S6 E28 | Teaching Writing the Charlotte Mason Way, Part 1 (Jeannie Fulbright)
American schools are turning out students that cannot write. College professors complain of the lack of proficient writing skills in college students. When Jeannie was a TA at Fairfield University, she found that even many Masters level students were deficient in writing. As is often the case, Charlotte Mason witnessed the way composition was being taught in schools and wrote extensively against this. She also gives us clear guidance for producing excellent writers. In this podcast, Jeannie will share two of the five Charlotte Mason tools for training our children to be skilled writers. In the next podcast, she will share the last three tools that will ensure your children have confidence in communicating in writing that they'll need whether they choose to enter higher education are begin their career immediately after high school.
Jeannie Fulbright, a 24-year veteran homeschooler, is the author of the #1 best-selling, multi award-winning Apologia Young Explorer science series: Exploring Creation with Astronomy, Chemistry and Physics, Botany, Zoology, and Anatomy & Physiology. She is also the author of the action-packed historical time travel book series Rumble Tumbles Through Time, as well as preschool science books and activity kits, the Charlotte Mason Heirloom Planner, and many high-quality Charlotte Mason based products. Jeannie and her husband Jeff became empty nesters in 2019. All four of their children all went to the University of Georgia on scholarship (homeschooling works!). For more than 20 years Jeannie has traveled around the country speaking to homeschoolers at conventions, covering a plethora of topics from Charlotte Mason to marriage and prayer.
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Jeannie Fulbright Welcome to The Charlotte Mason Show, a podcast that is all things Charlotte Mason and her tried-and-true philosophy of education, designed to help you homeschool with more confidence, joy, and success. It is our hope that you'll find golden nuggets that will transform the way you think and the way you homeschool. I'm your host--author of the bestselling Charlotte Mason Science Curriculum--Jeannie Fulbright, and I am so glad you joined me today.
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So today we are going to talk about how to create strong writers, not just proficient writers, but truly skilled writers using the Charlotte Mason model. Now for this, I have some bad news and I also have some good news--some really good news. The bad news is you were probably not taught to write well in school. No one was. And that's because they have, for the last hundred years, not been teaching writing correctly in school. But the good news is Charlotte Mason has very clear instructions on what to do to turn out skilled writers--excellent writers. And she also has very clear instructions on what not to do. And. More bad news: the very things that Charlotte Mason says not to do in the way of instructing children in composition is exactly what schools do today, and have been doing for quite some time--even back in Charlotte Mason's day because she talks very clearly about it (not to do it)--and that's what they're doing in schools, and that's why children cannot write.
In fact, The National Center for Educational Statistics, which is the governing body that evaluates students from preschool through college--they evaluate how our students are doing, how our schools are doing--and they have found that 73% of American eighth graders score below proficient in writing. 73%! That is a great, huge number for kids who've all been educated in writing since first grade. They've been writing essays since fourth grade. And yet by eighth grade, 73-- and we're talking kids across the board on every special socioeconomic level, every school--private, public, elite prep school--all the schools-- 73% of American eighth graders are below proficient in writing. That's what our schools are doing. And it doesn't get any better as they get older because the National Center for Educational Statistics has found that 20% of twelfth graders--or actually it says less than 20% of twelfth graders--can write at the basic level. And most of those twelfth graders are going into college because we have more than 20% of American kids that go into college--whether it's community college or a regular four-year college. They are not getting the writing education through our school system. And, you know, it's no wonder, because studies have found--the research shows--that 90% of English teachers do not have the training to teach or grade writing skills. And most English teachers do not feel equipped to teach writing, or to grade writing. And why is that? Because they have not been taught to write as well.
And this has been going on for quite some time. As I mentioned, a dean of Yale Law School in the 1920s named Robert Maynard Hutchins says, "It has been said that we have not had the three Rs in America." [Three R's being reading, writing, and arithmetic.] He goes on to say, "We had the 6 Rs: remedial reading, remedial writing, and remedial arithmetic." In 1920, they were complaining about children's inability to write. An American journalist, Joseph Sobran says, "In 100 years we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching remedial English in college." And that is true. Most every college--whether it's a community college or Harvard Law-- Harvard undergrad requires remedial English. They require a writing class for every student coming in unless they have scored a certain grade on the writing SAT or ACT--the writing segment of that. And so these students in college-- one of the biggest complaints I have heard from college professors is that children cannot write. They come in to college, and they got into college with their wonderful grades, but they cannot write. And we can do better. We can do it differently by following the Charlotte Mason model. So the fact is, is that American schools are failing our children. And again, Charlotte Mason has the answer. And for the Charlotte Mason model, really there are five essential ingredients for teaching children to write: living books, oral narration, transcribing, written narration, and creative narration--which we sometimes call notebooking. And I want to talk to you about all of these ingredients and how to implement them in such a way that you do train your children up as excellent writers. As wordsmiths. As children who can go into college and be one of the few that can write. Or if they choose not to go into college, whatever profession they go into, they will need writing skills. Whether you're a landscaper or a lawyer, you need to be able to communicate in writing.
