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The Pupil Who Fails in Secondary School
English; How to Teach Him
HAROLD W. GAMMANS, HOLYOKE, Mass.
The method I shall describe in this paper is a modification of the one described in the first, which can be used in any class in English with backward pupils till they are up to the standard or above it. Its operation in conjunction with other classes came rather accidentally: my first class of failing pupils in English composition who had come up to the standard in three weeks had not taken any of the literature which they would have read in regular classes of the second and third year; I realized that it would be a rather serious disadvantage for them to go into regular classes without any introduction to the literature they would have regularly studied; so I volunteered to give them a week on the necessary reading, which happened to be “Ivanhoe” for the second year and "A Tale of Two Cities” for the third. In the meantime, the principal and head of the English department, not counting on this extra work, had arranged another class of failing pupils for me just as soon as I finished the Composition work with the first class. There was the pleasant result—it proved to be really pleasant and profitable of conducting two classes in literature and one in special composition during a single period of one hour
Most of my period had to be given to literature, yet, since it was entirely my own fault that I was keeping the pupils for this subject, I felt that as much ought to be demanded of me in my work for the new class in composition as if I had none but the latter to teach. I had fifteen or twenty minutes in which to teach seven pupils who were failures from the second, third, and fourth years,—a more complex class than my first. Fortunately I had learned one thing while teaching under that Dean of Private School principals, William J. Betts, of the Betts School, Stamford, Conn.,—to take classes or conditions or pupils just as they are and consider myself responsible to the highest degree to secure good work.
I was naturally interested to continue with the principles which I had worked out with my first class, but this was not possible in several particulars. I could not have the large amount of oral and hearing practice. I could, however, do something to keep the pupils profitably employed for an hour. The best means of doing this came to me at the first recitation, from a plan of composition teaching which I had been instructed to use under Mr. Betts. At his school, during half of several recitations a week, the pupils were given a topic and sent to the board to write a paragraph containing one or two statements which showed some real thought. Quantity meant nothing, dribble was instantly condemned, erased, and the pupil set to work a second time with the spur of shame,shame brought about by a method in which the pupil could see, all too apparently, his mental carelessness and laziness. Before I began to teach this subject, Mr. Betts wisely tested me on writing a thought-paragraph; he also had me continue to do the same after I began my teaching, and visited my class frequently to see what I called real thoughts in the board composition of the boys. Some teachers would resent such a test, but I feel it to be the best means of developing both teacher and pupil. We ought to know whether we are assigning to pupils tasks which we ourselves can or cannot do well.
My entire new class was sent to the board the first day with the direction to write a paragraph on a subject which I gave them,thoughtfully and as carefully as possible. Nearly all the pupils went to the board with a grin on their faces, fooled with the chalk, looked around the room or at one another, and wrote a few lines with no thought or form ;—when I say no form, I mean practically the same thing as in my first paper,--without apparent knowledge of what a sentence is, almost no punctuation except a few carelessly tossed periods, etc. Of course, there were degrees of inability. Every pupil was through within ten or fifteen minutes or was satisfied to be through. Then I gave the direction really to get to work on what they had written and make it as good as they could. The pupils did little during the next twenty minutes except stand at the board, but one or two corrections were made.
When I had finished my work with the two classes in literature, I sent my new composition class to their seats and went to the board where I spent the rest of the period. Two of the pupils had really tried to work; I commended anything I could in what they had written. I tried to show the others that they had not even made a decent effort to do anything. I made the most necessary corrections on several of the compositions, showed as emphatically and clearly as I could where the pupil had not written a sentence, suggested the most important use of the period and comma, and told them how to correct mistakes in spelling by the visual memory. I assigned a subject for a short composition to be written as home work for the following day. My negative criticism of the pupils never condemns their minds or ability, but rather their lack of determination, ambition and hard work.
