Ambleside Blog

Thanksgiving Proclamation

I hope and pray this season of Thanksgiving brings warmth and the many blessings of Providence to your family. I recently knocked the dust off a collection of speeches and writings by Abraham Lincoln to take my annual look at his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. It is always good to read as it tends to reorient my mind to the meaning behind this American tradition. In his proclamation, which came in early October of 1863 with the country ferociously engaged in civil war, President Lincoln brought to light the blessings of “fruitful fields and healthful skies;” a very positive take on the condition of things. Lincoln goes further by mentioning that some of our “bounties” are so often enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, but, he adds, some blessings “are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.” I find my heart can easily become “habitually insensible,” thus I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the many blessings, both great and small, that Almighty God has heaped upon my plate this past year.

In line with Lincoln’s instruction to observe “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father,” I want to take a moment to express to you just a few particulars of the daily occurrences of God’s “gracious gifts” in my life at Ambleside. I am thankful:

That I get to witness the Holy Spirit work in the minds and hearts of God’s children; for a school that recognizes that all of our study of creation would be for not, if it does not draw us to the Creator; for the opportunity to take a walk around the block with an anxious student; that I get to pray with a student who is not quite understanding the pain that at times accompanies life in this world; for foursquare without squares; for *“sharks” and for “minnows”; for “Littles capture Bigs”; for parents who care enough to see the immense value of a proper education; for parent volunteers who do more for nothing than some do for much; for the cultivation of life giving habits of mind and body; for the spirit revealing a new scriptural insight through a 6th grader’s application of a scripture recitation from the previous year; that I get to read and discuss the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at staff meetings and talk about how we apply the principles of community in our classrooms; that I get to witness a student connecting the spelling/meaning difference between “speed” and “sped”; that a place exists in the world that sees weakness as an opportunity, the way Jesus did; that I finally get to experience what it’s like to be undefeated at the tether ball pole; and the list could go on and on and on.

In sum, Ambleside is a truly remarkable place and I count myself immensely blessed to be in the midst of Christ in and through you as we work things out together. This community is a blessing in my life that is of so “extraordinary a nature, that [it] cannot fail to penetrate and soften” my heart.

Happy Thanksgiving,

Russ York

Principal of Ambleside School of Fredericksburg

Specialized Brain Training

The last fifteen years have seen a revolution in neuroscience. Central to this revolution is the recognition of brain plasticity. The brain is plastic. It molds, changes as we learn. Though lacking the benefits of modern technology, one hundred years ahead of her time, Charlotte Mason recognized the importance of neuroplasticity, "Physiologists tell us that thoughts which have become habit make somehow a mark upon the brain substance" Philosophy of Education.

Today’s popular recognition of neuroplasticity has led to the birth of an entire industry. The websites of such companies suggest that they have found, thanks to the wonders of neuroplasticity (and indeed neuroplasticity is wondrous), the secret to fixing the brains of struggling children everywhere. While there is no reason to doubt, the intentions of persons so employed, there is great reason to doubt whether their proposed solutions are right for most struggling children. A neurosurgeon once told a friend of mine that there was nothing wrong with his lower back that surgery couldn’t make worse. It is certainly true that at times back surgery may be called for. When such is the case, we are thankful for its availability. But, it is a gross mistake to think of surgery as the primary solution for most backache. This is very much the case with various brain repair programs now popularly marketed. In most cases, children’s brains don’t need to be fixed. They need to be provided the opportunity for healthy “due self education.”

In bullet form, my critique is as follows:

