Ambleside Blog

Building in Reality

I recently watched young kids build a dam in a stream that was dumping into the ocean.  They kept at it for at least an hour – stopping rogue leaks, expanding the mouth, raising the levels.  There was no particular reason for or meaning in building the dam that tranquil day: it was just “child’s play.” Or, so I thought.  Its significance took on deeper meaning by the fact that I happened to also be reading about the building of the Hoover Dam in The Emerald Mile, by Kevin Fedarko.  The following passage prompted me to think more deeply:

“To subdue a river such as the Colorado – not simply to whip it into submission for a season or two, but to break and yoke the thing by taming its rampages, vanquishing its moods, and converting its kinetics into energy that serves human beings – such a task is not only a colossal technical undertaking but, perhaps even more significant, a monumental act of audacity.  The challenge requires more than merely superb competency and monstrous ambition; it also demands a level of hubris that was unimaginable to the world of Cardenas, an undertaking that lay far beyond even the boldest dreams of the Renaissance and the ages of exploration and discovery that followed.  It required the kind of ruthless, steely certainty that humans only began to touch for the first time, perhaps, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  This was the age of iron and steel – not only in terms of materials but also in the way the world was understood: a place whose laws were rigid and immutable, but also now capable of yielding to the even stronger forces of man’s intellect and will.”

Audacity.  Superb competency.  Monstrous ambition.  Hubris.  These traits were playing out on a micro-scale at the beach that day. 

The author does not seem to think highly of such traits, and his opinion is well taken.  These traits without regard to Authority result in undertakings reminiscent of the Tower of Babel.  However, these traits have often been put to the service of creation and our Creator in awesome ways.  Even on that day at the beach, albeit in a small way.  It took hubris, not of the self-inflated pride variety, but as in a child’s belief in his ability to accomplish a task that he thinks is worthwhile but almost beyond him.  Almost.

When the dam was finished, I had taken for granted the children’s ability to build it out of found materials.  But then a boy of about 8 years old came upon the finished dam and exclaimed, “How did you guys build this?”  None of the builders heard the question – they had moved on to exploring deeper into the stream.  So the boy yelled his question again and again as he enthusiastically examined the dam more closely.  Finally, one of the builders heard the question and replied, “We just brought logs and stones and filled in the cracks with sand.”  The other boy said, “I could never build such a thing. Never. I can only build in Minecraft.”

My heart sank.  And I recalled a comment that my 9-year old had made the day before when talking about how many kids around him “only play video games.”  He said, “Mom, will they still have a word for ‘friends’ when I am older?”

And I ask, will there still be a word for ‘hubris’ when my son is older?  As in, belief in one’s ability to build a real-life dam.  Maybe even with a friend.

Useful Employment: Summer Reading

In the summer months of my growing up years, sitting in the shade of a tree or feeling the warm breeze of an oscillating fan, I spent many a long afternoon reading. Weekly readings were gathered from the school book club and from the local library (which required a weekly two and a half mile bicycle ride to fill my basket). Afternoons were filled with mystery, people of long ago, men and women who lived in the White House, and characters who, by their adventures, captured my imagination.

We played outdoors in the mornings and evenings, when it was cooler. These times were filled with swimming, bicycle rides, visits with cousins, gardening, kick the can, lightning bugs and stargazing. During the hottest part of the day, we were still, and this is when we read. Screen based temptations such as television, movies, video games, and social media were not continually vying for our attention. Life was simpler. Simple, common activities were before us. The effort of decision was lessened.

Today, parents and children have a multitude of enticements competing for their attention. Parents, just think of the requests that have come before you to have access to your children for an afternoon, a week, or a month this summer. Morning, noon and night, the commercial market screams for access to our children. And, all too often, the children scream for access to the commercial market with all its adrenal stroking sights and sounds.