So let's talk about the first ingredient, the first tool in our Charlotte Mason, excellent-writing-skills toolbox, and that is living books. Now, it doesn't seem like living books would automatically translate to writing well, but I can attest to the fact that those who read a great deal are much more prepared to write well. Because really, what writing is, it's thinking with your pencil. It's thinking with your pencil in hand. It's being able to put your thoughts into words and putting your thoughts into words in your own unique voice, in a way that communicates things properly. But what is required for you to be able to think with your pencil, is that you have thoughts to think. And in order to have thoughts to think, it necessitates that we have knowledge in our head, because thoughts come from the knowledge we have in our head. And where does this come from? It comes from years of learning and reading books, reading living books. Because the more you know, the better of a writer you will be. The more you read other people's thoughts, absorb and ponder the words they've spoken with their pen, the knowledge they are imparting with their words, the better equipped you will be--your children will be--when they have a pen in hand. And true learning through reading, only can come through reading living books--books that are packed with new and interesting ideas. Charlotte Mason says, "Our business is to give children the great ideas of life, of religion, history, science. But it is the ideas we must give--clothed upon with facts as they occur. We must sustain a child's inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food." So we want to be giving our children living books that are full of ideas. And how do you know if it's a living book? Well, you can ask yourself a few questions-- And I've talked about this before, but I'll just go over it briefly-- Ask yourself, "Is the author conveying excitement for the subject? Can you hear the author's voice? Is there a living person conveying living thought? Or is it just facts and information?" No matter how well-written it is, facts and information is not a living book. It needs to be a person behind the words that are being expressed to you. Do you hear the author's voice speaking to you? Do you feel that if you met that author, you would know exactly how they would talk, what they would say? That is a living book. There's a living person behind it that engages you, that engages and interests the reader. Ensuring that our children are engaged is so important that I feel like a lot of (even Charlotte Mason) moms miss. If our children are not enjoying the book, it may be doing more harm than good because they are not learning to love the topic. And if a book is conveying information in a way that is, to our own children, dull and dry, there are hundreds of living books out there that could replace that book.
Charlotte Mason says that children must enjoy their books. They must enjoy them. And so because there are so many books out there to choose from, don't keep reading a book that does not bring engagement into your family and your children. You know, some books that people consider classics--that everybody considers classics--some of those books my family just did not enjoy. The fact is that not every classic book is going to make an impression on your unique, particular family. It just may not resonate with them. And there again are too many books in the world to waste even one day on a book that doesn't thrill us. There's not enough time in our lives to read all the wonderful books that have been written. And so I would say, if your children-- if you've gotten several chapters in and your children are just like, "I don't really care about this." It's okay to put it away and find something better because there are so many amazing books out there that are just going to get your children excited about learning...excited about hearing the story! There are a lot of stories that my children just weren't interested in. I won't tell you which ones they were, because I don't want to cause you to lean a certain way against some really wonderful classic books. But I would also say, "Don't give up too easily. Go a few chapters in.". You know, when we were reading Ben-Hur, there were probably four or five pages describing a camel. This was at the very beginning, I think it might have been the first chapter or the first few pages. And it was boring. Oh, my goodness. How many little details of this camel do we have to hear? And yet we persevered through that first chapter, and then the book got very interesting. And at the end, the camels reappear on the horizon. And you realize that the book has been saved--the savior has arrived. And of course, as you know, the Savior is Jesus. And in Ben-Hur, he is the main character. So Ben-Hur was one of those that we didn't give up too easily. But you must know that, providing living books-- make sure your children enjoy them. And just because it's a classic doesn't mean you have to trudge through it if it's not one that resonates with your family. Because there are a huge number of classics out there that you're never going to get to.
