Schools Then & Now

FURNITURE—In early American schools, children sat on three-legged stools or long benches behind narrow tables, often hand-made of pine or oak by the parents of the schoolchildren. By the 1880’s, children sat at individual desks that were bolted to the floor, with boys on one side of the room and girls on the other. Younger children sat at the front of the room, closest to the teacher. This arrangement enhanced the teacher-centered learning environment so popular in schools throughout American history. Students rarely faced each other and focused their attention entirely on the teacher, who was the sole source of instruction and discipline in the classroom. By 1930, portable desks were common, and were used in much the same way as the old benches and tables. A shift in teachings began in the 1960’s when small, round tables were introduced to encourage interactivity between children. Teachers began to take themselves away from the front of the room and the standard “chalk & talk” method. Students are now encouraged to work collaboratively, relying on each other’s knowledge and skills. In this setting, the teacher’s role is that of a learning facilitator. Today, both individual portable desks and round tables are found in schools.

LIGHTING—There was little need for lighting in schools, as one-room schools usually had large windows. When added lighting was needed, New England schools used whale oil lamps and candles. Kerosene lamps were used in prairie schools. Today, students and educators have the benefit of electricity to light classrooms and power all types of electrical tools to make learning more flexible, accessible and interesting. Electrical lighting has allowed the school day to be extended beyond sundown. This extension of the school day has meant that overcrowded schools can accommodate more students through longer days & extra shifts. School buildings are now also more integrated into the life of the broader community, being used for such after-hours activities as adult classes and community meetings.

BOOKS—The religious and moral education of youth was paramount in early American schools. The first book in the classroom was the Bible. It was central to a child’s education, not only for its content, but the way it was used to build skills. Students learned how to read using the Bible. Much of the school day was devoted to memorizing and reciting passages from it, and passages were copied to learn penmanship. The first textbook was the New England Primer, used between 1760 and 1843. The most popular schoolbook in the nineteenth century was the McGuffey Reader, introduced in 1836. Based on landmarks of world literature, the set of six readers, which increased in difficulty, were the basis for teaching literacy, as well as basic values such as honesty and charity. The readers gave the teacher flexibility she lacked before, allowing her to more easily teach a classroom of pupils of different ages and levels. Tens of millions of copies were sold in the 19th century. In rural America the McGuffey Reader was often the only exposure people had to world literature. Today’s schools are equipped with libraries run by a professionally trained school librarian. Although books are still the primary source of instruction for children, electronic media such as CD’s and Internet-based software are widely used. The exponential growth of literature and media provides many choices to teachers and students. Rather than memorizing from a set of finite literary sources, students learn research skills so they can access information on their own.

HEATING—Most one-room schoolhouses had a potbelly stove. The benefit of this type of stove was that it burned many types of fuel—wood, coal, corncobs, straw, and cow chips. Farmers usually provided fuel for the stove. It was the teacher’s responsibility to maintain the fire. Students sitting close to the stove were inevitably too warm and had a hard time staying focused on the lesson as they fought off drowsiness. Students in the corners or by the drafty windows were often cold, and would have to wear many layers of clothing and maybe even a hat. The advent of not only central heating, but also air conditioning has led to many improvement in the learning climate. Teachers now focus on teaching and less on maintaining environmental comfort. Needless to say, students can concentrate better without the distraction of extremes in temperatures. Controlling the physical climate of the classroom has also allowed communities the option of extending the length of the school year in the warmer and colder sections of the country.

LUNCH—Schools are often too far away from most students’ homes to make it practical to return home for lunch. In early American schools, students brought their lunches to school in a sturdy metal bucket, which might contain bread with jam or meat sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, and dill pickles. In the middle of the day school stopped for a lunch break, a time for students to eat while sitting and talking with friends. Today most students eat lunch in a staffed cafeteria that serves hot lunches. Some students still bring their lunch to school in a lunch box or bag. Nutrition is considered a basic ingredient to childhood development and readiness to learn. Accordingly, the responsibilities of schools have expanded to include federally funded school lunch and breakfast programs for needy children.

