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Schooling, Education, and Literacy, in Colonial Times

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During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries a child's education in colonial America began in his or her home with reading the Bible. Soon, different forms of early education in the colonies began to develop including the dame school, the colonial school house, apprenticeships and the use of a private tutor. The boys and girls of colonial America learned their basic lessons in a variety of practical ways.

One of the most common tools used in the education of a child during the colonial period in America was the hornbook . A hornbook was a paddle made of wood that served as a small, portable desk. On the hornbook's surface was a sheet of parchment featuring the letters of the alphabet, syllable practice and the Lord's Prayer. These daily lessons studied by colonial children were protected from moisture and other damage by a transparent covering of cow's horn. The design and material of a hornbook varied according to the economic situation of the child's family. For instance, a child belonging to a wealthy family might own a hornbook fashioned out of silver or one decorated in leather trim. Alternatively, a child of a laborer would likely use a hornbook carved out of plain wood. There are many creative examples of hornbook construction from that period in history.

One avenue of education for a child in colonial America was a dame school. In a dame school children were taught by a woman, often times a widow, within the confines of her house. The lessons taught in a dame school consisted of writing the alphabet, basic spelling, reading and the practical math used for running a household. The instructor of a dame school used her household materials as tools of teaching. The children, mostly girls, who attended a dame school received whatever practical knowledge the widow had to share. 

Some children who lived in America's colonial era received their lessons in a one room schoolhouse. They went to school during the cold months when they were not readily needed for work on the farm. One of the most surprising characteristics of a typical colonial school is that students of all ages, dressed in typical colonial costumes, were taught by one teacher at the same time. The range in age of the students in a colonial schoolhouse was four years old to a teenager. In addition, the typical group of twenty to fifty children in the school all studied different subjects at different rates of speed. Two common items of teaching material used by the instructor included the Bible and a copy of the New England Primer . The New England Primer was a small book that contained the alphabet, syllables, pictures and other basic lessons for children. The children shared in some aspects of the maintenance of the colonial schoolhouse. For example, the boys helped supply the stove with firewood while the girls kept the wooden floor and benches clean. The children of that era were accustomed to helping with the upkeep of their school.    

An apprenticeship was another way for a boy and sometimes a girl to receive a practical education. A typical scenario of an apprenticeship used as a form of education involved a teenage boy going to stay with a craftsman in order to learn the specifics of his work. An apprenticeship usually lasted several years and during that time the boy lived with his master's family. Depending upon the specific details of an apprenticeship agreed on by the two parties involved, there was sometimes an, "..apprenticeship fee.." paid to the craftsman by the child's family. The apprenticeship of a girl in colonial America was less common but at times young girls were apprenticed to older women to learn sewing or housekeeping responsibilities. An apprenticeship was a way for a child to learn the skills of a trade that would become his or her life's work.

Some children in colonial America who were from wealthier families received their education via private tutor. The role of the private tutor in colonial America was to teach a young boy a variety of subjects such as advanced math, science and Latin. The tutor was usually a man who played a significant role as a guide in the academic and moral education of his young student. The boy might even go on to college in order to pursue a profession in medicine or the law. Alternatively, the colonial education for girls was quite different. The daughter of a wealthy family took her lessons from a governess. The purpose of her education was to make sure she learned the basic reading and writing skills necessary to take care of her own home and family one day. Occasionally, a girl would be given lessons in music or art from a private instructor. At that time, there was little expectation that a girl would attend college.

As the colonial period in America went on, the importance of a good education for a child increased in significance. This new consideration of education gave way to even more inventive methods of teaching.



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