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What Was School Life Like?

What Were the Schoolbooks Like?

The most important early schoolbooks were the readers. Students were not divided into grades, but instead were grouped according to which reader they were in: first, second, third or fourth reader, and so on. The readers contained lessons in spelling, history, natural history and other subjects as well as stories and poems.

The Irish National Series
The third reader in this series states, "It is recommended that the Pupils be made to commit the best pieces of poetry to memory; and that they be taught to read and repeat them with due attention to pronunciation, accent, and emphasis. Columns of words, divided into syllables have been continued . . . to assist children in learning to pronounce the words, and as exercises in spelling."
Jean Cochrane, The School (Markham, Ont.: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1986), p. 32.

The Irish National Readers did not contain much Canadian content, an omission which led eventually to texts such as the Canadian series of School Books.

Canadian Series of School Books
The lessons in this very Canadian series "are carefully arranged, taking the starting point from the Second Book, and gradually becoming more difficult both in the words they contain and in the meanings they convey." Preface to the Third Book of Reading Lessons.

Other Readers
The poems found in readers were mainly about death, disaster, and misadventure, along with patriotic themes. The material in the readers was often macabre in nature, with some selections from the classics and a few by Canadian authors.

Don't Do This!
It seems that some students back in the 19th century could not resist the temptation to write in their books, just like some students today, despite knowing better.

Do not copy their example, but have a look at some of the things they wrote.
Don't Do This!

Spelling Books

Writing Books
The art of handwriting, called "penmanship," was practised every day at school. Writing textbooks gave examples of good penmanship and exercises in handwriting. Students were supposed to use free-arm movements (not finger movements) and good writing posture. Students could check their handwriting to see how it rated against samples shown on the standard writing scale.

Arithmetic Books

Geography Books
As of January 1, 1847, foreign textbooks (including American books), were not allowed to be used in Ontario with the exception of Sidney Edwards Morse's New Geography which at the time had nothing to replace it.

History Books

Music Books

Gymnastics and Calisthenics Books

Domestic Science Books

Hygiene Books

Nature Study Books

Health (physiology) and Physical Fitness (temperance and exercises) Books