What did Frederick Jewett and the other school masters teach their pupils? There was no set curriculum at that time. The level of education depended on the ability and knowledge of the teacher.
At first, only the basics were taught in school. In 1794, Connecticut passed a law requiring that all children should learn “to read the English Tongue well, and to know the laws against Capital offenses: And if unable to do so much, than at least to learn some short orthodox Catechism.”
The first book for most children was the New England Primer, a tiny book illustrated with charming woodcuts. The pupils learned the alphabet along with verses such as “D – A Dog will bite, A Thief at Night.”
The primer also contained vocabulary lists starting with one syllable words, and working up to formidable and abomination. Catechism questions and answers constituted a major part of the little book. This is not surprising, because the main reason for learning to read was to be able to read the Bible.
In addition to the basic reading, writing and arithmetic, the children studied spelling, geography, history, grammar and penmanship. If the teacher had the background, he might also teach natural philosophy, astronomy, chemistry and algebra to the older students. Schools were ungraded and pupils just worked their way through the books.
An examination of some early Granby textbooks indicates that students in the district school system received a challenging education.
Reading lessons often included moral teaching about respect, duty, truth, cleanliness and kindness. An Easy Reader from 1839 offered some rather gory fables for the enjoyment of the younger children. An 1847 book had an exciting morality tale called The Girl Who Swallowed Fruit Stones, with dire consequences.
Older students read beautiful descriptive prose or interesting essays on subjects such as “People of the Western States,” which introduced the new words predominant, congenial, amity and ennui, among others. The children absorbed the beauty and variety of words, which is why many of our ancestors wrote such eloquent and erudite letters with only an 8th grade education.
In Noah Webster’s famous spelling book, the pupil studied new words with practice sentences such as, “The adroit rope-dancer can leap and jump and perform as many exploits as a monkey.”
The scholars were burdened with arithmetic unheard of today. In the early 1800s, the value of money was different in different states and intricate calculations were necessary to equate the currency.
An 1807 arithmetic book also taught these measurements:
3 barley corns = 1 inch
3 scruples = 1 dram
4 nails = 1/4 of a yard
4 gills = 1 pint
2 hogsheads = 1 pipe
Geography Made Easy, published in 1794, is filled with fascinating information (along with some misinformation) but it does not oversimplify. The reader was expected to work. An 1826 science book has chapters on astronomy, plants, air balloons, steam engines and the diving bell.
In addition to teaching, the school master was responsible for inspecting and measuring the wood quota from each student. Problems in collecting the firewood tuition persisted. Yearly, more stringent rules were enacted. The wood had to be hard, dry, 18 inches long and “suitably split for use.” It was to be delivered before school opened. And in 1825, a certificate proving you delivered the wood was necessary before your child could attend classes.
The only means of judging the teacher’s competence was the system of School Visitors. Men were appointed to visit the schools and report back to the district. Some of the visitors considered strict discipline the only criteria of a good teacher.
The School Visitors also examined and approved candidates to teach in the “common schools” in Granby. A document from 1832 approved male teachers Daniel Sandford, Waldo Reed, Philo Clemons, Joel Tiffany, Jr., Dayton Spencer and Franklin Case. The female teachers who passed the exam were Rachel Benjamin, Asenath Holcomb, Julia Holcomb and Jerusha F. Cornwell.
Next month: Part 4 – The 1823 First District School