In We Have Met the Enemy, Daniel Akst elucidates the challenge of choosing between desires. He divides desires into first and second ordered desires. The first ordered desires are “the grabbing of appetites and longings that seem to beset us without conscious intervention.” These are, of course, the targets of all commercial marketing. Second ordered desires point to the fulfillment of personhood in the highest sense of the word. Charlotte Mason’s biographer Essex Cholmondley provides insight into this highest sense of personhood.

The power to live the life God has given him in exactly the way God intends him to live it. In order to have this power the person must be at his best, must be a complete person, “mind, heart, soul, and strength” and must know how to choose the good and refuse the evil.

In order to choose between these first and second ordered preferences, parents must have a vision for the kind of person they would have their child  become. Children grow up to be men and women. Yet, for any given child, there are broad possibilities as to the kind of person he or she will become. Noble maturity takes attention and effort, the  denial of baser desires and the satisfaction of the more noble desires. Thus, effort in a certain direction is required by both parents and children.

Charlotte Mason reminds us that in order to rightly “bring up” children without treading upon their personality, parents and educators are limited in the “tools” they use.

'Education is an Atmosphere, a Discipline, a Life.' By this we mean that parents and teachers should know how to make sensible use of a child's circumstances (atmosphere), should train him in habits of good living (discipline), and should nourish his mind with ideas, the food of the intellectual life.[1]

While it is unquestionably easier to play upon children’s sensibilities, emotions, desires, and passions (or to allow them to play upon ours), the result is disastrous, one becomes a slave to chance desires. It should also be noted that the relational atmosphere, the intentional formation of good habits, and the offer of inspirational ideas are not tools for manipulating children. Rather, they point to a quality of life that naturally “brings up” children in a healthy way.

In thinking about the summer, and the tools we have in hand, consider this about Atmosphere – What kinds of environments will surround your child this summer? What will she ‘breathe in’ to influence her moods, her aspirations, her inclinations towards humanity?’ Will they be life giving and ordered around second level preferences?

And consider this about Discipline – What habits of the good life will your child be trained in this summer? What habits of thinking and acting will influence her for the life before her? Will they be life giving and ordered around the second level preferences that nurture his most noble personhood?

And consider this about Life – What ideas will be cultivated through the books he reads, the technology he embraces and the company he keeps? Will they be ideas of integrity, courage, and faithfulness, all ordered around second level preferences?

We choose between Ideas. It is well, however, to know what it is that we choose between. Things are only signs that represent ideas. Several times a day we shall find two ideas presented to our minds; and we must make our choice upon right and reasonable grounds. The things themselves, which stand for the ideas, may not seem to matter much; but the choice matters. Every such exercise makes character the stronger; while it grows the weaker every time we bow to less worthy impulses.[2]

Charlotte Mason believed that the ideas required for sustenance for children are mainly found in the best thought the world possesses, stored in books. We must open these books to children, the best books.

Only as he has been and is nourished upon books is a man able to "live his life." A great deal of mechanical labor is necessarily performed in solitude; the miner, the farm-laborer, cannot think all the time of the block he is hewing, the furrow he is ploughing; how good that he should be figuring to himself the trial scene in the Heart of Midlothian, the "high-jinks" in Guy Mannering, that his imagination should be playing with 'Ann Page' or 'Mrs. Quickly,' or that his labor goes the better "because his secret soul a holy strain repeats." People, working people, do these things. Many a one can say out of a rich experience, "My mind to me a kingdom is"; many a one cries with Browning's 'Paracelsus,' "God! Thou art mind! Unto the mastermind, Mind should be precious. Spare my mind alone!" We know how "Have mynde" appears on the tiles paving the choir of St. Cross; but "mynde," like body, must have its meat.[3]

Our choices change who we are and how we live. Open the books, (some are listed in our library or download list). And, let us rise to be the persons we were intended to be.

[1] Mason, Charlotte, School Education, 216-217.
[2] Mason, Charlotte, Ourselves, Book II, 146.
[3] Mason, Charlotte, A Philosophy of Education, 331.
** Édouard Vuillard "Women Reading"


The Atmosphere of Home

Now, that work which is of most importance to society is the bringing up and instruction of the children—in the school, certainly, but far more in the home, because it is more than anything else the home influences brought to bear upon the child that determine the character and career of the future man or woman.

