While I had planned on the usual sort of first-day-back activities -- admiring new school supplies and some fun new books and CDs -- the local library made other plans, inviting an Alberta author who specializes in stories about farm life in the forties and his career as a Mountie. Since these are the sort of old-fashioned true-life tales the kids very much enjoy, I decided it would be a dandy way to mark the beginning of the new year. But I'm fairly certain there won't be too many other kids, homeschooled or otherwise, in attendance, and even with me we'll probably be on the younger side of the age spectrum.
Wednesday won't find the kids gathered around the kitchen table with their math and grammar books either. We'll be back at the library, since I have a meeting to help plan its big 75th anniversary party, another nifty project for the kids to help with, considering that the library really is our home away from home. Later in the day, piano and voice lessons begin.
So we'll gather around the kitchen table with the math and spelling books on Thursday, in our one-room schoolhouse. I've always had a fondness for one-room schoolhouses, probably dating back to the Little House books. I can see one from my kitchen window -- though it's now a neighbor's grainery -- the very one after which we've named our home school.
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"To fit the individual to live and to function in the institutional life of his day."from Why Shoot the Teacher, 1965, by Max Braithwaite (1911-1995), an account of his first teaching assignment in a rural Saskatchewan one-room schoolhouse in 1933 and the first volume in his autobiographical trilogy; next came Never Sleep Three in a Bed (1969), followed by The Night We Stole the Mountie's Car (1971), which won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. Braithwaite was a Saskatchewan boy himself, born and raised in Nokomis.
This statement on the purpose of education kept bouncing about in my head. We'd had to memorize it at Normal [teacher training] School along with the bit about all learning being specific. But how, I wondered when I faced my first class, was I to achieve this in Willowgreen School?
In the first place these children could function pretty well already. From the smallest to the largest they could milk cows, feed them, clean out the barn, harness and drive horses, burn Russian thistle, plough, plant, and harvest. From their mothers the girls learned how to sew and bake and even how to deliver babies. The one bitter lesson they had to learn and I couldn't teach them was how to exist without funds in the harshest climate in the world.
But I realized that even in that small group there would be some who didn't want to be farmers. Who had a compulsion to get out of this mess into an environment where people lived like human beings. How about them?
For many years the old cry "Go West, young man" had been completely reversed so that New York, Toronto, Boston, and other eastern cities were filled with young people from the West seeking careers in journalism, advertising, drama, broadcasting, and business. How could I help prepare them to fit in to this world of culture, competition, and status seeking?
To complicate my problem the "modern trend" in education had finally seeped up to Saskatchewan so that the Department of Education had made extensive changes in its curriculum. The history courses, for instance, had been completely transformed to put more emphasis on living than on dying. Instead of nice, clean-cut facts about wars and generals and kings, such as I'd learned in public school, I was supposed to teach about such vague things as the development of towns, fairs, and guilds. And it wasn't to be called by the opprobrious name of History any more. Combined with Geography it had become Social Studies.
Similarly other subjects had been mutilated. Instead of notes to be dictated, copied, and memorized there was all this nonsense about projects and research. To further compound my confusion, no textbooks had yet been produced to cover the new approach. I had to get by with a tattered set of readers, some spellers, and the good old Elementary Arithmetic, parts I and II.
The library consisted of a book by James Oliver Currwood, a big tome called "Beautiful Joe's Paradise" and, of all things, a green-covered volume entitled "White Slavery -- The Horrible Traffic in Young Women". I removed it from the collection.
I solved the problem in the only practical way possible. After a couple of hours of futile fussing over a time-table that would include all the subjects for all the grades, I chucked the whole business and decided to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. Naturally, the four beginners who couldn't read or write a word were my first, biggest, and most challenging task. What I did with them in Grade One would affect their whole school career. So I gave them about one-third of my teaching time. ...
All things considered, teaching those beginners to read gave me more downright satisfaction than anything else I've ever done. They couldn't read a word when I began with them, and when I finished each could stand up beside his seat and read words and sentences and stories. That's the kind of progress you can see.
But finding something for them to do while I was busy with the other grades presented a real problem. Thank Heaven for plasticine! Each child had a tattered match box full of it and a piece of oilcloth to roll it on. After each lesson out came the sticky green stuff and they proceeded to model the animals featured in the lesson ["The Little Red Hen"]. The first time this happened, I found little Sarah Friesen with a perfectly proportioned pig. So amazed was I that I almost asked her the silly question "Did you make this yourself?", until I realized that it would be equally amazing if her neighbour had done it for her. Her skill at drawing turned out to be equally startling. From what far-off ancestor had such a talent come?
And at the conclusion of each number-word lesson they took our their little post-shaped pegs, coloured green and red, and practised counting or whatever else took their fancy. Sometimes I'd glance over and see a tired head resting on a skinny arm and the weary, undernourished owner fast asleep. This was the best seat work of all.
Just moving across the room from grade to grade, reader to reader, took up the full morning. Most of the afternoon went in the same way with arithmetic. For reading and arithmetic are the two subjects on which you can't skimp without bad trouble later.
What about the other subjects? Well, my stolen encyclopaedia took care of them. I'm not fool enough to divulge the name of this set of books (I don't want to get a bill at this late date) but I will say that they are the finest every printed.
And right here I'd like to say a word for encyclopaedias in general and for the men who reap calumny for their efforts to sell them from door to door. The value of a good encyclopaedia to a family is second only to that of good parents. "Look it up," is the best counsel an inquisitive youngster can get from an oldster. Which is larger, New York or Tokyo? Look it up. What is a crustacean? Find out for yourself. Who was president following McKinley? It's in the book.
It's also a fact that few people go out and buy this handy home pedagogue of their own volition. Like insurance, books aren't bought; they are sold. And of all the hard things to sell in this world an encyclopaedia set is the hardest. A man who buys a new are every year, whose liquor bill runs into three figures, and who wouldn't be caught dead in last year's suit, will kick a book salesman into the snow and be horribly indignant, because he may have been "taken" for a couple of hundred. . . .
But to get back to my pilfered volumes. I still have them, and besides saving my life at Willowgreen School, they've been manhandled to tatters by my own five children. In the front fly-leaf is a statement to the effect that the purpose of the work is to inspire ambition, provide the inquiring mind with accurate information told in an interesting style, stimulate the imagination, and thus lead to broader fields of knowledge. Amen!
Besides all this, they are easy for any child of Grade Five or better to read or understand.
So, to fill the spaces between arithmetic, reading, spelling and grammar lessons, I assigned research from the encyclopaedia. The pupils looked up a subject, read what there was to read about it, and wrote a report. At first their efforts were pretty bad, but gradually they became surprisingly adept. Actually, each child spent about 80 per cent of his time working on his own. There's just a chance they gained in self-reliance more than they lost in lack of attention from me.
Braithwaite sold his first article, a collaboration with a friend, to Maclean's magazine in 1937; it was a critique of the Saskatchewan education system entitled "School Drought". With his half of the check, he bought a secondhand typewriter and never looked back. After a stint in the Canadian Navy during World War II, he earned his living thereafter as a freelance writer.
For more on the life and works of the very funny, very moving Max Braithwaite, click here and here.