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What was a typical day of school like?

Updated: Jul 11

Our day started at 9.30am when the teacher rang the handbell. After reciting the Oath of Allegiance, and Saluting the Flag [usually draped over the veranda rail] we trooped inside our one-roomed school and sat down at the desks.

The first activity was usually for the teacher to check our spelling homework – could we spell the words set out in our books? With only 10 or 12 students , this didn’t take long. After that, it was mental arithmetic, with the teacher reading out a long list of numbers, which we had to add or subtract mentally, before he stopped and we could write down the answer. We all got quite good at that, and it came in handy many times in later life. Then single classes moved to the veranda where we recited our times tables over and over again. (Usually they were printed on big charts, but sometimes we found them on the back cover of our exercise books.) Most of us can still recite them today! While we did this, the teacher inside the room was probably listening to younger pupils reading or spelling.

Recess was at 11 o’clock. The teacher was supposed to ring the handbell again, but if he was busy then one of the older children got the job. The bell rang again at 11.20, and we returned to work.

As far as I remember, the next hour was spent on arithmetic. Sometimes the teacher had written some tasks on the blackboard, and we tackled those on slates, or in pencil in exercise books. Often, he would hand out pre-printed cards, on which the sums and problems were set out. When we progressed through Year 8, we used ‘Trial Exams’ which were cards showing the problems that had been set in previous years’ exams. In Qld, we had to sit for a final Public Examination at the end of Year 8. We had to pass the exam to be allowed to progress to High Schools.

Lunchtime began at 12.30. We ate our lunch in the shelter shed, which had two long tables with legs set in the ground, and long benches, with legs also set in the ground, either side of them. There was plenty of room for 30 or 40 children, so we were not crowded. We were supposed to sit quietly while we ate our sandwiches, with the older girls supervising. But there were always one or two of the boys who finished eating quickly, then would hide behind the shed walls, out of view from the school windows. The bell rang again at 12.45 to allow the rest of us to leave the shed.

We played hop-scotch; marbles; chasing games, skipping with short or long ropes, and many others. But there were a couple of activities that were special to our little school.

Our playground was on deep black clay, with sparse native grasses. And among the grasses was a big population of trap-door spiders [NOT the poisonous spiders of coastal areas.] They dug cylindrical holes into the dirt, and capped them with neat woven discs of web. Usually this door was lying beside the open hole, while the spider hid below, holding the door with one of her (?) legs. If an insect walked across the silken door, she would dart out of the hole to capture it.

During the long dry months, we discovered that it was fun to pour water down the spider hole. This would force the unfortunate spider up out of her hole, and we laughed as she scuttled away. Usually she had another dry hole nearby.

There were rare times when rain refreshed the grass and trees in our schoolyard. Then sometimes we watched as the yard was turned blue by dozens of small native blue-bells. It was quite easy to remove the circle of blue petals from the flower without tearing it. Then we chose a complete flower on a long stem, and threaded the stem through the circle of another flower, and pushed it up behind the complete flower. So we could make a ‘chain’ of blue bells, sometimes up to 8 cm long. I have no idea how many flowers we destroyed making those chains, but it must have been a lot.

The bell rang again at 1.30, and we went back to work. Typically in the afternoon, there were English lessons, working with sentences: parsing them to discover verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns; analysing them to discover phrases, conjunctions; punctuation and so on. Then working with single words, discovering their Latin or Greek roots, and so being able to understand their meaning. Do today’s children study the English language in this way?

After English, it was History and Geography, mostly about Australia, and combined into something called ‘Social Studies’. We learnt about explorers, and mapped their routes. We learned the names of mountains and rivers. We did spend many hours learning about the history of England, though I don’t recall having to rattle of the name of past Kings and Queens. I do remember ‘In 1492, Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue’; ‘Charles the First walked and talked, half an hour after his head was cut off,’ (punctuation was so important in that one); ‘please to Remember the Fifth of November’ (that was easy, it was my birthday.)

Sometimes the routine would change for one afternoon in the week. We might have some sports practice (usually rounders, a form of softball; or ball games like ‘tunnel-ball’); or music (singing along with the radio during an ABC program); or Religious Instruction from a visiting clergyman from the nearest town; or drawing (in pastel on dark-coloured paper) in ‘drawing-books’; or a nearby woman would come in for a couple of hours to teach the girls sewing skills.

At the end of each term we were ‘tested’ to determine our progress. And I remember frequent exams, which determined whether we could progress to a higher Grade in the New Year. Children who struggled could be made to repeat a year’s schooling. On the other hand, children who were far ahead of their fellows could ‘skip a year’, and finish Year 8 at age 13, while the rest of us laboured on till we were 14.

At 3.30, the bell rang again, and we were free to leave for home.

That was a typical day during my primary years.

NB For simplicity when writing this blog, I have assumed that the teacher was always male. But we had female teachers as well.

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