The History of AO

AmblesideOnline began when, during a discussion of boxed curriculums on the CMSeries email list on September 4, 1999, Leslie Noelani Laurio fantasized about a boxed Charlotte Mason curriculum:

"Charlotte Mason in a Box. Hmmm...intriguing idea. Well, its day will come, no doubt, but it won't be me who gets into the curriculum-selling business. But it would be nice for moms to be able to find, all in one place, most of what they need to start teaching a CM education, starting with the booklist, the FAQ, some poetry online and access to hard-to-find books with the use of etexts, maybe some kind of a guide to teaching music and art. It sure would be nice for moms not to have to start from scratch and build their own curriculums like I think most of us probably did through trial and error. Just think, if classical music MIDI sites and art sites were included, and links to CM-friendly math curriculums like Math-U-See and Math Made Meaningful... there could actually be a free CM curriculum online!"

Karen Glass, Susan Craven and Leslie Noelani Laurio had just completed a Charlotte Mason booklist that was sent in its entirety to the CMSeries email list with URLs given for books that were online.

"I think putting together the booklist was a kind of attempt at putting together a CM curriculum, although it would be nice to sort the books into suggested grade levels for those (like me) who would be using the booklist to assemble their own curriculum guide." (from the same CMSeries post)

That got Susan and Leslie to thinking . . . "what if we divided up the booklist into appropriate grades? We would end up with a virtual curriculum guide!" They asked Karen Glass and Cathy Russell to help divide the booklist with them for grades 1-6. With the addition of some history, geography and science, it was practically a complete curriculum! And if it could be posted online and make use of free etexts, it would be virtually free as well as a higher standard than most basic curriculums because of the quality of texts used. For two months, books were considered, pages counted, and texts were divided into subjects to get a basic schedule assembled.

Grades 1-6 of the curriculum were ready for the first testing phase in November 1999. Invitations to help try out the new curriculum were sent to a few Charlotte Mason email lists, and the response was surprising. A name had to be chosen, and the one Charlotte Mason used herself - "Parents Union" - was modernized by adding "Online." Thus, the original PUO was born.

During the first couple of weeks of use, list members Leslie Smith, Anne White and Jackie Fulop were added to the Advisory because their list posts showed an obvious understanding of CM principles and knowledge of texts. When it came time to plan later grades, Wendi Capehart was asked to help.

Within two years, there were 400 families using the curriculum, and issues about continued growth and long-range goals of the direction of the curriculum resulted in a slight change in leadership and a name change to AmblesideOnline, Ambleside being the British Lake District in which Charlotte Mason taught. New advisory members were added as individuals showed a desire to be involved and capability in understanding the aims of this project - Donna-Jean Breckenridge, Lynn Bruce, and Amy Toomsen joined in July 2001.

The number of families using AmblesideOnline has continued to grow. Without the burden of inventing a curriculum from scratch, mothers are able to devote time to understanding the philosophy behind the Charlotte Mason method. The original vision - a CM curriculum available to anyone for nothing more than the cost of those books which are not available online for free - has remained the commitment of the current AmblesideOnline advisory, and it is their aim to make sure that dream remains alive and available.

A Detailed History of AmblesideOnline

For the AmblesideOnline conference in Dallas on July 30, 2005, Leslie Noelani compiled and read the following history of AO:

When I was first married in 1987, I thought I'd want to put my children (if I ever had any) in our church's private school. But, after I had my first baby [in 1990], we looked at the tuition and realized that private school wouldn't be an option for us. I wasn't new to the idea of homeschooling, and I figured that could be a feasible option for us. When my baby was three and I had a second baby [1993], I went to my first homeschool conference. I wanted to see what I was getting myself into and find out as much as I could before I actually had to start making decisions. At the conference, I learned about the various homeschool approaches--Abeka/BJU textbooks, the "Principle Approach," classical, Charlotte Mason, unit studies, unschooling. The Charlotte Mason method, with its emphasis on books and art, really appealed to me, so I bought For the Children's Sake at the conference and started looking into the method.

Then in 1995 we moved across country, and we were adjusting to our new home at the time my son needed to start first grade. I had a friend who had a computer and had saved a bunch of posts about the Charlotte Mason method from a group folder at AOL [America Online], and she printed them off and we read them together and discussed them. We also bought some old copies of Karen Andreola's Parents' Review magazines. The CM method sounded exactly like what I wanted for my children. But the school year was rapidly approaching, and I didn't feel like I knew what I was doing enough to throw together my own CM school year.

