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Back -- Way Back! -- to School: Revisiting Classrooms of the Past

Sit in on an Education World interview with Smithsonian researcher David Shayt, and learn about the National Museum of American History collection of historical treasures from American classrooms. Then invite your students to find more museum treasures in an on-line treasure hunt.

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When I was in school, inkwells were relics. We filled our pens -- and stained our fingertips -- with totally modern, self-contained cartridges of "real" ink. Chalkboards were black, coated with permanent layers of ground-in chalk dust and covered with rows and rows of lessons, carefully printed each morning by teachers wielding miraculous devices that drew three straight lines at one time. Computers were as big as classrooms, mysterious monsters that threatened to take over the world with their artificial, if ponderous, intelligence. Educational technology was unheard of, beyond an occasional rainy-day movie, threaded by hand from reel to reel, which inevitably came unwound at a crucial moment in the action.

Today's schools are, of course, very different from the schools of 50 or 100 years ago. Many of the changes came about so gradually, however, that they were virtually unnoticeable. Few of today's students realize that their country's history is as evident in their classrooms as in their textbooks.

One place where the historical significance of educational change has not escaped notice, however, is at The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Here, in the country's primary repository of national treasures, historians store and protect a large number of educational artifacts, including pencils, crayons, homework, textbooks, report cards, desks, and chalkboards. The collection even includes two complete classrooms, a one-room schoolhouse from Connecticut and a World War I classroom from Cleveland, Ohio!

Recently, Education World asked Museum of American History research specialist David Shayt to share his thoughts about the collection, its importance, and its popularity. Here's what he told us.

Education World: Which educational artifact in the Smithsonian is the oldest or most unusual? Where did you get it?

David Shayt: The 18th-century horn book is probably the most unusual. A little sheet of cow horn flattened, framed in leather, and inscribed with the English alphabet, the horn book was held in a child's hand as an instruction tablet. A private household donated ours to the Smithsonian in the 1950s.

EW: Which artifacts in the classroom exhibits seem to interest visitors most?

DS: Probably the large flash cards of the 1830s that read "Swear Not At All" or "Fear God."

EW: How are readers and other textbooks in the exhibits different from books used in classrooms today?

DS: Earlier books contain denser text, finer print, more-detailed engraved illustrations, more-beautiful typefaces, more-attractive hand illustrations on the covers, more facts, and less interpretation. In other words, they demonstrate greater expectations that the child think for himself or herself rather than being told what to think.

EW: What pieces in the exhibits are still commonly used in classrooms today?

DS: Pencils. Everything else has changed.

EW: What do school groups appear to find most intriguing about the classroom exhibits?

DS: Evidence of classroom patriotism, such as the 48-star flag and the portrait of George Washington.

EW: What do the educational exhibits tell us about the history of education?

DS: They show that traditions matter, especially in the early years.

EW: How many exhibits of all kinds are on display at any one time? Which do children seem to enjoy most?

DS: About 300 exhibits are on view. Children seem to enjoy them all.

EW: How do you obtain artifacts for the exhibits? Do people offer them to you or do you search for particular pieces? How would someone donate an artifact?

DS: Mostly donations. We need written (snail mail) posted letters with images and histories and measurements of what is offered.

EW: Does the Smithsonian have any lesson plans, activities, publications, or other materials available for teachers to order and use in their classrooms?

DS: Yes, email Martha Jo Meserol [email protected] or Nancy McCoy [email protected] in our education office. Be sure to visit the National Museum of American History Web site and encourage your students to complete the Exploring the National Museum of American History on-line scavenger hunt. (Click here for answers.)


  • Resources for Teachers provides information about museum tours, materials, and resources and about the Kids Learning History Conference scheduled for November 1999.

  • Not Just for Kids offers hands-on activities and lessons appropriate for classroom use from the Smithsonian Institution.

  • Education and Outreach links all the Smithsonian museums.

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 1999 Education World