In The News

Children revisit educational history

This article originally appeared in The Daily Eastern News.

Seven children and adults gathered Tuesday to hear costume interpreter Ellie Carlson transform into an 1858 schoolteacher, Miss Isabella Hoffmann.

Carlson has been performing this character since 1991 and has also done other characters including Mary Florence Potts, the inventor of the cold-handed sad iron, and Anita Willets Burnham, a twentieth-century artist who traveled the world.

She also presents historic cooking classes and lectures on topics such as Valentine’s Day and historic baseball.

Carlson has always had a passion for acting and has been involved in theater since age 10.

“I studied children’s theater at Governor’s State University and have been involved in (acting) ever since,” she said.

Carlson is an Illinois Humanities Council Road Scholar. She spoke highly of this organization.

“(The council) enables organizations to have speakers come to speak,” she said.

Traveling as far as Iowa and Michigan, Carlson said she generally has many gigs.

“Sometimes I will have twelve (interpretations) in one week,” she said.

Peggy Manley, administrative assistant of Booth Library, booked Carlson’s performance.

“I wrote the application for the Illinois Humanities Council Road Scholar grant,” she said. “They then sent me an email of what kind of speakers. I thought (Carlson) would be perfect for our current exhibit.”

The children’s school day included five subject areas: geography, arithmetic, spelling, singing and recitation.

Carlson began teaching geography. She asked the children which state they lived in and then point it out on the map.

She informed the children that in 1858, there were only 32 states.

The children also discussed the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes.

Next, the class moved on to studying arithmetic. Carlson asked the children simple math questions using basic items, such as marbles.

The class then participated in a spelling bee. The entire room, both children and adults, participated. Carlson asked the children to spell animal words, such as “horse” and “dog”, while adults were given more challenging words.

Carlson then had the class sing the classic children’s song “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

Carlson concluded the school day with having the children read short stories.

Audience members then asked questions about the lives of teachers during Hoffman’s time. Carlson told the audience that young teachers would only earn a few dollars a month and would board with a student’s family.

“It was not an excellent way of living, but (the teachers) would earn their keep,” she said.

Both the children and adults enjoyed the performance. Manley said she especially appreciated Carlson’s performance.

“I thought it was great,” she said. “I enjoyed participating and seeing how classes used to be.”

Lou Conwell, a third grade teacher at Carl Sandburg Elementary School, also liked the interpretation.

“I really enjoyed it,” she said. “I think the students gained a lot and now have a better understanding of history.”

Carlson said she just enjoys her job.

“I think it’s important to support history,” she said. “Interpretation is the closest thing we have to a time machine.”

Those interested in learning more about Carlson’s costumed interpretations and demonstrations can visit her website at