Public School Routine: 1865/1870 – 1900

“Boots are shuffling

Slates are rattling

And down in yonder corner,

Two pugilists are battling.

By weariness and frustration,

No wonder I grow crusty

In such an occupation.”

No doubt the foregoing quotation described the teacher’s attitude towards his or her work in those days. Possibly it could to a certain extent today.

However by that time there was a vast improvement in the interior of the schools since the days of the log ones. The rooms were finished very much as they are now, the walls and ceilings were plastered and white washed. An attempt was made to improve the lighting, and there were two or three windows according to the size of the room. The seats were becoming more modern in construction, usually they were double. There were made larger or smaller to suit the children’s ages and were all fastened to the floor. Three children sat in one seat when the room was crowded. One can imagine how much work was done. Large wood or coal stoves heated the schoolrooms now, instead of the fireplaces.

Black board space was at a premium in most of the schools and these were not very satisfactory. There were the two types, the one made on the plaster as described in Mary and Albert Street Schools, the other was of wood. Planks were cut to the size, needed, and were joined as close as possible. The board was then planed and sanded smooth. A moulding was fitted around it when it was fastened on the wall. It was then painted black. Some of the boards were made portable. The paint soon became scratched by the chalk and dull with the dust. Some years later these boards were replaced by slate ones, which were very expensive.

The rooms could usually boast of a few maps, generally much the worse for wear and perhaps a globe. A large dictionary was kept handy, but there were few books other than the extra textbooks which were kept on reserve.

By this time the school readers had been made containing more imaginative prose and poetry Literature had been added to the elementary curriculum. The teacher read stories to the classes from any book or periodical he or she might have had on hand, or, a story from a book that some one of the pupils had brought to school. This was a Friday afternoon treat.

The tablets mentioned in the course of study were made of quite heavy cardboard, and were almost two a half feet square. There were words and sentences printed on both sides, to be used for practice in reading and spelling. Some of them had tables in arithmetic. These tablets could be propped up on the black-board or a convenient chair and saved the teacher’s time and black-board space in her daily work with the junior classes.

Often children who had a very low I.Q were sent to school. They should not have been in the classrooms. It was not fair to the children and the teacher did not have the training to handle them successfully. Not much thought had been given to the needs of those children at that time.

Slates were used mostly by the scholars. Those in the senior classes had scribbling books, but there were used sparingly. The slates were all bound with red felt to stop some of the clatter. There were small ones for the tots and larger ones for older children. The pencils were of slate, quite slim and easily broken. When new, they were bound with paper to help keep them in one piece. A pencil held at the right angle on a slate and with the right pressure produce failed to bring a roar from the teacher. A bottle of water and a cloth was kept handy for cleaning the slate, although a few good brushes with the sleeve accomplished fairly good results.

The teacher’s desk was on a raised platform about nine or more inches high and a couple of long benches were placed on the main floor in front of it. In an ungraded school room, the different classes were called, individually, to the front to receive their instructions and they sat on the bench or stood on the floor in front of the teacher’s desk as the case required.

There would not be very many students in the Junior or Senior fourth (Grade VII and VIII). The larger children by that time were kept at home to work, or were “hired out” elsewhere.

The instruction of the classes usually started with the beginners. The teacher called the grade whose turn it was, to be ready to move and he or she meant move too. Then a small hand bell was rung for the class to come forward. Those who remained in their seats were given plenty of work to do, but if there was an interesting lesson being taught in a higher grade, all listened. Sometimes an alert junior would be bouncing up and down in his seat in eagerness, to give the answer that was stumping a senior! If the attendance was large and a convenient corner could be found, a Grade VIII student, armed with a tablet, was sometimes asked to give extra help to some of the beginners who were not making satisfactory progress.

For years, children were taught to read and spell by the A, B, C, method. A child could usually repeat the alphabet by the time he or she entered school. Combinations of words such as cat, rat, and hat were the first lessons. The child learned to recognize these at sight and spell them. Simple sentences were soon introduced along with these words. Thus the lessons went on [    ] introduced. The pupils learned to read by sounding out the letters or combinations of letters. They learned to spell the words at the same time. In some respects this was rather confusing.

All children in those years, learned to write from the start of their school careers. They did not print in the earlier grades as they are doing now. Many of the people then were beautiful writers and took much pride in it. Writing was taught to the juniors by the use of copy books. These had a few ruled lines on each page and words or a sentence were written, not printed on the top of each. A copy was to be made on every line and each one was to show an improvement as the pupil went along. The pens in use, then, had steel nibs and many blots were made when the smallest hands tried to guide them. Those nibs had an aggravating habit of getting caught in the paper.

In the country schools, older boys and girls of eighteen or twenty were allowed to attend school in the winter after the work on the farms was finished for the season. This had been the custom since pioneer days. As a rule most of them didn’t go there to improve their education and only made a nuisance of themselves for the teacher and the younger pupils.

The birch rod, so popular in the early days was gradually ruled out of the schools. Some of the older scholars, on a few occasions had received broken fingers through its injudicious use. The strap became a popular way to emphasize obedience and to stimulate the lazy ones. As a rule the parents did not come to the school and complain about Johnny’s or Mary’s punishment. If a child deserved it he got no sympathy from “ma or pa.” Most children were told, “if you get a lickin’ in school you’re git another when you git home.”

Field days were held only occasionally and a game or two of basketball or baseball were the extent of the outdoor sports. There were no outdoor rinks in the winter on the school grounds. That would have been considered a waste of time and water. Studies occupied the day.

Mr. Dolan was in the school at the time of the “Titanic”[1] disaster and the terrible day of World War I[2]. The schools in the town were all closed during the 1918 “flu” epidemic which was raging at the time when the Armistice was signed.

Mr. Dolan left Oshawa in 1920 to take up the position as principal in the Collegiate of London.

 


[1] The R.M.S. Titanic set sail from Southhampton, England on April 10th, 1912. Four days later she stuck an iceberg and subsequently sank at 2:20 a.m. on the morning of April 15th. 1517 people perished.

[2] 1914 – 1918

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