Colonial Hornbooks

Grades: 4-6

Subjects: Social Studies and Language Arts

Concepts: Deeper understanding of Colonial life and education

Skills: Critical and imaginative thinking, compare and contrast

Materials: Horn Book outline, Ben Franklin’s sayings, cardboard, transparencies

Time: 2 class periods

Focus Questions

  • What was schooling like in the New England colonies?
  • How can students make deeper connections to the past?
  • How does colonial schooling compare to current educational practices?
  • How can we use insightful words of wisdom from the past to enrich our lives today?

Instructional Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • Explain 3-4 aspects of colonial schooling in New England.
  • Understand what a hornbook was and how it was used.
  • Make a connection to the past by creating their own hornbooks.
  • Compare and contrast colonial schooling with their own experiences.
  • Appreciate and interpret maxims from both the 18th century and modern times.
Rationale and Background
Connection to the NH Framework Proficiencies

Introductory Activity

  1. Write on the chalkboard in large letters: Time is money. Ask students if they have heard of that before? Discuss what students think it means.

    Write another one: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Discuss what that means.

    Try one more: When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water. What does THAT mean?

    Explain to students that these sayings are from Poor Richard’s Almanack which was first published by Benjamin Franklin in 1732. This was about the same time that adventurous New England proprietors were expanding west and investing in land along the Connecticut River including No. 4 in New Hampshire. Describe for students a brief history of almanacs, including Poor Richard’s (see Rationale and Background). Ask students if they know any proverbs or wise sayings. Tell them that this lesson will be focused on education in New England and on learning and understanding the wise sayings of Benjamin Franklin.

  2. The teacher needs to make sure all students are comfortable and have practice interpreting Franklin’s maxims, because they will be asked to do it on their own in the lesson. If students need more practice, other Ben Franklin sayings to choose from are:

    • Eat to live, and not live to eat.
    • They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
    • Necessity never made a good bargain.
    • Tis easy to see, hard to foresee.
    • He that lieth down with Dogs, shall rise up with Fleas.
    • The worst wheel of a cart makes the most noise.
    • Little strokes, Fell great oaks.
    • Fish and visitors stink after three days.
    • What you seem to be, be really.
    • Love your Neighbour; yet don't pull down your Hedge.
    • People who are wrapped up in themselves make small packages.
  3. Explain to students that Benjamin Franklin was trying to help people live good lives. Ask students how Franklin’s sayings reflect the time in which he was living. Follow-up by asking if they apply to today’s society at all. If so, how? A fun and creative way to reinforce Franklin’s sayings is to have the class play a game of pictionary with them. This is an effective review of his wise words and the students are more likely to remember them.
  4. Outline for students the purpose of the lesson which is to learn about colonial schooling practices in New England compared to their own. Describe to students how instruction in colonial schools was centered on moral responsibilities and good ways of living. Illustrate a typical school day in colonial America and explain who went to school when (see Rationale and Background). Detail how students did not have modern style textbooks in the 1700s. Instead, they learned from a primer and some used a “hornbook”. Describe the hornbook and how it was made. On a typical hornbook were the ABCs – upper and lower case, along with the Lord’s Prayer. The hornbook was a way for students to learn their ABCs and to learn guidance for their lives.
    Engage students in a discussion directly comparing colonial educational practices with today’s methods: Contrast the hornbook with today’s textbooks. Compare the hornbook’s one page to the many pages of students’ books today. Also, discuss the function of the hornbook versus the purpose of the modern textbook. Compare and contrast the length of the colonial school year with the typical 180 days or so of the modern student. A visual approach to this analysis is to make a Venn diagram showing the characteristics of education in colonial New England versus today and overlap the two.
  5. Finally, explain to students that they will have the chance to experience an aspect of colonial schooling by creating their own hornbooks. Tell them that the next activity takes the idea of the ABCs and moral instruction and combines them with Ben Franklin’s sayings. In the end, the class will have a bulletin board display of everyone’s hornbook (A-Z).
Instructional Resources or Materials

Instructional Procedure

  1. Before the lesson begins, the Teacher needs to construct a sample hornbook to show students. This works well if there are less than 26 students in the class; the teacher can choose a letter of the alphabet. If there are more than 26 students then the teacher may double up on a letter.
  2. To begin the activity, each student receives one of Benjamin Franklin’s sayings (See handout on Benjamin Franklin’s sayings: A-Z). The student’s goal is to copy this saying on to an appropriate sized piece of paper and to include an explanation of what that saying means to him or her. This paper will ultimately be glued onto the outline of the hornbook and displayed on the wall.
  3. Once students have their individual sayings give them time to think about what it means. They should write a draft explanation in their notebooks. Circulate and assist any student who is having trouble interpreting the meaning.
  4. Then engage the class in a peer review. Pair up students who will exchange papers and offer feedback on each other’s explanation. The teacher may want to collect and offer feedback on each explanation before they are put on the final paper for the hornbook.
  5. Distribute copies of the hornbook outline along with some cardboard or oak tag. Have student cut out the horn book.
  6. Distribute the correct sized butcher paper for the hornbook. This thick paper simulates the parchment used in colonial times. Have students copy their saying from Benjamin Franklin onto the paper adding their explanation just below the saying. Ask them to keep the first letter (A, B, C…) large so that the bulletin board display looks like the ABCs. Students could also color the first letter. Students could also add pictures.
  7. When they are finished, have students glue their paper onto their hornbook.
  8. If students are using cardboard, then they may cut out a piece of transparency to cover their paper and simulate the thin sheaf of horn used in colonial time. Secure the transparency to the cardboard.
  9. Have each student present his or her saying and explanation so that the entire class learns all 26 of Franklin’s wise sayings. Then place all of the hornbooks on display in the classroom.
  10. Wrap up Discussion: On the chalk board make two columns – “Then” and “Now”. Solicit ideas from students about education in colonial times versus current day. An option is to divide the class in half and have the students themselves write ideas under each column.
  11. Close by having students come up with their own modern day sayings. Talk about what they mean and how they apply to students’ lives today. The Teacher could start them off by sharing some that have arisen due to the invention and proliferation of computers, for example:
    “Garbage In, Garbage Out” – refers to the fact that a computer program is only as good as what is programmed into it. From a modern almanac: “To err is human, but to really foul things up requires a computer.” ~Farmer's Almanac, 1978. A third one is: “Most people are awaiting Virtual Reality; I'm awaiting virtuous reality.” ~Eli Khamarov, "Lives of the Cognoscenti"


Final product: hornbook with written interpretation of Benjamin Franklin’s saying.

Participation in discussions.

Curriculum Modifications/Extension