Susanna Wesley, Educator

You might say that Susanna Wesley was an innovative educator when it came to the homeschooling of the 10 of her 19 children who survived infancy.

And she had the background for the task. She was the youngest of the learned Samuel Annesley’s 25 children. Before she was out of her teens she knew Greek, Latin, and French and was proficient in theology and philosophy.

She was married to Samuel Wesley when she was 20 and he 27. As children began to come along, she designated one room of the parsonage as the school room. In that room there was to be no loud talking, and no coming and going except for good cause. For Susanna and her brood, formal learning was scheduled to last six hours a day during weekdays and it was to be serious business.

“The day before a child’s education was to begin,” Susanna wrote to her son John years later, “the house was set in order, everyone’s work appointed them (sic), and a charge given that none except the child involved should come into the room from nine till twelve and from two till five.” These were the inviolate school hours.

Formal learning was to begin the day after each child’s fifth birthday. Each was then given one day to learn the alphabet. Susanna reports that two children, Molly and Nancy, took a day and a half before they knew the letters perfectly. In this she implies that they were slow, but she later revised this view when she saw how very slowly in comparison other children outside her family learned the alphabet.

She would have followed her start-at-age-five rule with Kezzy also but she complains in her letter to John that her husband overruled her and insisted Kezzy be started earlier. She reports that Kezzy was “more years learning, than any of the rest had been months.”

As soon as the children had learned the letters, they began in the first chapter of Genesis by spelling and reading a line, then a verse, then two verses, and so on. They never left a lesson until they could do it perfectly. Susanna writes: “…it is almost incredible, what a child may be taught in a quarter of a year, by a vigorous application, if (the child) have but a tolerable capacity, and good health.”

This kind of regimentation might make a modern educator groan in protest. And Susanna Wesley’s pedagogy might not work equally with a sampling of 20 or so children today. After all, the Wesley children were extraordinarily bright. As well, it is worth noting that she was teaching them to read one at a time, not as a group as we tend to do in today’s classrooms. In any event, in an age when illiteracy was high among men, and even higher among women, and close to universal in Epworth, Susanna’s method is validated by the fact that her little flock all learned to read well and this gift was given them for a lifetime of usefulness and pleasure.

If this little slice-of-life makes Susanna Wesley seem like a severe parent and a Marine sergeant all rolled into one person, consider one other aspect of her pedagogy. She wrote to her husband, Samuel, during one of his long absences in London, giving the following glimpse into her mentoring practices.

“I take such a proportion of time as I can best spare every night to discuss with each child, by itself, on something that relates to its principal concerns. On Monday I talk with Molly; on Tuesday with Hetty; Wednesday with Nancy; Thursday with Jackie (John); Friday with Patty; Saturday with Charles; and with Emily and Sukey on Sunday.”

Think of the emotional or intellectual enrichment that could be added to many an emotionally impoverished or neglected child today by a one hour face-to-face with a parent genuinely interested in sharing the child’s agenda for that hour. It would be far more enriching than the time so commonly devoted these days to cell phones, the internet, and television.

Who today can deny the wisdom of a Christian mother who, on the one hand, insists that her children master the objective symbols of learning like words and numbers and facts while, on the other hand, encouraging the exploration of personal experiences during visits between parent and child when the child sets the subject agenda?

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