Make your own free website on



Living Books:  Why and How?


[images on this page are reduced for faster loading; please click on thumbnails to see full-sized images]


Before we begin:  All the books I will mention are on your handout.


I am going to tell you a secret:  I don’t like homeschooling conferences.  The vendor hall overwhelms me.  There are so many people.  I can’t hear them all.  I can only hear out of my left ear and I miss half of what is said in big halls like that one. I end up confused. And there are so many THINGS.  Everything looks like just the perfect solution to…whatever.  There are choices and choices and choices. 


This talk is not about another list of must-teach items to add to the rest so that you have just one more burden.  This talk is entitled “Living Books:  Why and How?”  The “why” is as important as the “how.  A living books lifestyle--a lifestyle that focuses on sharing excellent books together—is one which will bring you much joy and nurture loving relationships. It is a relaxed, attached method of learning together. A living books lifestyle of learning will release you from the bondage that leads to burnout.   As a matter of fact, I wanted to call this talk “Don’t Make it More Difficult Than It Is.”  That’s it.  Let’s simplify.  Let’s not make this task more difficult than it is.


We spend so much time and energy searching for perfection.  We want the perfect phonics curriculum but only if phonics is the perfect way to teach reading.  We want to be sure we introduce history in the right order, at the right time, so that our children will have a perfectly organized mental map of all of history since Creation (and that’s only after we have ascertained how old the earth really is).  We want to know exactly how to organize our homes and get our children to obey the first time every time.  We want to know how to ecologically breastfeed, attachment parent, and get a good night’s sleep. We want the perfect homeschool.


We either leave here utterly overwhelmed or we leave thinking we have the world on a string, only to find out tomorrow that we are pregnant.  With twins.  And we need another perfect strategy.


Jesus did say, "Be perfect." But it means that we are to tend continually toward HIS paradigm of perfection, not a human paradigm of perfection.  We are to increase in VIRTUE, not to beat ourselves over the head because we are not perfectly virtuous, nor to throw our hands up in despair because the circumstances of our lives do not allow us to do all external things to perfection. It's not a question of succeeding, but of working earnestly and sincerely.  As the poet Kathryn Mulderink has said, “Perfection is God's business; ours is just the trying.”


So stop.  As you go through these aisles searching for the perfect curriculum, you run the risk of losing your focus, of forgetting that there is no perfect curriculum.  You might very well forget why you are here at all. There is a lot of good stuff out there, there is more than any of us can use, there is something for everyone. But it's easy to think that if we just had the "perfect" thing, things would run perfectly.  So ask yourself again: Why are you educating your children at home?  How will that apparently perfect, neat little package, that very detailed booklist help you reach your goal?  

And here’s the most important question:  Can you use that perfect little package in your imperfect home with your imperfect children on three hours of sleep? Your teaching style—indeed, your living style—is at least as important as your child’s learning style.



When I look back on my childhood and my early adulthood, I can see very clearly that God was preparing me for a vocation to be a mother who educates a large family at home.  He called me so loudly and so unmistakably that I have never questioned that this is His desire for our family.  What I have questioned along the way is HOW He intends me to answer this call. 


In the beginning, I took my training as a classroom teacher and I brought it home.  I could tutor my one golden-haired blue-eyed quick learning child with all the best I knew of teaching techniques intended for classrooms.  All I did was cut it all down for one-on-one tutoring and import a neighbor or two for group activities.  Worked like a charm.


My second child came along with some special needs. He has very poor visual memory. No problem.  We did it all the auditory way.  I read aloud to him and he dictated anything he needed written.  I bore the burden for him and we progressed through the same classroom tested materials.  Then there was another baby.  He was moving faster than lightning through everything and making his older brother feel very inferior.  Oh boy, child two noticed that child three is gaining on him. Quick!  They can’t be using the same math book. We need two different, but equally perfect math books!  Oh hold on, we have another baby.  Now, we have four children eight and under.  We need…..a CO-OP!  I planned and executed with several moms. And I learned from all of them.  I added more and more to my program.  Ahh…much better—the big kids are getting everything they need, the little kids are along for the ride, and I’m EXHAUSTED…and pregnant again.


