This Place in History: 1st Normal School

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CONCORD, Vt.

At ‘This Place in History’ Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins takes us to Concord, Vermont.

“We are near the site of the very first normal school in North America, or really the whole hemisphere. A normal school is a teacher training school. So it’s a school that students would go to. Teachers would then observe how those students were being taught, and learn how to be teachers,” began Perkins.

“The idea of a normal school started in the 1600s in France. They called them ‘ècole normal’, French for ‘normal school’. If we think of the English word for ‘norms’ – as in standards – we can then say ‘it’s a standard school’ where we are teaching teachers standards. We still do that today. Teachers are certified and we have curriculum where they know that they have certain standards that they have to teach to.”

“[The one in Vermont] was the first one. The idea of having this normal school was prevalent in Europe, but not in the United States. In 1832, this guy named Samuel Read Hall, who was a newly minted minister from New Hampshire,moved to Concord, Vermont, and said we need to teach teachers how to teach in a standard manner. I have a good idea for that, so I’m going to start a school that’s going to teach both students and teachers how to teach those kids,” continued Perkins.

“He built the Concord Academy. We have some treasures that we brought from the Historical Society. A few of them that we have here on the table, give us a sense of what the Academy looked like. We have a drawing here. It was a rather large building for a school, made of brick. And we have a brick that is from the first normal school in the western hemisphere in Concord , Vermont.”

“Samuel Read Hall felt that the best way to get at education was through geography. So if you teach a child about the community that they live in, you can start with the landscape, you can build out to history, culture. It’s still a very valid way of teaching and the way that we teach our kids today. Look at the world around you. How do you observe that and how do you understand it?”

“So Hall was a prolific writer, who wrote a lot. He founded the teaching program at Phillips Andover Academy, moved around Massachusetts. He ended up finishing his career back in Vermont. He wrote a very influential series of lectures that were published in the late 1820s about the challenges to education. They reflect the same challenges that we see in education today. Some things change, some things stay the same.”

“He wrote, ‘obstacles to good education are a lack of simple display media, such as globes, political factions within school districts fighting – that’s getting politics ahead of teaching our kids – wealthy citizens pulling students from public schools in favor of private schools, schools exact no moral influence, poorly qualified teachers, poor compensation for teachers, and poor quality text books,” read Perkins.

So are there still normal schools today?

“Absolutely. We just don’t call them normal schools anymore. They are teacher training programs and colleges. In Vermont, our best examples of normal schools that have turned into teacher training colleges are Johnson and Lyndon State Colleges. Both began as normal schools.”

For more from our ‘This Place in History’ series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont’s roadside historic markers, click here

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