Maida's Little School--Unschooling 1910 Style

Maida's Little School was written in 1910 by Inez Haynes Irwin. It was part of a series of books for children about a young girl named Maida, who was the only child of her wealthy, widowed father. While she had everything money could buy, she had always been very ill and her life needed purpose and other children, so her father brought her back to the United States--he had been living in Europe--and bought a little shop she could run. The shop sold candy and small toys, which quickly brought children into Maida's world.

Over the course of the series, more children are added to the story and, although I can't remember how, somehow the children wind up living year round with Maida's father, and the various adults who help care for them. Yes, this requires you to suspend reality, but not much more than it takes to imagine boy wizards, and this was a time when evil wouldn't be assigned to a single man gathering up children to live a life of privilege away from their families. Just pretend it's a boarding school. He had adult women, the mothers of two of the children, I believe, as their caretakers. He himself was seldom even there.

So, we reach Maida's Little School. Maida's father decides that since the children are going to continue staying with him during the school year, instead of just during the summer, they must go to school and so he will build them a school, as he's built everything else they need. Naturally, most of them complain about this. Maida and three of her friends have never been to school--Maida and Dickey due to illness and disability (this was before mainstreaming) and the other two because they were orphaned gypsies. They want to go to school, but their friends assure them it isn't any fun.

Mr. Westabrook tells them all children go to school. They're quick to give Abraham Lincoln as an example, but Maida's father points out that Lincoln spent much of his young adulthood trying to make up for it. The children counter by saying he only had to study what he wanted to study. A few of them have things they want to learn, which their friends offer to teach them.

Mr. Westabrook wonders why children always hate school, so he asks the children to tell him what kind of school would make them happy. Rosie says, "If you could go to school without knowing you were going to school--there might be some fun in it."

Mr. Westabrook says that would be impossible, but Billy, an adult who works for Mr. Westabrook, is quiet and thoughtful. The next day the children explain their fantasy school, which includes being outdoors as much as possible, being allowed to walk around and talk whenever they want, having comfortable swivel chairs and nice desks, typewriters, tremendous closets full of nice supplies, a map room, and...that it be held in a zoo! Billy tells them their school, given the zoo, would cost millions and that building it will take quite some time, which doesn't bother the experienced school goers at all.

They aren't bored while they wait for their school to be built. First, a French man comes to stay. He doesn't speak English and the children are told he is there to work, but that they must make sure he doesn't get lonely. They like him, so they begin learning French so they can speak with him, eventually making a rule that only French can be spoken at the dinner table. They are increasingly motivated as the adults in the house hold fascinating conversations with their guest in French. This guest also plays the piano and sings, and they all learn a bit, although only a few go on to work seriously. The others practice when and if they feel like it.

Are you suspicious yet?

Soon another guest arrives to join the large household. This is a young woman who writes children's books that take place in various countries. The children decide to prepare for her visit by reading some of her books. They're taken by this young woman, nicknamed Bunny, and pepper her with questions about being an author. After a while, they find themselves deciding to write a book together, and Bunny, who has been gently leading them in exactly that direction, although they didn't know it, offers to help. When they find it hard to make their chapters long enough, she teaches them about some of the finer points of writing, which leads to reading to them from good literature, and since she only reads portions, they often find themselves finishing the books on their own. No one reads all of them, but they all pick up those that interest them. She tells them about far-away places, since that's the focus of her books.

The final visitor is a man they soon nickname Robin Hood. He loves to take long walks, which the children are welcome to join. Along the way, he shares his interest in nature, geography, and history, all in the form of stories.

Mr. Westabrook gives them a gym for Christmas, where they soon learn gymnastics.

Eventually, of course, they figure it out.

"Oh, how I dread having the Little School built," Laura said, "Because we'll have to study then."

"But we're studying now," Arthur insisted."

"Well, of course it is studying," Laura agreed, "But it isn't exactly what I call studying....The difference is... that I enjoy this studying, but I wouldn't enjoy that studying."

"Yes," Dicky agreed, "in a way we've been going to school."...

"O, of course," Laura said, "if you call learning things going to school, we've been going to school."

The books are now out of print, but are available inexpensively from various online sources. The first book in the series, Maida's Little Shop, is available online free, if you'd like to get a feel for the series.

Although most of us can't bring in undercover teachers, the book demonstrates very well the techniques of unschooling--how to motivate children to learn, how to let them follow their own interests, and how to make learning so interesting it doesn't seem like school. It can be a fun book to read with your unschooled children, who will get the joke much faster than Maida and her friends did.

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