Saturday, May 8, 2010

Unschool in Kids' Books: Stuart Little

I've been making a mental list of the depictions of conventional school in some of our favorite children's books.  Whether for the necessities of plot (a sedate school day might not provide many story opportunities) or because compelling characters are spunky and unconventional, children's literature often critiques traditional schools.  What happens when the hero is a mouse in a human world?

When E. B. White's Stuart Little volunteers as a substitute teacher for a day, he quickly dispenses with traditional subjects of instruction in favor of stimulating conversation. 
'What's the first subject you usually take up in the morning?'
'Arithmetic,' shouted the children.
'Bother arithmetic!' snapped Stuart.  'Let's skip it.... What next do you study?'
'Spelling,' cried the children.
'Well, said Stuart, 'a misspelled word is an abomination in the sight of everyone.  I consider it a very fine thing to spell words correctly and I strongly urge every one of you to buy a Webster's Collegiate Dictionary and consult it whenever you are in the slightest doubt.  So much for spelling.  What's next?'....
'Writing,' cried the scholars.
'Goodness,' said Stuart in disgust, 'don't you children know how to write yet?'
'Certainly we do!' yelled one and all.
'So much for that, then,' said Stuart.... 'Instead of taking up any special subject this morning, why wouldn't it be a good idea if we just talked about something.'
Stuart's cavalier dismissal of the subjects is funny, but also worth pondering.  I believe "arithmetic" in the early years is best learned in the context of real problems, and that arithmetic is only one part of the necessary mathematical thinking we want to help children develop.  Dedicated use of the dictionary is indeed a very good way to learn how to spell (dictionary use in general seems to be a dying practice; it thoroughly amazes me how few of my college students ever look up unfamiliar words in the course of their reading).  I love Stuart's assumption that the only purpose of Writing as a separate subject of instruction would be for students who don't know how to write the letters of the alphabet.  Although it is important to practice handwriting, divorcing writing from content and occasion makes the "subject" of Writing meaningless (not unlike "teaching" content-less Reading as described in a New York Times op-ed last year). 

Instead of leading lessons, Stuart proposes a conversation (which happens to be Tim and N.'s primary mode of instruction).  Stuart is a rather autocratic pedagogue; instead of working with his students' suggestions, he rejects outright their somewhat narrow suggested topics ("'Could we talk about the way it feels to hold a snake in your hand and then it winds itself around your wrist?' asked Arthur Greenlaw.  'We could, but I'd rather not,' replied Stuart") and instead suggests "Let's talk about the King of the World."  This idiosyncratic conversation-starter ends up leading the students through major problems of government and ethics (is there a King of the World? what is the difference between a rule and a law? should we have sympathy for the despised among us, such as rats? is a law such as "Absolutely no being mean" enforceable?).  They talk, question, and role-play.  They establish "what is important:" "A shaft of sunlight at the end of a dark afternoon, a note in music, and the way the back of a baby's neck smells if its mother keeps it tidy."  Also: "ice cream with chocolate sauce on it."

Stuart's teaching concludes with musing on the pleasures of summer, when you aren't in school, but might be playing by the lake, rambling, swimming, flirting.  "Summertime is important," Stuart says, and he leaves his students with this parting bit of wisdom: "Never forget your summertimes, my dears."  The children "all wish they could have a substitute every day, instead of Miss Gunderson."


mandy said...

wow, now i really want to read "Stuart Little"... but, alas, there are a billion books i want to read :)

Mom and Kiddo said...

This reminds me of how when I was a kid, my mother NEVER EVER told me how to spell a word or what it meant. She always said, "go look in the dictionary." I sometimes felt frustrated by her response, but I realized how valuable it was.

ProfessorB said...

Ooo--do you remember the part in _To Kill a Mockingbird_ where Scout goes to school already knowing how to read and the teacher tells her to stop? She tells Scout that her father needs to stop reading to her, that he's teaching her all wrong, and Scout begs to stay home? I reread that book recently and had forgotten all about it, but it really jumped out at me this time,lol.

Fanny Harville said...

This is one of my favorite things about reading: the way that different details become significant in a book depending on the life-context in which we are reading it.