Monday, April 6, 2009

Understanding Betsy

Levi and I recently finished reading Understood Betsy, a favorite from my own childhood. I enjoyed it as much, or more, as an adult. That is what I consider a quality of great children's literature!

Understood Betsy was published in 1917, making it more likely (in my opinion, of course) to contain other elements on my personal 'indentifying great children's literature list.' I know I've mentioned these numerous times before: independence, resourcefulness, respect for others, healthy work ethic, strong family relationships, appreciation for the simple things in life and a general thankfulness for the basic necessities of life.

Understood Betsy incorporates all the above, but it also focuses on education by contrasting two very different methods and environments. The author did have specific views on the subject. From the back cover of the book:

'Named by Eleanor Roosevelt as one of America's ten most influential women, Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1879-1958) brought the Montessori Method of child rearing to America...'

I'll offer a quote to whet your appetite:

pg. 64

'What's the matter?' asked the teacher, seeing her bewildered face.

'Why--why,' said Elizabeth Ann, 'I don't know what I am at all. If I'm second-grade arithmetic and seventh-grade reading and third-grade spelling, what grade am I?'

The teacher laughed. 'You aren't any grade at all, no matter where you are in school. You're just yourself, aren't you? What difference does it make what grade you're in? And what's the use of your reading little baby things too easy for you just because you don't know your multiplication table?'

'Well, for goodness' sakes!' ejaculated Elizabeth Ann, feeling very much as though somebody had stood her suddenly on her head.

'What's the matter?' asked the teacher again.

This time Elizabeth Ann didn't answer, because she herself didn't know what the matter was. But I do, and I'll tell you. The matter was that never before had she known what she was doing in school. She had always thought she was there to pass from one grade to another, and she was ever so startled to get a glimpse of the fact that she was there to learn how to read and write and cipher and generally use her mind, so she could take care of herself when she came to be grown up, but in that moment, she had her first dim notion of it, and it made her feel the way you do when you're learning to skate and somebody pulls away the chair you've been leaning on and says, 'Now, go it alone!'
Reading this book made me interested in adding a few Montessori method books to my reading stack. Hopefully I'll be able to review these in the coming months:

Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius

Any other book recommendations on the Montessori educational method?


Sarah at SmallWorld said...

You know what's so fabulous? I reviewed this a couple of years ago and pulled out the same quote!! LOVE IT! Great minds, eh?

Tammy ~ Country Girl at Home ~ said...


I don't have any Montessori books to recommend, but I just had to tell you how much we loved "Understanding Besty" too! I remember the passage you quoted really stuck out in my mind too!

Have a great evening,

Sylvia said...


I'm reading your blog for a few days and I love it!!

I am a homeschool mom from Spain so excuse my english...

For Montessori books you can read "Basic Montessori" by david Gettman, is like a guide of activities by stage.


Expat Mom said...

Wow, that brought back memories. I read that book when I was quite young, myself. Wasn`t there a sequel, as well? I loved the butter churning part . . . it made me want to make butter so badly that my mom finally put some cream in a jar and let me do it!

A said...

Have you heard of Barbara Curtis of She is a busy mother of 12, a Montesorri teacher , author and very gracious human. She has lots of info at her website and has written several books.

our little acorns said...

Hi Heidi,
I haven't been by your site for a while so I was excited to see these listings when I popped in! We are using a lot of Montessori here at our house too; in fact I think we've finally settled into a good mix of Sonlight, Montessori, and Well-Trained Mind. And we're loving it! Re: the Hainstock book--there is one for the school years, too, which you've maybe seen, but which I would recommend...and the Gettman book listed above is one of my favorites. I also use for most of my ideas for daily "table time" activities. Happy reading!

Unknown said...

I LOVE that part of Understood Betsy. We read (and love) so many of the same books, OH how I wish you were my neighbour!!!!! I just know our kids would have kaboodles of fun together and you and I would just... oh joy... we'd just experience all types of LOVELY together.

The Nester said...

I hate to admit that I've never read Understood Betsy.

I'm so getting that one! We are looking into Montessori right now too!

Cathy said...

We absolutely loved that book too. My kids were sad that there wasn't an Understood Betsy 2.


Diana (Ladybug Limited) said...

OK, I know you wrote this post almost 2 months ago, but I marked it in my reader and just finally read Understood Betsy-- it had been on my shelf for awhile after my mom gave me all her books from her classroom. I just had to come back to this post and say thanks because Betsy is a gem!

Have you read Ida B? I think you would love her, too.