Ambleside Blog

The Christmas Story In Art

During a recent visit to the National Gallery of Art, we had the privilege of learning from Dr. David Gariff, senior lecturer at the Gallery. We walked among and reflected upon a dozen Nativity masterpieces.

As far back as the Roman catacombs, artists have depicted the varied episodes of the Christmas story, from the annunciation to the flight into Egypt. Drawing from the Scriptures, as well as non-canonical writings, artists have sought not just to tell the story but to form hearts and minds. Typology, the use of representational types or symbols, was the accepted means of instruction in such sacred ideas. A lovely example of such instruction is Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi’s The Adoration of the Magi. This magnificent piece contains a myriad of themes in multiple episodes. The nativity is set amid architectural ruins, representing the crumbling of the classical world. Upon these ruins stand five thin and scantily clad men, impoverished onlookers, who fail to join the rejoicing multitude processing towards the picture’s focal point, Christ Jesus in the arms of his mother. The approaching worshipers all have hands clasped heavenward or palms outward in praise and amazement. Contemplative eyes are turned upward or directed towards the babe held in his mother’s lap. The throng is marked by fervent devotion, seemingly absent of consciousness of self or others; they have come to adore Him.

Although set in the very center of the painting, the ox and the ass are often overlooked. The ox looks earnestly upon the Christ-child and the adoring elder Wiseman who kneels before his King. The ass feeds fervently, looking out of the painting at the observer. He is unaware of the wonder that is occurring all around him. The artists are providing a pictorial representation of Isaiah 1:3:

An ox knows its owner, and a donkey its master's manger, But Israel does not know, My people do not understand.

Clearly, these two animals have two very different ways of relating to their master, one of devotion, the other self-satisfaction. The ox is most aware of his master. The donkey is most aware of his stomach. The eighteenth century, bishop and poet, Robert Lowth, recognized in this text, Yahweh’s protest that "My people doth not consider me, doth not reflect on my relation to them as Lord and Master."

And us?  As we ponder this masterpiece, are we like the impoverished observing from the ruins or the processing worshippers? Are we like the ox attentive to His master or the ass focused merely on feeding? Is our attention upon the Master and the Master’s ways or are we like Isaiah’s audience, not knowing and not considering?

 What ideas of Christmas have we sowed to our children, to our grandchildren, to one another through our adoration?

Christmas Blessings,
Bill & Maryellen St. Cyr

A Habit of Thankgiving

When the Pilgrims landed on the shores of Plymouth Bay in 1620, they were strangers to the new land but not to suffering. They had already been tested and tried in England, in Holland, and on the seas of the great Atlantic. Prior to their journeys, they set apart days of solemn humiliation, fasting, praying and seeking God.

So they lefte yt goodly & pleasante citie, which had been ther resting place near 12. years; but they knew they were pilgrimes, & looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest cuntrie, and quieted their spirits.[1]

The winter of 1620 brought great adversity which extended beyond the trials of foul weather and disease.

In these hard & difficulte beginings they found some discontents & murmurings arise amongst some, and mutinous speeches & carriags in other; but they were soone quelled & overcome by ye wisdome, patience, and just & equall carrage of things by ye Govr and better part, wch clave faithfully togeather in ye maine. But that which was most sadd & lamentable was, that in 2. or 3. moneths time halfe of their company dyed, espetialy in Jan: & February, being ye depth of winter, and wanting houses & other comforts; being infected with ye scurvie & other diseases, which this long vioage & their inacomodate condition had brought upon them; so as ther dyed some times 2. or 3. of a day, in ye foresaid time; that of 100. & odd persons, scarce 50. remained.

And of these in ye time of most distres, ther was but 6. or 7. sound persons, who, to their great comendations be it spoken, spared no pains, night nor day, but with abundance of toyle and hazard of their owne health, fetched them woode, made them fires, drest them meat, made their beads, washed their lothsome cloaths, cloathed & uncloathed them; in a word, did all ye homly & necessarie offices for them wch dainty & quesie stomacks cannot endure to hear named; and all this willingly & cherfully, without any grudging in ye least, shewing herein their true love unto their friends & bretheren. A rare example & worthy to be remembred.

The winter passed, crops were planted, but drought persisted. The ground was parched like withered hay. The pilgrims responded by setting aside another solemn day of humiliation to seek the Lord humbly and fervently in prayer.

To their owne, & the Indeans admiration, that lived amongest them. For all ye morning, and greatest part of the day, it was clear weather & very hotte, and not a cloud or any signe of raine to be seen, yet toward evening it begane to overcast, and shortly after to raine, with shuch sweete and gentle showers, as gave them cause of rejoyceing, & blesing God. It came, without either wind, or thunder, or any violence, and by degreese in yt abundance, as that ye earth was thorowly wete and soked therwith.

