Helena Hirter’s Schoolwork

Portraits of Walter, Helena, and Eda Hirter (left to right). All three died in the fire. Their younger sister, Ella, escaped. Picture from Marshall Everett, The Complete Story of the Collinwood School Fire, 1908.

The Collinwood Fire killed thirteen-year-old Helena Hirter, her ten-year-old brother (Walter), and eight-year-old sister (Eda), all of them pictured above.  The children’s father, Fritz, worked as the Lake View School’s janitor.  The Cleveland Press reported that as Fritz struggled to save other children, he saw Eda trapped in the pile at the door but could do nothing to reach her. Holding onto better memories, the Hirters saved traces of their children’s lives, including Helena’s schoolwork from the months before the fire. The family has now kept the papers for more than one hundred years.

Helena’s schoolwork tells us something about classrooms in Collinwood.  As at many other elementary schools in the early 1900s, teachers at Lake View relied on frequent, often repetitive drills and memorization.  On one page, for example, Helena carefully transcribed a paragraph from Carpenter’s Geographical Reader (1899) about the fondness of Argentinians for eating Armadillos.  On another sheet, she reproduced a paragraph from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Bell.”  In all probability, Helena’s teacher read such passages aloud while thirty to forty students transcribed the words in the tidiest cursive they could manage.  The class may never have read or discussed the Andersen story in its entirety.

In similar exercises, Helena copied vocabulary words into perfect columns, working always on her spelling, penmanship, and memorization.  One sheet listed the names of South American nations and their capitals.  At the bottom, her mind wandering, Helena doodled a fish bowl.  Nothing suggests that the teacher asked Helena to write sentences, paragraphs, or pages using the words she dutifully copied.  In fact, educational reformers of the era noted that teachers frequently drilled students in the spelling of words they couldn’t use and didn’t fully understand.  Joseph Mayer Rice, for example, lamented that so often “instruction is limited . . . to drillng facts into the minds of children and to hearing them recite lessons they have learned by heart from textbooks.” 

Helena also painted and drew.  Often, at the turn of the century, instructors linked art classes to the study of particular subjects.  All of Helena’s surviving artwork reproduces trees and other plant life and may have been tied to a larger study of it.  

At a time when about sixty percent of students dropped out of school between first and sixth grade, reports said that Helena had not missed a day of class in seven years.  Her younger sister Eda’s report card from the 1906-1907 school year also showed perfect attendance.  The Hirters, a poor immigrant family living in a small house a half block from the school, clearly valued education, probably seeing school as a catalyst for improving their children’s lives.  They never imagined that Helena, Walter, and Eda would die in the building, turning hopes into ashes.

Questions:

  • Does Helena seem to have been a good student?  Why or why not?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the drill-based, often repetitive teaching methods that guided Helena’s work?  
  • How is Helena’s schoolwork like or unlike the work in your class?
  • Given Helena’s assignments, is it possible to draw any tentative ideas about the relationship between students and the teacher in her class?  How might you describe that relationship? How do you think students and teachers saw one another?

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