Needham History Center & Museum Needham History Center & Museum, Needham Massachusetts 02492

From a Schoolhouse Window…


    From a Schoolhouse Window…

    A Partnership Project of the Needham Public Schools and the Needham History Center

    kids in line

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

    Headed by Robert Abbey (former Principal, Newman Elementary School) and Gloria Greis (Executive Director, Needham History Center), “Schoolhouse Window” is a welcome opportunity to make the resources of the Needham History Center 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 History Center’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 History Center’s membership and the Needham School Committee. [The Mills House project was the relocation of the Needham History Center to its current location on town property.]

    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 (to the extent possible), 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.

    Preparation:  Preparation for the day begins several weeks in advance.  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 for both the children and their families, and to make the children think more deeply about what would have been/not been available to children in 1850 and why.

    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.

    School Day:  Each class comes on its own (no multi-class visits) and the school day is led by the teacher.  It became apparent early on that a class led by the children’s own teacher was “real school,” even in the different setting.  If led by Needham History Center staff or a docent, then it was a “field trip” and not as serious.  It helps that the Schoolday curriculum is closely aligned with the regular third-grade curriculum – arithmetic operations, learning cursive, spelling lists, etc. – familiar enough, but with the added twist of learning cursive with an ink quill, or ciphering the arithmetic in their heads.

    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.

    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 case contains school materials of similar age for the students to compare to their own resources.  Thanks to a further grant from the Needham Education Foundation, we have built bench desks to replicate the desks that were originally in use in the Schoolhouse.