  • An important distinction needs to be made between brain capacity and brain skill. Brain capacity has to do with the potential of a child's brain to acquire a particular brain skill. For example, a child with severely damaged optical nerves may lack the capacity to learn how to read. But, the fact that a child has the capacity does not guarantee that he/she will have developed the skill.
  • The human brain is the most complex entity in the universe and its capacity far exceeds the sum of particular skills. When effort and attention are applied, the human brain has an amazing capacity for growth. It does not need to be treated, so much as given the opportunity for growth. "All education is self education."
  • The great majority of children have the necessary brain capacity (which defies our ability to measure) to master the skills necessary for a full and free life.
  • In the great majority of cases, children will naturally develop the necessary brain skills simply by following the due curriculum in the right manner, in optimal atmosphere, with the shoring up of weakness through the training in habit.
  • The direct training of specific brain skills (or faculties) is not education and, in the case of children with normally function brains (the great majority of children) is counter productive to healthy cognitive/emotional development. Much as the feeding of healthy children with medically developed food substitutes is contrary to physical health.
  • There are cases in which brains with normal capacity have not mastered certain brain skills, usually because of the lack of an abundant, highly engaged, attuned relationship with an adult who possessed the brain skill and who through an abundance of healthy life together, consciously or unconsciously provided the child's brain with the opportunity to learn the needed skill. For example, we learn to appropriately balance our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems by focusing our attention (being in an attuned connected relationship) on an adult who joyfully self-regulates and expects us to grow to do the same.
  • If a teacher approaches her class by looking for brain dysfunction to treat rather than personal weakness to support, the teacher-student relationship will be highly distorted and the atmosphere of the classroom very much contaminated, and "we cannot do otherwise than despise children, however kindly or even tenderly we commit the offense."
  • In the cases of children who have not developed sufficient mastery of a given brain skill at the usual stage of development, there is the possibility of lack of brain capacity (rare) or lack of appropriate support at the needed time of development (increasingly common). In such cases, specifically targeted opportunities for growth (not brain treatment) may be very helpful. And, the “brain train” industry may be helpful, providing exercises that allow mind and brain to practice tasks in a way that facilitate needed growth. But, as a paradigm for education, they are vastly inadequate and, as a norm for student-teacher engagement, actually destructive.

The Child's Estate

Having recently become a third-time grandparent, I am drawn to the writings of Charlotte Mason on the development and training of children, particularly infants. Seeing little Adam, and considering the person of him, I am strongly reminded of her cautionary words that the “parent begins instinctively by regarding his child as an unwritten tablet, and is filled with great resolves as to what he shall write thereon.”1 What a temptation this is, yet what an erroneous vision! An unwritten tablet, innocent, pure, transparent, vulnerable.

We know that this is not the approach to take with children, and if we are to consider children as persons, we will instead see little ones such as my new grandson with different eyes. Charlotte Mason quotes the Swiss educator, Johann Pestalozzi, when she says, "The mother is qualified, and qualified by the Creator Himself, to become the principal agent in the development of her child; ... and what is demanded of her is––a thinking love ... God has given to the child all the faculties of our nature, but the grand point remains undecided––how shall this heart, this head, these hands be employed? to whose service shall they be dedicated? A question the answer to which involves a futurity of happiness or misery to a life so dear to thee. Maternal love is the first agent in education."2

This is a grave and daunting mission - a “thinking love.” What does that mean? How is it carried out? Our answer can be found in several places, as we consider the value of a child. Jesus says we must become as children to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3). A child is a human created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Charlotte Mason’s foundational premise for education is that a child is a person. A thinking love involves time, patience, consideration, listening, respect, knowing, relationship, selflessness, working for and watching for the “bringing up” of the other.

This is the mission to which we as parent-educators are called; to refrain from seeing our children (and grandchildren) as “unwritten tablets,” and to instead provide them with a breadth of living which will allow them to become all that the Creator has planned for them to be. In Miss Mason’s words, the “little being who is entrusted to the care of human much more--a being belonging to an altogether higher estate than ours; as it were, a prince committed to the fostering care of peasants.”3

As I watch my grandson in his newness and innocence, I am moved by a stanza of poetry Charlotte Mason quotes from William Wordsworth, and am awed once more by this little life which is, even now, enriching mine.

     "Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

     The soul that rises with us, our life's star,

          Hath had elsewhere in its setting,

               And cometh from afar;

          Not in entire forgetfulness,

          And not in utter nakedness,

     But in trailing clouds of glory do we come

               From God, who is our home:

     Heaven lies about us in our infancy!4

1 Mason, Charlotte, Home Education, 4.
2 Ibid, 2.
3 Ibid, 11.
4 Wordsworth, William, Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood part V

New School Year

As another school year begins, parents and teachers take stock of the daunting privilege of nurturing the inner lives of children. In this task of sowing seeds today, in the hope of fruit tomorrow; I find in the passage below a perspective to be embraced.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts; it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection, and no pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.

