George Washington’s cherry tree never goes out of style

The stories we tell — or fail to tell — our children say a lot about who we think we are

A plate from Cobb’s New Spelling Book (1842).

Curriculum is a story we write, out of all the possible stories, to teach our children of our world and our place in it. That’s why curriculum is such a contested thing and the debates around the Common Core or evolution or who Bill Martin is (the author of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, not the philosopher) are so heated: people care a lot about the type of story we teach our children about ourselves as a world, a nation, a people. And people should care! These discussions are often hard, heated, and yet have the potential to be moments for growth and change. We — as a nation, as individuals, as families, as cities — should think about and discuss the stories we tell and consider the stories we aren’t telling, especially because schools can’t ‘cover’ everything in the limited time they have (especially when so much time is spent on testing).

What does all this have to do with George Washington chopping down a cherry tree? Because how (and if) we tell Washington’s story is an indication of what we — which is a naturally limited and contested ‘we’ at any given historical moment — think about ourselves in that historical moment. I’m currently editing a manuscript about my research on the early dissemination of Washington’s story, so I thought I’d share some of my explorations here.

The manuscript began as project for class called The History of American Reading Instruction. For the final class project, I ended up looking for every instance of the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree that I could find. And between the UT Library’s extensive collection and Google Books, I found a lot. I also found, as I read these stories, that they reflected exactly those cultural and societal shifts that Nila Banton Smith had outlined in the text on the history of reading instruction, appropriately titled, American Reading Instruction. The stories moved from Nationalistic/Moralistic, toward Intelligent Citizenship, through Cultural Asset to Scientific Investigation (see below for a more detailed chart).

A brief overview

A page from Eggleston’s Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans.

The theme of Washington’s story began with the mythmaking (literally) of Washington, with a particular focus on his honesty and the value of truth during the Nationalistic/Moralistic phase that lasted from the founding of the country though approximately 1840. It began with a plagiarized version of the story in Easy Lessons in Reading from 1829. During the Intelligent Citizenship phase (1840–1880), widespread knowledge of the story seemed the focus as it was in five different texts in versions only slightly altered from the original. The story was also highly covered in professional texts of the time — conference proceedings, journals, and speeches — as a good example of how to teach children morals. In moving into the Cultural Asset period (1880–1910), the story becomes even more widespread, in both readers and professional texts. During this time, one of relative stability in the US, many readers became more child-friendly and often included simply stated morals at the ends of the stories. Interestingly, during this time, the stories also became more varied. Whether it was making an analogy between the cherry tree and the British or questioning Washington’s decision to chop down the tree in the first place, the stories positioned Washington as less of a heroic figure and more as a boy who made a not great decision. By the era of Scientific Investigation (1910–1925), the truth of the story became more important than the truth that Washington told. The Field First Reader (1921) is the last instance I found of the story, and, of course, it’s one that isn’t available digitally. In this reader, Washington’s birthday is being celebrated in school so, the story goes, Ned’s mother tells him the story of the cherry tree. She ends the story, notably, with the following lines: “Yes, but I don’t know/that the story is true./It is a very old story./Some say that it is not true” (35). So with this little phrase, old George and his tree recede into the quiet place of untold stories.

But George and his tree are back (though whether he ever left (pdf) is up for discussion) through various curricula like a Core Knowledge Foundation (founded by ED Hirsch of Cultural Literacy fame) unit plan (pdf) and a curriculum book from EngageNY, the state Department of Education’s curriculum arm. Both of these, and the many others you can find with a quick Google search, use the story to teach the concept of legend, which is Standard 10 from the CCSS. I will admit to finding it interesting that, given the breadth of legends out there, that George is popping up again. Perhaps, in this time of great change and turmoil, much like the early part of our country, we are seeking comfort — or conformity — in a national myth?

