What happened to Good Citizenship?

1946 - Unhappy First Grader on First Day of school (Bill Swank collection)

With the start of a new school year, I reflect on my own early education.

My first day as a first grader at William Tecumseh Sherman Primary School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin remains an indelible memory. It was September 4, 1946. I was unhappy… very unhappy. My mother made me wear a suit coat and tie for this momentous occasion. My brother was in kindergarten, so he didn’t have to get all dressed up like it was Sunday.

Back in the 1940s, kids didn’t know how to read when they entered first grade. My mother was comfortable sending me to school to be educated by real teachers. In those days, first graders could walk five blocks to school in a big city… alone.

(Another thing, almost all of my elementary school teachers had the same first name: Miss.)

On that first day, I remember Miss Olive Palmer at the blackboard. She carefully drew four perfectly formed letters in chalk: L-O-O-K.

She explained L-O-O-K meant “look.” We repeated aloud, “L-O-O-K, look, L-O-O-K, look, L-O-O-K, look,” over and over. The spelling of L-O-O-K was drilled into our heads.

I couldn’t wait to go home to tell my mother that I learned how to read. Miss Palmer was going to teach us another word the next day. I couldn’t wait to get back to school. By the way, I never had to wear a coat and tie to school again.

1947 report card from Milwaukee Public Schools (Bill Swank collection)

I recently looked at my elementary school report cards and was very surprised by what I learned. There were many more grade headings for behavior than for academics!

Good citizenship was a very important element of Milwaukee’s “progressive” education system.

There were no academic grades on the report card. Reading progress was simply recorded by the date of completion. The only grades were for comportment. Social progress was noted in four categories: Being courteous and kind, Playing fair; Caring for school and other property; Wanting to do good work; Keeping hands from face, nose and mouth, Using a handkerchief properly, Cleanliness, Good posture.

I received “S’s” for “Satisfactory” behavior, but, if memory serves correctly, I flunked “naps” in kindergarten. In my young mind, I didn’t go to school to sleep.

My family moved to Columbia City, Indiana in the middle of my third grade. Priorities were different. In the Hoosier State, arithmetic was more important than reading. School work was expected to be completed with dispatch. “Comes poorly prepared” was noted on my first report card. It took until the fifth grade for me to consistently get “B’s” in Arithmetic. When time was called, tests were handed in for grading. Unanswered questions were, of course, wrong. Speed was more important than learning.

Most of the report card was headed, “Attitude Toward School Work.” There were 22 categories that included: Indolent (which means lazy); Wastes time; Work carelessly done; Copies, gets too much help: Gives up too easily; Comes poorly prepared; Inattentive; Promotion in danger; Restless; Inclined to mischief; Rude, discourteous; Annoys others; Whispers too much.

Among the other categories were a few positive attributes: Very good; Satisfactory; Very good (that is not a misprint; it appeared twice).

Looking back, it is interesting to realize that Indiana teachers were fixated on bad behavior and poor performance. “Self-esteem” had not yet been invented in the 1950s. There was “zero tolerance” for fragile egos. It was not unusual for a teacher to hurt a student’s feelings… and posterior with “the board of education.”

How many remember, “Readin,’ writin,’ and ‘rithmetic, all to the tune of the hickory stick?”

Mr. Elmer Hendrickson, mathematic misanthrope  (Bill Swank collection)

I got hit once. The classroom was completely silent during a test. Our skeletal sixth grade mathematics teacher, Mr. Elmer Hendrickson, was skulking between the rows of prehistoric Anna Breadin desks. I was concentrating on the test and didn’t realize this sadist was directly behind me when I was struck hard across my back with his dreaded square yardstick.

Startled, I asked what I had done wrong. “Your foot was in the aisle,” he said.

This Ichabod Crane lookalike was born on January 28, 1889 in Jefferson Township outside Columbia City. He graduated from Columbia City High School in 1907 and died in Columbia City in 1958. I suspect this narrow-minded misanthrope never smiled a day in his life or ventured further than Fort Wayne.

I told my mother, but that was in the days before parents complained about teachers. She understood unreasonable teachers prepared students for the real world and unreasonable bosses. Students had to learn to make adjustments, because the world wouldn’t make adjustments for us.

The current San Diego Unified School District progress report for elementary students measures 21 categories of academic achievement. There are only four headings under Social, Citizenship and Learning Skills and three of them involve academics: Respects People, rights, feelings, perspectives, and property; Engages actively in learning and contributes to the learning community; Demonstrates critical thinking, reasoning, and problem solving; Takes responsibility for and perseveres in learning.

I am not an educator, sociologist or statistician, but the focus of old report cards in Columbia City and current report cards in San Diego is dramatically and diametrically reversed.

Palmer Method penmanship work sheet (Bill Swank collection)

22 behaviors were graded in the early 1950s. Today, it is impressive that San Diego teachers grade 21 aspects of academic achievement, but, surprising, only one grade addresses good citizenship.

What happened to indolent children? Don’t some kids still waste time, work carelessly and require too much help? Do they quit and give up too easily? Are they poorly prepared, inattentive and restless? Are youths no longer inclined to mischief? Are they rude, discourteous and annoy others?

Do kids today even know how to use a handkerchief?

Or have strict teachers and disciplinarians been forced to wave the white handkerchief?

Email: Bill@ClairemontTimes.com

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