Charlotte Mason, Home Education, 1

The Atmosphere of Home

We often talk of ideas in the classrooms at Ambleside, but what about the ideas in our homes? We want our children to love learning, but does our home life foster this love?

Charlotte Mason says that every parent holds their breath when they hear that their children take direction and inspiration from all the casual life about them, and that even the parents’ words and ways form the starting point from which he develops.

There is no way of escape for parents; they must needs be as ‘inspirers’ to their children, because about them hangs . . . the thought-environment of the child, from which he derives those enduring ideas which express themselves as a life-long ‘appetency’ towards things sordid or things lovely, things earthly or divine.

Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, 37

It has been said that a child is either moving to a higher place or sinking to a lower place all the time. Our work in the classroom is only effective as it finds support in the home.

The duty of parents is to sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as they sustain his body with food.

Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, 39

These thoughts beg some questions about home life. Is our life so full of going that our children have no time for being? Is our focus on developing the physical body (sports, activities) with little space for growth of the spiritual? Are the allotted times for video and television really “mindless” activities, or are they creating an appetite for ‘junk food’ and dulling the appetite for ideas?

Even if the circumstances of your home life do not have the peace you long for, you can still be an agent of peace and nourish your home atmosphere with ideas. You can offer a simple thought of God to your struggling child or place a bracing hand on his shoulder to show support as he works to break a weak habit. Charlotte Mason says it is the part of the parent to deposit with the child some fruitful idea of God, and ”the immature soul makes no effort towards that idea, but the living Word reaches down and touches the soul and there is life, growth, beauty, flower, and fruit.”  For all of us, there is new hope.


Virginia Wilcox
Principal of Ambleside School of Herndon, VA

Cultivating the Habit of Attention

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this habit of attention. It is..."within the reach of everyone and should be made the primary object of all mental discipline"; for whatever the natural gifts of the child, it is only so far as the habit of attention is cultivated in him that he is able to make use of them.

Charlotte Mason, Home Education, 146

The Habit of Attention is Important

One of Ambleside School's commitments to parents is this: “All students will be supported in mastering the habit of focused attention” through inspirational ideas and natural consequences.

Why is this habit of attention so important?

In addition to the standard classroom practice of presenting short, varied lessons and narration after a single reading, we work with each student in other ways to develop this habit of attention. These are simple interventions implemented daily in the classroom that are also useful at home. Some of these include:

  • Kindly requiring that a child keep eye contact when engaged in conversation or discussion with someone.
  • Asking the child to repeat instructions back to ensure they have understood them.
  • Using subtle gestures such as gently tapping or placing an encouraging hand on a child’s shoulder to re-focus their attention back to the work at hand.

Sometimes, the calm and simple movement of a teacher to closer proximity beside a child lends the student the strength and reassurance they may need to help them regain attention.

Some students may need a teacher or parent to help them by breaking down their work into steps and estimating for them the time a task will take. Charlotte Mason’s idea of “set work for set time” is a way to remedy a child’s tendency to let the mind wander and become distracted. It is important to have a finite amount of time planned for specific work to be done—a realistic expectation is established, the expectation is clearly communicated, and the expectation and timeframe are enforced—for instance, the teacher gives thirty minutes to complete an illustration in a copybook. If a student completes her best work before the thirty minutes has passed, she is then rewarded with that extra time for leisure before she begins her next task. A child will quickly get this idea and be motivated to use his time wisely.

Older students may need an inspirational appeal to their will:

He should be taught to feel a certain triumph in compelling himself to fix his thoughts. Let him know what the real difficulty is, how it is the nature of his mind to be incessantly thinking.

Charlotte Mason, Home Education, 145

When he brings his own will to make himself attend, “Well done! You have done your duty,” could be our encouraging response.

Attention is both a trait and a skill, and developing its power in our children requires steady practice and confidence that, no matter how weak the trait, each step of growth unleashes new strength.

