Many believe the good old days of “Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic” are lost forever in the bygone era of one-room schoolhouses. The truth is: inspired educators continue to help students connect the three “R’s” with 21st century education and workplace needs.
In partnership with WVIA Public Media, Pennsylvania College of Technology salutes such educational initiatives in a new public television series called Working Class. I am proud to serve as an executive producer of the series.
My interest in encouraging public support for education that combines academics and practical learning was first inspired by my experiences as a child who attended one of the last public, one-room schoolhouses in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania.
As I look back on those days – a half century ago – I am awed by the commitment of teachers, like my own Mrs. Edith Stecher. In addition to teaching first, second and third grades, she shoveled snow, tended a furnace, watched over us at recess, and herded us onto the school bus at the end of each day.
In my eyes, she was an angel who cared for me and gave me the keys to understanding my world. It was a simpler world, for sure, with wooden desks and yellow pencils and books that are collected today as vintage decorations.
I came across such a book when I was researching a film documentary project in Penn College’s Madigan Library Archives. The spelling textbook written by John T. Shuman, an English teacher at Williamsport High School during the Great Depression, reminded me how powerful the influence of a competent and caring teacher can be.
Dr. Shuman was concerned that students in the high school’s vocational program were having difficulty learning vocabulary with standard lessons of the day.
“A reasonable degree of accuracy and proficiency in the fundamentals such as spelling and using words is absolutely necessary to a continued improvement in the pupil’s English. Yet in spite of the existing situation, we have thus far done very little to provide … English material which for them is practical, interesting, and essential,” Dr. Shuman wrote in Spelling for Trade and Technical Students in 1934.
“Yet in spite of the existing situation, we have thus far done very little to provide … English material which for them is practical, interesting, and essential.”
In his textbook, Dr. Shuman — who became assistant director of Williamsport Technical Institute (now Penn College) and later superintendent in charge of vocational and adult education in Allentown, PA — offered, in addition to commonly used general words, terms that were associated with popular occupations of the era in which he and his students lived, including carpentry, drafting, machining, printing, sheet metal, and woodworking.
“English should be adapted to the situation in which it is being used,” he wrote, adding that it is necessary for high school English classes to “acquire a proper balance between industrial and literary values.”
Teaching students to use language in ways that will be useful and appropriate throughout their lifetimes seems to me to be a very effective way of engaging them in the basic learning process.
My friend Kathryn Wentzel Lumley — who was a respected reading educator, children’s book author, a founder of the Reading is Fundamental program, and director emeritus of the Penn College Board of Directors until her death in 2008 – believed that all children could be taught to love reading if they were encouraged by adults to read ANYTHING that held their interest, including comic books and cereal boxes.
Of the many picture books and instructional reading materials she wrote during her lifetime, Kay’s most celebrated work may have been Snoopy’s Secret Code Book, which was co-authored with Charles M. Schulz, creator of the famous Peanuts cartoons. She always held a warm spot in her heart for “Sparky” (Schulz’s nickname) and his ability to connect with children through his open and honest characters.
My vision for the future of Working Class is inspired by teachers like Edith Stecher, John Shuman, and Kay Lumley. I hope the series encourages viewers to recognize the three “R’s” as practical, interesting, and essential in the 21st century.
“No one is born with the ability to speak correctly and effectively, just as no one is born with the ability to swim or to operate a machine. Both are skills that must be learned through practice,” Dr. Shuman wrote.
Whatever our endeavors may be, we all must practice the skills we need to succeed. I hope Working Class videos and resources encourage practice and assist teachers and parents who want to help students excel in life.