The summer before baby number five was born, I began to consider my frenetic activity, my search for the perfect curriculum in light of the fact that I really did believe, as Charlotte Mason has asserted, that children are educated by their intimacies. 


That means that children are educated by what is put before them.  If that is so, then they are educated throughout their waking hours, by the life they lead. 


For a Catholic parent, the first intimacy we want for our children is a true personal friendship with the Lord.  All our educating is directed to that end.  This is not merely knowledge of the faith—that is a means to the end.  It is true knowledge and friendship with the Lord.


        The child will also have intimacies with literature and nature and music and art.  With an eye toward the ultimate goal, only the finest of these are set before the child.  Children need the time and space to meet fine ideas and to make them their own.  The atmosphere of the home, and indeed, of the child’s entire environment can be ordered toward the purpose of presenting living ideas.  None of that comes in a box.  None of that is a single perfect curriculum that will work for every one of us.  Why?  Because your family is different from mine and different from that of even the finest curriculum developer.  And your first child is different from your second. 


And, perhaps most importantly, your life is not static; it will change.  And those changes in your household, those crises, those births, those nights of prayer while you rock a sleepless baby, are all part of God’s plan for you, for your children, and for our world.


   He knew the child you adopted would suffer the trauma of abandonment for his entire childhood.  He knew it when He called you.  And still, He called you.  He knew you’d have three sets of twins to go with your three single births.  And still he called you. And you don’t have to do everything outlined for you in any curriculum in order to do exactly the job God called you to do.


  You don’t have to have the perfect curriculum and you don’t have to be the perfect Mom.  There is no perfect homeschool.  It doesn’t exist. There, now you can stop trying to attain it and get on with doing this job well enough. You just have to answer His call.  He will give you the grace to do the job well.


 We are fallen creatures surrounded by fallen creatures, and life just keeps on going in spite of all our well-laid plans. Our focus has to be these SOULS - are we being as generous as we can be, are our eyes on the Cross, are we willing to pour ourselves out for these people? And STILL, the lesson plans are incomplete?


It's God's way of keeping us on our knees, helping us to recognize our inability to do anything without Him, making sure we walk with Him in every moment.  He knows that we will not attain perfection here on earth.  He is our maker and he knows our imperfections intimately.  His plan is for those to draw us to Him. It's the only way we can be certain that ANYTHING we do will be effective. He's in charge of the schedule. He’s in charge of the curriculum. Remember: “Perfection is God's business; ours is just the trying.”


Willa Ryan, writing from San Francisco, where she, her husband and five children were living 3 hours from home, to be near her infant son who awaiting a liver transplant, shared:


        "Right now our family is in a state of crisis.   We are defined at least in part by what we do not have.   We do not have our house, we do not have our baby, we do not have the books and materials we have accumulated over several years.   Nothing is status quo right now.  …The ideal Charlotte Mason education and the ideal Charlotte Mason educator seem as far away as the moon.  So once again, what is our goal in homeschooling?  …if we are homeschooling our children because we want to raise saints we can take comfort in the fact that God blesses us in our deprivations as well as in our abundances…. A family is uniquely suited to sanctify its members- That’s why I am homeschooling. Because I want our family to meet in heaven someday, and I think we have a better shot at it if we journey together as much as possible."


    We set about to create an atmosphere that encourages learning and growing in faith.  As Willa points out, it is not always ideal.  I want to create for my children a lifestyle of learning, not a school at home.  I want to embrace the life the Lord has given us and learn together as a family, not as isolated pupils.  And my indispensable tool is simply a basket of well-chosen books. They are books of high moral quality, full of worthy ideas and fine language.  They are living books.


    They are the core of the children’s education in this home.  What are living books?