I heard about Sonlight from another friend who was in the same situation as me -- trying to rush to get started in first grade, but not really sure how to do that. She ordered their catalog and we both pored over it. They seemed to be doing exactly what I had in mind -- using real books as a curriculum. So, just a week before school needed to start, feeling under pressure and insecure about trying to do CM, I bought Sonlight's entire First Grade package. We did Sonlight for grades 1 and 2. My son enjoyed it, but he was a really good reader and a perfect student, so we were doing the entire curriculum, reading every book, and doing everything in their manual. But by the time he started third grade in fall 1997, I was getting bored with the books. They were . . . just okay. And there were some books that my son didn't even remember reading, he'd flown through them so fast! About this time, we got our first computer. The first thing I did was look up Charlotte Mason. I found Lynn Hocraffer's cmason email list, which had 200 moms doing exactly the same homeschool method I always wanted to do!

When I joined the cmason email list in March 1998, my son was in third grade. My first question to the group was about whether you could do CM with boys, since it seemed so Victorian and lacey and connected with having tea! I also had a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old by then. On that email list, we did book studies by reading and discussing CM-related books, and people would ask general questions about how to actually do the Charlotte Mason method -- which handwriting program was the best, which history book was more in line with CM, how to pick artists for picture study. There were lots of moms on the list, and it seemed like every one of them was struggling to understand the CM method, while trying to create their own CM curriculum at the same time. It was like each of us was trying to re-invent the wheel, and looking to each other for tips. It seemed like the learning curve was too long; it took some time to really understand what CM was all about before you could actually figure out which books and programs to use in order to "do CM" with your own children.

I saw the names of the same books come up pretty frequently -- books like A Child's History of the World, The Handbook of Nature Study, Country Diary of an Eduardian Lady, Ergermeier's Bible Story Book. It seemed like there should be some kind of master booklist to save new CM parents the trouble of having to start from scratch and ask the same questions over and over again, like which history book everybody was using, or which math program everybody liked.

I also knew that Charlotte Mason had some overlap with classical education -- both used the best books, for example -- so I envisioned my own kids reading the 100 Great Books as their high school curriculum. But I'd seen a few different versions of versions of Great Books lists, and they all looked pretty daunting! How would a child be prepared to read that unless he'd had some years of reading some pretty stiff books? How would I know which books to use to prepare my sons for that kind of high school education? For that matter, how would I know which books to choose from the Great Books list when it was time for high school?

I decided to try to come up with one master list by taking the best books from all the different booklists I knew of -- Honey for a Child's Heart, Books Children Love, Educating the Wholehearted Child, Children of a Greater God and the Classical Education email list's 1000 Good Books list (view their list here). It seemed like I might be able to find books that made it to every other list and end up with a 'Best of the Best' list for the earlier years. The list might be just 100 books, which would be a lot less daunting to work through than thousands of books. I could just make that list our curriculum. I could make my kids go through that list by sixth or seventh grade, check them off as they completed them, and, by the time they started high school, they'd have read the most important books and be ready to tackle the 100 Great Books.

But, as I looked through all those booklists, I realized that I didn't really know enough about books in general to have even heard of most of them. I was a product of public school, and hadn't done much reading after I graduated. I hadn't even read Charlotte Mason's series. I'd read For the Children's Sake, but I skipped over the CM quotes because they were too hard for me to understand. My knowledge of the CM method had come second-hand from books about the Series by Catherine Levison, Penny Gardner, and Karen Andreola, or from Lynn Hocraffer and other moms on the cmason email list. So I suddenly felt very unqualified to create a booklist.

But I had followed Karen Glass's posts on the cmason list for awhile. I knew she had read the Charlotte Mason Series, and she sounded very knowledgeable about literature, and about Charlotte Mason's standards. So I sent her an email in July 1999 and shared my idea with her and asked for her help.

Following is the email I sent:

We realized as we got started sorting through book lists that we needed some sort of criteria. So we set ourselves a few ground rules: We wanted our books to be the cream of the crop, so we resolved to include only "the tried and true" -- every book should be nothing less than an accepted classic.

I had also been involved in a couple of spin-off cmason lists that Susan Craven was involved in. One was the CMSeries list that Jackie Fulop and I started because we both wanted to read the Series with other moms. The other group was an educational philosophy list. I saw that Susan also seemed to understand Charlotte Mason's high standards, so I suggested that we ask for her input, too, and she was enthusiastic about our project.

After whittling it down, we finally ended up with a list of about 120 books. We figured that, if a child read most of those books by the time they were 12, then they'd be ready to do a Classical Education in high school. At the time, the prevailing attitude seemed to be that you couldn't do CM in high school, so we assumed that, once the child was past sixth grade, they'd switch to a classical education. We were satisfied with our list, and we sent it out to the cmason list. I felt like I had my CM curriculum now. If I just worked my way through the list and added math and copywork, I'd be set.

