What Grade Are You In? A Bit of Common Sense from Understood Betsy

Summer is winding down in the northern hemisphere and schoolbooks are being dusted off and swimsuits put away. I always enjoyed getting back into an orderly and predictable schedule (as orderly and predictable as was possible in a household with four boys, a grandmother, and assorted pets). One of the funny things that tended to happen around back to school time was that whenever I was out with the boys, someone would inevitably ask one of them, “What grade are you in?” The boys would look at one another nonplussed and finally reply with their age. We just didn’t do grade levels.

It may have been the influence of Understood Betsy, one of my favorite childhood books, or the hundreds of other old books I read that inoculated me against the notion that there was any good reason to pigeonhole children and segregate them by age. Or it may have simply been remembrance of what learning was like for me — some things were effortless, others were harder. Sometimes I’d be stuck for a bit (remember factoring?), then like a light bulb turning on, understanding would arrive.

When I read Understood Betsy, I empathized deeply with Betsy (Elizabeth Ann) on her first day at a new school as she faced reading aloud with her class. Here’s a glimpse of what happened in that little one-room schoolhouse.

Betsy sighed, took out her third-grade reader, and went with the other two up to the battered old bench near the teacher’s desk. She knew all about reading lessons and she hated them, although she loved to read. But reading lessons…! You sat with your book open at some reading that you could do with your eyes shut, it was so easy, and you waited and waited and waited while your classmates slowly stumbled along, reading aloud a sentence or two apiece, until your turn came to stand up and read your sentence or two, which by that time sounded just like nonsense because you’d read it over and over so many times to yourself before your chance came. And often you didn’t even have a chance to do that, because the teacher didn’t have time to get around to you at all, and you closed your book and put it back in your desk without having opened your mouth. Reading was one thing Elizabeth Ann had learned to do very well indeed, but she had learned it all by herself at home from much reading to herself. Aunt Frances had kept her well supplied with children’s books from the nearest public library. She often read three a week — very different, that, from a sentence or two once or twice a week.

When I read that as a child, I was Betsy. I too had learned to read “very well indeed” through glorious gobs of reading at home. School was different, though. I remember getting in trouble more than once for reading through an entire reading anthology or history book during the first few days of school. “Getting ahead of the class” was apparently something that must not be done (why not?). I remember being tattled on during a class trip to the library for looking at books outside the picture book section. Fortunately for the child doing the tattling, the teacher simply said, “It’s okay; she can read the big-kid books.”

But what if school itself had been structured so that I and anyone else who was ready could read the good stuff in any subject in which we were capable? Why are children expected to sit through the deadly boredom of lessons in things they can already already do well, just because they are a certain age? How many schools assign workbooks and worksheets because they are easy to check rather than because they help children learn?

Time-wasting shouldn’t be mandatory

As a child reading Understood Betsy, I felt understood — she knew what it was like to be ahead in some things and behind in others (and I suspect that we are not alone). At the same time, I felt a bit envious as I read on and discovered what happened next. Betsy first reads from the third reader, and then — well, I’ll let you read it for yourself.

“I guess, then, that you’d better not stay in this class,” said the teacher. She took a book out of her desk. “See if you can read that.”

Elizabeth Ann began in her usual school-reading style, very slow and monotonous, but this didn’t seem like a “reader” at all. It was poetry, full of hard words that were fun to try to pronounce, and it was all about an old woman who would hang out an American flag, even though the town was full of rebel soldiers. She read faster and faster, getting more and more excited, till she broke out with “Halt!” in such a loud, spirited voice that the sound of it startled her and made her stop, fearing that she would be laughed at. But nobody laughed. They were all listening, very eagerly, even the little ones, with their eyes turned toward her.

“You might as well go on and let us see how it came out,” said the teacher, and Betsy finished triumphantly.

Well,” said the teacher, “there’s no sense in your reading along in the third reader. After this you’ll recite out of the seventh reader with Frank and Harry and Stashie.”

“There’s no sense” in dragging through material that is way too easy. Betsy was dumbfounded at this idea. But she knew it wouldn’t really be possible, because as she later confessed to the teacher, “I can’t be allowed to read in the seventh reader. I don’t write a bit well, and I never get the mental number-work right. I couldn’t do ANYthing with seventh-grade arithmetic!”

The teacher’s simple, common-sense response made it clear that Betsy’s placement in reading, arithmetic, and writing was a matter of what she knew and needed to learn next — not a matter of her age or what other children were doing. Nine-year old Betsy had been born a person,  with “powers of mind which fit [her] to deal with all knowledge proper to [her]*, and her teacher seemed bent on providing just that. (*From Charlotte Mason‘s 20 Principles).

