I've mentioned in previous posts that we've been using McGuffey's Eclectic Readers as a resource to help the Pillowfight Fairy learn to read.
For those of you who aren't familiar with them, the McGuffey Readers are a set of educational books that has been around in one form or another since 1836. They went through several revisions, the latest in 1879--about six years after the original author, William Holmes McGuffey, passed away.
They were commonly used to teach reading in the schools up until the 1960s. Eventually the schools phased them out, due to several reasons: the language is from the 19th century and includes some archaic features; the rise of Whole Word education at the expense of phonics necessitated a complete replacement of classroom educational materials; and changing educational tastes and conventions caused anything smacking of religion or unsettling ideas (like the inevitability of death) to be stricken from the classroom. But even as the books were being phased out of the schools, demand for them remained strong. There were many parents and educators still around who remembered how they had learned to read from these books, and wanted a set in their own personal libraries. And when the homeschooling movement came into being--and especially that segment of the movement that was motivated to homeschool by religious and moral concerns--continued demand for these books was assured. According to Wikipedia, the Readers still sell about 30,000 copies a year. To my knowledge, they have never been out of print.
Tonya and I managed to score the set that my parents picked up decades ago. In fact, I remember reading from these very books when I was a kid. I read them more from curiosity than anything else; I didn't find them particularly compelling at the time. After all, I was being taught in the local school; why did I need to read additional educational stuff at home? Nevertheless, my parents showed them to us and said they would be good to read, so I looked through them.
There are seven books in the series. The first is "McGuffey's Eclectic Primer", which instructs the beginning reader in basic phonics. Then there are six additional books, entitled "McGuffey's [Nth] Eclectic Reader", where N ranges from one to six. I just assumed as a kid (logically, but incorrectly) that the Primer was intended for Kindergarteners, and that the other six books were intended to be used by students of the corresponding grade level, from grades one through six.
Somehow I managed to retain this misunderstanding until about thirty minutes ago, thus providing evidence that I never actually read them.
But I remember, since I was a fourth grader at the time, picking up the Fourth Eclectic Reader, opening it up at random, and landing on the following poem:
Into a ward of the whitewashed halls,
Where the dead and dying lay,
Wounded by bayonets, shells, and balls,
Somebody's darling was borne one day;
Somebody's darling, so young and brave,
Wearing yet on his pale, sweet face,
Soon to be hid by the dust of the grave,
The lingering light of his boyhood's grace.
Matted and damp are the curls of gold,
Kissing the snow of that fair young brow;
Pale are the lips of the delicate mold--
Somebody's darling is dying now.
Back from his beautiful, blue-veined brow,
Brush all the wandering waves of gold;
Cross his hands on his bosom now;
Somebody's darling is still and cold.
Kiss him once for somebody's sake,
Murmer a prayer soft and low;
One bright curl from its fair mates take;
They were somebody's pride, you know;
Somebody's hand has rested there;
Was it a mother's, soft and white?
And have the lips of a sister fair
Been baptized in the waves of light?
God knows best! he was somebody's love:
Somebody's heart enshrined him there;
Somebody wafted his name above,
Night and morn, on the wings of prayer.
Somebody wept when he marched away,
Looking so handsome, brave and grand;
Somebody's kiss on his forehead lay;
Somebody clung to his parting hand.
Somebody's watching and waiting for him,
Yearning to hold him again to her heart;
And there he lies, whith his blue eyes dim,
And the smiling childlike lips apart.
Tenderly bury the fair young dead,
Pausing to drop on his grave a tear;
Carve on the wooden slab at his head,
"Somebody's darling slumbers here."
I remember being distinctly disturbed by this poem. And I thought to myself, "They don't make me read stuff like this at school."
So anyway, we were leafing through a catalog that we picked up at last weekend's homeschooling seminar, and they were advertising the various readers in the series. And something about them caught my eye. Here's how they were listed:
McGuffey Primer for Grades 1-2I note they weren't advertising the 5th or 6th readers in this catalog. I was thinking to myself: If the Fourth reader is for high schoolers, who are the Fifth and Sixth readers aimed at? Undergrads and Masters' candidates? ("And for my thesis, I read the Sixth reader and actually understood it.")
This book begins with the alphabet, moves to simple one-syllable words....
McGuffey 1st Reader (Grades 3-4)
Most words in this reader are phonetically regular...
McGuffey 2nd Reader (Grades 4-5)
This book begins with one- and two-syllable words and progresses to more difficult words covering....
McGuffey 3rd Reader (Grades 6-8)
This book develops thinking skills and the richer vocabulary...
McGuffey 4th Reader (Grades 9-12)
This book develops advanced vocabulary and thinking skills and introduces
some of the greatest English authors including Webster, Jefferson, Shakespeare,
Johnson, and Schiller....
And what of the Pillowfight fairy? If these levels they've advertised in the catalog are accurate, then our little almost-five-year-old is reading on a third or fourth grade level. While I find this idea highly gratifying (she's got good genes, after all), I have to say I was a little skeptical.
So I decided to crack open the sixth reader and read the last lesson therein, to see for myself how good a student would have to be to work his or her way through the whole series. The last lesson consisted of a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge entitled Ode to Mt. Blanc. I won't include the full poem here--you can follow the link to read the whole thing--but here's a taste:
HAST thou a charm to stay the morning-star
In his deep course? So long he seems to pause
On thy bald awful head, O sovran Blanc!
The Arve and Arveiron at thy base
Rave ceaselessly; but thou, most awful Form!
Risest from forth thy silent sea of pines,
How silently! Around thee and above
Deep is the air and dark, substantial, black,
An ebon mass: methinks thou piercest it,
As with a wedge! But when I look again,
It is thine own calm home, thy crystal shrine,
Thy habitation from eternity!
O dread and silent Mount! I gazed upon thee,
Till thou, still present to the bodily sense,
Didst vanish from my thought: entranced in prayer
I worshipped the Invisible alone.
Thou dread ambassador from Earth to Heaven,
Great Hierarch! tell thou the silent sky,
And tell the stars, and tell yon rising sun, Earth,
with her thousand voices, praises God.
And I thought to myself: wow. Just wow. Magnificent!
And then I thought: No wonder they don't use this stuff in the schools anymore. No one could read it. And what a shame that is.
And then I had one last thought: Maybe my initial "misunderstanding" wasn't; that is, maybe we really have become a post-literate society. Maybe, just as I as a fourth grader was able to be moved as I read a poem from the Fourth Eclectic Reader, that all fourth graders a hundred years earlier were being so moved by the exact same passage; that we have, in the intervening years, lost so much of our culture and history that we don't even really know what a fourth grader should be able to read. We don't even truly understand what a fourth-grade reading level actually is anymore.
But any way you slice it, the Pillowfight Fairy still has great genes.