So again, a living book really should engage your children. Ask yourself, "Is it engaging my students? Is this book engaging my students? And does it ignite the imagination?" That is the hallmark of a living book in the Charlotte Mason world: that it ignites their imagination. Charlotte Mason says, "Ideas must make that sudden, delightful impact upon their minds--must cause that intellectual stir. That is what marks the inception of an idea." And that's a paraphrase of what she said, but it is exactly what she's trying to convey is that the books we're reading must stir the mind--the imagination. They must not be listening just with the comprehension part of their brain, but their creative part of the brain that's putting the story into-- or putting the information into a picture in their head. Is the author igniting the imagination? Charlotte Mason says, "That is what marks the inception of an idea." And living books must (must!) contain ideas. And ideas furnish the mind with fodder for writing. The ideas that have been given to our children, that have been conveyed to them through living books, are what they will call upon when they are writing. It is the clothing of their thought. And actually, Jean-Jacques Fabre--the French entomologist and botanist, and also the author of many books, including wonderful children's science books--says, "Language is the clothing of thought. We cannot clothe what does not exist." Think about that. He says, "Language is the clothing of thought, but we cannot clothe what does not exist. We cannot speak or write what we do not find in our minds. Thought dictates and the pen writes." He goes on to say, "When the head is furnished with ideas--and usage..." [Which we'll talk about later.] "When the head is furnished with ideas, we have all that is necessary to write excellent things correctly. But again, if ideas are wanting-- if there is nothing in the head, what can you write? How are these ideas to be acquired? By study, reading, and conversation.
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And that leads in to the second tool in the Charlotte Mason writing toolbox, and that is conversation. Or we can also call it oral narration. Because conversation really is what oral narration is all about. I've heard people say, Oh, my children hate to narrate. Hmm. That can't be true. Unless your children hate to talk to you. Do they hate having a conversation? Do they hate to tell you things? Because that's what oral narration is. If you think your children dislike narration, it probably is because you're making narration into a chore--like a test or an examination--rather than the delightful conversation that it really is and should be. So how do we make oral narration a delight? By engaging in dialog with them about the topic that they are reading or they have read. As most of you who've done my Apologia elementary through middle school science books (which were written in the Charlotte Mason model) know, I have narration prompts throughout the book. And in those narration prompts it says things like, "Now tell somebody what you've learned about how the sun gets its power." And so that's a prompt for the child to tell the person--their parent or whoever is around them--tell them how the sun gets its power. And children love telling what they know. And it becomes a conversation. It's something that you can begin to talk about with your child. It's not supposed to be used as a test or an examination. Now we want to convey to our children the importance of the discussion we're going to have, but not in a way that makes it feel like an examination. But in a way that helps them to understand that by talking about it, this moves the material from the short-term memory to the long-term memory, and gives them a better comprehension and understanding of the subject to be able to dialog and talk about it. It's a natural, organic way of conveying the information to somebody else and having a discussion about it. This is what, really, all of the great scholars of the past have done. They've discussed books with one another, and this actually helped them to understand it better. When you're able to explain something in your own words to somebody, you begin to understand it better. And, you know, I always say: "When a teacher is teaching, the teacher who's studying to teach learns the most." And a child who's studying, to then teach you, is learning a great deal.
So when you've read to the child-- When you're reading to the child-- When you're reading a subject to them-- So instead of-- (I'm talking right now about read aloud that we segue into narration with.) We want to not try to test them. We don't want to make it feel like a test after we have read to them and say, "Okay, now tell me-- Narrate back what we just read." That doesn't feel organic, that doesn't feel natural. What we want to do is enter into a conversation with them. You might even begin by telling them what you thought of what you had just read, something that struck you when you read. And then ask them to comment on that. Just ask them if they can remember a particular part, and make it feel as natural as intellectuals at a book club meeting discussing a book. Just enter into a dialog about it: "What did you think about how the sun gets its power? What do you think about thermonuclear fusion? What do you think is really happening? What would it be like to get closer to the sun while that was happening? What if that stopped happening?" Have a discussion about the material. And that is what the purpose of oral narration is, is to take the ideas that the child has learned (and the imagination that has been stimulated in the child) and begin dialoguing about it. And that will cause new neural pathways to form, and implant those ideas in the child's head, and give them fodder for later writing. Because that knowledge will be remembered when they've had a talk about it, when they've had a discussion about it. And that's the purpose of oral narration. And when your child is reading alone, reading--whether it's a literature or a subject in school--and they're reading on their own, ask them in a conversational way what they read. "What was the most interesting thing that happened? Did you learn anything that you didn't know? What do you think's going to happen next?" Just ask conversational questions about it rather than that examination sounding unnatural, inorganic way of asking for an oral narration. We want to have a conversation. And that is what oral narration is.
