Experiments in education

Students take part in a lesson during class in the John D. Pierce School, circa 1960s. Class takes place during the 1960s at the John D. Pierce School, located on NMU’s campus. The school closed in 1971. (Photos courtesy of Northern Michigan University Archives)

Students take part in a lesson during class in the John D. Pierce School, circa 1960s. Class takes place during the 1960s at the John D. Pierce School, located on NMU’s campus. The school closed in 1971. (Photos courtesy of Northern Michigan University Archives)

by Jim Pennel

The next time you find yourself in Marquette by the Cohodas building on Northern’s campus, take a look at the parking lot that faces Kaye Avenue. Picture a rectangular brick building there with two sets of double doors and a long Y-shaped sidewalk lined with pine trees leading to it. A pile of bikes lie next to an empty bike rack. A group of elementary students are scattered under the trees, reading and talking. A bell rings and a second later the doors fly open and more kids run out laughing and talking. This is what you would have seen 40 years ago when John D. Pierce School was here.

John D. Pierce School opened in 1925 and was named after the first school superintendent in Michigan. It was a Northern Michigan College laboratory school designed to give student teachers classroom experience. It housed kindergarten through 12th grade until 1961, when the high school closed. In the 1960s, changes in local school systems led to improvements in teacher education programs and laboratory schools were no longer needed. J.D. Pierce shifted its focus from teacher training to being an experimental school where new learning methods were tried and studied. It continued as a kindergarten through eighth grade school until 1971, when all experimental schools were closed by the state.

At its peak in the late 1950s, Pierce had more than 350 students and over 25 teachers. In its last days it had around 200 students and 12 teachers.

Bill Helfer did his student teaching at NMU in 1957 and then taught fourth grade at John D. Pierce from 1958 to 1967. He remembers it fondly.

“The children were fabulous. Of all my teaching locations, Pierce was absolutely my favorite. I loved teaching there,” Helfer said. “When I was doing my student teaching there I had three different room assignments, and then when I started teaching I could have up to three student teachers at a time, which is good when you’re breaking up for reading classes. The major function at the time was the training of student teachers, but individual teachers would sometimes have requests from the college to teach a special lesson.

“I remember a science lesson I taught for them that I did as a magician. We were studying simple machines and I would make them appear from under a colored cloth and do different things. It just goes to show how you can corn it up and still learn things, too,” Helfer added. “There was also a marvelous math instructor who was there for a few years. He would take the whole class and play games with them on the chalkboard. What he was actually teaching them was math concepts. They were learning how to plot X and Y on a grid.”

Jason Flower was also a teacher at Pierce around the same time as Helfer, teaching sixth grade from 1960 to 1965.

“I enjoyed it thoroughly and had some great student teachers, but it was a challenge,” Flower said. “We did some of the first educational TV work there. They brought a camera the size of a suitcase into the classroom and recorded lessons. They used it as a teaching tool that they could take out and show other teachers. We also studied the ‘Program Learning’ of Norman Crowder and B.F Skinner. It never came to fruition. There were some Skinnerian ideas we tried with the kids, but we never fully adapted them because they were not that good for learning.”

The school itself and the staff were memorable, too.

“It was a big old building. It had long, wide hallways, hard stairs and transoms over all the heavy wooden doors. The radiators made noise and sometimes we could hear the shop class directly below us when they were running machinery,” Helfer said. “The staff there was unique and we were together socially a lot. We became wonderful friends and stayed friends for years.”

Both Helfer and Flower agreed that it was the students that made the school stand out.

“They were a cross section,” Flower said. “The majority of them were pretty bright, but there were some that were less than bright. Some of the brightest kids I’ve ever known were at that lab school. Some were professor’s kids, but some weren’t and were just as bright.”

Bill Helfer made so much of an impression on his students that 11 of them sent him cards on his recent 90th birthday.

“They were just Marquette kids,” Helfer added. “I remember there was one Finnish family that had a lot of kids and all their hair was so blonde it was almost white. You could pick them out when they were walking down the hallway; they just shone. They shone scholastically, too. That was quite a family. They didn’t have a lot of money and they were very simple. The children were so well behaved and interested in everything. In the end, the success of the students didn’t come from whether they were from an NMU family or not. The very fact that the parents took the trouble to enroll them in a special school means that those children are coming from a background where parents are really concerned about their education; that’s the real secret of it.”

Ann Hilton Fisher went to John D. Pierce from kindergarten through eighth grade.

“I loved all the student teachers,” Fisher said. “We would often have four student teachers at a time, which made for an enviable teacher to student ratio, but it also meant if you didn’t get along with your teacher there was always a student teacher that you could relate to and would be in your corner. You could always have a good relationship with a good teacher.

