READING IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS.
BY ROBERT C. METCALF, MASTER OF WELLS SCHOOL, BOSTON.
[Library Journal 4 (1879): 343-45.]
OF course no one here will misunderstand the drift of the question. A few years ago, and it would have called up in the mind only a drill upon the pronunciation of words, upon inflection, upon expression, or generally upon what may be called elocution.
A few years ago it would be, "John, what mark follows the third word in the fourth line?" " A period." "And how long do you stop at a period? " " Long enough to count four." " What inflection of the voice is required at a period? " "The falling." And it was only after years of teaching, or at least of observation, that we learned that the mark of punctuation had little to do with the resting or with the inflection of the voice.
It was only after many years that we found the teaching of reading in the schools to be a process by which we furnished boys and girls with a key to the vast treasures of knowledge contained in what we call the Literature of the Language—a litera-
ture with us now so widely diffused by means of the public press and the public library.
How then shall we so connect the public school with the public press and the public library that the pupil can, to the best advantage, secure the benefits of each?
Our scholars will read; there is no doubt at all about that. It only remains for us to direct their reading so as to reach and secure what is good, and avoid all that is bad. The teachers should require all pupils above the age of ten years to own a note-book in which shall be recorded, from time to time, the names of all books that might be read with profit in connection with the subjects taught in the schoolroom. A lesson in Geography might suggest the " Swiss Family Robinson," or " Robinson Crusoe "; a lesson in History, "The Days of Bruce," or some of Scott's novels; a lesson in reading perhaps suggests " Stellar worlds," or some interesting biography. Thus in a few years the child has had his attention called to many good books of real value, because they throw a flood of light upon, and add a deal of interest to, subjects of actual study in his school.
But more than this should be done, especially in the higher classes. The teacher should require every pupil to make a weekly report of his reading, to be recorded in a book kept for this especial purpose, in which the pupils' names should be arranged alphabetically, with the necessary space for each child. Such an inspection and record of the reading of a class will work a wonderful change in its character, even in the space of one short year, and if systematically followed up for a term of years, by a capable teacher, I believe would render the work later, when the children become men and women, much more satisfactory.
Aside from this written weekly report of the pupil, he should be required to make a verbal report or criticism upon the book he has lately read, an outline of the story? why he likes or dislikes it, any peculiarity of style that has been noticed, and so on according to the ability of the scholar. The advantages to be gained by this exercise are too obvious to require comment.
Another exercise of very great value, having for its object the cultivation of the taste of the pupil, may also be named in this connection.
The teacher selects a story, either in prose or poetry, as for instance " Evangeline," and either reads or causes to be read to the class sufficient to secure the interest of the pupils. She then selects some passage of especial beauty and commends it to the careful study of the class. They are led at first to consider the thought itself and then its expression. If it should be a description of natural scenery, the picture is called up before them, and as far as possible they enter into the feeling of the author. The words are studied with reference to their fitness as expressions of the thought of the writer, and they are taught to see that the use of any synonym would mar the picture and disturb the harmony of the description. Thus, again, the taste of the pupil is being cultivated, while he learns to enjoy what is best in our literature.
I am tempted here to give you a short extract from the record of the reading of a class in a Grammar School before the above plan was introduced :
" That husband of mine," " Hot corn," " Helen's babies," " Guy Elscott's wife," " Poor and proud," " Elsie's dowry," " The Boston boy," " Life in a French chateau," "Tony the tramp," "Hans the miser," " Tattered Tom," " Only a pauper," " The Lamplighter," etc. Some good books-- many poor ones. I am somewhat afraid that the list does not contain all that was read.
I fear that books even of a worse character than here indicated are 'sometimes read and not reported. But let us not forget that the best way to destroy a taste for what is bad, is to cultivate a taste for what is good.
If a tree produces a fruit that is mean in size and disagreeable in taste, we do not content ourselves with cutting off the branches, but we graft in something that is better. The parent or teacher who simply tells the child what he must not read, or actually deprives him of the reading matter he has selected for himself, has simply cut off the branches of the tree without grafting in anything at all. The result is disastrous. The tree dies. The child's mind is weakened from a lack of nutriment of the right character, and so becomes, in time, incapable of all growth.
Having indicated how I would cultivate the taste and direct the choice of the pupil, it only remains, to suggest how, in my opinion, the public library can be made a great public benefit rather than what is too frequent—a great public nuisance.
So long as our pupils are allowed free access to a public library, without direction as to choice either by parent, teacher, or librarian, we can look for no good results— can expect nothing but what we now have —a crude, unsystematic, miscellaneous jumble of reading on the part of our children; but let some plan be adopted, either the one indicated, or another which may be better, whereby the teacher will constantly turn the mind of the child to books that will illustrate, explain, or more fully develop the work of the school-room, and the conditions are right for bringing into play an important part of what I conceive to be the true work of the public library.
The library must now be brought near to and connected with the school. In our large cities, many sections are located at a distance from the public library. Branches have not been established—and the taking out of a book involves a journey of two or more miles, and as many hours of time. This time, at least, cannot be spared by the pupil, especially in the winter, when the days are so short that the usual school and domestic duties would require the walk to be taken in the evening, and some plan must be devised whereby the principal or teacher can draw from the library such books as his pupils may need, and deliver them at his desk whenever the school-work suggests their use, and to such pupils as will make the best use of them.
An arrangement like this would increase the reading of good books tenfold, and would do much to break up bad habits already formed. I do not pretend to even outline a plan. Those to whom I speak are wiser than I, especially in all matters pertaining to the public library. I can only tell you what we are trying to do in the school-room, and call your attention to the prime necessity of bringing the public library into more intimate relations with the public schools. And here I will leave the whole subject, thanking you most sincerely for allowing the schools to speak; and thanking you also for the desire manifested to extend a helping hand to those of us who are more immediately engaged in the work of public school education.
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