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.

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