Morning Time Primer: History and Literature

Morning Time—Our Daily Feast was the number one best educational practice for bringing scholé to our homeschool. Our long-term commitment to a daily shared time together for reading, memory work, and contemplation. Beyond the pattern of our weekly work and rest, Morning Time along with a few other practices, contributed to scholé in our own homeschool, even before I was aware that scholé was a thing we should be seeking.  This is Part Four in a series; read Part One here and Part Two and Part Three here. As always, keep in mind that I have twenty-five plus years in the rearview mirror. There were many times I did not live up to my own ideals, or follow my own advice. There are certainly more than a few things I would change in a do-over, but there are also some things I think we got right most of the time. These Morning Time practices are among the latter.

As promised, here are a few nuts and bolts helps for planning your Morning Time reading. But, before I do that, I have to say something to those of you who have not started Morning Time with your family yet.

Stop! and Start Now!

Simply choose a book, a poem, a Bible verse, and a hymn. Don’t over-think this, just pick something in each category that appeals to you. Then, begin to have a daily Morning Time today. Work with those for a week; if you need to, choose another book. Review last week’s hymn and memory verse, and then add a new one of each. Add in a few Latin chants or multiplication facts to the mix. Keep this up for a week or two (or more if needed!) to begin building the habit of Morning Time while you make a more comprehensive plan. Do not let your desire for the perfect (-ly formed plan) be the enemy of the good (daily practice of Morning Time).

Kindling Fires, Not Filling Vessels

Earlier in this series, I mentioned that the books we read during (our Morning Times) were our only “curriculum” for content subjects like history, science, literature, art and music appreciation, etc., before high school. Since this is a admittedly a bit unconventional, it sparked quite a few questions like: Did you follow a four-year history cycle? three-year? six-year? Which books and resources did you use? How did you avoid “holes” in your children’s history or literary knowledge?

Let’s start with “holes.” We did not avoid them. And neither will you, no matter what plan you follow. Relieve yourself of that burden right away, and embrace the fact that your children will have them. So do you. So does everyone, even those who were educated with a precisely calculated curriculum plan based on the very latest in educational research and practice. What’s more, every classically (and Charlotte Mason-ly) educated student has gaps in historical knowledge or literary exposure. There is simply not time in our all-too-short years with our children to ensure that every one of them has mastered—or even been exposed to—every important detail of history and every important work of literature.

Mind you, I am not suggesting that you should not make a plan that will introduce your students to the most important people, events, and ideas in history—it is an essential component of classical education. But I am encouraging you to put aside the paralyzing fear that your curriculum could leave holes in your students’ learning, and make peace with the reality that it will. Instead, aim to create life-long learners who have the resources to spend a lifetime filling the holes they find for themselves. To borrow a phrase from that wise old chronicler of Greek and Roman Lives, the guiding principle for our history and literature studies should be fire-kindling, not vessel-filling.

In context, this quote comes from his essay “On Listening to Lectures.” I suspect that Plutarch would not be pleased at the twisting of his words in modern education as an apology for throwing out all learning by heart. I believe he would agree that a certain amount of vessel-filling is imperative in a child’s education. Rather, he is giving a vision for engaging and activating the moral imagination, creating “an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.” This philosophy is at the heart of our reading in history and literature during Morning Time.

Cycles and Chronology

There is a lot of debate in classical education and Charlotte Mason circles about the perfect way to order your study of history and literature. Some go so far as to say that if it’s not chronological from beginning to end, it’s not classical. Cycles varying from three to six years are proposed. Each of these ideas has merit, but a rigid adherence to any of these plans has a tendency to sacrifice fire-kindling to vessel-filling.

One other thing: in most families with multiple children, even if you create the perfect history cycle plan, only one or two will actually complete the plan in the chronological order you have so carefully laid out.  Others will be jumping in at various points on the cycle as they “age up.” Studying history and literature chronologically is systematic and convenient, and can be conducive to classical pedagogy, but it is not a defining characteristic of classical education. So, don’t worry excessively about which of these plans is best or most “classical” or most true to Charlotte Mason’s methods. Instead, tailor a plan that best fits your family and your circumstances.

