My scholé practice of keeping a commonplace book predates my knowledge of what a commonplace book is. One of the most vivid memories from my youth is sitting at the desk in my vintage 70s yellow and orange room, copying quotes from books or lyrics from pop songs. Those song lyrics required no small labor in the long ago pre-Google days. They cost me hours of play-stop-rewind sequences on my cassette player—such antiquated technology!—as I attempted to accurately copy those elusive lyrics from the impossibly noisy and scratchy recording. I still probably got many of them wrong: with apologies to Deep Purple, I remember distinctly hearing “Go, Cousin Walter” instead of “Smoke on the Water.”
Those notebooks are, regrettably, long gone. I am sure the profound lyrics of the 70s pop music wasteland—and my ridiculous rendering of some of them—would have been a source of endless mirth for my children. David Cassidy, Bobby Sherman, Michael Jackson, John Denver, Don McLean, the Monkees, the Beatles. There were surely a few gems scattered here and there, but much fluff, as well as the occasional heretical or anarchical quote. Quotes from books I was reading may have been a bit more promising, thanks to my dear cousin and aunt who had taken my literary tastes in hand when I was a young teen. Their family culture had included nightly read-aloud with a brilliant physicist father. (I learned a few years back that my uncle actually worked in the lab with Einstein as a young physicist; perhaps he heard Einstein wax eloquent on the value of faerie?) After this timely intervention in my less-than-stellar reading tastes, the quotes I copied would have come from C. S. Lewis and L. M. Montgomery and E. B. White and Kenneth Grahame—soul-building stuff! Though it would be many years before I could identify it by name, this was the beginning of scholé for me.
Quote-Keeping to Commonplacing
In my early days of homeschooling, I read Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s For the Children’s Sake. Charlotte Mason’s methods resonated deeply with me, especially the idea of having each scholar keep a copybook. From my own experience, I knew the delight and power of quote-keeping. The simple practice of copying beautiful passages of Scripture, literature, and history became a homeschool habit. Though my oldest children surely suffered the slings and arrows of a curriculum-hopping mother, here was one of the things I got right. Our consistent practice of copying (and reading, and memorizing) good and true and beautiful words from the best minds of the ages has indelibly impressed beautiful language patterns in my children’s own minds. I hear the evidence in their speaking and see it in their writing.
As I began to pursue a classical education for myself, I learned that this idea of copying quotes was no new one. First, I discovered these instructions from Moses for training those who were to rule over God’s covenant people:
Also it shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this law in a book, from the one before the priests, the Levites. And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God and be careful to observe all the words of this law and these statutes, that his heart may not be lifted above his brethren, that he may not turn aside from the commandment to the right hand or to the left, and that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children in the midst of Israel. —Deuteronomy 17:17-19
Then, I learned that these quote books like the ones I had kept all my life had a name: commonplace books. I discovered many great thinkers and authors had made a practice of “commonplacing” passages from Scripture, literature, and poetry—John Milton, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, just to name a few. One day, I came across this line from a letter written by John Quincy Adams, age 10, to his father:
Sir, if you will be so good as to favor me with a blank book, I will transcribe the most remarkable occurrences I meet with in my reading, which will serve to fix them upon my mind.
All of this evidence, combined with the benefits I was seeing in my young scholars’ lives, convinced me of the formative power of copybook and commonplace book. This simple practice which had given me such great delight over the years, and which I had passed on to my children with even more delight, became a pillar of my own pedagogical philosophy. Commonplacing is foundational to the language arts instruction curriculum I authored and the literature and composition courses I teach.
Commonplacing is, in fact, a deceptively simple practice, for it has far-reaching benefits in both comprehension and composition, to say nothing of its contribution to scholé. Students copy beautiful passages, insightful quotes and arguments, elegant—or quirky or profound or hilarious—turns of phrase, “passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred to.” (Oxford English Dictionary) To a certain extent, they just choose what was most beautiful or meaningful to them from the week’s reading, and copy it into their commonplace book. But I also encourage students to grow in their apprehension of what is beautiful and good by giving some specific direction. Sometimes, I ask them to record passages which are particularly relevant to a topic or theme that we will discuss in class, or about which they will have to write. Sometimes, I ask them to copy examples of things we are learning: a particular figure of speech, a particular grammatical construction, poetic lines with a particular rhyme scheme or meter or stanza form. Almost every week l also ask them to record an example of ANY figure we have learned thus far in any books they are reading, sermons they have heard, or songs they have sung. Most are eager to share their examples of parallelism or anastrophe or zeugma or alliteration or synecdoche or any one of the 50+ I require them to learn. They marvel that all of a sudden they are seeing and hearing figures of speech EVERYWHERE. And each week, they get to copy at least one favorite passage from any of their assigned reading in any subject. Their entries range from the profound and inspirational to the hilarious and ironic. They have also been known to see if they can totally gross out the teacher, which is not too hard when reading ancient epics—I am not sure which is worse, blood and gore, or snakes.
The commonplace book itself does not have to be fancy; a simple sewn composition book and a pen will do the job. Still, I do encourage my students, if they can afford it, to keep beautiful journals with high-quality paper, and to write in them with beautiful pens—I prefer a fountain pen, and a few of my students have been inspired to take one up as well. This is embodied learning, as we connect the valuable scholé practice of commonplacing with the sensory experience of fine quality tools. At the same time, these tools are an investment, and using them is, therefore, a luxury. I would not want anyone to avoid commonplacing because of cost. An inexpensive composition book and an extra fine-line Sharpie will do the job just as well, and perhaps the journal and fountain pen can go on the Christmas list! I do not recommend any complicated kind of commonplace organization, because I have found that to be a hindrance. Simply start at the beginning of the commonplace book, and work forward, just adding quotes as you find them; there is no need for every quote from each book to be consecutive; rather, let your commonplace book be a daily journal of your reading. If some kind of organization seems necessary, number the pages of the commonplace book and reserve a few pages at the beginning for a table of contents and/or at the end for an index. As with all habits, the simpler the system, the more likely you are to keep up with the habit.
Commonplacing Toward a Life Well-Read
Commonplacing has been a primary lifelong practice of scholé in my own self-education. Because I am so convinced of its pedagogical value, along with its wisdom- and virtue-building value, my aim is to make commonplacing a lifelong habit for my students as well. This habit also serves the larger aim of a life well-read. A life well-read is just another way to express the lifelong pursuit of scholé. And all of this is a lifelong delight!
For more from on Kathy on Commonplacing visit her Scriptorium Page at https://cottagepresspublishing.net/blog/scriptorium-commonplace-posts/
Join the Discussion!
Come on over to the Scholé Groups Parents Forum to talk with other home educators about the topics we raise in this blog. We’ll see you there. If you have not registered for the conversation at Classical U Forum yet, it’s a simple (and FREE!) process. You’ll find other classical educators discussing a wide variety of topics, plus a dedicated set of forums for Scholé Groups. We’d love to have you join in!
Kathy Weitz educated her six children at home for over a quarter century, and at the same time pursued a classical education for herself. In addition to her own children, she has taught a number of other students, both online and in the classroom. After years of involvement in small, informal cooperative classical home education endeavors, Kathy and several associates organized their efforts formally six years ago as Providence Prep in Purcellville, Virginia. She is currently involved in founding a collegiate model school in her local community, Loudoun Classical School. Kathy blogs about Morning Time and commonplace books and self-education and scholé at The Reading Mother.