The Influence of Stories
Stories shape culture. I have been influenced by stories my whole life so I know this is true. As I started having children and reading to them, I discovered that I loved finding good books that would influence the way they saw the world. My goal is that they will grow a heart of compassion, gratitude, contentment, and wisdom – all of the good things that make up a good life. I was asked to share some of these books with you, and it is my pleasure to pass on a few of the treasures I’ve come across over the years. Since Christmas has just passed, these special books have been on my mind!
Everyday Acts of Kindness
Papa Panov’s Special Day is a classic folk tale adapted by Leo Tolstoy. The version I love is retold by Mig Holder with illustrations by Julie Downing.
This book was gifted to me by my big sister, she remembered it being read to us kids and wanted this classic to be passed on to our children. I don’t know if I’ve ever read this story out loud and not had tears streaming down my face at the end.
It’s a story of an old shoemaker in a small Russian village who was alone during the holidays that year, and while reading his Bible he thought about how if baby Jesus were to come to his place he wouldn’t have anything to give him. Then he remembered a tiny pair of red baby shoes, the best shoes he’d ever made. He thought he could give him those. As he dozed off reading the nativity story, He heard a voice, it was Jesus telling him “ you wished that you had seen Me, that I had come to your little shop and that you could give me a gift. Look out into the street from dawn to dusk tomorrow and I will come. Be sure to recognize me, for I shall not say who I am.”
The next day which was Christmas Day, he spends the day looking for Jesus. In the process, he sees many needs and helps people through small acts of kindness. In anticipation of missing his visitation from Jesus, he tells the story to each of the recipients of his kindness. They thought he was strange for expecting a visit from Jesus but wished him well for being so kind to them.
Over and over, he was worried that while visiting with the others that he had possibly missed the One he was hoping to meet. At the end of the day, His heart was heavy and he wondered if it was only a dream after all. “ I wanted to believe it so much. I wanted Him to come” And at once it seemed like someone was in the room, through his tears he saw a long line of people passing across the little shop, all the people he had seen and spoken to that day. As they passed, they whispered one by one, “Didn’t you see me? Didn’t you see me Papa Panov?”.
“Who are you?” he asked. And he heard the same voice as the night before…” I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me water, I was cold and you took me in. These people you have helped today-all the time you were helping them, you were helping me!”… So He came after all. I’ll remember that whenever I read the Christmas story. The gospel story is so beautiful. I cry almost every time.
An Extraordinary Gift
Ordinary Baby, Extraordinary Gift by Gloria Gather and illustrated by Barbara Hranilovich is a simple summary of the whole gospel story; from the promise God made to fix the mess we made in the garden through the promise that he would come to us. This book focuses on our relationship with God and His plan to redeem what was lost. My favorite quote from this book is: “ who would have ever guessed it! God thought of the best way to have his friends back. He would be an ordinary baby. That’s the way He planned it, maybe, so that we would come to him and not be afraid.”
The first part of the book is that summary and the last part of the book is a poem, which is actually a song. The book originally came with a CD, but we lost it before actually listening to it and we don’t have a CD player anyway. It’s worth typing out- I think it’s beautiful!
He was just an ordinary baby. That’s the way he planned it, maybe, anything but common would have kept him apart from the children that he came to rescue. Limited to some elite few, when he was the only child who asked to be born, And now he came to us with eyes wide open, knowing how we’re hurt and broken, choosing to partake of all our joy and pain,
He was just an ordinary baby: that’s the way he planned it, maybe, so that we would come to him and not be afraid.
He was ordinary with the exception of miraculous conception; Both His birth and death he planned from the start.
But between his entrance and his exit was a life that has affected everyone who’s walked the earth to this very day.
With no airs of condescension, He became God’s pure extension.
Giving you and me the chance to be remade. He was just an ordinary baby; that’s the way he planned it, maybe, so that we could come to him.
So that we would come to him and not be afraid.
Song of the Stars
My newest Christmas book addition is a board book called Song of the Stars-a Christmas Story written by Sally Lloyd-Jones with paintings by Alison Jay.
I love this book! I’m especially fond of good board books both because they are a rare find, and because small children won’t rip the pages. And I love reading to toddlers. This is quick enough for some toddlers but moving enough for any age to appreciate.
