Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Gem Found in a Bookstore Bin

by Edward Hessler
Image from
Many years ago I stopped in a corner bookstore to browse ("waste" some time after class), especially the remainders in the amply stuffed book bins throughout the store. I purchased a book on an elementary school in New Zealand which has become one of my all time favorite books. Elwyn Richardson's masterpiece, In the Early World seems unknown. I've only met one other person, and then only in 2013 (and then on a blog), who had ever heard of it, much less seen or read it. The blog's author was known to have given it to students. I hope some of you know it.

In the forward, a New Zealand educational official accurately described the book as "...a vivid picture of a school...(which)...functioned as a community of artists and scientists who turned a frank and searching gaze on all that came within their ambit." Richardson remained mostly a mystery to me until the Wiki era. What I knew is that he came to Oruaiti as both a scientist, to study molluscs, and also to work on his own ideas about teaching and learning. Margaret McDonald in her Ph.D. thesis about him put it another way: he wanted to teach "away from the immediate gaze inspectors and colleagues." Richardson stayed to teach mixed classes of Maori and Caucasian students for thirteen years.

The book is the final report required of granting this school experimental status. It it not the serious document one would expect and which would be shelved with "completed" ticked off on the sheet authorizing the school. However, it was well received and had important, long-term effects on progressive education in New Zealand.

Richardson based his curriculum on children's interests in math, social studies, geography, literature, nature study, science and English.  His classroom was a gallery of glorious art and writing and it is gloriously represented in his book. It was the children's writing and art that claimed me. Richardson had strong ideas about human artistic ability as well as its development in young children. What this school offered was an integrated program of art and science.

Jean Benderswrote an excellent commentary for the ASCD in 1971 on using Richardson's classroom methods in American classrooms. And these ideas still have force.

The book's title is from a poem by a student named Irene.

The blue heron stands in the early world.

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