Little by Little, We Teach

“Above all things one should train and exercise a child’s memory. Whether children are naturally gifted with a good memory or, on the contrary, are naturally forgetful, the memory should be trained. The natural advantage will be strengthened, or the natural shortcoming made up. The former class will excel others, the latter will excel themselves.”

Are these words from the latest webinar on attention disorders? A new podcast on executive function or working memory? An ad for expensive brain exercises? No, this admonition appears in the first-century essay “On Bringing Up a Boy,” which is often attributed to Plutarch, as we shall do here. Within the essay Plutarch references Hesiod, the c. 700 B.C. Greek poet:

If to the thing that is little you further add but a little,

And to the same oft and, again, full soon it becomes a great thing.

In classical Christian education we train and exercise the memory through translating simple reminders for life: ora et labora (pray and work) or semper fidelis (always faithful) from Latin to English and back again. We strengthen attention and concentration through repetition, recitation, mastery of moral lessons, phonics and grammar rules, arithmetic facts, and a strong general fund of knowledge. We fortify a student’s mind and soul with the eternal comfort of Scripture passages like “The Lord is my shepherd” and “He leadeth me beside the still waters.”

Teachers of students with varying needs may need to be more creative than other teachers, or spend more time on a single lesson, but we need not compromise on giving our students a real education. Plutarch gives us this comparison:

As farmers put stakes beside their plants, so the right kind of teacher provides firm support for the young in the shape of lessons and admonitions carefully chosen so as to produce an upright growth of character.

For any child, whether small or mighty, poor or wealthy, slow or quick, Plutarch writes,

…the one and essential thing, the first, middle, and last, is a sound upbringing and a right education. Not only should the education of our children be treated as of the very first importance, but we should insist upon its being of the sound and genuine kind.

Some people wonder whether the workforce of today demands an entirely different education. Alternatives to memory-strengthening and character-forming education often appear in the form of utilitarian, instrumental programs and hands-on, practical training. Our ancient writer has an answer for this as well:

To put it shortly, it is surely absurd to train little children to receive their food with the right hand and yet to take no precautions that they shall be taught moral lessons of a sound and proper kind.

Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid

“Little by little, the bird builds its nest,” one of my daughter’s favorite French phrases, encourages us to teach step by step and with sensitivity to the student. Will he thrive in a traditional classroom? Does he require a smaller group of companions? Will he need private tutoring? Does he need visual aids, adaptive equipment, more practice? As a matter of human mercy, Christian compassion, and vocational duty, we can make modifications for the various needs of our students by placing strong stakes of support beside our young plants, whether in a large field, a raised bed, or a small greenhouse.

Nearly two thousand years after Plutarch, Helen Keller showed her first understanding of the word “w-a-t-e-r,” finger-spelled into her hand by her teacher Annie Sullivan. She had soon learned 625 words, and Annie began to work on “words indicative of place relations.” Miss Sullivan wrote the following diary entry when Helen was six years old:

Her dress was put in a trunk, and then on it, and these prepositions were spelled for her. Very soon she learned the difference between on and in, though it was some time before she could use these words in sentences of her own. Whenever it was possible she was made an actor in the lesson, and was delighted to stand on the chair, and to be put into the wardrobe. In connection with this lesson she learned the names of the members of the family and the word “is.” ‘”Helen is in wardrobe.” “Mildred is in crib.” “Box is on table.” “Papa is on bed” are specimens of sentences she constructed.

Miss Sullivan demonstrated sensitivity while not wavering from the determination to give her student an education. She wrote on September 26, 1888:

Owing to the nervousness of Helen’s temperament, every precaution has been taken to avoid unduly exciting her already very active brain. In teaching her the use of language … I have tried to add to her general information and intelligence, to enlarge her acquaintance with things around her, and to bring her into easy and natural relations with people.

Little by little, we teach. We do not push too hard or attempt to rush the process. Plutarch tells us:

Being in too great haste for their children … they impose extravagant tasks, which prove too great for their strength and end in failure, besides causing them such weariness and distress that they refuse to submit patiently to instructions… Water in moderation will make a plant grow, while a flood of water will choke it. In the same way the mind will thrive under reasonably hard work, but will drown if the work is excessive.

Pearls of Thought

Teaching any student requires observation, sensitivity, and dedication. We can remind ourselves of simple tips for the student with special needs:

  • Secure the student’s attention before you teach.
  • Be concise and clear.
  • Provide breaks after intense mental tasks.
  • Establish a code of conduct and create predictable routines.
  • Teach with visual or physical aids to assist understanding, but take care that such additions are not in themselves distracting.
  • If any lesson contains too much content, use a mental magnifying glass to enlarge each component. Then divide into smaller parts and teach those.
  • Stir the heart while tending to the mind.
  • Assess for understanding and mastery.
  • Practice to keep memory sharp and well-exercised.

If this sounds to you like advice that would be profitable for teaching not only a child with special needs but any child, you would be right.

One thought on “Little by Little, We Teach

  1. edithpont says:

    Thanks for the reminder that it’s necessary to slow down and meet the needs of my child. I can get so caught up in what others are doing that I forget I’m only called to tend to my little guy. I’m an adoptive mom of an 8 yr old boy with higher needs and your words resonated with me. I’ve dabbled into classical education and wasn’t sure it’s the route I wanted to take, but the more I read your posts and implement the ideas, I’m realizing we are more classical than I thought. I’m new to Memoria Press, but I’m loving the simplicity, yet the depthness of the content. Here’s to third grade! Thank you, Cheryl, for your wise words.

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