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What is a Living Book? (with Leah Boden) {Season 10, Episode 117}

What is a living book? Listen for this answer and more in episode 117 of the Tips for Homeschool Science Show.

Season 10 of the Tips for Homeschool Science podcast is here! This season will be all about living books and science.

In this episode, we'll be discussing what living books are with Charlotte Mason education expert, Leah Boden, the Modern Miss Mason.

Key Takeaways

  • A traditional education spoon-feeds. A Charlotte Mason education asks of the child, "Why don't you contribute?"
  • Living books help our kids to form relationships with knowledge.
  • If a book is full of facts and pictures, it's not a living book.

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Episode 117 - What is a Living Book? (with Leah Boden, the Modern Miss Mason) Transcript


Living books have been the secret sauce to teaching all kinds of subjects in our homeschool. But when we first started homeschooling, I had no idea what a living book was. Over the years, I've learned to pick out those living books, the ones that will really engage my children, and are written by authors that are passionate about their subject.

But I wanted to invite one of the people that I've learned a lot about living books and Charlotte Mason onto the podcast today, Leah Boden, The Modern Miss Mason.

Hi, I'm Paige Hudson, and you're listening to the Tips for Homeschool Science Show, where we're breaking down the lofty ideals of teaching science into building blocks. You can use in your homeschool.

Please help me welcome Leah Boden, the Modern Miss Mason to Tips for Homeschool Science Show. She's been gracious enough to agree to be our very first guest on the podcast, but she's homeschooled her four kiddos from across the pond in the U.K. She's the wife to Dave. She's a writer, she's an author, she's a speaker extraordinaire. And she is the leading authority on how to bring Miss Charlotte Mason's work into the modern era.

So, Leah, thank you for agreeing to join us.


Thank you for having me. Paige. It's nice to be with you.

Who Was Charlotte Mason?


Not all the people who listen to the tips for Homeschool Science Show, they know who Miss Charlotte Mason is. Can you tell us who was Charlotte Mason?


Yes. I would love to introduce her to your listeners if they haven't heard who she is. So. So Charlotte Mason died 100 years ago. She we've just marked her centenary actually in January. And she was a revolutionary educator, British educator at the turn of the 20th century. And she she really saw the disparity between, I guess, the class system and education, how children were educated within the kind of upper and lower classes and what it looked like in Victorian Britain.

So children were seen and not heard. If they were from a lower class they would have kind of gone through the basics of some education. But then very early on in life, brought into a trade family business, a factory work, maybe something. And if children had better resources, if their family had wealth, there would be governesses and higher education and other opportunities.

And through her life, being a teacher from being in her teen years, she was training to be a teacher. She began to see and really feel in the classroom. This is a right, you know, children need to have this holistic experience, no matter what their background is, that there should be an education for all. And she talked about that she used the term, you know, a liberal education, not in a political sense, but in a wide and varied sense.

And she began to observe and pick up on this was going on in the country. And I she really wasn't until she was in her kind of mid-forties and began to write about it and talk about it. And she gave a series of lectures which then became Home Education, which is the first book that we know of in the series.

I mean, Paige, you can see behind me on this video, I've got these little pink books behind me. They're the six books of the year that these volumes of books so she then really in the second half of her life became this incredible advocate for children, a spokesperson for this living education that we understand today. And I'm kind of offered this alternative approach to childhood and education, which in turn impacted motherhood as well, because mothers were learning to come alongside their children in their education.

So, yeah, quite brilliant. Really, and quite brilliant that that was that. We're still talking about it today.

The Single Most Important Part of the Charlotte Mason Philosophy


Yeah, for sure. So if you could take one thing, what would you say is the single most important idea from her educational philosophy?


I would say that the primary one for me would be her first principle, which was children are born persons. And it sounds like a funny way of saying it nowadays, but they're basically she had this understanding, this foundational understanding that children come into the world whole and with personalities and ready to be able to connect and contribute to the world.