§       Living Books are to be well written, not dependent upon illustrations for the story to unfold

§       Living Books must contain literary language to make a direct appeal to the mind, to stir the imagination, and to hold the child’s interest

§       Books must be enjoyed. The ideas they  hold must make the sudden and delightful impact on the mind, cause the intellectual stir that marks the inception of an idea

§       Books are not to be too easy or to direct. If they tell the reader straightaway what to think, he will read but not the appropriate information

§       Good books are able to be narrated. The child is able to recall the ordered sequence with graphic details.

With those books comes one more thing:  The remote control.  You absolutely must turn off the TV.


Now, let go of your outcome-based anxiety.  Let go of your checklists.  Let go of your fear.  There will be gaps in your children’s education.  I promise you gaps.  Get over the fear and confront the reality.  If there will be gaps, how do we make the hammock that Karen Andreola tells us about, the one that is strong and supportive despite the holes?


How do we create a home of education where children learn well and where relationships—with each other, with great authors and poets, with art and with music and with all of God’s creation—are fostered and nurtured?  The answer is Living Books.


 First, in the spirit of Charlotte Mason, we create an atmosphere in our homes where children are learning all the time.  We don’t homeschool.  We live a learning lifestyle.  For a truly inspiring talk about atmosphere, please, please listen to Melissa Wiley’s talk about Charlotte Mason today at 5:00.  Buy a tape of her talk and listen to it often. If that’s all you buy today, buy that.


 Once atmosphere is in place, we can do it all with a basket of good books, a willing heart, and a soul that listens to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.


When children learn using living books, the content areas of the curriculum become the curriculum.  In a traditional elementary school, “reading” is taught all morning; math, right after lunch; science and social studies, periodically at the end of the day.  In a typical textbook-oriented home school, more history and science are studied but they are approached with an eye toward filling the child with facts.


    A living books curriculum uses the content areas--science and history--as the framework upon which learning is built.  Language Arts are taught in the context of content-history, science, religion and literature.  Needless to say, these courses of study move well beyond “neighborhood helpers” and “why we need the rain forest.”  They also move beyond the facts.  Literature reaches the heart of the child.  It inspires him.  It engenders enthusiasm for learning and a desire for discovery. 


    Children learn that history is the story of mankind and science is the story of his environment (in the broadest sense).  Well-written literature offers both content and context.  Together, both the parent educator and the pupil ponder deeply truth and fallacy.  They consider God’s hand on the world as it was and as it is.  And they are moved to consider His call regarding how it should be.

    Edith Stein reminds those who choose what to study that in a truly well-educated child the soul is of primary importance and the intellect is secondary.  She writes: “I wish only to investigate education in respect to the soul.  What materials does the soul need for development?  It must receive something into itself in order to grow.  And, as we have seen, only that which the soul receives internally can become an integral part of it so that we can speak of growth and formation; that which is received by senses and intellect remains an exterior possession.”  (Woman, p136)

    There is a never-ending debate among home educators regarding whether history must be taught chronologically.  I think this debate is silly.  Unless the child is an only child, growing up isolated from world, he will learn history out of order.  Children learn history in the context of current events; they learn it when we celebrate national holidays; and they learn it from their siblings. They learn it when we watch a funeral of a beloved president. They learn it when we celebrate the feast days of many, many saints, putting each life in its historical context. 


Last winter and spring we learned together as a family about pioneers.  We listened to the first four Little House books read beautifully on CD by actress Cherry Jones.  The older boys went on to read the rest of the series.  And Mary Beth and Stephen listened to me read Melissa Wiley’s stories of Laura’s great-grandmother in the Martha series. We bought all the First Little House Picture Books and read and re-read them.  The little boys have them memorized now. We used those pictures by Renee Graef for picture study.  We did some crafts out of a book called Laura’s Little House and another called A Pioneer Sampler.  My little ones (and some big ones too) enjoyed read My Great Aunt Arizona, Warm as Wool, and Pioneer Life from A to Z.  Older children read a couple of biographies of Laura and we all read the picture biography Pioneer Girl.