Virginia Wilcox
Principal of Ambleside School of Herndon, VA


Looking Back: A College Student Reflects on Her Education at Ambleside

The Greatest Benefit Gained

Culture. I never realized until I went to college that Ambleside teaches culture. The Ambleside curriculum is very rich and well rounded. I didn’t just read about Abraham Lincoln or study algebra in the same way that other secondary school students did. I was being enlightened to the past. I listened to “Rhapsody in Blue”—not as background music while I was writing or doing homework—but I had the opportunity during my school day to sit and listen and appreciate the beauty Gershwin heard and was able to share in his music. I went to art museums in Washington, D.C.—not just to look at the paintings and sculptures—but also to reflect on and discuss an artist’s life and consider what influenced his work. I read Shakespeare—I didn’t just trudge through his scripts as I witnessed my high school classmates do—I lived, breathed, and loved Shakespeare. I can understand and appreciate his wit and finesse at a deeper level.

I didn’t leave these things behind when I left Ambleside.


“A Magnanimous Mind”

Now, when I study, I listen to music by the great classical composers I studied at Ambleside like Bach, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky. When I visit a bookstore, rather than head towards the New York Times Bestsellers section, I search out the shelves with the smaller selection of old poems and plays. I still look at a painting with an eye and a mind to analyze the artist’s style and contemplate the deeper meaning in his masterpiece, rather than only looking at the surface. Sadly, I can’t discuss these kinds of things with most of my peers. They look at me strangely when I become excited about “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” They don’t understand my love of history and for things of the past. I can have meaningful conversations with my professors and others who may have various interests different from mine, because I have acquired a broad range of knowledge from my education and experience at Ambleside. 

A Magnanimous Mind. —It is a mistake, perhaps, to think that, to do one thing well, we must just do and think about that and nothing else all the time. It is our business to know all we can and to spend a part of our lives in increasing our knowledge of Nature and Art, of Literature and Man, of the Past and the Present. That is one way in which we become greater persons, and the more a person is, the better he will do whatever piece of special work falls to his share. Let us have, like Leonardo, a spirit invariably royal and magnanimous.

Charlotte Mason, Ourselves - Book I, Chapter 3

Lasting Impact

Two skills I haven’t encountered during my education anywhere else other than Ambleside are narration and dictation. Narration is telling back what you’ve just read. A portion of a text rich in ideas is read, and the student retells that part using as much detail and author’s language and as thoroughly as possible. Dictation is writing exactly what the teacher dictates. The Ambleside student begins to develop the skill of narration in Kindergarten. Dictation begins in third grade when students have developed better handwriting and spelling skills. Through these skills and habits, Ambleside fosters the student’s ability to concentrate, translate, listen, and transcribe with proficiency. I know that narration and dictation have enabled me to maintain focus during hour-long college lectures and take notes quickly and thoroughly. The acquired skills of listening and writing simultaneously have greatly helped me in my college studies.


Confidence to Face Challenges

I have fond memories of the annual Shakespeare Festivals at Ambleside. My favorite role was Dromio of Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors.  One part that continues to impact me, even though I never played the role, is Bernardo in Hamlet. I had wanted to be Bernardo because he spoke the first line in the play[1], and I was so inspired by his character, that I memorized every one of his lines before we finished reading the play! On any given day, I can still recite from Act I, Scene 1 and thereafter! This has given me confidence that I can face any challenge that comes before me. If I can still remember the lines from a Shakespeare play that I learned ten years ago, learning about vectors in physics or memorizing formulas in chemistry are small feats in comparison!


This is an excerpt from a conversation with a student who attended an Ambleside School from K-Eighth grade. She is currently a freshman in college studying Biological Systems Engineering and Biochemistry.

[1] “Who’s there?


Children and Conflict

Parents choose a faith-based school for their children for different reasons. Often there is the desire to expose their children to positive influences and to protect their children from exposure to negative culture.

Sometimes there are struggles, “I sent my child to a Christian school so he would not be exposed to behavior like this.” In a group of believers, we assume that everyone will be kind and loving, and we are disappointed when this is not the case.

