Childhood learning · Education

How I Learned to Read

Eastman-Johnson-Boy-Reading

The other day in one of those internet searches that leads you somewhat astray, I stumbled down a track that dealt with the teaching of reading.

In an article titled “Yes, There is a Right Way to Teach Reading,” the author maintains that some kids are just not sensitive to the sounds of the spoken word. For example, they don’t hear that there are three sounds in the word “bag.”  In teacher-speak they lack “phonemic awareness.” Therefore what is called for is at least 100 hours instruction in phonics early on.  

This triggered a memory of how I learned to read, I was apparently one of the lucky ones to whom phonemic awareness came easily although I certainly did not get off to a good start.

 * * * * * * * * * *

Some drink, Some take drugs. I read. It’s my mother’s fault. Not that she taught me. Oh, no. That was my teacher’s job. She got paid for it. But when Miss Morgan failed to do her job and passed me on to second grade “with reservations,” Mother took charge, and the first glorious day of summer vacation just as I was on my way outside after breakfast to play sword fight with my friends, she grabbed my arm, marched me out to the squeaky glider on our screened-in front porch. plunked a stack of library books down beside me, and said. “Now read! No more monkeyshines!” (So much for Progressive education.)

I learned I was going to sit there until noon every day all summer, except to go to the bathroom. I whined. I pouted. I amused myself by turning a slow backward somersault on the glider. “Is it noon yet?” No answer. Boredom. Boredom. So I began teaching myself to read.

Mother was pleased. She looked forward to the day when “we” would “show” those old teachers of mine. Reservations, indeed!

“We” showed them, all right. But then I went right on reading.

Mother began to worry. “Too much of anything’s not good, son.”

Too late. I was hooked. Before long, when my mother started parking my sister and me at the library while she grocery shopped, I got a library card and eventually began making long walks on my own—14 blocks—to the nearest branch library. In those days—the late 1930s and early 1940s—nobody felt obliged to intervene if they saw a little boy walking alone—unless he was bleeding.

Mother wouldn’t have minded if I’d read how-to books, or inspirational books, or books about science. But all I read were stories. She thought stories were fine for relaxing. But a person couldn’t spend his life relaxing. (I didn’t see why not.)

If my teachers had known I loved to read stories, they, too, would have disapproved. In the 1930s, all the experts agreed that students who loved stories were introverts, loners. They were trapped in “the romantic realm of yesterday.” (The science was settled.) A teacher’s job was to discourage “outmoded individualism” and to focus children’s attention on the present not the past, to teach them to face facts—like dates, names, and statistics. Every “social studies” test I took in elementary school seemed to include the question, “What are the chief exports of . . . ?” The country didn’t matter. The answer was always “copra, bauxite, sisal, flax, and hemp”—whatever they are.

But my teachers could see I wasn’t one of those romantic loners. I didn’t act like a bookworm. I was simply a good reader. They approved of that. Being able to read well helped a person solve problems, and solving problems was what modern life was all about. Besides, my scores on their reading tests reflected well on their “progressive” teaching methods.

Dick and Jane

I don’t remember the names of the books Mother plunked down beside me, Ferdinand the Bull? No, I think that came later. But knowing nothing of theories of reading, she did not bring me any books with scientifically tested “age appropriate” vocabulary about Dick, Jane, and their beloved Spot. (Run, Spot, run. See Spot run.) I’m sure my poor performance in first grade was solely the fault of these boring books. Has anyone ever cared if Spot ran or not?

Books · Childhood learning · Education · Folklore

“Ladies and jellyspoons / I come before you to stand behind you / To tell you something I know nothing about.”

In her last post, Mary wondered if a playground culture still exists.

Since today there are so few informal playgrounds where no adults intrude, it is doubtful.  Adults always want to organize children’s play. The assumption is that children learn only that which adults teach them. But the best laid plans of adults cannot accomplish what children used to accomplish for themselves, guided by a folk tradition that had been passed down in some cases for hundreds of years.

