A Note from Cottonwood Corners

When Dakota Territory as organized in 1861, the curriculum of the typical one-room school throughout the United States had as its basic curriculum the “three Rs” — “reading, writing, and arithmetic.”  Other subjects were added as settlers moved westward from the Atlantic coast.

In the earliest subscription schools on the prairie, the main subjects of classroom instruction were reading, writing, and basic arithmetic — colloquially called “ciphering.”

The very first session of the territorial legislature meeting in Yankton, South Dakota in 1862 specified that spelling, reading, writing, English, grammar, geography, and arithmetic were to be taught in every school district in the Dakota Territory.  The school could also provide instruction in other subjects as determined by the local district.

Spelling and grammar were really only logical extensions of the first two “Rs” and were not truly innovative at all.  This law was considered sufficient legal foundation for the outline of a course of study for the common schools (rural schools) of the territory.

This original enactment stood with only a few alterations for many years.  In 1879 the law stated that no district money was to go to any school where the English language was not the exclusive language taught.  In 1881 the legislature allowed one foreign language to be taught for one hour each day.

In 1885 and 1890 the common schools were directed to provide lessons on temperance, physiology, and hygiene.  At first these subjects were to be taught by oral instruction and later it was specified that they be taught as thoroughly as reading, writing, arithmetic or geography.

In 1891, the first complete school law in the State of South Dakota indicated the basic curriculum only indirectly by specifying the subjects which were listed in the earlier territorial legislation.  These subjects were the lowest level of the teacher certification examinations which those wishing to teach were required to take and pass with a satisfactory score.

From the early years as a territory and later a state, legislation on the common school course of study was limited.  In 1893, the required common school curriculum included:  “Reading, writing, orthography, arithmetic, geography, English grammar, history of the United States, physiology and hygiene, with special instruction as to the nature of alcoholic drinks and narcotics and their effects upon the human system, and civil government.”

Earlier, the 1890 legislature was careful to specify that the textbooks on physiology must devote “at least one-fourth of their space to the consideration of the nature and effects of alcoholic drinks and narcotics.”  The teachers were instructed that the subject was to be taught “as thoroughly as arithmetic and geography.”

South Dakota History was added in 1907.  Two years later, instruction in “music by note” was made a requirement of all schools; however, no teacher could be denied a certificate on account of a lack of ability to teach music or sing.   Normal schools were ordered to make music a required course for teacher certification.

The earliest attempt to guide the teacher in content and methods of instruction within the required subjects was territorial prescription of textbooks.  From 1868 to 1877 the Superintendent of Public Instruction was empowered to designate the textbooks which the school districts were to prescribe for purchase by the parents.

Typically included were the McGuffey’s Eclectic Reader (Primer – Eighth Grade), McGuffey’s Eclectic Speller, as well as Ray’s Arithmetic Series.  The parents were forced to purchase the latest up-to-date text and the teachers were directed to provide instruction according to the contents of the texts.

Territorial law provided for the financing and construction of hundreds of rural schools across the Dakota prairie.  For many, it was a symbol of civilization if a tall flag pole was erected in front of the school and the flag was displayed daily, weather permitting.

It was in those countless common schools all across Dakota that students learned the history of our flag, its meaning, and the correct way to display and fold it properly at the end of the day.  Usually two older students were selected to raise and lower the flag daily for several weeks and then other students were chosen.

Special instruction was given to all students in the proper way to fold the flag and in general flag etiquette.  By the time the first and second graders were big enough to assume that responsibility, they knew the rules by heart and were quick to mention that too many or not enough stars were visible when folded into a triangle.

Illiteracy came to the attention of South Dakota officials during and after World War I.  Although the unpatriotic element was not as common in Dakota as it was elsewhere, South Dakota organized one of the first Americanization programs in the nation.

The 1919 law provided that any person between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one, who did not have the ability to speak, read, and write the English language at the fifth grade level must attend night classes.  Public evening classes for at least eight hours per week were held when school was in session.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on July 27, 2022

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