Monday, August 30, 2004

The Experimental Class, Part One

This is the first part of a further delving into my elementary school years, inspired by John Scalzi's recent assignment and other people's great responses thereto.

ITAThe 1960s were a time of change and experimentation, even in education. When I started first grade in 1963 at Manlius Elementary, the school district decided to teach half the classes
ITA, a phonetic alphabet. The other half were taught the normal English alphabet and beginning reading, with the help of Scott Foresman & Company's venerable Dick, Jane and Sally,  Spot, Puff and Tim. 

I was in what you might call the control group, one of the classes that stuck with normal English. After a year or two, the district compared the two groups, decided that ITA confused the kids more than it helped them, and phased out the experiment. The whole idea had always sounded crazy to me, anyway.  Let me get this straight: you're going to teach these classes the wrong alphabet, when the kids in them probably already know the right one. You're going to have them read using those w-shaped squiggles instead of oo, and then, when they get good at that, make 'em switch back to oo.  How can this possibly help anyone?

Our more traditional class started with a book called Getting Ready to Read.  We were supposed to match the letter M with a picture of a mouse.  I was already reading Dr. Seuss books by then, so I would fill in half the problems to show I knew the material, and stop.  Mrs. Livingston would mark the uncompleted problems wrong, and put "does not follow directions" and "Karen thinks the rules are for everyone except her" on my report card.  I think if she'd explained that part of the purpose of school was to teach me to follow directions, even if they seemed silly, I would have cooperated.  As it was, I didn't learn that lesson until much later.  Mrs. Livingston and I didn't get along very well.  My mom, who disliked my first grade teacher much more than I did, told me later that Mrs. Livingston once reported having nightmares about me.  Nightmares, plural. Yet when I was in second and third grade, Mrs. Livingston and I would wave to each other as she headed for the teacher's lounge while I waited in the lunch line nearby.  The last time I saw her, the day before I graduated high school, we got along great.

After Getting Ready to Read was a Dick and Jane pre-primer, which we finished reading the day of the JFK assassination. We were allowed to take it home overnight on that fateful day, when we got out of class early. I remember talking about it in the car with my mom, as she drove me to the Hall of Languages at Syracuse University, where my dad was a speech professor.  I sat in an empty classroom and drew gravestones. At the time, I was more concerned with the turning in of a permission slip (and money?) to see an extracurricular showing of a film at school (either Pollyanna, Pepi or The Miracle of the White Stallions - we saw them all) than I was about the dead president.  I was only six years old, and the president to me was the man on tv who was imitated in the comedy album The First Family. I remember going outside that weekend to escape the endless coverage of the assassination and the funeral. It was hopeless. Nobody else was away from their television sets that Sunday afternoon: no kids, no cars on Fayetteville-Manlius Road.

The pre-primer was followed by The New Fun with Dick and Jane.  I didn't see what was so new about it until years later, when a cousin of mine, Ed Oliveri,  tracked down an old Fun With Dick and Jane to use in a Freshman English book report.  The 1940 pictures were markedly different from the 1956 ones. I'm still very fond of the art in my late 1950s - early 1960s version, and the silly, safe, naive world it depicted.

Coming up:  Mrs. Nevin, Miss Olds, duck and cover, six gas stations, and Temple Dairy Store.  But first: The Singing Skunk!


alphawoman1 said...

I learned how to read with Dick and Jane....but I also was taught phonetic's along with it.  I can remember like it was yesterday..."A says ah ah ah.  B says ba ba ba .  C says ca ca ca....etc. etc. etc."  I blame that for my terrible spelling skills.

Anonymous said...

As a fellow former manlius resident, I enjoyed reading your blog! I loved this one in particular because I was actually one of the unlucky who was chosen to learn ita (all lower case - we didn't use capital letters). I still have a book written in it. To make the situation worse, half way through the school year, my teacher left due to complications with her pregnancy and there was no one trained to take over our class and lead us from ita back to the normal alphabet (and spelling & reading). We were just passed on to the next grade as is! Again, I loved your blog ~ brought back a lot of memories!