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The R. J. Schoolmaster.
VOL. VII. H. R. PIERCE and N. W. DEMUNN, Editors for the Month.
Compositions in School.
WHY is the writing of compositions such a bugbear in our schools, and why do so few attain to excellence in this department of study? These are questions which have often suggested themselves to us, and lead us to inquire if there are not means of improvement in this direction? If there is no way in which this branch of study can be divested of its terrors, and rendered attractive to pupils ?
We believe there is; that, if rightly conducted, the practice of writing compositions would be at once the most entertaining and instructive exercise of the school-room. It does not, and it never has, received the attention it deserves in the education of the young. Instead of its being made a prominent study and daily exercise, it is almost always made subservient to everything else, receiving only a small fragment of time once in two or three weeks, and the smallest possible amount of the teacher's attention even then.
Pupils go through the lower schools or classes without receiving any preparation for this part of their work which awaits them beyond; and upon entering a higher class they are met with a command to have a composition ready by a given day, with a penalty of checks, demerits, or what not, in case of failure.
children, sometimes do the most injudicious thing they can, by writing their compositions for them. But most mothers have duties at home more urgent than helping to write compositions, and the great majority of children must get aid somewhere else. Help must come from some source; they can do nothing alone, and what is the consequence? They turn to books and copy, verbatim et literatim : they commit to memory and write from recollection; they do anything, in short, to avoid the penalty, which, all the time, has hung like the sword of Damocles above their heads. The appointed day comes round, and what is the exercise in composition? A class is summoned and called to produce and read the required article.
Nearly all of them have something that they call a composition, and there is a degree of satisfaction evident that a disagreeable duty has been performed, a tedious task accomplished; but it is also evident from their sour looks and ungracious ways that they have no interest in it all, that they hate the whole affair, and would have nothing to do with it if they could help it.
The compositions are collected and handed to the teacher for correction, who, in nine cases out of ten, considers it the most disagreeable part of school drudgery, and hurriedly passes them over, stopping only to dash some of the misspelled words, set up some of the missing capitals, sprinkle in a few punctuation marks, and hand them back to the pupils.
How cloudy and uninviting their way becomes at once! The dark shadow of a composition falls over before them; attends them like a Now, where is the benefit of all this? We gloomy spectre, dispelling all the sunshine of fail to see it, and do not hesitate to say we don't the day and disturbing all the dreams of the believe there is any. How few of those whom night. Many mothers can testify to the truth we send out as graduates after years of instrucToo often they have tion in our schools are capable of writing even and in pity for their a tolerable letter! and how rarely do we meet
of this if any doubt it.
the teacher's work to do,
with original thought and appropriate language between words and thought, how one is used as among the young. In fact, a pupil who can the representative of the other.
write an intelligent article, who can express A skillful teacher may do this, and thus imhimself correctly and with any degree of taste, is considered a kind of genius, and the fact that all might do it. if rightly trained, entirely escapes observation.
part, all unconsciously to the pupils, the essential rudiments of grammar and English composition, even in our primary and intermediate schools, with half the trouble that attends the
Children take their first lessons in composi- commencement of these studies in a higher tion in the nursery. Parents cannot be too school. More than half our grammar could be guarded in their use of language in the family taught in familiar conversation with the little circle. Household words are the words our children, and they could become good grammachildren carry with them through life. It is rians before they know there is a grammar in not enough that we, as parents, avoid the coarse and vulgar. We should aim to reach the refined and beautiful, and thus the influence of even our most familiar words will be to elevate be taught, and teachers who instruct. and ennoble.
The ways in which this can be accomplished are as many and as different as the schools to
For small children, we greatly prefer general But not to parents, to teachers we are writ-exercises. We like to see a whole school arousNow let the teacher ing, and next to the nursery comes the primary ed and interested at once. school. What! have compositions in a primary select any familiar object, like the horse, call school? Yes, in a primary school, and at the upon the children to tell anything they may hands of a good teacher this may be made to know of the horse, mention any of its attributes combine a greater variety than all the routine of or qualities, (dont use the words attributes which hundreds of little ones now weary every day.
