Curriculum in District Schools
Author: Sheryl Vanderstel
Throughout the first 75 years of the19th century, the quality and availability of public education in the United States varied from state to state and area to area. Some regions, such as New England, valued good public education for all children and worked diligently to create a system that delivered quality teachers, facilities and curriculum. Other areas, notably the South and parts of the "West," were less concerned about the public’s welfare. Public education systems were non-existent, under-funded, or so unorganized and scattered as to do little good. Indiana during this period fell into the latter category. A prejudice existed among a large portion of the population, especially those from the Upland South, against education in general and especially against publicly funded education. The course of study offered in the scattered public schools of Indiana was very basic–the proverbial "3 R’s." Few teachers were qualified to teach much more than reading, writing (penmanship), and basic arithmetic.
By mid-century, however, educators, such as Wabash College professor Caleb Mills, gained the attention of the Indiana General Assembly. These educators demanded quality education available to all the children of the state. After much debate and compromise, provisions for public education were included in the new state constitution of 1851. By 1855, the first school law stating curriculum requirements was passed by the General Assembly. The list of subjects required by the law to be taught was orthography (spelling), reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar, and geography. An interesting provision in the law stated that "other languages may be taught as the local community demands." This was in response to the large German immigrant population that wished German to be taught to their American-born children. (Boone:302) In 1865, the teaching of good behavior was added to the curriculum. (Reese:57)
In 1869, at a special session of the Indiana General Assembly, physiology was added to the list of required subjects. (Boone:302) This branch of study was actually health and hygiene and had become part of the required curriculum throughout the US. The understanding of disease and the improvement of medicine in general were becoming more widespread. It was hoped that the addition of the study of personal health might help combat disease and ill health among both the rural and urban population. (Fuller:48) The physiology course also provided a legitimate vehicle for the introduction of temperance and anti-tobacco education. Both topics were the subject of growing interest among the educated classes of the country.
By the close of the Civil War, teaching was becoming a respected, professional occupation. Teacher’s colleges (normal schools) were becoming more prevalent and schools of education were being added to universities nationwide. With this professionalization came improved teaching techniques, more competent teachers and advanced educational theories. All of this served to raise parental expectations for their children’s education. A desire for more advanced curriculum, modern teaching methods and a uniform course of study grew statewide. Parents in rural areas began to feel that the city schools were at an advantage in all areas of study. By the 1870s a movement to elevate the rural school system closer to the level of urban schools began to grow. (Reese:30-33) However, it was not felt that it was practical for the rural curriculum to mirror the urban as the educational needs of farmers or farm wives were vastly different from students in the cities who faced an adult life in business or factories. (1881-2 Superintendent’s Report: 76)
By the 1870’s, Indiana educators promoted a "graded course of study." This was simply a schedule; year by year of expected curriculum mastery. The first standard course of study for both country schools and urban "graded" schools was included in the Indiana School Laws in 1884. This was due, in part, to the fact the urban educators felt that the rural curriculum had remained far too simplistic and the rural students were lagging behind their urban peers. (Reese:32-33)
This graded course of study in Country Schools laid out a progressively more difficult curriculum. With mastery of each level, the pupil was promoted to the next "grade." The State Association of County Superintendents devised this standard course of study, the State Superintendent and State School Board approved the provisions, and the Indiana General Assembly subsequently passed them into law in 1884. (1885-1886 Superintendent’s Report: Part I,66) By 1886 the Indiana School Laws set out a course of study for country schools comprised of 5 grades mastered over a period of 8 years. This course was grouped into three levels - primary, grammar and graduation.
The Primary level was comprised of 1st through 3rd grades, and was to take 4 years to master. The Grammar Division was only a single grade, the 4th. But the state Superintendent and Board of Education felt this curriculum would take 2 years to master. The last level was the Graduation Division. This final grade, the 5th, was to be mastered in two years. At the end of this 8-year course, the pupil could take a state examination, also laid out in school law. Indiana School Law dictated the level of achievement necessary to pass the exams, a grade of at least 80% in Reading and Spelling and 70% in the remaining subjects. This accomplished; the student was eligible for a diploma. (1881-1882 Superintendent’s Report: 77) At this time if the student did not desire to or could not afford to, continue his education, the School Board and the Superintendent believed that the rural graduate was well prepared for the adult world. The city students had similar courses of study and mastery requirements. Their course of study, however, was designed for 12 grades.