They begane now to gather in ye small harvest they had, and to fitte up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health & strenght, and had all things in good plenty; for as some were thus imployed in affairs abroad, others were excersised in fishing, aboute codd, & bass, & other fish, of which yey tooke good store, of which every family had their portion. All ye somer ther was no want. And now begane to come in store of foule, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, &c. Besids, they had about a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corn to yt proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty hear to their freinds in England, which were not fained, but true reports.

As their habit was, the community of fifty-three Mayflower Pilgrims and many Indians came together for a time of thanksgiving celebrating the time of plenty that had come and the goodness of God that was upon them. Thanksgiving was a response to God upon whom they depended in want and plenty, through death and life, in sorrow and gladness.

In a letter to a friend, Edward Winslow wrote: “And God be praised, we had a good increase…. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling that so we might after a special manner rejoice together….” Winslow continues, “These things I thought good to let you understand… that you might on our behalf give God thanks who hath dealt so favourably with us.”

After speaking with the South African leadership of Ambleside Schools early this morning, Mary Ann Shearers (Mark and Mary Ann Shearers Founders of the Daniel Academy ) shared with a grateful heart, one exclamation after another of all that God has given them through the hands of others after her home, warehouse, restaurant and store were all destroyed by wildfires, leaving her family with only the clothes they were wearing.

The years have brought many sorrows and griefs to each of us, some much greater than others. As there continue to be these times of plenty and want, let us draw near to our Father in heaven, the safe resting place for our souls.

Blessed Thanksgiving,
Bill & Maryellen St.Cyr

[1] All italicized text taken from William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation,


"In Community" - How Do We Fit?

By Dorothy Dersch, Parent at Ambleside School of Ocala

Recently, Father Jonathan French shared with us the simplicity of opening his home to the friends of his college-age children and their friends, who came home with them the weekend Hurricane Irma hit Florida. After the young adults laughed their way though the evening and slept their way through the storm, the French family had eleven healthy and willing young adults to help clean their yard of storm debris. The job was done quickly, so they energetically crossed the street to help clear a large tree from the Sheriff Lieutenant’s driveway as he was coming home after a long night on duty. After wood was stacked and branches piled at the Sheriff Lieutenant’s home, Father Jonathan looked at the darkened home next door and told the group they had one more yard to clear. When the students left to go back to college, they were fatigued but energized by the service they had done. Later, when that next-door neighbor returned, he made his way across to the French’s home and shared his gratitude and amazement that a neighbor whom he’d never met would do that for him. The unexpected kindness of the group “restored his faith in humanity.” He felt the love of Christ in the actions of service.

We’ve all weathered September and the hurricane in various ways, but I believe we each could say we’ve experienced the give and take of community though Hurricane Irma. Homes have been opened; generators have been shared; thawed food has been grilled and passed along; tree limbs hauled; roofs tarped; and aching shoulders massaged. This is what community does at its best. At its worst, community may occasionally generate fights and even an arrest(!), with irrational people wanting to hoard and self-serve provisions like food, water, and gas. So, what makes the difference? How do we choose to be part of a community that thinks of the Other over the Self? How can we instill real values in our children that will result in their becoming the caring, kind adults, who desire to share deep, rich lives with those around them?

It doesn’t take much time or observation to recognize we are a part of a unique and endearing community at Ambleside. As parents, it’s reasonable to arrive with certain expectations of what a teacher / our school should be doing with and for our children. It’s also reasonable to come into this community recognizing there are expectations of each student, each family, and therefore, each adult, who interacts here. Some of those are clearly defined in the student handbook we’ve all read: students should be in dress-code; adults must attend all Parent Nights; both parents or guardians are present at Parent-Teacher Conferences each semester; background-checks are done before any interaction with students in the classroom. Well-defined, realistic expectations make for a more predictable community but not the energizing type we enjoy on our campus. We can choose to be part of the deeper, fuller campus life when each of us engages in the next step of service in the “give and take” community equation.

As a parent with many children, I saw this play out as something I call “group-think.” While the term can have negative connotations when the group isn’t actually thinking, to me it means thinking about my attitude and actions and how these affect those around me. This kind of group-think takes the rules for successful community and adds kindness and love to them. Think, “How can I serve this classroom?” “How can I deliberately be kind to this teacher?” “What can I do to make this school year remarkable for our staff?” “How can a show my child ways to quietly serve people?” “Is there someone at this meeting who needs to be welcomed, or encouraged?” It doesn’t have to be coffee every Monday, although this would thrill most of our teachers! It’s as simple as how we speak in front of our children about a change in policy or a method of teaching. It’s recognizing that taking my one student out of class for personal preference disrupts the classroom flow and costs the teacher time to gather make-up work and schedule assessments. It means fostering an atmosphere that compels our students to follow the dress code, so the teachers don’t have to take time from teaching to address “violations.” Maybe it means planning to drive on a field study or encouraging a child to surprise a teacher with an apple for her desk and a note of thanks. It means being intentional to convey a sense that “It’s good to be me, here with you,” to those in our community whose path you cross in the coming year.

