Wednesday, August 19, 2009


A Visit From the School Committee-Man

A Senior Student Reciting From Memory

The Recitation session was divided, as I said, into two principal parts. The further back in time we go, the more the first part was emphasized, until, if we go back far enough (at least to the early 1800’s), we find that the first part is the only part – there was no second part. These two parts dealt with, respectively, the lesson the students had just studied (or, as we would say, “memorized”), and the lesson to be assigned for study the next day.

The first part could be called Review, then, and included testing the child's memory of what he had just studied (usually earlier that very day, since the Study time for a subject generally was held just prior to its Recitation), and the second part could be called Preview, and included teachings on the material that the child would be memorizing next.

Today we’ll take a look at the first part alone, the Review. The Review part of the Recitation often started off with a quick reminder by the teacher of the topic under question (“Finding the Subject, Predicate, and Copula of a Sentence”, “Decimal Fractions”, "Columbus' First Journey to America", etc.), and a word or two about points she may have wanted to emphasize one last time. This all would take perhaps a minute or less, and with these preliminaries out of the way, the real review would get started; the "real review" being the testing.

There were a number of ways testing the children could be handled, and the better teachers employed a good selection of them. One way, and originally the only way, was to simply ask the child to “Recite, please”. The child would know to start parroting back (this was not considered a negative thing to do, and I’m beginning to think that may be right!) what they had memorized.

I’d like to cite an example of something a child may have been required to learn at his seat, and then repeat, word for word, when asked to “Start reciting” at the Recitation session. This is from a very popular history text, Parley’s Common School History of the World: A Pictorial History of the World, Ancient and Modern, for the Use of Schools, by Samuel G. Goodrich, published in 1881.

First, though, a look at some Notes to the Teacher, from the Introduction to this book. Notice what was expected of a student of this era (the emphases in italics are mine).

The design of this work is to furnish a CLEAR OUTLINE OF UNIVERSAL HISTORY suited to common schools. It is intended for beginners, and is therefore written in a simple style, and to render it convenient both for the pupil and teacher, it is divided into brief paragraphs and short chapters. Ample questions for examination are appended to the work.

It will be seen that a pupil may commit the whole volume to memory during a winter’s schooling; and if, in this brief space, a clear outline of Universal History may be established in the memory, it is obvious that the subject is worthy the attention of every person interested in education.

In this edition, the whole work has been carefully revised, and is illustrated throughout by new engravings.

Here are three paragraphs, then, chosen at random. They are paragraphs #1, #2, and #3, from page 113, under the topic “Europe: Affairs of Athens”.

1. After the Persian War, Cimon, Aristides, and Pericles were the three principal men of Athens. Pericles at length became the chief person in the republic. Athens was never more flourishing than while he was at the head of the government.

2. He adorned the city with magnificent edifices, and rendered it famous for learning, poetry, and beautiful works of art, such as temples, statues, and paintings. But the Athenians were fickle, and generally ungrateful to their public benefactors; and they sometimes ill treated Pericles.

3. In the latter part of his administration, a terrible plague broke out in Athens. Many of the citizens fell down and died, while passing through the streets. Dead bodies lay in heaps, one upon another.

Pretty impressive.

The one question I have not been able to answer so far is, How many paragraphs (or how much work, if it wasn’t divided up neatly into paragraphs) would a student be asked to memorize in one study session? I do believe the study sessions lasted about 10 minutes for beginners, to up to 45 minutes in high school, but the only guidance I’ve been able to find in my research so far, as to how much to assign for any one particular study time, is to make it “appropriate to the students’ capabilities”. Gee, thanks. Not much help there.

So, however much the children were assigned per study period, they were responsible for learning it all by heart, and for remembering it when called upon by the teacher during the first part of Recitation. The teacher would often have one child start reciting, and then in the middle of a sentence, or perhaps at the end of the paragraph, call upon another student to jump right in and pick up where the last one left off. This kept the children on their toes, and discouraged the waiting children from wandering off in their minds. One never knew when one would be called upon to catch the ball and run with it.

Next blog: I would like to explore a few more testing methods that, while still relying on rote memory, were more Q&A in form. And if I have time, I will explain a little about two testing methods that did not rely on rote memory. These were used infrequently at first, but gained in popularity; in fact, I believe they may have been the prototypes of the teaching methods we now use exclusively in modern day schools.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Toeing the Line

The Recitation Bench

Today I’d like to give a general overview of what the Recitation was all about. Next time I’d like to break it down and explain its parts.

We're all familiar with the idiom “toe the line”. Although its figurative meaning now is “stick to the standard, expected, or 'party' line”, its literal origins have to do with a row of people lining their toes up against a real or imaginary line on the floor or ground. OK, that makes sense, but what does it have to do with schoolwork, or with the Recitation in particular?