But as I started looking over the list, I wasn't sure which books were best-suited for which ages. Most of the books on the lists weren't books I'd ever read before. On the CMSeries list, we had just completed reading Volume 1 of CM's series together (Aug 1999) and we were seeing a flurry of interest in CM. New spin-off lists were popping up everywhere. But we also saw that people's ideas of CM's method weren't exactly accurate. We were frustrated that so much CM conversation seemed to revolve around side issues like teatime, but ignore some other of CM's ideas as "too purist." Since we had just finished her first book, we were starting to get a better idea of what her method was all about, and it was a bit more structured and exacting than what was being accepted as CM among general homeschoolers. So we decided to start a group project on the email list compiling exactly what elements defined a real CM education. The result was the "What Is CM?" list that's now linked from AmblesideOnline's front page here. During this project, I imagined "out loud" [in an email] how nice it would be to be able to receive a box in the mail, like you do with Sonlight, that would have all the right books, your art prints, classical CD's -- everything you'd need for a year's Charlotte Mason education.

Following are some of the emails (In the first email, Leslie is responding to comments from another member's email):

It was just a fantasy, I wasn't really serious at the time. But, as I got to thinking about it more that day, it occurred to me that if I could just take the booklist we had already compiled and divide it into appropriate age levels, we'd have just that -- a curriculum. All a person would need was a math program, some music, and some art to make it a complete Charlotte Mason curriculum. And lots of people on the cmason email list were sending links to websites that had resources for all kinds of educational things. If some of those could be organized for art and music, and the books could be accessed online from places like Project Gutenberg, then what you'd end up with would be a really stiff, high-quality CM curriculum, and all for free.

I sent an email to Susan Craven proposing the idea and asking for her help dividing the booklist. She liked the idea. We both wanted to ask Karen Glass to help, but we knew she was busy and we felt like we had already imposed on her enough. So the two of us worked on it for a couple of weeks. I was more intrigued with the idea of making it free by using all online resources, but Susan was more familiar with CM and she was more interested in making it meet CM's standards and be something her children would actually do. We decided to use the best book in each subject, even if it meant it wouldn't be totally free. But we decided that we wouldn't use any book that wasn't either in print or online. Every book we listed had to be easily accessible.

What became apparent from the beginning was that we didn't have enough variety in our booklist to draw from. We had almost all literature -- there was no science, and almost no history. Since Charlotte Mason built her own curriculum around history, we knew we'd need to find a couple of really good, well-written history books to fill six years of curriculum. We knew we wanted to use A Child's History of the World, but that wouldn't be enough for all six years. So we spent weeks looking at history books. We ended up using A Child's History of the World and A First Book in American History by Edward Eggleston for grades 1-3. And we chose The Story of Mankind by Hendrick Van Loon, A History of the United States and its People by Edward Eggleston, and Genevieve Foster Books for grades 4-6. The history books would be supplemented with primary source readings from two online books called Colonial Children, and Camps and Firesides of the Revolution. To that we'd add some biographies.

We weren't thrilled with the Eggleston books; they seemed a little too simple and not quite up to Charlotte Mason's standards. Also, at the time, the book was only available from one source and it was expensive. But, at the time it was the best we could find. Susan had heard about H.E. Marshall's An Island Story and hoped she'd be able to get that typed up and posted online so we could use it.

Susan knew of another mom, Cathy Russell, who was knowledgeable about CM and even had a website about CM, so she asked her to help us. She looked over our history selections and helped us sort the rest of the booklist by historical period or age appropriateness.

Once it started taking shape, we asked Karen Glass for her opinion. We knew she was busy, but both of us felt like we couldn't feel satisfied calling it a CM curriculum without Karen's approval. When Karen saw what we were doing, she actually wanted to be involved! She did say, though, that she already had a plan she was using with her own children, so she could only join us if we understood that she wouldn't be actually using this curriculum when we finished. She officially joined us on Oct 25, 1999. Karen wanted to do a modular kind of plan that you could adapt to your children's ages, but that would have been too complicated and taken more time and work than we could put into it. She looked at some of the literature we'd already tentatively divided into grades and said that we had a lot more reading than Charlotte Mason would have used in any one year. We needed to pare it down to stay in line with CM's concept of going slowly through a few books. We didn't want the list to be so packed that students had to cram it in.