This community at Ambleside School of Ocala is abundantly blessed with precious people who consistently show the love of Jesus through their actions, much like Fr. Jonathan’s family and friends showed his neighborhood Christ’s love. I see it almost every time I’m on campus. I challenge you to take our Community to the next level of selflessly serving one another. How do you see it happening in your family and at school?

“Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, in Whom there is no variation or shadow cast by turning.”

James 1:17


A Reflection on the Crucifixion

In The Small Crucifixion from the National Gallery, the artist invites the viewer into the horror of crucifixion, with moving realism and immediacy. The perfect and divine oblation of our Lord on the Cross radiates from the canvas. Christ’s abandonment, desolation, and poverty on the Cross is expressed through every element in the scene – form, line, color, and composition. The viewer is drawn to His emaciated body racked with marks of torture, his bloodied face, and his bowed head, all of which speak of his unbearable agony.

This is the revealed form of divine love.

Christ’s luminous body, draped in a tattered loincloth, gives evidence of the inhumanity of his tormentors, and the sin of humanity for which He willingly humbled himself, “becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).

But it is our Lord’s yearning and twisted fingers and his gnarled feet that rivet the eye. For in them is expressed the fullness of divine love in anguish over human alienation from God. The crossbeam strains under the weight of his wounded body, while his distressed hands, stretching heavenward, offer final words of filial abandonment, “Into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23: 46).

Three robed figures stand in the viewer’s space while uniquely sharing in Christ’s Passion. On the left stands Mary, his Mother, bowed with the grief that now pierces her heart; on the right is the beloved disciple, John the Evangelist, praying before the mystery of the Cross. And at the foot of the Cross kneels Mary Magdelene, pondering in a contemplative gaze the meaning of human suffering, in light of His Passion.

A landscape of low green hills and rocky inclines also bear witness to this pivotal moment in the history of salvation. It is as if all of creation groans with its suffering Lord. Grünewald conveys the biblical record of the “darkness that came over the whole land,” in the eerie green-blue light that envelops the scene.

The Gospel accounts of the Lord’s Passion, death, and Resurrection have, over the centuries, inspired countless master artists. Such works reveal the artists’ skill and creative inspiration. They also invite a profound sharing in the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising, made present for us in Lenten liturgies. Such artistic masterpieces are visual reminders that Good Friday and Easter Sunday are not distant theological abstractions, but events that forever transform human history, and our own daily existence, if we allow it.

To the casual observer, Grünewald’s The Small Crucifixion evokes empathy in the face of another’s torment. Through the eyes of faith the Christian disciple is led a step further. For in pondering this image we can be moved through beauty to enter into the redemptive meaning of Christ’s suffering. For through this visual homily, Grünewald, the painter, encourages us along the Lenten journey to persevere in our own daily patterns of dying and rising to new life.

Sullivan, Jem, PhD. “The Small Crucifixion of Matthias Grunewald.” Blog, April 4, 2011.

Adjunct Professor in the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies, Washington, DC.

Art and Education: Learning to Observe Truth

by Emily R. Bowyer

The following address was given at an art show and fundraiser for Ambleside School of Fredericksburg, Texas (a K-12 institution). Founded on the principles of British educator Charlotte Mason, Ambleside Schools International and its member schools believe a "living" education is influenced by 3 principles: atmosphere, discipline (habits), and life (texts rich in ideas).[1] Emily Bowyer is an alumna and current faculty member of the Fredericksburg school.

I would like to begin my brief remarks with a roll call, as it were, of some of the great masters of the artistic tradition: Fra Angelico, Pieter Bruegel, Winslow Homer, John James Audubon, Claude Monet and the Impressionists, Utagawa Hiroshige, Diego Velazquez, Georgia O’Keefe, Rembrandt van Rijn, J.M.W. Turner, Leonardo da Vinci, Johannes Vermeer, Henri Matisse, Jacob Lawrence, and Vincent Van Gogh.

By the time Ambleside students begin high school, they will have spent three months with each of these artists, studying at least a dozen of their works with care and attention until they can happily hang each one in the gallery of their memories. We recognize, as Charlotte Mason once did, that

“the power of appreciating art and of producing to some extent an interpretation of what one sees is as universal as intelligence, imagination, [or] speech. . . But there must be some knowledge and, in the first place, not the technical knowledge of how to produce, but some reverent knowledge of what has been produced .”[2]

This is not to say that we neglect the technical side of our students’ art education. On the contrary, they are given weekly instruction in drawing or painting, and also regularly produce free-hand color illustrations in science and history lesson books and watercolor entries in nature study diaries. In addition, they complete several detailed reproductions of their favorite masterworks every year. Nonetheless, we discover that when we offer our students a relationship with the great artists of the past and present, they are more inspired to pursue excellence in their own artistic endeavors and to learn more about what it means to live, to be fully human.

