New curriculum allows students to experience a 1904 education - October 24, 2013

Dorothy Voss, the founder of the Zeeland Historical Society, poses Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, in the New Groningen Schoolhouse in Zeeland. The Zeeland Historical Society recently received a $7,000 grant from the Holland/Zeeland Community Foundation to write a school curriculum based on the year 1904. Students spend a whole or half day at the schoolhouse learning lessons and using materials as if they were attending school in 1904. Dennis R.J. Geppert/The Holland Sentinel

Historical artifacts are on display at the New Groningen Schoolhouse in Zeeland.  — Dennis R.J. Geppert/The Holland Sentinel
Historical artifacts are on display at the New Groningen Schoolhouse in Zeeland.  — Dennis R.J. Geppert/The Holland Sentinel

By Lisa Ermak


The year is 1904.


Few homes have telephones or bathtubs, Helen Keller has graduated college, and Theodore Roosevelt has been elected to his second term as president.


The year 1904 is the focus of a new historical curriculum offered to area schools by the Zeeland Historical Society.


The curriculum invites first- through fifth-grade classes to Zeeland’s New Groningen Schoolhouse, 10537 Paw Paw Drive, for a day to experience life as a student in West Michigan in 1904.


The one-room schoolhouse was built in 1881 and, for 70 years, served as the primary school for youngsters from Holland and Zeeland townships. It was closed in the 1950s when the current New Groningen School was opened.


In 2006, The Zeeland Historical Society purchased the old schoolhouse building and began extensive renovations in order to preserve its history and also to bring educational experiences back to the building.


"Our hope was that it would be used again for children," Zeeland Historical Society founder Dorothy Voss said of the building.


Now it will be. With a $7,000 grant from the Holland/Zeeland Community Foundation, the society was able to develop the historical curriculum, which Dorothy and other society members hope area schools will use.


Zeeland Public Schools’ assistant superintendent of human resources and curriculum, Jon Voss (no relation to Dorothy), said the district hasn’t decided how they will implement the curriculum yet, but he expects it will be a great fit for second-grade students.


"Second grade is when they do Zeeland history," Jon said. "That age group tends to be especially enthralled by that idea and what it would have been like."


A lot of times with history lessons, Jon said, students have to picture ideas and events in their minds. Now, with the new curriculum, students can visit the historical schoolhouse and understand concepts through hands-on learning and games that date back more than 100 years.


And that’s the idea. The curriculum which Debbie Albert wrote allows students to learn about 1904 through reenactments, observation and class discussion.


All lessons are correlated with State of Michigan Education Standards but are very different from what you might see in today’s classrooms, Dorothy said.


Lesson plans are built around core subjects like reading, geography and arithmetic. Poems and limericks also are part of the curriculum.


Depending on how much of the 47-page curriculum a teacher chooses to implement, Dorothy said a class can spend the whole school day at New Groningen or just a few hours.


Students will read from McGuffey Eclectic Readers and practice their penmanship with slates and slate pencils. They will use maps for a lesson in geography and solve arithmetic story problems.


During recess, Dorothy said, a class might choose to play jacks or dominoes, hold a spelling bee or gather around the classroom piano to sing songs like "My Country ‘Tis of Thee" and "America the Beautiful."


Teachers also are encouraged in the curriculum to point out the differences between the New Groningen Schoolhouse and the school they attend. For example, kerosene lamps would have been used inside the schoolhouse in 1904 instead of fluorescent lights, and the black wood-burning stove in the room would have keep the classroom warm instead of a furnace.


"Continue by asking children how they get to school," the curriculum reads. "Tell them that in 1904, only very wealthy or rich people had cars and so there were very few of them. Most children got to school by walking and carrying the things they brought to school with them like the logs."


The curriculum even encourages students to pack a sack lunch similar to what children might have eaten in 1904, one that consists of a hard-boiled egg, an apple, a sandwich, a donut, a piece of cheese, a pickle and some water.


"We want them to see the progress education has made, and yet some things are so basic," Dorothy said. "Learning to spell, learning to speak, learning to write, those things are basic skills."