Should you skip ahead or move back a level?

A lifetime of reading old books gave me glimpses into many sensible educational practices, and when I started homeschooling I adopted those that fit. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the old books of my childhood set me free — free of the fear of eliminating grade-level boxes that didn’t fit, boring workbooks that didn’t teach, and teaching methods based on covering material rather than educating head, heart, and hand. That’s a freedom I wish for you, too.

Understood Betsy is the coming of age story of a little girl who discovers that she's a complete person. Many homeschooling parents find their way to this place of freedom, simply because it makes sense. But how do you know if a child should move ahead? There’s one question I would ask:

“Is the subject I’m thinking of skipping ahead in
teaching a skill or imparting knowledge?”

If it’s a skill subject such as reading, spelling, arithmetic, etc., the question becomes “Does the child know how to read/spell/add/subtract/multiply/divide, and how well?” You’re likely to know the answer to that question just as Betsy’s teacher did.

A fluently reading child shouldn’t have to slog through another year of phonics lessons or too-childish readers because they are available. The child should be released into the magical world of real books and interesting knowledge. All of the foundational skills will continue to be practiced in the context of knowledge-based lessons, which is a much better use of time than separate skill lessons. Knowledge-based reading cultivates the child’s mind and heart and his or her understanding of the world — not just “comprehension skills.”

If you’re thinking of skipping ahead in a knowledge area such as history, literature, art, music, or mathematics, consider carefully. The riches to be discovered in each of these disciplines is vast, and it’s a pity to miss out. If you’re using a good living books curriculum like AmblesideOnline, you’ll have an abundant feast of great reading in all the knowledge areas. However, it can be a bit intimidating if you’re jumping in midway. Do you start at the beginning and read everything, or start at “grade level” and go from there? If you’ve read this far, you can probably guess that I’d start with the levels that fit each student best.

Work on skills through copywork, narration, oral arithmetic practice and other appropriate activities, and read widely and deeply in the knowledge areas. Have students keep learning journals  with commonplace  quotes, nature studies, science experiments, history timelines, biographical sketches, and more. Learning will happen, line upon line, precept on precept, and your students will never share Betsy’s misunderstanding about the purpose of school.

What school is really for

We rejoin Understood Betsy at the end of her arithmetic lesson.

After the lesson the teacher said, smiling, “Well, Betsy, you were right about your arithmetic. I guess you’d better recite with Eliza for a while. She’s doing second-grade work. I shouldn’t be surprised if, after a good review with her, you’d be able to go on with the third-grade work.”

Elizabeth Ann fell back on the bench with her mouth open. She felt really dizzy. What crazy things the teacher said! She felt as though she was being pulled limb from limb.

“What’s the matter?” asked the teacher, seeing her bewildered face.

“Why—why,” said Elizabeth Ann, “I don’t know what I am at all. If I’m second-grade arithmetic and seventh-grade reading and third-grade spelling, what grade am I?”

The teacher laughed at the turn of her phrase.You aren’t any grade at all, no matter where you are in school. You’re just yourself, aren’t you? What difference does it make what grade you’re in! And what’s the use of your reading little baby things too easy for you just because you don’t know your multiplication table?”

“Well, for goodness’ sakes!” ejaculated Elizabeth Ann, feeling very much as though somebody had stood her suddenly on her head.

“Why, what’s the matter?” asked the teacher again.

This time Elizabeth Ann didn’t answer, because she herself didn’t know what the matter was. But I do, and I’ll tell you. The matter was that never before had she known what she was doing in school. She had always thought she was there to pass from one grade to another, and she was ever so startled to get a little glimpse of the fact that she was there to learn how to read and write and cipher and generally use her mind  . . . Of course, she didn’t really know that till she did come to be grown up, but she had her first dim notion of it in that moment, and it made her feel the way you do when you’re learning to skate and somebody pulls away the chair you’ve been leaning on and says, “Now, go it alone!”

C.S. Lewis said that old books are a necessary antidote to the characteristic blindness of every age, and I’m certain that he is right. I know that the cumulative influence of Understood Betsy and so many others clearly showed me the absurdity of doing school work for the sake of checking it off a list. Like Betsy, I didn’t understand what I was seeing until much later, but largely because of old books my inner compass pointed toward a better way — a type of education.where children study what they need to know when they need to know it. I wish the same for you and yours.


1 Response

  1. August 20, 2020

    […] You might also enjoy “What Grade Are You In? Practical Wisdom from Understood Betsy.” […]

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