† Amen

Archbishop Oscar Romero

Salvadoran Archbishop and Martyr 1917-1980

The Child in the Midst

The Child in the Midst

The Child in the Midst.––And first, let us consider where and what the little being is who is entrusted to the care of human parents. A tablet to be written upon? A twig to be bent? Wax to be molded? Very likely; but he is much more––a being belonging to an altogether higher estate than ours; as it were, a prince committed to the fostering care of peasants…

What is peculiar to the children in their nature and estate. "Of such is the kingdom of heaven." "Except ye become as little children ye shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven." "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" "And He called a little child, and set him in the midst." Here is the Divine estimate of the child's estate. It is worthwhile for parents to ponder every utterance in the Gospels about these children, divesting themselves of the notion that these sayings belong, in the first place, to the grown up people who have become as little children. 

Next Part 5 The Education of a Person

The Education of a Person

The Education of a Person[1]

We take Children as Persons.––In the first place, we take children seriously as persons like ourselves, only more so; the first question that comes before us is––What do we understand by a person? We believe the thinking, invisible soul and acting, visible body to be one in so intimate a union that––

   "Nor soul helps flesh more now than flesh helps soul."

If the doctrine of the Resurrection had not been revealed to us, it would be a necessity, in however unimagined a form, to our conception of a person. The countenance of our friend with the thousand delicate changes which express every nuance of feeling; the refinement, purpose, perception, power, revealed in his hand, the dear familiar carriage, these are all inseparable from our conception of the person…

The Person Wills, and Thinks, and Feels.––…we believe that the person wills and thinks and feels; is always present, though not always aware of himself; is without parts or faculties; whatever he does, he does, all of him, whether he take a walk or write a book. It is so much the habit to think of the person as a dual being, flesh and spirit, when he is, in truth, one, that it is necessary to clear our minds on this subject. The person is one and not several, and he is no more compact of [compartmentalized into] ideas on the one hand than he is of nervous and muscular tissues on the other. That he requires nutriment of two kinds is no proof that he is two individuals. Pleasant and well-cooked food makes man of a cheerful countenance, and wine gladdens the heart of man, and we all know the spiritual refreshment of a needed meal. On the other hand, we all know the lack-lustre eye and pallid countenance of the well-fed who receive none of that other nutriment which we call ideas; quick and living thought is as necessary for the full and happy development of the body as it is for that of the soul…

Education the Science of Relations.––We consider that education is the science of relations, or, more fully, that education considers what relations are proper to a human being, and in what ways these several relations can best be established; that a human being comes into the world with capacity for many relations; and that we, for our part, have two chief concerns––first, to put him in the way of forming these relations by presenting the right idea at the right time, and by forming the right habit upon the right idea; and, secondly, by not getting in the way and so preventing the establishment of the very relations we seek to form.

For Consideration

  • What is the difference between a system and a method?
  • What are the advantages of “a few broad essential principles” that conform to human nature?
  • How to systems and systemic approaches to education distort the formation of right relations (ideas and habits) which are at the heart of education.

[1] Mason, Charlotte, School Education pp.  63-66 excerpts


Deceptive Brain Messages

At any given moment, our amazing brains direct our reactions to life circumstances by integrating current experience with past experience and doing so along habitual lines. Our brains are organs of habit, responding according to established patterns of networked nerve cells. With a little self-reflection, it is easy to recognize that our brain responses are at times less-than-helpful and can even be quite destructive.  In their book, You are Not Your Brain, Jeffrey Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding identify these brain responses as “deceptive brain messages.”

