One-room Schools

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I still subscribe faithfully to the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, the small-town newspaper published in Peterborough, New Hampshire which covers the area of the state where we raised our daughters and to which we’ve returned every summer for almost fifty years. Last week Jane Eklund, a columnist with a keen interest in the region’s history, reprinted an article called “Recollections of a District School,” originally published in 1903 by a former student at one of the town’s one-room schools.

The article caught my eye because my first teaching experience was in a four-room school in Vermont, a distant cousin of those even smaller institutions once ubiquitous throughout the US. They’ve been rapidly disappearing in the tidal wave of school consolidation, questionably billed as a cost-saving strategy. I was fascinated by the challenges faced by teachers working in cramped spaces with limited resources with – and here lies the ultimate challenge – as many as six grades learning in the same room at the same time. My four-room school had already adopted what education scholars call the “egg carton” model of school structure, with each grade assigned to its separate room. As a result, the only age boundary crossing for me was a multi-age classroom of fifth and sixth graders. That was hard enough,but how in the world do you keep the machine humming with kindergartners and sixth graders working side by side?

That question intrigued me so much that in my final year directing the teacher education program at Antioch New England in 1976, I organized a conference of teachers from around New England who were still working in one and two-room schoolhouses. With the help of the local historical society, we mounted a set of displays of books and toys saved from now defunct schools in the area, as well as photographs of the buildings and their inhabitants. Some of the buildings still existed, either as museums or repurposed as storage sheds or for similar functions. There were copies of the famous McGuffey’s Readers and the slates on which students wrote their exercises that conveyed a visceral sense of what it was like to learn in what we would call today these under resourced spaces.

Most of the teachers who attended the conference were dedicated and resourceful educators. It was intriguing to hear them sharing ideas about how they had capitalized on the multi-aged populations in their buildings by enlisting the older students in managing and instructing their younger classmates, who were often also their siblings. There was a lot of what we would now call project-based learning because students had to spend large parts of the school-day working independently as the teacher was addressing the needs of other groups. Discipline was an enduring challenge, about which we’ll hear more when I quote from that 1903 article.

One of my dearest colleagues in Chicago, Amy Millikan, brought to her experience as an urban teacher and teacher educator her work in a one room school in Montana. Her family still owned a cabin to which they returned every summer and her years as a teacher in that community created enduring relationships with the families of her former students. I am convinced that Amy’s experience in that setting contributed to making her the gifted teacher she became. The resourcefulness, planning and management skills in situations where you are entirely on your own – no principal to whose office you can send a wayward child, no time to mull over possible solutions to multiple crises erupting before you in real time. That’s the stuff great teachers are made of.

Let us not romanticize the one room schools of the past – and those few that are still around. Many teachers were poorly prepared and even more poorly paid. Discipline was often harsh. School terms were typically ridiculously brief, based on the needs of agricultural communities. Students left school early to seek work. A statistic I’ve quoted before, but which merits repeating, is that in the first part of the 20th century, only 11% of the population graduated from high school. Today, even in distressed school systems like Chicago’s, that number is now in the mid-80s. Nonetheless, whole generations of professionals, scholars and community leaders were educated in one-room schoolhouses.

I promised I would treat you to some excerpts from the 1903 remembrance of being educated in a one-room school, so here they are. I’ve read similar accounts in memoirs from other states like Kentucky and Indiana, so what we’re looking at isn’t a uniquely New England phenomenon.

I’m quoting here from Eklund’s article, which includes portions of the essay by Jonathan Smith, who attended his one-room school in the 1860s.

Eklund: “He describes the building as being about 25 feet square, one room plus a small coat room…. 50 student seats and unpainted walls that ‘were soiled and splattered by the missiles which had been thrown across at all hours of the session and intermission by the scholars.’”

Smith: “The discipline was the point of first importance with parents and committee, and the most difficult part of the teacher’s duty. It was here that the teacher failed, if he did fail, and when he succeeded, it was through his muscular vigor backed by his tact and courage…. There was no sentimentalism about corporal punishment, which the teacher employed in all cases needful and not needful, at his discretion, and the larger the victim the more popular its administration became with the parents.”

Eklund: “The best teachers, of course, could command the schoolroom without threats and violence. Female teachers, especially good ones, elicited feelings of chivalry among otherwise rowdy boys.”

Smith: “The scholars were quick to recognize a real teacher, and if such a one used cleverness and good sense, interested them in their studies and kept them busy, he won respect and governed with little difficulty, whether the teacher was a man or a woman.”

Smith: “Judged by latter-day standards it (such a school) could not but fail, and yet it did not fail…. The achievements and development of our country since 1860 are ample proof.”

The spirit of that conference of one- and two-room schoolhouse educators lured me back into a six-year term as the teaching principal of another four-room school. You can read about that adventure by searching back on my blog site for a piece called Bennington Days. I often felt transported back into the 19th century during those half-dozen years. I learned a lot about the relations between school and community which has informed my work in the astonishingly different surroundings of Houston and Chicago. Regardless of geography and time period, it’s always about kids, teachers and parents.

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Marv Hoffman

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