October 25, 2022

Scavenging for Literary Beauty with Kathryn Forney

From "The Buzz," our Weekly Newsletter for Alveary Members

Scavenging for Literary Beauty with Kathryn Forney

Consider Commonplacing

We publish a weekly newsletter for Alveary members called "The Buzz" which, following Mason's pattern in her "Notes & Queries," answers member questions on educational philosophy and practice, offers encouragement and inspiration, and invites further reflection and discussion in our member community, the Hive. This article by Kathryn Forney, a CMI Staff Member and Mason gradate, was originally published in The Buzz and is being republished here for all to enjoy.

Natural beauty surrounds me in the southeastern U.S. this time of year—the trees are on fire in my neighborhood, the air is crisp, and the sunlight feels clean. Fall is a wonderful time of year for nature study walks, scavenger hunts, and exploration—there are so many different colors, fruits, flowers, and leaves to explore. But today, I’m excited to talk about one of my favorite ways to go hunting for literary beauty: a common place book.

Growing out of the habit of penmanship and copy work which Charlotte Mason advocated from a young age, commonplacing is the habit of writing down quotes and phrases that stand out to you as you read—of going on scavenger hunts for beautiful, striking, fascinating, or otherwise interesting ideas expressed in a memorable way (Formation of Character 260). Charlotte Mason observes that “Such a diary, carefully kept through life, should be exceedingly interesting as containing the intellectual history of the writer” (Formation of Character 260).

I started keeping a commonplace book in 9th grade, and it has become a habit that has continued at varying rates for over a decade. The time it takes to write down a quote (and/or mark it to copy later) has etched many passages in my heart and mind, so that the quotes I have commonplaced truly do represent my intellectual and spiritual history. Commonplacing has also fostered connections for me across a wide variety of subjects and genres; striking quotes can appear on billboards, and in chemistry, literature, geography, or other texts!

Whether your students are young or old, I’d invite you to join me in scavenging for literary beauty and jotting down your findings in a commonplace book. As your students are old enough, encourage them to do the same. I think you’ll find it fosters thought and conversation, interest, wonder, and delight.

Here are a few practical tips and suggestions as you begin or continue commonplacing:

  • Be Quality. Dignify the habit of common placing by investing in quality materials. If you think it’s a quote you’ll want to think about for a while, write it in a book that will last.
  • Be Brief. If you’re trying to copy an entire book into your commonplace book, you probably just need to choose a favorite quote that reminds you of everything you love about the book and then get coffee with a friend to tell them about all the quotes you couldn’t write down. You’ll deepen a friendship this way, save your fingers, and preserve the fun, variety, and specialness of your commonplace book.
  • Be Free. Each person is different, so no two commonplace books should or could look alike. There is no judgment in commonplacing, only curiosity. All it takes to start is a pen and paper.
  • Be Creative (if you want). I find it fun to play with different colors, position of quotes on a page, size of font, etc. There are no rules, but it can be fun to experiment.
  • Be Flexible. There is value in a physical commonplace book, but if a notebook, pen, or anything else becomes an obstacle to growing (or helping your student grow) in love and appreciation for well-crafted sentences and stimulating ideas, then adapt the form to suit your student. Try keeping a digital commonplace instead, voice-to-text your favorite quote and then print it out. The possibilities are endless, but developing a relationship with words remains the goal.
  • Be Fun. Commonplacing isn’t just about hunting down soul-searching, mind-altering quotes from classic literature. We’re whole people, and as long as a quote strikes you some way (whether that’s with humor, horror, or anything in between), you’re free to write it down (or not!).

Kathryn Forney works as CMI's Coordinator for Programs & Services and was educated with Charlotte Mason's philosophy through High School.

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