On the subject of history, Charlotte Mason said, “The fatal mistake is in the notion that [the child] must learn ‘outlines’ of the whole history…  just as he must cover the geography of all the world.  Let him, on the contrary, linger pleasantly over the history of a single man, a short period, until he thinks the thoughts of that man, is at home in the ways of that period.  Though he is reading and thinking of the lifetime of a single man, he is really getting intimately acquainted with the history of a whole nation for a whole age.”


In other words, Charlotte Mason believed that it was best to focus on one person, one war, one country, etc., at a time.  I suggest that you find the best books available on whatever topic you choose.  It is interesting to note that Charlotte Mason did not use history textbooks in her schools.  History textbooks present history in outline form; “living books,’ those recommended by Charlotte Mason, present history in story form.  Choose firsthand accounts whenever possible, as they are most accurate.  Select intellectual books with intellectual language, and if you are reading them aloud to your children, you may choose books that are a little more challenging than those he is able to read for himself.  Biographies are especially important, as they provide children with heroes and role models other than sports figures and media stars.  In general, I prefer to use old books—those from the 1960’s and before, whenever possible.  In my booklet Teaching History Using Great Books of the Past (available for purchase through my website—please visit www.normanjamesacademy.com), I discuss how I use books in the teaching of history, my favorite out-of-print resources and where they might be found, and provide lists of some of the major history series.


I believe it is best to study history chronologically—not necessarily from the beginning of time, but in the context of the subject being studied.  Then I recommend using a timeline notebook to tie everything together.  As Charlotte Mason taught, “Let the child himself write, or print, as he is able, the names of the people he comes upon in due order, in their proper century.  We need not trouble ourselves…with exact dates, but this simple table of the centuries will suggest a graphic panorama to the child’s mind, and he will see events in their time order.”  Each of my children keeps personal timeline notebook, sometimes referred to as a Book of the Centuries, into which he makes an entry for each historical book he reads.  For example, on the page labeled “19th Century,” my oldest son has entries for the birth of Chopin (1809), the birth of Kit Carson (1809), and the birth of David Livingstone (1813).  These entries came from the reading of three different books, but in adding this information to his notebook my son was able to see that these men were contemporaries, to see the “big picture” of world history, to compare what was going on in the United States to see what was going on in the rest of the world at the same time.  Other home educators use a family timeline notebooks or wall timelines to accomplish the same ends.  Whichever method you choose, be sure to find some way to help your children make these connections.


But most important, it is essential to have children narrate their history readings (as discussed in my previous article Teaching Language Arts).  Charlotte Mason said, “History readings afford admirable material for narration, and children enjoy narrating what they have read or heard.  They love, too, to make illustrations.”  I keep my children’s narrations, illustrations, and corresponding map work in a three-ring notebook, along with a list of all books read.


Studied in this way, history comes alive for children.  As Charlotte Mason put it, “Children have many ways of expressions the conceptions that fill them when they are duly fed.  They play at their history lessons, dress up, make tableaux, act scenes; or they have a stage, and the dolls act, while they paint the scenery and speak the speeches.  There is no end to the modes of expression children find when there is anything in them to express.  The mistake we make is to suppose that imagination is fed by nature, or that it works on the insipid diet of children’s story-books.  Let a child have the meat he requires in his history readings, and in the literature which naturally gathers round this history, and imagination will bestir itself without any help of ours; the child will live out in detail a thousand scenes of which he only gets the merest hint.”


Copyright 2004 by Pamela Asberry

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