Ambleside Blog

Grace: a most important lesson

My oldest son has struggled with perfectionism since, well, birth.  I know this because it is part of his personality.  "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree," so the saying goes.  And, as God would have it, He chose to place one recovering perfectionist (me) with another who is testing its promises of fulfillment and identity.  And God has put us smack dab in two of the most intensely relational situations in life: the home and the school.  

How I have longed to help my son see that perfection is not the goal, is self-defeating, is a consuming monster (too strong?  I don't think so), and is even undefinable.  I want him to be free from the trap of its noble sounding urges.  I have learned to see my role as mostly in putting my failures on full display and allowing God's grace and sufficiency to regain my conquered heart and identity (and to speak this out).  And when my son gets emotionally intense in a perfectionist battle, I have learned to give him firm hugs and whisper "there is grace being sprinkled over you right now."  

But I know that the Holy Spirit is my son's best Teacher, as Charlotte Mason has helped me to understand.  He is the very One who knit my son in my womb and who is speaking messages of endearing love and unconditional favor to my son's soul.  And I am getting to witness the overflow.

In these past few weeks, I have been privileged to witness some of the work of the Spirit in my son.  On several occasions during school when he usually would have shut down because of some missed expectation of his own, I have witnessed him choosing to speak grace over himself.  Radically, profoundly, amazingly, when once a bit of frustration would lead to a melt-down of tears and anger, he has taken to saying "no pressure, no pressure" to himself as he breathes and opens his palms.  Then he gives me a relaxed smile and moves past his frustration to tackle to matter at hand.  I can not put words to what is happening, except that I am witnessing a transformation caused by profound grace.  The Holy Spirit is his Teacher.  And grace is one of His most important lessons.

My Soul Rises

My Soul Rises

When I think about Thanksgiving I think of a people or a person whose soul rises beyond the temporal to the eternal.  The soul surveys a thousand good things from common life and ascends in praise. “How good is life, how joyous it is to go out of doors, even in the streets of a city! Surely a pleasant thing it is to see the sun! How good is health, even the small share of it allotted to the invalid! How good and congenial all the pleasant ways of home life, all family love and neighborly kindness, and the love of friends! How good it is to belong to a great country and share in all her interests and concerns! How good to belong to the world of men, aware that whatever concerns men, concerns us! How good are books and pictures and music! How delightful is knowledge! How good is the food we eat! How pleasant are the clothes we wear! How sweet is sleep, and how joyful is awaking!”

This is indeed an example of a rising soul! Yet, a rising soul is not a soul that rises only in appreciation for everything that pleases the self. The rising soul also emerges on an ascending path towards God in the midst of a world of suffering. The soul ascends in spite of the pain, in spite of the fear and in spite of the loneliness.

A heart full of thanksgiving surveys all of life. This way of being moves one on an emerging path to the presence of God – Excelsior!

  Mason, Ourselves, 192.

The Science of Relations

Charlotte Mason had an idea she calls the ‘science of relations’.  What she meant by this is that in giving children a broad and liberal education, they will naturally connect related ideas by themselves.  This frees teachers from the need to artificially force connections of ideas for the students.  A good example of this artificial or forced connection is unit studies.  In fact, Charlotte Mason was opposed to using unit studies in education because it relieved the child of the valuable effort exerted in making their own connections, something she believed children were quite capable of doing. 

This past week our homeschool experienced a lovely example of the science of relations.  During our Bible time we were reading from the book of I Samuel and we read about Israel being unhappy with God as their King.  The people were complaining to Samuel and telling of their dissatisfaction with his sons and wished for God to give them an earthly king.  Over the past couple years we have read through the entire Child’s Story Bible and my children know quite well how things turn out for the Israelites with their long desired “earthly kings”.  After we finished reading the I Samuel passage in school and its narrations, my 7-year-old daughter got very quiet and deep in thought and then blurted out, “It’s just like the frogs, Mommy!”  At this point I gave a kind of interested, yet confused look as my mind was trying to make a connection between the Israelites and frogs.  She continued to say, “You know, Mommy, like when the frogs were unhappy and they wished for a king and so they begged Jupiter to give them one.  Then Jupiter sent down a big log to be their king, but they weren’t happy with that either and they grumbled and complained.  Finally, Jupiter sent down a crane to be their king and he ate up all the frogs.  See, that’s what it is going to be like for the Israelites.”  At this point, in amazement, I said, “Yes, I see that connection.”  I had remembered that we read this story in Aesop’s Fables a couple of years ago. 