And often there was a kind of a, I guess, a narrative around childhood going round, which some people still believe today, that children are like a vessel to be filled. We know they are almost they're empty and we get to fill them or they're like a lump of clay that we get to mold and shape. And where was what Charlotte Mason was saying was actually they are made in the image of God, the whole they come ready into the world.

So whether, you know, whether we receive a child through adoption, through birth, when you're holding that child, they are able to connect and and contribute to the world. And that then really sets the tone for education. Now, you know, for the social that this is where things like living books, introducing them to nature, outdoors, this kind of foundations of scientific discovery, all these things are we're not shoving ideas in their head, but they were introducing children to an incredible world of literature, science, discovery, creativity.

And we get to immerse the minute and then say, Hey, what do you think? What what have you seen? What have you heard? And it's very much an inside out approach to education, whereas traditional education spoon feeds a Charlotte mason education asks of the child, Hey, why don't you contribute to this and tell me what you see? It's so wonderful and it's so liberating.


That's a beautiful way to look at it. Rather than spoon feeding and stuff. We're actually wanting them to take part and have an input in their education, which really in my classroom sets them up for a future. Learning to have this idea of learning for life, not just for the 12 years or whatever, absolutely many years they're in the school system.

So that's one of the reasons I like Charlotte Mason.

What is a living book? Or rather a living education?


With her educational philosophy and about that as a backdrop, how would you define a living book?


Yeah, great question. It's often one of those things that I think people think, okay, I'm starting to understand the philosophy, but where do I start to find these resources? So she used the term living in in a very scientific way is very organic word, which is basically there's a there's a giving and taking from the resource. So it's not just books.

She talks about living books and things. So we could add experiments into that. We can add creativity into that is fantastic. But if you're looking for a, you know, books to use to introduce objects and ideas to our children, we're really looking for something that doesn't look like a textbook. And that is a really easy way to start.

You know, textbooks have their place and she often, you know, later as children get older with things like grammar and things, she would often use them. It's not I think it's a bit of a myth that she never picked them up. But when you're looking for living books, that's a first kind of an easy thing to look for is the, you know, does is this a book that is full of color pictures that gives lists of facts and information?

What is a living book? Listen for this answer and more in episode 117 of the Tips for Homeschool Science Show.

Okay, this is not a living book and it's good to be able to cancel those out first. And what you're looking for is a book that has often generally one passionate author. So you read the first couple of pages and you are caught up in the story, in the narrative of whatever they're trying to teach. And I always say to people, do a 1-2 page test if you happen to be in a bookshop or a library.

Split difference. We shop often online. Don't we have a book nowadays? But you read that one two page, you know, read the first couple of pages and even a line you can read often. Dip into the books now and you can read about and does it grip you? Does it make you want to read on? One of the things I think is important is if you read a couple of paragraphs, could you put the book down and tell somebody else what you'd read?

Not parrot fashion, but could you reiterate the essence of what you've just read? This is very much, you know, then working with narration, which is another one of Charlotte Mason's methods. And so those things are some of the great tools. And nowadays I think it's important to be looking at, you know, can you children find themselves in the story?

You know, how can we see the cultures and a window into other people's lives? You know, not every book will have that, but it's a really good question in the 21st century to be asking of the books that we're using for our children. And so these are some of the ideas and one Sue Charlotte Mason said we need to learn to discern what are living bookcase so you know she has programs but really what she wanted us to do was you figuring out you know, you find out what brings life to your home.

You know, what books do your children fall in love with? What are they able to talk about afterwards? These are really keys to understanding what a living book is and living books can be found about, and they can cover science. Literature, you know, geography, history, the arts. I mean, you can find them about everything. And it's incredible.

And it's one of those things that once you tap into it, you start to recognize them everywhere. So it took me a few years. I relied on other people's lists for a while, but that didn't always work for me. Sometimes I'd get a book of a list and I and it just didn't work for my children. And this is when I began to think, okay, I need to learn this.

