Monday, November 26, 2007

"Perfect Accomplishment" in Handwriting (Copywork Part One)

During the last two weeks or so, I have been re-reading Charlotte Mason's instructions for teaching handwriting and transcription (copywork). I wanted to review my methods in these areas to see if I have been true to Miss Mason's methods. Honestly, there have been a few points that I had somehow missed the first five or six times I read them :] Since copywork is so much on my mind right now, I'd like to post a series focusing in on sections X and XI in Part V of Home Education, "Lessons as Instruments of Education". Not because I have anything to teach, but because I have so much to learn.

There is quite a lot packed into these two little sections on "Writing" and "Transcription". So much that I decided it was too much to tackle in just one post, or even a few posts. I'd like to go through just a little bit at a time, and really get it down well. I have no idea how many posts it will wind up being in the end, but I'm willing to bet we'll have a fairly good handle on these two sections when we're done ;)

The first subsection under "Writing" is entitled "Perfect Accomplishment", and this is where I'll begin. Miss Mason writes, "I can only offer a few hints on the teaching of writing, though much might be said. First, let the child accomplish something perfectly in every lesson––a stroke, a pothook, a letter. Let the writing lesson be short; it should not last more than five or ten minutes. Ease in writing comes by practice; but that must be secured later. In the meantime, the thing to be avoided is the habit of careless work––humpy 'm's, angular o's."

"The thing to be avoided is the habit of careless work". Our standard in each handwriting lesson, even from the beginning, is to produce something to perfection; whether that be a perfectly straight line, a perfectly round "o", or an entire word perfectly copied. There is no room for carelessness. With short lessons, there really isn't any time for carelessness either.

Does all this talk of "perfect" make us uncomfortable? Can a child really be expected to form his letters so well at such a young age? Lindafay at Higher Up and Further In has a great post about this very issue. She carries more weight on the subject than I ever could due to her many years teaching not only her own children but dozens upon dozens of school children as well. Her belief is that a child most definitely can make well-formed letters from the start. He must only be required to do so.

Earlier in Home Education, Miss Mason addresses perfect execution as a habit to be developed in the children. She uses copywork as her illustrative example here; although, the principle and the habit certainly apply across the disciplines. On page 159 she writes the following concerning The Habit of Perfect Execution: "The Habit of turning out Imperfect Work.––'Throw perfection into all you do' is a counsel upon which a family may be brought up with great advantage. We English, as a nation, think too much of persons, and too little of things, work, execution. Our children are allowed to make their figures or their letters, their stitches, their dolls' clothes, their small carpentry, anyhow, with the notion that they will do better by-and-by. Other nations––the Germans and the French, for instance––look at the question philosophically, and know that if children get the habit of turning out imperfect work, the men and women will undoubtedly keep that habit up. I remember being delighted with the work of a class of about forty children, of six and seven, in an elementary school at Heidelberg. They were doing a writing lesson, accompanied by a good deal of oral teaching from a master, who wrote each word on the blackboard. By-and-by the slates were shown, and I did not observe one faulty or irregular letter on the whole forty slates. The same principle of 'perfection' was to be discerned in a recent exhibition of school-work held throughout France. No faulty work was shown, to be excused on the plea that it was the work of children."

This is impressive to me. Basically, Miss Mason is saying that no normal child is with excuse. There are, certainly, children that will be slower than others owing to some true deficit, but - on the whole - average children are able. Now, this is going to ruffle some feathers, especially since my only boy is a baby, but did you notice that Miss Mason does not make a distinction between boys and girls? She does not report that, of the forty little German students, the girls all turned out perfect letters but the boys did pretty well... for boys. No, she says that the entire class produced perfect writing. Is it possible that we are letting boys slide because we do not expect enough of them in handwriting? Are we excusing faulty work "on the plea" that it is only the work of boys? Charlotte Mason seems to be saying in this paragraph that all normally developing children are capable of perfect execution in their copywork, if only we will expect it of them.

How does this play out in real life with a real child doing real copywork? How do you get perfect execution? You can read Miss Mason's next paragraph if you would like. I'll be addressing these questions in my next post :)