Early Hoosier schools suffered severely from the lack of appropriate school textbooks. There were no mandatory textbooks and certainly no way to force the purchase of uniform texts within a single school. Parents provided their scholars with books available in the household, often only a Bible. Many were unable to afford the few texts available in general merchandise stores. For many early and mid-century teachers the speller was the most important book in the classroom. The text sometimes had to double as a reader and for many early Hoosier scholars, the mastery of the teacher’s speller was the most education they would ever receive. Readers could also be the Bible, the Psalmody, or a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress. Published reading texts were scarce prior to the publication, before 1840, of reading series such as the Emerson’s Reader Series. (Boone:309-310)
Emerson’s readers have been lost in obscurity, for at the same time another reading series was launched that would change the face of reading education in the nineteenth century. In 1836, a Presbyterian minister and college professor at Miami University in Ohio authored a new innovative reading series. William McGuffey believed that education and religion were inextricably intertwined. Any educational lesson should also carry with it a moral lesson. This philosophy reflected the Second Great Awakening of the 1820s and 1830s. His first series of readers numbered six books of progressing difficulty. The first reader began with the alphabet and simple stories, all with a decided moral lesson. The readers increased in difficulty, presenting the students studying the final volumes with stories from Shakespeare, biographies of great American heroes, and significant western literature and poetry. (Fuller:48) Still, no law in Indiana required these texts be used in the classroom. It was a fortunate teacher who had scholars able to purchase the McGuffeys at the appropriate level. Once these volumes were purchased, they often were handed down from child to child in the family.
Other texts used in the state during these early years included Pike’s Arithmetic. This text took the student from basic calculations in addition and subtraction to beginning algebraic equations. Geographies, grammars, and histories were infrequently used. (Boone:310-312)
After the mandate for public education was legalized with the 1851 Constitution, educators began to agitate for textbook requirements. In 1853, the State School Board recommended books for school use but no action was taken to make these recommendations into law. Vague textbook laws appeared over the next decade but in 1863 all existing textbook laws were repealed. At this point township trustees began to try to control textbook adoption. (Boone:313)
Finally in March of 1873, the Indiana General Assembly created the county school boards. These school boards were charged with "the change of textbooks…" The law stated that changes "shall be determined by such boards and each township shall conform as nearly as practicable to its action". In May, 1873, in an open letter printed in the Educationalist, an Indianapolis monthly professional magazine, editor A.C. Shortridge asks all township trustees in the state to be cautious in the exercising of their new power. He lists questions that should be considered in the selection of texts for the students in their township. He points out that consulting competent teachers would improve the process and lead to better education and less embarrassment for students and teachers alike. Albert Raub, a normal school educator and author of educational methods books, sets forth an entire chapter in his book School Management concerning the process of choosing the appropriate texts for a school. (See The Educationalist; Raub: 50-56)
In 1877, the School Law was changed, mandating a six-year textbook adoption by individual counties. The law stated that once adopted, the books were required to be used countywide. It was not until 1889 that textbook adoption was taken over by the state and texts were uniform statewide. (Boone:313)
ubjects within the 1886 Course of Study
Teachers in 1886 Indiana were trained in a variety of ways and licensed in accordance with their skills for varying lengths of time from six months to five years. With this varying education and training, many country common school teachers needed help in effectively teaching the subjects required by Indiana law and using the texts required by the county. Help was available through county and township teacher institutes, published teaching manuals and professional journals, newspapers and periodicals. All were available to teachers in Hamilton County in 1886. Each source offered advice on teaching the required subjects, innovative teaching methods and even sample lesson plans.
