Past and present

Nikiski class reverts to old schoolhouse

Posted: Wednesday, February 09, 2000

Computers sit in one corner of Judy Shields' classroom at Nikiski Elementary School. In the opposite corner sits a wooden water bucket with a carved dipper.

Every morning for several hours, her second-graders turn away from the educational gadgets of the turn of the 21st century and pretend they are back in 1854. Franklin Pierce was in the White House, Indian Wars haunted the frontier, European immigrants settled in the primitive wilds of America's great plains, and the Pledge of Allegiance had yet to be written.

The Nikiski students -- in their imaginations -- are transported to a place called the Apple Valley School.

"It's a simulation of pioneer life in a one-room schoolhouse," Shields said.

"They learn a lot about how things have changed. It is a great unit for these kids."

In their classroom within the classroom, they continue their lessons, but with an antique angle.

Students sit on benches, make butter from cream, practice their arithmetic on slates and memorize poetry for recitation. They learn to dip drinks from the bucket instead of heading to the water fountain. They even adopt the new identities of Apple Valley children with names like Thaddeus, Elizabeth and Karl.

Shields has a different identity for Apple Valley School, too, as teacher Lucinda Parks. She dons a skirt, blouse, shawl and old-fashioned broach for the part. The role has special personal significance.

"I took my great-grandmother's name," she said, "because I found out my great-grandmother was a teacher in a one-room school house in Elizabeth, Colo. I look pretty authentic when I come as Lucinda Parks."

Shields combines the primary lessons, projects, history and a spirit of fun, making much of the unit into a group game.

"They get points for being good citizens, for coming to school on time, for getting a perfect score on a spelling test," she said.

Apple Valley School is part of a curriculum unit she found in an educational catalog. It is part of a series called "Learning Through Involvement" that uses simulations in elementary classrooms.

Shields introduced Apple Valley last year and was pleased with the enthusiastic response from students and their families. When the unit ended with an old-fashioned graduation picnic, nearly everyone came, she said.

This year, she has modified the lessons to be more suitable for second-graders and added items she found related to the theme.

Alongside the unit, the class reads Laura Ingalls Wilder's memoirs about growing up in the 19th century.

"It fits perfectly with this," Shields said.

The students learn that school in 1854 was a different place from what it is now.

She told the class that women teachers were not allowed to continue in the profession if they married. Male teachers did not have the restriction.

Students thought that was unfair.

Attitudes toward public health, self-esteem and corporal punishment also have changed a great deal.

"What was a dunce?" she asked the class.

Shields told her amazed students that to enforce discipline in 1854, a teacher would have used a paddle, dragged them around by their ears and set those who misbehaved up in the corner with the pointed dunce cap.

"Teachers in those days tried to embarrass kids," she told them.

Later, she said, she limits the authenticity in such matters.

"I don't make them wear a dunce cap," she said, "and they won't get hit."

Frontier schools were not always the happy, wholesome places people associate with the mythologized good old days, Shields said.

"In fact, they were pretty rough places."

Wilder alluded, in one of her books, to an incident in which "big boys" fatally injured a teacher, Shields said.

The Apple Valley School unit helps the children appreciate the advantages of life in the year 2000 and provokes a lot of thought for 7- and 8-year-olds, she said.

Shields said she is learning a lot, as well.

"I just love history, and I just love geography," she said. "This has piqued my interest even more."

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