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Gazella Bennett

Gazella Bennett was a pioneer in kindergarten, domestic science, and physical education.

Studio portrait of Gazella Bennett, circa 1895.

Gazella Bennett (1852-1926) was “serene and equable in her temper” and “[pursued] her work undisturbed in the midst of the most perplexing difficulties” (Anagnos, 1898, 61). Bennett came to Perkins in 1874 to work as a teacher in the Girls’ Department. After a few months of work, Bennett was named the Principal of the Girls’ Department. Thus began her pioneering work in kindergarten, physical education, and domestic science. 

The Girls’ Department

During her tenure at Perkins, Gazella Bennett worked with Samuel Gridley Howe, Michael Anagnos, and Edward E. Allen during their respective directorships. Most of her work, however, was done alongside Michael Anagnos as she assisted with the opening of the first kindergarten for children who are blind in the United States in 1887. Before the Kindergarten opened in Jamaica Plain, there was an initial trial of kindergarten methods in the girls’ department in 1880, supervised by Bennett (Allen, 1926). This work showed the “advisability and possibility of such work for” children who are blind (“Benefiting…”). 

While Bennett was principal of the Girls’ Department, students were “graded,” with classes for grades three through nine, followed by the four high-school grades. These grades compared “as far as possible to those in the public schools of the State” (“Tribute Paid”). In the 1898 Address to the Trustees, Perkins director Michael Anagnos wrote that Bennett “applies herself to the promotion of [the girls’ departments]’s interests and of the physical, intellectual, and moral welfare of the pupils with unsurpassed devotion…” (Anagnos, 1898). 

Well-known Perkins students including Laura Bridgman, Edith Thomas, Willie Elizabeth Robin, and Helen Keller were under her care. She continued teaching when she became principal and also interpreted for Laura Bridgman when visitors came to campus (Heath). 

Teaching in the Kindergarten 

Gazella Bennett “was constantly working for the betterment of the school in every department” with the goal of ensuring that her students were “fully equipped to meet the problems of life” (“Tribute Paid…”). Much of Bennett’s teaching centered around her belief that “the joy of discovery is ranked among the highest pleasures of mental activity” (Bennett, 1891, 145). Rather than rote learning, she encouraged children to be explorers and examine the world around them, especially in nature. She charged her fellow teachers: “…if your work at times at times seems to be almost a failure, just put your pupils in direct communication with Nature. Let her be their teacher and yours” (Bennett, 1891, 147). 

Bennett’s description of the typical curriculum for the Kindergarten in the 1895 Perkins Annual Report describes how the lessons were designed to facilitate an ongoing education: “Reading, writing and spelling are required each day of the members of the four lower classes, first as regular lessons and afterwards as ‘implements of trade’ in the preparation of other studies” (99).

Physical education

Gazella Bennett recognized the importance of physical education and introduced the Swedish system of gymnastics after training with Baron Nils Posse. In the Department of Physical Education report in the 1898 Annual Report, Michael Anagnos wrote that after the training, “…equipped she entered upon the work of the physical amelioration of her pupils with unabating zest, and carried it on with…knowledge and with an enthusiasm that has been contagious” (Anagnos, 1898, 61). Indeed, Bennett was so passionate about the method, she served as the assistant editor for The Posse Gymnasium Journal: A Monthly Magazine Devoted to the Interests of Gymnastics for over five years. 

Domestic science

Like the Directors in place during her time at Perkins, Gazella Bennett believed that it was important to prepare Perkins students for life outside of the school environment. Beginning when Samuel Gridley Howe was director, students were responsible for care of the campus and facilities. Female students were charged with housework. 

In a 1910 article written by Edward E. Allen, he quotes at length Bennett’s description of the program and describes how it should be structured as the school moved from South Boston to Watertown. The domestic science “housework plan” was arranged by grade with the earlier grades assigned tasks like making beds and dusting. As part of the larger curriculum, the intent is that as tasks are mastered, “it will be put into practice in the other parts of the house” to encourage students to continue to improve their skills (Allen, 1910, 52). The highest grade (7th) would learn about cooking, planning a meal, caring for a stove, and other, more advanced, jobs. 

She notes that the tasks provided the students with responsibility, confidence, and “the joy of finding one’s self as an essential factor in the family” (Allen, 1910, 52). Allen is sure to include that at a meeting with alumnae, “it was the sense of all present that the daily housework they had done at school had been an opportunity which they would not have willingly foregone,” she does not, however, that “the only fault they could find with it was that it was not varied enough” (Allen, 1910, 52). 

Training

Before coming to Perkins, Gazella Bennett graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1874. In 1891-1893 she was a student at the Posse Gymnasium, Teachers’ School for Science. During a leave of absence in 1898-1899, she studied at Leland Stanford Junior University. Upon her return, Anagnos acknowledged Bennett’s desire to continue to learn techniques and methods that could enhance her work. He wrote that she, “has always been the van of progress and on the alert for improvement, leaving nothing undone which might increase her professional efficiency or enable her to be helpful to her students” (Anagnos, 1899). 

Legacy

Bennett’s work with Perkins students did not end when they graduated, as she helped form the Alumnae Association in 1884 (“Tribute Paid…”). When the school moved to Watertown in 1912, the alumnae requested that the space for the home-making department be named Bennett Cottage to honor her dedication and devotion to her students. Today, staff who work closely with students have offices in the cottage. A new accessibility ramp was installed at the rear of the cottage in 2022. 

Gazella Bennett resigned from her position in 1911 due to ill health. In 1898, almost a decade before she left Perkins, Michael Anagnos summarized Bennett’s career as, “not that of the mountain torrent, leaping from cliff to cliff and enchaining bits wild and wayward beauty every eye that gazes on, – but rather that of a the forest rivulet, which steals noiselessly along its course, making its kind and gentle influence felt by every little flower that blossoms on its banks” (Anagnos, 1898, 63). 

Bennett died on April 13, 1926 in Worcester, Massachusetts. 

Works cited and further reading

Recommended citation

Coit, Susanna. “Gazella Bennett.” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA. January 19, 2023.

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