Over the next couple of weeks, we worked like mad to get the project done. Susan was planning to start her next school term soon and she wanted to be able to try out our curriculum. We set a deadline for ourselves of Nov 12 [1999]. It took a lot of hours at the computer, lots of emails back and forth, and lots of late nights, but it was finally ready! We picked a composer and an artist from the top of our heads (Albrecht Durer and Beethoven) and figured we could work out a master plan for that part of the curriculum later. We knew it wasn't really finished yet, but it was at a point where we could actually start trying it. And we could refine it as we went, adding things like an art list, specific poems, and making book substitutions if our children couldn't handle the ones we were using.

We thought it might be fun to invite anyone who was interested to test it with us, to give us feedback and suggest changes as they figured out what was working and what wasn't with their students. So Susan opened an email list and we sent an invitation to the cmason list. Her husband worked for a company connected with computers and the internet, and he had free webspace available through his job. So he posted what we had done on a website, and we named it after Charlotte Mason's own schools -- the Parents Union -- only we had brought it into the computer age, so we added the word "online" and our project became Parents Union Online, abbreviated PUO.

We were surprised at the number of people who wanted to test this thing with us, especially considering that it wasn't really done yet! But a few people had some questions, or rather, critiques. Leslie Smith and Anne White, for instance, had questions about science, history and handicrafts. Jackie Fulop had some questions about the way we were doing science. Their questions showed that they had some understanding of what a CM curriculum was supposed to look like. So we asked them to join us.

A few months later, we thought we might tackle a high school booklist and divide it into a curriculum, too. The only people we personally knew of who were actually doing a Charlotte Mason high school plan were Wendi Capehart and Donna-Jean Breckenridge. We knew Donna-Jean had just started her Liberty and Lily website, so we didn't ask for her help. But we did ask Wendi. She was the only one among us who seemed to have any idea what was involved in planning a curriculum for high school. She solicited help from cmason list members who had some experience with CM, and a group of ladies spent the year planning a Year 7.

Susan and I both felt that it was important for people to learn about Charlotte Mason's philosophy, and to know what else they needed to do besides just reading the books. We didn't want them latching onto our booklist and doing it without knowing why they were doing it. So Susan started an online magazine that she hoped would fill the gap that Karen Andreola's Parents Review had left when she stopped publishing it. Susan wanted to follow a similar format of including both original vintage Parents Review articles from the magazine that Charlotte herself had sent to her parents and teachers, as well as articles all of us would write to help people understand more about what the method involved.

It was always important to us that our curriculum be free. It benefits everyone in the world if a really good education is accessible to anyone who wants it, and we believed CM was the best education to be had: it combines the best of a rigorous classical education with the balance of relaxed schooling. We felt like this kind of education should be something that anyone, no matter where they were in the world, and no matter what their financial situation, should be able to learn about, understand, and implement -- and they shouldn't have to pay us to do it. We wanted to have something in place that a person who had never heard of Charlotte Mason could simply pick up and start doing right away, while they did their research about how the method worked. We didn't just want to put a booklist out there. We also wanted to help moms understand CM themselves so that they'd get the full benefit of the whole method, and know how to discern and substitute books if they wanted to. They'd know what kinds of standards CM had, and they'd be able to judge books themselves. But we wanted it to be freely accessible; we never wanted to dissuade anyone from learning all they could about the method because they had to come through us, or pay money to read about someone's interpretation of CM first.

After about a year and a half, Susan left the project for personal reasons. [At that time, I think it was mid-2001,we had about 440 moms in our email group.] We invited Donna-Jean Breckenridge and Lynn Bruce to join us, and we changed the name to AmblesideOnline. We moved the email list and one of our members, Amy Toomsen, offered to take over the job of moderating it, to free us up for other work. We had no idea when she made her offer that she'd turn out to be ideal for the job. She's as knowledgeable about CM as anyone, and uncommonly tactful. She hasn't had time to continue moderating the list, and her absence has left a gap that we haven't even tried to fill, because we can't imagine anyone doing the kind of job she did at moderating.

The original vision of providing CM information and a curriculum guide for parents to use or adjust at no cost was always the driving force of the project. We never wanted to move far beyond the grassroots level, since none of us felt like experts, and since we never really intended this to be a full-time job. Originally, my idea was to create a booklist, post the information and move on. Anyone who wanted to could use the information we had gathered. But the homeschool movement has grown, and the CM movement has grown along with it. Every year, it seems, we grow in size! We never envisioned that we'd be in the midst of what we believe is a work of God, and we're awed and humbled to be used like this. We pray that we never lose sight of our original vision and purpose, and that AmblesideOnline continues to be a blessing to the homeschool community.

AmblesideOnline's free Charlotte Mason homeschool curriculum prepares children for a life of rich relationships with God, humanity, and the natural world.
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