Radnor Story #7: Teaching at Ithan Elementary School 1969-1993

When I came to Pennsylvania to teach in Radnor Township, there were a number of new teachers coming as well. The district arranged a tour for us. We were driven around the township on a school bus; our guide was Kady Cummin, township historian. She gave us a very interesting history. Later, I met her daughter; I’m still in touch with her and her family.

Dr. Clarissa F. Dillon

The sixth grade, where I was to teach, was going to move to the Middle School the following year. So all of the township’s sixth graders were accommodated in a prefabricated structure at Ithan. Three units were attached, making a building that contained six classrooms. There were 25 students in each room. At lunch-time and dismissal, 150 kids came streaming out of the building. (Note: the structure was supposed to be used for three years and then removed. It’s still there!)

In Chicago, I had taught sixth grade, but not all subjects. It was quite a challenge! Students were divided into levels, and different levels were assigned to the teachers. Ruth Davis, one of the teachers, and I celebrated the first Earth Day. We walked our students down to the creek and cleaned it of trash and debris. The site is now a township park. Ruth, her husband Bill, and I keep in touch and get together from time to time.

At the end of my first year, the sixth grade remained in the pre-fab, no longer as elementary students but as part of the Middle School. Since my son was enrolled at Ithan and we lived in Malvern, Middle School would be impossible in the future. I remained at Ithan, with the first grade.

I had taught first grade in Chicago. My son was going into second grade so I wouldn’t teach him then or in the future.

First grade was REALLY wonderful and I spent twenty VERY HAPPY years there. We met our students at their homes. Ithan kids lived anywhere from Bryn Mawr Avenue to almost the Devon Horse Show, so I really got to know the township’s geography. Unlike Chicago, where streets are straight and intersections are right angles, local roads have hills, curves, blind intersections, and sometimes change names unexpectedly – challenging! The apparent intersection of Old Gulph and Old Gulph in Bryn Mawr was a real puzzlement! It was easy to get lost at the beginning of my home visits, but it was definitely worth all the driving to meet the kids, parents, pets, various favorite toys, etc. on their turf.

One of the special Ithan celebrations was Yellow Day. There was no particular date for it; it just appeared during the dark grey winter days to cheer us all up when spring seemed too far away. For that one day, EVERYTHING was yellow. Students and staff wore yellow, classrooms blossomed, and special activities occurred.

The year the Winter Olympics were held in the US, Ithan had its own. Each grade level had a different Olympic sport. The first grade had the luge. We used trays and our “athletes” slid down the hill from the upper playground to the field below. Betty Niles, the kindergarten teacher, came up with lots of other wonderful ideas. Some of us met in her room each morning for coffee and ideas. I still think of Pat Wilbur, fifth grade teacher, who’d come in, saying, “Well, girls…” Betty was a special mentor and friend.

To celebrate the Bicentennial, we made a movie. It showed the lives of Children in The Ithan Area in 1776. Every student was in the movie twice. Some filming was done “on location.” Scenes were shot at the Federal Schoolhouse in Haverford, the Octagonal Schoolhouse in Newtown Square, the Methodist Church in Garrett Hill, Radnor Friends Meeting, and fishing in Ithan Creek. Students also enjoyed Colonial activities in the classroom. In mine, whenever we did anything Colonial, the kids put on their Colonial clothing. The girls had made aprons and caps; the boys made shirts, and tucked up long pants to make breeches. In the spring, we made a Colonial meal, using things like dried beans done the previous fall.

There were other activities and “days” celebrated in my classroom. We didn’t just do Earth Day – we did Earth Month. Each week there was a different activity based on the environment. One week we scoured the grounds, picking up trash. Another week, we planted flowers. There were special topics, like water, its comings, and goings. And, on May First, we had a picnic to enjoy the earth.

Another special once-a-year celebration was National Pig Day. I really like pigs and shared my enthusiasm with the students. Initially, they thought pigs were gross, but by the end of the year they were fans, too. March first is really National Pig day. For that one cay, the bulletin boards were slipcovered in pink paper, with pig pictures all over. We did piggy reading, piggy math, piggy art, etc. I wore my piggy t-shirt, piggy socks, and a lot of piggy jewelry, and a pig nose. The next day, everything was back to normal. One year I brought a piglet to visit. The students were enchanted and we had a lot of visitors that day. It went back to its mother during our lunch time.

For Thanksgiving, we created The First Thanksgiving with detergent bottles. Students made Pilgrims and Wampanoags, painted a backdrop, made furniture, and food out of clay. We saw filmstrips from Plimoth Plantation, paced out the length of the Mayflower, and when everything was done, we invited the Ithan classes to visit. When the parents came for the November visit, they saw it, too.

The property at the end of the Ithan driveway was going to be developed and the Smith mansion was to be demolished. I got permission from the real estate agents to take my students there to dig up flowers that would be destroyed in the new construction. My son and I visited the property to check things out. There were two workmen there, removing things like copper piping, who invited us to take a tour of the mansion. There was a swimming-pool in the basement and the entire area was tiled in blue and white tiles. The men said the tiles had come from Russia and when the vault was finally opened, it was filled with crates of these tiles. I have three in my kitchen today. Shortly after this visit, the students and interested parents had an outing and retrieved daffodils, snowdrops, winter aconite, and grape hyacinths. We planted them next to the Ithan driveway. Unfortunately, in spite of our little fence and the sign, the mowing-man mowed them all down. We were crushed!

When I was moved to fifth grade, I was lucky to have Maryrose Crowe as a mentor. I had taught fifth grade in Chicago, but there was a very new and different reading program and the teachers’ manuals were late in arriving. Maryrose knew the Botel system because she had worked with him and she was able to coach me through that first year. Some things from first grade were carried over – like National Pig Day. Anita Caponnetti and I joined classes to play a game, “Going, Going, Gone West” that dealt with different groups coming to or moving within our country: English Dissenters to New England in the 17th century, German Pietist to Pennsylvania in the 18th, Eastern seaboard inhabitants moving to Texas in the 19th century, and the Oakies to California in the 20th century.

When the fifth grade went to the Middle School, again I opted to stay at Ithan. I was moved to fourth grade, which I had never taught. I remained in fourth grade until my retirement under tne Mellow Bill in 1993. National Pig Day remained. Anita’s class and mine played “Going, Going, Gone,” and my students each “adopted” a tree. Journals were kept, with information about the tree and its appearance through the seasons. So, we had plenty of outdoor time, visiting the trees.

In 1993, three fourth grade teachers retired. We gave ourselves a retirement bash. Anita, Judy Conaway, and I had all been in college in the 1950s, so we chose that time as the theme for our party. We had a catered dinner – meat loaf, jello salad, root beer floats – and danced to period music from a jukebox. I wore the same kind of clothing I had worn in college: blue jeans, rolled up, a man’s shirt, tails out, a silk scarf and charm bracelets.

Upon retirement, I embarked on another life, in the 18th century, and I’m still enjoying it. My Ph.D. in History from Bryn Mawr has provided me with entry into rare book collections and networking with other living history demonstsators has been delightful and rich in practical information for demonstrations, hands-on research, and then sharing my findings in talks, articles, and workshops.

Contributed by Clarissa F. Dillon