The beginning says, “ the world was about to change forever. And it almost went by unnoticed…”
The back of the book has a wonderful summary of this beautiful rendition:
The entire universe is breathless with anticipation… the joyous news spreads out across fields, deserts, oceans—from stars, to trees, to robins, to flowers. Sheep tell their young. Angels sing to shepherds. And together they all join in nature’s great chorus of praise to the newborn King. The long-awaited child has come.
Towards the end of the book after sweet anticipation is built up for the grand finale, “the animals stood around his bed. And the whole earth and all the stars and sky held its breath…the One who made us has come to live with us!…and they gazed in wonder at God’s great gift. Lying on a bed of straw wrapped in rags— a tiny little baby. Heaven’s Son sleeping under the stars that he made.”
A Good Foundation
I’m pretty sure there is no greater task than to share what we know of God to our children, and hopefully, they will build their lives on the foundation that we give them. These types of books are a great start!
I love to share the story of Jesus! To communicate the meaning of the nativity and shape the culture and atmosphere in our home is a joy to me. I encourage you to drop the focus on material things that is typical of the Christmas season and the stress of starting a New Year and pick up a few good books that bring us back to the greatest story of all time: the precious story of Jesus and His plan to redeem the world unto Himself.
If your New Year’s resolutions include adding more reading or more read alouds to your homeschool, I hope you will add one or more of my beloved books to your wishlist. Include them and their joyful message in your holiday celebrations and everyday reading! And remember that we are what we read – stories can shape our culture and our hearts!
(The following is a guest post from Marla Szwast, author and blogger. Find out more about Marla over on her blog, Jump Into Genius.)
Are you looking for great Classical Education books to get you started? Check out our favorites! Also, be sure to check out our Classical Education courses at True North Homeschool Academy.
The Liberal Arts Tradition – A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education – by Kevin Clark & Ravi Scott Jain
This is my all-time favorite book on classical education, in fact, before I read this book I did not think of myself as a classical educator. Although I had read other books on classical education and I taught my kids Latin, there was just something I felt was missing from the explanations of classical education. I still don’t go around telling people I am a classical educator although I fit into in the definition provided in this book pretty thoroughly. The big difference is summed up with this quote:
“Education is not merely an intellectual affair, no matter how intellect-centered it must be, because human beings are not merely minds…A full curriculum must cultivate the good of the whole person, soul, and body.”
In The Liberal Arts Tradition, you will be encouraged to feed the soul with music and great stories, the body with exercise and training (referred to as gymnastic) and the mind with subjects such as mathematics and linguistics. You will be introduced to the quadrivium and be led on a beautiful journey that reveals how all of these things work together to nourish and cultivate wisdom.
This balanced approach to nourishing all the parts of our humanity is what was missing when I read other books on classical education. Reading this book explained to me why I did many of the things I did and why I felt so strongly about them even though I could not logically explain my reasons until after I read this book.
I still don’t tell people I am a classical educator, because the term conjures certain images and I still don’t think I fit the box that most people have defined as classical education. However, if judged through the lens of this book, I come pretty close.
The Well-Trained Mind – A Guide to Classical Education at Home – by Susan Wise Bauer & Jesse Wise
This was the first book about classical education and about homeschooling that I ever read, my oldest was still in diapers when I bought this giant and dove into a way of education I had never heard of before. Many of my ideas about what an excellent education looked like were formed during this first encounter with a classical education. The book is full not only of great ideas but also practical advice guiding you on the various steps of the journey.
Since every time I read another book on classical education, I come across a different definition of classical education I will quote here the definition used in The Well-Trained Mind:
“It is language-intensive-not image focused. It demands that students use and understand words, not video images. It is history-intensive, providing students with a comprehensive view of human endeavor from the beginning until now. It trains the mind to analyze and draw conclusions. It demands self-discipline. It produces literate, curious, intelligent students who have a wide range of interests and the ability to follow up on them.”
The authors consider their book to be a handbook written to give you guidance and direct you towards the tools and schedules needed to create such an education. At over 700 pages it is certainly comprehensive and thorough.
The Core – Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education – by Leigh A. Bortins
I have to say I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading this book. I didn’t expect it to be very different from the Well-Trained Mind, but although it is coming from a similar framework I felt like I was reading a different story. This book weaves in references to the truth about how the brain learns such as the proven need for repetition. I enjoyed that as I very rarely see how the brain works referenced when I read about educational methods.