Calvin Seerveld, an American art historian who studied in the Netherlands and then went on to a professorship in Canada, once wrote that “art calls to our attention in capital, cursive letters. . . what usually flits by in reality as fine print.”[3] We must summon our aesthetic capacity—our innate power to appreciate art—to watch for these “capital, cursive letters,” and even to seek them out. In other words, we must learn to open our eyes. Why? Because otherwise we might miss an opportunity to see our lives with greater clarity, insight and wisdom. Great works of art serve as parables,[4] not mere copies, of the human experience. They reveal hidden meanings by engaging our imagination and our inner eye, something that Helen Keller called “soul-sense, which sees, hears, feels, all in one.”[5]

Allow me to demonstrate: Van Gogh teaches us about loneliness by painting an old chair with a pipe and tobacco on it, the owner of the chair made conspicuous by his total absence. Vermeer shows the virtue of a milkmaid going about her daily work with strength, vitality, and fortitude, reminding us that there is dignity even amidst the seemingly menial occupations. Matisse highlights the remarkable shapes and colors present in every person, place, and thing around us, whether it is as stationary as a French window, or as dynamic as the couple having a conversation beside it. Bruegel celebrates the ingenuity and rashness of children at play. Velazquez depicts a Venus looking in a mirror; her forlorn gaze tells us, “beauty isn’t everything.” Monet transfixes us with the utter tranquility of a cluster of lilies floating on the surface of water. Turner exposes the travesty of the slave trade by depicting a single slave ship unburdening itself of unwanted human cargo during a storm. Da Vinci uncovers the scientific proportions of the human body in an ingenious way while still preserving the enigmatic mystery of a woman’s smile.

These are but a very few examples of the way in which art serves to draw our attention to ideas that we too often ignore or forget. The poet Robert Browning put it thus:

“For, don’t you mark? we’re made so that we love

First when we see them painted, things we have passed

Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see. . .”[6]

Why might this be the case? How can a painting, a sculpture or a drawing cause us to  love that which we have overlooked so often in reality? I would venture to say that when we see something for the first time through the lens that an artwork provides, we see its essence. Art comes to us an invitation. It invites us to know the truth of a thing. Great artists are firstly great observers. They teach us how to clearly see the details, the symbols, the wonder of everything around us. The English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called this the “inscape”[7] of all created matter, its inner glory. Artists possess the gift of turning the world inside out so that the invisible truth becomes visible. We are all created to yearn for this truth, and to love it when once we find it. There are times when a piece of art depicts something less than beautiful, even grotesque, but if it tells the story of the world’s brokenness or cruelty in a truthful way, it remains an important object of our study, if not our enjoyment. Art should provoke us on our ongoing search for the Truth, and our souls will remain unsatisfied until we meet that same Truth, face to face.

[2] Mason, Charlotte. The Philosophy of Education, Vol. 6 (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1989), 214.

[3] Seerveld, Calvin. Rainbows For the Fallen World (Toronto: Toronto Tuppence Press, 1980), 27.

[4] Rookmaaker, Hans. “Images of Man in Art,” L’Abri Fellowship, Lecture,

[5] Keller, Helen. The Story of My Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1904), 122.

[6] Browning, Robert. “Fra Lippo Lippi,” in  My Last Duchess and Other Poems, ed. Shane Weller (New York: Dover, 1993), 43.

[7] Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “Poetry and Verse,” Hopkins: Poems and Prose, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets ed. Peter Washington (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 123.

Image: (detail) "Children's Games" by Pieter Bruegel




We have seen those who possess every advantage and yet are ungrateful, anxious and generally dissatisfied with life. In contrast, we have seen those who possess few of the world’s advantages and yet are marked by gratitude, peace and joy. Like peace and joy, gratitude is a function of disposition, not situation. Those with the habit of being grateful have eyes to see and ears to hear the many gifts that are daily given – a blue sky, a friendly smile, fruitful work, good food, bright colored autumn leaves, a helping hand, an encouraging word. Yet, is there ever a day when we cannot find some excuse for ingratitude, anxiety and dissatisfaction? We can always find justifiable reasons for these, if it is our habit to do so. But, what is the fruit of this bad habit?

Not only do the grateful see and hear, but they also have a heart to appreciate. Appreciation, the pause of delight, the enjoyment of the giftedness of a thing. Appreciation discerns one who stands behind the gift and enjoys not only the gift, but also the giver. Appreciation is relational joy mediated through a manifestation of the Good, True and Beautiful. Gratitude and appreciation are mutually reinforcing; one does not last long without the other. We are made for both gratitude and appreciation, and when these are missing, the world becomes a dark, lonely and miserable place.