HOMEWORK—Any books brought to & from school were bound with a leather strap & carried at the hip. Children in early American schools had very little homework because they had responsibilities at home. All of their academic learning took place during the school day only. Consequently, unless the family could afford books, the only reading a student did was at school with the limited resources found there. Today, books and other school supplies are commonly brought to and from school in a backpack. Homework is considered a vital component of a comprehensive education and is expected of most students, even in the early grades. It is believe that taking advantage of evening and weekend hours will increase the content and skills children acquire. In some areas, this has led to a backlash; some communities are cutting back, claiming it interferes with family time.

DISCIPLINE—Throughout the 17th & 18th centuries, wooden canes were used to enforce discipline in the classroom. The leather strap was introduced in the 1850’s, along with the hickory switch—a narrow branch of green wood, often cut by the student in trouble. By the 1890’s the paddle was introduced and usually kept within sight behind the teacher’s desk. The threat of these devices was used as a motivator for students to behave in school. Today’s schools no longer use such instruments to enforce discipline. In most states, corporal punishment is not permitted, and it is rarely used where it is permitted. Educators employ a variety of discipline measures, from revoking recess privileges to suspending or expelling the student from school. Because a disruptive student can interfere with all students’ learning, modern behavioral modification methods attempt to address underlying reasons for motivations for student misbehavior and tailor consequences to fit the transgression. School administrators seek to encourage a positive association with school along with socially acceptable behavior.

SLATES—In early schools, each child owned a book-sized writing slate encased in a wood frame. This was used for practicing script and it traveled to and from school with the student each day. The student scratched with slate with a slate pencil, which was a cylinder of rock. Eventually, the Pencil was replaced by soft chalk, making it easier to write. Students did not preserve any of their work in the form of what is described today as class notes. Memorization, therefore, was emphasized & achieved through collective recitation led by the teacher. A keen memory characterized a good student. After the Civil War, manufactured lead pencils similar to those used today were introduced. This also meant that most student work was now written on paper, making the work more portable for both teacher and student. Students owned pencil boxes for the safe transport of these pencils. The pencil was a substantial improvement. Its narrow design made it easier for children - especially young children with small hands—to control their writing and develop lettering and numbering skills.

BLACKBOARDS—The first blackboard used in a school was in Philadelphia in 1809. Early blackboards were made from pine lumber and covered with a mixture of egg white and carbon from charred potatoes. Teachers & students wrote with chunks of chalk and erased with cloth rags. When slate boards became available, teachers used cylinders or white, soft chalk and a felt eraser. These blackboards and slate boards were laborious apparatuses, and the accompanying chalk dust was the bane of all teachers. The blackboard was an important instructional device, allowing the teacher to illustrate lessons by directing the attention of the entire class. Today, the black board is still common, but is slowly being replaced by the whiteboard, a plastic composite of the same size and shape. The teacher writes on the board using color, erasable pens. No longer are classrooms covered in chalk dust, and whiteboards eliminate the piercing shrill chalk can sometimes make when coming in contact with the blackboard! Teachers today are less dependent on blackboards and whiteboards. When presenting information t the whole class, teachers may opt to use an overhead projector or computer with presentation software. However, many teachers prefer to circulate among students in the room and work with them one-on-one or in small groups.

FLAGS—An American flag hung on a pole outside most schools in the 19th century. Patriotic songs were sung in school on most days. Patriotism became stronger in schools at the beginning of the 20th century, with the great influx of new immigrants. The flag salute was introduced in the 1920’s and gained universal acceptance in public schools by mid-century. Today, the flag remains in schools, both in individual classrooms and outside the school on a flagpole. The collective flag salute remains in schools today, but it is not the ubiquitous ritual it was throughout much of the twentieth century. In fact, many public schools today do not have any daily expression of national allegiance or patriotism.

BELLS—Typically, 19th century students played games & socialized outside the school in the morning. Unless the school had a bell tower, the teacher would stand at the door and ring a hand bell when it was time for school to commence in the morning or after a recess. Students needed to be within earshot to hear the bell, or otherwise risk punishment for tardiness. Today most schools have a systematized bell that rings at the beginning and end of school as well as between class periods. Such a system brings uniformity to class period lengths in schools where students travel to different classrooms throughout the day. Teachers tailor their lessons to adhere to the exact class period allotments. Consequently, such a system does not allow for any deviation-classes must end, regardless of the value of what is happening in the classroom at the moment the bell rings.