The stories we choose to teach our children matter, and always have. And when we choose to include a legend about George Washington, we’re leaving out a whole bunch of stuff. Given the precious little time there is during a school day/year, I’d much rather students spend time on almost anything else about Washington (except the wooden teeth thing). Or, *gasp* maybe mention Martha? About legends: if I had to pick, and was thinking about student engagement, trickster tales would be far more interesting, whether it’s Brer Rabbit or Coyote or Raven. Is this a political choice on my part? Yep It’s a choice that gives students — even kindergartners — a lot more credit for being able engage with history, story, and culture than just asking them to color and cut out a picture of Washington (which is what the Core Knowledge plan above calls for). And it’s a choice that challenges us to greatly expand the stories we tell to actually reflect the beautiful diversity of our nation. So whether it’s And Tango Makes Three, The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian, or #BlackLivesMatter, the stories included and excluded in curriculum tell us something about ourselves. We’re leaving out far too many stories and I nominate leaving George and his cherry tree to the quiet of untold stories.

(If you want a deeper dive into the scholarly stuff of what I did, keep reading, but I’ve made my big points.)

Geeking out on Methods and Theoretical Framework

To geek out a bit on methods : I basically did searches in Google Books of <Washington “cherry tree”> or some combination of Washington, cherry, and hatchet. Hatchet seemed to be a key word to get the algorithm to return what I wanted. And then I read everything that was returned. Anything that a child was likely to read, I saved in the now defunct Google Notebook. If the UT Libraries also had a copy of the book, I got it and read the original. As an aside, taking home the old books (and they let me take them home!!!) was wicked fun. I was unwrapping books from tissue paper, opening archival storage boxes, washing my hands like a fiend, and being very, very careful. So cool. As I collected these stories, I read and reread them through the lens of Smith’s periods and found clear connections and times of transition. I also looped back through my searches using the book titles and found references to them in professional texts like conference proceedings and speeches. This layer of professional documents helped to track the “stickiness” that the stories held for actual teachers working in classrooms.

Data from Smith (2002).

What follows from here is a bit of a meandering look through my theoretical framework: Smith’s first four periods are outlined above with the names she choose and quotes for descriptions. She acknowledges that these are her own categories and that the beginning/ending points are, to a point, arbitrary. Though I find it useful to use such a priori categories (Eisenhardt’s chapter) when doing research. I’m all for grounded theory where appropriate and necessary, but if someone already went to the trouble of laying the foundation, build on it, don’t start another house! Back to Smith: She continued defining instruction through the Cold War, but for all my searching, I couldn’t find any cherry tree stories after about 1921. The last one was from the Field First Reader, Book 1, which is without a Google Books link (of course). Though the likelihood is that many of these reader series — McGuffy being the most famous — continued to be in use long after they were published, which attests to the blending at the margins of these periods. Btw, if you remember a school textbook (reader, basal reader, etc.) that includes a cherry tree story, and remember enough for me to track it down, please share in the comments! I would, eventually, like to expand this work further into the 20th Century.

In addition to Smith, I also used Venezky’s A History of the American Reading Textbook (1987). He used and adapted some of Smith’s work in his article. His core argument is that the evolution of basal readers began “with the liberation of reading instruction from religious indoctrination” (p. 262). The authors and editors of these readers shifted focus from transmission of adult ideas to highlighting child-centered stories. Also, graded readers spawned the idea of levels and multi-part lesson plans. In 1987 his reading of the landscape of reading was a push toward phonics and comprehension, and a leaving behind of language arts. He ends by saying a move from literary anthology to grammar text would be a “radical departure from the tradition on which the modern basal is based” (p. 262).

Finally, I layered in Patrick Shannon’s Reading Against Democracy: The broken promises of reading instruction. Shannon’s piece is a far more political one, critiquing the intertwining of business interests and education specifically as it applies to reading instruction. In many ways, Shannon picks up where Smith left off in 1965. I found this book clear, thoughtful, and often infuriating. If you’re interested in dipping your toe into the politics of reading instruction, with a dash of history as he does ‘go back to the beginning’, this is a good start. He’s also edited a volume on the Common Core ELA Standards that would be a good start if you’re interested in learning more about what the CCSS mean for education. (I’ll admit to not having read it yet, but the table of contents is a list of authors I enjoy and respect.) On social media the push-back against CCSS can have the aura of tinfoil hats, but there are lots of thoughtful people who have valid questions and concerns about what the standards say about the stories (and how) we’re teaching our children.

Readers today, as they have since textbook publishing began in this country, tend to be conservative, representing a narrow, sterilized view of society and the child’s role in it. (Venezky 1987, 248)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *