Friday, April 17, 2009

One Room Schoolhouse Life

In 1919 there were 190,000 one-room schools scattered all around the American countryside, as of 2005 there are fewer than 400 left (Ellis, 2005). I am sure that all of us have heard of one room schools, and maybe you have even heard stories from your grandparents or great grandparents who have attend these one room schools. One room school houses were so much like today’s schools yet so different.

by Amanda Neville
Southeast Community College

One of the best qualities one room schools have is there are few students. The result is a good student-teacher ratio. Throughout my essay we will talk about the subjects students were taught in one room schoolhouse. We will go over the roles of the teachers working in these conditions. And finally we will take a peek at the disciplinary action inflicted on students and how often that happened.

As Neenah Ellis states in the 2005 publication of Morning Edition a single teacher taught academic basics to five to eight grade levels of elementary-age boys and girls. Students who attended a one room schoolhouse didn’t work on the same subjects or the same assignments (Ellis, 2005).

In the article Harker's One-Room Schoolhouse, published in 2008, Ray Olson stated that the students were divided into rows according to grade level at most one-room schools. In some of the one-room schools, the teacher would call each grade level to the front of the room where they would sit on a long bench and receive their lessons.

The basic subjects that were taught were reading, writing, spelling and arithmetic. In some cases the students received instruction in history and sometimes geography, but science was rarely taught, and some of the students did receive instruction in hygiene (Gwaltney, 2001).

Sometimes there might have been a student in the second grade that was three or four years older than the other students. This was not uncommon in the one-room school. The older students usually helped the younger students with their lessons (Ellis, 2005). Most of the one-room schools in our area [Lincoln, NE] had grades one through eight, but this also varied from school to school (Ellis, 2005). When class began, the teacher usually started with the first grade while she gave the other students their assignments. The teacher would teach one subject at a time to each grade level, then move on to the next grade level with the same subject (Gwaltney, 2001).

So now that we know what students learned in a one room schoolhouse, I would like to share with you what the school typically looked like inside and out. These schools had no running water, the bathroom facilities were outside, and the students and teacher had to go inside the schoolhouse to wash hands.

In the article One-Room Schools Holding on in Rural America Neenah Ellis (2008) stated the number of students varied from six to 40 or more. The youngest children sat in the front, while the oldest students sat in the back. The teacher's desk may have been on a raised platform at the front of the room, however, there would have been a wood-burning stove since there was no other source of heat.

The quality of building structures that were used as one-room schools varied with local economic conditions. Most buildings were of simple frame construction, some with the school bell on a cupola (Olson, 2008).

Mike Kennedy states in his article A Century of Progress published in 1999 that some schools had lean-tos; this was a place for students to tie their horses up while attending school. In Midwestern states, sod construction was also used, as well as stone in areas such as portions of the southwest where trees were scarce. In some locations, the schoolhouse was painted red, but most seem to have been white (Olson, 2008).

We now know what the students typically learned and we have an idea of how the schools were set up let’s take a look at the disciplinary actions for misbehaved students.

The methods of discipline used by the one-room school teacher were all very similar (Ellis, 2005). Thomas Gwaltney (2001) stated in the article, The Era of the Rural School, that although middle-grade children and adults performed similar duties on the farm, adults determined the division of labor; children were to obey without question. A similar ethos existed in the school.

A paddle, a switch, or sharp slaps across the palm of the hand with a wooden ruler were the tools used to keep unruly students in line (Ellis, 2005). Spanking was the most common form of punishment; the children were familiar with this strategy as it was the kind of punishment they were used to at home (Gwaltney, 2001). Parents rarely came to the school to respond to discipline problems, and they always supported the teacher and the teacher's methods of discipline (Olson, 2008).

Teachers and parents were strict (Olson, 2008). Because brothers and sisters often were in the same classroom with the misbehaving student that meant they would probably tattle when they got home, which meant double trouble between school and home (Olson, 2008).

Pupils spoke when called upon by the teacher or requested permission before speaking by raising their right arm. They were usually required to stand when speaking to the teacher or to the class (Gwaltney, 2001).

Yes, one room school houses were so much like today’s schools yet so different.

Throughout my essay we have talked about the subjects students were taught in one room schoolhouse. We have gone over the roles of the teachers working in these conditions. And finally we took a peek at the disciplinary action inflicted on students and how often that happened. So the next time you are cruising the country sides don’t blink because you may miss one of the few one room schoolhouses that are still in session.


Ellis, N. (2005). One-room schools holding on in rural America. Morning Edition. Retrieved January 23, 2009, from

Gwaltney, T. (2001). The era of the rural school. Childhood Education, 78, 2, 104. Retrieved January 30, 2009, from Elibrary.

Kennedy, M. (1999). A Century of Progress. AS&U, American School & University. Retrieved January30, 2009 from Elibrary.

Olson, R. (2008, December 15). Harker's one-room schoolhouse: Visions of an Iowa icon, Booklist 105, 8, p7. Retrieved January 23, 2009, from Ebscohost.

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