Category Archives: Charlotte Mason Science

Science Writing Can’t Survive on Charm Alone

I was asked to do a one-hour science immersion class at the In a Large Room Retreat last month, and it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable classes I’ve ever done. I was asked to spend 25 minutes doing one lesson with the attendees, and then answer questions for 25 minutes. I used a lesson from my form 3 astronomy guide about the sun.

I set up the lesson by telling them what a student would have learned in the last lesson, and showing them an image they would have seen. My immersion students were picking up right in the middle of the book, and even in the middle of a chapter, so I wanted to give them some foundation. I also prepared them with a few vocabulary words they would see as they read.

I had hoped to read the assigned text aloud because the author of The Planets uses very poetic language, and I thought the parents might have a hard time with it as they may not be used to the style. But I lost my voice on the first day of the retreat and could barely be heard, so I asked the participants to read it to themselves. I think I allowed 10 minutes to read the four-page passage, but I requested that they take it slowly, reading for understanding even if they didn’t get to the end of the section by the time we needed to move on.

When they were through, I asked for an oral narration for the sake of time. I suggested that instead of narrating the passage in order, participates should just tell all the facts they could remember. What did they learn? I had written down six things I thought they might comment on, but the class narrated about fifteen ideas or facts they had read!

I then read aloud a passage from Writing to Learn by William Zinsser.  Zinsser had just quoted two pages of Archie Carr’s So Excellent a Fishe, when he commented:

That’s pleasant writing; we’re there on the beach at Tortuguero, rooting for the turtles and hoping they won’t meet a wari on their crawl to the surf. But the writing couldn’t survive on charm alone; it works because it’s grounded in scientific observation and fact. What sticks out in our mind is the hundred eggs, the digging buzzards, the returning coyotes, the signaling sea.” (p. 129, emphasis mine.)

The students in my immersion class had a similar experience. Dava Sobel, the author of The Planets, has a way with words. It’s pleasant writing. But what stuck out in the minds of my students that day was the facts.

We were not done with the lesson because I always allow a few minutes for students to dig deeper into one idea before ending a lesson. This time we learned a bit more about the counter-intuitive way the sun rotates and how the solar wind creates the northern and southern lights. But an idea was distracting me while we were completing the lesson.

What if I gathered each of the facts that the participants narrated, and I explained them. Maybe I enlisted the help of a colleague to get my explanations just right, and I included a diagram or picture where it might aid the student’s understanding. Is that not the precise description of a textbook? They start with the facts they think the students should learn and then build out. A living book is quite the opposite. The author starts with a big idea and then through charm, as Zinsser says, or simply passion, they tell what they know. The facts glide through, but they are clothed in gripping ideas.

Additionally, how many pages do you suppose it would take me to explain fifteen facts about the sun? I think it might be more than the four standard size pages my students read for this lesson. So not only would I have to lengthen the reading assignment but I wouldn’t have the narrative to carry the reader along.

Some of you might have thought that if your student is to learn the massive amount of common scientific information, he must forgo the living book to make better use of his time. In other words, more can be learned in a shorter amount of time by using a textbook than can be learned when rambling through a living book. I would assert that the opposite is likely true. If you want your student to learn as much as possible, with the added benefit that he may even care about what he learns, you really must avoid textbooks and use living science books instead.

How I Modify Mason’s Streams of Science (forms 3-6)

I mentioned in my last article, that I diverge from Charlotte Mason’s science plan, a bit, starting in form 3. I want to explain why and how I do that.

We Have More Common Information to Deal With

While it was most important to Mason that students come to feel a sense of wonder and admiration for the world, she also felt strongly that it was important for students to acquire scientific literacy – the common information. However, there is more common information to learn today than there was at the turn of the twentieth century. These days we vote on topics such as Stem Cell Research and GMO labeling. With this in mind, we might find some of the books Mason assigned are a little too light to carry us through all of the material we need to cover. We cannot turn to textbooks to cram more information, she was clear about that, but we probably can’t spend a whole year on a book such as The World of Sound by Bragg either. We are going to need to be very deliberate with our choice of books if we want to adhere to Mason’s page count (and word counts) per term but also manage to cover the common information of our day.

We Can’t Fire-Hose our Students with Four Heavy Science Subjects

With that said, I am hearing more and more reports from parents whose kids are feeling burned out by covering three or four difficult science topics each week. Mason assigned a variety of books each week, some light and some harder, but none equal to Chem 101. When we assign a day of each of the big four, we run the risk of overburdening our students.