As a “Christ-centered” school, one of Ambleside’s core values has to do with resolving conflict. The teachers, staff, and board members are committed to dealing with conflict quickly and directly. We encourage students to deal with conflict. One of the challenges of a school parent is learning how to help our child with conflict at school. Here are some ways you, as parents, can empower your children to resolve conflict at school:

Recognize that every conflict your child has under your care is an opportunity for training for the future, and that your child never has the full story. 

Listen to your child’s concerns with peaceful emotion.

Limit your questions, temper your empathy, and practice an empowering response….”Well, I am sure you will work it out—let me know if you need some help.”

Be careful not to provide an ear for unaddressed complaining; this is gossip and grumbling and you are training your child to be a passive victim rather than an agent of change. We all know adults who never learned a different habit.

If your child asks for advice about conflict, suggest something like this:
1) Have your student say, “I don’t like that. Could you please stop?”
2) If the situation doesn’t change (immediately), say, “I am going to have to get a teacher to help us.”
3) Tell them to go get help from an adult. This is not tattling; this is working out conflict in the way Christ has asked us to.

If your child refuses to deal with the situation at school, your intervention will be necessary to help him grow. Give your child a deadline: “Why don’t you talk to your friend about that tomorrow? If you can’t do that, I will go with you while you talk to your teacher and ask her for help. Of course, you will have to eventually talk to your friend face to face.”

One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is our confidence that difficult circumstances are good, and conflict is an opportunity to grow. We can’t give what we don’t have, and our students will not learn to navigate conflict and become skilled in reconciliation unless we are showing them how. Christ says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) This kind of love is not the easy way, but it is the way to life and peace. 

For the Children’s Sake,

Virginia Wilcox, Principal Ambleside School in Herndon, VA.


The Habit of Quality Work

Recently I have had occasion to re-read and study various sections in the book of Exodus which speak to the building of the Hebrew tabernacle. As God instructed his people through Moses, materials were gathered and used according to God’s specific plan. I was struck once again by God’s detailed directions for the same: exact measurements, steps for accomplishing the construction, carefully-chosen materials, workers equipped for the skills needed on the job, the layout of the property, accurate procedures for the task. God also reminded the people of the importance of taking the seventh day rest throughout the process. In addition, He warned of consequences for not complying with His direction. Moses dutifully relayed these instructions to the people, and they willingly and joyfully obeyed. God’s attention to detail was specific and necessary to produce a place where He could dwell, where He would be met and worshipped by His people, and where His glory would be made known.

In pondering these Scriptural passages, Charlotte Mason’s admonition of perfect execution or quality work done by her students was brought to mind, as well as our call as parents and teachers to instill this desire and habit within our children. It might be a call even to ourselves. In Exodus, God commanded specific attention to detail in order to honor Him. His people were called to obedience through their efforts. Their abilities were developed and used for His glory. Theologically, the picture of redemption comes to mind. For us and our students, the element of beauty, order, offering one’s best, the achievement of accuracy, respect for others as they view or use the work, perseverance, joy in accomplishing something of quality and durability, and other similar benefits are seen in doing quality work.

To develop this habit, It is important that we hold high expectations for our children’s work in all areas of study, and model the same when necessary: neat, uniformly-shaped, legible handwriting; clear, evenly-spaced labeling on straight lines for drawings and charts, numerals placed precisely in the grid of math copybooks, matching pitch in singing, taking care not to smudge a picture reproduction, planning carefully prior to the execution of a dry-brush water painting, erect, quiet posture when reciting a poem, exact copying of a transcription, careful proofreading of a composition. We may have to look at our own experience and evaluate our own habits. For example, consider where we may let things “slide,” and then make continued efforts to raise our standards. It may be an opportunity to point our students to God, and train them to look to Him for strength and perseverance in creating quality work.

