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.


VL said...

I really like your old time pictures!

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Susan said...

Thanks, VL! I love them, too. I know I mentioned this in one of my posts, but I think it's so strange, when I look at these pictures, to realize that the people in them were just doing what was absolutely normal for the times, and yet today, we look at them and ask, "What in the WORLD were they doing all lined up in the front of the room [or whatever they were doing] like that?" We have absolutely no concept of some of the things that to them were just a part of ordinary, taken-for-granted, everyday life. As they'll be doing when they look back in 2150 on photos from 2009, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

This was hard work! These students should come out of it with a Master's or something. What would they think of today's class?

Susan said...

Good question. What WOULD they think? I'm going to venture a guess. I think they'd see some improvements (kids being expected to understand what they were learning; child-friendly classrooms developed from a deeper understanding of child psychology), coupled with some disappointments (these same kids might understand more about what they do know, yet they "know" less).

Overall, I think the disappointment would outweigh the approval. I think they'd say, "For all the advantages your children have in the classroom, they lack self-discipline, and they aren't pushed enough to do the hard stuff, which would include memorizing. With so much emphasis on making learning fun, or at least pleasant, the really, really hard stuff doesn't get done. What a pity you don't seem able to do both."

Then again, maybe they wouldn't say that at all, I don't know. Good question.

Anonymous said...

it all boils down to "understanding" what one is "learning", just like you said. Kids could spend less time in school during the day and doing homework at night if everyday they added a bit more to what they learned. It's when you start to fall behind that playing catch up is what fills the day.

LL said...

I like to teach history in particular so that children relate all things to themselves. I taught a voluntary seminar at a public high school in Southern California on several topics. My Civil War (War of Northern Aggression/War of the Rebellion - whatever) seminar had standing-room-only. I was flattered. Imagine SoCal kids coming to school at night voluntarily to learn?

There was no particular secret except that I focused on experiential learning that caused the students to relate the war to themselves.

In the case of an American Revolution class I taught at the urging of my 24 year old daughter who teaches 5th Grade, I had students stand up in ranks and pointed out to them that the one who carried the flag (the Ensign) was nearly as young as the drummers and that person was the TARGET. I asked them if THEY would be willing to carry that flag? These are a few trite examples, but I applaud your one-room schoolhouse concept.

Susan said...

Thanks for stopping by, LL! I just saw this -- I haven't been posting lately, as you can see. (I think I'll write a post about that, as a matter of fact.) Anyway, I'm honored to see you here. It's obvious from your note that you have the heart of a teacher. I would have liked very much to be in your Civil War seminar.


Susan said...

And your Revolutionary War class, too!