Bella Fontana

A weekly column about life in Bellefonte, PA, reprinted from the Centre Daily Times

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Educators could use schooling

The front parlor of the Bellefonte Museum is, for now, a one-room schoolhouse. With books lying open on the students' desks and an exercise on the blackboard, you might think the kids had just run outside for recess.

"School Days," an exhibit that runs until Sept. 3, is also a retrospective of teaching materials through the years, from old McGuffey readers up through "Dick and Jane."

On the teacher's desk are a globe, an apple and a handbell. There is no jar of M&Ms. There are no smiley-face stickers -- the self-esteem movement still was generations away.

I recall a teachers' in-service meeting when we were given handouts listing 100 ways to tell the kids how great they were. I never believed in telling students they had done a good job when they hadn't fooled anyone.

And I doubt that teachers in the old days worried a lot about students' self-esteem.

Most learning in the old schools was by rote, a method given a D-minus by modern educators. I still don't know a better way to teach multiplication tables, even though I can never remember 8x7 or 9x6.

And then there is the lost art of memorizing poetry, which seems to have disappeared along with metal lunchboxes and slide rules.

Because the logistics of instructing as many as 20 pupils at various grade levels had to be met by some means, the one-room school became innovative in techniques such as small group instruction, independent study and open learning. When one group went up front to recite, the others worked at their desks. When a lesson was introduced to one group, it could be previewed by another.

Old schools spent more time on penmanship than we do today, because in those days legibility and speed were assets that could lead to a job. Students were grouped by ability rather than interests and were not offered choices about what they wanted to learn. Discipline, especially self-discipline, was an unwritten but essential part of the curriculum.

At a retirement party for a fellow teacher recently, we started talking about the old days: the food fights, fist fights and disrespect -- what we called at the time "being in the trenches."

I understand things are better now. But I think we could have saved ourselves some time if we'd had smaller schools, smaller classes and more individualized instruction.

In other words, we could have taken a lesson from the old schoolmarms and schoolmasters ourselves.