Today’s chat is with a nature loving Charlotte Mason mom who I was really looking forward to meeting at the In a Large Room Retreat this past February. I had heard about her from some other Charlotte Mason friends. They said she is generous and hard-working, and they said that she is a diligent student of Charlotte Mason. You can find some of her incredible articles on the blog that she co-owns with Art Middlekauff at Charlotte Mason Poetry. But what fascinated me even more about her was that I heard that she hosts a retreat which is considered a “must attend” in the Charlotte Mason world. I immediately wanted to pick her brain because I had the idea in the back of my mind to host a retreat in south Mississippi. When I found out she has children who are the same ages as my children, I felt more confident that it would be possible to pull off a Charlotte Mason retreat. If she could do it, then surely I could, too! When I emailed her and asked her questions, she was so kind to respond and help me understand some of the details about what all is involved with hosting one. She lives in North Carolina and has a smile as big as Texas, and she has amazing hair! You know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever seen her 😉 Maybe it helps that her former career before being promoted to home educator was a hair stylist? Anyways, I’m so excited for you to hear this Chat with my sweet friend, Brittney McGann, hostess of the Grace to Build Retreat.
Thanks, Brittney, for taking the time to chat with me! Let’s dive right in. What was the path that led you to Charlotte Mason?
When my oldest child was about 3 years old, my husband and I agreed that we would homeschool, so I started doing homeschool research. I read a general homeschooling book and the author listed several different styles of schooling. I didn’t even know that there were different styles, but when I saw that Charlotte Mason had living books and nature study, I was sold. Next I read Karen Andreola’s book and started reading blogs like Sage Parnassus. After that, I just keep going deeper and deeper in. I am so thankful to have started out with Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, but it still took me a couple of years before I began to really understand. Even now, I am just scratching the surface of this beautiful, biblical philosophy of education.
What is something about a Charlotte Mason education that you wish you would have had in your own education?
Nature Study and Handicrafts are the things I missed most in my own education.
Growing up, I was allowed a lot of free time out in nature, a thing I definitely appreciate, but the time was spent completely free. Except for instruction to avoid rattlesnakes, skunks and scorpions, I was given little more knowledge of the flora and fauna I might encounter. Because of school, I knew more about exotic animals than the animals in my own neighborhood. I made a point to learn about nature as an adult, and it was then that I realized how little I actually knew. I had a love for natural things, but there was a lack of intimacy, and my affection for the natural world was very superficial. I loved the idea of nature, but had no understanding for the reality of it. It has been about 8 years since I started to really study nature and I believe my life has been enriched because of it. My own children have grown up loving and really knowing nature.
As a young child, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. Between the four of them, they could knit, sew, work in wood, build houses from the concrete slab to the roof, paint, garden, make preserves, cowboy, fix cars, hunt and fish and do all the things necessary to do well on a homestead. I spent my early years around these people who could do and make things. I watched their skilled hands with awe. They were really good about letting me be in the middle of it all. My maternal grandmother especially included me in all of her making and doing. She gave me a love for doing useful things, taking pride in my work and serving others through the work of my hands. Sadly, both of my grandmothers died quite young and my parents divorced, so by the time I was nine or ten our family dynamics had drastically changed. I always felt this loss. Not only did I lose the people, but I lost the legacy of their experience and knowledge. It was like I had lost my inheritance and my connection to my grandparents and the generations that came before. Trying to make up for this void in my education has actually affected many of my life choices, and definitely my homeschool.
What’s in your kitchen sink right now?
Nothing is in my kitchen sink right now because I keep dirty dishes neatly piled to the left of the sink. When my husband works late nights (2-3 nights in a row every week) and I have to do our dinner, bath and bedtime routine by myself, I don’t wash dishes. It would compromise my sanity to do it. So, neatly piled to the left of the sink, I have 2 pans with lids from dinner tonight, two cookie sheets and a mixing bowl from cookies baked yesterday and a roasting pan from last night’s dinner. I thank God for the dishwasher.
What are some of the greatest joys you have experienced while homeschooling your children?
