Charlotte Mason is one of the true superstars of homeschooling. Dead long before the contemporary homeschool movement was even a dream, she nevertheless left an indelible mark on the conversation concerning how children should be educated. A British educator who thrived during the Victorian Era and just after, Mason promoted an instructional style rooted in careful reading, imitation, and multi-disciplinary study, all bound within a thoroughly Christian context.
Over the last two decades, a number of Charlotte Mason-approach programs have surfaced, as well as reprints, reproductions, and imitations of older books that implement her philosophies. Notable homeschool leaders like Karen Andreola and Susan Schaeffer Macaulay have promoted these materials and methods, translating them for a modern audience and acting as apologists for a learning style diametrically opposed to most modern methods.
Probably the most organic and comprehensive attempt at a Charlotte Mason curriculum is the collective effort known as Ambleside Online, named for Mason's residence from 1891 till her death in 1923. The product of several homeschool moms pooling ideas and resources, Ambleside Online offers extensive reading lists, term exams, background information about Mason and her educational philosophy, and links to literally hundreds of free e-texts, websites, articles, and more.
As the authors of Ambleside are careful to point out, simply following the supplied reading lists will not give your kids a Charlotte Mason education. To make the curriculum work, you need to understand Mason's methods and ideas and how to apply them to your kids' learning and schoolwork. To help you gain this familiarity, the site maintainers offer a complete online contemporary English edition of Mason's now-classic six-volume series on home education.
So what does a Charlotte Mason education look like? At its heart, it emphasizes awakening children to the world of learning through "living books,". "Living books" include classic literature, history narratives, science picture books—basically, anything that isn't a textbook. Kids are taught to think about what they read, and a strong language arts element teaches students how to express their ideas by first copying what they read on paper, then paraphrasing it, then responding to it with their own thoughts. Nature study also plays a prominent role, both for its ability to sharpen children's observational skills, and to give them a love and concern for God's created world. Mason's Christianity informed her deep desire for Christian kids to love and glorify God and to do his will. Whenever parents can apply a Christian worldview to their students' knowledge (which is basically at all times), they should take advantage of the opportunity with direct instruction.
Because of this emphasis, the Ambleside authors have attempted to shape their reading lists and curriculum accordingly. They offer both apologies for reading secular literature, as well as suggested edits and omissions for certain titles. Bible takes a front seat, though the authors note that non-Christian families can also use the program, with some titles optionally omitted or substituted.
There are reading lists for grades 0-12, with transition lists for students moving into Ambleside later in the game. Each is organized for easy lesson plan reference, with periodic comprehensive exams drafted by the site authors. You will need to provide your own math program for all ages, and a phonics curriculum for pre-readers; all other subjects are covered by books either linked in electronic format or easily obtainable in hard copy.
But the resources provided are not limited to books! There are links to museum websites, hymns, poems, audio files of various kinds, folk song tabs, movie reviews, etc., all designed to make learning not necessarily more fun, but certainly more engaging and interesting. Using these resources will increase your students' research skills, and show them that there are many ways to learn, and many places to find informative content.
Each year/grade reading list is organized overall by year, with another link to weekly reading lists and lesson plans. There's a brief scope and sequence for each subject, though not much of one for the year as a whole. The site authors have provided a lot of commentary on resources and books throughout the site, but there isn't a specific trajectory for each year's study. Parents should have no trouble identifying overall themes to focus on, however. (See the lefthand sidebar for appropriate links to booklists by year and week.)
Grades 7-12 are considered "lite" years, as the authors believe students will be moving toward vocational studies, college preparation, or holding down jobs. This highlights the practical nature of a Charlotte Mason education, and also the part that encourages parents to find their kids' interests and foster improvement in those areas. A proper Charlotte Mason school day is fairly short, leaving students plenty of time to pursue the subjects and topics that really interest and motivate them.
Ambleside Online is an impressive achievement. All site content is free, including membership in the support groups, which makes it especially appealing. While these reading lists are by no means comprehensive across the breadth of Western learning, they are solid, and will introduce kids to many excellent texts they'd never even hear about in other programs. A massive amount of work has gone into this curriculum (and continues to go into it), and it is very good overall.
Sometimes the cautions and suggestions for edits in the source texts seem a bit arbitrary and overboard. For instance, in the section on Othello by William Shakespeare the authors warn parents that there is content relating to an adulterous affair; however, A Midsummer Night's Dream, also by Shakespeare and racier than Othello, receives no such warning. As with any program, parents can and should exercise their own judgment concerning whatever they find on Ambleside Online.
An important point to reiterate is that Ambleside Online, by itself, will not give your kids a Charlotte Mason education. You will need to know, understand, and apply her methods. Fortunately, the site authors have collected a number of texts and articles to help you, and they've established a support system for beginners and veterans alike. If you want your kids to know the joys of living books while still receiving an excellent all-around education, we highly encourage you to consider Ambleside Online.
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