"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Thursday, February 18, 2016

American Pedagogy in 1917

In her memoir “The Country Mouse,” which is about her time in Worcester with her paternal grandparents from October 1917 to May 1918, Elizabeth Bishop wrote:

"I did stay on at school through Thanksgiving, I suppose, because there was the business about the Pilgrim Fathers. Miss Woodhead made a model of “The Landing of the Pilgrims” on a large tabletop. The Rock was the only real thing. Miss Woodhead made the ocean in a spectacular way: she took large sheets of bright blue paper, crumpled them up, and stretched them out over the table. Then, with the blackboard chalk, she made glaring whitecaps of all the points: an ocean grew right before our eyes. There were some little ships, some doll people, and we also helped make log cabins. (Twenty years later I learned the Pilgrim Fathers had no log cabins when they landed.) But I felt closely related to them all: “Land where my father died / Land of the pilgrims’ pride” — for a long time I took the first line personally. Miss Woodhead asked us to bring anything we had at home to contribute to Plymouth and Thanksgiving, and in my conceit I said (to the wonder and admiration of the class, I hoped) that we had some real little trees, just the right size with snow on them. So I contributed four trees from the toy village my grandparents let me play with, and from then on the village was half deforested when set up at home." (The Collected Prose, 24)

This passage came immediately to mind when a friend sent me a link to a story about a recent and amazing discovery at the Emerson High School in Oklahoma City of nearly 100-year-old chalk boards covered with lessons, some of which were about the Pilgrims.


Listen to a story done about this find on NPR:

Clearly, in 1917, curriculum across the US included a history lesson about the arrival of these Europeans on the shores of the New World. Each teacher had his or her own take on how to teach this lesson. Even Bishop got some of that lesson (including the use of chalk!) before illness took her out of school at the end of 1917. Astonishing that this chalk survived so vividly for a century.

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