Susanna Wesley home-schooled the surviving ten of her nineteen children, teaching them to read. The famed John and Charles Wesley, leaders of the Methodist movement of the eighteenth century, were among them. How did she go about this daunting task?
She had the background to be their teacher. She was the youngest of the learned Puritan minister Samuel Annesley’s twenty-five children. Before she was out of her teens she knew Greek, Latin, and French and was proficient in theology and philosophy.
She married Anglican clergyman Samuel Wesley when she was twenty and he twenty-seven. 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 serious business.
The day before a child’s education was to begin, as Susanna described it to her son John years later, the house was set in order, his or her work appointed to them, 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 began the day after each child’s fifth birthday. Each was then given one day to learn the alphabet. Susanna reported that two children, Molly and Nancy, took a day and a half before they knew the letters perfectly. In this she implied that they were slow, but she later revised this view when she saw how slowly children outside her family accomplished the same task.
She would have followed her start-at-age-five rule with Kezzy also, but she complained in her letter to John that her husband overruled her and insisted she be started earlier. She reported that Kezzy was more years learning than any of the rest had been months.
As soon as the children had learned the alphabet, 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. As Susanna wrote: “It is almost incredible, what a child may be taught in a quarter of a year, by a vigorous application, if [the child has] 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 well with a random sample of twenty 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 in a group as we tend to do in today’s classrooms.
In any event, at that time illiteracy was high among men and even higher among women — and close to universal in their village of 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 slice-of-life makes Susanna Wesley seem like a severe parent, consider one other aspect of her pedagogy. In a letter to her husband, Samuel, during one of his long absences in London, she gave this 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 by children and parents these days to the Internet and television.
Who can deny the wisdom of a Christian mother who insisted that her children master the objective tools of learning like words and numbers and facts and who also encouraged them to explore personal experiences of their choice during a dedicated time for each child?
Photo credit: Shawn Campbell (via flickr.com)