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Still in print after 42 years.

They learned, for example, to handle conflict verbally rather than physically. When the linguistically unsophisticated and emotionally immature child was teased, insulted or ridiculed, he could choose from a number of ready made responses, for instance, “I’m rubber, you’re glue / Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you, “ or “Twinkle, twinkle, little star / What you say is what you are.”

When a little girl heard, “I see London; I see France / I see Velma’s underpants,” did she run to a safe space and tell the teacher? No, she probably shouted back,  “Liar liar, pants on fire,” or maybe “XYZ!” If the boy fell for it and checked his fly, she won. The one thing she did not do was grow up to be a snowflake.

Left alone, children organized their own games, making fine juridical adjustments: one good player for this side, but three fumble fingers for that side. They learned to compromise, because they didn’t want the game to end.

And They Learned About Language

They learned that poetry could be fun. Without fear of the speech police, they could sing about their school lunch: “Great big gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts / Chopped up parakeet / Mutilated monkey meat / Pig snot and camel rot,” etc. A child who sang that song was introduced to alliteration and hyperbole early on.

And the child who recited the mock oration beginning, “Ladies and Jellyspoons / I stand before you to stand behind you / To tell you something I know nothing about / Admission free, Pay at the door / Pull up a seat and sit on the floor” experienced the satisfaction of employing rhetorical tropes that gently raised college students only learn to label.

How We Did It

In the seventies we were living in the American Canal Zone in Panama. Since almost everybody in the Canal Zone came from somewhere else, we were able to collect examples of children’s folklore from recently arrived children as it was practiced all over the States as well as in foreign countries and military bases abroad. During the summer when we were on leave from our jobs, we also did something that we couldn’t do today without getting us in trouble: we sat on park benches, taking notes while watching children at play.

We learned that what seems to be trivial and silly was extremely functional in the social development of children. We wish some young folklorists would write a sequel documenting what traditions are still around and what new customs children might be creating to help them cope with the digital world. If you have kids or grandkids, ask them about this.

You can buy One Potato, Two Potato on Amazon, but last time we looked there were 20 used copies available from abebooks.com for $3.50 to $4.00, free shipping. If you want to take a trip down memory lane and be reminded of things you have probably forgotten, you can get one cheap!

 

 

Childhood learning · Education · Folklore · Political Correctness

One Potato, Two Potato: The Secret Education of Children and My Eight Minutes of Fame

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No adult needs to teach kids how to play Hide and Seek.

Forty-two years ago this month, our first book: One Potato, Two Potato: The Secret Education of American Children was published by W.W. Norton. As was their custom, they submitted their newly published books to The Today Show, hoping that they would select one to be featured. Much to our publisher’s surprise (and ours), they selected our book!

Before the Today Show would book me for the eight-minute interview, however, I had to audition. I don’t remember much about it, but I do know there was a wait of several weeks before I appeared on the show, during which time I lost ten pounds.

I had been given the questions and practiced in front of a mirror (with daughter Sarah’s coaching), but apparently Jane Pauley didn’t get the memo. Nevertheless I managed to deal with the unexpected turn of the interrogation, and the interview was deemed a success by the publisher and my co-author.

Still eight minutes is hardly enough time to explain why children’s folklore is worthy of serious consideration when it seems so trivial. Who can take “King’s X” or “liar, liar, pants on fire” seriously?

As we watched children playing we discovered that the traditional customs—the rhymes, sayings, games, and stories that children teach each other and that have been passed down for generations without the mediation of adults —play a critical role in their social and emotional development.

From the book:

Unsupervised children playing together learn how to govern themselves. They learn how to deal with cheaters and cry babies. They make sophisticated juridical distinctions that strike a fine balance between the self-interest of individuals and the good of the group.

They are competitive, but winning is not their goal. They come together voluntarily for a good game. Thus they learn the joy of team play without suffering from the depersonalization and bitterness that mark fiercely competitive supervised contests where the goal has been reduced to mere victory.

