Goodenough Gismo

  • Gismo39
    This is the classic children's book, Goodenough Gismo, by Richmond I. Kelsey, published in 1948. Nearly unavailable in libraries and the collector's market, it is posted here with love as an "orphan work" so that it may be seen and appreciated -- and perhaps even republished, as it deserves to be. After you read this book, it won't surprise you to learn that Richmond Irwin Kelsey (1905-1987) was an accomplished artist, or that as Dick Kelsey, he was one of the great Disney art directors, breaking your heart with "Pinocchio," "Dumbo," and "Bambi."

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I worked on establishing a pre-k voucher program, on a pilot basis, in Louisiana. We wanted to ensure that we weren't paying for glorified baby-sitting, so we required that to be eligible to accept the funds, the school had to have a "research-based curriculum."

That sounds real good, but I found out something very interesting. None of the professional educators I talked with could answer the fundamental question: "research-based to do what?" That is, what kind of child is that type of curriculum proven to mold, on average? Does the curriculum produce a bunch of "creative" children with zero knowledge of actual facts? Does it produce children with great stores of facts, but who are not able to put those facts together and do anything with them? Does it produce kids who are financially successful as adults, or does it produce kids who wind up unhappy when they must take jobs "beneath them," because the demand for art history majors is relatively low?

This is a fundamental question when you're trying to decide on the proper school curriculum. As the excerpt you quote notes, different students have different needs at different times. What works in affluent suburbia, where kids learn relatively decent English and other basic skills mostly at home won't work so well in a poor school with kids who need to spend more school time on those basics.

Kudos for the "serious" school for focusing on the needs of its students and not edu-theory claptrap. My sister teaches at an urban school in Atlanta. A couple of years ago, they introduced, system-wide, some new curriculum which was entirely scripted. Literally. The teachers were supposed to read from this script all day. Thankfully, she and several of her fellow teachers risked their jobs by disregarding the scripts (except on the days the monitor was at the school), figuring that they wouldn't get in trouble as long as all their kids passed their year-end standardized reading test... which they did.

Want to fix the public schools? Look at what we were doing before the 1970s, look what we started doing differently, and change back. Insist that children behave, rather than tolerating disruption under the rubric of not stamping out their "creativity" and "self-expression," measure teachers' performance and hold them accountable (along with the principals), and pretty soon, more of our kids will be able to read, write, and do basic math. It's really not rocket science.


Look at what we were doing before the 1970s, look what we started doing differently, and change back.

Please, no. Let's go a turn round the spiral, not the circle. Insist that children behave by all means, BUT:

I attended a "creative" pre-school, which was very hands-on and sensory (literally; they brought a beef heart from the butcher and we put our fingers in its aorta). Then I entered kindergarten of the Chicago public schools. They gave us these workbooks with line drawings of tables, dogs, carrots, coffeepots, and you were supposed to circle the one in each group that didn't belong. At age 5, I looked at these things with emotions I recall vividly and can now put words to -- disappointment and incredulous contempt. (I was "spoiled.") They were crappy, boring, and depressing, like a prison IQ test. There's no reason why basic educational materials can't be well designed and appeal to the senses and the imagination.

OK, so then the early grades were fine. Cut to 5th, 6th, 7th grades. Our teachers were mostly older widows or spinsters. Most of them were harridans. They drilled us in the multiplication tables and made us diagram sentences, for both of which I am ETERNALLY GRATEFUL. I guess I'm even grateful that Miss McKee, whose mouth twitched and who wore fingerless gloves for her eczema and looked like the witch in The Wizard of Oz, gave me 68 long division problems in the 5th grade as a punishment for talking in class. (I was forever getting check marks in the "talks in class" box . . . proto-blogging, I presume?) I wept with dread, but damn, I can still do long division!

It was fat, mean Mrs. Boston who made us memorize the multiplication tables (thank you Mrs. B), and scrawny, mean Mrs. Brown who had us draw a Hallowe'en party and then took her own eraser to my drawing, wiping out the figure of a woman in a form-fitting black cat suit.

