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Remembering MPLS

Remembering MPLS, where do I start? My parents enrolled my siblings and me at the Campus School in 1954 sometime in the fall of the year. We moved from Waterloo to Cedar Falls during my second-grade year and that’s where I received my elementary and secondary education for the next ten years until the educational authorities finally let me graduate in 1965.

In those long-ago-days of Mayberry, most of the mothers were at home during the day—they had to be. How would we have a den mother if our mothers weren’t home planning our next Cub Scout activity? Plus every class needed a homeroom mother. In 1954, when my family moved to 609 W. 22nd Street, I recall my parents showing me the route to school—only once--and I was on my own to navigate my way from home to school and back. Simple enough. No rides to or from school in those days. My father was off in the family Studebaker at 6:30am while my mother managed to see that the Nielsen children finished their oat meal and headed down the sidewalk to school even when the temperatures fell to a minus 11 degrees. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back,” somehow we made the round trip twice each day and no mothers broke their backs.

The school gave us hour-long noon breaks so we could go home for lunch if we liked. The high-status sixth-graders who managed the before-school flag raising and the safety patrol both at noon and again after school, made sure we left the school grounds safely. How we got across College St. I don’t recall but somehow we made it. At noon we could walk the eight blocks home, eat lunch and maybe return in time for some playground time before afternoon classes started. Some of my classmates got “hot lunch” (thanks to Mrs. Jans, Mrs. Bergstrom and Mrs. Adamson among others) or they brought their “cold lunch” in a brown bag or lunch box. Part of our classroom morning routine was lunch count. I think I experienced “hot lunch” exactly twice during my entire elementary school career. Neglect, self-pity and envy! None of that delicious bleached-white commercial uniform expensive plastic-wrapped Wonder Bread for the Nielsen kids! We walked home and ate my mother’s homemade bread which of course, I didn’t appreciate at the time.

In this post-war era, the school was FULL. There were at least 26 or more of us, in each classroom. We were the baby boomers and boom we did. The student teachers seemed to be almost as abundant as we were. Sometimes we would have three or more student teachers in our classroom. We were offered a lot of help and we probably needed it. Possibly because of the number of students in each classroom or because of something John Dewey might have written in some obscure book somewhere, whole classes were passed from one teacher to another in lock-step fashion—Track A and Track B. In other words, my siblings and I were passed along the same chain of teachers from Dr. Koehring in kindergarten, to Miss McCarthy in first, to Mrs. Davids at second, to Miss Mantor at third, to Dr. Hosier at fourth, to Miss Walters at fifth and Miss Helff at sixth. No mixing or mingling of students from one track to another.

Once assigned, the parents knew the teachers all of their children would have. Unfortunately, we never got to know the students in the other section of our particular grade level, not even on the playground. That could wait until junior high. Once seventh grade arrived, hormones surging, we made up for lost time at the noon dances in the basement near the shop where we had Industrial Arts. We soon got to know all the students at our grade level as well as some older and younger students as well. The playground was replaced with a cement dance floor as we secondary students twisted to 45 rpm records of Chubby Checker and later the Beatles.

Yes…… Industrial Arts was part of the curriculum even at the elementary level. I was in high school before I realized NOT every student in every school in every state of the USA detassled corn plants in the summer as many students in Iowa did. Equally amazing was my discovery that not every student was offered Industrial Arts in the elementary school, not to mention physical education every day and swimming once each week with factory-grade school-issue swimming suits offered in sizes BAGGY, too BAGGY, and HOLD-ON, along with bleachy-smelling towels. On non-swim days if our gym teachers couldn’t hold PE classes outside, we were marched off to the dirt-floor field house surrounding the raised wooden basketball court. Who can forget the smell of that oily brown track and the rough canvass that partitioned the basketball court from the dirt track? When we got home from school my mother could take one whiff and know immediately if we had had indoor PE that day.

At both the elementary and secondary levels, the basic curriculum structure was representative of many schools throughout the state and to some extent the nation as well. We learned to read in first and second grade and had “Fun with Dick and Jane.” We wrote cursive in third grade, we practiced multiple-digit division at fourth, studied the United States at fifth and explored ancient Egypt in sixth grade. But the methods and the classroom atmosphere was very different at MPLS. For example, we were not required to raise our hands to speak when having a class discussion. I recall how disconcerted my Sunday school teacher became when I blurted out answers without being called on.

The approach our teachers took to learning drew on the methodology of Progressive Educators championed by John Dewey. We studied unit topics and didn’t always read from a textbook. Actually we seldom used textbooks. For example, in fourth grade, Dr. Hosier introduced us to such diverse topics as Australia, the classification of animals including marsupials, Switzerland through the eyes of Heidi, maps and continents, the game of chess, rocks and minerals, caves with even a field trip to Harmony, Minnesota to visit Niagara Cave. When we started a new unit, it usually involved the class identifying as many questions as we could think of about the topic we were about to study. Then we got to work finding the answers to the questions we thought were original to us. Of course our teachers could anticipate our entire line of inquiry but we were answering our own questions—and that made all the difference.

As the years went by, this same pattern tended to prevail as we moved into junior high and high school. For example, after we “graduated” from Art I with Miss Dorothy Winneke, we could take Art II, III and even IV where we were allowed to explore art in whatever direction we wanted to go. The same could be said for other areas of the curriculum. We could participate in almost everything--sports, music, drama and art while we also took all of the basic classes in science, mathematics, language arts and social studies.

Grading was also unique at MPLS. I never once received a letter grade—A, B, C, D or F—until I was in college. At MPLS our parents came to school for conferences at both the elementary and secondary levels. Our teachers talked with them about what we were learning and how our social, emotional, physical and intellectual development was progressing. In high school we received detailed report cards for each subject with letter grades: H for Highly Satisfactory; S for Satisfactory; U for Unsatisfactory. The trick was to avoid receiving a U.

Truthfully, I was not a serious student in high school. I studied as little as possible but did just enough to make sure I could get into college. In 1965, when I graduated we had to be ranked in the top half of our high school graduating class in order to have a prayer of being accepted into college, at least at the State College of Iowa in Cedar Falls. But I was able to pursue my most intense interest at the time—ART. Every day after school from my sophomore to senior years in high school I went straight to the art room when school was dismissed and worked on projects for 2 hours or more. The art room was always open with Miss Schmidt. As a result, I won an art scholarship to SCI—much to my amazement.

If there is one organizing idea I took away from my student years at Price Laboratory School, it would be confidence. I learned to believe that if I worked hard enough and intensely enough I could do almost anything and keep learning. The choice was mine and that made all the difference. In subsequent years, I returned to MPLS as an elementary teacher for 12 years and as elementary principal for 10 more after that. What I learned as a student about confidence, focus, purpose and life-long learning were well-placed lessons as I moved into teaching and administration in a school that was being shaped by a post-Mayberry world. The rest of that story will have to wait for the sequel…


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