A Walk Down Memory Lane
Mrs. Joy Patrick, now retired, began teaching at Hume School in Nelson, BC, in September 1952.1 "Still standing and...impressive," this "brick building [was] built in 1909" (Patrick, 2000, p. 1). Her description, in a reflection about her first year of teaching, echoes Sutherland's words regarding many schools in the lower mainland: "Vancouver generally provided substantial concrete and brick schools for its pupils. Well maintained, most stood out as the most impressive buildings in their neighbourhoods. The front of each school represented its best side to the community" (Sutherland, 1995b, p. 103). They were firm structures for firm (formalistic) teaching methods and a steel trap curriculum with 3R's-teeth.
In terms of that curriculum, "public sentiment favoured practical, useful training and balked at 'liberal' education" (Stevenson, 1970). Mrs. Patrick speaks of her grade two class' "Reading, Arithmetic, Spelling and Dictation, Art, Health, Music and Music Appreciation, Science and Social Studies" (2000, p. 2), but her reflections clearly reveal public sentiment: parents expected that their children "had well and truly mastered the three 'R's'" (Sutherland, 1995b, p. 121).
She talks about a well-organised reading program. "Each reading group had blackboard seat work exercises" (Patrick, 2000, p. 3). "We had two readers," she says. "Friends and Neighbours and More Friends and Neighbours which were required to be completed. A standardized reading test was given after [students had completed] each reader....Only children receiving at least a grade level of 2 years 9 months...were promoted to grade three" (Ibid., pp. 5-6).
Clearly, reading ranked high. Just behind that rank stood spelling. "Spelling charts [were] on display and children received stars for perfect...scores," alluding to a formalistic reward structure (Ibid., p. 4).
If spelling were a colonel, then reading and arithmetic were co-generals in a system at war with ignorance. This system loved the "full pitcher-empty cup" method of teaching (Barman & Sutherland, 1995, p. 412). The child was the "empty" cup, the curriculum the water, and the teacher the one that poured--often through "the lecture method" (Patrick, 2000, p. 3). Mrs. Patrick explains that "arithmetic facts to twelve and simple problems were taught through drills and instant recall" (Ibid., p. 5). "The [3R's-]curriculum, the teaching methods and the pattern of school discipline combined to press [all three] into a single mode of learning....that put its rigor into rote learning" (Sutherland, 1995b, p. 106). "It was really structured!" Mrs. Patrick says ([note her exclamation mark] 2000, p. 6).
Her school's focus on the 3R's becomes even more clear by her words, "We had no P.E.--we didn't have a gym....Exercises were confined to the classroom" (Ibid., p. 2). "We had no luxuries, you know. It was after the war, and there wasn't much money. We had little equipment, no rubber balls or anything like that" (Ibid., p. 1). In short, P.E. wasn't part of the 3R's; therefore, it was somewhat superfluous.
In this curriculum-driven world of formalism, "[3R's-e]ducation was [society's] top priority", and, not surprisingly, "the teacher was always right". "Parents never questioned the teacher's authority" (Ibid., p. 1). "School staffs," given such authority, "held back the latent barbarism they perceived in the children with an increasingly severe range of sanctions [discipline] that began with displeasure and ended in corporal punishment" (Sutherland, 1995b, p. 115). Granted, large classes of forty or more required order, but place that in a system that required moral clarity. Such clarity related to "democratic values upheld in the war effort" (Stevenson, 1970). "The post-war curriculum passed on to children a selective tradition of ideologically based values, knowledge and literacy" (Luke, 1987). Disorder implied democratic values hadn't been worth fighting for in World War II. "Formal training in the nature of morals [was] essential to national survival" (Burbidge, 1963).
"Formal training in the nature of morals" was particularly evident "once a principal decided to strap a boy or, more rarely, a girl[. H]e followed a routine--almost a ritual--laid down by the department of education. The principal summoned a witness, explained the crime and punishment to the latter, positioned the subject carefully, administered the strokes and counted them out in a firm voice, and then recorded the event in a special book" (Sutherland, 1995b, p. 117).
A less brutal, though dramatic, routine was evident at the school's front entrance. "Each morning, recess and noon," Mrs. Patrick says, "there was a warning bell for over 300 children to line up. On the second bell the students marched [italics mine] in. Each teacher was assigned a station and positioned himself/herself to supervise an orderly and quiet entry up the stairs" (2000, p. 1). "The bell symbolized [teachers'] authority, and the response it brought from the children demonstrated its strength" (Sutherland, 1995a, p. 81). "[Children] lined up in pairs; girls in front, boys behind. The younger children held hands with their partners" (Sutherland, 1995b, p. 104). "The principal, vice-principal, or the duty teacher appeared and stared--or roared--the children into silence. He or she then signaled the classes one by one to march [italics mine] into their classrooms" (Ibid.).
