Recently, I found myself wondering if there was any noticeable difference between curriculum in the fourth grade in the 1800’s and 2017. I had concluded that there was a very small difference and I asked the Lowell Curriculum Office for current curriculum to be compared to the 1800’s curriculum requirements. Too often, I believe, there is a tendency by parents to think they are as educated as the average teacher or administrator because they went through school themselves. I ran into a couple of ancillary articles that spoke to our situation in current times. One was entitled “Educating Latino Students in an Age of Uncertainty.” That one was covered in “The American Educator” magazine. But even that one was tainted by the realization that Japanese students in the 1940’s (I should say Japanese-Americans, I think), and the Native American students throughout the history of European presence in North and South America.
There was a major push in Lowell, Massachusetts in the 1800’s to incorporate Irish Catholic children into the public school system. It was called Article 7. It was designed to mix the English-speaking Irish into the Melting Pot of Education. The result was exactly the opposite of the intent. Most Irish ended up paying extra for tuition in a Catholic school than send their children to a free public school classroom. It was said that the mother in the Irish home kept hold of the money made during the week and sent their children to school with the money to pay tuition. Such familial ties were hard to break. But the nuns could do no wrong, and the priest was next to God Himself. So the Irish went to Catholic School.
That is one difference. Latinos often go to public school now, even if they are Catholic. Let’s take time to see what they were learning back in the 1880’s. In the grammar schools, they tackled the “4th. Reader,” the “Intermediate Reader” for better students, and the “5th. Reader” for superior students as well as those going on to the 5th. grade. In Grade Four today Reading Standards from the Common Core Standards for that Grade level require the teacher to “Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.” In other words, read the lesson carefully and be prepared to explain it. “Key Ideas and Details: RL4.2” requires the teacher to “Determine a theme of a story (something that was required in the 1800’s) drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize (I believe this is an instruction for teaching) the text.” As in the 1800’s, the heaviest weight fell on the individual teacher.
The next instruction is to is to “Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (a character’s “thoughts, words, or actions).” RL4.4 states that the teacher is to determine the words and phrases as used in a text, including those that allude to … “characters found in mythology,” giving as an example the word “Herculean.”
We are at a bit of a loss here because no copy of the 1800’s reading manual with its instructions, can be found. It is not outside the realm of possibility, however, that instructions for those students included “drawing on specific details” and “Determining the meaning of words and phrases.” The final instruction is to “Compare and Contrast” the point of view of a major figure in the text. I have a few old texts that lend themselves to being compared and contrasted.
The fact is that the teacher today is laden with instructions made by the Common Core State Standards that integrate meaning into a text. The reality is that probably, those Standards were required in the 1800’s too. It is known that the Superintendent required the teachers in that time to go to a class he personally held every week on Saturday, and study “White’s Pedagogy.” Now pedagogy is a fancy word for Webster’s definition which is “the art, science, or profession of teaching.” In other words, they tried to instill a practice that allowed students to be recognized for their inherent abilities within the parameters of what they knew about their own curriculum. I am not saying that in the past century or two, teachers taught the way they do now, but I am saying that there was not a huge difference between their preparation in today’s Common Core 4th. grade and their preparation in earlier days. And, certainly, making a visual is nothing new. Students in the old days were required to make visuals of their studies. Art was a firm requirement.
Now, we have made it harder, although I had the opportunity to see a standard 8th. grade Social Studies Test a few years ago, and it was brutal, even for me. Of course, history changes but the requirements for these students was incredibly difficult. MA. 8.A tells today’s students to “Locate and analyze examples of similes and metaphors in stories, poems, folktales, and plays, and explain how these literary devices enrich the text.” In other words, apply what you have learned. A metaphor is “a figure of speech,” in which a word or phrase “denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness.” (Webster’s) A simile is figurative language. It shows a comparison.
The goal of the Common Core is to “read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, in the (requisite) grades for 4th. and 5th. grades. Text complexity proficiently, saith the Common Core instructions. Thus lies the 1800’s 4th. and 5th. grade reader.
I have to say, that reading on the text is difficult. In the 1800’s three books taught you how to read. Today, there are stories, not necessarily textbooks. Computers are a major drain, but they heighten accessibility. In the past, that task was dependent on books. Whether or not the computers do it better is a question. Chaucer can be equally difficult in a text as in a computer screen.
As we go through this lesson, we will see some similarities, and some differences. What was required of Grammar Schools in the previous centuries is still required to some degree today. We will glance at those instructions that seem to be similiar and those that seem to be different. Hopefully, we will see a pattern emerging that will explain differences in philosophy if not in practices. Surely, the argument will be made that “the more things change the more they stay the same.” But that does not mean that today’s children are being short-changed. In fact, Massachusetts is in first place in the United States in testing results. Something must be working.