This is exactly what Charlotte Mason was talking about when she suggested that children, even as young as 7, can make connections with bigger and broader ideas on their own. And, something very different happens when a child’s own mind labors to connect an idea themselves; they own it.

A Lovely Young Lady

I have the distinct privilege of being the friend of a very intentional, loving mom.  We have enjoyed being in relationship since our children were very young.  Her youngest wasn't born when I met her, nor was my youngest.  We have witnessed each other's families grow.  Her oldest just turn twelve years old and is the subject of my musing today.  

My friend and I meet at a park with our children semi-monthly.  While they create forts and act out medieval dramas (complete with crowns and armors of ivy), we read about and discuss one of our favorite subjects: Charlotte Mason's philosophy of education.  Since this summer, I have noticed the fact that her twelve year old daughter is not a little girl anymore.  She has become a young lady in every sense of the word.  She holds herself with dignity, dresses with modesty, possesses a loving, interested and courteous demeanor, and is not self-absorbed.  She can play with the younger children with ease because she has no doubts as to her identity.  She doesn't think that playing with them is below her and they love her for it.  She has an unselfish confidence.  Her beautiful character brings tears of wonder to my eyes.  And it brings a different sort of tears to think of the loneliness of her position amongst her peers.  She is almost in a class of her own.

Ambleside and the Pursuit of Maturity

A few years ago, at my favorite pub on Capitol Hill (Washington, DC), I shared brunch with a former student. She had been part of the first high school class to graduate from Ambleside. Having completed her university degree, she was spending the summer working in Washington. The food was typical pub food, but the conversation was excellent. She was engaging, conversant in a wide variety of subjects, comfortable in sharing her thoughts and desires, her delights and struggles. And, quite atypical of a contemporary twenty-something, she was genuinely interested in the thoughts and desires, the delights and struggles of her former teacher. It was a rich time. As we neared the end of our meal, I leaned over the table and said, “Let me tell you the most difficult, the most painful thing in your life right now.” Her eyes opened a little wider, and she began to listen intently. I went on, “You are an intelligent, engaging young woman. The way you have conducted yourself throughout our time together, the way you walked into the room, your impeccable manners, the quality of our conversation, your interest not just in yourself but in me; all of this points to the character of a mature young woman. Yet, you are surrounded by wo-girls and man-boys (physically adults, but emotionally-relationally functioning like thirteen year-olds). And, that is a very lonely place to be.” A small tear began to slide down her cheek, and I continued, “But what is the alternative.”

In a recent TED talk entitled “The Demise of Guys” (see, Philip Zimbardo points out that we are facing an enormous crisis. In his ebook by the same title, Zimbardo maintains:

In record numbers, guys are flaming out academically and wiping out socially with girls…

Young men are motivated, just not the way other people want them to be. Society wants guys to be upstanding proactive citizens who take responsibility for themselves, who work with others to improve their communities and nation as a whole. The irony is that society is not giving the support, means or places for these young men to even be motivated or interested in aspiring to these things. In fact, society-from politics to the media to the classroom to our very own families – is a major contributor to this demise because they are inhibiting guys’ intellectual, creative and social abilities right from the start.

While I don’t agree with everything Zimbardo says and he doesn’t claim to have a complete answer for the problem, he has recognized something very important. In today’s European-American cultures, young men are increasingly a mess. The typical twenty-six year old male of today is a very different creature from the twenty-six year old male of fifty years ago. And, young women are not far behind. It’s not just that biologically young adults are increasingly functioning at lesser levels of psychological, emotional-relational maturity. Fewer and fewer have any vision for maturity. They dream only of perpetual adolescence.