No other Lord of the Heart should do more to guide us into joyous and happy living than Gratitude. How good and glad it is to be grateful! The joy is not merely that we have received a favor or a little kindness which speaks of goodwill and love, but that a beautiful thing has come out of some other person's beautiful heart for us; and joy in that other's beauty of character gives more delight than any gain or pleasure which can come to us from favors. We lose this joy often enough because we are too self-absorbed to be aware of kindness, or are too self-complacent to think any kindness more than our desert. Young people are apt to take the abounding, overflowing kindnesses of their parents as matters of course; and so they come to miss the double joy they might have in a touch, a word, a look, a little arrangement for their pleasure, a thousand things over and above, so to speak, the love that is due from parent to child. A kindness is like a flower that has bloomed upon you unawares, and to be on the watch for such flowers adds very much to our joy in other people, as well as to the happy sense of being loved and cared for. You go into a shop, and the shopkeeper who knows you (I am not speaking of big stores) adds a pleasant something to your purchase which sends you cheerily on your way––some little kindness of look or word, some inquiry that shows his interest in you and yours, perhaps no more than a genial smile, but you have got into pleasant human relations with him because he has given you a kindness. There are two courses open to the receiver of this small kindness. One is to feel himself such an important person that it is to the interest of shopkeepers and the like to show him attention. The other is to go away with the springing gladness of a grateful heart, knowing that he takes with him more than he has bought.[1]

On this Thanksgiving Day, let us go beyond the benign annual ritual of the turkey-laden table, “Tell us something for which you are thankful.” And, in the quiet of our heart, let us pause to remember some good gift given by one who cares. Let us contemplate the gift and the giver until the corners of our mouth turn up in a faint smile. Then, if possible, let us communicate our gratitude and be twice blessed.

[1] Mason, Charlotte, Ourselves.


Making a Difference: A Practical Resource

Do you ever struggle as to whether you make a difference in the lives of your students?  “Make a Difference.”  It is the Imperative of my life.  But I struggle deeply with whether I am making a difference.  I am often anxious as to whether it is the successful Narrative of my life, and lately the struggle has been dead-centered on my teaching efforts.  After all, how can I know if I am making a difference in the lives of my students in the long run?  Anxiety and struggle represent the outcome of my dubious and abstract success metrics that try to look far into the future and deep into the heart. 

In her first experience as a teacher, prior to developing her educational philosophy and founding the House of Education, Charlotte Mason struggled with whether she was making a difference in the lives of her students. 

“Some years ago, I was accustomed to hear, ‘Habit is TEN natures,’ delivered from the pulpit on at least one Sunday out of four. I had at the time just begun to teach, and was young and enthusiastic in my work. It was to my mind a great thing to be a teacher; it was impossible but that the teacher should leave his stamp on the children. His own was the fault if anything went wrong, if any child did badly in school or out of it. There was no degree of responsibility to which youthful ardour was not equal. But, all this zeal notwithstanding, the disappointing thing was, that nothing extraordinary happened. The children were good on the whole, because they were the children of parents who had themselves been brought up with some care; but it was plain that they behaved very much as ‘’twas their nature to.’ The faults they had, they kept; the virtues they had were exercised just as fitfully as before. The good, meek little girl still told fibs. The bright, generous child was incurably idle. In lessons it was the same thing; the dawdling child went on dawdling, the dull child became no brighter. It was very disappointing. The children, no doubt, ‘got on’—a little; but each one of them had the makings in her of a noble character, of a fine mind, and where was the lever to lift each of these little worlds? Such a lever there must be. This horse-in-a-mill round of geography and French, history and sums, was no more than playing at education; for who remembers the scraps of knowledge he labored over as a child? and would not the application of a few hours in later life effect more than year’s drudgery at any one subject in childhood? If education is to secure the step-by-step progress of the individual and the race, it must mean something over and above the daily plodding at small tasks which goes by the name.[1]

Home Education (98)

Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy and method are the results of her extensive inquiry into how to effect real growth in students, to make a difference in their lives. 

As I have considered how to move away from anxiety over whether I am making a difference, I am going to engage more with a practical resource from ASI: the Reports of Growth.  The Reports of Growth measure Maturity Traits, Relationships with Content-Based Knowledge and Relationships with Skill-Based Knowledge.  They are to be completed at the end of each semester for each student.  As an introduction to the Reports of Growth, ASI states,

“Growth is the fulfillment of living things. It is what is intended for us as human persons. Physical growth is seen through height and weight differentiation; whereas, intellectual growth, spiritual growth, and relational growth are seen through changes in behavior and thinking. They result in skill development, in the ability to talk and write about a subject, and in the pursuit of further knowledge.” 

The Reports of Growth help the teacher to carefully assess changes in behavior and thinking in students based on meaningful evaluation criteria that can be seen on a daily basis and are important for each student in the long run, such as engagement with living ideas, joy in growth and relationships in the classroom, and submission to habit training. Whereas in past years I only turned my attention to the Reports at the end of the semester, I am going to become very familiar with the Reports of Growth prior to the end of each semester as a way to help guide my efforts and thoughts throughout the semester.  I encourage you to do the same.