In thinking again about the building of the tabernacle with God’s detailed instructions to his people, and the task before us in “growing up” our students, we can encourage them and ourselves that their growth and development is of the Lord. Charlotte Mason reminds us: “Whatever the agency, let children be assured that the work is the work of God, to be accomplished in the strength of God, according to the laws of God: that it is our part to make ourselves acquainted with the laws we would work out, and that, having done all, we wait for the inspiration of the divine life, even as the diligent farmer waits upon sunshine and shower.”1

As we enter this new year, let us endeavor to maintain high standards and expectations toward producing quality work, and challenge ourselves and our students to do so with a dependence on God, who desires our best for His glory.


1 Mason, Charlotte, Parents and Children,167.

An Advent Season in Everyday Life

Haul out the holly;
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again.
Fill up the stocking,
I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now.
For we need a little Christmas
Right this very minute,
Candles in the window,
Carols at the spinet.
Yes, we need a little Christmas[1]

Spirits rise with this happy tune, as the festiveness of Christmas comes forth in all the trappings of the holiday. But for a moment, as the lyricist, Jerry Herman hurries us to get the tree decorated,  before the spirit falls again. Let us remember that it is yet Advent, the season of reflection and longing. When we quiet ourselves, there is a recognition that a certain waning of our spirit is too often a way of life.

Most people live a poor maimed life, as though they carried about one or other mortified limb, dead in itself and a burden to the body. But they do not realize that their minds are slow and their hearts heavy for want of the knowledge which is life.[2]

These holy days of advent are often perceived as burdensome as we prepare for the coming of Christmas. These burdens come into our lives by way of anxious thoughts and feelings about mostly everything, readying for guests who come or whose guests we are, and the lists of “to do” tallied daily in our minds. If the truth be known, the season brings these burdens because we live in this burdensome way more often than not, thinking of a time that will be, but seems never to come. Charlotte Mason reminds us that we too frequently live a maimed life amid the joys of the season, hoping for another time of rest, because of the want of knowledge which is life.

The season of Advent brings this knowledge. The  term advent was taken  from ancient times when it was used to speak about the arrival or presence of an emperor who bestowed his presence, parousia  on the ones he ruled. Advent is the time remembered when “in the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed, Almighty Jesus Christ”[3]  - a visit from God who came to enter our lives and give us life in the real sense, now.

Life, in any real sense, is the knowledge of God now; and, without that knowledge, there cannot be the free and joyous activity of our powers, the glow of our feelings, the happy living, free from care, the open eye for all beauty, the open heart for all goodness, the responsive mind, the tender heart, the aspiring soul––which go to make up fullness of life.[4]

Parousia, His potent presence in the now, unmasks us, revealing our deepest thoughts and feelings. And when we are anxious for another time, it is a reminder for us all to bring ourselves back to the present through focused attention on His presence.  

Find a place and be quiet. Direct your attention to Christ through meditative thought/centering prayer. Begin with this practice of the presence of sitting with God in the early morning and mid day. Throughout the day, when attention wanes, refocus. Emmanuel, God is with us. We are not alone!

[1] Herman, Jerry. “We Need a Little Christmas.” Mame, 1966.
[2] Mason, Charlotte. Ourselves Book II. 79-80.
[3] Rossetti, Christina, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” 1872.
[4] Mason, Charlotte. Ourselves Book II. 79.


Back to Art

This has been a particularly trying month for me.  When facing challenges, my default is to analyze, examine, and strategize.  But thinking is not always helpful.  This statement is practical heresy in my line of training.  Gladly, I have had just enough exposure to the power of artistic expression to deny the charge. 

(Of course, there is a lot of thinking that occurs in artistic expression.  But it does not take center stage the entire time, and…I am overthinking this.)

So my interest was piqued when I recently ran across a study titled “How Art Changes Your Brain: Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity,” in PLOS ONE, an online journal (found at:

The ten-week study divided “post-retirement” individuals into two groups.  One group received cognitive art appreciation instruction at a museum.  The other group received visual art classes with hands-on instruction.  The differences in brain region interaction and psychological resiliency were significant.  The study concluded, “visual art production leads to improved interaction, particularly between the frontal and posterior and temporal brain regions,” and that this interaction is related to improved psychological resiliency.  The study’s authors found that, “Visual art represents a powerful resource for mental and physical well-being.”