What went wrong? As a culture, we have forgotten that maturity is an achievement. It must be intentionally cultivated and does not occur apart from hard work on the part of child and adult. Achieving maturity is not something we come by without effort. Almost two thousand years ago, Paul of Tarsus wrote the Corinthian church, declaring:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child; I thought like a child; I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

In a highly indulgent, consumption-oriented society; this giving up of childish ways is a challenging task. It requires concerted effort on the part of young and old alike. It requires a community that has a clear vision of what maturity looks like and how it is to be achieved.

Ambleside is just such a community. In fact, perhaps the most distinctive thing about an Ambleside high school is its vision for and commitment to spiritual, psychological, and emotional-relational maturity. It is our goal, that when a young man or woman graduates from an Ambleside high school, he or she will be functioning at an adult level of maturity, able to think like a mature adult, work like a mature adult, serve like a mature adult, and appropriately regulate his or her emotional life as a mature adult.

We agree with Charlotte Mason’s words, “to direct and assist the evolution of character is the chief office of education.” Consider the graduate, who, in addition to having mastered a broad and rich curriculum, can manage emotional distress well and stay her best self; can stay on task when head and hand are tired; is careful, accurate, neat, and dutiful in work; has appropriate respect for appropriate authority; and maintains a good relationship with God, self, peers and teachers. Such a student will surely do well in university and even more importantly in life. It is just such a student that we seek to cultivate at Ambleside.

Are There Any Ideas In Your Children's Books?

When Charlotte Mason discussed the spiritual life in relationship to ideas, she identified spiritual life as the life of thought, of feeling, of the soul, of that which is not physical. This very human life needs food, and “this life is sustained upon only one manner of diet: the diet of ideas—the living progeny of living minds.” 

She uses this framework—the spiritual life is sustained only by a diet of ideas—to answer the perennial question, “What manner of school books should our boys and girls use?”

She characterized school publishers’ books as “drained dry of living thought, abridgement of an abridgement, dry bones of a subject denuded of soft flesh and living color, of the stir of life and power of moving.” 

Now, as then, school books are often designed to fit an interest level, a subject, or a grade level. And they do just that. They provide information to a standard that publishers prescribe to equalize learning. As my husband often says, “No one would buy these books if they were sold at bookstores; they aren’t very interesting.” Publishers sell them to schools instead.

In the early 21st century, students only infrequently mention books; they now focus on letter and number grades, AP and honors classes, and all their homework. The conversation has changed. They seldom encounter or discuss the ideas in history, mathematics, science, or literature because order is of things to an end, says Acquinas. And the end is no longer knowledge but information. 

However, books written about the ideas present in history, mathematics, science and literature reach a broad readership. Page after page, ideas stir readers’ hearts and minds with the beauty of language, the wonder of humanity, the description of laws and principles, the awe of God, and questions of humankind.

The reader of such books reads more and more. His mind and heart are satiated. Long after the class ends or the light grows dim, he thinks, dreams, wonders, believes. He lives.

Starting Home School

As we have just completed our first full week of school, I am reminded of what a true joy it is to begin another school year with my children.  Their eagerness, excitement and anticipation are simply mirrored by mine.  Last week, we began our eighth year of homeschooling and our fourth year with Ambleside® Homeschool… how time slips by.  Over the years I have realized that our home schoolroom is one of my most favorite places to be, the children are some of my most favorite people to be with and we are surrounded with beautiful and interesting texts, delightful lessons, and a method that is as smooth as butter when properly applied.  All of this makes our homeschooling one of the most rewarding experiences for all involved.  Of course with all endeavors, we have had and will have our challenges to overcome, but with all these delightful blessings in the sweet brief time my children are in my care, I wonder why others don’t do it too.

I wish all of you homeschooling families a sweet and delightful year.  Enjoy the journey and cherish these times.

Learning from the Locals

Today, Saturday, I spent four inspirational hours participating in a guided hike in our area. The hike was arranged by a lady who writes a column about nature in our local newspaper (that's how I found out about the hike). And it was co-led by an author who published a book about the lime kilns in our area (which we saw on the hike) and our new local head of conservation, who served as our plant expert.  The setting was idyllic amidst towering redwoods, an ambling stream and the songs of the winter wren (one of which perched for a rare picture, which my camera didn't seem to save!).  But the environment came alive through the enthusiastic knowledge of our guides ably passed to us in stories and the gentle planting of living ideas.  

