Monday, September 23, 2013

Wednesday with Words - Old School

I was looking at Harvey's Elementary Grammar last week and came upon this outline from William Harvey Wells for schools in Chicago in 1877.  This reflects thinking about public schooling as it was just getting started.

In reference to grammar (elementary) students:
Pupils should rarely be allowed to study more than three branches at once, besides reading, spelling and writing and it is generally better to have some of the lessons come only on alternated days than to have even the six exercises in one day. (32)
 In the footnote this comment is made
From four to five lessons a day for a Primary school, is better than six, even for mental proficiency.  A Primary school that has even five hours of session per day should have an hour or more of interval at midday.  Besides there should be one or two recesses during each session. (from there he talks about varying the subject frequently and no lesson lasting longer than 20 minutes). (36)
My friends who send their children to kindergarten talk about their 20 minute lunches that happen at 10:30 am!  Our local school district has pretty much gotten rid of recess.
Pupils should understand that they are liable to be called on to recite any portion of the previous lesson, and questions enough should be asked in review to make it necessary for them to read over the last lesson before coming to the recitation, unless their previous preparation has been sufficient to fasten it in the memory.  (30)
Imagine that - a student held accountable for their learning - daily!   I am trying to be better about this myself.  I am enjoying the classical texts I use because they start with review questions. I am also learning how to ask "review" questions throughout our day to help us remember what we are learning.

In this outline there is much discussion about oral work and very little about written work for the younger ages. They really expected them to memorize and work orally until about 3rd grade.   Students were learning to spell and read and do copywork.  Subject matter material was taught, memorized and practiced aloud - not in writing.

This comment about reading was VERY interesting.
Some teachers seem to suppose that the principal object of a school exercise in reading is to understand the meaning of the piece read.  This is a mistake.  The principal object is to read the piece so as to express that meaning.  The sense of the piece must be studied then, not in this case as an end, but as a means to enable the pupil to execute the reading successfully.  This being the case, it is obviously a great fault to spend half or three-fourths of the hour allotted to a reading lesson, in discussing the meaning of words and the general sense of the passage read. (16-17 italics in original)
 It is by imitation that children learn to talk, and their skill and accuracy in reading will depend mainly upon the character of the models which are brought before them. (17) 

Do we even expect our children to read aloud with expression any longer?  If they aren't read aloud to - how will they gain fluency?  How will they learn to express themselves clearly?  Although not all librivox recordings are fantastic - it is nice for the kids to hear a different storyteller every once in a while.

After discussing teaching spelling orally and with an emphasis on syllabication (as Noah Webster taught it) Wells offers this thought.
Teachers should bear constantly in mind, that unless habits of correct spelling are formed early, there is very little probability that they will ever be acquired. 
I think he would laugh at our thoughts about invented spelling.  Of course, they are not trying to teach any one younger than 7 how to write and spell.

After discussing the need to present virtue to the students through stories and examples and condemning bad behavior he offers this reminder.
The selfishness of children is the greatest obstacle of moral training.  To moderate this strong instinct, to teach self denial and self control, must be the constant care of the teacher. 
Public school teachers were expected to help students develop self control as a necessary avenue to develop the moral sensibilities of their charges.  How far we have fallen!

My favorite comment though (it is a little long)

The two great objects of intellectual education are mental discipline and the acquisition of knowledge. The highest and most important of these objects is mental discipline, or the power of using the mind to the best advantage.  The price of this discipline is effort. . . However much we may regret that we do not live a century later, because we can not have the benefit of the improvements that are to be made during the next hundred years, of one thing we may rest assured, that intellectual eminence will be attained during the 20th century just as it is in the 19th - by the labor of the brain.  We are not to look for any new discovery or invention that shall supersede the necessity of mental toil; we are not to desire it.  If we had but to supplicate some kind of genius, and he would at once endow us with all knowledge in the universe, the gift would prove a curse to us, not a blessing.  We must have the discipline of acquiring knowledge, and in the manner established by the Author of our being.  Without this discipline in our intellectual stores would be worse than useless. (147)  (bold is mine) 
One thought - Internet.

Finally, a good reminder.
There can not be a more fatal mistake in education, than that of a teacher who adopts the sentiment, that his duty requires him to render the daily tasks of his pupils as easy as possible.  
Soon I will post my thoughts about Understood Betsy which is related to these ideas.


  1. The labor of the brain vs learning should be fun, which seems to be the current view.

  2. I have been thinking about how early education comes into all of this and how vigor of the mind is NOT what we think it is these days and this is especially obvious in what we call early childhood education.