Tag Archives: Elementary

Thomas Gradgrind Hard Times

One of the most popular home schooling movements equates the elementary school years to the “Pol Parrot” stage, in which a child’s amazing capacity for memory should be used to load up on facts of all sorts.  I understand the  urge, but question the value in the long term… and, of course, I am reminded of a most amusing bit by Dickens in Hard Times

Chapter II


THOMAS GRADGRIND, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir-peremptorily Thomas-Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic. You might hope to get some other nonsensical belief into the head of George Gradgrind, or Augustus Gradgrind, or John Gradgrind, or Joseph Gradgrind (all supposititious, non-existent persons), but into the head of Thomas Gradgrind-no, sir !

In such terms Mr. Gradgrind always mentally introduced himself, whether to his private circle of acquaintance, or to the public in general. In such terms, no doubt, substituting the words “boys and girls,” for “sir,” . Thomas Gradgrind now presented Thomas Gradgrind to the little pitchers before him, who were to be filled so full of facts.

Indeed, as he eagerly sparkled at them from the cellarage before mentioned, he seemed a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of child-hood at one discharge. He seemed a galvanizing apparatus, too, charged with a grim mechanical substitute for the tender young imaginations that were to be stormed away.

“Girl number twenty,” said Mr. Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, “I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?”

“Sissy Jupe, sir,” explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying,

“Sissy is not a name,” said Mr. Gradgrind. “Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.”

“It’s father as calls me Sissy, sir,” returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.

“Then he has no business to do it,” said Mr. Gradgrind. “Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?”

“He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.”

Mr. Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.

“We don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here. Your father breaks horses, don’t he?”

“If you please, sir, when they can get any to break, they do break horses in the ring, sir.”

“You mustn’t tell us about the ring, here. Very well, then. Describe your father as a horsebreaker. He doctors sick horses, I dare say?” “Oh yes, sir.”

“Very well, then. He is a veterinary surgeon, a farrier, and horse-breaker. Give me your definition of a horse.”

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.) “Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!” said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. “Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.”

The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer, perhaps because he chanced to sit in the same ray of sunlight which, darting in at one of the bare windows of the intensely white-washed room, irradiated Sissy. For, the boys and girls sat on the face of the inclined plane in two compact bodies, divided up the centre by a narrow interval; and Sissy, being at the corner of a row on the sunny side, came in for the beginning of a sunbeam, of which Bitzer, being at the comer of a row on the other side, a few rows in advance, caught the end. But, whereas the girl was so dark-eyed and dark-haired, that she seemed to receive a deeper and more lustrous colour from the sun, when it shone upon her, the boy was so light-eyed and light-haired that the self-same rays appeared to draw out of him what little colour he ever possessed. His cold eyes would hardly have been eyes, but for the short ends of lashes which, by bringing them into immediate contrast with something paler than themselves, expressed their form. His short-cropped hair might have been a mere continuation of the sandy freckles on his forehead and face. His skin was so unwholesomely deficient in the natural tinge, that he looked as though, if he were cut, he would bleed white.

“Bitzer,” said Thomas Gradgrind. “Your definition of a horse.”

“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.” Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

“Now girl number twenty,” said Mr. Gradgrind. “You know what a horse is.”


Facts, yes, but the sparks jumping between those facts hold real promise;  when a student realizes for herself the connection between horses and her own love of bicycling, the distances between cities in the East, or the end of the Pony Express after the golden spike was driven at Promontory Point, Utah.

Age ranges served at The Library Table

When I published my summer course catalog focused on middle and high school students I had no idea what was coming!

Many adults asked, “What about me?” and  “How about my curious elementary-aged student?”

So, by way of clarification and expansion:

Elementary/Grammar Stage Students:

I am happy to adjust (or create) courses for younger children.  I homeschool my children ages 5 and 8.

It’s never too early to read poetry together and talk about the images it creates in our mind, how those images affect us, and how poets feel, notice, think, and write.   I particularly love Robert Louis Stevenson’s,  A Garden of Children’s Verses; it’s even illustrated by the illustrious Tasha Tudor.  Of course American history, natural history of the Northwest, creative writing, and drawing all have their place along the trail.

While I appreciate the Trivium, I do not completly agree that children are buckets to be filled with facts during the “Pol Parrot” stage as Dorothy Sayers and other advocate (You know who you are, Susan W-B!).

I strive to offer balanced nutrition to body, soul, and mind especially at this young age because I agree with William Butler Yeats:

Education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire.

In young students, so eager to soak up the world around them, I find the ideal kindling for starting fires that will last a lifetime.

Middle School/Logic Stage Students:

I love bringing students full of enthusiasm and information to consciousness about their own and other’s thinking.
What’s worth thinking about?
How do we think clearly and not (logic and its fallacies.)
I also enjoy introducing some of the complexity of being human at this age, revealing the human side of heroes, the possiblility that two clear-thinking, strong-minded, good-intentioned people might honestly disagree without the world grinding to a halt or jumping into battle.  5-paragraph essays, dialectic, and debate all find fertile ground during these years.

High School/Rhetoric Stage Students:

Refining teenager’s ability to convince others that, in fact, they really DO know everything provides great opportunities to learn by example from master thinkers and writers.  Only when teens try to convince others of their innate genius do they begin to take their responsibility for riorous research, thinking, and composition seriously.
Giving teenage writers and thinkers an audience of serious readers, adults and peers, sets the stage for their life-long intellectual success.  Close readings and discussions offer young writers the opportunity to see the effect of their work on others.  Nothing motivates more than moving your peers!
Content areas include more dramatic and conflict-filled adult  themes.  Gone are the days of fantasy, in my experience high-school students are eager to look into life’s darker corners, to take the full measure of what it means to be human, both good and bad.  Of course, students are guided in these adventures to take value from even the most difficult experiences of others with humility and empathy.

Life-long Learners/Adult Students:

Adults often say, “I wish I had an education like the one you offer.”
What’s lacking is often:
  • Dedicated time to pursue studies.
  • A clear plan of study that’s motivating.
  • A safe place to know what you know and learn what you want to learn without self-consciousness.

Working out is easy, all we have to do is walk out the front door and keep going and yet, personal trainers exist because a combination of encouragement, kind instruction, and accountability yeilds greater results for most people than “Just Do It.”

  • Do you wish you understood current events, history and geography better?
  • Do you miss the fine literature you read in college?
  • Do you wish you could capture the moments of your life more beautifully in words or in photographs?
  • Do you fear becoming one-dimensional with the focus your work requires?

What would you like to learn?