Features
Lisa McGowan

Charlotte Mason's web

Back to School | With an emphasis on big ideas, an educational philosopher from the 19th century is becoming popularized in 21st-century America

Issue: "Rocks in their heads?," Sept. 11, 2010

HERNDON, Va.-A dad visited The Ambleside School in Herndon, Va., met a group of its sixth-graders, and took a book from the classroom shelf-the 18th-century epic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. "You can't do this," he told the middle-school students. "I did this in college." The students quoted a section from memory. He filled out an application.

Another parent, thinking of switching schools mid-year, brought his child to visit an Ambleside class. He later told Ginnie Wilcox, the principal, that his son had talked about the Romans the whole way home-the first time he'd talked about school since he started five years ago.

Ambleside School is part of an educational movement based on the writings of 19th-century educator Charlotte Mason. The Ambleside philosophy emphasizes ideas, with the belief that facts without ideas are just "sawdust" for the mind. In this view even children can grasp and synthesize ideas, learning how to engage a classical text instead of just how to pass a test. In 10 years, Ambleside has grown from one school to nine-perhaps because, as Wilcox says, Ambleside students don't have "the bored adolescent look" and they know Coleridge by heart.

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Ambleside schools revived when Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, daughter of theologian Francis Schaeffer, discovered Mason's writings and adapted them in a widely selling book called For the Children's Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School. Homeschoolers latched on to the method when Karen and Dean Andreola republished Mason's works in six volumes.

Ambleside began to influence Christian schools when Maryellen St. Cyr, a Christian educator, got the six-volume Mason set from her principal. She applied the principles in her own classroom, then in a Christian school where she became principal. In 1999 she developed a curriculum and in 2000, she established the first Ambleside School in Fredericksburg, Texas.

To understand Ambleside's educational philosophy, St. Cyr's husband, Bill, executive director of Ambleside Schools International, says to imagine three classroom components-teacher, text, and tot-arranged in a triangle with one component on top. When the teacher is on top, she lectures the students, viewing them as blank slates to inscribe with data. When the tot is on top, the teacher seeks to foster the student's self-expression and creativity.

At Ambleside, the text is on top. The teacher's job is to help students engage with the text, not just teach them how to distill it into sound bites they can regurgitate on a test. The students read a classic text-maybe the Journals of Columbus-before class. The teacher lectures for just five minutes, then reads a passage aloud. The students narrate back to the teacher (paraphrase using the author's language and vocabulary) to facilitate active listening. They discuss and define terms, then respond in drawing or in writing.

The week before school starts at Ambleside School in Virginia, the desks are stacked with classics-A Little Maid of Old Connecticut, Black Beauty, personalized Bibles-and cards of classical paintings for students to reproduce in class. Wilcox showed me stacks of composition books. A first-grader illustrated George Washington Carver's schoolhouse. A student illuminated the pages of a science composition book with detailed drawings of the human heart and bones.

From kindergarten, students look at a classical painting, turn it over and describe what they saw, study it again and reproduce it. "When they go to the National Gallery, they just love to see these paintings that they've studied," Wilcox said. "And the docents enjoy them coming because the first-graders say, 'Oh, it's the Roseate Spoonbill from Audubon!'" In the hall, student paintings adorn a bulletin board. One third-grader painted a painstakingly accurate watercolor of a branch with red berries. A kindergartner painted three red poppies in a vase.

Teachers give reports of progress instead of grades from A to F. All of the tests require paragraph answers so that students will explain what they know. Instead of the letter grades, parents get a paragraph about their child's areas of mastery and areas of weakness.

When Ambleside board member Mike Bruce and his family were looking for a school, he and his wife made a spreadsheet of a dozen factors they hoped to find. Of the 10 schools the Bruces visited, Ambleside seemed better equipped to help students create habits of learning.

"There was structure but it was life-giving," Bruce said. He saw his 10-year-old son develop a George Washington obsession after reading in class A Young Patriot: The American Revolution as Experienced by One Boy. Now the Bruces have a family membership to the Mount Vernon Society and appear in matching Mount Vernon sweatshirts. Bruce says his son talks with his grandfather-an art history professor-about colonial artwork and historical characters: "They have really entered into the life of the hero."

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