From My Novel Research: Pioneer Schooling

McGuffey ReadersIn my novel, Secrets and Charades, there is no school close enough for 12-year old Juliet to attend. Like many pioneer children, Juliet was taught at home. McGuffey Readers were the standard text for children nationwide. These books were passed down from parent to child since it was first published in 1832. The 1st and 2nd readers introduced the basics. The 4th and 5th were geared toward 7th and 8th graders. Once a child completed these, they might end their education and seek work or continue on to higher learning.

The initial two became the standard for public schools until 1960.Within the pages were reading, phonics, spelling and grammar exercises. Many scriptural principles were taught as part of the reading lessons. The revised versions removed much of the religious teaching the McGuffey brothers felt so important for a well-rounded education.

Front of McGuffey ReaderUnfortunately, not all parents could read. Or at least not English if they were recent immigrants from Europe. Those settlers were willing to pay (even in produce) someone to teach their children. Often it was an older daughter of one of the settlers who had completed her own education using these same readers.

Parents would send books from home with their children to use in the classroom. Usually Bibles, Sunday School quarterlies, dictionaries, poetry books and McGuffey’s.  Books were shared. Students took turns reading out loud. I read of a classroom set up in an abandoned dugout—a house dug into the side of a hill. The students practiced ciphers and spelling by using sticks and the dirt floor.1882 Math book cover

Lots of calculating was done in their heads and answers were given orally. Math was not considered important for elementary students. Gradually math tables were introduced as part of their studies. Large cities often had more substance to their math curriculum.

Male students educations required more than reading. They needed a head for ciphers and neat penmanship to be considered employable. All the answers were found in the back of the textbook enabling anyone to teach themselves math.

Education for girls was minimalized with the focus of teaching her own children or perhaps a classroom when she grew up.

A community felt more civilized if they were able to build a church and a school. Often one building served both purposes.1880 Arithmatic book

Fortunate was the child whose parents could read and write. Winter days the children spent studying while Ma sewed and Pa repaired tools he would need in the spring, Learning took place in snatches when the family wasn’t doing other work crucial to their survival.

A school established in a rural area accommodated harvest and planting times. Short sessions allowed the boys to help in the fields. Older girls and small children might continue to attend school while their older brothers were absent.

McGuffey readers are still sold today. Homeschoolers used them to experience a bit of history.

Hope you enjoyed this interesting factoid from my research. What interesting things have you found out as you’ve researched your latest writing project?

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