Lynne Martin Describes How It Was When Teachers Were Teachers

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One of the ideas behind our school was to do the very best we could in hopes that it could also serve as a kind of beacon to other schools.  Not in the sense that we were better than others but because we had some kinds of freedom that the public schools did not have.  We hoped we might be helpful in that sense.  Books were published on our curriculum during the early days.  I still have some of them and they are so precious to me that I’m scared to lend them out. 

The Course In History

The Morning Exercise As A Socializing Influence

The Social Motive In School Work


All of these were part of a series entitled, Studies In Education, meaning to summarize and reflect on what was being done. Flora Cooke wrote the introductions.

The Morning Exercise was our daily getting together of the whole school.  These grew from Francis Parker’s practice of holding town meetings with the students.  It started as the entire school coming together everyday at around 10:30 for about thirty minutes. The program would be some grade sharing something they had learned, or were studying, either through music, drama or poetry.  It is a lovely tradition however you can manage it.

Let me give you an idea of how things could work.  I am reminded of one time when one of my kids brought into school a dog’s head…a VERY dead dog’s head.  He’d found it in Lincoln Park and it stank but it was a treasure!  So, after the beginning of the day I put it in a plastic bag and hung it outside the window so it wouldn’t smell up the room. After that, the Science teacher came and he was just great about it.  He took it home and boiled it and then brought it back and here was this beautiful, little skull which was so nice for the kids to see. 

There also was a time when I required that at least once a week, everyone would bring in a drawing they had done of any natural thing.  It could be a leaf or could be a shell; anything really because I had the idea that city children do not see.  There is an awful lot that is ugly in a big, bustling city and there are so many things that no one wants to see.

I think there is value in the simple things, simple things like making leaf prints or rubbings with a flattened crayon.  Bring to their attention any kind of thing that you run across like a wasp’s nest, a piece of lichen, or a mushroom that you pass when walking down a sidewalk.  This practice is particularly important for city kids.

As for planning, I just assume that a teacher has in mind a prepared skeleton of first ideas she intends to present and explore.  I used to get kind of scared of those people listing endless objectives, as if they knew EXACTLY what they were going to teach.  More it is about putting a question out there and then seeing what comes of it with the children. 

This is how we discover what they need to be thinking about.  Over the years, I developed a series of binders outlining and detailing the sequence and activities by subject.  Here is one for Geometry and another filled with ideas related only to Math.  I had one for Language that might not include every activity for an entire year but certainly those ideas that got me thinking about a new or good way to go at something.

A teacher’s skeleton might include some of the ideas she thought were terribly important for children to have thought about on a particular subject.  I would start by thinking about what interested me, as an adult, about a topic.  And then I would try and try and remember what caught my interest as a child.  The resulting list wouldn’t necessarily mean that they would investigate everything. 

Teacher would also have a clear idea of a progression she intended.  For instance, by the end of the year in Math she would expect that three fourths of the children could do the such and such following operations.  She would build from day to day, creating the spelling lists central to whatever theme or topic was under study.  She would identify the age-appropriate scientific questions for experimentation.

I saved the children’s writing for them in a file until the end of the year.  I always kept my own records and I gave my own tests.  I reminded them that I was testing to see how well I was teaching something.  If they did not know an answer, it was not because they were dumb or weren’t paying attention; it was because I wasn’t teaching well.  I gave a lot of tests that were open book…you could go and try to find the answer.  It is very important for kids to have a chance to learn how to do that.  From time to time let’s say, I’d give a little test on the multiplication tables and I would keep a record of what they had or had not mastered.  We wrote narrative reports and there I might say that “He tests in the upper 4th grade level within a very able group of students.”  Or, “He is in excellent shape in all things with highest in ____and lowest in ____.  But I notice…”

I never read the record of a child before school began.  I didn’t want to be impressed by what somebody else thought about a certain child.  I wanted them to come fresh and new to me.  But I did tell the parents, “I do want to know anything you would want me to be watching out for or to be aware of.” 

