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First Days of School

Students and Teachers (Ontario, ca. 1890-1915)

The last time I stepped onto school grounds with the intention of attending a class was in 2004. Today, as I passed by throngs of youngsters making their way to school - some gleefully, some glumly - I was reminded of that thrill I experienced without fail every semester - that earnest desire to do better academically, that semiannual promise I gave my parents to score more aces, that grumpy Biology teacher I always seemed to be stuck with, that obsessive desire to keep my erasers as white as possible and my pencils as sharp as possible… Ah memories…


Schoolhouse (Moose Factory, Ontario, ca.1890)


Teacher and Two Students (1897)

“In the early 19th century, publicly funded grammar schools and common schools were becoming more widespread [in Canada]. Grammar schools, although partially supported by public funds, were intended for the children of elite society, or for the very intelligent. In later years, grammar schools became what we now call high schools… Common schools were created when it was realized that grammar schools could not educate everyone. Common schools were more like today’s elementary schools. In the early 19th century, government acts were created for the establishment of common schools (New Brunswick in 1802, Ontario in 1816, and Prince Edward Island in 1825). Still, schools could only be built when there were enough children in a community and when the local taxpayers agreed to pay their share of the cost.”

“Students often covered long distances either on foot or horse to get to school. They carried their lunches in commonplace containers such as syrup pails, tobacco tins, and jam cans. Classroom discipline was much stricter than it is now. Students who misbehaved were… ridiculed, called names, hit with thrown objects, or struck with a rod (tree branch) or leather strap. Some students were made to stand with heavy logs in their arms for long periods of time, or instructed to lean over to touch their nose to a circle drawn on the blackboard.”


Boys' Class (Model School, Ottawa, June 1899)


Girls' Class (Model School, Ottawa, June 1899)

“The one-room schoolhouse was often a source of pride for the community who had built it. It was also the centre of community activities, meetings, dances, and social gatherings. The early schoolhouses, built with either wood, stone or brick, were often poorly heated and ventilated. Good lighting was also a problem. Some schools had very little in the way of equipment, such as blackboards, maps, globes and textbooks. With time, the government passed school acts to ensure the improvement of school accommodation for all students… Schools, teachers and students were evaluated by an inspector on his annual visit. Inspectors reported on the school’s attendance record, the teacher’s teaching skills and the condition of the schoolhouse, including recommendations for improvements.”

J.L. MacDonald and Students (Ontario, 1910)

Text and images sourced from Library and Archives Canada.

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