Saturday, April 18, 2009

Reading, content, personal experience

E.D. Hirsch argues that students need to learn rich content (science, history, civics, literature, art) from their earliest days in school. That's how they get the background knowledge to make sense of reading assignments as they move up in the elementary grades.

Having posted about Hirsch's argument here, here, and here, I've been remembering fragments from my own early elementary years, including, in roughly chronological order:
  1. A flag drawing where I knew I had too few stripes even though I couldn't count to thirteen yet.
  2. Pilgrims and Indians to color in, plus turkeys made by tracing my hand.
  3. Washington and Lincoln silhouettes.
  4. Lima beans sprouting on paper towels as part of a plant lesson.
  5. A solar system model made by classmates.
  6. A map of Vietnam, and explaining to the principal that the southern part was "our side."
  7. "I have seen the crocus children dancing in the cold/Some are dressed in purple and white, and some are dressed in gold," sung in my first school play.
  8. "We are marching to Pretoria, Pretoria, Pretoria...."
  9. Georgia peaches, peanuts, and cotton, from my first library research ever.
  10. Chicks hatching in an incubator.
  11. The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and its alternate version involving a teacher and a ruler.
  12. "Taxation without representation" applied to nails and glass as well as tea, and stuck forever to a sketch of Ben Franklin's childhood home in a biography with a blue-gray cover.
Art work has a huge role in those memories. There were crayons involved with the flag, the pilgrims and turkeys, Lincoln's beard, Vietnam, and Georgia. There was music for the crocuses, Pretoria, and the Battle Hymn. Paper maché went into the solar system, along with colors so bright that I loved it as though I'd made it myself.

There was also active learning and responsibility, not only for the art work, but for the beans and the chicks, and the oral report on Vietnam and the written work on Georgia.

The Franklin biography might look like an exception, except that I chose the book because I loved the costumes in the illustrations--and got the civics background as a bonus.

By the time I got to Franklin, I was doing what Hirsch said reading requires: combining decoded words and substance I already knew to pull new knowledge from printed word. In the other items, my teachers were giving me substance that was worthwhile in itself and that also prepared me to understand later textbooks, school assignments, and hundreds of books and articles I'd read as an adult.

In each bit of science and history, and in every drawing and song I can remember from those days, my teachers were equipping me to read.

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