 Each of us took something different from the experience but it was a family experience.  For Nicholas, who had just turned three, it was his first history experience.  He learned about the 1800s before he learned about Ancient Greece.  That’s because he was 18 months old last time we covered Greece.  We’ll come back to it.  He won’t be a lesser man for having studied out of order, but he might be a better father for the early memory of knowing that his Daddy grew a beard just get into character and “be” Pa for his own Little House children.  My primary goal is not to raise perfect classical scholars.  My primary goal is well-educated, loving, Godly men and women.  My primary goal is relationships.


    History is being made every day.  Science expands and evolves with every breath.  Instead of trying to cover it all, we can seek to enable the child to become intimate with what we do cover and to forge relationships with the characters and concepts that define our past and so determine our future.  We can cover less but cover it far better.


    A child forms relationships with the content because his education is integrated; he spends unhurried time interacting with the subject matter, reading it, writing about it, discussing it.  This approach is a stark contrast to the conveyor belt education that is the norm in the United States today.  The scope and sequence chart in a typical textbook looks impressive.  There a lot of facts mentioned there and it looks like the child will learn a great deal.  In reality, he will survey a great deal and look at nothing in detail.


It is the relationship with the content that fosters retention.  The STORY is memorable.  The dry facts and the blanks filled in will soon be forgotten but the drama, the comedy, the emotion of a living books education will be engraved upon their hearts and will become a part of your family culture.


    Education is an art; it is not a science.  There is not perfect method, perfectly applied, which will result in perfectly educated children.  There is constant evaluation and adjustment.  We cannot begin to outline at the beginning of kindergarten what we are determined to teach for the next twelve years.  To do so would be to deny the possibilities of new ideas, new interests, new adventures, new books.  There were no prequels to the Little House books when my eldest was seven.  They are the best stories my current seven-year-old has read and, Lord willing, there will be more of them when my baby is seven.


So, we accept that we cannot cover everything.  We know that the holes are a part of the design, and that the design is an art.


    We live in an age when information is readily available. Children need to learn how to retrieve information and what to do with it when they find it.  They need to learn how to act creatively and ethically upon the information.  Schools concentrate on giving a child what he needs to pass the test; we can concentrate on training a child to think for a lifetime of learning, while also imparting vital information.  We can train their minds, to be sure.  More importantly, we can touch their hearts and souls.


    Any historical period is best studied using well-written whole books.  Whether historical fiction or biography, the book should capture the imagination of the child and hold it, transporting the child back in time and to another place where he can truly learn about life as it was.  The mark of a truly excellent book is the engagement of the full attention of the whole family.  Even young children will listen attentively to material far above their reading level if the prose is engaging. And a great picture book can be loved by father and toddler alike.


    Focus on the people who shape history.  Children care about people.  They want to know who they were, how they lived, what they ate, how they felt and what happened to them.  Children need heroes and history is full of stories of men and women used by God to do good in the world.  The heroes of our history will inspire the hearts of our children and their stories will influence the future of our world.  History will provide villains too and there will ample opportunity for you to use the examples of both to shape your child’s understanding of good and evil.


        In many ways, it is impossible to separate history from science.  The scientists who have contributed to our understanding of the world are historical figures.  And their discoveries have shaped our history.  In a relevant science education, relationships are constantly being recognized and intimacies with the natural world are formed.

I consider two components to my children’s science education.  They are inextricably intertwined.  The first is the knowledge and understanding they gain through living books.  The second is the knowledge and understanding they gain through personal contact with the natural world.

    In our home, we love science books.  That book may be a well-written non-fiction book on a particular content area, a biography of a scientist, a natural history book, or a fictional book with a focus on things scientific.  Some books, like those written by Holling C. Holling, I read aloud to all the children, or we listen to them on CD.  Some are read by a child individually, as dictated by his interests.

The books are not textbooks.  Charlotte Mason writes, “Books dealing with science…should be of literary character, and we should probably be more scientific as a people if we scrapped all the text books which swell publishers’ lists...” 

