Sunday, September 24, 2006

Understood Betsy

The other day I mentioned that we were reading Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. I knew absolutely nothing about this book before we started it; somehow, it was not on my radar screen. All I knew was that Lissa and Liz had both recommended it to me (more than once each, I'm sure) and that I trusted them to know what kind of book we love.

We finished it last week, and we all adored it. It was the sort of book that leaves one with that curious mix of satisfaction and mourning: the feeling that you are full and happy, content to have partaken of the feast, but so sad that it's gone, over, consumed and done. Oh, yes, of course you can read it again. And you will. But there's nothing like the first taste of a discovery.

In my last post, I mentioned that, as we read, I was reminded of John Holt and Charlotte Mason. Faith, from Dumb Ox Academy, pointed out that Fisher was a champion of Montessori methods. I'm far less familiar with Montessori than with the others, but all were advocates for children, and all encouraged a certain level of independence in learning. All, too, believed that children were capable little people who simply needed to have their natural desires to learn enthusiastically encouraged.

The first John Holt moment was just a little thing. Nine year old Betsy has been called forward in class to do math:

She hated arithmetic with all her might, and she really didn't understand a thing about it! By long experience she had learned to read her teachers' faces very accurately, and she guessed by their expression whether the answer she gave was the right one. And that was the only way she could tell. You never heard of any other child who did that, did you?

(I love the way the narrator sneaks in the occasional editorial aside.)

I was reminded here of a passage from How Children Fail in which John Holt talks about children faking their way through years of math, purely on their ability to read the teacher's face.

I was also reminded of Holt's observations about how strangely artificial school is, about how children are removed from the real world (and from normal interaction in it) when they are closed up in a school building all day. A passing farmer has stopped to join in the children's tug-o-war game at recess:

Elizabeth Ann was thinking to herself that this was one of the queerest things that had happened to her even in this queer place. Never, why never once, had any grown-up, passing the playground of the big brick building, DREAMED of such a thing as stopping for a minute to play. They never even looked at the children, any more than if they were in another world. In fact she had felt the school was in another world.

This happens when you're homeschooling, too. You become very aware that you are indeed living in something of an alternate world. A couple of weeks ago, my girls and I stopped at the grocery store after horseback riding lessons. The clerk, a very cheerful woman, said, "You must be homeschooled." My girls said that yes, they were, and we'd just come from horseback riding and the clerk said, "Oh! Then you get to enjoy this glorious weather! That's so nice. You know, we don't get to see too many children here during the day."

Back to Betsy's new world: I was reminded of Charlotte Mason in Betsy's teacher, who saw the importance of time spent outside, and who was quite matter-of-fact about Betsy being a person ... not a "student," not a "third-grader" and not a pail to be filled, but a human being who was there to grow and learn.

After the teacher utterly shocks Betsy by placing her at a 7th grade reading level, 2nd grade math level, and 3rd grade spelling, Betsy's mind is spinning:

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?"

This is simply too much for Betsy. This is not at all what she's been taught, not at all what she thought an education was all about:

"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, so she could take care of herself when she came to be grown up. Of course, she didn't really know that till she did come to be grown up, but she had her first dim 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!"

Fisher has a lovely, sly sense of humor, and finishes the first section on school with this:

They ran along to the little building, and there I'm going to leave them, because I think I've told enough about their school for ONE while. It was only a poor, rough, little district school anyway, that no Superintendent of Schools would have looked at for a minute, except to sniff.

And the whole book is every bit as delicious as that.

I won't share every detail we loved, as I don't want to spoil the book for those of you who haven't read it. But know that it's full of surprises and delights, a bit of pathos, a lot of compassion, sincere love and humor.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher had a keen understanding of human nature, knew children terrifically well, and captured a wonderful array of arresting personalities in this all-too-quick-a-read.

Understood Betsy is an altogether enchanting book, and a new family favorite here in our Holt-inspired/Masonish/Montessori-touched/Betsian homeschool. Thanks, Liz and Lissa.


Liz said...

Karen, I'm so glad you liked it. I came to it as a fourth grade public schooled kid after it was recommended on an ETV book review type program that our teacher let us watch in school. I've often wondered whether it didn't have a bit to do with my own "philosophy of education." I identified with Betsy because first of all I am an Elizabeth Ann who lives in Vermont. I had tasted warm sap as a child. We had a collie dog. My mother did let me help cook. The Putney kitchen in my imagination never looked just like any kitchen I knew, but it had elements of my grandmother's, my aunt's, and other old farmhouses that I'd visited. My mother taught in one room schoolhouses and I could easily imagine her as a young teacher being rather like the teacher that Betsy encountered. However, Betsy's previous school experience was more like mine in the 1950's. All in all I simply found it a great book and I've gone back to it more than once.

I think I've certainly expected a sort of competence in my children through the years and have seen it exhibited. I've also seen the children whose parents don't expect it.

Recently while teaching my student Cathy how to knit a sweater, I left her with the instruction book and basically told her I thought she could probably go it alone. I told her she could call if she needed help, but that she should try to read the instructions for herself first.

Yesterday her mom asked her if she needed me to help her. Cathy replied, "Well I have the book." She hasn't finished the sweater yet, but I'm sort of hoping that I've let go of the back of the bike and that she'll now be able to pedal on her own.

I think that the character of Cousin Ann wasn't my favorite at first, she seemed rather cold. Yet cousin Ann really expects Betsy to be able to do things. Sometimes they are things that are on the very edge of her ability to perform, yet by stretching her in that way Cousin Ann really helps Betsy to grow. I suspect that some of my students have gotten stretched in the same way. Yet ultimately they seem to be better writers and readers than the kids who don't have to tackle anything as hard to read as Evelina or Dante. I guess I learned something from Cousin Ann as well.

Hopefully your children will have the same longstanding affection for this book that I have. Isn't it fun when your friends like the same books! Kindred spirits indeed!

JennGM said...

I only have a few chapters left...couldn't put the book down all day. Just really love this book. I confess I haven't read Holt yet...his book is in my library pile for this week, too. But I see the points for CM, homeschooling and Montessori with a lovely mix. It's just a wonderful living book. I need to find copies to give to my nieces and nephews!

Amber said...

We read that as a family read-aloud a couple months ago and we all really enjoyed it. I think my husband and I enjoyed it more than our 4 1/2 year old, but we'll read it again in a year or two and I think she'll like it even more.

Becky said...

I love this book :) (I think I already commented that lol). As a child I used to read it every year, and then after college every few years or so. But then once my eldest was born, I started reading it every year again.

But I've been torn (deliciously, though lol)about whether to read it aloud to all of the kids or let my daughter discover it on her own. I'm leaning toward the latter, especially because she's discovered Laura Ingalls on her own this year and is thrilled with her new adventure, and I think I'd like Elizabeth Ann/Betsy to be something all her own... Then we can read it together as a family.

Anonymous said...

I'm reading this book aloud to my 8yo dd and we are absolutely loving it. It is definitely a new family favorite.