Well, it's certainly not where the term originated, but the Recitation period in a one-room schoolhouse certainly did make good use of the practice of "toeing the line" in its literal sense. As I mentioned, after any particular study period, all the students who had been working on that particular assignment were called up to the front of the classroom to where the teacher's desk and some open space were. They would be advised whether to bring their books along with them (usually only for Arithmetic work), or leave them behind (most other work).

Although many schools made use of a “recitation bench”, which was sort of a short church pew up front facing forward, or, in some cases, lined up parallel to the side wall and facing sideways (see second photo above - click to enlarge, and you can see the recitation bench in the background), and so, didn't actually make the students "toe the line", in many other schools, they most certainly did; the group of children in question was called forward to stand, either facing the front of the classroom or facing the back (at the teacher's discretion), with toes lined up along a chalk-drawn line on the floor. There they would wait to be called upon, either individually or collectively, to take one step forward, recite, and return one step back to the line when finished.

A Recitation session would last, on average, from ten to fifteen minutes, and a teacher would hold one Recitation after another, conducting anywhere from 5 to ten or more Recitations per day. Each child, of course, would attend however many Recitations per day as he was enrolled in subjects: one each for perhaps Reading (or Elocution, as it was sometimes called); Spelling; Grammar and Composition; History; Geography; Natural Philosophy, Nature Study, Anatomy and Physiology, or Hygiene (Sciences); Arithmetic or Algebra; Penmanship; and perhaps Music and/or Drawing. While not in Recitation, the student would be at his seat studying (memorizing) the assigned section of the book for the next Recitation he would be called up for, according to the posted schedule.

What was accomplished during a Recitation? It’s amazing what can be crammed into 10 or
15 minutes, but usually the student was given a quick review of what new material had been covered in the teaching time during the last Recitation, he was tested on what he was expected to have memorized during his study period of that same material, he was introduced to the new material covered in the next lesson, his questions on that material were answered, and the assignment was given for the next day’s study session (the material he would be tested on during tomorrow’s Recitation). Occasionally, during the Recitation, especially on Fridays, no new material would be covered, and instead, the time was used to drill tables (math facts, spelling words, states and capitals, rapid mental math computations, etc.), sometimes individually, and sometimes in chorus.

Tomorrow I’ll start to explain HOW the testing and teaching were done. I expect it will take more than one post, but at least I’ll get it started.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Preparing for a Recitation

I was thinking some more about the whole memorization thing today, and I remembered my grandmother (b. 1898) occasionally asking my sisters and me of an evening, back in the early '60's, when we were little girls, "Have you learned your lessons yet?" Not, "Have you done your homework yet?", but "Have you learned your lessons yet?" Learned our lessons? What's that supposed to mean? Now, why we didn't just ask her what she meant, I don't know, but I'm pretty sure we just chalked it up to some old-fashioned way of asking about our homework.

But now I'm not so sure about that. I haven't run into that wording anywhere else in my research, but I'm tempted to wonder if by whether we'd "learned" our lessons, she didn't actually mean, had we memorized our lessons. I can't substantiate my hunch (I'll keep looking), but it just seems logical that although she was probably aware of the fact that Recitations were already a thing of the past, she might still have just used the wording she was familiar with from her own schooldays, when "Have you learned your lessons?" might have actually meant, "Have you got everything memorized? Are you ready to recite?".

Which then got me thinking further. The Recitation went the way of the dinosaur when consolidated, centralized, graded schools came on the scene. That's understandable. What has me scratching my head, though, is the fact that we don't even have a collective memory of there ever having been such a thing as "Recitation", much less what it actually was, or how it was conducted. How in the world did something so important to American education for so long, go POOF! down the memory hole?

Indeed, we have so completely lost the concept of the recitation method of teaching, that I've seen re-creations on TV of 19th century schoolrooms, where the teacher is teaching as if she were in a modern-day graded classroom. It doesn't look authentic, because it isn't. Graded classrooms were, are, and must be, taught in an entirely different way (the way you and I were taught); a way that is wholely unsuited to the one-room, multi-graded classroom.

Notice in the photograph above (click to enlarge) how the students are all busy studying their lessons, perhaps each one a different subject or grade level, yet the teacher is not teaching. Why? Isn't that a little odd? With so many grades to cover, wouldn't you expect the teacher to take any spare moment she could, while the others were occupied, to teach one grade or another? How can she fit teaching each grade each subject into each day's schedule if she doesn't spend every minute teaching something to somebody? I know that's what I had to do, and I only had three to six grades to teach at a time, not eight.

