“School days, school days…” That 1907 ditty has formed the basis for many discussions about education across the generations. We have all heard from our elders and told our youngsters about school “when we were a couple o’ kids.”
A complicated mishmash of benchmarks and state testing dominates school talk these days as compared to the “reading and ‘riting and ‘rithmetic” of the yesteryear tune. Education now is all about measuring. What to measure, how to measure, when to measure, who should measure – in the process, it is easy to forget the kids being measuring. During their most formative years, students are judged, scored, and rated, often in lieu of being allowed to discover the joy of learning about themselves and the world around them.
I wish teaching and learning in this century could be as simple as it seemed back when my classmates and I engaged in activities often no longer included in a daily school schedule. After the Pledge of Allegiance, to which “under God” was added during my first-grade year, my elementary teachers regularly read Bible stories. Later the class said grace together before going to the cafeteria for lunch.
The whole school occasionally met in the gym for chapel: students read Bible verses and led prayers; a local minister offered a brief message. The stories, the prayers, the sermonette were all part of our routine, but not of our lessons.
The gym was the site of other all-school events. There were pep rallies to support the basketball team; one popular cheer was based on Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song, “Sixteen Tons.” The high school kids presented H.M.S. Pinafore, directed by Mr. Rogers, our music teacher. And during the Armistice Day assembly we stood silently at 11 a.m. in remembrance of the end of the First World War.
The most inexplicable use of the gym, by modern standards, was its apportionment during recess. There was a boys’ side and a girls’ side; students straying into the “wrong” section were disciplined. By the way, the boys had two-thirds of the gym for playing, compared to a one-third section for the girls. Consequently, we often played “Mother May I?” in the roomy girls’ basement, where our restrooms were located.
We also spent time outside: a 15-minute morning recess, 30 minutes after lunch, and another 15 minutes in the afternoon. There were separate swings for the boys and girls, but we all played on the slide, teeter-totters, and jungle gym. We had great games of “Red Rover” and softball, and the girls played house in a thicket of shrubs. Once we watched the high school girls perform a dance around the flagpole on May Day.
Occasionally the elementary kids went upstairs to the big study hall for an educational movie borrowed from the county library’s film circuit. Sitting by twos in the high school desks, we watched the likes of “The History of Paper” and “Our Mr. Sun.” Everyone crowded into that same room in 1961 to watch Alan Shepard’s historic trip into space.
We also ventured away from the school. My third grade class once walked to Eris to buy penny candy at Mr. Toomire’s store. And there were annual class trips to places like the Ohio Caverns or the Columbus Zoo. In the back of the bus was a big cardboard box filled with paper bags – marked with our names – holding our lunches for the day.
My favorite tradition continued from my father’s time at Concord: the last day of school. Mothers brought potluck, and we played outside without restriction. The best part was the folk dancing Mr. Rogers organized in the gym, culminating in “The Grand March” that included participants from grades 1-12.
My teachers seamlessly wove all these activities and more into our lesson-oriented days of cursive practice, math flashcards, and reading groups. Their combination gave me the well-rounded education that served as a solid basis for subsequent school experiences.
And yet, education in the 50’s struggled, too. My mother bought a copy of Why Johnny Can’t Read, the bestseller by reading expert Rudolf Flesch, who urged a return to phonics; and Theodore Seuss Geisel wrote The Cat in the Hat in response to the reading crisis. My father railed at talk of school consolidation; but by the time I was in the fourth grade, the high school kids, along with those from Westville, Terre Haute, and St. Paris, had moved into the large, modern school building on Route 36. Just as we settled into the new organization plan, Sputnik began flying overhead, the first step in the Space Race between America and Russia.
Every generation grapples with schoolhouse issues. What I hope for today’s kids, especially the little ones, is that they have the 21st century version of my Concord teachers: Mrs. Pratt and Mrs. DeRemer, who led us through the intricacies of phonics and cursive writing; Mrs. Rushaw and Mrs. Calland, who drilled us on basic math facts and grammar rules; Mrs. Paananen, who introduced us to fractions and the solar system; and Mrs. Reeves, who insisted we each present an in-depth project about a foreign country.
These teachers, like many teachers today, did not allow the pressures of educational controversy to enter their classrooms. On the contrary, good teaching ways during elementary days inspire students and provide them with a lifetime of educational roots and wings.