I need to I need to gain this skill myself so that I can start to look for the books. So, yeah, that's kind of the beginnings, really.


Yeah. And I think that's one of the things that's fantastic about all the stuff that you put out, the website, your book, your podcast is you really encourage us as educators to seek that out for ourselves to determine what that is for our family, you know, and that it's not just this prescribed set of criteria, but to look for what will work for your children and your family, because it's unique as homeschoolers, we're all very unique, which is a good thing.


Absolutely. Yeah, it's a great thing. It's something to be celebrated. Yeah.


I was going to ask you tips to help us pick living books, but you gave those two and sitting here look for offers that are.


Oh, sorry.


No, that's fantastic. That's great. Yeah. So and look for things that interest us and I love your idea of that. You know, read it a little bit, read a few pages and see what you think and see if it interests you. Yeah, because if it's not grabbing you right away, it's most likely not going to grab your children's attention either.

And I find too.


Yep. If you look.


Then that translates to my, my children, you know. Yeah. It's a lot easier.


If you okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah. If you're bored and you're kind of like dreading picking it up, then the children are going to feel that even more so. Yeah, it's a very good sign that it's probably one you should put away here.


Yeah. There's a certain series I won't name it because people will probably crucify me for not liking it. But there's a certain series, but everybody's like, Oh, you have to read this.


We all want to know now.


Yeah, yeah, everybody wants to know. I'm not telling you and I can't see the books. And so we've never read them all. Yeah, I'm sorry. My kids are missing out on that, but, you know, what do you do?


Yeah, we've had we've had the same we've tried books that everybody else has raved about. And, you know, there's I'm not I'm not much of a bandwagon kind of person anyway. I don't jump on things quickly, but there's been a series or two. The other people of everybody else's kids seem to love it and mine just don't. They have not enjoyed it.

And I think, well, that's just we just celebrate our uniqueness, you know, it's fine. I don't love all the same books that my friends love. So, you know, there we go.

How to discuss a living book


That's why there's so many wonderful books out there. When you guys read these living books, how do you discuss them with your children? Because you mentioned narration being one of the hallmarks of Charlotte Mason's philosophy. So how do you guys go about discussing a living book? Do you do it as a reading? Do you finish, you know, once you're finished the book or how do you handle that?


Yeah. So narration is one of was and is one of the main tools really for a Charlotte Mason education. It's a method that ties everything together and makes everything work and take some practice and some understanding, but it's worth giving the time to. And for me, it's one of the most powerful parts of the Charlotte Mason philosophy and so it's just really what it is in simplicity is telling back what you have heard, seen, read, listened to, whatever.

So it isn't just about the books. It can be looking at a piece of art, listening to a piece of music. And then as you step away, can you retell that experience to somebody else? Can you describe it? Can you explain it? And what happens in the retelling is that you, you and the child forms a relationship with it, with the with the knowledge.

And, you know, not everything is remembered, but some of that as you begin to retell it, you know, we all know a lot of us know that you when you teach something, you learn it more than ever. You know, you ever can. It goes deeper. So the more you know, for me, for years and years and years, I've been teaching these elements of the Charlotte Mason philosophy, and I could talk about it in my sleep now just because I'm telling people about it.

And so you imagine that same process with your child. So they read you either you depending on the age of the child, this looks different. So with young children from about the age of six, you know your reader, a small paragraph to them and or a short Paige of of a book. And then you'll put the book down and say, okay, let's, let's talk about what that you know.

So the classic thing is to say, tell me back what I just read. I never really stick to things like that or even used the word narration. I think it has to be natural. So I'm like, All right, let's talk about this, you know, and you just open the floor for discussion and for them telling you, Well, I loved it when this happened, and then the character did this and then they found this new land and did it, and they just start talking and what can happen then is it just becomes normal that you talk about things after a bit, after a reading.