I love that I have the opportunity and privilege to know my children as people. Spending each day with them and walking alongside them as they develop and mature allows me to know them as they get to know themselves. There is freedom in a Mason education that allows for the differences in personality and encourages individuality of thought. I love when my nine year old is eager to relay a funny story from one of her books, complete with voices and gestures; and I am in awe of the understanding by my six year old daughter and three year old son when I hear them embroiled in a theological discussion as they build with Legos. I love that my children are so full of ideas and imagination that they don’t think to be self conscious. My oldest sees no reason why it is not perfectly natural to wear a bright velvet hooded cloak to church; my six year old has had a love of tiny things since she could walk and has been known to name beads and make accessories for them. My three year old is rough-and-tumble, but also the sweetest mama’s boy, full of snuggles and kisses. He already has impressive Lego skills and a nerdy level of knowledge about Star Wars (he makes his father proud). Simply put, I love that my children can be a bit weird.
Tell me the story of how Grace to Build came about.
Grace to Build Retreat was not something that I meant to do. God put it before me so gradually that I just kept doing the next thing and by the time I realized what it was, it was too late to turn back! A few summers ago I went to one of Sonya Shafer’s conferences, and I thought that it would be helpful to have her come to my town for the little CM group I was just getting started. I secured a date with Sonya, one year out and then I had to find a place. I thought I could go to my church, but then I found out that my pastor doesn’t allow it, ever, so I began searching for another location. Meanwhile, it was actually Sonya who suggested that I ask other speakers to come. I secured a location, 4 hours from my home, and then started inviting speakers. Much to my surprise, the speakers kept saying yes! I didn’t know anyone in the CM community, I wasn’t on Facebook and I had no online presence, so I didn’t have many avenues for getting the word out. There was a large financial risk involved and a lot of work, but I knew that God was asking this of me, so I continued doing the next thing. The CMI conference moved that year to Kentucky, leaving a void in North Carolina and Ellie Benson, of Charlotte Mason Living, (now a dear friend) contacted me to offer to help promote the retreat. We sold out the first year with just enough money to cover expenses and secure a location for the following year, which was all that I had prayed for. There have only been a couple of times that I have been sure that the Lord is leading me on the water and Grace to Build is one of those times. I was the least qualified person and there was no reason that it should have worked out, except that it was God’s plan. Intellectually, it was a very foolish risk for me to take, but God had cleared the way and He is faithful. Everything worked out beautifully. As long as God leads me to continue with it I will. Grace to Build will be held for the third time this November.
How would you encourage a homeschooling mom whose family is not very supportive of her career choice?
I would say to just wait it out. Trust God and trust the method. We had a few family members who were not pleased at the idea of us homeschooling because of the myths about unsocialized behavior. One family member, a former school teacher, even called to lecture my husband on the trouble with homeschooling. We are three years into official schooling and no one is doubting our decision. Not only do they see that our children are sociable and pleasant, but those family members are also wildly impressed with what my children discuss and are interested in. Our short school days and the varied interests of the children have actually allowed more opportunities for family members to build stronger relationships with them. I think that there are very few cases where family members will not come around to seeing the fruit of a Charlotte Mason education in the children, but in the rare case that that does happen, I think it is important to remember that this is something God call us to do. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what extended family members think; they are not the ones accountable for the education of the children, the parents are.
Tell me about a book (or a few) that you read within the last year that you really enjoyed and what did you like about it?
I’ve been spending a lot of time in Wendell Berry’s Port William books. I still have three or four more to go, so I think I will be there for a while longer. Maybe always. I love how he writes the books from different points of view so we see the stories of a community unfold through different eyes. I have loved getting to know the characters (I think I have a bit of a crush on Burley Coulter) and I love the feeling of community. In our modern society, people seldom stay in one place for very long, so we have largely lost our small communities with generations of families who have loved and labored together. As an introvert I see a freedom in that. Getting to know new people is a difficult thing, but being known and accepted for who you are with no pretense is a comforting idea. I am moved by the complexity of love described by Berry, the questions of religion, the endurance of the characters, the dignity of the elderly, the reverence for manual labor and the love for growing things. These books resonate with me in every way that I can think of.
You’re a new addition to the crayon box. What color are you and why?
Pale, golden yellow. Like light and warmth. Like butter made from grass-fed cows and sunshine on a clear summer morning. Bright, but not blinding. Cheerful and comforting. Not because that is who I am, but because that is who I want to be.
Answers © 2017 Brittney McGann
Wasn’t it great hearing from Brittney? I really enjoyed hearing the story of how Grace to Build came about and the faith journey that she made in the process. And it was so intriguing to hear how she is so intentional with choices about homeschooling and life due to circumstances she endured in childhood. What resonated most with you about her story? And have you ever attended Grace to Build? I have not but hope to this coming fall! Tell me all about your experience!