It’s Back to School Time. Any Questions?

September 14, 2022

The kids are headed back to school for another year of learning, while the rest of us can hang out here and learn about the origins and purposes behind some of the most fundamental elements of the classroom.

Why does the school year begin around early September?

That’s an outgrowth, and a relic of, the 19th century, when millions of American families worked on or operated farms. Some districts would allow for a long, two- or three-month break in the middle of the calendar year so that children and teenagers could help with the harvest, and when that fell depended on when they were most needed to pick crops or tend to livestock. An area with a fall harvest might give students September and October off. Meanwhile, in large northeastern cities where the needs of farmers weren’t a concern, wealthy families would take their kids out school in the hot summer months and head to their more temperate country homes in such large numbers that schools in New York and the like just started ending the school year in June. That group’s break became the standard as small farming faded from American life.

Why is the blackboard black?

Students in ancient Babylonia wrote out lessons on clay tablets with a clay stylus, and they would clean them with water. By the 18th century, those evolved into slates, tablet-sized surfaces made of real slate or wood covered in washable paint. As handy as they were, teachers couldn’t do a group lesson on such a tiny surface, so in 1801, James Pillans, the headmaster of Old High School in Edinburgh, Scotland, hung a large piece of slate on the wall at the front of his classroom and wrote on it with chalk. The idea spread through Europe and to the U.S., where black slate was inexpensive and readily available. While blackboards would evolve into more easily readable green boards in the 1960s, and white, dry-erase boards in the ‘90s, we still call them “blackboards.”

What’s the origin of bringing a teacher an apple?

When settlers established small communities in the Midwest in the mid-1800s, they opened one-room schoolhouses for the educating of their children. The community would then find a teacher, usually an unmarried young woman. Because they couldn’t afford to pay her much, the parents of students would take care of her needs, building her a house and providing her with food. An apple for a teacher is emblematic of this era. A farmer’s child might periodically pay their teacher with a few ears of corn, or a crate of apples.

Got more questions? Don’t raise your hand and wait for the teacher to call on you. Check out Who Knew?, a fun, educational book full of trivia presented in a Q&A format. It’s available now from Portable Press.