There are only a few true necessities in life, but for many of us, it doesn’t feel that way. A lifetime of habits, ingrained by repetition, can seemingly make us slaves to a not always beneficial master – our own brain. Nothing is more confusing, or painful than when your brain takes over your thoughts, attacks your self-worth, questions your abilities, overpowers you with cravings, or attempts to dictate your actions. Have you ever felt something is compelling you to “go” places, mentally or emotionally, where you don’t want to be? Do you find yourself acting in uncharacteristic ways or doing things you don’t want to be doing? The reason is simple: Deceptive brain messages have intruded into your psyche and taken over your life. Left to its own devices, your brain can cause you to believe things that are not true and to act in any number of self-destructive ways.

The brain thinks and reacts as it is accustomed to think and react. It is an organ of habit. When habits are destructive, we follow a line of reasoning justifying ourselves, alleviating responsibility for the desired outcome. As Charlotte Mason points out in Parents and Children, it is a particularly pernicious habit.

We get into the way of thinking such and such manner of thoughts, and of coming to such and such conclusions, ever further and further removed from the starting-point, but on the same lines. There is structural adaptation in the brain tissue to the manner of thoughts we think––a place and a way for them to run in.

Charlotte Mason recognized that both parents and teachers were far too often content to leave the children to their nature, to leave them to their deceptive brain messages and unhealthy behaviors. Any significant growth in virtue begins with the recognition of bad habits and their underlying deceptive brain messages (both conscious and unconscious).  These prevailing messages are sowed into lives through relationships, both in verbal and non-verbal ways.
Adults must ask themselves the following questions: What are the deceptive messages that hold ground in the lives of those in my care? Am I a voice that communicates deceptive brain messages verbally or non-verbally? What are the life-giving messages that I wish to communicate to my child or student? How do I challenge the deceptive messages and relationally manifest the life-giving messages?
We are always training in habit, whether habits of mind or body. Charlotte Mason gives us a potent reminder of how subtly these habits are formed:

Thus we see how the destiny of a life is shaped in the nursery, by the reverent naming of the Divine Name; by the light scoff at holy things; by the thought of duty the little child gets who is made to finish conscientiously his little task; by the hardness of heart that comes to the child who hears the faults or sorrows of others spoken of lightly.

The Value of the Knowledge of Nature

The other day my husband and I were called to my uncle’s farm to help him with his peach harvest. At the age of 89, he had faithfully tended and harvested from his Red Haven peach trees since they were planted 60 years ago, and it was clear that he counted them as friends. He was no longer able to climb into the trees, nor mount a ladder to pick off the fruit, so he had arranged a fork-lift mechanism onto his tractor to get higher up into the tree. My uncle ran the lift while my husband was raised into the loaded branches, and I picked fruit from the ground. As he noticed the weight of the fruit in the trees and as we relieved them of their burden, my uncle said several times quietly to himself, “There, old trees, that will lighten your load and make it easier for you.”

As I pondered these intimate words, I couldn’t help but think of Charlotte Mason’s admonition that all children, (as well as adults,) develop relationships with their outdoor environment. She states in Home Education,

“It would be well if we all persons in authority, parents and all who act for parents, could make up our minds that there is no sort of knowledge to be got in these early years so valuable to children as that which they get for themselves of the world they live in. Let them once get touch with Nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life. We were all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.1

Sown in the life of a child at an early age, a knowledge of trees, wild flowers, crops, garden vegetables, fruiting plants, and even weeds grows into a kinship with local flora. Relationships are developed which last a lifetime. Friends are made, and the joy of being connected to nature and the earth becomes embedded in the soul of a person, creating a place of peace within oneself where one may go for relief, refreshment, renewal, and reverence.

As summer winds down, and the preparations and details of the school year increase, I have resolved to create time for opportunities to become reacquainted with my surroundings. I want to develop the habit of observing and delighting in the world around me. I desire to store within my memories those beautiful and quiet places which revive my spirit. My elderly uncle’s love of and bond with the natural world around him has challenged me toward this end, and Charlotte Mason’s words of a century ago ring as true now as when they were written:

“For we are an overwrought generation, running to nerves as a cabbage runs to seed; and every hour spent in the open is a clear gain, tending to the increase of brain power and bodily vigour, and to the lengthening of life itself.2

1 Mason, Charlotte, Home Education pp. 61
2Ibid, pp. 42
* Peach Trees in bloom Anthony Dunn Photography

A System easier than a Method

A System easier than a Method

(Part 3 of 5)

A System easier than a Method.––A 'system of education' is an alluring fancy; more so, on some counts, than a method, because it is pledged to more definite calculable results. By means of a system certain developments may be brought about through the observance of given rules. Shorthand, dancing, how to pass examinations, how to become a good accountant, or a woman of society, may all be learned upon systems.

