Within my collection of old school textbooks is a teachers edition of a book that introduced first grade students to the world of Dick, Jane, and Sally.
This family would be familiar to the baby boomer generation, which began school in the 1950s when 80 percent of the students in first grade had the Scott-Foresman basal readers as their introduction to the world of literacy.
Dick, Jane, Sally and their mother and father lived in the suburbs along with a dog named Spot and a cat named Fluff. They were always clean and dressed in the fashion of the time: Jane and Sally in cute dresses and Dick in short pants. Mother was a stay-at-home housewife who was always well-dressed. Father wore a suit to work and took off only his suit coat when he came home.
Although the reading series was enormously popular, the suburban world of Dick and Jane was not representative of the lives of most of the children in first grade in 1950. Theirs was a suburban home with its green lawns and safe streets. But many school districts south of the Mason-Dixon Line were still segregated by race, while many of the large urban school districts in the North were segregated by income.
Rural children also would have had difficulty relating their school experiences with Dick and Jane. In 1950, before new consolidated schools were constructed, most of the schools in the rural townships were small one or two room schools with one teacher teaching several grade levels in the classroom.
Although the kind of suburban life that was atypical when the Scott-Foresman texts were popular, a new kind of suburb was under construction in Nassau County, New York. By 1950 a housing developer named Abraham Levitt was creating the mass-produced suburb which was the original Levittown. Later in the 1950s Levittown in Lower Bucks County was becoming as reality.
The pedagogical theory of the Scott-Foresman textbooks was the whole word (or look-say) technique which relied upon repetition of a controlled vocabulary. By the 1960s the whole word technique was challenged by advocates of a phonic approach. Then the Scott-Foresman texts went out of general usage.
But the memories of Dick and Jane were revived by two motion pictures in which the leading adult characters shared the first names of Dick and Jane. “Fun with Dick and Jane,” starring George Segal as Dick and Jane Fonda as Jane, was produced in 1977. A remake with Té’a Leoni as Jane and Jim Carrey as Dick was made in 2005. Both were comedies about middle class adults who turned to a life of crime.
My teachers edition includes the actual text and illustrations of the book that the students used along with lesson plans for the use of the teacher. It was intended for use at the end of the first grade when the students were expected to have mastered the vocabulary. Each lesson was independent of the other.
Here is a brief summary of one story: Sally wanders off with her cat Fluff,and gets lost. Big Bill, a policeman, finds her and tries to help her find the way home. Sally is no help as she does not remember her last name. But Fluff leads Sally and Big Bill to her home.
The method of repeating vocabulary was so common to teachers that it could be a source of humor. I attended the Reading Conference held at Lehigh University in the early 1960s. Most of the people in the audience were female teachers or reading specialists The education editor of the New York Times, Fred Hechinger, told the following story in the Dick and Jane style.
“A first-grade teacher bought a new car. When she parked it in a parking lot another car backed into it and smashed the front of the car. When the teacher found the wrecked car she exclaimed: ‘Oh!, Oh!, Oh!; Look!, Look!, Look!; Damn!, Damn!, Damn!’” The audience of teachers roared.
Robert L. Leight is an educator and a longtime resident of Upper Bucks.