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Meditations of a Retired Teacher

By Alta Jean (Barber) Alcorn, c. 1965



I am searching my memory over and over, trying to remember someone who did not learn to read but there is none that I recall either among my contemporaries or in my teaching years. Granted it was more difficult for some and that the speed varied greatly. One thing in those ungraded schools, the pupil moved at his own pace and according to his abilities. You could stay in the chart class all year (and some did). Then I recall that a class was often divided and some went to another class next high. Sometimes only one, or two ore even three taken. I remember when first I was put in the highest class, I felt I could never read and recite everything that I had listened to and was a little frightened. But soon I learned that in the same class there were different assignments.

Teacher said: “Mental Arithmetic class, rise” – we all rose. “Pass”. Then we went up front and seated ourselves on benches on the rostrum with our backs to the room. Then we were called to recite, rose, read the problem, working it orally giving our result in each step of the problem so class could hear and make corrections by raising hands after you sat down. In all subjects you rose to recite and we really had recitations as varied as the pupils. When it was necessary to stay at home to help with work; as boys stayed home to husk corn, girls to help make apple-butter, ect., (sic) then you went over all the lessons you missed by reading or a paper with questions to find and working the Arithmetic. You came when you could and stayed at home when you were needed. There was no other place to go so to go to school was some thing to do. No television, no radio, no cars, no telephones. Reading was recreation and even books were not plentiful. “The Youths Companion”, “The Ladies Home Journal” and “The Stockman” and “Farm Journal” were popular magazines of the day, and they were well-read and borrowed by friends and neighbors.

As I look in retrospect at my education and my beginning teaching – it is to realize again what wonderful times these are for the development of the child and all his abilities. But I do remember the wonderful pupils I had from time to time in those early years whose talents and abilities were lost because of lack of opportunity. Of course we had too much of one prescription for everybody. Academic. We are getting away from that but too slowly. Emphasis must still be on the three “r’s” regardless of what else we teach.

After I had taught five years in country schools I had an opportunity to go to a town school, but first I must take a course in “phonics” This was period of a new system in reading. All out for phonics. This I did and learned how to teach “at” as a family then putting letter sounds before it ect. With man y more families and sounds. I, myself, had learned phonics much simpler, in a class called the “Chart Class”. We learned “at” there and the teacher sounded the letters to be put before “at” at we did it and were so pleased when we had spelled the object in the picture. Of course later I pronounced all words by syllables and sounds which led to: - Seeing freight trains pass by with word “capacity” I would wonder where Cap-a-city was as I never saw it on the map. I knew where Chic-a-go was on the map. We smile now at those early schools yet in them we learned: to think, to speak, to write and to act.

Sitting there, supposedly preparing our lessons, but often listening to interesting things the class ahead of us was reciting, we were learning all day long.

Form was most important in writing then but here also values have changed. Writing now should be rapid, legible and express personality.

But much was crowded into those three years. Actually much of the work given in first year of a four year High School now had been done in the elementary school. We had had Civil Government, comparable to Problems of Democracy. Also you could usually get first year Algebra if you wanted it and such problems as Barnes Arithmetic and others like it which would be difficult for ninth grade today. In elementary school I had both square root and cube root and problems in which we used them.

There was no eighth grade examination given by the county to admit you to High School as there was later. I went in the morning to High School the first day and sat in the principal’s office until late afternoon when he found time to examine us. There were fourteen of us from nearby townships. The test was partly oral and some written work. We waited and watched when he had finished with us while he corrected the written work he had given us. He finally finished and gave nine of us permits to enter High School. Many excellent students had no opportunity to even take the test to enter. In my District there was a summer Academy about the center of the township. It was six miles from my home. It was in a chapel connected with a very populous rural church. Young people rode or drove to the Academy in the summer time. Also, people who lived within walking distance rented rooms to students preparing to take the examination to teach school. The Academy was usually taught summers by students from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, although it had originally been taught by the minister of the church who had started it. Soon I was seventeen and ready to take the examination to teach school. Local school boards made their own decisions on age. I passed the text and presented my certificate to teach. These certificates were issued by the County Superintendent who gave the test. They were for one year only. You took the test for three years then if you had been a successful teacher you were invited to take the Proffessional (sic) examination in the County Seat. It was good for three years and could be renewed. This too, led to the taking of the Permanent examination in the County Seat. It lasted two days and the subjects were High School level.