        I require careful narrations of these books and spend much time discussing their content.  The narrations, if they are oral, are recorded by me and kept in the child’s science notebook.  Written narrations are also kept.  Almost always, the books beg to be illustrated.  Even if they are published with illustrations, my children long to put on paper the pictures in their minds.  These pictures are priceless additions to the science notebooks.

I seek to provide a foundation upon which the child will build his understanding of the natural world. A science textbook is likely to be unbearably dry.  Nature study and living nature books inspire.  Charlotte Mason wrote: "Where science does not teach a child to wonder and admire it has perhaps no educational value," Nature study in the field is essential and integral to this method of teaching science.  The child will learn much about the world in the context of excellent, living science books.  Little of it will be “real” for him until he goes out and forms relationships in the world the good Lord created for him to enjoy.  It is the processing time, in the field, interacting with science on a very personal level, that teaches the child the most. 

    Nature study does not seem to come naturally to most mothers.  They are uncertain about what to do and how to do it.  I have found the “One Small Square” series of books by Donald Silver to be an invaluable resource for showing parents and children alike how to explore the natural world.  And an absolutely excellent book is Keeping a Nature Journal. All the books in the world, however, are of little use unless one is willing to pack up and get outside.  Once the effort is made, the rewards are remarkable.


Narration is the simplest of all educational methods.  A child reads or is read to and then you ask him to tell what was read.  If he is very little, this is an informal interchange snuggled in bed. 


As they get a little older, you move those re-tellings to a place where you can record what the child says. I sit at the keyboard and record their words exactly.   A child who has been exposed to books and encouraged to tell you stories both from living books and life itself will narrate much like Stephen did just before his fifth birthday:



This is truly as natural as telling Mommy something that is on his heart.  Over and over again, we listen, we write for them and we learn the habit of writing.


Charlotte Mason advises us to wait until the child is about ten to encourage him to write his own narrations, but often children have commandeered the keyboard about seven or so.  I still write lots of their narrations for them, but writing is not at all a foreign concept.


I use those narrations.  I print them and we put them into beautiful books using special paper from the scrapbook store and stickers and colored illustrations and page protectors in three ring binders.  The children love these books.  They are proud of them and they ask for them to be read again and again.  We point out familiar words and gently introduce principles of grammar.  Then one day, they are reading them all by themselves. 


Here is one from Patrick’s history notebook:



For history, I keep one time notebook while we’re working on a time period.  Then, all those narrations can be transferred to a larger three-ring binder, where they are filed chronologically to make a Book of Centuries. 


The stickers and the color copies and the special paper aren’t necessary—they just make the product more interesting and more likely to be re-visited.  I even took pages from nature notebooks, color-copied them on 8X10 glossy photo paper, glued them into blank calendars and made grandparents Christmas gifts at the eleventh hour Christmas eve.


That is the very simplified explanation of the narration approach to language arts of course.  Time doesn’t permit me more. For more detail, I can only direct you to my book Real Learning available today at my table and tomorrow at Weed Hill Books and online at


From the living books, I also choose pithy passages for the children to copy.  They might copy a passage two or three times over as many days, then I dictate it and they write from memory.  They practice handwriting, I point out grammar and syntax, and we all benefit from the example of fine writing.  The passages grow longer as the children grow taller. Final copies of dictations also deserve lovely pages in the notebooks.


Poetry is also chosen to embellish pictures in nature notebooks and those poems are used for copywork, dictation and memorization.


This is a flexible method.  Some weeks we get on a roll and everyone gets four narrations keyboarded and we all put them all into beautiful pages in our notebook. We find great craft ideas or cooking ideas or we dramatize a story to the benefit of all.  We go visit a museum or an historical site that ties in nicely with a book we’ve read.


Other weeks, we listen to all our read-alouds on CD in the van and everyone narrates orally. Or we build a fire and sit on the couch sniffling and reading all day long while we nurse each other back to health. It all depends on life. And we embrace all of life instead of considering life in the way of learning. I’ve learned that when I begin to feel that twinge of frustration because the day's plan is disrupted, I have to stop and say to myself, "I am doing the best that I can at this moment. Jesus, I trust in You."  I have to remember Kathryn’s words: “Perfection is God's business; ours is just the trying.”