System––the observing of rules until the habit of doing certain things, of behaving in certain ways, is confirmed, and, therefore, the art is acquired––is so successful in achieving precise results, that it is no wonder there should be endless attempts to straighten the whole field of education to the limits of a system.

If a human being were a machine, education could do no more for him than to set him in action in prescribed ways, and the work of the educator would be simply to adopt a good working system or set of systems.

But the educator has to deal with a self-acting, self-developing being, and his business is to guide, and assist in, the production of the latent good in that being, the dissipation of the latent evil, the preparation of the child to take his place in the world at his best, with every capacity for good that is in him developed into a power. Though system is a highly useful as an instrument of education, a 'system of education' is mischievous, as producing only mechanical action instead of the vital growth and movement of a living being.

It is worthwhile to point out the differing characters of a system and a method, because parents [and teachers] let themselves be run away by some plausible 'system,' the object of which is to produce development in one direction––of the muscles, of the memory, of the reasoning faculty––as if the single development were a complete all-round education. This easy satisfaction arises from the sluggishness of human nature, to which any definite scheme is more agreeable than the constant watchfulness, the unforeseen action, called for when the whole of a child's existence is to be used as the means of his education. But who is sufficient for an education so comprehensive, so incessant? A parent may be willing to undergo any definite labors for his child's sake; but to be always catering to his behoof, always contriving that circumstances shall play upon him for his good, is the part of a god and not of a man! A reasonable objection enough, if one looks upon education as an endless series of independent efforts, each to be thought out and acted out on the spur of the moment; but the fact is, that a few broad essential principles cover the whole field, and these once fully laid hold of, it is as easy and natural to act upon them as it is to act upon our knowledge of such facts as that fire burns and water flows. My endeavor in this and the following chapters will be to put these few fundamental principles before you in their practical bearing. Meantime, let us consider one or two preliminary questions.

Next Part 4 -The Child in the Midst

A Method for Educating Human Persons: Not a System

A Method for Educating Human Persons: Not a System

(A five part series)

1st Principle: Excellence in education requires the consistent application of a congruent method that reflects the nature of a child, the nature of knowledge, and the purpose of education.

Method versus System[1]

Traditional Methods of Education.––Never was it more necessary for parents [and teachers] to face for themselves this question of education in all its bearings. Hitherto, children have been brought up upon traditional methods mainly…

That children should be trained to endure hardness, was a principle of the old regime. "I shall never make a sailor if I can't face the wind and rain," said a little fellow of five who was taken out on a bitter night to see a torchlight procession; and, though, shaking with cold, he declined the shelter of a shed. Nowadays, the shed is everything; the children must not be permitted to suffer from fatigue or exposure.

That children should do as they are bid, mind their books, and take pleasure as it offers when nothing stands in the way, sums up the old theory; now, the pleasures of children are apt to be made more account than their duties. Formerly, they were brought up in subjection; now, the elders give place, and the world is made for the children.

English people rarely go so far as the parents of that story in French Home Life, who arrived an hour late at a dinner party, because they had been desired by their girl of three to undress and go to bed when she did, and were able to steal away only when the child was asleep. We do not go so far, but that is the direction in which we are now moving; and how far the new theories of education are wise and humane, the outcome of more widely spread physiological and psychological knowledge, and how far they just pander to child worship to which we are all succumbing, is not a question to be decided off hand.

At any rate, it is not too much to say that a parent [or teacher] who does not follow reasonably a method of education, fully thought out, fails––now, more than ever before––to fulfill the claims his children have upon him.

Next Part 2 - Method a Way to an End

[1] Mason, Charlotte, Home Education pp. 7-11 (excerpts)



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