The School Board met at a school near the center of the Township. The Board was pretty well scattered throughout the Township and each director had one or two schools that he was responsible for and selected the teachers for their schools with consent of other Board members. All applicants were called in and their applications and certificate taken. Then we waited outside and later in the afternoon we were called in again. We listened while the Secretary of the Board read the names of those selected and the schools to which we were assigned to. There were always more applicants than schools. This particular year, my first wages had been raised from $30.00 and $35.00 to $40.00 per month for seven months teaching. People protested and wondered what teachers would do with so much money? But costs also were different than now. I had been selected for a school six miles from home. I borrowed money from my father to buy a cream colored pony to ride to school. The amount for the pony and a light “run-about” and harness was $50.00. I paid my father, bought some necessary things at home and still had money enough saved to attend [Grove City] College, summer term, and get a few credits toward graduation at some future date. During a few of the worst winter months that year I got board and room at $2.50 per week. I made my clothes as was customary in those years. I was extravagant when I bought shoes, buying the best – patent leather with cloth tops and buttoned. They cost $2.50 per pair which was a great deal of money then.

Certainly, when I began to teach, my education was very limited. Yet in my community at that time, it was considered very good. Opportunity (sic) for education and money were both difficult to come by.

How did I teach with no training on how to teach those first years in my country schools, one room, all grades? I knew my subjects and I knew how I was taught. There was a chart like on from which I had been taught for beginners. That was a start. But I soon developed ideas of my own especially when I saw blank looks after my efforts. Then I would think: - “How can I make it plainer?” Soon I found many ways. In all my years in elementary schools, the learning of poems was most important. Poems which have been a joy to me all my life:- “Abou Ben Ahem (may his tribe increase-) “Hat’s off the flag is Passing By”. “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” “The Village Blacksmith” “The Snow had begun in the Gloaming” “Grays Elegy in a Country Churchyard” and many more. Of course, I did this also. Some of my teachers had us memorize each poem we came to in our readers. But I selected poems and put them on the board to be memorized. After a time I found things I could buy to help in my teaching. We had very little to work with. Certainly no extras. In fact hardly enough necessities.

One of the things I found was a box of colored chalk. I had a small talent for drawing and I did many happy things with that first box of colored chalk on the blackboard. Can you imagine first and second grade learning several pages of “Hiawatha” and enjoying every minute of it? I began with “By the shores of Gitchee Gumee, By the shining Big See Water, Stood the Wigwam of Nokomis” ect. As I talked I filled a third of the blackboard with colored pictures of what I was saying. Day by day and picture by picture we learned our long poem. Later with instruction on how to teach and what to teach I learned I had been all wrong teaching that poem to those grades but we had fun.

Did those long ago country schools have Science? We had many teachers and all gave us something they were especially interested in. One teacher had us bring in cut pieces of wood about 4 inches long. This was done in the winter when leaves were off. By the bark and grain where cut, we named the tree it was cut from.

We hatched turtle eggs in the schoolroom, watching them all winter. We had them in a fishbowl with rocks and sand. In Feb. they buried themselves in sand for about 6 weeks. Tried to get frog eggs as early as possible so our tad-poles would be frogs before school closed.

As for myself I often brought to my pupils attention that when they walked into a room in a house that they could name all the things in it. So when you walk in [God’s Great] the outdoors learn to name everything you see. Every bird, bee, flower and grasses. Bring it in to the school-room or tell us about it and we will help each other. I stressed the beauty and the courage of the dandelion, little bluettes, black-eyed susan. Told them where to find that deeply perfumed trailing arbuties. We did not call this Science or have any science books. Weather came in for its share of discussion also. WE looked at and named different clouds on different kinds of days.

I remember how important Physiology was. How we rose and named all the bones of the body when I went to school. All my latter years of teaching there was a large hard-back covered chart in with the books on the shelves. I had used one many times in many schools. A lovely skin was shown on the man which opened – next you lifted his muscles – then the blood-vessels were shown – then the nervous system. Now you were inside and each organ lifted separately to show what lay underneath and finally you reached the skeleton.

Visual Education? Surely teachers have always used it. Both teachers and pupils showing interesting things. One of my teachers had the shell when we considered “The Chambered Nautilus” which made the poem so real.

I was taught from Reed and Kellog Grammar. It stressed diagramming. To me it seemed such an easy way to teach English. Here I had a picture ore a frame in which I placed a subject then the “doing word” or “state of being” word came next with a line between. There was a place for adjectives, adverbs, phrases and connecting words. A picture! Visual Education? Oh, no, we called it diagramming. I had use in my desk for a Reed and Kellog as long as I taught. It was especially helpful.