Music Studies for the Musically UN-Inclined

So, how does a music study work for the musically un-inclined teacher?


Music studies, why do them?  I mean really, with all the information and experiences I am trying to expose my children to day after day, is there really time?  Quite frankly I couldn’t have imagined ever being the one to say, YES!, but here I go.

Last summer, at the CMI retreat in Los Angeles, each daily session was started singing a hymn and a folk song accompanied by a piano.  The first day was a bit awkward for me.  I’m not what you would call musically inclined.  I can’t read notes, challenged at playing a kazoo let alone an instrument made of wood or brass, and though I enjoy worship in church, my voice might be closer to “a beautiful noise unto the Lord”.  However, I walked away from the experience enlightened.

First of all, music is FUN and FUN is a very important aspect of learning!  Music involves self-expression and that is a valuable skill to exercise.  Music is inspirational and as educators, that is one of our goals.  Music has a lovely and subtle connection with history.  Music adds life and depth to both cultural and biblical history and history does the same for music.  Lastly, music can affect our hearts and minds, bringing peace, joy or just a proper perspective to the moment.  In short, from my perspective, music is the color to an otherwise black and white day.

So, how does a music study work for the musically un-inclined teacher?  I started with choosing one hymn and one folk song for each month.  I researched it’s history, printed out it’s verses and found the songs on Spotify or YouTube.  When I introduce the song for the first time, we read through the verses while the music plays and take notes if there are any variances in the wording.  After that, we sing along with the song, finding our timing and melody with the music.  One morning we go over some of the vocabulary they might not understand.  Some mornings we talk about the concepts expressed in the song.  Sometimes I can find a Bible verse that goes with the hymn and we discuss that.  Sometimes the songs have fascinating authors or history and we learn about that.  Each morning we sing one of our songs and discuss one of these aspects until the month is through and the selections are changed.  It has been inspirational, encouraging, funny, thoughtful and interesting.

Will we ever discuss music theory, learn to play an instrument or hire a singing coach?  We’ll see.  But for now, the world of music is filling my home and our hearts as it adds a new layer of interest to our studies.  I know it’s making an impact on our lives because even the dogs have taken to howling with us!

Drawn to Know

I was pre-reading a resource for the CMI Retreat this summer.  The book was “The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling” by John Muir Laws, who was also the keynote speaker at the retreat last August.  Within the first few pages I read, “You cannot truly know something until you have drawn it” and I stopped.  Think about that for a moment.  Isn’t that rather profound?  Consider what would happen if we sat down and drew something we really didn’t know or understand.  Imagine all the focus of attention, the time and concentration we would put on that ONE thing before it was drawn to completion.  What would happen?  Would we notice things we hadn’t seen?  Would we wonder about it and have curiosity spark?  Would we relate to it as we compare it to other things or experiences?  Of course we would!  And in the end, we would know it deeper and more intimately than ever before.

This was only the beginning of the epiphanies I enjoyed as I journeyed through this amazing resource and listened to his multitude of presentations at the retreat.  It opened my eyes to a brand-new way of approaching Nature Studies in our home and why we should continue to fight for room in our ever-tightening schedule for time outside, in nature.

I came with the understanding that nature study was THIS….  botanical-example

Every day I should pack up the kids and go outside with our nature journals for 2-3 hours.  We should be enjoying our time as we look for something natural that interests us and then we should draw it.  It shouldn’t take too long; the kids would love it, they would learn to focus and become inquisitive, develop powerful skills of deduction for studying science in the later years and in the end, we would have a whole journal full of beautiful documentation of God’s creation and plenty of joyous memories to boot.

In our best moments, we had some lovely memories of picnics in the park, working on journals and doing some of our reading for the day while enjoying lunch.  That was at its best.  I struggled to get out of the house more than once every couple of weeks.  Frustrations rose over our drawing skills; the huge gap between the reality on paper and the expectations in our heads.  In the end, it was hard to justify the investment with little to show in accomplishment, all the while thinking if I had just started this when my kids were younger they might have enjoyed this more.  I had conceded this wasn’t for us.

