Free kindergarten

Kindergarten. It seems like a given. Kindergarten helps prepare children for first grade and gives them a head start for life. Every child attends kindergarten, right? No, in Indiana, kindergarten attendance is not mandatory.

I find this kind of mind-blowing, especially after I encountered Eliza Ann Blaker, an early pioneer for free kindergarten.

Blaker wasn’t only a pioneer in her advocating free kindergarten for all children. She was a pioneer for women. Born in 1854 into a Quaker family, she was encouraged to continue her education and to follow her interests in teaching. This is in the latter half of the 1800s. And this is in spite of the fact that her father was deceased and her labor could have helped support the family. (Did I mention that Blaker was a woman?)

The fact that she was educated and then pursued her career (while married) is a bit unusual for that time period. But she went beyond unusual: she moved her family from Pennsylvania to Indiana for her career. The Blaker family moved for her career, not her husband’s.

Blaker came to Indianapolis in 1882 to set up a kindergarten for the children of the wealthy. She quickly moved on to setting up free kindergarten for all children, regardless of finances or race.

In addition to schools for the children, she trained the teachers for these kindergartens. Eventually the teacher training she initiated was folded into Butler University.

Her teaching methodology was quite different from the norm for that time. She was inspired by early childhood educational ideas developed by Friedrich Froebel.

Her guiding principles for early education sound both cutting-edge today and hark back to a medieval time. For her, children learn best through play. She encouraged children to discover the world on their own terms. As a stunning commentary on the times, she rejected the habit of beating children when they make mistakes (!).

Blaker was quite a progressive woman who came from an environment that encouraged female education and career when women were not typically allowed to have either. I am inspired by her work but saddened that almost a century after her passing kindergarten is not mandatory in Indiana (and in many other states).

Helping young children learn is the best gift we can give them for an enriching life. And what better way than through play and exploration of the world in an environment that takes into account different learning styles and encourages growth through mistakes.

Underground Railroad

Not where you’d expect to find an important force in the abolitionist movement—a small town in Indiana near the Ohio border.

I had encountered the name of Levi Coffin in 2014, when I was looking for historic places to visit in Indiana. And then I stumbled across him and his wife Catherine in an exhibit at the Indiana State Museum last year about early African-American experiences.

Visiting the Coffin’s historic home was on my want-to-visit list.

The historic site is well worth it. The house has been well maintained/restored. and although most of the furnishings are not the Coffins’, they are from that time period. The house is probably the third residence of the Coffins’ in this community, built 13 years after they arrived at Fountain City (or what was called Newport at the time).

The construction of the house shows the Coffins’ well thought out use of the house. A third-floor attic could house pallets for run-away slaves passing through and a secret garret could conceal them during any threatened search of the house.

The kitchen was actually in the cool of the basement, which I have never seen in a house before, next to a cistern that maintained itself with area spring water—no outside prying eyes could see how much water the Coffins were using and suspect that extra mouths were staying with them.

The real gem of the house was the tour guide. The house is staffed completely by volunteers. The woman who acted as the tour guide for my band of twenty or so was a retired schoolteacher—and it showed. She was a font of knowledge, shared stories non-stop, and engaged the kids of the group in ways that only a master schoolteacher could.

The historic site is raising funds for and beginning renovation on an older building next door (two years older than the 1839 Coffin house) for use as a welcome center. The ten-minute video about the Coffin house has already been shot. While I welcome the center, I bemoan the replacement the lecture and stories that I received on my visit with a short film. My guide made the house, the Coffins, the time period, and the abolitionist activities come alive—for more than two hours of a scheduled one-hour tour.

My guide continually referred to Levi Coffin’s book of slave stories. While the gift shop sells an abridged version (400 and some pages rather than the original 700 and some pages), I have opted to read the full version of Reminiscences available in various electronic formats at the Internet Archive. It’s a fascinating and enlightening read about the experiences of slaves and free blacks, who were at risk of being kidnapped and sold into slavery (clearly, the kidnapping shown in 12 Years a Slave was not necessarily exceptional).

Learning about Levi Coffin has been an experience in learning about Quakers in the US and Indiana, communities of free blacks (who often congregated near communities of Quakers), slave experiences, free black experiences, the abolitionist movement (which was not a monolithic approach to the opposition of slavery), Indiana history, and free-trade shopping—just to name a few things.

If you are passing through Indiana or find yourself in the eastern part of the state, stop by the Levi Coffin house. The house and tour are well worth it.