and qualities to them) tell any of its uses, let any one of them relate any anecdote they may School exercises require variety. This is have heard about the horse, ask them questions, particularly essential in schools for little child- tell them what you know about the horse, and There is not enough that is familiar and don't forget that you are talking to children With all and that simple things are interesting to childhome-like in our primary schools. ren. Be careful that they know the meaning of the improvement that has been made, they are still too much like prisons, for the active little every word used in speaking to them, for it is bodies and still more active minds that crowd one of the rarest accomplishments in the world them every day. A parent, and a teacher of to be able to talk well to children. Encourage one of our high schools, told us, but the other the children to talk themselves, call upon them day, that he should think it a calamity to be separately to remember and put all they have obliged to send his little girl to one of our pri- heard together and tell you. mary schools; that in ten minutes of time with her every day, he could teach her more than she would learn by sitting all day in the close, crowded, ill-ventilated school-rooms six hours a day, and five days a week.
Besides conveying more general information in this way than in any other, teachers would be surprised to see the improvement that even the youngest pupils would make in expressing themselves. They would acquire a habit of Now it is not necessary that a composition connected thought, the want of which is so apshall be written with pen and ink. Even before parent in the young, and which is itself the children have learned their letters they are capa- foundation stone of a good education. They ble of making compositions; they do make them would also acquire a surprising command of every day, and astonish us often by their choice language; would learn in a practical manner of words and happy applications. The beauti- the meaning of words and their correct uses. ful sayings of little children would, if collected, Now are not these the essential requisites of form a volume as interesting as it would be a good composition, and why may they not be novel. obtained to a very great degree in our lower The mind of a little child is ever active. Lit- schools. Exercises of this kind, we think, tle children are always thinking, and they might be most happily blended with the daily exshould be encouraged to think and to give ex-ercises of the primary and intermediate schools, pression to their thoughts. Show them, as one and in this way the pupils would become in of the first things to be learned, the relation some measure, at least, prepared for the work of
writing compositions as they advance. It would be corrected verbally. Time enough should be not be the repulsive study it now is, and com- given to the exercise to explain every correction, positions would no longer be the meaningless however trifling.
things that now answer to the name.
Our language suffers a shocking abuse by the Written compositions belong exclusively to general carelessness in regard to what are called the higher schools. and should form one of their trifling things. Fatal mistakes, irreparable most prominent studies. But to aceomplish losses are sustained every day which can be this, teachers must overcome their repugnance traced directly to incorrect spelling and punctuand manifest an increased interest in their part ation. Teachers cannot give too much attenof the work. It is impossible to interest pupils tion to these subjects. Either of them suggest through indifferent, listless teachers, and it is thoughts for an entire article, and must not be impossible also for a teacher to impart any kind enlarged upon here; they should all be includof instruction successfully, who has no relish ed in the study of penmanship as connected for it. with compositions.
One of the first elements of a written compo- But there is one subject which is nearly lost sition is penmanship. It is expected that pupils sight of, and which seems to us to be of the have learned to write before written composi- utmost consequence in our schools, and that is, tions are required of them. Now what is the Expression, or choice of words. A great defifact in regard to penmanship in our schools? ciency in the use of words would be supplied A gentleman occupying a high position in our by the introduction of the proposed exercises city, and who could speak from extensive obser- into our lower schools; by proper attention to vation, remarked in our hearing that "among all the answers of pupils in recitation, which should the male teachers of his acquaintance he did not never be, as they too often are, in the words of know one who could be called a good penman." the book. But good expression can be acquirIf this be the fact, is it any wonder that we ed more easily and more effectually by writing find so many poor writers among the pupils. compositions than in any other way. Good "Excuse haste," is no apology for poor pen-thoughts and well chosen words should be manship, and should always be interpreted, made the highest element in every composition; "Don't mind the carelessness." There is no rea- should be held up to the pupils as the object to son why every person having the natural use of be attained. the hand and arm may not write a plain, legible I. J. Allen, superintendent of schools in Cinhand. A short time since we received through cinnati, says, in his recent report: the post-office a neat, well-written note, which closed in this way: "I have written this with my toes, having been born without arms." About the same time we heard of a fact a little in con
