AmblesideOnline: More Than a Booklist
When we think of curriculum, we usually think of a teacher's manual with matching student workbooks, and perhaps even some manipulatives that all come delivered in a beautifully packaged box. This type of curriculum is alluring because of its systematic nature. It's easy to check the box, and it makes progress feel more tangible. However, this type of neatly boxed curricula wasn't the norm in Charlotte Mason's time. This begs the questions: How do we apply her philosophy today? And what does a modern Charlotte Mason curriculum look like? Thankfully there are a few diamonds in the rough that do an excellent job faithfully following her methodology. Ambleside Online is one such option.
AmblesideOnline (AO) is a free Charlotte Mason curriculum. When I first began researching Charlotte Mason curriculums, one of the few I initially stumbled on was AO. Right off the bat, I was immediately struck by the unique sense of community and involvement of the advisory and auxiliary members. After reading through their website, it became clear that the women who created AO worked tirelessly to ensure they were creating a program that is as close to the curriculum that Mason's PNEU schools used, while also making sure that the books that make up the curriculum are accessible (in fact, many of them are available in the public domain). In addition, there is such a beautiful community and supportive network of AO moms that are quick to answer questions and/or provide troubleshooting. Below are some thoughts on what AO is (and isn't) as well as how some tips on how to get started.
Not a Booklist
AO is a complete (and robust) "curriculum that uses Charlotte Mason's classically-based principles to prepare children for a life of rich relationships with everything around them: God, humanity, and the natural world."¹ One of the common mistakes families make is seeing AO as nothing more than a great booklist. On the one hand, it does contain a list of nearly 700 outstanding living books that make up the curriculum. However, without a sound understanding of Mason's methods, it's easy to mistake AO as just a booklist.
Mason's didn't use teachers manuals or textbooks as we know them. Her schools used living books (i.e., quality literature) for the majority of subjects. This means students would read the chosen literature for a particular subject and narrate it (either orally or written, depending on the student's age). And that's pretty much it. No contrived unit study. No workbooks. No review study guides. No abridged twaddle. This is why when looking at AO's curriculum it can feel as though it's just a list of book. AO's books aren't intended to be supplementary because they are the main course. Coupled with her methods, students learn history, science, literature, citizenship through the living books that make up AO's curriculum.
Principles Over Curriculum
More important than any curriculum is understanding Mason's principles. Without that, AO can easily become just another curriculum where the need to check the box supersedes the need to provide our children with a true education. Even Charlotte Mason herself was hesitant to prescribe a list of books because she believed, "there is always the danger that a method, a bona fide method, should degenerate into a mere system."² In other words, any curriculum (including AO) makes a good servant, but a bad master.
AO's website reiterates this idea when it states, "Without the understanding of Charlotte Mason's vision, even a curriculum like AmblesideOnline won't give your children a Charlotte Mason education. It will just be another booklist, a collection of texts and subjects to mark off a checklist"³ Without understanding how AO fits into the broader scope of Mason's entire philosophy is like trying to put a puzzle together and finding out you only the edge pieces - you'll have an outline and perhaps even a vague idea of what the whole picture should look like, but it's still very much incomplete.
How to Get Started
First things first, you'll want to poke around AO's website - more specifically, be sure to check out their FAQ page (it reiterates everything mentioned in this article and more). Even better is to take the time to read Mason's first volume, Home Education. This one book provides so much insight into her philosophy, and also includes so much practical help in applying her methodology - regardless of curriculum. After that, you'll want to choose which year to place your child in. If you're not sure, the AO forum is incredibly helpful in offering advice of this nature.
Once you've decided on a year, you'll gather your books and any other needed materials. Families will need to decide on a math curriculum (and phonics program, if desired/needed). Other materials could include: printed pictures for picture study, a playlist of songs for the terms folksongs/hymns/composer study, nature journal, or handicraft materials. In addition, you'll want to take a look at AO's weekly schedule that lays out which chapters are to be read during which weeks.
AO provides a weekly schedule that outlines every that's scheduled. Terms are divided up into 12 weeks and there are three terms per year. The details regarding a daily schedule are left up to the unique needs of each individual family. For instance, you might decide to do your history readings during breakfast and geography after lunch. I've found the weekly schedules that AO provides offer enough guidance to know what needs to get done each week, but they also allow enough flex for each individual family to decide on a unique daily rhythm. If you're overwhelmed at the idea of translating AO's weekly schedule into a daily routine, you might find these scheduling cards helpful!
Lastly, AO is certainly not the only Charlotte Mason curriculum out there. In recent years there has been some renewed interest in her philosophy, and thus other curriculum options have become available. Some other trusted curriculums that are faithful to CM's methods include: Charlotte Mason Educational Center (CMEC) , Simply Charlotte Mason, and A Delectable Education, and The Alveary. Our family has chosen AO over other options because of the how faithfully it sticks to CM's philosophy and the fact that it's flexible and it's totally free. Also, the community aspect is huge - but this is not unique to AO; I've found that the CM community at large is a wonderfully supportive community, regardless of the nitty gritty of individual curriculums.
² Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p.9.