They let off steam, releasing tensions created by the repressive atmosphere of the school.

They play with the emotion of fear, thus becoming less fearful.

In all this, they are guided by their folk tradition.

Is there still a playground culture? Today children have so little opportunity for unsupervised play that it seems doubtful that it flourishes to the extent it did 42 years ago. On the other hand, we sometimes see evidence that it has not disappeared altogether: a tell-tale hopscotch diagram chalked on the sidewalk, two little girls playing a clapping rhyme on a cross town bus.

Certainly kids have learned by observing their elders’ attitudes to clean up some of the politically incorrect or racist rhymes that we collected. It’s very doubtful that today any publisher would publish a trade book recounting the history of childlore that included these rhymes.

Childhood learning · Culture · Education · Role of Women

The Lesson Learned is not Always the Lesson Taught

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Herb is the one who usually writes about poetry, but I have something to say about a poem.

Miss Mary Braden, my fifth grade teacher, was a throwback to the Victorian era. Her skirt came down to her ankles, she carried a cane, and her long gray hair was tied up at the back in a big bun. She was a regular Gradgrind. and she hated children, or so it seemed to me. To Miss Braden poetry was a trusted pedagogical tool; To this day I can still remember many lines of the poems we were required to memorize and recite.

In School Days by John Greenleaf  Whittier was written in 1870 at the height of the Victorian era. It tells a charming story about children, but it ends with a discouraging message:

Self interest is the motivating force that informs almost all human interaction. So don’t expect to be given any consideration just because you are likeable (or even loveable).

 That was the lesson we were supposed to learn, but what we took from the poem was something quite different.

The setting is a one-room schoolhouse  at dismissal time. A boy and a girl linger behind.  There has been a spelling bee that afternoon in which the boy and girl ended up as the last two contestants, and the girl turned out to be the winner.

In School Days

Still sits the school-house by the road,
A ragged beggar sleeping;
Around it still the sumachs grow,
And blackberry vines are creeping.

* * * * * * *

Long years ago a winter sun
Shone over it at setting;
Lit up its western window-panes
And low eaves’ icy fretting.

It touched the tangled golden curls,
And brown eyes full of grieving,
Of one who still her steps delayed
When all the school were leaving.

For near her stood the little boy
Her childish favor singled:
His cap pulled low upon a face
Where pride and shame were mingled

* * * * * * *

He saw her lift her eyes; he felt
The soft hand’s light caressing,
And heard the tremble of her voce,
As if a fault confessing.

“I’m sorry that I spelt the word:
I hate to go above you,
Because,”—the brown eyes lower fell,—
“Because, you see, I love you!”

Still memory to a gray-haired man
That sweet child-face is showing.
Dear girl! The grasses on her grave
Have forty years been growing.

He lives to learn, in life’s hard school,
How few who pass above him
Lament their triumph and his loss,
Like her,—because they love him.

Now we ten-year-olds knew nothing about life’s hard school, not yet having experienced it. The lesson of the ultimate stanza was therefore lost on us, but we could identify with these children.

I had brown eyes; I was a good speller. I was in love—_with Jack Sevier— as was every other girl in our class. “Tangled golden curls”? Well, okay, three out of four; I could still identify.

And although I could not have then articulated it plainly, here was a potent message packaged so that even a ten-year-old could understand it. It was a lesson girls were taught over and over in subtle ways long after Whittier and Miss Braden were around to teach it.  It taught girls how to behave and boys what to expect from girls:

“I’m sorry that I spelt the word,
I hate to go above you,
“Because,”—her brown eyes lower fell,—
“Because you see, I love you.”

Girls need to disown their accomplishments if they want to gain favor with boys.  And there are certain techniques that girls can use to be appealing   . . . the lifted (and lowered) eyes; the caressing hands, the trembling voice, the frank apology.

In spite of the genuine progress women have made since 1870, when Whittier wrote his poem, sad to say, some women still are reluctant to own their accomplishments, and some men would just as soon they didn’t.

