“Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.” ~ John F. Kennedy
By Teresa Nguyen
RCHS History Teller
Evolution of Education
Graduation caps fly into the air against the dusty blue sky over the Rock River. Monterey Stadium is packed once again with an audience of relatives, teachers and friends in anticipation with cameras ready. The cool summer breeze dries gently rolling tears on the cheeks of proud moms and dads. They sit in amazement that this moment has finally arrived, a tinge of sadness with thoughts of those goodbye hugs when their sons and daughters move away to college.
Another school year over, and another graduation night filled with selfies, family shots and hugging friends. And a future-ready class files out to the world that awaits their contributions.
Education is one of my passions. The end of this school year marks my 15th year working for the School District of Janesville. For most of those years, I worked as a substitute teacher, in several long-term positions ranging from music to full-time 5th grade and middle school technical education.
During the 2006-’07 school year, I was the music teacher at Harrison Elementary. For a few years after, my business partner and music educator, Carlie Edmund Craig, and I co-owned Harmony Music Academy on River Street. We offered piano, guitar and voice lessons, as well as preschool music and performed an original fine arts program promoting good values and character at area schools. During that time, I still kept my feet in the classrooms of our community, still a strong supporter of the teaching profession.
Through those years, I taught a lot of students, mostly wonderful children and a few interesting characters, many of whom are now grown, getting married and starting their own families. Sometimes, while out at the grocery store or an event in my role as History Teller for RCHS, I see a recognizable face on an adult figure. They always seem to remember me and it’s a nice ‘give away’ when I am referred to as “Mrs. Nguyen” (Pronounced Win). It’s heartwarming to hear how I somehow impacted their education or lives in a positive way.
In a kind of mirror to parenting, teachers become closely connected to their students and vice versa. And, like an empty nest, that empty classroom gives teachers a sense of accomplishment, but also a sense of wonder about what will happen to each of those 25-30 students. After all, they were in the teacher’s care, under his or her guidance for the greater part of nine plus months over the past year.
Substitute teaching may seem like a thankless, challenging job. And though some days were draining, it has mostly been a joy for me, fulfilling in different ways. It is gratifying to know that I could help a teacher to make that appointment, or take that personal day, go to a funeral or care for their sick child. I know how precious those few hours off can be.
Recently, I realized that I’ve worked in every public school, yes, all of the elementary, middle and both high schools in the city of Janesville! I have also subbed in all schools except the high school in Milton. That’s a lot of schools and a proud accomplishment. It has also been my good fortune to have worked with some truly amazing and inspiring teachers and for some wonderful administrators.
My three sons attended Monroe Elementary School in Janesville. Monroe recently had its exciting 50th Anniversary celebration. Wow, 50 years! It seems like such a long time, but I suppose relative to the stories I’ve heard of the various one room school houses, it’s still a fairly new school in our Wisconsin history.
Both public and private education is constantly evolving, and in all areas from science to sports, math to English, the arts and, of course, technology. Even in my own relatively short teaching career, things have changed a great deal.
The semester before earning my Elementary Education degree from Iowa State University, I dove into the world of student teaching, loving the chance to learn from expert educator, Bev Saxton, at Fellows Elementary in Ames, Iowa. Everything was exciting for me, as I finally had the opportunity to apply the variety of skills I’d learned in my methods classes.
Technology was primitive compared to 2018. My dark slacks and skirts were often decorated in chalk marks by the end of the day, and purple ink speckled my fingers from the Duplo machine, the predecessor to scanners, laser printers and photocopiers.
Though students were still using rote memorization, curriculum planners left room for creative exploration. Being a musician, songwriter and an artist gave me an added advantage, so some of my lessons often involved student created art, or an educational sing-a-long with my guitar. After all these years, I now have a file cabinet full of children’s songs relating to various themes, topics or seasons.
Generally, students’ attitudes were different then, too. Children seemed a bit more innocent, more eager to learn, more obedient and respectful toward their teachers. Only a handful had emotional difficulties that, as caring educators, we tried so desperately and diligently to help them overcome.
But, society and technology has changed a great deal over the years which changed how we educate. My oldest son’s class was the first at Craig High School to have a Smart Board. At the time, it was such a cool thing! Wow, a big computer on the wall? Both the teachers and students could use the interactive board for nearly all subjects.
Fast forward to today, and that’s all you find in most of the classrooms. Gone are the chalkboards, gone are the whiteboards. Quiet scanners copy papers in seconds and even paper and copiers are used less & less because most classrooms now have iPads and computers for students. The classroom jobs list no longer has Sarah wiping the board, but rather checking iPads, making sure they’re all plugged in on the rack.
