go home and make notes to myself about how to do better next time. I am grateful for the patient members of my various audiences who give me this platform from which to learn.

 I appreciate the chance to share my thoughts on CM with others, and I feel that in spite of the weak spots in my public speaking, I have something to offer and I am eager to offer it. I had, after all, done this homeschool thing for 29 years by the time our youngest graduated 3 years ago. I have used Mason's methods in tutoring children from other cultures, other races, other language groups (I tutored in English, which was their second language). I have read the volumes multiple times, and I am still reading them. They are so rich and densely packed with ideas. I looked up the books she referenced in her volumes and read as many of them as I could as well. I am always learning something fresh and new even after 30 plus years of studying this philosophy of education.

 As I work on improving my presentation skills and the organizing of my thoughts, I am rearranging and editing my talk from L'Harmas. Over the next few days, I'll be sharing what I said, but in the order and arrangement I think would have have been even better. Most of all, it is the content that matters.

 I'd like to begin by sharing a little corner of our lives and some experiences we have had that changed my thinking about how children learn prejudice and how they learn to think about those who seem different from themselves. We adopted a child with multiple disabilities when she was nearly 6. She's now over 30. She is nonverbal and only has a few signs. She is still in diapers. She dresses herself only with help. She gets impatient when feeding herself and will drop her utensils and grab the food with her hands. She likes music, and cuddles, bananas and bakes sweet potatoes. She likes tearing paper, including pages from my books. She likes to scribble on paper, and sometimes that paper is pages in my books. She doesn't speak or sign much but she will sometimes communicate he extreme disapproval of somebody or something by slapping one of us really hard. She slapped her sister for eating before she herself had had breakfast. She slapped another sister because that sister's toddler was standing on Angel's feet. We aren't always able to tell what she is annoyed about, however, and she can be a bit unpredictable.

 When we adopted her we were very good friends with another homeschooling family with a lot of children, and we spent a lot of time together. One day the youngest child of my friend, a child who had spent time with Angel without incident several times a week, was playing nearby her as usual, and she did something unpredictable (I don't even remember what, but it wasn't anything new for her, it just didn't have any obvious reason). My friend's little boy suddenly looked at Angel like he'd never seen her before, and he screamed and pushed her away. It was really shocking. He didn't want anything to do with her at all, and my poor friend was devastated. It was obviously something about her specifically that he suddenly found fearful and disturbing and he would scream whenever his mom brought him near Angel to try to work things out. She kept apologizing, nearly in tears, and asking what she had done wrong and assuring me she hadn't taught him to dislike handicapped people -- all of which I knew. After all, he'd been playing with her just fine before.

 In another incident a family with four children who come over a few times a year had one of their four children refuse to sit next to Angel, refuse to hold her hand during prayers, refuse to be near her or have anything to do with her. The other three siblings were not the same, so I knew that this prejudice towards a different child, a child with disabilities, was not because her parents had taught her this prejudice.  They wouldn't have taught this to one child but not the other three.  In fact, her older sister (who wasn't *that* much older) would often be embarrassed by her sister's behaviour and she would go take Angel's hand for prayers herself when her sister was being ugly about it (a balm to this mama's heart).  Same family, same parents, different personalities.

 I think we have a mistaken idea about how we learn prejudice. I've heard people say that kids don't see colour, they don't see differences, unless they are taught. People assume that children only display fear and dislike of people who are different if they are taught that by their elders. I disagree.

 While there are surely some families where open bigotry is the practice at home, in comments made while watching television or movies, in open disdain and hostility about the race or abilities of somebody who annoyed mom or dad at the grocery store or library will be expressed in the car and at home, most of the time I think fear of the Other is actually natural, and our fault is invisible, it is in errors of omission, not deliberate comments and acts of commission.

 Unconvinced? Imagine this scene with me: It’s Christmas, you’re at the mall and there’s a booth with a Santa Claus in it and a line of parents and children waiting to sit on Santa’s knee and get their picture taken. What are many of the small children doing? They are howling and crying and resisting the fat bearded man in the red suit. They are terrified, and pushing him away. They don't want to be near him at all.