WAIT!  Don’t throw in the towel!  In steps Mr. Laws with a whole new paradigm shift.  First, he introduced the idea of “I notice”, “I wonder”, “It reminds me of….”  These prompts have begun to permeate our whole world of studies and ignite in us a growing flame of curiosity.  While we are observing Nature, we are challenged to identify exactly what we are seeing by completing the statement, “I notice…..”  Then we are encouraged to find questions by finishing the sentence, “I wonder…….”   Relating our new concept or object to something we have already experienced brings us to the “It reminds me of…..”

For example, as I spy an insect on the ground, I speak my observations out loud.  “I notice this critter has four pairs of legs but he also has two long arms which come from the middle of his body and he lifts them when threatened.  The arms remind me of a small scorpion because they have little pincers on the end.  I notice his head is a flesh color but his body is spotted and brown like a cricket.  He is very active and moves quickly.  He also has two pairs of mandibles on his head so I wonder if he is carnivorous.  You can see two close high-set eyes on his head.  I found him at night so I wonder if he is nocturnal.”

A little research took me to a website where I identified it as a Sun Spider or Camel Spider (Solifugae).  Quite a ferocious arthropod, I learned the arms are called pedipalps.  But it did not answer my questions about his behaviors.  I will have to continue my quest on that information.  Notice, I didn’t rush to identify.  The more time you take to notice and ask questions (think about the who, what, why, when, where and how), the more you will see and create a relationship with what you are observing.  Identifying needs to be the VERY LAST thing you do in your journal entry.  But, the very FIRST thing you should do is notate the date, location and weather.  Everything recorded on that page can now be considered scientific data.img_1451

Do you see the whole new level of purpose we have just applied and achieved in learning with Nature Studies?  I don’t have to point out that I am not an artist and my journal is nowhere near “beautiful”.  It actually has quite a bit more writing than I normally do, in part because a certain distance was required to observe this guy… and he was quick!  Detail was challenging.  But you know what my journal is?  It is mine.  It records what I saw, what I was interested in and helped me store that experience for future learning.  That’s what we want for our students, right?  We want something applicable to them!

I would like to encourage you, separate from your Nature Studies, to offer some instruction on basic drawing techniques.  This is not about making our pictures prettier, but improving our ability to communicate beyond words.  For some learners, this is a precious relief from the world of words.  This was surprisingly frustrating for my dyslexics who struggle with varying levels of dysgraphia.  Our approach was a discipline of expressing ourselves for who we are and resisting comparing ourselves to others who are expressing themselves for who they are.  Whatever the case may be, basic drawing skills can reduce frustration for hesitant drawers and broaden our ability of expression.

Also, it is imperative that you embrace nature studies, or any studies for that matter, with the same amount of enthusiasm that you want your students to have.  If journaling does not become a priority for you, it will not be for them.  Get yourself a journal, grab a few supplies (also discussed in his book) and your student’s hand, and go on a journey together, exploring the wonders around you.

Mr. Laws’ resource is a vast amount of information.  Not only does he spend well over half his book guiding his readers through artistic techniques for capturing nature on paper, but he has a whole chapter of suggestions on different types of journal entries, such as:

  • Draw what you see
  • Pick a subject and choose different perspectives and scale
  • Observe changes over time
  • Choose a species and look for similarities or differences.

I particularly liked the suggestion to take some string and tie the ends together.  Open it on the ground and observe anything that is going on inside the stringed area.  Narrowing down the area of observation seemed to help overcome anxiety from being overwhelmed by the great outdoors.

You can approach nature journaling as a unit study and focus on one element at a time.  An intense look at local birds, insects or geology, as an example, can be a great place to get started, especially with younger children.  Older students might like a more independent approach and may appreciate the development of awareness by giving them quarterly goals for observation.  For example, over the next 6 weeks, my students will need to document 5 local plants, 3 local trees, 5 local birds and 5 local insects.  They may decide what they record and when, but I look for them to be exercising the techniques we have already discussed and becoming aware of our surroundings.

