Saturday, September 20, 2014

Birth of Rebecca Smith Pollard, Education pioneer – Sept. 20, 1831

The name “Rebecca Smith Pollard” rings no bells in my beady little brain, and neither does her pseudonym, “Kate Harrington.” But the blog post in “The Writer’s Almanac” for September 20, 2011, puts me strongly in mind of my own elementary school education and of my subsequent avocation, living history programming.

Rebecca Smith Pollard  1831-1917
Born Rebecca Harrington Smith in Allegheny City, PA, (now part of the city of Pittsburgh) on September 20, 1831, Pollard grew up in a literary household. Her father, N. R. Smith, was a playwright and taught Shakespeare. She had three older siblings.

She started teaching in Kentucky, an occupation which in the mid-19th Century was usually reserved for men. She taught primarily in private schools for girls. She moved on to teach in Iowa, and spent most of her professional life in several Iowa cities. A little later in life, she taught in Chicago. Her writing career began early, when she contributed to a column in the Louisville [KY] Journal. Rebecca’s “Letters from a Prairie Cottage” included a section for children, with fanciful tales about animals. One such tale was about a cat which adopted orphan chicks. (The strong anti-secession editor of the Louisville Journal was a major influence in keeping Missouri in the Union.)

After moving to Farmington, IA, in her early 20s, she met Oliver I. Taylor, a New York poet and editor of the The Des Moines News, the Burlington Argus, and other Iowa newspapers. They married in 1858, and in addition to her other work, Rebecca worked with her husband on these periodicals. They had one daughter. Tragically, Taylor died of diphtheria less than three years after their marriage.

In 1862, she remarried to James Pollard, an Iowa state senator, politician, and banker, gaining four step-children. Within eight years, she and her second husband added four more children to the family, one of whom died in infancy. This marriage may have been rocky: in 1877, Rebecca is recorded as raising the children alone in Fort Madison, Iowa. James is recorded as having lived until 1902; he died in Missouri.

She wrote several children’s books, and in 1889, she developed and published a reading primer and a speller called Synthetic Methods.  By the turn of the century, her reading program, “The Pollard Series” school texts, with reading books, spellers, and teachers’ manuals, was adopted by every state in the Union.

What made her reading program unique was fueled by her own teaching techniques and the observations she made from the results. Preceding living history programming in today’s schools, Pollard had her students learn American history by reenacting battle scenes with broomsticks. She initiated the study of fractions by using apples. After observing means of learning among children, she initiated a method to teach reading by developing the students’ ability to hear, identify, and manipulate phenomes – the sounds of syllables and words – and correspond them with the spelling patterns (graphemes) of those syllables and words. This work was the forerunner of the modern phonics system of study.

Pollard also wrote poetry and a novel, under the pseudonym Kate Harrington.  Maymie, a book of poetry published in 1869, was a tribute to her daughter who died that year, only ten years old. In 1876, she published a second book of poetry, Centennial, and Other Poems, to commemorate the country’s 100th birthday. The Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia was the first world’s fair held in the United States. Pollard included in this book selected poems written by her father, and illustrations from the Exhibition.

Her novel, Emma Bartlett: or Prejudice and Fanaticism, was a fictional response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which she exposes “the hypocrisy of Know-Nothingism and the dogmatism of Abolitionism.” It was published by “An American Lady” in 1856, copyrighted by “R. H. Smith” (as yet unmarried), and met with mixed reviews, no doubt because of the volatile nature of the subject. Booksellers often marketed these books to be sold as a pair.

In addition to her essays, newspaper articles, novels, poetry, textbooks, and children’s books, Pollard wrote hymns. She used a number of pseudonyms besides “Kate Harrington,” including Ola and Gertrude Atherton.

Pollard died in Fort Madison, IA, on May 17, 1917.

What rings a bell for me after studying this little bit about Rebecca Smith Pollard is that a few poor Catholic nuns taught me, using the phonics method when I was an elementary school student. This system gave me an unshakable foundation in reading and writing, for which I am eternally grateful. I don’t see that in most schools today, and it is a loss to the students.

The Pollard post in "The Writer's Almanac" rings another bell, too, for she pioneered a hands-on approach to learning history, over one hundred years before living historians and re-enactors like me began bringing history into the classroom regularly as part of the modern education system’s cultural enrichment programming.

Building a model Civil War signal tower
Imagine being able to talk to an historical figure, famous or not, to ask him or her about clothing styles and hearth-cooked meals three hundred years ago. Imagine the fun in learning how to measure the school playground with an old-fashioned surveyor’s chain, and calculating the distance using links and rods.

As a living history presenter, there’s nothing like the spark of passion that lights up a child’s eyes when he or she learns history – or any subject - hands-on. We never had anything like this when I was in school. I wish we had.

“The Writer’s Almanac” for September 20, 2011

Biography for Rebecca Smith Pollard, Pennsylvania Center for the Book

“Kate Harrington: An American Lady,” Marie Haefner, The Palimpsest 38 (April 1957), Iowa State Historical Dept., Div. of the State Hist. Soc.

“Kate Harrington (poet),” Wikipedia

“Rebecca Pollard: ‘An American Lady’,” Grace Vyduna-Haskins, History of Reading News, Vol. XXV No. 1, Fall 2001, pp. 6-7.

A Literary History of Iowa, Clarence A. Andrews, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, IA, 1972. Postscript at the end of Chapter 1: “Poet on the Prairie,” p. 5.

“Reminiscences of Henri K. Pratt of Keokuk,” Annals of Iowa: A Historical Quarterly, Vol. 5, Third Series, ed. by Charles Aldrich, Historical Dept. of Iowa, Des Moines, 1901-1903. p. 418.

“Phonics,” Wikipedia

Pollard and spelling book images taken from Wikipedia.

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