Hamilton County reading text books for 1886 were the five books in the Swinton Reader Series.
Reading was usually the first subject addressed in the teachers’ manuals of the 1880s. It was commonly recognized that, without the mastery of reading, further education was impossible. Methods of Teaching in Country Schools points out at the beginning of the chapter on Reading that the ineffectiveness of past teaching methods for reading was evident by the abundance of improper pronunciations and sing-song voices of country boys and ministers. The author continued: "To make a good reader it requires, first, a knowledge of the principles of elocution; second, much practice." (Lind:68) Lind devoted 18 pages of comments and teaching methods for proper reading instruction. He covered several methods to teach beginning reading, and then set forth teaching methods for each of the 5 levels of readers. The chapter finished with a discussion of how to cope with small classes found in country schools, advising the use of newspapers and periodicals for individual work in these cases. (Lind:68-87)
The reading periodicals that are referred to in Country Schools were published throughout the United States for use as supplements to the textbook. (For a more complete discussion of educational periodicals see Periodicals) One such publication was the Home and School Visitor, published in Greenfield, Indiana. By 1886 the three year-old publication was 30 pages long and covered supplemental reading material for all five reading levels covered in country schools. The monthly magazine contained stories, non-fiction, poetry and information and advice for the teacher as well as the township trustees and county superintendent. Seasonal materials were included to aid the teacher in enriching the students reading experience.
The Indiana School Journal carried reading lesson plans and teaching suggestions in each monthly edition. The most respected teachers in the state prepared the lessons appearing in the journal. (See Lind:68-87; Welch:43-49)
The arithmetic textbook chosen by Hamilton County was Ray’s Primary Arithmetic and Ray’s Practical Arithmetic
One of the fabled "3 R’s," - arithmetic - ranked with reading as the other most important subject taught in the country school. Scientist Dr. Marshall Barber commented in his reminiscences that arithmetic’s importance in the country school curriculum was due to the fact it was practical education. Its importance was emphasized by the fact that it was always studied early in the school day "while the pupil’s mind was fresh." (Barber:30) This seemed to be true not only in Barber’s native Iowa but Indiana also. The Daily Programme set out in 1886 has Arithmetic being studied or recited from youngest to oldest grades before the lunch recess.
Lessons in the professional periodicals outlined teaching methods that varied from the use of matches (without the heads) to teach the youngest students to count to the use of shapes prepared by the local carpenter to teach measuration, the study of measurements, length, area and volume. (See Welch: 64-67; Lind:99-112)
Grammar and Composition
The grammar texts for the county were Harvey’s Elementary Grammar and Harvey’s English Grammar.
Although Marshall Barber called grammar the "neglected child" of his Iowa country school education, it was for the most part an important piece of most elementary school curriculums of the 1880s. In the 1886 Indiana Superintendent’s Report grammar was not listed in the course of study until students reached the third grade, or their third and fourth year of school study. The suggested lessons included "oral language lessons; analysis by diagrams, giving subject, predicate, object and simple modifiers." (Superintendent’s Report 1886: Part I, 67) In Hamilton County students began their grammar studies using Harvey’s Elementary Grammar and Composition. This small book must have been daunting for an eight or nine year old. Although filled with lovely drawings, the lessons are tedious at best, with the dreaded "parsing" beginning at Lesson 58. "Parsing" a sentence was a drill none too favored by the pupils as Barber explains in his Schoolhouse at Prairie View. His example, although amusing to the reader, indicated the tedium of the study of grammar in the late nineteenth century. (Barber: 41) By the seventh and eighth year of school, the students were involved in composition and analytical sentence diagramming.
The lesson plans appearing in professional journals covered all aspects of grammar and composition and indicated the expectation that by graduation from the country school a mastery of the language was expected. The final exam for graduation from a country school included questions about personal pronouns irregular verbs, and analyzing a sentence and parsing the italicized words. (See also Examinations; see Lind: 127-141,193-195; Welch: 51-55.)
The speller chosen for use in Hamilton County was McGuffey’s Speller. The dictionaries used were Webster’s Primary, Common School and High School Dictionary.