Leigh also has a way of taking current culture and weighing it against what we are trying to accomplish with a classical education. This book would be a great read even if you can’t manage to homeschool and just want ideas of how you can foster a classical culture within your own family.
The book takes you on a journey through each subject, talking about what are the most essential concepts and facts to be learned and also pointing out how once they have the grammar, (or facts and vocabulary) of a subject older children will naturally move into dialectic and rhetorical use of the subject.
I also enjoyed the perspective of Leigh as a mother who did not classically train her oldest two children but then did classically train her younger two. She has interesting observations about the differences in her kids who were classically trained but also encouraging remarks for those who don’t start on the journey until their kids are older, as was the case with her older set of boys.
“The purpose of classical education is to strengthen one’s mind, body, and character in order to develop the ability to learn anything.”
“The goal of education is to teach children to become adults who can handle complex ideas, in uncertain situations, with confidence. We feel confident when we can competently manage words and ideas.”
This book made classical education look easy. It sounds simple. Like a back to the basics journey, but without letting go of excellence.
The Latin Centered Curriculum – Home Schooler’s Guide to a Latin-Centered Classical Education – by Andrew Campbell
This book embodies a different definition of classical education.
“Classical Education is a curriculum grounded upon-if not strictly limited to- Greek, Latin and the study of civilization from which they arose.” (Simmons, p. 15)
Other than using Latin and Greek as your most-important spine, this method also considers math to be central.
“Mathematics, along with the classical languages, forms the core of the classical curriculum; math represents the Quadrivium as Latin does the Trivium.”
Andrew adheres to the idea of learning a few subjects thoroughly over learning a little bit about a lot of things. And those few things should be Latin, Greek, and Mathematics. (Later in the book he does mention the importance of music as another daily practice.)
He does not neglect the other subjects and devotes much of the book to details and suggestions of how to treat each subject. The emphasis is on Latin and Greek language, history, and literature, and other things are included with this in mind. For example, there are not as many English literature readings suggested at each age as you will find in other books. However, I found this helpful as many lists simply contain more material than it is practical to cover in a year.
One of the reasons for the limited focus of subjects is to ensure the child plenty of time for free reading, being read to, and the pursuit of the arts. He includes suggested lists of what should be read aloud to children of different ages and these are also refreshingly short.
If you are overwhelmed by long lists this book will give you a good view of what can be accomplished without long lists!
Reading these books may at first seem confusing because not everyone agrees on the details and definition of classical education. Perhaps that is how it should be, after all, anyone interested in classical education wants to have interesting conversations and arguments. Also, classical education is a bit too rich of a philosophy to constrict itself to one exact formula. The lofty goals of a classical education cannot be reduced to one neat formula. But there are many patterns that we can use as a framework for the education we will build in our own homes.
Reading the above books will give a deep and rich picture of what it means to be a classical educator and how you can weave it into your home. Some think classical education is burdensome and overly demanding. But the pictures I see painted before me when I read these books are full of both time to explore and to master the subjects which will enrich and guide our children throughout their lives. This matches my own experience.
Many people think I am crazy if I list off all the things my kids do in a day. They envision children stuck at a desk all day. Yet my kids have plenty of free time. We relax while we learn. They are developing as unique, confident persons. They enjoy a good video game daily, on top of the long list of everything else they accomplish.
It may sound complicated and overwhelming and it is easy to build a schedule and list of must do’s that is overwhelming. But a classical education can be simple, restful, and freeing. It is up to us to dig deep, look at all the beautiful suggestions spread before us, and throw out enough of those suggestions so that the design of our lives is not so crowded that it is ugly. Beauty needs room to breathe.
Marla Szwast lives in Marietta, Georgia with her husband and six children. She is a life-time homeschooler. She has written articles for The Old Schoolhouse Magazine. She is the author of Stepping Through History: Starting With You!, and a semester-long fifth-grade science course. Both courses are published online at the Schoolhouse Teachers membership website. She writes about homeschooling, child development, neuroscience, and the history of education on her blog at www.jumpintogenius.com, you can also follow her on Facebook @jumpintogenius, or Twitter @MarlaSzwast, or Medium. She is also a homeschool product reviewer, and yes, you will find reviews where she does not recommend the product!