“The student teachers were always young and enthusiastic and you felt that enthusiasm. We also had some terrific teachers. The fact that these were teachers teaching other teachers required that they pay attention to what they were doing and know what all the latest stuff was. I did feel that we got a lot of individual instruction.”

Pierce operated on a schedule that coincided with Northern’s, which meant the students got a longer break over the holidays, but they also had to go to summer school so teacher training could go on year round.

“The kids from public school couldn’t believe we had to go to summer school,” Fisher added. “We had six weeks of summer school every summer. It was only half a day and it was fun to ride my bike to school and smell the lilacs. We would often sit outside. I remember in fifth grade sitting outside and learning algebra under the pine trees.

“Pierce was very egalitarian,” Fisher continued. “In seventh grade, everybody took industrial arts and everyone took home ec, whether you were a boy or a girl. Everybody made a little bookstand and everyone made brownies. In eighth grade everyone had to learn typing. We all went over to the business classrooms at Northern where they had electric typewriters, which was very exciting. Forty years later when we had to word process we already had that skill. We got to paint murals in the stairways and art room. Around Thanksgiving every year the second grade teacher, Nellie Johnson, would have her whole class bake bread and make butter by shaking milk in quart Mason jars in her classroom. Everyone looked forward to being in second grade and doing that.”

Craig Lindstrom was a student at Pierce from first through fifth grade and was there in 1971, the last year for the school.

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“I just remember it as being fun,” Lindstrom said. “We learned a lot, but it was fun learning. Much different from the public schools. I think that’s what helped us when we got into public school was the education we got at Pierce. I remember the big piles of bikes out front. We’d come flying through the grass in front, jump off our bikes and let them smash together. In art class they’d give us as much clay as we wanted and you could make whatever you wanted. I still have a massive clay pot thing I made.

“We also made candles once and spent most of the time dipping our fingers in the hot wax. There was a game we played in gym called ‘bombardment,’ which was similar to dodge ball, but each team had a pin you’d try to knock down. The ball was an old volleyball with all the covering peeled off. We’d get flattened by the older kids. They’d put us little kids in front of the pin to defend it. The gym was so small there was no out of bounds. If you went out of bounds you’d literally run into the wall.”

There was learning involved, but it never seemed to get in the way of the fun. Pierce school was one of the first to use the SRA (Science Research Associates, Inc.) reading method in the 1960s. SRA uses color coded cards to track reading skill and comprehension.

“We had SRA reading and had fun playing with the boxes that held the colored cards,” Lindstrom said. “We also had a filmstrip projector that would show a paragraph and had a device on it that would reveal one word at a time. It was designed to teach speed reading and we set it to the fastest speed right away.”

Both Fisher and Lindstrom had fathers on the NMU faculty, and the one consistent memory that faculty children from Pierce seem to have is the “secret” route they would take when they went to visit their parents in Kaye Hall. It started in the basement of Pierce and wound through heavy steel doors, boiler rooms filled with noisy machinery, past Northern’s first computer lab, with boxes of punch cards lining the hallway and would come out in Longyear Hall. The path continued past the classrooms in Longyear and up the grand marble steps of Kaye Hall to the faculty offices on the second and third floors.

One thing Pierce didn’t have was a cafeteria or even a lunch room.

“I remember we’d ride home with my dad for lunch,” Fisher said. “And my mom would have chicken soup ready for us.”

“We’d eat bologna sandwiches and thermoses of soup,” Lindstrom remembered. “We had the old glass thermoses so you’d hope the glass wouldn’t break. We’d eat in the classroom or in the summer we’d go outside. Sometimes we’d go to the Wildcat Den and get a pickle for a nickel or a Den Special, which was a hamburger, fries and a shake for 85 cents.”

The friendships students at John D. Pierce formed were the long lasting kind.

“There’s no question that those bonds lasted into high school and beyond,” Fisher said. “We had a number of professors’ kids who were all smart and were all going to go to college whether we went to Pierce or somewhere else, but we also had kids from the other sections of town who got the same great education that we had.”

Lindstrom agreed.

“A lot of close friendships came from that school,” he said. “Most of them are still friends today. I don’t remember hating school at all.”

In some ways the John D. Pierce School can be thought of as a Marquette version of the Joni Mitchell song, where they pave paradise and put up a parking lot. But once beautiful Kaye Hall was demolished, and then historic Longyear Hall was razed, it was only a matter of time before the crumbling nondescript Pierce was torn down. Don’t it always seem to go? Once the wrecking ball starts it’s hard to stop it.

John D. Pierce the building was demolished 25 years ago this fall, but John D. Pierce the school lives on in the words and minds of the people who taught there and learned there.

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