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Salisbury students imagine themselves into the 19th century with the ‘Marm

MILLERTON —  If the flurry of raised hands and waving arms was any indication, the third- and fourth-graders from Salisbury Central School (SCS) in Connecticut were readily immersed in the spirit of Colonial American education.

Gathered in the one-room Irondale Schoolhouse next to the entrance to the Harlem Valley Rail Trail on Friday, June 9, they responded vigorously to traveling schoolmarm Susan Webb as she led them through samplings of daily school lessons and activities of the late 19th century.

The event was the second of five community activities planned by Friends of Irondale School House, whose President, Ralph Fedele, affirmed, “The kids had a great time.”  2023 marks 10 years in the schoolhouse’s new location, where it was moved after being purchased by Judith and Floyd Rosini in 2011.

Built in 1858 and originally located in the hamlet of Irondale 1.7 miles north of the Village on Route 22, it was one of 14 one-room schoolhouses that used to be in the Town of North East. Young people between the ages of five and 20 were taught by one teacher.  The last teacher known to teach there was Gladys Cook Woodnut.

Helping students situate themselves geographically and historically, Webb began by asking them how to explain where her home state of Iowa is located.  With their age-appropriate notions of cardinal points, one suggested “Southeast.” Another guessed “Southwest?”, to which Webb replied, “I like your ‘West!”’ Finally, Iowa’s location in nearly the exact center of the U.S. was revealed, along with the fact that at one point, the state had 12,000 one-room schoolhouses, roughly one every 2 miles, to suit the agricultural nature of the region.

“Can you imagine a world without paper?”, Webb asked of the group, some of whom may well be part of the first post-paper generation, in which nearly all communication is on screens. Thus, one very vocal child answered “Yes!”, while others pointed out that they knew that paper was not always so available.

“There is a name for this little teaching tool,” Webb continued, holding up a wooden paddle that demonstrated the luxury that was paper. The replica hornbook had a precious piece of paper printed with a lesson—variously tales from the Bible, as religion was never far removed from early American education, or  a basic reading lesson (“A is for Adam, E is for Eve”).  The surface was covered by a transparent layer of animal horn for protection.

Webb also showed the famed New England Primer, small in scale, and pointed out the abridged Webster’s Dictionary located in the schoolhouse.

The “fascinating genius” Noah Webster and his work are objects of Webb’s passionate study. Webster, who hailed from West Hartford,Connecticut,  and spent much of his life in New Haven and at Yale University, strove for unity in the U.S. and believed that a standardsized dictionary in English was central to that goal.

A house-counter whose lexicon was Emily Dickinson’s “only companion,” Webster relieved us from many, but not all, of British English’s extra letters; made sure schoolchildren pledged allegiance not to King George but to the American enterprise; and wrote his own version of the Bible. The last of his dying words? “Crepuscular.”

Historical interpreter Webb, who presented two programs last year at the schoolhouse, emphasized the idea of unity by asking the Salisbury children where their ancestors had come from. “Each child knew something”, she said, citing Israel, the UK, Ireland, Germany and other countries.

Her approach is the product of a lifetime of hands-on work. “From my over 20 years as a classroom teacher coupled with another 20 years of early American education research and presentations, I have discovered the joy of making history come alive for students of all ages, especially telling the stories of America’s foundation,  American education.”

“This is the first time we have been offered this opportunity,” explained SCS Principal Stephanie Magyar of the event organized by Fedele and Dana Scarpa, who was a SCS mom and PTO leader. “We are excited to participate and learn about a historical and local resource.”

As to curricular connections and the all-important essential questions, she elaborated: “This will connect to our social studies standard: Compare life in specific historical time periods to life today.” Students would be led to consider how life in the past was similar to and different from life today, and how where we live affects how we live.

One major difference in how we live, and particularly how children are educated, was made clear in enacted scenarios led by Webb, when students eagerly volunteered to be the “naughty ones” to stand before the classroom, wearing cards proclaiming their character flaws. Thus “Dishonest Boy”—the one who had promised to bring wood for the school’s stove and did not but insisted that he had—stood next to “Lazy Girl” and other students labelled as Talkative, Impolite and Forgetful.

The students were amused or appalled by such shaming techniques, but speaking later, Webb said she had modified the terms. “The original words would be along the lines of “Stupid Boy,” “Idiot Girl,” and so on. I also do not use the dunce’s cap,” an oft-used humiliation in early America.  Instead, she said, she prefers to focus on “making manners” and working together to be good citizens.

Other educational techniques little used today would include reciting the alphabet backwards at speed; reciting texts and poems with accompanying hand gestures; and  geography bounding—to bound a state is to list which other states are contiguous in all directions.

Illustrating how our current Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag is the result of some major revisions through history, Webb related that the first Pledge to “our flag,” of 1892, replaced a “moral story” that was often used to open a session of early classroom instruction. In 1924 the wording was changed to “…the flag” and was accompanied by an outstretched arm gesture toward the flag, with the palm up.

But in pre-World War II days during Hitler’s ascendancy,  the gesture was conflated with the palm-down salute of the Third Reich. Another gesture was deemed necessary, and thus was adopted the hand-on-heart ritual of the pledge.

The students’ takeaways testify to their expanded views of place and time. “It is important,” one child said, “to restore a building like this so, in 20-30 years, more people can come and see what it was like so we can appreciate where we are and how we got there.”

Another felt “It is important so tourists know what American schools were like.”

“To experience what it was like to live a life in our history,” is what another fourth-grader averred; and to sum up what is perhaps at the root of all learning to live together, “So people don’t forget about the past and remember what it was like for other people.”

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