In June I celebrated my one-year anniversary in my position as History Teller at RCHS. It’s been a wonderful, new career switch as I am able to use my writing skills in different ways, a departure from the creative writing geared for children in my elementary classroom lessons. And in this role, I’m learning more and more about the history in our community.
Perhaps my storytelling is a kind of community education, or at least enlightenment, about the amazing, inspiring people who have contributed to our history and made Rock County what it is today.
A few recent interviews revealed some interesting stories and different perspectives on the changes in education over the years.
Nate Fuller: Education Curator for the Rock County Historical Society
What are some differences between the education in the Victorian era to today?
The difference between then and now is that children are seen in a different way. In 1800’s the children are seen as little adults and are treated as if they should know all the social mores and folkways of a particular culture. So, there wasn’t a focus on educating them on how to be social and how to use manners. Not everything is inherent.
A lot of the students didn’t learn very well, because it is now known that students learn at different rates and in different ways, but school was very regimented and taught at a certain pace. These days there are options. Parents can choose Montessori schools, private and parochial schools, there is individualization and special ed in the public schools. If a child had a learning disability back in those days, you were simply out of luck.
Today, there is much less focus on memorization, primarily because we have information at our fingertips and we don’t have to draw on our own mental abilities. In the 1800’s, children didn’t have access to public libraries, as they came about around the turn of the century. Unless you were a wealthy family who could afford a library of books, the typical family had only a few books in their home.
Information was truly limited. Therefore, books were memorized so that children could build their own mental libraries. It was astounding how much they could remember.
That’s one of the reasons that writing was so florid and amazing back then. Writers could draw illusions from the Bible and many other books they had memorized, which was great for expression.
What are some older skills that you teach today’s children who visit the Frances Willard Schoolhouse?
In our Frances Willard Schoolhouse tours, we typically use McGuffey readers, in print since the mid-1800’s. We use passages from those books, which not only taught how to read and write, but also morality. Most of the tales have a moral bend to them, whether about being a good person, choosing to stay in school or telling the truth.
As a student would advance, the writing and spelling exercises became harder, and there were more gut-punching stories about what children should do to behave. My personal favorite is a story about why you shouldn’t stand up in a boat … so you don’t fall over and drown. The story ends with these kids almost drowning! So, the lesson ends with a dictation exercise that talks about a little girl saying, “If the preacher wasn’t nearby, we might have drowned!” It’s not exactly a typical story you’d read today.
Do you find that today’s kids struggle with the lessons?
Yes, because in part, we don’t teach handwriting or cursive anymore. Also, with today’s technology we have computers for expressing ourselves. I’m not one to bemoan the loss of cursive writing.
In the 1800’s, handwriting was the only way to express one’s self. It standardized everyone’s writing. Now, computers do the same thing. When you write with cursive, everything is like painting, so you’re not messy or wasting ink. Students were taught to write with the forearm, as opposed to the wrist, which would mess up the ink writing.
What are your thoughts on the changes, positive or negative, in education over time?
There’s a balance. We wouldn’t want to go back to the days when we didn’t tailor to the individual learners. There are now a wide variety of options now.
Part of the problems in today’s education is that we tend to stick with what we think works. One of the things we could have learned from the education in the 1800’s is that if someone is ready to move on, they should move on. A student shouldn’t be held back from learning or from moving forward. But, in today’s education system, there are so many options, it’s hard to tell which is best.
Public schools have always been a priority in this country, and I feel like in today’s world, it is not as much a priority. We’ve lost some of that public spirit toward public education. It really is an important thing.
In public education, we have an opportunity to teach everyone our common American values. It has that power and the more we take away from it, the less we’ll see a return. Until we invest better in public schools again, we won’t find that public spirit again in our country.
Nancy Nienhuis: Retired GM Nurse, Owner and Manager of The Good Acres Farms
Where did you go to school?
I went to a one-room school house on the corner of County J and County O. It’s no longer there.
The students were in grades 1st – 8th. We had to haul water from the farm next door to the school. We had a pail with a stick through the handle and we would go in pairs to help carry the water. The teacher had to tend the fire. Winter was difficult.
We were milking cows in 1941 on December 7th and heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor was attacked. My dad had 4 brothers on area farms who were drafted. He had to help take care of their farms while they were gone. The troop trains would come down from Minnesota, pick up troops in Janesville, and the school would be alerted that the troop train was coming.
We’d run out of the school to wave at the troops and the soldiers would wave back and yell “Pray for us!” to the kids. I remember that vividly, and then they were off to WWII. There was a real sense of community back then.
What were your ambitions for the future?