In our homeschool and in our co-op, we generally follow a basic chronological plan within the time period we are studying for the year. But we do not necessarily study successive time periods in successive years. Our past four years have followed this sequence based on the Humanities curriculum from King’s Meadow’s:

  • Christendom: from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Reformation
  • American Culture: from the Age of Exploration to early 20th century
  • Antiquity: from Creation to the fall of the Western Roman Empire
  • Modernity: the Enlightenment in Europe up to the present day

For the most part, our literature lines up with our history chronology, but it does not always do so perfectly. Sometimes, we are a bit ahead of our history studies in our literature reading, and sometimes a bit behind. Our English Studies in high school require close reading of several classics, and these will usually not be in sync with our history studies. And sometimes we just feel like reading something outside of the time period under study. Each of these “deviations” from our overall plan brings delight and amazement as we find connections in the most unexpected places!

Begin with the End in Mind

A primary consideration is the preparation your students will need at certain milestones along their educational journey. In my mind, the most crucial milestone was our desire for our high school students to complete a four- or five-year Great Book course—sometimes called Humanities, or Humane Letters, or Arts & Letters—compassing history and literature via primary sources, beginning with the great literary works. Primary sources for history, philosophy, and theology—what the people of a particular age thought and did, in their own words—is also a major part of a Great Books education.

At the very least, such a study will include ancient and medieval epics, histories, and plays, the writings of the church fathers, some study of the philosophers, authors, and poets from the Renaissance and Reformation through Modernity. Knowing that each of your students will be embarking on this study sometime around 9th grade can help you plan your Morning Times now. At least two guiding principles come from beginning with this particular end in mind:

  1. Scripture and doctrine must have the prime place. We place great emphasis on sitting under the weekly preaching of the God’s Word, as well as the daily reading. If we are going to expose our young people to the best—and the worst—of thought through the ages, we must ensure that they have a solid foundation from which to observe those texts and ideas, many of which are not written from a specifically Christian perspective, and some of which are written from a distinctly anti-Christian perspective.
  2.  Familiarity with story-lines, people, places, etc., will  smooth the way as much as possible for your students for those challenging reads you want them to grapple with in high school. These can provide a mental map for students, giving them a bird’s eye view, for example, of Homer’s or Virgil’s epics. Because they are not working so hard to discern the path those bard-guides are taking, they can instead enjoy a more pleasant, leisurely, and even more fruitful journey. Hmmm . . . sounds like scholé.

True, here we have a bit of vessel-filling; but our approach to these things can certainly kindle a fire in our students’ hearts and minds for virtue and truth and wisdom. Yes, we do want to fill their hearts and minds with a store of stories; but more than that, we want to awaken their moral imaginations and order their affections. We do this by choosing carefully the books we read to our children—good books in the younger years ready them for Great Books in later years.

What are these good books? As a general rule, these are the sort of books that Charlotte Mason called “living books.” They provide our children with a “musical” education, as Jain and Clark so eloquently describe in A Liberal Arts Education. This store of stories we build in our children’s imaginations should incline their tastes to the good, the true, and the beautiful. We avoid books that sermonize and sketch out “character lessons” for the student; instead, we favor stories that  cause our children to love virtue and long for it in themselves. We choose books from authors that love their subject, and woo our children’s hearts to do the same. For further thoughts on how to choose these kinds of books, see this post I wrote a few years back: “Chests of Jewels and Coffers of Gold.”

If all pulling all this together still seems overwhelming, help is on the way! Bookstore pages with links to many of our favorites are coming soon at Cottage Press, along with an Arts & Letters curriculum plan for K-12; the Christendom year is just about ready for a soft launch. Watch Cottage Press News and social media for announcements.

Mountain scenery with a castle, Salzburg by Franz Kruger, c 1850

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