It’s been more than a year since Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered all schools in the state closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Ambleside School, a small, private K-8 school in McLean, Virginia, began instructing students at home.
When last fall arrived and public schools remained closed, Ambleside—like other independent schools in the area—began teaching in person, and parents who had never considered private education went searching for an alternative to their school’s online offerings.
Months later, with the 2021-22 school year approaching, parents are still searching, but this time they are more desperate. Watching Zoom classes over their child’s shoulder has awakened their longing for something more for their children’s school days—greater connection, engagement, and inspiration.
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While the public discourse about schools continues to spin, the transactional nature of our educational system has been painfully exposed. America’s classrooms have prioritized content over connection for years, but it has taken a pandemic to make parents aware that their children have fallen through the cracks.
Ambleside School in McLean—along with 23 other Ambleside schools around the world—is based on the educational philosophy of Charlotte Mason (1842-1923), a British educator who pioneered an approach that invited young learners into a relationship with knowledge.
Hundreds of primary and secondary schools worldwide applied her methods during the early 1900s. Now, over a century later, Ambleside schools in the United States, South Africa, India, and Switzerland are educating children similarly with the same remarkable results—learners who are engaged, self-directed, and resilient.
These schools were able to respond to COVID-19 and reopen because they operate on a few simple and guiding principles about how children learn best. It took two days after Virginia closed schools last spring for Ambleside in McLean to launch an at-home learning program for students.
The students—already trained to give attention to good books, complete independent work with care, and take initiative in feeding their own curiosity (all of which are foundations of Mason’s educational philosophy)—were resilient in the transition.
Within days, students and parents found a peaceful normalcy amid the educational upheaval around them.
“Our families were already prepared with what they needed to make the transition successful. Because of the way we train our students to take ownership of their own learning process, (Charlotte Mason calls it self-education), Ambleside students simply changed locations and continued doing what they already knew how to do,” said Kristin Nowak, the incoming head of school (principal) at Ambleside in McLean.
One parent wrote during that first week of lockdown, “We are seeing the blessings of a Charlotte Mason approach to education all the more in the current environment … . [T]he rhythm of a school day and familiarity of the subject matter have created stability and provided comfort.”
Teachers rearranged classrooms and learned new technologies, parents moved desks and installed tents outside, and donors opened their wallets to help with the unexpected costs.
On the first day of school, last Sept. 8, the delight of seeing friends again inspired a peaceful acceptance of new regimens for distancing, masks, plexiglass dividers, and additional cleaning chores.
Distance learners were just as eager to join morning classes over Zoom, dressed in uniform and ready for the day.
Older students took over the morning setup of chairs in tents and handwashing stations outdoors. From the moment they started their school day, students rallied around a common mission to “do hard things together” so they could have school in person for the longest time possible.
When the excitement of the first day of school wore off, it was the deepening connection with the work and ideas in their studies that began to put the pandemic at a distance and usher them into the safe space of curiosity and discovery.
The books they read began to capture their imaginations again—autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and Helen Keller and novels such as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Door in the Wall,” “Heidi,” and “Treasure Island,” among many more.
Students began to enjoy the camaraderie of watching a butterfly emerge from a cocoon, modeling Greek heroes out of beeswax, or carefully reproducing a detailed map of Africa. Their shared interest was like a refreshing drink of cool water after so many long months apart.
Parents noticed the settled attitudes in their children. “Maybe it’s the sense of normalcy that the school is giving us. It’s strange, but I know [my child] is happy to be back,” one Ambleside parent said early in the year.
Mason put it this way: “In the early days of a child’s life, it makes little apparent difference whether we educate with a notion of filling a receptacle, inscribing a tablet, molding plastic matter, or nourishing a life, but as a child grows, we shall perceive that only those ideas which have fed his life, are taken into his being; all the rest is cast away, or is, like sawdust in the system, an impediment and an injury.”
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that our children deserve better. Somewhere lost in the educational debate about unions, inclusion, justice, and diversity are the children, born to wonder and longing for a relationship with knowledge.
Good books shared with friends and worthy work held in common form deep connections of joy in their young brains.
Mason’s approach to education has offered students at Ambleside School the possibility of connecting, not only with friends in the seat beside them, but with the great minds of the present and past—mathematicians, scientists, artists, musicians, poets, naturalists, and authors.
As we look to the future, educators and psychologists are deeply concerned about the impact of months of isolation on the nation’s young people. But a larger question looms about the efficacy of the prevailing educational system: When public school students are back in the classroom, what then?
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