As an aside, sometimes, I know my children are retaining what they are learning because they are living books.  That is, the children are living the books.  They are dressing in character and speaking in dialect. Often, the best narration is this spontaneous dramatization.




Last fall, in the throes of postpartum depression and personal crisis, I was beyond burned out.  We spent four days in the mountains, watching the deer and catching salamanders.  It was a respite, the beginning of restoration to my soul.  Right then and there, I decided that all we would do for school, until I was rested and recovered, was nature study.  I spent several days poring over catalogs and websites looking for suggestions for nature books.  I went to the library and cleaned out the shelves.  I chose picture books and nonfiction trade books, biographies of naturalists and books about and by Thoreau on every age level from preschool to adult. I’ve provided that booklist here and it is available on my website. We spent hours and hours outside walking, wandering and watercoloring. We listened to books read aloud:  Rascal, Caddie Woodlawn, Shiloh, My Side of the Mountain, Walden, An Owl in The Shower, and more.  I focused on my children and on enjoying the stories.  I strewed books in their paths—the bathroom, the family room, the sunroom, the van.  We immersed ourselves in nature stories.  They focused on nature and tales of all things wild.  By November, we were all restored.  In the process they had learned a great deal about the natural world, about well-written prose, about the genre of nature writing, about capturing a moment and a feeling in watercolor for a notebook, about life itself. I learned to be kind to myself, to count the things that I was doing well.  I tired to live the mantra: “Perfection is God's business; ours is just the trying.”


Here are some examples of nature journal pages from my children’s notebooks.  With most drawings is a narration.


The first page is one that Patrick did just before he turned nine.  We found a blue crayfish in the mountains and this rare, exciting catch led to much research in books and online.  On this page, Patrick has narrated some facts about crayfish as well as narrating about another crayfish catch.  Then, he’s recorded a poem he found and memorized.  He has a picture of the Canaan Valley blue crayfish and he has a poem he composed. Incidentally, I highly recommend A Crow Doesn’t Need a Shadow for ideas on teaching how to write nature poetry.


Not all pages are that busy. Here, Mary Beth, who is 7, has watercolored a flower and labeled its parts, and here, she has labeled a tree in Spanish.


This is another watercolor and a personal experience narration of a hurricane.  When I realized that the hurricane was going to hit us, I stockpiled hurricane and storm books.  We read several “rain stories” while camping in the basement during the storm.  We seized a teachable moment and made memories and retained lots of scientific knowledge.  The rain stories are listed on your handout and available on my website.


This is a poem that Mary Beth wrote after we did a listening activity at the pond. She was going through a stage where she was aware that her best friend’s nature drawings were better than hers.  So, we relied on stickers for awhile to keep her going and get her over the hump.


This is an example of a biography Christian narrated.  At eleven, he wasn’t much into embellishments but his narration was typed entirely by him. The photo was copied from the book.


So let’s talk about what this looks like practically speaking:  First, I determine what we are going to study.  Sometimes, this decision is mine alone; sometimes it springs from what is going on in other aspects of our lives; sometimes the children suggest a topic.  Then, I consult booklists to find books that suit the different ages of my children.  I look for biographies, nonfiction and fiction books, picture books, and if possible, poetry and art books. Usually, I am able to find a craft or project book as well. I spend time with catalogs like Bethlehem Books, Sonlight and Greenleaf Press to familiarize myself with what is available to reflect that particular topic. I consult and and I read reviews of books online and in catalogs. I also ask the women at the Catholic Charlotte Mason/Real Learning email group.


        Then, I gather my baskets of books.  I choose some to read aloud to everybody.  I choose some to be read independently by my children who read.  And I choose some that will be read again and again to my pre-readers. 


