Friday, August 17, 2018

A matter of historical record: Disciplined learning and occasional chaos characterized early one-room schoolhouses by Walter Lunt

Anderson School. Windham's earliest schoolhouses
Windham and Raymond are bringing back their one-room schoolhouses, not as components of the RSU14 school district, but as replicas of a much earlier time.  

In Windham, the historical society plans a grand opening on August 25 for its Village School, one of several buildings slated to become a living history compound at Windham Center.

Education, in the form of one-room schools, was dispersed throughout Windham for most of the 19th and into the early 20th centuries. One teacher taught “scholars” ranging in age from six to about 16 years. Many attended school just long enough to gain the minimal reading and “ciphering” (math) skills to support life on the family farm. An eighth-grade education was considered high attainment.

At one time, Windham had 19 district schools. Each served a neighborhood, including Centre School at Windham Center, Arlington School in North Windham, Friends School (which now serves as the local food pantry) and John A. Andrew in South Windham. Others were Anderson School, which served the first-settled area on River Road near the Westbrook line, Windham Corner at the intersection of Ward and Pope Roads in the “triangle” at Windham Hill and Bakers Corner, or Clark School on the corner of Brand Road and Route 202, which was said to have been a “lively place.” the early 1800s the Society of Friends, or Quakers, opened an academy at the corner of Swett Road and the Main Road (Route 202). Of their school and religious teachings, Historian Samuel T. Dole noted that the Friends “sturdy observance to the principles…. (of) peace, religious and social freedom, equality of race and strict honesty (was) conducted with marked success.”

The historical record fails to reveal the year of Windham’s first school. However, tradition holds that Mary Chute, wife of first settler Thomas Chute, conducted classes in her home. The first schoolhouse, Anderson School, was built around 1770 on River Road near the Westbrook line.

In his book, “Windham in the Past”, historian Dole describes the function of the General Examining Committee (forerunner to the modern Superintending School Committee). Comprised of three learned men of high moral character, the committee was charged with visiting each school twice during the winter term to evaluate instruction, often by quizzing the scholars.

Dole recalls one such visit to his 19th century schoolhouse: “(I) remember the awe with which these dignitaries were regarded by the average pupil, as, with slow and stately tread, they filed into the schoolroom and took their places behind the teacher’s desk; and with what fear and terrible forebodings we awaited their questions in regard to our proficiency in the different branches then taught.”

The late Kenneth Cole, Jr. of Windham wrote of his days in the early 1930s at the one-room Knight School on Pope Road near its intersection with Route 302.

“I went to school by sleigh. (But) if the …. road hadn’t been rolled I would go on snowshoes.”
Cole recalled being the chief stove tender – the stove wood were slabs donated by a local sawmill. Water was drawn from a nearby well, “The first couple of years we all drank from…a 10 quart milk pail (using) the same long handled dipper. At recess time there was no playground, just the cow pasture across the road. We played baseball; dried cow flops were bases.”

Cole expressed high praise for the teachers and the education he received over five years at Knight School, “Eight grades every day for one teacher and the only breather for her was when the town’s music teacher dropped by.”

Courses of study in those early school days included reading and grammar, composition, arithmetic (earlier known as ciphering), history, geography, recitation and elocution (speaking skills), health and wellness and agriculture. Penmanship (cursive) and spelling were emphasized. Grammar instruction meant “parsing” sentences, that is, explaining the function of each in a sentence (a forerunner to diagramming sentences).

A typical day for a student (scholar) would begin with the journey to the schoolhouse. Those without a horse or pony would walk, up to three miles for some. One or two older boys would arrive early to fill the water pail for drinking and washing hands and to haul wood for the pot-bellied stove.

This one room school house is a 19th century replica and sits on the Village Green of the Windham Historical Society on Windham Center Road. Contact the historical society for a tour and workshops.
Today’s aging population who were scholars “back in the day” remember feeling roasted when seated near the stove or freezing when far from it – heavy wool clothing was a must. Attendance was largely voluntary, depending on weather or the need for labor at home.

Before 1900, community schools had two terms, one in winter from November to April, and in summer from May to August.

A teacher’s needs were largely met by the community which usually included a small salary, housing, staples and food. If a female teacher married, many communities expected her to quit teaching because it was felt her most important job should be the care of her family.

Schools were ungraded. Scholars were seated according to age and ability, younger up front – older in the back, and were promoted only when the teacher felt he or she was ready to move on to more challenging material.

A typical day would begin with a morning greeting. The teacher would welcome the scholars. In response, scholars would “mind their manners;” girls would curtsy, boys would bow. Following Pledge of Allegiance and a morning prayer, the teacher would conduct a reading lesson with younger students while others would cipher an arithmetic problem on their individual slate boards.

Gaining the teacher’s attention by raising a hand was a rarity in the one-room schoolhouse. Students waited to be called upon by the schoolmarm/master, then they would stand to answer or recite. 

Responding to a mental arithmetic problem involved more than simply giving a numerical answer. For example, just stating “28” would not be an acceptable response to the following problem. The teacher would expect to hear, “Because Alice collected four eggs each day for seven days, and the product of four and seven is 28, Alice collected 28 eggs.” Discipline was taught in conjunction with schoolwork as well as behavior.

Later, during penmanship, scholars would use quill pens and ink to write their names, date and a maxim into their copybooks. Maxims were oft repeated sayings that promoted proper living habits or good moral character (ex: Deal justly with all; speak evil of none.)

“Turn-out,”, or privy privileges, usually occurred in conjunction with recess. Girls first. It was not unusual for the boys to disappear during recess time to go swimming in a nearby stream or pond.
Forms of punishment for scholars who failed to complete work or mind their manners were varied.

The most common was the use of the dreaded ferrule, a bendy rod utilized to change attitude and behavior when laid sharply across a scholar’s palms or buttocks. Other methods included sitting on a stool wearing a dunce cap or standing against the board with one’s nose pressed inside a drawn circle.

Perhaps the worst practice for boys was being made to sit with the girls while wearing a bonnet.
A special program for local school children designed to replicate the old-time teaching practices (sans the ferrule) has been created by a committee of the Windham Historical Society. students studying local and Maine history will be invited to assume the identities of actual Windham residents who attended a Windham Center school in the late 1800s. Slates, quill pens & ink and McGuffey Readers will be used to give participants a realistic one-room schoolhouse experience. The soon-to-be restored Friends Schoolhouse, located on Route 302 in Casco will offer a similar program, according to Frank McDermott, president of the Raymond-Casco Historical Society.

The 1848 structure was lost to fire last April. McDermott said the RCHS hopes to have the building up and closed in by late fall. Donations of money, materials and furnishings are now being accepted.

While there is much romanticism surrounding the culture and teaching practices of old schoolhouses, their successes were coupled with many of the same problems that plague schools today. However, those difficulties were dealt with in a much different way. The old Bakers, or Clark, School referred to earlier as a “lively place” was probably Windham’s most unruly school. According to an early story, a group of boys slugged their schoolmaster, lugged him out of the building and threw him headfirst into a snow bank.

Many, if not most, of the old schoolhouses experienced similar or more outlandish events than the one at Bakers. Next week, in a special edition of The Historic Record series, we will share a bizarre story told several years ago by the late Phil Kennard who attended the old Arlington Grammar School in the late 1920s. <

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