Between my first recitation with my new class in English composition and my second, I thought over my former method and the changes which the new conditions necessitated. A few minutes told me that with two other classes to teach during the same period, I had chosen the best means. The only thing which I regretted was the decreased opportunity for emphasizing the training of our ears to help us over so many difficulties; but this was practically the only primary procedure I had to slight somewhat, and there were decided compensations: I could see more clearly the effort each pupil was making; how well he was following emphatic directions; what ability he was showing to get down to business; whether he was entirely honest in his work. I hoped to get the bearing practice done in connection with the compositions written at home.
At the second recitation, the new class was sent to the board with the subject "Grass." I mentioned the fact that an entire volume had been written on this subject from a creative viewpoint. I told them I wanted a few significant facts which would show that they had really put their minds on the subject; that I did not care to have them tell me that facts of like nature. They understood better what I meant by getting down to thoughts and working. They needed quite a lot of prodding and received it if they were gazing idly around the room.
So the classes continued for a week. I gave big general subjects
about which any pupil must have something to say and where it was only too apparent, if the pupil did not think. Some of the subjects were "Streets,” “Lights," "Trees,” and “Cities.” My main direction was, “Think thirty minutes and write ten,” and I gave one or two primary suggestions for improving or correcting errors in form.
It is not the easiest thing in the world to show the improvement in a pupil's thinking within a few days or a few weeks, unless ope follows him in considerable detail. This would not be possible in such a paper as this, but I will give two home papers of the pupil who would ordinarily be rated as the poorest in the class, written respectively near the beginning and end of the course.
SCULPTURE. Sculpture is one of most difficult arts to master. You must have patience in doing this work. You must also be skillful in other line of art. A sculpture most told how to handle different tools correctly.
PATRIOTISM. If one wants to be a patriot, he must first love his country and do all in his power to help his country. When war is on he must answer to the call of soldiers. Today people have left this country to help their country in the war which is going on in the foreign lands. This show a great deal of patriotism and they are always rewarded for their good work.
One can easily see that there is little thought in the first composition as to substance when I say that I gave a short talk on the subject before anything was written; however, in this pupil's ability to repeat thoughts that have been given, there is a germ to work on. The only encouraging thing about the thought as expressed in the form is that the pupil has tried to write a simple sort of sentence, has a period after each sentence, and has written the second sentence grammatically. It was handed in on a piece of rough paper written in pencil without indentation for the paragraph or margins.
The subject "Patriotism” was given out by me without comment. I consider that the first sentence contains a thought and
that the military ideal of patriotism expressed in the remaining sentences will pass as a thought though it cannot be commended as such. The form is a vast improvement and the pupil has come to a point where he can go into a regular class and do fair work if he is properly guided.
When my two classes in literature went into regular divisions in somewhat over a week, I thought of going back to the method I had used with my first class, but the head of the English department told me that the fourth year English pupils needed a special training in both prose and verse classics besides in composition work. This meant that I should continue my board method.
The pupils showed marked improvement, some within a week and all within three weeks. I gave as much encouragement as possible to any real thought in the board work or the home work, but was equally bromidic over careless dribble. Several of the pupils were of the class who apparently would not work and were very cheerful about their “don't care” attitude when they were shown honest kindness. They needed straight talk and received it. One day I told the most careless boy in the class, whose work was so badly written that it could hardly be read, “Your mind works just like your careless writing: you scribble mentally.” The remark, however, which did the most good was this: “You fellows have this fact facing you: these two girls were able to do in a week what you five fellows have not been able to accomplish in two weeks, which simply means that the way your minds are working now as compared with theirs, is not equal to fifty per cent.”
Some of the pupils in this class were given an examination which they passed, in less than three weeks; others took a trifle over three weeks to gain their success. All who took the examinations, which were given and graded by the head of the English department as in my first class of this kind, were successful. One pupil who failed to appear at the examination without a good excuse was not advanced, but his work was better than that of two of the pupils in his class. So the results from my second method were practically the same as with my first method as far as ready facts are concerned.
Now concerning the application of the second method to pupils who are failures in classes of regular size and working under regular conditions, such pupils can be sent to the board, preferably