Last week I had the joy of attending Ambleside Online’s “Deep in the Heart of AO” 2016 conference. I learned so much. It has enriched me in my homeschooling journey. If you don’t know, Ambleside Online is a free curriculum dedicated to reflecting Charlotte Mason’s education philosophy and method as closely as possible in the 21st Century. You can read a definition of what a CM education is here.
We began using AO for 4 years, almost since the beginning of my homeschooling life. Charlotte Mason was a Christian and a member in good standing in the Church of England. Ambleside Online’s creators, The Advisory, are also Christians and designed the curriculum to reflect Charlotte Mason’s Christian values and philosophy. I knew this. I have told others, “AO is a Christian curriculum.” And yet what had the most impact on me at the conference was how Christ centered it was.
After the initial introductions and announcements were out of the way we began by singing the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy.” There were no accompanying instruments. Simply our voices, which burst out as a sea of harmony. And oh how beautiful it sounded. I was completely taken by surprise. I had come to a homeschooling conference expecting to hear how to implement a Charlotte Mason education, with perhaps a splattering of Bible throughout from time to time. Instead, I found myself in a room with a group of women (and a few men) from all over the country, and various denominations, who I had never met before, worshipping our Creator together.
The refrain repeated throughout the conference was “trust Christ.” We sang hymns together throughout the conference. We prayed together. Donna-Jean Breckenridge’s talk was bathed with Scripture as she spoke about schooling in hard times by renewing your mind in Christ. She taught us that we renew our minds through prayer and rejoicing and praising Him. God is with us. Sometimes the hard times are the curriculum. But through it all, we can trust Him. Megan Hoyt talked about how music points to God. Brandy Vencel reminded us that while our children are under our authority, we are under God’s. Our authority must not be arbitrary. We can be corrupted in our thinking if we’re not careful. Lynn Bruce shared the heart of AO. She passionately expressed how God put it on the Advisory’s hearts to develop the booklist and curriculum and use the emerging technology of the Internet to make it available for free. They wanted as many people as God willed to have access to the same rich and wonderful CM education that they were providing for their children. It was heartwarming to hear of communities in Indian slums providing their children with a rich education because the Advisory had gone out of their way to make sure the books on their booklists were as economical as possible. Again, we were encouraged to trust God.
Care, Compassion, and Cultivating The Whole Person
Another theme that had a significant impact on me was this: the riches matter. Singing hymns and folksongs, picture study, composer study, nature study, copious amounts of time spent outside, handicrafts, drawing and art instruction, poetry, and Shakespeare. These things are not extras, as I have often treated them. They are what my children need. They are what we all need. These riches feed the whole mind and body. They calm us and bring us joy. Lynn Bruce explained studies that showed how increased Cortisol in the brain leads to stress, fear, and anxiety which shut down the mind. Oxytocin on the other hand, produces confidence and a relaxed state of mind, keeping us calm. And how do we increase Oxytocin? Among other things, a warm touch, music, art, singing, going for a walk, talking with someone who cares about you. In other words, the riches. So on that bad day, as Lynn said, “The riches may just save you.” Wendi Capehart whimsically called these riches, “The uncommon core.” She told us that if you view these things as extras you are clipping your wings. She explained that these riches are the leavening that helps us rise as human beings. So we spread the feast of ideas and allow our children the opportunity to love what is lovely. We don’t know what our children will love. So we put them in the way of it all. And this is not a burden or a stress for the teacher. It is a life sprung out of caring.
We were blessed to hear from some of the grown children of the Advisory who were the “guinea pigs” for AO’s Charlotte Mason education. This well known Charlotte Mason quote, which was quoted in almost every talk I heard, was put to them:
“Thou hast set my feet in a large room, should be the glad cry of every intelligent soul. Life should be all living, and not merely a tedious passing of time; not all doing or all feeling or all thinking – the strain would be too great – but, all living; that is to say, we should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest. We cannot give the children these interests; we prefer that they should never say they have learned botany or conchology, geology or astronomy. The question is not, – how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education – but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?” – Charlotte Mason (Vol 3, School Education, Chapter XVI, p. 170)
How much did these progeny care, and about how many orders of things did they care? The answer was that they had so many things that they cared about. Firstly, they loved Christ. They also spoke about art, music, poetry, literature, science, and so much more. But more than these, the consistent thread throughout their various answers was that they loved people. They were compassionate toward people, even if they disagreed with them. They had the ability to listen to another as they spoke and engaged with the ideas that were different from their own. The development of compassion and empathy led two of these women to become foster moms.
The riches provide us with a full life. A life of relationships. Relationship with God, relationship with each other, and a relationship with the universe—God’s creation. A life full of the riches and the best literature asks you to care. As Wendi shared, a small child of 5 (her granddaughter) can stand in front of a painting that you had passed by without a second glance, and be captivated. She can fall in love.
There was so much more that was said that I could share. So much wisdom and practical application. But it will have to wait for another day. I am so thankful for my supportive husband who rearranged his work schedule to stay home with the kids so I could go. I am so thankful for this beautiful and rich curriculum that has been provided to me. I am thankful for the opportunity I had to learn from these wise women at the conference, mothers who have gone before me. I can’t wait for the next one, whenever that may be.