Do you still remember a poem you were required to memorize in school?To leave a comment scroll to the top of the post and click on the word “comments.”

 

Books · Childhood learning · Education · Laura Ingalls Wilder · Museums

In Defense of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Part Two

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Replica of the log cabin Pa built, located at The Little House on the Prairie Museum, Independence, Kansas

First of all, let me dispatch the criticism of the passage most frequently cited by the media as offensive: The Little House on the Prairie was published in 1932. On the first page of that first edition, the following sentence appears:

There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much further than a man could see, and there were no people. Only the Indians lived there.

It seemed clear to most readers that what was meant was that there were no white people like Laura and her family. But in 1952, a reader wrote to the publisher complaining about the passage. The editor was shocked that no one had ever noticed the wording before and suggested a correction. The author immediately responded:

You are perfectly right about the fault in Little House on the Prairie and have my permission to make the correction you request. It was a stupid blunder of mine.

In a new edition published in 1953, the offending passage was replaced by the following:

There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much further than a man could see, and there were no settlers. Only Indians lived there.

 In other words, the original offensive wording has not appeared in the book for 65 years!  But apparently there is no statute of limitations in the case of careless political incorrectness. It is really stretching to assume that Wilder thought Indians were subhuman.

I imagine the authorities dislike Laura’s physical descriptions of the Indians or the fact that the “wild men” frighten her:

First she saw their leather moccasins. Then their stringy bare, red-brown legs all the way up. Around their waists each of the Indians wore a leather thong, and the furry skin of a small animal hung down in front. . . .Their faces were bold and fierce and terrible. Their black eyes glittered. . . .When Laura peeked out from behind the slab again, both Indians were looking straight at her. Her heart jumped into her throat and choked her with its pounding.

But make no mistake: it is Pa who is the central character of this book. It is his decisions that drive the action; his accomplishments as a frontiersman that fill the pages; his songs and fiddle that provide much of the poetry. Surely it is to Pa we must look for the values this work endorses.

And what are they when it comes to the Indians?

One day a tall Indian suddenly appears in the doorway,

‘How!’ he said to Pa. Pa held onto Jack and replied, ‘How!’ He dragged Jack to the bedpost and tied him there. While he was doing it, the Indian came in and squatted down by the fire. Then Pa squatted down by the Indian, and they sat there, friendly, but not saying a word, while Ma finished cooking dinner. . . .Ma gave Pa and the Indian their dinners on two tin plates, and they ate silently. The Pa gave the Indian some tobacco for his pipe. They filled their pipes, and they lighted the tobacco with coals from the fire, and they silently smoked until the pipes were empty. . . .A while longer they all sat silent. Then the Indian rose up and went away without a sound.

‘Let Indians keep themselves to themselves,’ said Ma, ‘and we will do the same. I don’t like Indians around  underfoot.’

Pa told her not to worry, ‘That Indian was perfectly friendly,’ he said. ‘And their camps down among the bluffs are peaceable enough. If we treat them well and watch Jack, we won’t have any trouble. . .

The next day, when Pa opens the door there is another mounted Indian  on the trail that runs by the house. Jack stands snarling before the Indian, ready to pounce. When the Indian sees Pa, he points his gun at Jack. Pa grabs Jack’s collar and pulls him off the trail.

‘That was a darned close call!’ Pa said. ‘Well, it’s his path. An Indian trail, long before we came.’

Later, Laura overhears a conversation between Pa and Mr. Scott and Mr. Edwards, who are distant neighbors. Scott and Edwards think that perhaps the Indians started a recent prairie fire on purpose to drive out the settlers and that they “mean devilment.”

Mr. Edwards said there were too many Indians in those camps; he didn’t like it. ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian,’ Mr. Scott said.

Pa said he didn’t know about that. He figured that Indians would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were let alone. On the other hand, they  had been moved west so many times that naturally they hated white folks.

 

You be the judge.

 

Coming next: A Kickapoo Kidnapping, A True Family Story