Through faithfully applying Ms. Mason’s educational philosophy and method, and utilizing the practical resources offered by ASI, I have a sense of how to make a difference in the lives of my students – a sense of vocation beautifully expressed by one of the teachers trained under Charlotte Mason herself:

“I think none of us left without the sense of a vocation. ‘I have a life to give.’ Teaching was to be a mission carrying the breath of life to God’s children, going out ‘two and two’ with the mothers of our children to labour in God’s vineyard – not looking for results or rewards or for the praise of man but praying for our children that they ‘might increase’ even as we ‘decrease.’”[2]


[1] Mason, Charlotte. Home Education, (98).

[2] Cholmondley, Essex. The Story of Charlotte Mason, (75).


Talk Less, Ask More

In my last post, I explored the idea that “thinking love”[1] is expressed in part by a habit of seeking knowledge in areas of personal ignorance in the care of a child.  At the time, I was perplexed about how to “get” my newly-thirteen-year-old son to think more deeply about ideas that confronted him from school texts and life in general.  I had begun to detect what I thought was a tendency toward a lack of care in his thinking, a negligence toward his duty to attend.  To inform my ignorance, I returned to a passage by Charlotte Mason that I have studied in past years, but that instructed - and convicted! - me in a fresh way.  In this passage, she uses the term incuria, which means a lack of care, negligence, or neglect.

But what about intellectual tendencies, or 'possibilities for evil'? One such tendency dominates many schools notwithstanding prodigious efforts on the part of the teachers to rouse slumbering minds. Indeed, the more the teacher works, the greater the incuria of the children, so the class is prodded with marks, the boys take places, the bogie of an oncoming examination is held before them. Some spasmodic effort is the result but no vital response and, though boys and girls love school, like their teachers and even their lessons, they care not at all for knowledge, for which the school should create enthusiasm. I can touch here on no more than two potent means of creating incuria in a class. One is the talky-talky of the teacher. We all know how we are bored by the person in private life who explains and expounds. What reason have we to suppose that children are not equally bored? They try to tell us that they are by wandering eyes, inanimate features, fidgeting hands and feet, by every means at their disposal; and the kindly souls among us think that they want to play or to be out of doors. But they have no use for play except at proper intervals. What they want is knowledge conveyed in literary form and the talk of the facile teacher leaves them cold.[2] (italics mine)

This text opened my eyes.  My son’s “wandering eyes, inanimate features, fidgeting hands and feet” did not indicate a lack of care.  It indicated that I was off-method.  My “talky-talky” was leaving him cold.

As identified by Charlotte Mason, there is an inverse relationship between how much the teacher works and the extent of incuria in students.  Specifically, how much the teacher works at talking. 

Talking is work.  And it can lead to feeling tired and overwhelmed, which I was feeling.  Another inform-my-ignorance book that I have read recently at the suggestion of my husband, addresses this from the angle of coaching (by a boss) in the workplace.  The title is a good summary of the topic: The Coaching Habit: How to Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. [3]  Its premise is that talking less while asking more strategic questions is usually a better way to lead because it develops individuals.  He calls this a coaching for development habit in contrast to coaching for performance.  There are many reasons to develop this habit for the sake of the one being coached.  And in school where we are definitely aimed at development and not performance, these reasons shine.  But the author also outlines three significant drawbacks for the coach for not developing this habit of talking less and asking more.  Not coaching for development creates overdependence, leads to the coach being overwhelmed, and the coach becomes disconnected from the work that matters.[4] I was starting to sense signs of overdependence and disconnection, and I was overwhelmed!

The solution: ask more strategic questions, talk less.

This sounded familiar.  After all, this is a critical part of Charlotte Mason’s method of education.  The text is on the top of the educational triangle, not the teacher…Echoes of Bill St Cyr’s voice from the Ambleside internships admonished me to stay “on method” and to “trust the method.” 

There are many areas in which I can grow “on method,” but one that I am focusing on now is how to ask open-ended questions during the response time.  One question that the coaching book calls the AWE question and claims “has magical properties” is, “And what else?”   “With seemingly no effort, it creates more – more wisdom, more insights, more self-awareness, more possibilities – out of thin air.”[5]  It suggests that this follow-up question be posed after asking an initial question.  I can see it playing out like this in my schoolroom:

Teacher: What relationship do you see between Uncle Tom and Mr. Shelby in these first few chapters?

Student: Uncle Tom is a slave and Mr. Shelby is his owner.

Teacher: And what else?

Student: It seems like Mr. Shelby likes Uncle Tom because he didn’t want to sell him. But I don’t understand why he sold him anyway.

Teacher to the class: Who has an idea about this?

Student 2: Maybe because he felt a lot of pressure.

Teacher: And what else? (And a conversation around the text ensues.)

Equally important for me is to not be insecure when my son doesn't express all that I thought was important in the text.  In this way, I must trust the method, which comes down to trusting the Holy Spirit to be his teacher[6] while I talk less, and ask more.

