378 | What Grade Are You In? A Bit of Common Sense from Understood Betsy (Janice Campbell)

378 | What Grade Are You In? A Bit of Common Sense from Understood Betsy (Janice Campbell)

Show Notes:

Have you ever thought how odd it is to have children move from grade to grade in lockstep with other children, even though they develop and learn at different rates in different subjects? Did you know that this idea of grade segregation is relatively new in the history of the world? Homeschoolers usually figure out how illogical the whole idea is, but I thought this excerpt from one of my favorite old books, Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, might give you a glimpse of how learning levels used to work.

About Janice

Janice Campbell, a lifelong reader and writer, loves to introduce students to great books and beautiful writing. She holds an English degree from Mary Baldwin College, and is the graduated homeschool mom of four sons. You’ll find more about reading, writing, planning, and education from a Charlotte Mason/Classical perspective at her websites, EverydayEducation.com, Excellence-in-Literature.com, and DoingWhatMatters.com.


Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

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Show Transcript:

Janice Campbell Hello and welcome to The Homeschool Solution Show. My name is Janice Campbell and I'm one of the many hosts here on the podcast. Each week we bring you an encouraging conversation from this busy and blessed journey of educating our children at home. While the title of the show is "Homeschool Solutions," we don't pretend to have all the answers to all the homeschooling questions. It is our hope that this podcast will point you to Jesus Christ, that you may seek his counsel as you train your children in the way they should go.

Janice Campbell Parents, here's a riddle for you: Homeschoolers love them. Enemies of freedom hate them. What are they? It's the Tuttle Twins books. With millions of copies sold, the Tuttle Twins series helps you teach your children about entrepreneurship, personal responsibility, the Golden Rule, and so much more. Get a discounted set of books with free workbooks today at TuttleTwins.com/Homeschool. And now onto today's show.

Janice Campbell Hi, I'm Janice Campbell, and today I'm planning to share some thoughts on the tradition of having children move from grade to grade in lockstep with other children. I've always thought it a bit odd since children develop and learn at different rates in different subjects. And this idea of grade segregation is relatively new in the history of the world. So along with my own comments, I thought you might enjoy hearing an example of how learning levels worked, that is excerpted from one of my favorite old books, Understood Betsy, which is set about 100 years ago. Let's begin...

Janice Campbell One of the funny things that used to happen when I was out with our boys would be the moment when someone asked one of them, "What grade are you in?" The boys would look at one another nonplussed and finally replied with their age. We just didn't do grade levels. It may have been the influence of Understood Betsy or the hundreds of other old books I read that inoculated me against the notion that there was any good reason to pigeonhole children and segregate them by age. Or it may have simply been remembrance of what learning was like for me. Some things were effortless. Others were harder. Sometimes I'd be stuck for a bit--remember factoring?--then like a light bulb turning on, understanding would arrive.

Janice Campbell When I read Understood Betsy, I empathize deeply with Betsy (who is referred to in this particular excerpt as Elizabeth Ann) on her first day at a new school as she faced reading aloud with her class. Here's a glimpse of what happened in that little one-room schoolhouse: "Betsy sighed, took out her third-grade reader and went with the other two up to the battered old bench near the teacher's desk. She knew all about reading lessons and she hated them, although she loved to read. But reading lessons... You sat with your book open at some reading you could do with your eyes shut it was so easy, and you waited and waited and waited while your classmates slowly stumbled along reading a sentence or two apiece aloud until your turn came to stand up and read your sentence or two, which by that time sounded just like nonsense because you'd read it over and over so many times to yourself before your chance came. And often you didn't even have the chance to do that because the teacher didn't have time to get around to you at all. And you closed your book and put it back in your desk without ever having opened your mouth. Reading was one thing Elizabeth Ann had learned to do very well indeed, but she had learned it all by herself at home, from much reading to herself. Aunt Francis had kept her well-supplied with children's books from the nearest public library. She often read three a week. Very different that from a sentence or two once or twice a week.".