What this means for me as a person in a difficult season is that I need to make room for artistic expression in my life.  Interestingly, I had been taking time for this pursuit regularly, but my practice fell away when “life got busy” the past few months.  I wonder now whether I would be weathering this season with more resilience if I had not forgone the practice.

What this means for me as a teacher is that I need to continue to provide opportunities for my students to engage in artistic expression.  Not just for “art’s sake,” but for the brain’s sake.

Primacy of Belonging

That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you to may have fellowship (koinonia) with us; and indeed our fellowship (koinonia) is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

I John 1:3-4

Towards the end of his life, John, the beloved apostle, begins by declaring that his primary purpose for preaching all that he had experienced of Christ was the creation of fellowship, a shared belonging in a divinely oriented community. The work of Christ establishes us as belonging to community, and this shared belonging is foundational to experience of the Father. We are to be both participants and instruments of belonging, the kind of belonging that creates joy. Charlotte Mason calls this need to belong the “desire of society” and places it among the desires that are both primary and universal.

The same desires stir in the breasts of savage and of sage alike; that the desire of knowledge, which shows itself in the child's curiosity about things and his eager use of his eyes, is equally active everywhere; that the desire of society, which you may see in two babies presented to one another and all agog with glee and friendliness, is the cause, alike, of village communities amongst savage tribes and of the philosophical meeting of the learned; that everywhere is felt the desire of esteem––a wonderful power in the hands of the educator, making a word of praise or blame more powerful as a motive than any fear or hope of punishment or reward. [1]

In this passage, taken from Home Education, she identifies three primary desires:

  • The desire of knowledge
  • The desire of society (belonging)
  • The desire of esteem (to be held in high regard).

It is worth considering both the importance and the interplay of these three.  The desire of knowledge is to the mind as hunger is to the body. Unless it be atrophied, every human has a natural desire to explore those realms open to the intellect, to feed upon history, literature, nature, science, art, other persons and ultimately God. “For this is eternal life, to know God.”[2] The mind feeds and grows, assimilating knowledge as food. But this process can be cut short. Just as, for the sake of breathing, a body will give up eating; so, a mind will give up learning when faced with threats to belonging and/or esteem. While a few might bury their heads in the books to escape the pain of not belonging or seek the accolades of “first in class” as a feeble substitute for being esteemed, none will thrive in such an atmosphere.

Positively, we get the vast majority of knowledge not from personal discovery but from communion with others. In Charlotte Mason’s words:

We learn from Society. In this way we learn, for most people have things to say that it is good to hear; and we should have something to produce from our own stores that will interest others – something we have seen or heard, read or thought… It is not only from the best and ablest we may learn. I have seen ill-bred people in a room, and even at table, who had nothing to say because they did not think their neighbor worth talking to… This is not only unmannerly and unkind, but is foolish, and a source of loss to themselves. Perhaps there is no one who has not some bit of knowledge or experience, or who has not had some thought, all his own. A good story is told of Sir Walter Scott, how he was traveling from London to Edinburgh by the stagecoach, and sharing the box seat with him was a man who would not talk. He tried the weather, crops, politics, books, every subject he could think of––and we may be sure they were many. At last, in despair, he turned round with, "Well, what can you talk about, sir?" "Bent leather," said the man; and, added Sir Walter, "we had one of the most interesting conversations I remember." Everybody has his 'bent leather' to talk about, if we have the gift to get at it.[3]

This story is both tragic and beautiful: tragic because a man had such a small world of interest, and beautiful, because another person cared enough to find even that small world and be interested. One can speculate that small worlds come from small communities of interest. If no one cares for a child’s thoughts, his thoughts will become small and he will inhabit a small and lonely world. Our personal world is only as big as the worlds we share. To be deeply satisfying, knowledge is a shared endeavor.

