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Understood Betsy, the Habit of Attention & Narration

If you haven’t read Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, then you might want to add this one to your list. Nine-year-old Elizabeth Ann, an orphan, lives a very sheltered life in a small city with Great-Aunt Harriet and Aunt Frances –until Aunt Harriet becomes ill, making this arrangement impossible. She then goes to live with relatives on Putney Farm, where she is then expected to help on the farm and become more independent. She gains confidence as she learns new skills such as making butter, washing dishes, taking care of animals and helping younger children. Here is where she becomes Betsy and here is where she comes to know herself. When Aunt Frances comes to take her home, Betsy must show her that Putney Farm is the best place for her to be. This lovely story is about a little girl’s search for being understood, but what she doesn’t realize is that having others tell you who you are is not the same as knowing who you are for yourself. By finding value in what she can do and in helping others, she uncovers her own identity and realizes that she is much stronger than she thought she was.

Although Dorothy Canfield Fisher was very knowledgeable about Maria Montessori and her educational philosophy, and this book weaves some of these ideas into the story, there are some ideas which align with Charlotte Mason and her educational philosophy. One particular scene captures the ideas behind the habit of attention and narration.

Enclosed below is this scene:

Elizabeth Ann had been wondering and wondering where in the world Aunt Abigail was. So she stepped quickly to the door, and went dawn the cold dark stairs she found there. At the bottom was a door, locked apparently, for she could find no fastening. She heard steps inside, the door was briskly cast open, and she almost fell into the arms of Aunt Abigail, who caught her as she stumbled forward, saying: “Well, I’ve been expectin’ you down here for a long time. I never saw a little girl yet who didn’t like to watch butter-making. Don’t you love to run the butter-worker over it? I do, myself, for all I’m seventy-two!”

“I don’t know anything about it,” said Elizabeth Ann. “I don’t know what you make butter out of. We always bought ours.”

“Well, for goodness’ sakes!” said Aunt Abigail. She turned and called across the room,

“Henry, did you ever! Here’s Betsy saying she don’t know what we make butter out of! She actually never saw anybody making butter!”

Uncle Henry was sitting down, near the window, turning the handle to a small barrel swung between two uprights. He stopped for a moment and considered Aunt Abigail’s remark with the same serious attention he had given to Elizabeth Ann’s discovery about left and right. Then he began to turn the churn over and over again and said, peaceably: “Well, Mother, you never saw anybody laying asphalt pavement, I’ll warrant you! And I suppose Betsy knows all about that.”

Elizabeth Ann’s spirits rose. She felt very superior indeed. “Oh, yes,” she assured them, “I know all about that! Didn’t you ever see anybody doing that? Why, I’ve seen them hundreds of times! Every day as we went to school they were doing over the whole pavement for blocks along there.”

Aunt Abigail and Uncle Henry looked at her with interest, and Aunt Abigail said: “Well, now, think of that! Tell us all about it!”

“Why, there’s a big black sort of wagon,” began Elizabeth Ann, “and they run it up and down and pour out the black stuff on the road. And that’s all there is to it.” She stopped, rather abruptly, looking uneasy. Uncle Henry inquired: “Now there’s one thing I’ve always wanted to know. How do they keep that stuff from hardening on them? How do they keep it hot?”

The little girl looked blank. “Why, a fire, I suppose,” she faltered, searching her memory desperately and finding there only a dim recollection of a red glow somewhere connected with the familiar scene at which she had so often looked with unseeing eyes.

“Of course a fire,” agreed Uncle Henry. “But what do they burn in it, coke or coal or wood or charcoal? And how do they get any draft to keep it going?”

Elizabeth Ann shook her head. “I never noticed,” she said.

Aunt Abigail asked her now, “What do they do to the road before they pour it on?”

“Do?” said Elizabeth Ann. “I didn’t know they did anything.”

“Well, they can’t pour it right on a dirt road, can they?” asked Aunt Abigail. “Don’t they put down cracked stone or something?”

Elizabeth Ann looked down at her toes. “I never noticed,” she said.

“I wonder how long it takes for it to harden?” said Uncle Henry.

“I never noticed,” said Elizabeth Ann, in a small voice.

Uncle Henry said, “Oh!” and stopped asking questions. Aunt Abigail turned away and put a stick of wood in the stove. Elizabeth Ann did not feel very superior now, and when Aunt Abigail said, “Now the butter’s beginning to come. Don’t you want to watch and see everything I do, so’s you can answer if anybody asks you how butter is made?” Elizabeth Ann understood perfectly what was in Aunt’s Abigail’s mind, and gave to the process of butter-making a more alert and aroused attention than she had ever before given to anything. It was so interesting, too, that in no time she forgot why she was watching, and was absorbed in the fascinations of the dairy for their own sake.

Betsy gave a verbal account of how asphalt pavement is laid, which is a form of narration. Did you notice how Uncle Henry and Aunt Abigail were very interested in what Betsy had to say? They showed this by listening carefully and asking questions. But, Betsy soon realizes that because she never really paid close attention to how this was done, she could not accurately describe the process. Aunt Abigail offers her another opportunity by encouraging her to watch –more carefully– how butter is made. These are Charlotte Mason ideas at work –particularly with the habit of attention and narration.

So why is there so much fuss over the habit of attention? Because paying attention allows children to take notice. And we don’t just want some general sort of notice –such as the way that Betsy originally noticed how asphalt pavement was laid. We want children to really see –to gather in the details and to know the sequence of the order. Close observation in nature and in life also inspires children to find wonder in the world. Watching a flower grow, a caterpillar turn into a butterfly and the changes in a tree as the seasons pass are just some of these wonders. Noticing how something starts as one thing and becomes another teaches children about life processes, transformations and in how to make life work for you. Learning how milk can be changed into butter, apples can be changed into applesauce and how asphalt pavement is laid are some of these processes. Meals are so much more delicious with butter and applesauce and cities are so much more convenient with asphalt pavement. Adding these things to our lives make them fuller, but we have to know how to follow that process in order to create it. Knowing when to pay attention and how best to do it takes practice. Sharing with others how something can be created or made inspires this practice. Children want to share this information accurately, so paying attention is in their best interest.

Narrations give children a chance to share what they know based on their observations –in the selection from Understood Betsy, it is oral. But, these types of narrations are skill-builders and are especially helpful later when children begin giving narrations in writing. Without the habit of attention, children cannot give accurate narrations. Describing a process is an important form of communication –one which requires accuracy. Butter cannot be successfully made if the details of how to make it and in what order the steps are to be followed are not known. As children grow older they will need these skills, particularly in science, but also in all they encounter in daily life.

Understood Betsy illustrates with this scene how much children really want to understand their world and implicitly understand the value of this. Betsy learns a valuable lesson from her aunt and uncle –you will better understand how your world works when you pay attention to it. And you will better communicate your understanding of it if you’ve actually given it your close attention.


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