Janice Campbell When I read that passage as a child, I was Betsy. I too had learned to read very well indeed through glorious gobs of reading at home. School was different, though. I remember getting in trouble more than once for reading through an entire reading anthology or history book during the first few days of school. Getting ahead of the class was apparently something that must not be done, though I never figured out why. I remember being tattled on during a class trip to the library for looking at books outside the picture book section. Fortunately for the child doing the tattling, the teacher simply said, "It's okay she can read the big kid books." But what if school itself had been structured so that I and anyone else who was ready could read the good stuff in any subject in which we were capable? Why are children expected to sit through the deadly boredom of lessons and things they can already do well just because they're a certain age? How many schools assign workbooks and worksheets because they're easy to check rather than because they help children learn? Time wasting shouldn't be mandatory. So as a child reading Understood Betsy, I felt understood. She knew what it was like to be ahead in some things and behind in others. And I suspect that we are not alone.

Janice Campbell At the same time, I felt a bit envious as I read on and discovered what happened next. Betsy first reads from the third reader and then... Well, I'll let you hear it for yourself: "'I guess, then,' said the teacher, 'that you'd better not stay in this class.' She took a book out of her desk. 'See if you can read that.' Elizabeth Ann began in her usual school-reading style--very slow and monotonous. But this didn't seem like a reader at all. It was poetry, full of hard words that were fun to try and pronounce. And it was all about an old woman who would hang out an American flag, even though the town was full of rebel soldiers. She read faster and faster, getting more and more excited till she broke out with "Halt!" in such a loud, spirited voice that the sound of it startled her and made her stop, fearing that she would be laughed at. But nobody laughed. They were all listening very eagerly. Even the little ones with their eyes turned toward her. 'You might as well go on and let us see how it came out,' said the teacher. And Betsy finished triumphantly. 'Well, said the teacher. There's no sense in you reading along in the Third Reader. After this you'll recite out of the Seventh Reader with Frank and Harry and Stachy. There's no sense in dragging through material that is way too easy.' Betsy was dumbfounded at this idea, but she knew it couldn't be really possible, because as she later confessed to the teacher, 'I can't be allowed to read in the Seventh Reader. I don't write a bit well, and I never get mental number work right. I couldn't do anything with seventh-grade arithmetic.' The teacher's common-sense, simple response made it clear that Betsy's placement in reading, arithmetic, and writing was a matter of what she knew and needed to learn next, not a matter of her age or what other children were doing. Nine-year-old Betsy had been born a person with powers of mind which fit her to deal with all knowledge proper to her, as Charlotte Mason said. And her teacher seemed bent on providing just that.".

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Janice Campbell So should you skip ahead or move back a level in a subject? A lifetime of reading old books gave me glimpses into many sensible educational practices, and when I started homeschooling, I adopted those that fit. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the old books of my childhood set me free--free of the fear of eliminating grade-level boxes that didn't fit, boring workbooks that didn't teach, and teaching methods based on covering material rather than educating head, heart, and hand. That's a freedom I wish for you too. Many homeschooling parents find their way to this place of freedom simply because it makes sense. But how do you know if a child should move ahead? There's one question I would ask: Is the subject I'm thinking of skipping ahead in, teaching a skill or imparting knowledge? If it's a skill subject such as reading, spelling, arithmetic, etc. the question becomes, "Does the child know how to read, spell, add, subtract, multiply, divide, or whatever? And how well?" You're likely to know the answer to that question, just as Betsy's teacher did. A fluently reading child shouldn't have to slog through another year of phonics lessons or too-childish readers just because they're available and that's what other people are doing. That child should be released into the magical world of real books and interesting knowledge. All the foundational skills will continue to be practiced in the context of that knowledge-based... reading those lessons. And that's a much better use of time and brain space than separate skill lessons. Knowledge-based reading cultivates the child's mind and heart and his or her understanding of the world, not just some bland comprehension skills. And if they're reading interesting things--good books, great poetry, that sort of thing--they're going to want to understand, so they're going to read and comprehend.

