Friday, February 27, 2009

The One Room Schoolhouse

Imagine yourself sitting in a classroom during the 3rd grade. You are careful to sit up straight and tall, to not rest your elbows on your desk, and to not even giggle. You may be tired from your three-mile walk you took to get from your house to school that morning, and if you look around you can see the other 16 students in the room all of which are in a different grade than you. Oh, if you feel you have to go to the bathroom, you will have to go outside behind the school where the outhouse is.

The name of the school is District 16 Wigle (pronounced like wagle) Creek School. It was named after Jesse Wigle who was the first white settler in Dakota County, NE in 1856.It is the school my mom attended up until the 7th grade. My grandma taught at this school for about 5 years.
By Lori Herrera
Southeast Community College

Do you know what kind of school you are in? If you are thinking a one-room schoolhouse, you are right.

All of us can probably come up with someone we either are related to or at least someone we know who went to school in a one-room schoolhouse.

As for me, my grandma taught in a one-room school, my mom, who was taught by my grandma for a few years, went to a one-room schoolhouse, and my cousin who is actually just four years older than me, also went to a one-room schoolhouse.

Today, I would like to help you take a look back at what Gulliford in the America’s Country Schools, considers the backbone of American education, the one-room schoolhouse. I will give some information regarding the beginning of the one-room schoolhouse in the Midwest, the few supplies they had, the students that attended, the curriculum they learned, and the teachers who taught it, and the discipline the teachers enforced.

According to the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, as the pioneers moved into the Midwest during the 1860s, they brought with them the strong values of a good education. We know just how important education is today by looking at the classifieds and how many jobs are requiring some sort of post-secondary education. Parents back in the pioneer times sent their kids to school to become highly “educated.”

The main subjects taught included the three R’s: readin, ritin, and rithmatic. Children also learned obedience, courtesy, manners, respect, and how to be sociable.

Education was taken very seriously. School time was a time to concentrate and bad behavior was not accepted or taken lightly. One form of punishment involved being hit with a rod. Students would be hit three to four times on the palm with the rod if they giggled, were not paying attention, or if they recited poorly. If a boy behaved really badly he would be hit with the rod on the shoulders or on the back. The girls would have to sit on a one-legged stool in the corner.

Other forms of punishment involved the dunce cap, loss of recess, cleaning the floor if the student littered or spit on it, writing “I will not…” sentences, having to stand with the student’s nose in a circle that was drawn on the blackboard, or having to sit on the girl’s side of the room if the school was separated by sex. My grandma said that the worse punishment she gave was spanking two boys on their butts for speaking “dirty words.”

Now that we have looked at how serious schooling was taken, let’s look at the teachers who taught at the one-room schoolhouses. The teachers of the school may have been in charge of the students, yet it was the community who chose them. We all know what it is like to have a boss; yet pioneer teachers really had all the parents to answer to.

According to Kerry Graves, author of Going to School in Pioneer Times, the teachers of the one-room schools were often men or women who had an interest in teaching and who had gone through the basic 8th grade schooling. There were women teachers, but sometimes a man was preferred because a lot of people thought that a man would be able to keep the older boys in line better. Teachers often started teaching at a young age like at 16 or 17. My grandma started teaching when she was 18.

Teachers were also given other tasks to do besides the actual teaching. When I asked my grandma about a memory that stood out to her about teaching in a one-room school, she said how being a “janitor” was one responsibility that she took very seriously. She said and I quote, “I remember walking to school on cold mornings, my fingers were too cold and stiff to unlock the door. I needed to start the round black heating stove. I tried to be at school at least an hour before the students arrived so that the room would be warm.”

Keeping up the schoolhouse was mainly the teacher’s responsibility. Students would also do their party by either bringing in wood for the stove the next day, bringing in water in the morning, and cleaning the chalkboard. Now that we have looked at back at some facts about the teachers, let’s take a look at a couple challenges the one-room school faced.

The teachers faced two challenges while teaching, teaching different grade levels all in one day and not having a lot of supplies. I am sure we have all witnessed the challenges that can be present in just trying to teach one grade level in a classroom. The one-room school was for kids in kindergarten through 8th grade. The ages could range from four-years-old to 21 years old. There were usually only a few students per grade level. Sometimes there might not be any students in a certain grade.

There were minimal supplies for the students to use. The children would write their lessons on slates. There were a limited number of books. Just think of how hard it would be to teach to a variety of age groups at one time and with only minimal supplies.

Today, we looked back at some of the characteristics of the one-room schoolhouse which is considered the backbone of American education. We looked at how the pioneers brought with them their strong values of education in the curriculum that was taught and the seriousness of behavior present at the schools, we saw some of the characteristics of the teachers, and we saw how two of the challenges of the one-room school, which were limited supplies and a variety of students affected the one-room school.

As we can see, most characteristics of the one-room schools are a thing of the past. Yet there is one thing we should hold onto which is that education is valuable and should be taken seriously.


Graves, K. (2002). Going to school in pioneer times. MN: Capstone Press.

Gulliford, A. (1984). America’s country schools. Washington D.C.: The Preservation Press.

Wishart, D. (2004). Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Homestead Congress invites our readers to reminisce on their memories of one-room-school houses.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A very interesting and informative article I truly enjoyed. Thank you for sharing.