Now, once you've introduced it to the child at a young age, you've got the beauty of it growing with them and the method grows with them. So you can add the more formal element to it then as the child gets older. So you might read a history book. Some little tips for that is if you've got dates or places that are difficult to pronounce, then you know, I've just got like, you know, a white board wipe, clean board or something like or even a piece of paper.

And you just jot down those things on a piece of paper. So this is the year and this is the spelling of this name, because what happens, the brain concentrates so hard on trying to remember that date, but you just don't listen to everything else. So you kind of eliminating some of those barriers for them by writing some of that information down.

You'll read the text, you'll read the history story or whatever is your reading. And then again, hey, let's talk about this. What happened to Richard, the Fed or whatever? And you start to talk about it with these little prompts that you've got and it just helps them. You don't try to trip them apart or, you know, you're not trying to help them fail, you know, watching for what they don't know.

You're excited about what they do know, what they have heard. And then as they get older, they can then turn those oral narrations into written narration. So they start to write those things down. And then as they got into their teen years, they can start to form compositions from those. So there's this beautiful, gradual progression of depth and richness of learning that comes from this very simple method.

And as I say, you can apply it to anything. And also just to throw in as well, you can get creative with this. So if children are quite young, they might build Lego re-enactments of something, they might act out, they might draw a picture of a history thing they've just read about. So get creative with it. Do whatever you think will bring this learning to life for your children.


Yeah, yeah. I really like that. It's more about bringing it to life for them rather than you checking off a box. I tend to be very analytical. Little checkboxes make me just really happy. So for me, like the introduction to Charlotte Mason and bringing it into this world is really helped me just kind of relax that that side of me and be more about enjoying the experience and bringing that richness to our children's education and yeah, so I one.


Hundred percent.


Right with the and the progression to I don't know if your kids have all been the same, but they both went through that progression differently, you know. So one of them was ready to write pretty soon. The other one still doesn't like to write. So, but that's.


Fine. Yeah. Oh mine have been quite different.


Yeah. Allow yes to do that.


And you just so yeah. All mine all have been very, very different and they've all had different approaches over the years and different responses to it. Some were just not ready. I mean, if ever there's tears over narration, over written narrations, I'm like, Pause. You're not ready for this with one child? I waited a whole year before I approached her again.

They were just in tears over trying to do these written narrations. I just stopped it altogether, took it off the table. Just say, okay, we're not going to do this. We kept on with the oral narrations. And really what I learned there was I mean, you shouldn't it's best not to tackle written narrations until your child is fluent and fluid with their oral narrations.

That's a really good telltale sign. But even with this particular child, it was the translating it from the head and speaking out into paper which needed some more work. And so we waited a whole year, revisited it, and by then they would just write in reams and reams and reams couldn't stop them. So timing is everything. And I think being kind to the child and to the whole family around this is, you know, take off the pressure, don't push through, just pause and then persevere with them as a person rather than the task.

And I think that's really important.

Leah’s Living Recommendations for Science


Yeah, they're just really good. So do you and your family, have you enjoyed any specific living books for science since this is the tips for Home School Science Show? So do you have any recommendations that you have?


Yeah. I mean, we've, you know, the foundation of scientific study within the Charlotte Mason philosophy is nature study and which I think is great because we've built upon that over the years. And as they got older, we introduced more scientific discovery and experiments. We started to go into like more physics and chemistry. But, you know, I love those beginnings.

I love the idea of them exploring nature and them learning observations, skills, reporting skills, recording skills. And so some of the books that I've absolutely loved with that stage have I'm looking to my right because I should have had them next to me paid. I'm so sorry I failed you, but they really were. Some of those weren't were nature, such as themed books and more of those kind of biological plant biology and those made in a really lovely way, very much about observational skills, record being a little bit of kind of looking at the inside of leaves and flowers, but also very seasonal.