Janice Campbell So if you're thinking of skipping ahead in a knowledge area, such as history, literature, art, music or math, consider carefully. There's riches to be discovered in each of these disciplines, and it would be a pity to miss out on things that are appropriate for the grade level your student is actually at. If you're using a good living books curriculum--such as AmblesideOnline, which is available free online--you'll have an abundant feast of great reading in all the knowledge areas. However, it can be a bit intimidating if you're jumping in midway. Do you start at the beginning and read everything? Or start at grade level and go from there? If you've read this far, you can probably guess that I'd start with the levels that fit each student where they're at. So work on skills through copy work and narration, oral arithmetic practice, and other appropriate activities. And read widely and deeply in the knowledge areas. Have students keep learning journals with commonplace quotes, nature studies, science experiments, history timelines, biographical sketches, and more. Learning happens line upon line, precept on precept, and your students will never share Betsy's misunderstanding about the purpose of school. Because school really does have a purpose.

Janice Campbell We'll rejoin Understood Betsy at the end of her arithmetic lesson: "After the lesson the teacher said, smiling, "Well, Betsy, you were right about your arithmetic. I guess you'd better recite with Eliza for a while. She's doing second-grade work. I shouldn't be surprised if after a good review with her, you'd be able to go on with the third-grade work.' Elizabeth Ann fell back on the bench with her mouth open. She felt really dizzy. What crazy things the teacher said! She felt as though she was being pulled limb from limb. 'What's the matter?,' asked the teacher, seeing her bewildered face. "Why... Why...," said Elizabeth Ann, 'I don't know what I am at all. If I'm second-grade arithmetic and seventh-grade reading and third-grade spelling, what grade am I?' The teacher laughed at the turn of her phrase, 'You aren't any grade at all, no matter where you are in school. You're just yourself, aren't you? What difference does it make what grade you're in? And what's the use of your reading little baby things too easy for you just because you don't know your multiplication table?' 'Well, for goodness sakes,' ejaculated Elizabeth Ann, feeling very much as though somebody had stood her suddenly on her head. 'Why, what's the matter?,' asked the teacher again. This time Elizabeth Ann didn't answer, because she herself didn't know what the matter was. But I do, and I'll tell you, the matter was that never before had she known what she was doing in school. She had always thought she was there to pass from one grade to another. And she was ever so startled to get a little glimpse of the fact that she was there to learn how to read and write and cipher and generally use her mind. Of course, she didn't really know that until she did come to be grown up, but she had her first notion of it in that moment, and it made her feel the way you do when you're learning to skate and somebody pulls away the chair you've been leaning on and says, 'Now go it alone.'"

Janice Campbell C.S. Lewis said that old books are a necessary antidote to the characteristic blindness of every age. And I'm certain he's right. I know the cumulative influence of Understood Betsy, and so many others, clearly showed me the absurdity of doing schoolwork for the sake of checking it off a list. Like Betsy, I didn't understand what I was seeing until much later. But largely because of old books, my inner compass pointed toward a better way--a type of education where children study what they need to know, when they need to know it. I wish the same for you and yours. Thank you for listening. Goodbye for now.

Janice Campbell Thank you for joining us this week on The Homeschool Solution Show. You can find show notes and links to all the resources mentioned at Homeschooling.Mom. Don't forget to check out my friends at Medi-Share because you deserve healthcare you can trust. To learn more about Medi-Share and why over 400,000 Christians have made the switch. Go to GreatHomeschoolConventions.com/MediShare.

Janice Campbell If you haven't already, please subscribe to the podcast. And while you're there, leave us a review. Tell us what you love about the show. This will help other homeschooling parents, like you, get connected to our community. And finally, tag us on Instagram @HomeschoolingDotMom to let us know what you thought of today's episode.

Janice Campbell Have you joined us at one of the Great Homeschool Conventions? The Great Homeschool Conventions are the homeschooling events of the year, offering outstanding speakers, hundreds of workshops covering today's top parenting and homeschooling topics, and the largest homeschool curriculum exhibit halls in the U.S. Find out more at GreatHomeschoolConventions.com. I hope to see you there.

Janice Campbell Finally, you can connect with me, Janice Campbell, at EverydayEducation.com where you'll find my Excellence in Literature curriculum, Transcripts Made Easy, and more. As well as at my blog DoingWhatMatters.com, and my literature resource site, ExcellenceInLiterature.com. I wish you peace and joy in your homeschooling journey.

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