It’s Easter and you’re again at a mall for some reason. You’ve got a couple preschoolers and a toddler with you, and a person in a giant rabbit costume strolls over and tries to engage the kids in conversation. Shall we place bets? Do they respond with joy and instantly start chatting with the giant mutant rabbit or scream and hide behind you in terror?

What about clowns? Why do so many children find these things scary? Do parents teach their children to hate and fear fat bearded men in red suits or freakishly large rabbits who walk on two legs? Do we tell them clowns are scary and threatening and they should scream when they see one? Of course we don’t. And when children do scream and cry about the clown or the Santa Claus, we don't tsk tsk and intone, "Children don't see (insert physical attribute here). They have to be taught to react that way."

Okay, but...  But those things are weird, right? So it’s natural the kids would be scared and upset. I'm still not making my case for some of you. But the fact that it is natural for kids to fear and reject what is strange to them, to find 'strange' or 'weird' the same as frightening is exactly my point. I agree it’s entirely normal and natural, particularly at certain developmental stages.

What do we do when children react that way? We try to help them overcome it. We understand it and work to make the strange familiar, so they will be more comfortable. We do this with strange situations and unfamiliar people as well. Sometimes, if we are wise, we do this intentionally.  When a child is going to the dentist for the first time the parent who plans ahead has read a few picture books about dentists, has given the child some advance information about what to expect. When we lived overseas for 2 years and were ready to return home, my other daughters did some intervention work with their children, reminding them (because they were so young and might not remember) that Aunt Angel is not quite the same as other people, that she reacts differently, that she's an adult who doesn't talk and does suck her thumb, and that she can't answer their questions or play the usual games with them. You might have a relative who needs some advance explanation for your children in order to help them respond with acceptance and understanding. You know another word for this?


 What does weird really mean? Some people think it’s weird to have rice and fish for breakfast and some people think it’s weird not to. Some people think it’s weird to go up and hug somebody who’s crying- it’s more considerate to turn around and pretend you don’t see them, and some people think it’s weird not to offer physical comfort, even to a stranger. Some people think it’s weird for men who are just friends to share a bed on a road trip and some people think it’s weird and lonely to sleep by yourself. Some people think it's weird to bow when greeting somebody and some think it's weird to shake hands, or wave. Some think it's weird to have a child sleep in your room at night, and some think it's weirder, and rather irresponsible and cold-hearted not to. Some people think it's weird to smile at strangers if you make eye contact on the street and others think it's weird and unfriendly not to.

 Weird just means we’re not used to it, it’s outside the range of normal for us. The kids are scared and respond in fear not because the parents taught them to act that way but because it doesn't always occur to even kind, well intentioned, parents that they needed to teach children not to act that way.

The children may just hit a certain developmental stage similar to the stranger danger stage when they come across somebody different enough to cause fear. The family may not had enough exposure to people of varying abilities, skin tones, hair and eye colour, races, complexions, accents, etc.

Parents who believe that children can only react in dislike and fear of people who look different if those children have been taught that way are parents who didn’t realize they needed to actively bring their children into sympathetic relation with people who are different. Representation is not just important for children who do need to see people who look like them in their picture books, art, literature, history and so on. It is important for children who only see people who look like themselves as well.

Some families, through neither deliberate intention or preference, live in places and situations where seeing people who look different is outside of the norm. And to little kids, outside the norm can be scary. I lived in the Philippines for two years and sometimes I happened to be the first white person to speak to a small Filipino child, just by accident of time and place, and quite often they’d scream and cry. This was not because their parents taught them to hate white people, but because I was unfamiliar, I talked funny, so I was unpredictable and unknown to them, and thus, scary. This is normal, it's even a reasonable response for young children to make. What matters is how we go from there. Of course there are parents who deliberately foster fear and dislike of other ethnic groups. However, we need to accept that this also happens naturally and what we want to do is focus on *unteaching* it.

 Happily, a Charlotte Mason education, properly done, will also help us to address that. Mason's philosophy applied will widen and deepen the children ‘s imagination, direct it outward, squeezing out self-absorbtion and replacing it with interest in other people and ideas. A Charlotte Mason education is ideal for learning and thinking about how other people live and why. Repeatedly Mason asks that children picture in their minds the images representing the stories they read, and as they use their imagination to picture the lives of other people, empathy increases.

