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'A Worthy Calling' exhibit illustrates how education has evolved through how teacher preparation has evolved

You can learn a lot about the history of education just by studying how textbooks have evolved. Take reading for example.

A glass case at Northern Illinois University’s Blackwell Museum’s exhibit titled “A Worthy Calling: 125+ Years of Teaching Teachers” houses four books used to teach kids how to read. The first is from the 1890s, around the time NIU was founded; then from the 20s, 40s and 60s.

Patrick Roberts is a professor and faculty director of the Blackwell History of Education Museum.

“In the early part of the 20th century, there's a real emphasis on things like pitch, and force, and so forth. Later in the century, the emphasis on phonics,” he said. “When you get to Dr. Seuss, there's a big emphasis on selective reading, giving children the choice of what they want to read as a way to build literacy.”

But textbooks are only a small part of the exhibit Roberts spent several years curating. He collected toys, tests and technology that tell the story of how teaching and learning have changed in the past century -- and how NIU has tried to stay on the cutting edge of education.

“NIU has long been at the forefront of special education,” said Roberts. “And Graham Hall was built as a school for teaching exceptional children as a training school in the 1960s.”

Exploring the museum you can find a vintage braille typewriter for students with visual impairments.

Roberts says NIU has led initiatives in experimental education as well. The exhibit features a magic lantern projector from the 1800s -- a kerosene lamp shows images hand-painted onto glass like an overhead projector.

“In 1960, the College of Education hosted a workshop on the educational value of airborne television. Airborne television was this idea where a plane would fly and broadcast educational content to school districts through a wide range,” he said.

Roberts says part of the project is also reflecting on if the university has lived up to that “worthy calling” the name of the exhibit evokes.

“Today, as a university, the College of Education is just one piece of the whole,” he said. “But at its founding, in the 1890s, teacher preparation was the mission.”

Back then it was called the Northern Illinois State Normal School. You can look at textbooks on teaching methods written by NIU’s first president, John Cook; read notes a girl named Grace White took in her Zoology class in 1905; even find a flowing, gray dress that a “normal school” girl would have worn.

Cook, the university’s first president’s nickname was “The Crown Prince of Teacher Education.” He was a pioneer of the “Herbartian” method -- which treated teaching as a science and emphasized lesson plans, as opposed to just giving students a series of facts to memorize. It’s no wonder he referred to teacher prep as “a worthy calling.”

But to really trace the roots of the “worthy calling” you have to leave the official exhibit and drive a few blocks away.

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Next to an apartment complex and Huskie Stadium sits an old white building many people probably assume is a church. It’s not, it’s a one-room schoolhouse built in 1900.

It used to be where students in the Milan School District learned. It was one of the dozens of tiny schools throughout DeKalb County. Roberts says it closed in the 1940s.

“I think it was used to store hay at one point, and then 1990s a group raised the money and had it dismantled at its original location and brought over here and re-constructed it on campus,” he said.

After perusing old artifacts at the museum, walking into the schoolhouse is like walking right into 1905. A wood-burning stove sits in the corner. Old books still rest on students’ desks.

Behind the teacher’s desk, there’s a 100-old poster they would have used to teach kids about physiology and give a morality lesson about the dangers of alcohol and cigarettes.

Roberts says students from 1st to 8th grade would all learn together under the guidance of their teacher:

“She would give work, and then she would call up groups of children and sit them on this bench here in the front, and work with a group while the other students were doing [their work],” he said.

The older kids would help out the younger ones. The older ones would also fetch water from a nearby farmhouse for the class.

Most of these one-room schoolhouse teachers had no formal training. But NIU hosted institutes in its early days to try to bring John Cook’s science-based approach to rural educators.

So, has the school lived up to that worthy calling Cook embraced so many years ago? Roberts says, “I would think he would answer yes. For over 125 years, we've been preparing teachers. Think about the number of children that have been impacted over those 125 years by the teachers we've prepared,” he said. “It's really quite profound.”

“A Worthy Calling: 125+ Years of Teaching Teachers” is now open in the Blackwell Museum at NIU. Tours of Milan schoolhouse are also available by contacting the museum.