[1] Mason, Charlotte.  Home Education, Vol. 1, pp. 2-3.

[2] Mason, Charlotte.  A Philosophy of Education, Vol. 6, pp. 52-53.

[3] Stanier, Michael Bungay.  The Coaching Habit: How to Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever

[4] Ibid, pp. 9-10.

[5] Ibid, pp. 57-58.

[6] I wrote about this in a blog four years ago.  Yep, I am still learning.  


The Science of Relations

...we have relations with what there is in the present and with what there has been in the past, with what is above us, and about us; and that fullness of living and serviceableness depend for each of us upon how far we apprehend these relationships and how many of them we lay hold of. Every child is heir to an enormous patrimony. The question is, what are the formalities necessary to put him in possession of that which is his? We do not talk about...educating him with a view to his social standing or his future calling. We take the child as we find him, a person with many healthy affinities and embryonic attachments, and we try to give him a chance to make the largest possible number of these attachments valid.

Charlotte Mason, School Education

One of Charlotte Mason’s most significant insights into the education of children is the idea of establishing a relationship between the mind of the child and the mind of the author, composer, artist, or poet he is studying.  The establishment of this direct connection creates a new and vital basis for education, which not only affects what a child learns, but how the child is then equipped to take that knowledge and apply it to his own life and growth in virtue.

I had been homeschooling my eight children for over twenty years when I attended training at an Ambleside internship in Denver.  I’m sure everyone else was wondering what I was doing there—didn’t I have it all figured out after so many years?  However, not only do I believe that we learn throughout our entire life, but also, from the perspective of many years of child-rearing and educating, I had realized my need for an educational approach that would strengthen the virtues of personal initiative and responsibility in my younger children.  I wanted to find a way of educating that resulted in my students and I being on the same team and not experiencing a situation in which I was the pushy teacher/mom and they were the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”!  I wanted a positive and supportive relationship with my children, and I wanted a method that resulted in them humbly supporting one another and not proudly competing for attention, affection, or rewards.  I wanted a method that would result in them seeing and embracing for themselves the joys of learning.  In short, I wanted a method that produced not only knowledge but a virtuous soul.

At the internship I learned it is important that education is based not on teacher- or student-directed models, but on a direct relationship with the material being studied—“the text” as the teacher. Placing the focus of education on the material has the effect of putting both the instructor and the student on the same “side”—one in which both learn and grow together. I learned why this approach was important and how to implement it by changing my instructional style. Instead of spoon-feeding information to my children, I inspired them through direct encounter with the author and his text and thoughtful questioning, which allowed them to develop their own understanding of and relationship with their lessons.  

I implemented this method at home with great eagerness and anticipation.  In the past three years, I have been so encouraged by the impact this “science of relations” has had on our lives. Following are some of the ways I have seen my children blossom as a result of the Ambleside method: 

An eagerness to learn

My younger children generally are happy to sit down and “do school”.  They are eager when approaching new material, and even older dry material that sometimes elicits a few moans and groans seems to grab their attention once we begin our work.

Taking responsibility for their own learning

On the few occasions I have been sick, I have been amazed to come out of my room to find the children working through their material just as if I was there. They understand for themselves now how to approach the material, how to read and narrate, how to ask questions of themselves and one another that address important principles/ideas presented in the reading.  They are willing and able to pursue learning and do their educational duty without needing me to be the enforcer.

An ability to engage with the material

By stepping away from trying to present my own opinions and ideas, I have created a space for my children to feel confident in engaging with the material we are studying.  Their insights are not the same as mine, but rather are their own reactions to ideas they encounter.  This is one of the greatest joys of this method—having the privilege to hear what they are thinking and getting a special insight into who they are as persons. 

Willingness to tackle difficult material

Small and steady increments of reading have resulted in my children being willing to approach more difficult reading projects in their own free time. Recently we finished To Kill a Mockingbird, and my son decided to read Go Set a Watchman.  When I asked him how he was enjoying that book, he said, “Well, I’ve just read a few chapters, but sometimes it can take almost half the book before you really get into the story!”  The virtues of patience and perseverance have been developed in him even at a young age by the Ambleside educational method.

Responsibility in other areas of life

Picking up after themselves, delighting in volunteer work, managing their own time, seeing a job that needs to be done and doing it without needing to be asked (like dishes or sweeping), practicing musical instruments faithfully, and gladly assisting a brother or sister who needs help have all been ways in which the lessons of duty and personal initiative have spilled over into everyday life for my younger children.

-Carolyn Haydu, Ambleside Home School

If you’re interested in learning more about Ambleside Schools International and attending one of our upcoming internships, visit our website at Look under “Upcoming Training” and “Ambleside Events” for more information and registration. For more information on our homeschool mentor program go to “Educator Support” and click on “Homeschool” at the top of the page. Come with friends!