Teachers should remember this; for, we experience ourselves as belonging to those who are interested enough to share interests with us. Lack of interest destroys belonging. Those, whom we hold in high regard, interest us. Those who do not interest us, experience us as holding them in low regard. Let us endeavor to find the “bent leather” in every student’s mind. And let us give them a vast array of knowledge in which to share interest. Nothing builds esteem and belonging like the experience of genuine interest. You are interested in what I think. You are interested in what I feel. Not for any utilitarian reason, but simply because you find me to be of value. Few thoughts, conscious or unconscious, bring joy to the heart, as do these.

If one seeks to build an atmosphere of belonging, find something in every person that is worthy of interest. Not all thoughts and feelings are noble. Not all are worthy of interest. When we share ignoble, unworthy interests, we may negatively bond, but we do not delight in one another. Two may share disdain for a third, but that disdain contaminates the relationship not only with the third person but also between the two sharing the disdain. There must be no toleration in the classroom of disdainful attitudes and certainly not disdainful talk. Such attitudes and words must be confronted immediately as a dark, hurtful way of thinking and talking. Students must learn that just because a dark thought crosses their mind does not mean they have to accept it. Thoughts can be rejected and the mind turned to that which is worthy.

If genuine interest in me (my thoughts, my feelings, my interests and activities) builds belonging and esteem, it is augmented by appreciation. When someone sees within us that which is worth appreciating and expresses appreciation our hearts soar. Appreciation of others is a habit of mind and so is contempt. All humans are both bearers of the divine image and selfish, frail incompetents. The question is what do we see when we see another. Where does our mind go? Do we have the habit of sweet thoughts, quick to find the good and appreciate, merciful with the flaws? Or, are we quick to see the failings, to mock in our mind, and to disdain. What do we see, and what do we express? In so many classrooms, it is only the negative and the extraordinary that get expressed. We hear little appreciation for small kindnesses and small victories, little gratitude for the small contribution that each can make. What’s called for is not praise as reward for success (a response that quickly cheapens), but genuine appreciation for a rigorous effort, quietly expressed. As important as it is to identify student weakness, teachers will never be a positive support if they fail to see and to appreciate that which is worthy in every child. No classroom is emotionally safe where even a single student is not appreciated.

Just as we build interest by being interested together, so we build appreciation by sharing appreciation. We need to hear what we appreciate about each another. In this, the teacher must take the lead. Not a day should go by in which she does not publicly express concrete appreciation for some worthy trait of a student. This is not praise for performance or appearance, but recognition that some aspect of a fine and noble character has manifested itself. “John, I see your noble heart to serve others.” or, “Kathy, I appreciate your sensitivity to the needs of others.” In addition to expressing appreciation themselves, teachers should gently exhort students to express appreciation for one another. Ideas should be sown and habits cultivated. Expression of appreciation can be made a topic for regular prayer. “Lord, give us the grace to appreciate one another and opportunity to express it.” It can also be an object of direct challenge. “Let’s invite the Lord to show us something we can appreciate about one of our classmates. Look for an opportunity to express that appreciation.”

When our classes are not places of shared interest and appreciation, the atmosphere goes dark and students begin to feed upon one another. Lacking the joys of shared thoughts/feelings and a delight in one another, students start to feed upon one another. A vicious cycle begins. Increased relational pain results in further loss of interest and less ability to appreciate, leading to further increased relational pain. As relational pain increases, so does predatory behavior. Preying upon one another becomes the norm and the habit.

The teacher must lead the move against such things. He or she must be an anchor of emotional joy and strength, a sure protector. She must model interest and appreciation; always able to see that which is worthy in a child and joyfully to communicate that recognition. She must lead her students in the habits of genuine interest and appreciation. A final note, the daily habit of giving thanks can go a long way towards achieving these ends. Students must give more time to expression appreciation for that which is good than disdain for that which they do not like.

[1] Mason, Charlotte, Home Education, 100-101.
[2] John 17:3
[3] Mason, Charlotte, Ourselves, 73-75.



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