Charlotte Mason says of children that "Other peoples and their languages must not be strange to them." 

 A little over a year ago I was struck by the realization of the connection Charlotte Makes between imagination and sympathy. She is not referring to just the moral imagination, which I was familiar with. For Charlotte, a warm, deep, connected sympathy to other people is the legitimate, perhaps even the most important, function of imagination. This discovery set me off on a journey to find how Mason's philosophy played out through her curriculum and what ways her recommended practices encourage the growth and development of this deeply warm, sympathetic connection with other others, including 'Others.'

 Over the next week or two I will be sharing some of my finds with you. I hope you'll join me and learn something as well, and please consider helping me learn more by contributing to the conversation in the comments. Thanks!

Thinking about what you've read here... here are a couple suggestions (only suggestions, not assignments) to go deeper- take a minute and write down as much as you can remember as quickly as possible.  When the minute is up, look it over and think about what you wrote.  What stands out to you the most?  Do you have questions or possible objections?  Make a note of those, too.

Does this remind you of anything else?  What are the connections you've made there?

Have your children ever reacted to a person with disabilities, a person from another ethnic background, country, or culture, in a way that embarrassed or shamed  you?  Think about what happened and ask yourself what was really happening and why.  What could you do to change that in the future?

What does your home library look like?  Does it include stories by and about people who are not as you are? What about your daily life, where you go to church, shop, what types of cultural events you might visit, your study of languages- are you including opportunities for exposure to other people and customs, other cultures, other stories?

If you appreciate what you read here,  I have some other goodies you'll enjoy.  Take a look below!

$5.00- Education for All, vol 2- the Imagination (and more) issue!- transcript of the imagination talk from the AO Camp meeting, with additional material I had to cut to save time.  

 $5.00- Education for All, a new CM journal,   Feed Your Mind!  This issue contains several articles on handicrafts, outdoor play, nature study and science. See sidebar for purchasing options if you are in the Philippines.

 $3.00 Five Little Peppers and How They Grew Copywork (grades 2/3, carefully selected with an eye toward finely crafted sentences, lovely bits of writing pleasant to picture in the mind's eye, and practice in copying some of the mechanics of grammar and punctuation typically covered in these years.

  $3.00 Aesop's Fables Copywork for Year One!  Carefully selected with an eye toward well written sentences, memorable scenes, and some practice copying sentences that model the basics of capitalization and punctuation.   Suitable for use with children who have already mastered the strokes and letters for basic penmanship.

Picture Study!  Miguel Cabrera's beautiful, diverse families, painted in 18th century Mexico this package includes 9 downloadable prints along with directions for picture study and background information on the artist and his work. $5.00

Common Kitchen:  What's for lunch?  Isn't that a common problem in homeschooling families?  What to fix, what is quick, what is frugal, what is nourishing?  How can I accomplish all those things at once?  We homeschooled 7 children, and I was a homeschooling mom for 29 years on a single income.  I collected these recipes and snack ideas from all over the world.  These are real foods I used to feed my family, my godsons, and sometimes my grandkids.  Includes some cooking tips and suggestions for sides, and for a variety of substitutions.  I think every family will find something they can use here. $5.00

Part two of the L'Harmas talk on education is here.


  1. One of my kids did embarrass me, but fortunately not in public. We had lived in the whitest town you can imagine in North Idaho for almost her entire life, and then moved to Kansas where we had a black neighbor. She was a very sweet teenage girl who came over and brought the kids playdough and played with them. My 3yo daughter said "Mommy? When are we going to see that black lady with clothes on again? The one who brought us playdough?" It took me a few minutes to realize that the only other black lady she'd seen was in a documentary about babies in different cultures. The African mom didn't have anything on top in the documentary. I am SO GLAD she didn't say anything in front of our neighbor.

    1. Oh, dear. That would have been awkward. But your experience is an excellent example of the reality that Children are always observing and drawing conclusions about the world around them, the world that they see. So if we cannot give them good representation in their immediate world, we need to make sure they get it in their books and media.

      One of my youngsters once told me that men could not be doctors- she had drawn this conclusion because she had only seen female doctors. I hadn't noticed.