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Schoolroom at the Mill and Bars: Recitation Day

(c) Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield MA. All rights reserved.
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In the 19th century, most common schools in New England held a Recitation Day at the close of the term. Interested townspeople and parents could attend to see scholars show off what they had learned. Such exercises might include orations, demonstrations of spelling, grammar, lightening arithmetic, geographical and historical knowledge, and displays of penmanship. This painting by James Wells Champney depicts a rural Deerfield, Massachusetts, school on Recitation Day. The boy reciting is probably delivering a carefully memorized rendition of a famous patriotic speech. (George Washington's Farewell Address was a particularly popular choice) Note his stylized posture and gesture; they are straight out of a rhetoric and elocution text. Although memorization still played an important role in learning, teachers in this period were more inclined to assist scholars and encouraged them to understand what they were reciting. Students were far more likely to be using uniform textbooks and might even be organized into grades.


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