“You cannot truly know something until you have drawn it.”  If someone drew me, the evidence of age would, no doubt, be obvious.  But would they notice that my wrinkles are laugh lines?  Would they wonder how I got that scar on my shoulder?  Would they recognize the color of my eyes as the same as my dad’s?  There is so much to be known about the world around us.  If we can inspire and teach the habit of wondering, noticing and developing relationships, we have infected a new generation with curiosity and helped them to think like true scientists on the never ending road to discovery.

Mason and the Older Child

In August, I attended the Charlotte Mason Institute Western Retreat in Los Angeles, at the American Jewish University overlooking the Getty Center.

Let me start by saying that these retreats are really unlike anything a home schooler has experienced.  I have gone to conferences and conventions aplenty!  They are great experiences and I generally come home wiped out from trying to drink from the fire hose of ideas and suggestions they provide.

I noticed a marked difference in myself when I left my first CM retreat.  To begin with, I wasn’t frazzled or belabored.  As I packed my things to leave, my mind was FULL of new concepts and ideas that I had been taught, better equipping me for the tasks that lay ahead.  I was mentally busy considering new ways to approach challenges and offer inspiration in our learning experiences but it wasn’t overwhelming.  I had experienced a rich banquet laid before me in a peaceful and thoughtful setting and I was returning home refreshed, energized on every level and ready to be a better educator for my family.

I attended a Preconference Immersion class for the first day on Teaching the Older Child by Kerri and Kathryn Forney.  This presentation was a very good overview of some of the basic CM concepts and then how to apply them to older child.  Here were the ideas I was inspired by:

  • Systems vs Methods: A system is a set of plans which, if used as directed, should produce a desired result.  A method is a “the result of principles, living organisms, which have powers of growth, expansion and adaptability.”  I found significance in the idea that our children deserve respect enough to be the individuals that God created them to be.  No system will serve all because of their individuality and therefore, they are worthy of nothing less than a method with built-in flexibility to accommodate.
  • It’s all or nothing… we either apply the methods as a whole or don’t use them at all.  We can’t encourage a child to flourish in the joys of a book for one subject and then mine for facts in the textbook of the next subject.
  • “The function of education is not to give technical skill but to develop a person; the more of a person, the better the work of whatever kind.” CM v6p136  Life is bigger than the hoops we jump through.  Are we aiming for the hoops or the goal on the other side of the hoops?
  • We seek to develop the whole child.  Transformation is the end goal of education, not completion of a workbook.  They have a natural craving for knowledge and if offered a rich feast, they will happily partake in it.  Oh, and I loved this idea; Knowledge is not what he knows but who he is.  It is the consumption of an idea and the application of it.
  • Education is not information.  It is a relationship or an experience; it is a full life.
  • The role of educator is guide. It is the teachers responsibility to open many doors in different directions, staying in the background with enough direction to enable the student to explore with success.  Promote self-education and not forced intellectual feeding.
  • Information does not become knowledge unless the child decides to “know” it themselves.  Guide toward self-education.
  • Narrations:  We read- we narrate- we know.  What we do not narrate, we do not know.  But narrations are not a regurgitation of what was heard.  It requires the narrator to process the information again, from auditory to verbal skills and share the connections that were made.  What they get, they get.  Be okay with what they don’t get for the time.
    • Some ideas for varying narration:
      • Write in the style of the author
      • Make illustrations of the reading
      • Write 5 questions about the reading
      • Do you agree or disagree with the character’s decisions in your reading?  Why or why not?
  • Scheduling: Consider completing all book work in the morning while all our mind’s are fresh.  Try to keep the subjects no longer than 30-40 minutes (for older children), a total of no more than four hours.

Each one of these points are worthy of their own conversation but that will have to be for another time.  These were the nuggets I took away from the class and I continue to work on implementing them.  I think my biggest challenge is stepping back as an educator and developing self-education in my children.  How about you?  Where is your biggest challenge with the ideas mentioned?