I chose to spend my Saturday afternoon this way, despite a list of other items on my weekend to-do list, for two reasons.  First, because I have realized that I am prone to learning from books and being content to engage in solitary activities.  So I am making an effort to learn from persons in groups as well.  Second, because I have taken to heart Charlotte Mason's admonition that we must know our local area in all its richness, including the names of the flora and fauna.  Although this idea struck me and took root when I first read it several years ago, I have had difficulty pursuing the names from books alone.  So when I learned about this free hike, I made a commitment to participate.

As I hiked, the fact that I wanted to pass on the information and ideas to my students (my sons) made me especially attentive to every detail.  I listened, asked questions, took pictures and recorded notes.  I became an historian, botanist and biologist-in-training for the day.  And I loved it!  I even brought along my watercolors with which I painted some forget-me-nots while we paused for lunch.

As I shared my experience with my family at dinner this evening, I was struck by how recent the knowledge I had gained became the source of inspiration for others.  But this is not a new experience for me, especially since starting to educate my sons.  I learn.  I teach.  I grow.  I inspire.  And when I don't learn and I don't grow...well, I hinder my children.  It takes extra effort to put myself in the way of living ideas and real persons, but the reward and the privilege is a deeper sense of connection and meaning within the bounds in which God has established for me.  I encourage you to learn from your fellow locals!

I would also like to offer a few practical pointers:

* Evernote ( is a wonderful (free) way to record notes, snapshots and audio while out in the field.  

* I have found that my local nurseries are excellent sources of information in the local flora and fauna.  For example, my sons and I found a plant this past year that we could not identify.  We took it to the nursery.  We were taken to the back office and invited to sit down while they scoured old botany books ("the older the better").

* Make a point to paint at least one thing that you see on any nature walk, even when not with your students.  This helps to hone your habit of attention, increase your love of nature (which will be caught by your students), and requires you to pause long enough to soak in the surroundings.

* Find books written by local authors on plants in your area.  And keep searching till you find a good one!  I have searched for three years but found out about one today that I had never seen and is, according to others on the hike, the definitive guide for our area!

* Watch your local newspaper for local outings for walks, birding, painting, etc.

A Time for Quiet

If a child is to get to know himself, to know who he is and what he cares for, he needs to beunafraid of silence, and this is an area of life where the school has duties as never before.  Inner silence is essential for the flowering of personal identity and exterior silence is nearly always a pre-requisite for this.  The modern concern for identity and the widespread sense of alienation in life and the arts is not helped by the seepage of noise into so many places where it need not be.  More and more of the world is wired for sound, and too often a transistor is carried like a talisman to ward off the danger of silence.  Its unheeded chatter and music give the illusion that some human contact is being made while the insight and vision that grow in silence cannot even begin to stir into life.  It is ironic that people driven by the need to find peace will head for the mountain, the forest or the sea and then switch on the radio to reassure themselves that the background noise is still there.  It is in childhood that we can best get a taste for silence, and the school has a duty to provide this quiet growing time.  There are occasions when a happy din of activity is desirable but if it becomes the norm the child will be damaged.     

- Anonymous

Eve Anderson, former headmistress of Eton End gave me this article about silence from something she picked up while at the House of Education in Ambleside. In considering a life-giving education, we have talked about the need of silence in the classroom. In fact, interns attending our training frequently comment that the teachers are not afraid of silence. One intern remarked, “I wish I had a given time to think of something quietly.”

In being intentional about silence, I am reminded about my Mother’s instruction during Holy Week. As a child I always looked forward to Holy Week. There were times of fasting, prayer, church-going, and silence. My Mother would remind us of our need to be quiet, especially on Good Friday, as we reflected upon the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. From noon to three, we were to be quiet, sitting, thinking, praying, being. Of course, there was restlessness in silence. How much longer? I don’t know what to do! But slowly we would stop resisting the silence and give into it. We became accustomed to quiet times and were the better for it. Give yourself and your children the gift of quiet this week and be blessed in the silence. 



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