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Old-school thinking

Needham program brings third-graders into town's one-room schoolhouse for an 1850s experience

The rules in Christine Beach's third-grade class were stern and simple: No lying. Soft voices learn best. Wash your feet after recess if they are bare. And bring firewood in for the classroom stove whenever the teacher asks.

"With everything we do, there must be a sense of modesty and respect," Beach told 19 squirming pupils as they prepared for their spelling bee. She reminded the youngsters not to giggle at those who miss words or to cheer those who get them right.

Dressed in an orange shawl, high-collared blouse, and full-length skirt, Beach sets the standard for feminine reserve and Victorian stoicism.

It was back to school -- way back for Beach and her Broadmeadow School third-graders. They experienced school as it would have been in the year 1850 as part of program sponsored by the Needham elementary schools and the town's Historical Society .

The setting was the town's last remaining one-room schoolhouse. Built in Upper Falls in 1842, it was moved to the society's new headquarters in front of the Newman School on Central Avenue . Renovations were completed last spring, preserving some of the original flooring and peeling green paint on the walls. The society hopes to furnish it with period desks and chairs.

Pupils dressed in vintage long skirts, shawls, flannel shirts, and woolen pants. Caitlin Gormey, 8, wore her Laura Ingalls Wilder Halloween costume, a pink print dress with puffy sleeves, and braided pigtails with blue bows. Many children borrowed clothes from their grandparents.

They were assigned the names of prominent mid-19th-century Needham residents -- some familiar to them as street names. They learned about Ezra Newell Fuller, who was killed at age 19 during the Civil War; and Sarah Collins Mills, who was born in 1840 in a house that still stands at 945 Central Ave. Her mother, Elizabeth Cheney Mills, was a prominent schoolteacher and they are distant ancestors of Vice President Dick Cheney .

Junior historians
Schoolhouse Day caps the third grade's local history unit, required by the state. Pupils learn about Needham's founding families, how immigrants swelled the town's population, and such concepts as what it means to be a "community." Three of the five elementary schools are participating this year, the program's first ; next year, all will.

Inspired by programs at Historic Deerfield, the Needham Historical Society also plans to offer schoolhouse simulations to fourth- and fifth-graders. Under a Junior Docents program, fifth-graders will conduct tours for younger pupils.

The society hopes the collaboration with schools will foster a new generation of local history buffs, said executive director Gloria Greis. Right now, senior citizens account for most of the society's members.

Among the goals of Schoolhouse Day is to demystify the era, said Robert Abbey , the former Newman Elementary School principal who helped develop the program. One-room schoolhouses often conjure images of terrifying school marms and rigid coursework.

"That was not necessarily the case," said Abbey, now a principal in Rhode Island. Though 19th-century lessons focused more on rote memorization than critical thinking, children also studied poetry, astronomy, geometry, and embroidery. With ages 4 to 12 in the same class, the teachers had to be versatile in their lesson plans.

Men typically taught the 10-week winter sessions, earning $10.50 a week, Greis said. Unmarried women taught the five-week summer sessions, earning half the salary of a man. Women were expected to stop teaching once they married.

Teachers were hired and fired by the community's School Committee. Parents, she said, typically were not involved, unless it was to pull their children out because of behavioral or learning problems. Children graduated at 12 with the equivalent of today's third-grade reading and math skills.

No questions allowed
At lunch, Amari Alston , Madison Gallant , and Nicole Merken sat together, digging into straw baskets filled with pumpkin and corn breads, apples, and chicken sandwiches wrapped in cloth, not plastic. They drank water in cups rather than juice boxes.

They agreed that their teacher was a little more strict that day than usual.

"You can't ask a question," said Merken, 9. (Pupils were not allowed to speak unless spoken to.)

At another table, Lindsay Antaya, 8, said her teacher normally says things like, "Give me five." But not this day.

Emily Levy, 8, added that she didn't like having to wash her hands in the "freezing cold water."

Teachers in the 19th century frowned on positive reinforcement. They certainly wouldn't have had a wall display of children's work like Beach's "Celebrations of a job well done."

Beach, who helped research and develop the curriculum, said that since paper and writing utensils were expensive and scarce, students had to do a lot of work in their head. They would talk through complicated math problems, practicing what was called mental ciphering.

"Our slates and chalk are dear to us. We don't have paper and pens to waste," Beach said to her pupils.

She gave them the problem to solve mentally: "Take 7; double it. Take away 10. Take away 4."

The pupils later pulled out their hand-sewn copybooks for their penmanship exercise.

Beach showed the youngsters how to dip the fountain pens in the ink.

Charlie McCormick, 8, who was named Timothy Fuller for the day, asked, "Is it harder to do it like this than in the future, like in 2006?"

Beach said, "I don't know what you mean, Timothy. This is penmanship in the 1850s."

Luke Geraghty, 9, struggled to write a cursive A. The letter turned out to be a black splotch.

"How are you doing?" asked a parent volunteer.

"Not too good," said Luke, furrowing his brows in concentration. She put her hand over his and helped him trace the letter.

Beach asked, "Who'd like to see their names in cursive?"

Ink-stained hands flew to the air.

During their second recess, Joshua Simani , 9, who played checkers with Courtney Young, 9, said he wished he could live in the 1850s all the time.

"We get extra recess," he said, but then had second thoughts. "On the other hand, we get less time for lunch."

Lauren K. Meade can be reached at

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