Well, it's my belief that the teacher is not teaching, because other than a few minutes each to review and preview, at each Recitation time, teachers did not spend their time in front of a class teaching. The teacher's primary teaching job was to conduct Recitations. In between Recitations, she graded papers or prepared the next Recitation. And what did the students do in between their own Recitations? As I pointed out below, that's the secret. The students stayed busy teaching themselves, through the magic of memorization. What joy (for the teacher)! What simplicity!

Which is one of several reasons I will be proposing that homeschoolers rediscover and re-adopt the old "recitation" method -- because we are the modern-day equivalent of the one-room multi-graded classroom. I think this is why so many homeschool moms run into trouble -- we are using graded-classroom teaching methods, which means teaching all the time (because this is all we know), in a multi-graded classroom. Oy oy oy! It didn't work for Mrs. Pioneer Schoolmarm, and it doesn't work so well for us, either. Ask me how I know. More -- much more -- on this at a later time.

So. Anyway. Back to "learning lessons". That's my guess: that for a very long time in American schools and homes, learning meant pretty much one thing... it meant memorizing. If you understood what you memorized, so much the better.

Next blog: OK, then, so what exactly is a Recitation? What does it "look like"? I'll give you my thoughts on that question.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Methods of Teaching in Country Schools, by G. Dallas Lind; p. 60.

I started reading old books about teaching a few years ago. By old books, I mean from the 1800's. I was desperately searching for answers. I'd been homeschooling my own children for almost 20 years by this time, at times juggling up to six children's schoolwork in six different grades, and I had always looked back in awe at the old schoolmarm of yesteryear. I was stretched so thin, and I had one burning question, which I was hoping these books could answer for me -- for G-d's sake, how did she DO it? How did a young woman (Little House on the Prairie author, and real-life schoolteacher, Laura Ingalls Wilder, started teaching at 16; this was not an unusually young age to start teaching at that time) -- how did a young woman (or man) educate a room full of up to 60 students at a time (click on the floorplan for a one-room schoolhouse above to enlarge, and take note of item #11 at the bottom) of every grade, with no help, and have them graduate from the eighth grade with a better education than our modern-day high school (dare I say university?) graduates?

I think I found the answer in those old books. It's so simple it's almost a let-down. But in simplicity is genius. Here's what I found.

Apart from these schoolteachers possessing some pretty extraordinary class management skills, which we'll get into later, the real secret to how they got it all done - schedule-wise, at least -, I was surprised to find out, is that they spent no more than 10 to 15 minutes with each class in each subject. I wondered, then, how they were able to teach to the extent needed to produce such qualified scholars upon graduation. I mean, ten minutes per day per subject? Therein lay the second secret I discovered. The more I read, the more I found that if there is one word that differentiates 19th century education from 20th and 21st century education, that word would be MEMORIZATION. This is what made the difference -- the students basically used their time to teach themselves! That's right. Although a reform movement stressing understanding over rote memorization started taking hold in the 1830's, most schools, at least most rural schools, were still relying on strict, word-for-word memorization as the main teaching strategy, well into the latter years of the 19th century.

Rote memorization???? Yes, indeed. In fact, it was quite common for the student to be assigned a certain amount of paragraphs in a particular textbook (said paragraphs often being helpfully numbered in the book for easy reference) to sit quietly and memorize at his seat during a prescribed time scheduled for that particular study, and then be called forward with the others of the same grade (or more accurately, with the others in that same book, since a child might be in a 3rd grade arithmetic book, a 4th grade reader, and a 2nd grade speller) for the time called the Recitation. It was called the Recitation, because that's exactly what the students did -- they recited what they had memorized. Verbatim. They were either simply requested to, "Recite, please", or they were asked questions by the teacher, the answers to which were not to be deduced, or explained, or guessed at, but simply, recited. From memory.

It was sometimes the case, I've read, that the child did not fully understand what whatever it was that he was reciting meant. Although most teachers did try to ascertain how much was understood, and teach/explain that which was not, it was also the case that a lack of understanding on the part of the student was not cause for as great alarm back then as it would be to us today. Not because it didn't matter whether students understood their work, but rather, because although a student might not fully grasp the meaning of what he was reciting now, it was pretty much taken for granted that when the time was right, he would. I like to compare it to teaching a two-year old to recite the ABC's. Why do this, when a two-year old is utterly incapable of understanding what it all means? We do it because when he begins to read, he has the alphabet, all comfortably memorized and filed away, to pull out of his mind's filing cabinet, ready to be used to build his phonics work upon. He most certainly did not understand what he was saying at two, but now at six, he does. And he doesn't have to waste time memorizing it now that he needs it -- that was taken care of earlier, and his time is now freed up to just go ahead and put it all to use. Well, same idea -- memorized history or geography factoid now, useful information later.

Well, that's all I've time for now. I will add a little more in the next few days. I'll leave it for now at that the key to a good pioneer education, was the ability to memorize and recite at will. Till next time!