Consider this example. In the same year that a form 3 students read The World of Sound, they also read half of The Study of Plant Life, a little less than half of Winners In Life’s Race, and three-quarters of The Fairyland of Science. That was all for the whole year! Compare that to four days of today’s physics, chemistry, biology, and earth science. I won’t even touch on the books you might use for those subjects because I don’t think it’s necessary to make the point.

The Popular Science Topics Have Changed

The topics of botany, geology, and astronomy were popular in the 1800s, and after Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species, natural selection, and evolution became popular as well. Mason included a bit of everything that was popular during her time, and I think we can accept that as a principle when deciding what topics we should cover in our schools. At the same time, even though chemistry, physics, formal biology, technology, and engineering are more popular than the earth sciences or general biology today, we still need to present our students with the whole feast. That’s a lot of subjects! We need a plan to adequately cover the common information in all of these subjects.

Students Can Attempt Experiments in Far More Subjects

After form 2, and Holden’s book The Sciences, the only experiments we see assigned to P.U.S. students were in the field of botany. These were quality experiments that crossed disciplines to some extent, so I do not mean to downplay their value. However, Mason was impressed by Holden and the experiments in his book, and she said, “The only sound method of teaching science is to afford a due combination of field or laboratory work, with such literary comments and amplifications as the subject affords.” (A Philosophy of Education, 1925, p. 223) So why didn’t she assign experiments in other fields? My guess is that there were not many books besides Holden’s, written to students to guide them through the process. That is not so today. Our students can look up experiments in any scientific realm as easily as they can look up a recipe for no-bake cookies. But here is the catch, if we are studying several science topics each week, it can be hard to know which subject to draw our experiments from.

Biology is a Far More Robust Subject These Days

After Life and Her Children was completed in form 4 (grade 9,) the study of formal biology was dropped until form 6 (grade 12,) at which time a book about animals was added. Botany was continued until grade 11, and students were still expected to make special studies. That sounds nice, but frankly, there has been a lot of common information amassed in the realm of biology in the last 100 years, and much of it is the common information we are going to be required to know to vote. Therefore, I think we should continue one day a week with some study of biology. After a general survey of the subject, we can choose from any of the following topics: anatomy, biochemistry, health, neuroscience, cell biology, genetics, medical ethics, botany, ecology, evolution, paleontology, zoology and animal behavior, or marine biology. Our choice might be determined by what is important to the family or what is interesting to the student. Either way, after six years of studying various aspects of biology once a week, in addition to special studies, nature walks, and an occasional book of nature lore read during their free time, a student should have a good store of common information.

How I Schedule Science

Due to the above arguments, I limit our science studies to two subjects per term: biology and one other topic. Our experiments are pulled from the reading each week. Then, as each term ends, we switch to a new topic. My students are still studying four topics per year, so I feel good about the feast they are sampling from, but they don’t have all four subjects on their plates at the same time.

Below is a sample schedule for a week of science for students in forms 3-6 (grades 7-12).

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5
40 min.
other science
40 min.
other science
40 min.
40 min.
another book
20 min.
(12th grade only)
Men, Microscopes, and Living Things For the Love of Physics For the Love of Physics cont. physics experiment Letters to a Young Scientist
(12th grade only)

If you would like to see how this looks across several years, take a look at the following pages:

Forms 3 (grades 7-8) Two-Year Plan
Forms 4-6 (High School) Four-Year Plan

Mason’s Streams of Science

You may know that Charlotte Mason assigned her children multiple streams of history each term, but did you know that she assigned them several streams of science as well?

Form 1 (grades 1-3)

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Form 1 students did not do any formal science yet. All of their science education fell under the category of nature lore. However, they already had various streams presented to them. They were always reading (or being read to,) from two different science books. One fell under a category I would term general, meaning it focused on a region, such as Plant Life in Field & Garden by Buckley. This also included regions that were far off, such as Animal Life in Africa by Duncan or Tommy Smith’s Again at the Zoo by Selous. The other was about a specific plant or animal group, such as Birdland’s Little People by Pike or Trees and Shrubs by Buckley.

Form 2 (grades 4-6)

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Form 2 students continued reading one nature lore book. Across 39 terms of programmes (from 1921 to 1933,) P.U.S. students were always assigned one of two nature lore books: Life and Her Children by Buckley or Madam How and Lady Why by Kingsley. I’ve read some interesting articles attesting to the fact that Buckley and Kingsley were two of the only science writers for children of their day who stood by their faith, however, they both believed in the theory of evolution. Unfortunately, neither one of these books would be my pick today. Despite Buckley’s faith

Unfortunately, neither one of these books would be my pick today. Despite Buckley’s faith, Life and Her Children is essentially a catalog of evolutionary biology, which might not be the best fit for every family, and I have a love-hate relationship with Madam How and Lady Why. I really think everyone should read it at some point in their lives, but because we are so limited in the number of books we can fit into our children’s science education feast, while still adhering to Mason’s page counts, I prefer to use The Story Book of Science by Fabre. It is not quite like either of the two books listed above, but neither are they like each other. On the schedules, Mason specifies a time of reading “nature lore”, so I feel like that is the common principle.  The Story Book of Science is definitely nature lore, while still teaching an ample amount of science, in a wide variety of subject areas.