So they were really fantastic. I love books like that. I've always had loads of field guides. I mean, I always saw those as quite science books for me as well, but as the kids have got older, yeah, and we've discovered different things. I'm just looking at couple books now. We've got a book called The Disappearing Spoon, which is a very much for older kids, which is about the periodic table of elements.

So that was quite an interesting one. There's another one called The Joy of Chemistry, which again is jumping back into those older years. You probably know that one.


Yeah. Yeah. Some of those older books are they're fun to look at when you go back. Yeah. And see how many advances there's been. Yes. Since then. But yeah.


Absolutely. Yeah. And some of our practical we discovered some kind of really practical hands-on experiment books by I think she's an American author, a lady I'm trying to remember what her name was now. But she had these books where they were just very simply like explaining an experiment and kind of putting the power into the children's hands to do that discovery.

We use a lot of those and we would do that for a little while. Yeah. Is that what's her name?


Janice VanCleave?


Yes, that's the one.


She has one. That's her.


They're the ones.


Yep. Love those. Yeah.


Yeah, that's the ones. Well done, Paige. I'm looking to my left. I've got a science section on my shelf. My eyes aren't that good.


So yeah, I know. The older you get, the eyes go, mine do.


And I'm wearing contacts as well. So yeah, we found those really helpful because she really disempowers the child, doesn't she? And that person is doing it to to do that experiment and we use a lot of those. So for a whole for a whole year, we gathered with four or five families to do science experiments together. And that was fun.

And then the other thing we did was we explored the periodic table of elements together, and the kids would take away one of the elements every week and they would study at home. And then the next week they would do like a mini presentation, like a narration, and then the kids would all hear from each other. So we've tried so many fun things with science, but it's great and it just kind of then opens up.

Then my, my eldest daughter went on to do all science is in fact in sixth form before she she graduated. Yeah, she did all sciences which, which is amazing really, because you just think, wow, all we did really was introduce many aspects of it. And she took that. She took that even further. So you never know where your children are going to take it.


Yeah, I think there's this kind of fallacy in the ideas that nature study is not enough for science. But really, if you look back in history, that's how science began, was with nature study, you know, people asking and seeing things in nature and wondering why this is happening. So I think nature study can be a wonderful base for the beginning of science education.

It's really great.


But it is great. I love the questions that that John Myers law yeah is it John Muir doctor Joe I love the questions that he asks. He, he talks about I, I, it reminds myself I have to find it. But I did write them in the book. I notice I wonder it reminds me of and those questions.

That's how science begins, isn't it. Right. Anything really. Like why does this happen? How does this work. Yeah, this reminds me of and I love all the. Yeah.


And silly that in our kids is really super important to get them to wonder to notice things. And that's how we create future scientists. So yeah, definitely. But tell me about this, your book. I have been slowly savoring it. I love the butterfly on the front, by the way. Awesome cover. But I think slowly, slowly savoring a chapter at a time.

Even this I've been homeschooling for, oh, I don't know, 20 plus years now. And yeah, even I'm picking up things and it's wonderful, very encouraging book. I love how you say curriculum or I'm sorry connection over curriculum. That's been a big feeling of mine from the beginning to that idea that we've got to emphasize our connection with our kids over the to do box or the curriculum or whatever we're doing.

The Modern Miss Mason Book


But yeah, so tell us a little bit more about how your book came about and where people can get it and that kind of stuff.


Yeah, sure. Well, thank you. Yeah. I mean, the book is available now. Everywhere you can buy books from, it should be anyway. Definitely in the U.S. and North America. It's widely available there. And the book came about really after many, many years of my, you know, me home educating and being a a student myself of Charlotte Mason's work and the practitioner of her methods.

And I think after years of doing this and then starting to share, doing workshops, speaking at conferences, you know, do start in the podcast, all these kind of things. I started to do that. I was recognizing patterns of response and patterns of what people were saying. This is so helpful to me. This is so life giving. So even the phrase that I'll often say about finding your freedom within the philosophy, I think I haven't realized how many barriers there were.