        For each week, I make a checklist. I assign the  minimum reading, knowing that they may read farther than that.  I assign narrations.  I choose copywork from the books in the baskets.  Often, as I’m reading aloud, I will notice a passage that lends itself well to copywork.  It illustrates a grammatical point or a literary technique.  I might choose a poem to memorize or I might suggest to the children to find a poem in The Harp and the Laurel Wreath or Favorite Poems Old and New. I’ll also suggest a craft or project.


        Each child has a notebook divided by subject.  Behind each divider, I place any papers that will be necessary that week:  math worksheets, copywork examples and handwriting paper, the narration assignment sheet, copies of maps, anything that will encourage independent work.  When these binders are full on Sunday, complete with a unit checklist like this one, I know that we are good to go for the week, regardless of what life throws our way.  On Friday, we can use the narrations to create pages for science notebooks and unit notebooks and review the week’s work.


        One more note on atmosphere:  Montessori-inspired materials are prepared, and made accessible on low shelves, both in my “learning room” and our family atrium.   My 7- and 9- year-olds take turns doing the activities with the little ones and I spend some time there on the mats with them as well.  When they tire of indoor concentrated work, it’s outside they go, with a big sibling to play.


No where have I enjoyed have I enjoyed this lifestyle of learning more than I have in creating a First Communion notebook with my daughter.  All year, we read real books and had real discussions about the things that are typically covered in a religion workbook.  All year, we really grew closer to God together.  I’d like to share her book with you now.


<<all the pages in Mary Beth's book are included on the handout>>


I’ve shown you how we have done this with history, with nature study, with catechesis.  There is nothing that can’t be taught this with a basket of books.  There are even living math books!  This summer, we have a basket of ballet books, a basket of spider books, a basket of soccer books and a basket of World War II books. You learn this way year ‘round. For a lifetime. Beyond the baskets, be sure to insist everybody gets plenty of time outside. Add some math every day and you are all set.  Everything else is gravy.


These aren’t nice additions to a curriculum.  They ARE a curriculum. 


Don’t fall prey to a typical American pitfall.  Susan Schaeffer Macauley writes: People today are making a colossal pedagogical error.  They are rather like an uneducated person who thinks that if one spoon of medicine will do good, then ten are even better!  Many children are being given far too many hours of instruction per day…No one can do everything that would be worthwhile.


 Again, NO ONE CAN DO EVERYTHING THAT WOULD BE WORTHWHILE. “Perfection is God's business; ours is just the trying.”



We wander from table to table out there and everything looks so good and we are so afraid you’ll miss something that we buy way too much.  And we bring it home and it clutters our shelves and it causes guilt because we haven’t gotten to it.  Or we try valiantly to do it all and we find ourselves thinking things like, “Can I ever have another baby and homeschool?”  Yes, you can.  You just can’t homeschool the way you do right now.  Don’t homeschool at all.  Leave school in the government institutions where it originated.  Instead, learn with your children at home, using what is appropriate for you and what you all can do. Choose the yoke that is easy and the burden that is light.


But what if you need a planned curriculum?  What if you don’t want to figure it all out on your own?  Then, by all means, check out some plans. Sonlight utilizes wonderful books and the Sonlight Catholic email loop is a great group of women who can help you Catholicize and keep it reasonable—don’t try to do it all.  Mater Amabilis is a new Catholic Charlotte Mason curriculum that you might want to consult. One volume of Five-In-A-Row will give you a sense of how to educate using books as a foundation Also, I have some examples of living books units that span the ages from kindergarten to early high school available at my table and at Weed Hill Books and there are some seasonal guides available at  But they weren’t written to follow exactly.  There is way too much there.  Instead, pick and choose what works for your family. Many women have found that when they use one of my guides for a season, it clicks and they are off and running on their own. 


Cindy Shearer writes, "I think my favorite image for thinking about study materials is that of a hammer.  A hammer is a wonderful tool.  You can build all kinds of things with it.  But if someone picks up that same hammer and starts beating you over the head with it, it is no longer a helpful tool.  It has become a murder weapon.  Many of us are being bludgeoned by our tools." 


