Telling Tales out of School

Oral Testimony and the (Re)construction of Lived Classroom Experience

Founded in 1912, the London Technical and Commercial High School (LTCHS) marked London's contribution to the vocational movement in education (Goodson and Anstead, 1993a). Representing an alternative model of secondary education in the city, the school was - and remains - a frequent site of contestation. Because of this central role in local educational struggles, a history of LTCHS (later renamed the H.B. Beal Secondary School) can be recaptured from a wealth of archival sources. Such a traditional undertaking, however, results in the reconstruction of one particular type of view of the past. In addition, as an investigation moves closer to the contemporary period, documentary sources become less and less available, due to issues of confidentiality, and micropolitical or political secrecy.

The collection of oral testimonies of this school fills in the gaps in more recent periods; at the same time such accounts can help answer at least part of the challenge to produce a "comprehensive perspective on the actual experience of sitting in a classroom" (Gaffield, 1986: 116). The following descriptions of the day-to-day experience of schooling as it took place at LTCHS/HBBSS, first in the early 1930s, and then in the late 1960s/early 1970s, emerged primarily in a series of interviews held with former students and teachers of the school. *1

This research was supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

*1 - Information on the interview subjects is contained in the appendix to this paper. In this text, any direct quotation or other evidence provided by a single informant is noted by the use of a reference to that person's name without a date.

Everyday Life (1930s)


When they arrived at school, Depression-era students congregated outside their assigned external doors, with boys at one end of the school, and girls, almost a block away, at the other - starting a segregation of the genders which continued throughout the day. The students all arrived wearing their "school clothes," which they had to take off when they returned home; the same dress or shirt and pants might be worn for several days in a row before going into the wash. For boys - whether in commercial or technical programs - proper dress included dress pants (often of worsted wool) sweaters, shirts, and ties. For girls, a dress or skirt was normal.

After entering the school, students moved to their lockers to discard coats and drop off some of their books before reporting to their homeroom. After the roll call, the students moved down to the auditorium for morning exercises. Normally the auditorium session lasted for some fifteen or twenty minutes, but on occasion - generally about once a week - the assembly lasted for an hour or longer, and featured different kinds of educational entertainment. After the assembly, the students returned to their classroom and started the day's lessons - some of them remaining in their homeroom, while others collected their books and headed elsewhere.

At this point in the day, the sharp distinction between commercial and technical students became apparent. The structures of school organization allowed for very little mixing between the two groups of students. Even non-vocational classes, such as academic subjects or physical training, were taken separately. In fact within the two sides of the school, regulations mandated other distinctions, such as that between special and general commercial students.

The subjects which students took during the school day had for the most part already been chosen by the administration; students rarely had any options. This meant that the same group of students remained together as a class for the whole day. Each class moved as a group from room to room in single file, while the teachers stayed in their own rooms. In the classroom, each student sat in the same seat all year long, generally in alphabetical order. In commercial studies, the same group tended to go though the whole three or four years together, while in technical studies specialization changed class composition after first or second year.

*2 - A fuller version of this section can be found in Anstead and Goodson, 1993b.
Date of publication:
Paper given at the Qualitative Research Conference, Waterloo, Canada, 1994
Christopher Anstead
Life History
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