A formal science book was added at this time as well. Students spent two years reading The Sciences by Holden and then third-year students read An Introduction to Elementary Botany by Laurie. The Sciences includes sections on astronomy, physics, chemistry, weather, geology, so students were getting a good sampling of all of the formal science subjects. Most of the subjects were taken over a single term. Today I do not use The Sciences, but rather several small books that are a bit more up to date.

Form 3-5 (grades 7-11)Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 2.07.01 PM

Form 3 and 4 students continued to read one nature lore book, Winner’s in Life’s Race by Buckley. This was the sequel to her book Life and Her Children, where she dealt with backboned animals. While I think it is important to use a book with literary power in this spot, I also think it is important four our students to take up the study of biology in earnest at this point.  Hence, I suggest the book Men, Microscopes, and Living Things by Shippen, which offers an overall survey of the field of biology, while maintaining a beautiful narrative style.

In the first half of the 38 programmes I studied, students in form 3 were reading two different science books, but I noticed that in the last half of those programmes, the first year students (grade 7,) had dropped back to two science books most of the time. (Three if you count their nature lore.)  These extra two or three books covered subjects such as botany using The Study of Plant Life by Stopes, general science using Fairyland of Science by Buckley, earth science using Geikie’s Physical Geography Primer, or a book about one specific topic such as The World of Sound by Bragg.

This is where I diverge from Charlotte Mason’s plan, a bit. I have my reason, which I will explain in my next article.

Form 6 (grades 12)

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Form 6 students were assigned an additional title, making their total five books. They read The Study of Animal Life by Thomson, The Romance of the Human Body by Macfie, a general science book, a geology book, and an astronomy book. An interesting discovery I made is that she used a textbook for 12th-grade geology – gasp! 😀 I’ll talk more about that another time. Suffice it to say that the textbooks of her time didn’t look anything like the textbooks we talk about today.

I mentioned above that I diverge from Mason’s plan for students in form 3 through form 6. This article was getting so long already, that I thought it would be better to move that explanation to a separate article.

My First Elementary Study Guide!

EL Astronomy-400From the beginning of this venture I knew that I wanted to create study guides for all three levels of science, but I wasn’t sure how that would look for elementary science. There are several parts and pieces involved in a CM elementary science curriculum, that it doesn’t feel like a cohesive plan of study. Not to mention the terminology, which seems to change when you are not looking.

I’m happy to tell you that in the end, it all came together. The various parts and pieces have found their home in this guide: nature lore, science, activities/experiments, objects lessons, special studies, exams and some good old encouragement for the teacher as well. It’s all in here. When you have finished this term, you will have finished what Mason counted as a solid term of elementary science.

I hope you and your children enjoy it!

Astronomy: Elementary Living Science Study Guide

By-and-by he passes from acquaintance, the pleasant recognition of friendly faces, to knowledge, the sort of knowledge we call science. He begins to notice that there are resemblances between wild-rose and apple blossom, between buttercup and wood-anemone, between the large rhododendron blossom and the tiny heath floret. A suggestion will make him find out accurately what these resemblances are, and he gets the new and delightful idea of families of plants. His little bit of knowledge is real science, because he gets it at first-hand; in his small way he is another Linnæus.” (Mason, School Education, 1904, p. 77)

Men, Microscopes, and Living Things is Now Available

I am delighted to announce that Living Books Library has republished my favorite living science book: Men, Microscopes, and Living Things by Katherine Shippen. As you probably know, these ladies are my co-hosts on A Delectable Education, but they also run a private lending library with over 17,000 living books, most of which were published before 1970. It has been a long time dream for them to republish some of their favorite old living books so more families can enjoy them, and I am elated that the first book republished through this new venture, Living Library Press, is a LIVING SCIENCE BOOK!

Men, Microscopes, and Living Things

Get your copy of Men, Microscopes, and Living Things now at Living Books Press for $13.95 (plus $3.50 shipping,) and then come back and get a copy of the study guide I designed to introduce middle school and early high school students to biology through the pages of this lovely book.