L E T T E R S   F R O M   J O A N


Joan Larimore, circa 1958

Lisa, a 2nd grader, leads two Ks in their YAK Phonics lesson. A visiting 4-year-old listens intently.

(Side bar: Her sister, one of the two in the photo, taught her to read at home using her YAK worksheets!)



Re: the pictures

Looking at the few photos I selected, you can see what a variety of learning experiences went on at any given time.

is absolutely the only way a teacher can expose the children to so much in such a short year.

It creates an atmosphere where individuals or small groups can work on areas of interest and ultimately, the human entity being a curious creature, every child knew what every other child was doing!

So there were always children learning a special thing in depth and others, with less interest in that area(s), gained a nodding acquaintance with many fields of study. So much for the hefty tomes of curriculum at each grade level which dictates what a child can learn and what is “forbidden” until next year!

Joan Larimore


       Joan Larimore
is an educator who, in the 26th year of her thirty-year teaching career, began using the Mutual Instruction, "family-style" methodology. This was in the late 1970s in the Culver City, California public school system.

     In 2010, having just read The Plainston Chronicles, Joan wrote a series of letters to the author, Dr. E.M. "Mac" Swengel, which in themselves are an amazing testimony to the workability of this classroom approach, not to mention a glimpse into the heart and soul of this extraordinary teacher.


June 6, 2010

Dear Mac,

MI [Mutual Instruction] will be of increasing importance as the economy strips education of even more funding. Not that most of the crap that has been funded is any good! So much for No Child Left Behind! My contention, for many, many years, has been that throwing money at our school problems is not the answer. And what is the answer? Throw that money at excellence in teacher training. As always, the key is the teacher and the use she/he makes of the intelligence of children. Therein lies the key; trust more in children and their innate ability to discover the “right” way despite the stumbling stones we adults drop in their paths.

The year that I truly put MI into practice was Marlene’s last year at Washington School when we no longer had classroom aides. I had 36 K-1-2- babies, limited supplies, and limited teacher time. Out of sheer desperation it was necessary to turn much of the classroom activity over to the children. And who could, with minimal training, run the class better? Those children, of course! Regardless, I got what I wanted and needed; time to work with individuals! And naturally, just as in Plainston’s one-room schoolhouse, discipline problems dissolved, children exceeded expectation, and as a teacher, I felt I was finally doing what I was born to.

The first time I truly felt I was accomplishing my set goals was when the children, after six weeks of YAK Phonics, began to scoff at the preprimary and primer reading books of the state adopted series. Comments? “That’s baby!” Believe it or not, the school librarian almost denied me the more advanced books I wanted to check out for the class! Thank God for Marlene who told her I was to have whatever I felt appropriate for the group. These were the children who delighted in learning to speak, read, and spell five and six syllable words which they had learned from the many charts we made of our discussions. Oh, how children love BIG words! When I finally sent two K babies to the library to read third grade books to the librarian, she was a convert! Was it a rigged situation? Hardly, as she picked the books!

My sense of MI, or whatever a person chooses to call it, is only truly appreciated once a teacher has experienced it with a classroom full of learners and developed it WITH the children as opposed to individually imposing it upon them. Educators can read about this miracle and nod and say, “Sure! Sounds great, but it won’t work for most teachers.” But the key is that it will work for anyone to whatever degree the teacher is willing to give up her/his solo spot in front of the class! What I find amusing is that once you give up that traditional role, you find yourself, as the teacher, far more in charge than you ever dreamed possible! Well, right from the start, I was a “good” teacher; why did it take me so long to discover that I really could be an “excellent” educator? A true educator! A person who guided children into positive learning patterns. Perhaps, Mac, that is what most of us, as teachers, never discovered. You don’t really teach anyone anything! You simply guide them to discovery on their own! What a concept! And isn’t that the key to everything? We can internalize what we learn on our own while we ignore, cast aside, or scorn most of what we are “taught.” Perhaps one of the important keys to “teacher training” is to toss out the current vocabulary and begin speaking in true “educational” language. As long as we cling to the word “teacher,” we will restrict our thinking!

Plainston’s Grace is so correct when she has doubts about MI. How many people are willing to give up “classroom control”? Dear God, there are actually university courses in classroom control! Do you think there is any hope of the current economy forcing us back into the one-room schoolhouse?

What a pleasure, Mac, to be able to get on my soapbox with you and say what I actually feel about education. To have another person who truly understands is such a relief. Boy, am I weary of the glassy-eyed stares of teachers who haven’t the foggiest notion of what I’m speaking about!!

So there you go, Mac. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and hopefully we’ll both live to see it. Otherwise, I’ll be forced to “return” for another lifetime of education. Do you think I’ll be any smarter next time around?


Joan Larimore Letters:

June 6, 2010  /  July 25, 2010  /  August 3, 2010  /  August 7, 2010



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