People were creating these like sticking points of, you know, feeling like I should do this or I must do this and this has to be right. And the whole tick box kind of if I get all these things done, I'm doing it right. And there's nothing wrong with tick ticking things off lists. I like a list, but it's the feeling of feeling constrained by something rather than it being.

Life giving was what I was discovering. And so after, you know, after many years of kind of this almost like data, you start doing coaching and doing workshops and all this kind of stuff. You recognize these patterns in people's lives and in people's homes, schools that I just thought, you know what? We need to bring some something needs to be published in that, you know, now that will help change this way, this way of thinking around this philosophy.

And because with, you know, there's a whole there are six books that Charlotte you can read of Charlotte Mason's work, but some people will home educate and they will never read these books. They just won't. That's just not going to be something they do. But they might pick up this when they pop into Barnes Noble or whatever they might go, Oh, I want to read that.

And so I think it's good to have both right and to have something available. And so, you know, I had beautiful well, well-meaning people saying, you should be writing, you should write, you should write. And so after a while and you know, the connection, the right connections just suddenly happened at the right time for me to be able to get a literary agent, which is amazing.

And then the ball starts rolling of this idea of this book. And, you know, all it takes is one publisher to say, we want to get behind this. And that was it was just really exciting to be able to actually put this out into the world. And, you know, the encouraging thing, Paige, is that similar to you, I've had many of my fellow kind of veteran home educators who have been saying, you know, they read it because they were kind of curious about it, but not reading it, thinking it would be helpful to them or have anything particularly for them and what they finding is, oh, you put it in a different way or there's a refreshing element about this. So especially because a whole third of the book is on motherhood and that is quite unique for a Charlotte Mason book. I know we've got books on mother culture, but she wasn't a mother. So often people you don't go to Charlotte Mason to learn about motherhood, but there were some things she had to say about the ones who were taking the responsibility of the child's education.

Hey, you need to be continuously learning as well. And so it's those aspects that have really kept it alive for me, and I wanted to put that in the book as well. So it's got three sections Childhood Motherhood and education. Obviously, it's still it's still not so much scratching the surface, but there's just an element that I was able to bring into whatever it is, 200 pages, but I tried as much as possible to listen to those I've been working with, to listen to those I've been coaching, to listen to the wider community and to bring, you know, to offer a book that maybe would help this next generation of home educators and refresh those of us who have been here for a while.


For sure. I think that's exactly what it does. A great job. Well done.


Thank you.

Where to find Leah Boden


Where can I find you online?


Yeah, I'm very easy to find. Where should we send them? And if they type modern Miss Mason into a search engine, anything that comes up with will be me. So because the books call that, but my Instagram handle is called the my website. So and both kind of end up in the same place so yeah if they just pop bottom is Mason in and you'll be able to find me.

I've got a Facebook Page, all that kind of stuff, but I'm mostly hanging out on Instagram. That's where I put fresh content up weekly and obviously I'm the website's got everything on there. I do a membership called The Collective, so that's a running as of this year that's going great. And so yeah, people can come over and find me and come and join in with what we're doing.


Wonderful. Well, I really appreciate you coming on the tips for Homeschool Science Show. And I hope actually I know that people will have gotten lots of nuggets of wisdom from our conversation. So thank you for joining us.


Thank you so much for having me.

Wrapping it Up


Thanks for listening to Season 10 of the Tips for Homeschool Science Show, which is sponsored by her company, Elemental Science. At Elemental Science, we have several series of award-winning programs, including a series with living books to help you teach science. Sassafras Science Adventures will help you enjoy a journey as you learn about science. The newest installment of the Sassafras Science series is coming out in April of 2023.

This volume will be a journey through the periodic table. It's all about chemistry, which is my personal favorite subject. Head over to Elemental Science dot com. To learn more about the Sassafras Science Adventures and see how we can help you teach science.

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