Muskoka Schooling & Education

The timeless contest for supremacy between teacher and unruly youngsters is certainly something we've all witnessed, but few of us ever saw the battle won more decisively than it was by rowdy pioneer children at a one-room Macaulay Township school in the late 1800s. There, as Gary Denniss recounts in Going to School in Macaulay, a young teacher started fresh one morning and that same night submitted her resignation and left on the next stage back to Collingwood.

Another memorable classroom feature is the smells and sights encountered on first-day-back when starting a new school year. Such impressions are so vivid that even seventy years later, as Lloyd Dennis remembers in Treasure Chest of Muskoka Memories, he could still recall Ullswater's one-room school of the 1930s. Its floors were swept, its blackboards clean, the blinds a uniform height, and the coat-hooks bare and inviting. The desks were in rows, screwed to the varnished floor, an ink-well in the upper right corner – reinforcing the rule everyone had to write with their right hand. Many such finely detailed descriptions in Dennis' 2003 Treasure Chest of Muskoka Memories convey the texture and atmosphere of the district in the 1930s and 1940s, which include more than just his school-room experiences. He saw Muskoka's unfolding saga from his perspective of growing up in hardship and poverty. Significantly, Lloyd Dennis uses the sustained metaphor of battle to portray, rather poetically, the Muskoka educational experience. The schools "were really fortresses where children gathered daily to ward off the evils of Ignorance." Most were "rural outposts," their teachers "commanders" whose zeal "far out-shone their meager salaries." The pupils were "conscripts" summoned, more or less willingly, "by the sound of the bell that tolled from the roof of the ramparts."

Young Lloyd and other country kids marched to the schoolhouse with lunch pails and school bags. They began being patriotically trained up as young soldiers by singing "God Save the King," facing pictures at the front of King George V and Queen Mary that were separated by a framed Canadian coat-of-arms. After the anthem came the Lord's Prayer, then a reading of scripture. "Take your seats," ordered the teacher. Another day's battle of schooling had begun, with the teacher at her "command post" on a small stage. "The teacher's desk drawer contained two important weapons of war: the Register and the strap."

Lloyd's attendance and grades were recorded in the former, his misdeeds punished by the latter (like a good soldier being disciplined, "it was a mark of pride to suffer the strap without flinching"), as well as by the wooden pointer that rested on the blackboard ledge when not in use directing combatants' attention to a map or thrashing a miscreant's knuckles. By the time Lloyd reached 1939 and grade ten, with his knowledge expanded through tours of duty in seven different rural school battlefields because his parents were constantly moving around Muskoka searching for work, he left the educational war zone and got a job just as the Depression-wracked world itself was plunging into war.

After several decades, Lloyd Dennis would become widely known across Ontario as co-author of the famous (or infamous, depending on one's perspective) "Hall-Dennis Report," formally titled Living and Learning. Its recommendations led to radical curriculum changes and revamped methods of instruction when William G. Davis was Ontario's Minister of Education in the 1960s. In between, Lloyd had not only pursued his own career as a teacher and authority on education, but the schools in Muskoka were consolidated, students now rode buses to the battlefront, teachers were trained to higher levels, and the far-reaching hand of educational administrators pressed down with greater firmness.

Gary Denniss documents these many transitions of Muskoka schooling in his 2010 case study of education in Macaulay Township, Going to School in Macaulay, as well as in his more comprehensive 2001 overview in The Educational Heritage of Muskoka. An earlier version of his research, published in 1999, is entitled Educating Muskoka District.

Anyone interested in Muskoka education is rewarded by the folksy and informative way Gary Denniss documents the construction and maintenance of school buildings, the identity of teachers and pupils, and the front-line struggles to provide schooling where local control was paramount. Like a sponge, he has soaked up telling details from school board minutes, newspaper accounts, and interviews, to squeeze out the results in these various self-published volumes.

Schooling in central Muskoka's pivotal township of Macaulay got underway in 1866, and from that date to the present, Going to School in Macaulay tells what it was like. Gary Denniss' ancestors helped give birth to the first schools, and he himself was both a pupil, and later a teacher, in the Macaulay school system in the second half of the twentieth century.

While light on information about curriculum and what the students were actually taught, Going to School in Macaulay offers good colour about Macaulay schools: boys who disappeared from school when jumping on the back of a passing horse-drawn wagon for adventure down the road; trustees who built a school themselves for $67 rather than pay a contractor; the chairman of a school section who himself provided janitorial services; a teacher who got pupils planting gardens in the schoolyard and introduced hot cooked noon meals as part of their Home Economics course; the school inspector who carried forceps on his rounds to the remote schools for pulling children's decaying teeth; competition between school sections for new teachers from the Teacher Academy in Bracebridge, paying them about $20 a month; ingenuity in circumventing the rule that married women could not teach; teachers who were as young as 14.

In The Educational Heritage of Muskoka, Denniss shows clearly how the scattered one-room schools provided the foundation for the later consolidations of upgraded education, and focuses on the 29-year history of the Muskoka Board of Education, its people and accomplishments. The battle metaphor continued to be apt.

The district-wide board was forced into existence by a provincial government amalgamating several rural boards while simultaneously implementing the controversial new educational philosophy sweeping Ontario in the wake of the Hall and Dennis recommendations that questioned many traditional beliefs about how children learned.

After just three decades, a second battle of administrators erupted when another provincial government in 1997 sought to further enlarge school boards and reduce trustee representation. Muskokan's efforts to join, logically, with east and west Parry Sound were rebuffed. With tears in the losing battle, our district's educators witnessed the end of a purely Muskoka board and its amalgamation with more distant territory to the east in the new Trillium Lakelands District School Board. Denniss tells the tale fully in The Educational Heritage of Muskoka, a rich trove of specific information well rounded to include Muskoka's opt-out alternate schools.

Gary Denniss' books are replete with evocative photos of ruddy-faced, energy-packed children, standing barefoot outside one-room schools or clustered well-dressed in more recent pictures of classes and large teaching staffs. They alone illustrate the transformation of Muskoka schooling, consolidated and heavily administered, light-years distant from the first log schools.

— Review by J. Patrick Boyer

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