Narration-- What happens when a child is narrating, is they are attending to the topic because they have listened-- And even if they weren't fully listening, I've heard parents talk about their kids playing LEGOs or coloring while they're reading, and then they're able to recount it back. And what happens is, when they're about to give a narration, they center their attention back on what they're learning, what they have learned, what they've heard, read or what they read themselves. Their attention is being engaged. And then they begin to assimilate the information in their mind. Assimilating it. Ordering it. And putting it in categories, and maybe in chronological-- how it's going to come out when they're speaking it. And what this does is it employs logic and reasoning in their mind with the material, or the novel, or whatever it was they learned, reasoning comes into play because they have to reason it out before they can tell you. And what this does is it develops thinking skills. The child is learning to think about what they've read, learning to think about what they had read to them. And when they began thinking about it, they also are building their vocabulary because they're remembering the words, the vocabularies that were used. And when they're orating--when they're telling you back--they are using vocabulary words. So not only are they thinking about the vocabulary, they're using the vocabulary. And this is building thinking and vocabulary and oratory skills. There are so many skills that are developed in the act of narration. And what this is, it's a precursor to composition. A child who can narrate well will be able to write well. And this act of narration from the living books that we have supplied them, is teaching our children to think, and to think well, and to think naturally in orderly manner. It's giving them thinking skills. And when you've taught your child to think well, you've naturally taught your child to write well, and it will eventually create skilled writers. A child who can narrate well will have--stored in their mind--all of the clothing that they need for their thoughts.
One time a mother emailed me and she said, "I just want to thank you for your Exploring Creation with Astronomy book because, my daughter-- We did it when she was eight and that was three years ago, and she still remembers today so much of what she learned in that book. And the reason I know that is because she was playing a game with her neighbors and they were... it was a trivia game. And one of the questions was: 'How many earths fit inside the sun?' And my daughter was so excited to get that question because she knew the answer. But the answer on the card was different than the one that she had memorized. And so she was saying, 'No, that is incorrect. I know the right answer to that.'" And so they got up and they looked it up and, of course, she had the right answers. And her mom was so impressed that she had this knowledge stored in her head. And so I emailed her back and I said, "Oh, that's such a blessing to hear that my book has done its work--has really given your child a love for astronomy and a knowledge of astronomy and confidence in astronomy." And I asked her, "So tell me how you did the book. Did you do every single notebooking activity? Did you do every single experiment? Did you do all the projects? Did you do everything that was required in the book?" And she emailed me back and she said, "Actually, we very rarely did anything except narrate. There were narration prompts throughout the book and she would just tell back what she learned. And we had great conversations about it, and she remembered everything." So narration is truly one of the most important tools in our Charlotte Mason toolbox to truly developing a child who can think well, a child with a lot of clothing for thought in their mind and in their memory, and it will teach them to write well. When you've taught your young child to think well, you've naturally taught your older child to write well. Writing is simply thinking with a pen in hand, and that is what we are doing naturally, by providing our children with living books and having them participate in oral narration. And in my next podcast, I will go over the last three of the tools in the Charlotte Mason toolbox for developing excellent writers. And that is: transcribing, creative narration, and written narration.
Hey, a couple more things... Do you wish you had a Charlotte Mason mentor? Someone to keep you focused on the things that matter? The Lord, and his word, and prayer, and habit training, and living books, nature study, and, of course, the most neglected thing of all, self-care. Well, I have the perfect mentor for you: the Charlotte Mason Heirloom Planner. It is much more than a planner. It's a guide, and a mentor, and a place to chronicle your treasured moments and memories. All the things you want to remember and keep sacred and special from this homeschool journey. Check it out on my website at JeannieFulbright.com, and learn about that and so many of the other Charlotte Mason curriculum and tools that I've created to make your homeschool journey the richest and most fulfilling experience of your life. Thanks again for listening to the Charlotte Mason show.
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Have you joined us at one of the Great Homeschool Conventions? I would love for you to come! On my website, I have a special coupon code that you can use when you register. The Great Homeschool Conventions are the homeschooling events of the year, with amazing speakers, hundreds of workshops to help you homeschool well, and the largest curriculum exhibit halls in the United States. People travel from all over the United States to Missouri, South Carolina, Ohio, California, and Texas to find encouragement, friendship, and curriculum. Be sure to go to my website JeannieFulbright.com for your coupon code. And when you're at the convention, please come by my booth and say hello because I love meeting homeschoolers in real life. It's always fun to have new homeschool friends. So thank you so much for listening and I do hope to see you at the convention. Have a blessed rest of the week.