Don’t let the guides kill the joy.  Don’t let them plow under the confidence.  Your confidence is rooted in faith. God himself has called you to this vocation.  He gives you strength and grace.  The curriculum provider simply gives you an instrument.  Take the time and energy you put into searching and researching the perfect curriculum and use it for prayer.  He’ll tell you what to do and provide the means to do it.



Don’t leave here and whisper on your way out, “Did you see those notebooks?  I could never do that.  I don’t have the time, my toddlers would be in it, I can’t afford it.”  Don’t compare your ability to accomplish something to mine. Because—as in every other case of comparison-- you don’t know the whole story.    In the spirit of Montessori, I had set aside the entire week before First Communion to assemble her book.  The narrations were written over the course of a year and we were going to spend the time lingering over the pages and putting them together.  I planned that we would re-read every narration and look forward together to the big day. It would be a contemplative, joyful time.  What I didn’t plan for was the news a week before First Communion that our eighth baby had died in utero.  I didn’t plan to spend that week weeping. 


So we put the book together all in one day, sitting on my bed, crying together.  There is a poignancy to the pages that wasn’t part of my plan. Much of the re-reading and the contemplation came later, after first communion and after the crisis had passed. It wasn’t the way I planned it but it was all a part of God’s plan.  And it is all the “school” that happened in my house that week. Or the next.  We learned about life and death and grace and sacrament.  We grew.  We were family. It wasn’t perfect.  Nothing I have ever done has been perfect.  But it was  good enough.  Indeed, with God’s grace, it was beautiful.


Don’t compare yourself to another home educator.  Just don’t do it.  Glean ideas.  Share successes.  Seek solutions. Find inspiration.  But don’t compare.  It is in the comparisons that we fall victim to the greatest homeschooling sin of all: pride.  We want our children to be the brightest, the best behaved, the most successful, by any measure.  If they are, we have succeeded.  We have attained perfection by some standard.  And so we compare and we feed our pride (if we measure up favorably) or we fuel our sense of failure (if we don’t measure up to a false standard).


In the words of Susan Schaeffer Macauley:  Too many of us treat education as a competition, with some idea of success as the objective.  This approach is bad for the winners and bad for the losers, who only see themselves more or less as failures…we have turned into fools when it comes to appreciating what is really worthwhile in life—proud fools with no understanding of what God treasures.  We live in a worldly generation that encourages blind pride.


The truth is, we don’t know anybody else’s heart. We can’t really keep up with the woman who sits two pews over.  We can’t keep up because we don’t know.   We don’t know the soul of anybody else’s home.  And often, things aren’t what they appear to be.  We are all struggling.  We all fall short of the goal. But we have until the day we die to reach the goal.  The goal is heaven and, honestly, the battle is already won. “The battle is not to the strong and the race is not to the swift.”  How fortunate, because there are days when we don’t feel too strong or too swift.


I am reminded of a conversation between two moms.  The first commented on how together Mrs. Jones was.  Her house was beautiful.  Her children were perfectly dressed and behaved.  She managed to finish her entire boxed curriculum—a very intensive, literary curriculum--every year. The first woman wistfully wanted to be just like her. The second nodded and her eyes filled with tears.  She was pregnant with her fourth child in six years and wondered if she’d ever get her house clean and her children reading.  What neither of them knew was that Mrs. Jones had told me a few months earlier that she would not consider having another baby beyond her two because she couldn’t control more than two and she couldn’t bear the thought of any disorder in her life. 


Don’t be like Mrs. Jones. Be open to God.  Relinquish your illusion of control.  You trusted God when you said “Yes” to these children. The plan wasn’t all written out for you.  You trusted God when you agreed to educate them at home.  Now trust Him to write His plans on your heart and to give you the grace to carry them out.  Relinquish your tense, tight grip and let God hold your hand.  God wants us to be open to Him.  He will give us the grace sufficient to do the job well enough by His standards.  We need to learn how to nod and smile and say, “Perfection is God's business; ours is just the trying.”


Copyright 2004 Elizabeth Foss