Waking Up to Our Duties

An annual summer tradition for our sons is to attend a family camp with their grandparents.  This was the first year that one of our sons participated in youth camp, which is for students in junior high through high school. Although I did not attend the camp, I personally felt the difference upon registration this past Sunday.

It was my task to register four kids under 6th grade, including nieces and a nephew, in addition to my seventh grader.  There were tables in a long row with signs indicating the class grade.  At each appropriate table, I provided the requested information including age, birthdate, emergency contact names, emergency contact numbers, allergies, medications, any behavioral issues, whether the child needed to be reminded to go potty, the name of the adult who would pick up the child after each session, and “any other important information” they “needed to know” about each child.  Sweating under the hot sun, I diligently provided information designed to enable the best care of each child. 

Moving down the row, I came to the youth camp table.  In a split-second, with no words spoken but with a glance at the marked lack of any registration papers on the table, I recognized that I was supposed to step back. 

I indicated to my son with my eyes that he was to step forward. 

Freeze-frame that moment. 

See mom taking a deep breath.

When have you recently had to take a deep breath as something changed?  Something important to you.  Perhaps it was an unanticipated change.  Or, as in my case, perhaps it was a change that you knew was brewing but was crystallized in a moment or an event.

I felt like someone waking up to a new reality.

Or, as an employee might feel when she suspects that “something is up” after working 12 years at her job.  Then one day her boss comes and changes her job description--not so much that there is a new title, but enough that she feels she is not prepared for the new tasks. 

To Charlotte Mason, the mother’s job description is no less than the superintending and regulating of the unfolding of a human being in body and mind.  This job, as any other, requires preparation.

Is it, then, that the unfolding of a human being in body and mind is so comparatively simple a process that any one may superintend and regulate it with no preparation whatever? If not––if the process is, with one exception, more complex than any in Nature, and the task of ministering to it one of the surpassing difficulty––is it not madness to make no provision for such a task!?[1]

I am not fully prepared for this next stage of development in my son’s life.  I find myself with a lot of the same feelings of inadequacy that I had when anticipating labor, then nursing, then early habit training, then decisions about first foods, then early education decisions.  These feelings have been brewing this past year and intensifying.  I recognize that I need to grow in a range of new relational skills.  I also need to grow in knowledge that will help me make wise decisions about my son’s education and guide his growth in relationship with God, himself and others.  I am ignorant.

The good news is, according to Charlotte Mason, that my office qualifies me.  But how can I be ignorant, yet qualified?  An analogy comes to mind.  The Apostle Paul says of all believers that we are “blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”[2]  The Apostle Peter says that we have been “granted all things that pertain to life and godliness.”[3]  The Apostle John says that God has given us His Spirit.[4]  These things are true of us, whether we act on them or feel them, by virtue of our identity as children of God.  They are also the foundational provision available to us as parents and teachers.

But occupying the office is not enough.  Staying ignorant is shirking duty at any age in life.[5]  Indeed, Charlotte Mason spells out the duty that comes with the office of motherhood:

Mothers owe a 'thinking love' to their Children.––"The mother is qualified," says Pestalozzi, "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."

We are waking up to our duties and in proportion as mothers become more highly educated and efficient, they will doubtless feel the more strongly that the education of their children during the first six years of life is an undertaking hardly to be entrusted to any hands but their own. And they will take it up as their profession––that is, with the diligence, regularity, and punctuality which men bestow on their professional labours.

That the mother may know what she is about, may come thoroughly furnished to her work, she should have something more than a hearsay acquaintance with the theory of education, and with those conditions of the child's nature upon which such theory rests.[6]

Do you have thinking love?  Do you have a habit of seeking knowledge when you identify an area of your own ignorance in your care of a child?  What would this habit look like in your life?  Whether you are a parent or a teacher, or both, to whom or what do you turn when you need to be informed?  What provision are you making for the task currently facing you?  Perhaps a few new books and articles are in order, or a return to a sage favorite, such as the writings of Charlotte Mason.  Or, how about an in-depth discussion with your mentor or principal?  Whom do you need to come alongside you?  Is an Ambleside internship in order?  Have you spent time in God’s word seeking provision?  Have you submitted the task at hand to consistent prayer?  These are questions I am pondering as I prepare for this stage of my son’s growth as a person.  “Is it not madness to make no provision for such a task?”[7]


[1] Mason, Charlotte.  Home Education, Vol. 1, p. 3.

[2] Ephesians 1:3

[3] 2 Peter 1:3

[4] I John 4:13

[5] Mason, Charlotte. A Philosophy of Education, Vol. 6, p. 238.  Charlotte Mason speaks of children as “weak and ignorant persons, whose ignorance we must inform and who weakness we must support.”  Experience teaches that ignorance and weakness are common throughout life.

[6] Mason, Charlotte.  Home Education, Vol. 1, pp. 2-3.

[7] Mason, Charlotte.  Home Education, Vol. 1, p. 3.



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