After 8th grade, I attended Janesville High School, which is now the Janesville Performing Arts Center. That’s where I graduated. I guess if it had been today’s time, I would have farmed and raised cows, but back then women didn’t farm, they weren’t encouraged to farm. Women were not in agriculture.
I didn’t want to be a teacher and had no secretarial skills, so I went into nursing. Times have certainly changed; the Ag Business School is now full of women students!
Naomi Hackbarth: Retired Educator, Community Volunteer
What were your grade school experiences?
We moved to a farm in Harmony Township in June of 1941. In September, I entered first grade at Blackhawk Country School on Ruger Avenue. The school had no running water or indoor plumbing. Since I was quite small, I had to have a box under my feet.
When we were in about third or fourth grade, we became teacher’s aides, taking younger students into one of the two coats rooms to listen to them read and to go through math drills.
We all had duties such as cleaning the erasers, sweeping the floors, helping the teacher “mimeograph” papers (this was a gelatinous roll on which one spread water and then placed the paper to be copied on top, and then rolled a fresh sheet one page at a time), and bringing in water from the well.
We had one piece of playground equipment – a merry-go-round; however, the Rohertys let us slide down their hill in the winter on our sleds, and we played baseball on Brickfield’s pasture in the spring and fall. School was closed a few times because we were all sick with the measles or chickenpox.
Mrs. Gladys Lee was an influential woman in my life. She taught at Blackhawk Country School for several years. Perhaps she is why I became a teacher. We put on plays from time to time and had an annual Christmas pageant.
Our music came over the radio, as did our art lessons. Once a month, the county sent us a box of library books to read. Also, once a month the county sent us a container of iodine pills. We had no telephone, so Mrs. Lee had to take care of any first aid needs.
Kathy Boguszewski: Retired School Library and Instructional Technology Coordinator Educator, Research Strategies Coach at Rock University High School
How has education changed for the marginalized students or those who fall behind?
I started teaching right out of college in 1967. This was before special education and I had a first-grade class of about 50 students. I felt so badly because I had to fail about 10 students because they didn’t know how to read.
At one point, I came up with an idea to create a listening station and recorded my voice giving instruction on the workbook. Those students would sit separately at the “Listening Station” while the rest of the class worked independently. Everyone thought it was so innovative back then. But, I still had 10 who weren’t keeping up.
When I studied teaching methods at the University of Miami, Ohio, I wasn’t taught how to teach phonics, but I actually learned on phonics. The teacher down the hallway was teaching phonics, so I sent those down to her and told my administrator that I felt they needed to attend another year with her. We didn’t have testing back then, it was truly up to the teacher to advance a student or not. So, we had more failures.
I got out of education in 1972 but returned again in 1985 as a librarian at Milton High School. By then, special education was wonderful. I collaborated with the special ed teachers. I partnered with Don Vruwink at that time.
The students were researching the Civil War and there was one student who had Down Syndrome. I asked her teacher, “What does she love?” Turns out, she loved the radio and listened to it all the time. I suggested that she do a “History of the Radio” project, and we’d let her take as long as she’d like. Ahead of their class research, I would take these special students and try to get them prepared for a research project on something that they really cared about.
I believe in special education, and I’ve seen a growth in their needs.
How do you see changes in education for minority students?
When I started teaching, I was the only white teacher in an all-black school in Cleveland, Ohio, and I also taught at an all-white school in a very well-to-do neighborhood. I remember during the Hough Riots, the families at the all-black school were very concerned about my safety and they would escort me to my car and sometimes out of the neighborhood. They started busing back then, and I didn’t believe in that.
I believe our neighborhoods need to be integrated, we need to break bread together and get to know each other as human beings. Recently, the prejudice I’ve seen in some, but not all, of our students has been very harmful. They come with attitudes sometimes, and I believe it’s learned in the families.
Today, there are more opportunities for our minority students and I am thrilled that they have more occasions to learn about their own history and their own roots. I have a multi-racial student who went to National History Day and on to state with his project. I asked him if he’d like to research Thomas Jefferson’s children for next year’s project. He is really excited about his summer reading!
We need to open their minds more, which is why I went into the library field. It is frustrating to me how the textbook industry promotes text books that are so narrow or that omit pieces of history and cultures. In the library there are so many more resources, books on all the races and all religions.
Mari Sroda: Milton High School “Support for Success” Program Coordinator and At-Risk Educator
In your teaching experiences, how has technology has changed the way we educate students?
I have been teaching in the wonderful School District of Milton for 30 years and have had many roles in the district. I’ve had an opportunity to work with students ranging from kindergarten to high school seniors.
My roles have varied from classroom teacher to various learning support teacher roles. In the 30 years I have been in this profession, I have seen many changes, the biggest are related to technology.
