Needham Historical Society

From a Schoolhouse Window…
A Partnership Project of
the Needham Public Schools and the Needham Historical Society

In March 2006, the Needham Education Foundation awarded a grant to the Needham Historical Society and the Needham Public Schools for a collaborative project entitled, “From a Schoolhouse Window…” (or, the 1850 Schoolhouse Day program).

Headed by Christine Beach (Third Grade Teacher, Broadmeadow Elementary School) and Gloria Greis (Executive Director, Needham Historical Society), “Schoolhouse Window” is a welcome opportunity to make the resources of the Needham Historical Society more extensively available for teaching in the schools through a varied menu of field trips, in-school visits, artifact study kits, digital resources, and teacher training. In the larger context, the goals of the project are to energize the study of Needham’s past, to involve children actively in research and exploration of those years, and to create the next steps in our town’s history through the active participation of children and their families.

This project was first outlined to the School Department administration and the School principals in 2002, at the outset of the Historical Society’s efforts to expand its mission and strategic plan. The support of the Superintendent, the Director of Program Development and Implementation, and the Principals’ Cabinet was a significant factor in obtaining strong votes of approval in 2003 for the overall Mills House project from Town Meeting, the Board of Selectmen, the Historical Society’s membership and the Needham School Committee.

We are excited by this opportunity to build a more solid and enduring foundation for this partnership, and hope it will lead us to a rich study of the town’s founding and its changes over time, and a social science curriculum that will weave a vibrant present on the tapestry of Needham’s past.

The 1850s School Day Program

Philosophy: To provide an authentic experience that will enable the children to relive a day in the life of a schoolchild of 1850. As an actual experience, supplemented by preparatory and follow-up lessons, this lesson will stay with the children for a long time, and enable them to begin to place their own lives, their homes and neighborhoods, and their town into this context of history and change.

The Schoolhouse: The schoolhouse is set up like a one-room school – benches in rows, separated by forms. The maps and images on the wall are all of 1830s-1850s date, in keeping with the period of the experience, and the display case contains school materials of similar age for the students to compare to their own resources. The school materials provided are authentic to the 1850s period – McGuffy Readers and Spellers, small slates, steel-nibbed pens and inkwells. There are also genuine copies of texts on penmanship, geography, astronomy, and arthmentic (the Colburn Math text) available for the teachers’ reference. The bench desks, also funded through the generosity of the Needham Education Foundation, are reproductions of the benches that were actually used in the Schoolhouse when it was built.

Preparation: Preparation for the day begins several weeks in advance. Teachers who have not yet observed or taught the Schoolday themselves are given training in the schedule and in the accepted mannerisms/persona of a 19th century teacher. This training is available through online resources, through the Needham Public Schools’ professional development program, or in person from the program leaders or other experienced teachers. Teachers are encouraged to tailor the program to meet their own classroom goals.

Parents are given guideline for appropriate dress (“costumes” not necessary, but no overtly modern clothes; dresses for girls, cotton or flannel shirts and corduroys for boys would be appropriate examples). They are also asked to provide authentic lunches, packed in baskets, pails or napkins (no juice boxes, yogurts, candy, etc). The intent is to generate anticipation/involvement for both the children and their families, and to make the children think more deeply about what resources and materials would have been/not been available to children in 1850 and how they were obtained.

In class, children are briefed on the schedule and structure of the School Day. Prior to the Day, they have begun their memorization lessons, learned elocution postures (and the reasons for them), and created their own copybooks. They are taught behavioral expectations and forms of address. They may choose their “character” – a name and brief history of a real Needham child who would have attended this school or one like it in 1850; these names are also related to local landmarks (“this street is named after your family…”) and they can identify siblings and cousins who might also be in their class.

The School Day: The Day begins with proper entry and greeting the teacher; roll is then called. The children are broken into “forms” (representing the varying ages and educational progress that would have been represented in a one-room school). Each form is given its appropriate lesson in reading, memorization, arithmetic, spelling. The teacher hears each group in turn while the others continue with their work. Each form presents its memorized lesson to the class (elocution), and later in the day will recite its math lesson as well. Toward the end of the day, the class uses the copybooks it made to practice its penmanship, using metal quills and inkwells.

Students have both recess and lunch, as they would have in 1850. They may have an apple for a snack at recess if they are hungry, and there is a water barrel from which they may ladle out a drink. Games include tag, hide and seek, ring games like “duck-duck-goose”. There are also jump ropes, jacks, checker boards, balls. If the day is rainy, recess might include a spelling bee.

Follow-up: In the days following the School Day, students are asked to describe their experience (as in a “Letter” to their Aunt Elizabeth describing their school day, or a poem/song about it) or to compare it to their modern school experience (Venn diagrams, persuasive essays). Overall, this has been a successful program whose goals and lessons are retained by the children throughout the school year. They often cite the Schoolday as their favorite activity of Third Grade.
Copyright 2010, Needham Historical Society