Mrs. Patrick recalls a different flavor of routine at the end of the day, when students were to leave: "My children on dismissal were allowed to exit from the top floor to [go down the stairs] to the front entrance without lining up if they tiptoed [italics mine] down to the main floor" (2000, p. 4). Routine was also apparent on cold or rainy days: "Children played in the basement area." "The basement was divided in half--one side [had a] girls' bathroom and a large [girls'] play area and the other side [had] a similar situation for the boys" (2000, p. 1). By the way, even in the playground, "if the school was a large one, the children would play in sharply segregated areas" (Sutherland, 1995b, p. 103).
In addition to routine, then, key terms for Hume School, and many other schools of the 1950's, were the 3R's, moral instruction, and discipline. They were the four main winds that drove the ship called formalistic education.
But a recent meeting between Rob MacIntosh (the Regional Coordinator, Northeast Zone, Field Services, BC Ministry of Education) and about twenty educators, an RCMP officer, and a social worker revealed Bob Dylan was right: "The times they are a-changin'". And yet, some things have stayed the same. Curriculum has remained important: specifically, the 3R's. "The Ministry of Education ensures that all students...develop a strong foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic" (Government of British Columbia, 2000). Curriculum, however, is no longer in company with few.
Other strong winds that sail the ship of education today include social responsibility, special education, technology, Aboriginal and multicultural education, and student safety and wellness. "The Ministry of education ensures that all students...become familiar with new technologies; learn to apply knowledge in new settings; are able to work and relate to others; develop critical and adaptable minds; and study in safe environments" (Ibid.).
A safe environment: that's a phrase, like Aboriginal education, that gets much press today. Are kids safe? Are bullies being dealt with? How do we deal with them? Workshops and programs about how we should deal with violent or potentially violent students drop into my school district (Quesnel) regularly. And as for Aboriginal education: Quesnel has an Aboriginal Education Center (Chapter Ten: Aboriginal Education in Quesnel Now, Cultural Genocide in Canada Then).
In 1952, Aboriginal education was not a priority for the Ministry of Education. "Into the mid-twentieth century federal [and BC] policy toward Aboriginal peoples, adults as well as children, refused to acknowledge their distinctiveness within geographical areas or as individuals. They were treated as a single category to be dealt with as expeditiously and economically as possible. The initiative demonstrated by British Columbia Aboriginal peoples, in political and economic matters as well as schooling, only served to label them as nuisances for refusing to conform into dependency" (Barman, 1995a, p. 62).
But today Quesnel, as I mentioned, has an Aboriginal Education Center. Its mandate: "to ensure that students of Aboriginal ancestry are provided with the opportunity to gain an education and work experience that meets individual needs, and honours their culture and heritage as Aboriginal people" (Tressierra et al.2, 1996, p. 1).
Things have changed.
A myriad of reputable teaching methods educators use today often replace formalism's rote learning, lectures, and drill sessions. Refer to the educators mentioned in the last paragraph of "Chapter Six: A Plethora of Variables." They have much to offer. And: I should add that where the formalistic schools of the 1920's to the 1960's focused on moral instruction, the schools of today focus on students' socio-emotional state (enter social responsibility, special education, Aboriginal and multicultural education, and student safety and wellness).
Many of these changes were highlighted in the 1988 Royal Commission on BC Education. For example, corporal punishment had ended in 1972, and the Commission noted that "the law now insists that children be accorded the rights...once guaranteed only to adults" (Part I, 1998, paragraph 28). In 1952 the teacher "was always right", but the Commission noted that "no longer is a teacher's word, or professional judgment, taken as fact by parents or other community members" (Ibid.).
Another change the Commission highlighted concerned multicultural education. Mrs. Patrick mentions nothing about it, likely because there is nothing notable to remember. Multiculturalism had no wings in 1952. Imperialism still waved its flag. "Above the blackboard hung a portrait of...Queen Elizabeth II....In some classrooms...pictures were flanked by such scenes of British prowess as the capture of Quebec, the Battle of Trafalgar and the signing of the Magna Carta" (Sutherland, 1995b, p. 105). Imperialism never did give much room for multiculturalism. But the Commission directly addressed it: "Commitment to multiculturalism...means that society looks to schools--and to teachers--to foster healthy intergroup attitudes, to break down cultural stereotyping, and to organize themselves in ways that ensure equality of treatment and equality of access for all minorities" (Part I, 1998, paragraph 24).
Mrs. Patrick warned me, before I read her reflections on that first year of her teaching: "Dan, you're going to see a big change." The intensity and warmth in her eyes, and the passion in her voice, as she related teaching then to teaching now, made me acknowledge that this fine lady must have been a fine teacher. "Things are much different today," she added.
They certainly are.
1 This article grew from seven pages of reflections that retired schoolteacher Mrs. Joy Patrick had kindly provided me. Her reflections describe, vividly, I might add, her experiences as a first-year teacher, when she had a straight grade two class. She retired in Quesnel, BC, Canada, in 1988.
2 The names of the many others who were involved have been omitted on all official or related documents on file.