These women were strict (good) but utterly unimaginative (bad). We would have passed our basic tests, but that's it. There was no social promotion then and no effort was made to reach or teach the minority kids, whom the teachers, esp. Mrs. Brown, openly despised. They were held back year after year and just got bigger and bigger, sitting there like neglected hulks. Some of them had a lot inside them, but most of the teachers assumed they didn't.

We had good teachers too, and the difference was night and day. Rose Klowden, who taught English and music, was strict as hell, passionate, imaginative, exasperated with us. We had tempestuous relationships with her and she had us do things like perform an abridged version of "The Ballad for Americans" for a patriotic assembly, and sing sea chanteys in three-part harmony. She was fantastic. She may also have been the one who made diagramming sentences fascinating. Mr. Bernstein, the science teacher, was marvelous too.

Points taken?

1) Be strict with kids but at the same time engage their senses and imaginations. Not everything can or should be made fun (drilling is drillng), but ONLY drilling gets to seem drearily Dickensian.

2) It's all about the teachers. Why would we want to put our kids in the care of bitter, boring mediocrities and borderline sadists? It's all too good preparation for certain workplaces, I admit, but . . .


What the author seems to have grasped is something that is mostly missing from all of the discussions of how to do education. It is simply this,
- how best to teach depends on what you are trying to convey
- you have to build the foundation before you construct the building. Likewise, you have to teach basics (if the child has not previously learned them elsewhere) before you can teach how to create using those basics.
-different children have different requirements. Not only from each other, but at different times for the same child.

As long as everybody insists that all schools must ideally teach the same things in the same way, progress is going to be extremely difficult.


The problem with NCLB as I see it is not that it requires teaching basics - that's all good. The problem is that there is nothing for kids who are past basics; those are forced to stay behind, and that's a pity.


Lisa, NCLB doesn't force those kids to remain behind. Good schools separate out kids roughly according to ability, so that kids who can handle more are given more.

Amba, I agree with you on your points. Perhaps it's different experiences; the public schools with which I was most familiar growing up, and which I heard about from my parents' experiences, combined both the creativity and the structure and discipline as you describe. I did not mean to suggest at all that we return to pure drilling (though I think some drilling is certainly appropriate... one should memorize the multiplication tables, for example).


I still have the "times tables" at the tip of my tongue, although I've always been a little shaky with 11 and 12.


I don't even know what to say about education anymore, public, private or whatever. I do know that--though I started with fewer assumptions on both sides, at least I think--most have gotten blown out of the water over the past five years or so.

One random thought: I'm not sure that we can go back to the old modes, at least not in terms of true replication. Apart from any other consideration (and there are a number), the context is so different. The context of kids' lives--even the privileged or even- semi-privileged ones--has changed so much. For just one, small example: can we bring back to the freedom-to-explore the neighborhood, the outdoors, the whatever? Can we go back to postponing organized, competitive sports until a little later, and let kids figure some of that stuff on their on, in pick-up games & etc., without constant adult intervention? Is it possible for parents to feel comfortable with that, or to make parents who would feel comfortable with that feel comfortable that they won't catch heck for that philosphy?






(And more, on other tangents.)

Anyway. As I said.

I'm not sure what to say, or what to think, anymore.

Peter Hoh

I'm with reader. I don't know what to say, either. I used to have a lot to say. Experience taught me that I knew much less than I thought.

I like the charter model. Some terrific schools have arisen, often serving populations that were not well served by the public schools in their communities. That's a good, in and of itself. The hope was that charters would provide models on which school reform could be built. But schools are quirky things, and success in one school is not necessarily something you can package and make work somewhere else.


Oh, the horror! Pat sounds like he's actually advocating tracks in the schools for children of differing abilities/achievements. And after all the trouble we went thru in the 70s to get rid of those elitest things.

Oh, wait. My schools in the 50s and 60s all had tracks from elementary thru high school, and did real well by all of us. (NB, we had 3 tracks even though I was in a school where, the year after graduation, upwards of 98% of my ~200 graduating class was in college or junior college. But hey, it was just a small farming community with a single high school.)


Pat, that's in theory. In practice, schools have neither resources nor will to deal with kids that don't represent a "problem". My older daughter's middle school principal was very direct: "I have tons of kids who can barely read. Do you actually expect me to waste time on your child? I am not worried about her: I am sure you can find a way to deal with her needs."

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