Most contemporary Americans associate nineteenth-century American education with the spelling bee. Barber noted that great prestige was attached to the skill of spelling. For many in the late nineteenth century properly spelled words were the mark of a good education. (Barber:32) Welch grouped the study of spelling as part of reading mastery but Link’s Methods of Teaching in Country Schools devoted 10 pages to the art of teaching spelling. Professor Link laid out lessons for both written and oral work. He presented teaching ideas and methods for every grade of the country school.
The spelling bee was indeed an important part of school life in the country school of 1886. Barber explained the fine art of conducting spelling bees and examined the differences between a simple recitation exercise and the formal spell-downs of Friday afternoon and evening exhibitions for parents and trustees. (See Barber:32-33; Link: 88-98)
There was no writing text listed in the Truitt & Sons ad for schoolbooks in the September 9, 1887 edition of the Noblesville Ledger. Eclectic Copybooks were advertised.
Indiana School Law required the teaching of writing in public schools so the omission of a writing text in the Truitt & Sons ad does not mean it was not taught, but simply that the County Superintendent had not selected a text.
The Writing chapter in How to Organize a Country School began with the admonition "Pupils can not be expected to do good work with poor tools." (Welch:61) This in fact seemed to be a common point in many penmanship texts and lesson plans of the period. Penmanship supplies were hard to come by for many rural farm families. Much emphasis was placed on their importance, probably to encourage township school boards to commit to the expenditure of good pens, pen points, writing paper, ink, and blotters. (Welch:63)
The "How To" books all emphasized the importance of teaching writing daily. Professor Lind suggested that it was best taught at the end of the day as "a rest from more active mental work, and after pupils have been at their seats awhile [so that] their muscles and nerves have become quieted". (Lind:210)
Articles appeared regularly in the professional journals and periodicals with lesson plans and teaching methods for teaching on blackboards, slates and copybooks. One of the most complete was featured in 2 successive numbers of The Educationalist in 1873. The March 1874 issue highlighted a 4-page sample from Miss Haworth’s System of Penmanship. Miss Haworth, a teacher in Liberty, Indiana, designed her System especially for district school use. (Educationalist: March,1873:12; see Lind:210-211; Barber:31-32; Welch:61-63;)
The geography texts for the county were Eclectic Geography and Eclectic Complete Geography.
If the number of lesson plans appearing in periodicals is any indication, geography was a very popular and important course of study by the 1880s.
Lesson plans abound for geography, from the simplest exercises mapping the schoolroom to elaborate studies of foreign lands and their natural resources, climates and residents. Lind emphasized the need for students to memorize the facts or areas topography, a drill probably not enjoyed by the students. He did, however, also include a suggestion for using a large classroom sandbox to make hills, mountains, and even volcanoes, an exercise the students most probably enjoyed more than the teacher did. (Lind: 124)
The text chosen for the county’s schools, The Eclectic Series School Geographies, were large, well illustrated books. The third in the Eclectic Series was designed for "advanced study" and contained color maps and detailed drawings of people and places around the world. Charts and graphs explaining in detail climates, astronomy, and even map drawing were also included. At the end of the book was a special chapter pertaining to the state of Indiana, maps, charts and drawings helped the student understand parts of his state that he might never see. (See Lind: 113-126; Welch: 70-74; Barber: 35-36)
The texts for history were The Eclectic Primary History for the lower grades and Barnes’ History for the advanced students.
Although history had long been part of the schoolroom curriculum it was not until the 19th century that recent history was incorporated into the study of history. Even in the 1880s some teachers lamented that the study of the War of the Rebellion was omitted from serious study. (The Education Weekly, Feb16, 1884: 104) The Barnes history text used by advanced students in Hamilton County did address the war, even referring to it as the Civil War, most unusual at this time. Most Unionists referred to the war as the Rebellion, the Civil Rebellion, or the War of the Secession. Southerners referred to it as the "Late Unpleasantness" or the "War of Aggression."