"As the golden ore may be pure, but it is the stamp aud dye of the mint that give it comeliness and currency, so, too, the thought may be lofty, the sentiment just, the doctrine true, but trast. An influential lawyer of New York it is the attractive forms of expression, as emwrote an important business letter to a profes- bodying beauty and power, that commend them sional brother in Philadelphia. The time conto the acceptance of other minds and enable sumed in deciphering his hieroglyphics nearly them to carry conviction there. It should not lost him the case, and the infallible skill of a be overlooked, in schemes of education, that "Philadelphia lawyer" proved of no avail in language, even more than the mere intellectual copying the signature and address. It was finprocesses of reasoning, distinguishes man from ally cut out and pasted upon the outside of an the brute, and establishes him in the high preenvelope, which reached its destination after rogative of his humanity, i. e., his likeness unto making the tour of nearly the whole country. Deity. To cultivate this humanizing gift, the Children learn to write by imitation, and if gift by which the race is united, and the last the deficiency lies with us as teachers, let us see man is to be linked in a reccgnized relation to to it that improvement is made. "Let those the first, to train it so that in its use truth shall teach others who themselves excel." be clothed with power and sentiment arrayed in The use of capitals, correct punctuation, and beauty, is then, certainly, no mean function in we may add spelling, can be acquired only by the office of education. For, it is to instruct writing; and these can never be taught effectu- in the art of expressing thought, that never ally by simply making corrections with a pencil. dies, with that fitness of speech that becomes Compositions, especially of beginners, should thereby itself immortal: it is to place within
"I was early day - and sunlight streamed
That, hushed, but not forsaken, seemed
A father communed with the page
Pure fell the beam, and meekly bright,
On his gray, holy hair,
And touched the book with tenderest light,
With something lovelier far-
Caught not from sun nor star.
Some word of life e'en then had met
"The King's English."
MR. GEORGE FRANCIS TRAIN, of Boston, in an eloquent speech, recently delivered at a dinner party in London, remarked that, "as a nation," the English language was more accurately and purely spoken in the United States than in Great Britain. The remarks created loud laughter, whereupon the speaker exclaimed :
"I will prove it. Order your dinner in every village from Maine to California, and they will understand you for 16,000 miles! but go 500 miles, from Aberdeen to Dover, and you can lose yourself in a Babel of tongues. Remember, gentlemen, the Americans don't speak Gaelic, or Manx, or Celtic, or Welsh [laughter] — and, I assure you, upon my honor, Yorkshire and Lancashire are not taught in our common schools [laughter;] and I am informed, on good authority, that there are no professors of Irish or Scotch in our Academies [applause.] Lindley Murray, Lord Lyndhurst and Noah Webster were all Americans! Our written language will always be English our spoken language is American. "The time has arrived to state that Sam Slick is not an American institution! - that American securities are safer and pay better than those of any other nation [O!]—that the almighty dollar is not so much respected in the social world by the Americans as the almighty shilling by the English - [O! and laughter] — that Americans never fillibuster, while England never did anything else [hear, hear, and applause] - that our people, as a people, are more temperate, more moral, better educated, and better dressed than their illustrious predecessors [hear, and roars of laughter] — and that the tooth-brush story-like Arrowsmith's 1ailways and revolvers in Georgia - has turned out to be a hoax [laughter and applause.] England views mankind from a first-class carriage — hence, when It is easier to gain credit for goodness by a glist- a few thousand West-enders go to the sea-side, ening eye, while listening to some story of self- they say everybody is out of town! What egosacrifice, than by usefulness. It is easier to get tism! All the misconception has arisen by credit for spirituality by thrilling at some impassioned speech from the platform or sermon from the pulpit, than by living a life of justice, mercy and truth.
Some heart's deep language, with the glow
And silent stood his children by,
Of thoughts o'ersweeping death;
comparing the English dress-circle with the American pit- -or Oxford and Cambridge against all America! Compare dress-circle with dress-circle, gallery with gallery, pit with pit, and then THERE are 4,000,000 students and 150,000 teach- America will receive justice in Europe. [Apers in the public schools of the United States. plause.] * England has always been lookThere is one student for every five persons. In ing out of the cabin at America in the forecasGreat Britain there is one student to every eight tle- England has been the pulpit, America the audience-England the schoolmaster, AmeriNOBLE spirits rejoice in the consciousness of a cans the scholars. That day has passed away. motive-base ones delight only in a pretext. A published idea is an expired patent."
persons. In France, one to every ten.