A favorite teacher's old lessons bear repeating


EARLIER THIS WEEK I spent a revelatory day at the City Springs Elementary School, just a few blocks east of the new children's center at Port Discovery and the old Lombard Street market block famous for corned beef sandwiches and kosher pickles.

At the school, which serves children from nearby housing projects, I talked at length with Bernice Whelchel, the City Springs principal. She explained how she has a curriculum that stresses constant repetition of daily lessons so that pupils can't feel as if they are falling backward. Given time, most every young scholar would master the basics of reading and arithmetic.

This is not a fancy educational philosophy. Repeat a concept enough and it will catch on. It's not high on individual creativity, but it's the same one that allows me to balance a checkbook and know how to write the year 1999 in Roman numerals.

As I sat in her office off Caroline Street, my thoughts turned to one of my favorite teachers, a teacher who believed that young minds learned well when they heard the same thing repeated over and over.

Placide Stack Morris was from an old Bolton Street family. It would be my guess she attended Corpus Christi parochial school, where I know many of her people worshiped and those blessed with good voices sang in its choir. In 1955, when I first caught sight of this teacher, she was living on Beech Avenue in the Wyman Park neighborhood.

She was one of the few lay teachers at the old Baltimore Academy of the Visitation, where I spent the first nine of my blackboard years. Placide Morris taught me arithmetic in the first and fifth grades.

A model of rectitude, she dressed in a formal, matronly manner in clothes that were not the latest style. She often wore a circle pin at her neck. Its frame held an Edwardian-style baby photo of herself surrounded by her older siblings. I now realize she was only about 20 years older than my mother; at the time, I imagined that she'd walked the streets of Baltimore when Lincoln was in the White House.

A slender teacher's workbook, bound in buckram and neatly written in her hand, contained the daily lesson agenda, a routine that never differed. Students who arrived early -- and whose handwriting was clear -- copied out those 20 problems on the blackboard. Over the years, I recall a Roman numeral question. A write-in-words question. Fractions. Long division. Formulas. Neatness and penmanship counted -- not in your grade, but in whether the paper could be put on the bulletin board.

I must say that not all her students bought her approach. I have an old friend who found this teacher's strict manner terrifying because she was volubly tough on cheats and misbehaving students. Indeed, she was a stickler for deportment, order and purpose.

Her daily written exercises contained mountains of repeated material. It was possible to make careless mistakes, which cost you a sharp red X and a loss of five points per foul-up. These mistakes of computation were easy to do. What was more difficult, under this system of repetition, was to escape learning the basic concepts.

Only two questions a day were based upon new material. As she graded the daily exercise, she kept an eye on how you were doing on the new work. Once you'd mastered it, it went into the hopper along with everything else that was repeated over and over again so that -- in time -- even the thorniest long division thicket became a familiar, well-traveled path.

Along the way, Placide Morris gave her students a sense of worth. Yes, she was a tough teacher. But her unbending daily exercise routine -- initially a tough assignment, but palatable by November -- was a valuable crutch to learning: You learned, you mastered, you thought well of yourself for it.

Pub Date: 1/23/99

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