Another concern was that Indiana state history was not taught in many classrooms because a state history text did not exist and publishers refused to publish them due to a lack of interest. To rectify this void, The Education Weekly ran a two-week series providing educators with state history information. (EW, May31, June 7 1884)
Lind presented a sample lesson for the introduction of history to the classroom. The lesson concerned Columbus and the landing in America, a favorite tale of the1880s. Welch’s discussion under the heading of history was more methods for teaching history from texts and information gathered at institutes. (See Lind:142-148; Welch:75-76, and attached lesson plans)
The Hamilton County student studied science using Steele’s Chemistry and Botany
Science as a study in elementary school was just being introduced into the curriculum in the mid-1880s. Although it did not appear in the country school’s course of study of 1886 until the final 2 years of school, it was becoming a very popular subject with the education professionals. Much discussion was spent on the "natural sciences" in professional journals and papers. Botany, geology, and biology were often the subjects of papers presented at the Indiana State Teachers Association annual meetings each year in December. Lind devoted a chapter in his Methods of Teaching in a Country School to "The Natural Sciences." He made an argument for the teaching of these sciences occasionally "as a means of culture and for the purpose of keeping up interest…" in the hopes that any budding scientist in the classroom will go one to greatness. (Lind:159) His book and other "How To" manuals emphasized the importance of bringing natural objects into the classroom for study and discussion. The creation of "cabinets" of natural objects was also suggested. (Raub:26; Lind:159-168)
The physiology text for Hamilton County students was Steele’s Physiology
The last required course in the country school curriculum was physiology. One might wonder about the emphasis on physiology when the natural sciences were so slow to be introduced into the classroom curriculum. However, the purpose was to introduce the principles of good health and hygiene to the student. Medical scientific knowledge was increasing at a tremendously rapid rate at this time. The concept of germs, the causes and prevention of deadly diseases, and new medical treatments were rapidly being discovered. Physicians, scientists and educators all saw the classroom as the logical place to begin health education.
Another benefit could also be reaped from the study of health and hygiene. The terrible harm that could be done to the body by the use of tobacco, alcohol and harmful drugs was beginning to be universally understood. The classroom was an ideal place to begin the education of young people in the harm that could be done to the body by introducing these substances into the human system. (See Lind: 149- 154; Welch: 68-69)
Until the passage of statewide school laws dictating the types of school buildings, curriculum requirements and texts, few educators had the luxury of also acquiring "teaching apparatus" i.e. the equipment used in teaching. Prior to the School Laws of the 1870’s and 1880’s most teachers felt privileged to have a blackboard provided in a classroom. But with the advent of Normal Schools, Schools of Education, education standards and publicly funded education, came the understanding that education also required certain equipment. The "How To" manuals described at length the equipment a well-supplied classroom should have. Appropriate student desks, blackboards, erasers, pointers, student pencils, pens and paper were all described in detail. (Raub: 23-24)
The manuals went on to suggest that more sophisticated apparatus was also necessary. While Welch and Lind simply list the apparatus to which every teacher should aspire, Raub describes his suggestions in detail. He suggests simple charts for the teaching of reading at the primary level. He feels this addition will create interest for the pupils. (Raub:26) Aids for the teaching of arithmetic included numeral frames, which Raub states "No primary or ungraded school should be without…" (Raub:25) These frames aided in the teaching of counting and understanding rules of arithmetic. Apparatus for the higher mathematical work included weights and measures, metric weights and measures. He concludes his suggestions with a set of geometric forms, to aid in the teaching of measuration and beginning geometry.
