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.

1 comment:

Carly said...

I don't know if you are still interested in this, but there is a good book available on google books from the late 19th century... Raub's School Management that was a well known guide for education in its time. He actually writes that the point of recitation is not to have the students remember the text verbatim, but to put to memory the key facts, terms, dates, names, etc. and be able to explain them back in their own words. The reason society has "forgotten" this method of education is that rote went out of fashion and the stress became teaching students how to obtain knowledge (problem solving) over just having them obtain as much knowledge as possible. With the development of child psychology, it has also been learned that children learn differently and not all can thrive in a rote learning setting. That is probably the reason only 2 or 3 out of 50 students in a class were expected to pass the 8th grade diploma examination.