4th Grade studied the Greeks.  When I started teaching it, I brought in the other ancient civilizations out of which the Greeks began.  I concentrated on the Greeks in 2nd semester.  We would do plays in costume and I did not use textbooks.  I used original sources.  I would read to them Greek tragedies.  We started out with the formation of the earth and then primitive humans, cave paintings and things like that.  For forming the earth we’d go out and look for fossils and discuss their possible evolutions. 

I had loads and loads of pictures and always put them up.  We would go over to the park and sketch the bison, comparing it with the Lascaux cave paintings.  And then we moved on to Egypt not because it was the oldest but because it was the simplest of ancient civilizations to approach as a thematic unit.  We learned about the Fertile Crescent and I would have them pick any Old Testament bible story that they wanted to research and write a report on it.  We had children from many, different religions so we used these stories as literature.  For instance, they could use the flood story and I would then tell them about the excavations at Ur where there are traces of a once great flood. 

We studied Hammurabi around the time of Abraham. I had them keep a time chart of key characters and I gave them important dates to include, with details.  We’d add on to these every few days and used them to think in terms of time and how things change but not in the sense that they had to memorize it all.  I used to create crosswords using dates they could then look up on their time charts.  Using the cross number puzzles was a way of helping some of those dates stick without requiring that they learn them by rote.

I remember that around the time of Christmas somebody would ask, “Now what was happening in Egypt around this time of year?”  I had Histo-Maps.  Do you know those?  They are wonderful things.  You can get them at the Field Museum.  They show histories pictorially, histories of civilizations.  So, we studied the Fertile Crescent up to about the time that the Persians were poised, at their peak, looking toward Greece.  Then we went all the way back at 2nd semester and studied the Minoans, the Miceneans and then historic Greece up to the death of Socrates.

Here is a source I used during 1st semester, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to Old Testament, Editor James B. Pritchard, Princeton University Press 1955. 

I would use this and shorten some of the most ancient stories and then produce one as a play for a Morning Exercise performance.  I did a lot of summarizing, cutting down, mimeographing and giving children copies of the original versions of ancient things.

I had a strong feeling that if you were asking them to write beautifully, you needed to give them the experience of beautiful words.  In 4th grade we learned cursive so our daily handwriting practice, wherever possible, came out of the literature of the people we were studying.  Inevitably, during the formation of earth, someone would say, “There ain’t nobody to be quoted.”  So, I always gave them, “And the earth was without form and void…”  Lines like that are what we used for handwriting practice and I kept them all in a binder full of typed quotations, spanning historical topics for the year.  This gave them short fragments of something lovely to work with.

I built up quite a collection of artifacts.  I’ve got everything from lava that Leakey found in a gorge to reproductions of very old things.  After a few of the more fragile got broken, I learned just to carry them around so children could look and touch.  It is very important to do this.  And it takes time to build up good supplies and to know which you really are going to need and use.  None of this should be rigid because things change as the teacher learns something new about a subject and incorporates it. Parents were given the dates, roughly, for when we would celebrate a birthday like Apollo’s and for that a father came in with his little Irish harp and played a fragment of ancient Greek music. Once parents come to know they really are respected, you come to find out that they have talents that bring great value to the classroom work.
We’d put out a notice saying, “This is the theme. Is there anything you might be able to contribute during this quarter, related to this topic?”

After I’d been teaching the 4th grade unit on Greece for awhile, there was a magazine article saying that I’d never been there and it quoted one of my students as saying that when he grew up he would be sure that he took me to Greece. About six months after the article appeared, I got a letter from the Greek government inviting me to come for a visit. So, I toured for six weeks. Pure Cinderella! I went during the summer, visited a camp and met with their country’s head of education. I inherited the 4th grade Greek theme but I could make it anything I wanted to.

Lynne Martin was a teacher for 30 years at Francis Parker School. She was noted for her teaching of the culture and history of Ancient Greece.
The government of Greece honored her in 1960 with an all-expenses-paid trip to that country.

She was interviewed in Chicago by Kathy Irwin.