Geography tools were suggested also. Maps of the world, United States, state and even the county were all considered a classroom necessity. Raub explained the importance of keeping the maps open" as much as possible, that the pupils may become familiar with the outlines of the countries…by their constant presence." A globe and a geography board finished out Raub’s suggestions. (See Raub: 23-27; Welch: 38-40; Lind: 62-63)
Student Copybooks and Notebooks
Several student notebooks can be found in the collections of both the Indiana State Library, Manuscripts Section and the Indiana Historical Society Library. The books are all approximately the size of a modern college bluebook. They have heavy cardboard covers decorated in a variety of ways. Elbert Kline’s 1885-1886 notebook has a colorful stork printed on the front cover. Several have covers that are similar to the end papers of books that are colored with multiple colors of ink that are dragged to create a flowing design. Inside these notebooks are sheets of lined paper, again much like modern bluebooks. These books could be used for any subject that was taught. Elbert Kline’s book is a series of book reports written in the form of a letter to a friend. All the reports have been graded in red ink. Mary Herron of Indianapolis used her notebook in 1878 and 1879 and again in 1881. The book contains arithmetic, geography and grammar exams and notes.
The notebook of Elmer Watts in a little different as it is bound from the top and about 6 inches wide and 10 inches long. The first page is a map of the state and the following pages contain grammar lessons, Arbor Day song lyrics, the answers to history lessons, and a poem about downtrodden boys. (See attached notebook of Elmer Watts)
The School Library
G. Dallas Lind briefly lists all the apparatus found in Raub and then launches into a discussion of the apparatus he felt was the most necessary for a country classroom, a library. Lind feels that beyond a good unabridged dictionary and a cyclopedia (sic), the teacher must do everything in her power to convince the trustees of the necessity of a library no mater how small. He suggests a small bookcase, kept locked with the teacher as the guardian of the key. (Lind:62-63) He completes his discussion of school libraries by stating, "The schoolhouse should be the literary center of the community." (Lind:64)
Raub’s discussion of the importance of the school library is just as impassioned. He feels "the taste for reading created in the child while at school will grow, and in the end we shall have as the result broader culture and a higher grade of citizenship." (Raub:56) He then lists the required books for a basic school library. Dictionaries and cyclopedias are to be supplemented with historical works about the United States, Europe and Ancient Rome and Greece. Works by American and British poets and the prose of the literary greats from Thackery to Washington Irving were to be included. The end result of the student’s exposure to the library would be "a taste…created for the elegant in prose and poetry, while the vitiated taste created by cheap, flashy literature of the day might be…supplanted." (Raub:57)
Both Raub and Lind recognize the country schoolteacher has an uphill battle where the monies to purchase such a library were concerned. Raub suggests that the teacher have "entertainments", with the blessing of the School Board, to help secure the funds. He also suggests soliciting donations of books from the community, noting that an energetic teacher can inspire patrons to be generous. (Raub:58) Lind lists public exhibitions - probably a display of the intellectual prowess of the scholars after exposure to fine literature - and festivals as possible funding sources. Lind’s ultimate hope is that the superintendent, board and citizens will be so encouraged by the teacher’s actions as to start a community library. (See Lind: 63-64; Raub: 56-58)
Barber, Marshall A. The Schoolhouse at Prairie View. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1953.
Boone, Richard G. A History of Education in Indiana. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1892
The Education Weekly. Indianapolis: 1884-1886.
The Educationalist. Indianapolis: 1873-1874.
Fuller, Wayne. One-Room Schools in the Middle West. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1994.
Heron, Mary. School Notebook, unpublished. 1878-1879; 1881. Indiana Historical Society, Manuscript Collection.
The Indiana School Journal, Volumes 1881-1886. Indianapolis.
Kline, Elbert. School Notebook, unpublished. 1885-1886. Indiana Historical Society Manuscript Collection.
Lind, G. Dallas. Methods of Teaching in Country Schools. Danville, Indiana: The "Normal Teacher" Publishing House, 1880.
Raub, Albert N. School Management. Lock Haven, PA: E.L. Raub & Co., 1885..
Report of the Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction. Volumes 1881-82; 1883-84; 1885-86. Indianapolis: Department of Public Instruction.
Reese, William, editor. Hoosier Schools. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.
Watts, Elmer. School Notebook, unpublished, c. 1886. Indiana State Library,Manuscripts Section.
Welch, A.M. How to Organize, Classify and Teach a Country School. Chicago and Omaha: W.M. Welch Publishers, 1886.