WESTFORD — The classroom at Westford Academy is incredibly loud, but the students are unusually quiet. It’s been quite some time since their teacher has had to say anything to them, which is just how he likes it.
At rows of vintage desks, a class of freshman are hammering away at vintage typewriters, today’s adventure in hands-on learning.
“I need some Wite-Out,” a girl calls above the ruckus.
Stephen Scully, their teacher, is standing at the head of the class, just in front of the 1930s-era radio they’ve already used to listen to audio broadcasts of the Hindenburg explosion and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats.
All around the room are other period-specific tools that Scully uses in his history classes.
Students check in and out at an old punch clock. A crank phone on one wall calls a rotary dial phone on the other. A replica of a German Enigma machine sits on a back shelf (the students just used this to chart encoded troop movements on maps). Pretty soon, as they move into Cold War history, he’s going to take the whole class to a janitor’s closet and have them eat dried food so they can get a sense of what a bomb shelter might have felt like.
All around, Scully’s class looks like a museum, but it is a museum that encourages touching. Everything still works. Everything gets used. And it’s all part of his emphasis on experiential learning.
“The goal is for them to learn without me having to talk,” he said.
On this day, the typewriters have come out, something he does a few times a year — on another day, he fills inkwells and has them write longhand — and the students are drafting letters to the United Nations, pretending to be a representative of a particular country and weighing in on how the Axis powers should be governed after World War II.
The results are mixed. Some students peck at the keys as if they’re scared they might peck back. Others hammer away just to hammer away. Another student spends an entire class retyping a paragraph she had already written on a computer and printed out. Many raise their hands when they get caught in situations that don’t happen on a laptop.
“The kids look forward to the typewriters because they understand keyboards, but it’s just enough information to be dangerous,” Scully said. “When they get stuck, they’ll just start hitting things.”
The typewriters are a newish addition to the classroom. Scully used to have one in the back, and the students would play with it, so he decided to get one for each student. He bought some on eBay. Neighbors donated others. And he eventually had them divided into five general categories, by era.
From the 1920s and ’30s, he has huge Underwood #5s. From the ’30s and ’40s are the workhorse Royals, the KHM and KMMs. In the 1950s, they get smaller and “portable” with the Royal Quiet Deluxe, before going electric in the ’60s with smaller portables like the Smith Corona “Coronet,” and then getting big and buzzy with the IBM Selectrics of the ’70s and ’80s.
To get them all up and running, he enlisted the help of Tom Furrier from Cambridge Typewriter in Arlington, one of the last repairmen anywhere. To keep them running, Furrier must make semiannual visits to the school to straighten keys and replace parts, which he was doing on this day (while answering all kinds of questions from children who were born this century and can be forgiven for not knowing that you have to slide the carriage back when at the end of a line).
“This is a gift and a curse,” said Brian DeMille, who was fighting with a 1940s Royal KMM. “It’s a gift because you’re experiencing history physically, feeling how people experienced the past. But it’s a curse to try to figure out how to use this thing, especially for someone like me who uses the delete key so much my fingerprint is stained on my laptop.
“This thing won’t even fit in my backpack, but if I had to carry it around school all day I might actually have some muscles.”