09 January 2016

Thoughts on Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West

When two young Society women in 1916 find themselves bored with daily life in New York, they head west to Colorado to become school teachers. While they both have degrees from Smith College, neither woman has any teacher training, but they commit to learning and giving back to society. In preparation for their arrival, Ferry Carpenter, the lawyer and rancher who hires the women, suggests they read John Dewey's Schools of To-morrow. Citing Dewey, Carpenter emphasizes in letters to the women the importance of "learning by doing, rather than by rote teaching and the rod."

Dorothy Wikenden's book Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the
My husband gave me this book for my
birthday when we were vacationing in
Colorado this past summer
immediately hooks curious readers with the telling of the story of her grandmother and her grandmother's best friend, two Society women desiring adventure and exploration. Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood (Ros) write letters to their families back in New York during the year they spend in Routt County Colorado. Wickenden finds the letters and creates a nonlinear narrative where we learn about education and life in Elkhead from 1916-1917.

You will like this book if you are interested in rural education or the ideas of John Dewey. Personally, the book fits perfectly with many of my interests about education, history, women's rights, and Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Wickendon, captures all of this in her informational and historical telling of the year Elkhead opens its school. Upon seeing the Elkhead school high on a mountain Rosamond exclaims "it is the Parthenon of Elkhead!"

Indeed the school serves as a prominent landmark where students learn and the community gathers. Dorothy and Rosamond ride horseback several miles to reach the school each morning, and the students, wearing thin and tattered clothing, walk or ski to school each day even in winter blizzards (imagine walking 3 miles in thigh high snow drifts and you get the picture).  Wickenden writes
"the teachers found their work strenuous but rewarding: preparing for classes, attending to the children's diverse academic needs, and seeing that everyone was paying attention and behaving (117)." 
For Dorothy, her favorite time of the day is storytelling. In her original letters she shares how the students would "make a mad scramble to pick up all the loose papers, put their desks in order--and then fold their hands and sit at attention!" when it's time for her to tell them stories.

A short time after the women arrive in Elkhead, they must travel to Steamboat Springs for the state teacher examinations. "...the nervous strain of the exams was awful for everyone makes so much of them here and you realize you are a public official...They weren't as bad as they might have been, by any means, but so silly, and taking ten [actually, twelve] exams in two days is not a pleasure trip!"

Wickenden shares more details about the content of the exams (fascinating for readers who are interested in education). She also tells about how Dorothy and Ros meet the school superintendent, Emma Peck, and provides more historical details about Peck--her professional contributions and the geographical landscape in Northwestern Colorado.

The teachers take exams to demonstrate requisite knowledge for teaching in Colorado schools. We read about the teachers creating lessons involving languages, performances, practical living skills, arts, math and current events. Even without teaching experience, the teachers' passion and zeal appeal to the community.
"They weren't yet fully aware of the awe with which college-educated teachers in such far-flung areas were regarded. They spoke perfect English and other languages, too. They valued education for its own sake, not simply as a way to escape the hardships of life at home. Most astonishingly, these two young women from New York seemed genuinely excited by the opportunity of teaching the children (213)."

If you decide to read the book, it's a great glimpse into the lives of school teachers in the early 20th century and it's also so much more. You'll learn about homesteading, mining, westward expansion, and life in Northwestern Colorado. If you teach writing, you'll appreciate the nonfiction narrative as another example of how informational text and narrative work well together. Read Wickenden's original article in The New Yorker or purchase the book published by Scribner.

"If we teach today's children as we taught yesterday's, we rob them of tomorrow."
~John Dewey