History buffs will be delighted. Young people, accustomed to Ipods and cell phones as their constant companions, will be incredulous. Everyone in between will be entertained by Jeanne Caswell’s book Prairie West School Division: A Rural Legacy. Her book chronicles the early days of the education system in the Swift Current area through to the contemporary schools of today. In 1905 when Saskatchewan became a province, there were no rural schools around Swift Current. By 1925, more than 100 schools had been opened.
Seven chapters and five appendices give the reader an insider’s perspective. The “Teaching Experience” chapter outlines the responsibilities of a teacher in a one-room school. The work load was tremendous. Aside from providing direct instruction for Grade 1-8 students, the teacher marked assignments for Grade 9 and 10 students taking correspondence courses. Ratepayers in Beaver Flat School District #4021 complained that teachers expected far too much money for teaching. In the depression years of the 1930’s, ratepayers could not afford salaries of $10 per month.
Computer technology was not invented. Most schools did not even have a telephone. Looking after the children’s physical welfare was part of the job description. In a blizzard, students spent the night at the school rather than relying on their horses to get them home safely. Teachers hauled coal and got the stove going before classes. One teacher, standing too close to the Quebec heater, burnt a hole in the back of her skirt.
In spite of no technology or teaching aids other than a blackboard (chalk allotment was one piece per day), students and staff have fond recollections. The school became the hub of the farming community. Dances, church services, recruiting meetings during World War 1, fowl suppers, Christmas concerts, and summer picnics took place at the school. Many teachers were young women teaching on permit. Some left after a short time, being unable to manage the responsibility and isolation of their teaching positions. Neighbourhood bachelors, eager to change their marital status, anticipated the arrival of the new teacher. Blumenhof School #4089 added a second classroom in the 1940’s. As the new foundation was being poured, the students threw the school strap into the cement. At King’s County School #4428, students used thistles to build forts. Part of the entertainment was setting fire to your rivals’ fort! Caswell’s book, full of humorous anecdotes, celebrates the past paying homage to visionaries who believed that education is the passport to the future.
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