When I first started teaching, I didn’t even have a phone in my room. If I wanted to call a parent, I needed to use the phone in the office. Now, in my role at the high school, a large majority of students carry phones in their pockets. So, I have gone from having no phone in my classroom to having 20 phones in the room at one time!
Thirty years ago, I would spend a lot of time in the copy room, handed out textbooks, a lot of paper and pencils. Now, at Milton High School, each student has their own computer!
New technology has added so much value to student learning. When I first started teaching, students had a very limited available base of information. The world has expanded tremendously for them. Students don’t have to find an encyclopedia or seek answers from the index of an outdated book. Now, they simply “Google” it. This is fantastic, but it creates new responsibilities for teachers.
We need to teach appropriate use of technology and techniques for students to evaluate the accuracy of enormous amount of available information. Students no longer carry the same number of folders, heavy textbooks and notebooks because so much is stored in their computers. Calculators and dictionaries are also online, so everything takes up less space and there is less waste of paper and supplies.
Students no longer have that excuse of “forgetting” their assignments or losing them. Assignments are turned in online and are time stamped, so teachers know exactly when they have been turned in. Teachers may even see an edit history of assignments. If it is a group project, they can tell who was contributing.
Technology has opened the lines of communication, as well. On their child’s online Schoology page, Parents are able to see the assignments. Years ago, report cards were paper, and parents and students weren’t always sure what the grade would be until the quarter ended. Now, they can monitor missing assignments online and observe how grades are fluctuating throughout the quarter.
Additionally, I communicate a lot more via email with students and parents. There are obvious pros and cons to that, especially if the communication extends into the evening hours.
Years ago, I used multiple teacher manuals and bought additional books to enrich my lessons. Today, we often use the internet, which has exploded with professional tools to help educators with their craft. Connecting with other teachers around the globe is also easier than ever! Countless tools are available for students to assist in their diverse learning needs. The beauty of these tools is that students can use them individually and discretely without feeling singled out.
I am often asked if technology is more of a curse than a blessing. It is true that technology may cause and amplify distractions, but students have always had distractions, especially social distractions. Juggling and managing those distractions is the challenge.
Years ago, I remember catching students writing notes during class. They were written only to one other student in pencil on white lined paper. Thirty years later, students are still trying to connect with their friends but now they’re able to instantly connect with multiple students via texts, pictures on Snapchat or on Facebook and Instagram. But, once things are posted, they can’t just disappear as simply as a note being torn up over the garbage.
Thirty years later, we are the same teachers, redirecting students but in different ways. Every generation believes the younger generation has changed so much. The way I see it, kids really are the same. They all want to be seen, to be valued and heard, to be known and to feel accepted. Deep in their hearts I don’t believe any of them want to be failures. No matter how they act, they truly want someone to champion them.
As a teacher, what has been most rewarding for you?
The most rewarding part of the profession is connecting with my students. They all are a part of our future and, as an educator, it is an honor to play a role in influencing our future world. It is a gift to come to work every day and bring new energy of hope and potential to these students.
Being a teacher can be quite challenging. Yet even after 30 years, I still believe that the rewards are worth the extra effort. The relationships I’ve had with my coworkers and my students has enriched my life. I have so much admiration for each of them and their unique gifts and I am better in every way because of their influence on me. I feel I have learned as much as I have taught.
My greatest rewards come from the honor of connecting with students, then seeing them become successful adults. Sometimes they get in touch and remind me of something I did or said that changed their life. This still gives me goosebumps. After 30 years I have witnessed growth and changes in education, yet even after all this time, I still believe teaching is a noble profession.
From chalk and slates to iPads, education in our community has truly come a long way! We went from all grades learning in one room to individualized lessons and new technology that would have seemed like crazy fiction to the Victorian era children reciting poetry.
The newest way of exploring the world is through virtual reality headsets, giving children a kind of Captain Geordi LaForge of Star Trek appearance. Yet with all the changes, there remains that duty and power in public education; a duty to teach what it means to be American and the power to shape the minds of our future leaders.
My own passion for education will likely never cease. It is my hope that my students of yesterday who become the parents of tomorrow recognize the value and importance of public education. In spite of the negative side effects from continuing changes in society, the majority of American school reforms over the decades have been positive and amazing, transforming the learning environment into a more inclusive place of learning and growth toward higher standards.
Education has become a science, a deep study of how we learn best and how our knowledge can be used for the greater good. We still live in the land of opportunity, and a quality education is a priceless investment for America’s future generations. May the changes we see in the classrooms bring positive progress toward our community’s future.
“The way I see it, kids really are the same. They all want to be seen, to be valued and heard, to be known and to feel accepted. ~ Mari Sroda