May 15, 2009

The One-room Schoolhouse

by Vickie McDonough

My youngest son graduates high school on May 18th, which is probably why I had schools on my mind as I was deciding what to blog about this month. Sean is heading off to Oral Robert’s University this fall to study electrical engineering. Isn’t he a handsome young man?

Although there are still a few one-room schoolhouses left in America, mainly in small western communities and among the Amish, they are quickly becoming a thing of the past in preference to today’s larger modern schools with all manners of technology and conveniences. But 125 years ago, things were vastly different.

Most small towns could only afford a one-room school building made from stone, wood, and sometimes, even sod. We often tend to think of these schoolhouses as being red, but in truth, most were white. Some had the luxury of a school bell, but many didn’t.

Children generally wrote on slates, while the teacher used chalk to write on boards that had been painted black, hence the term “blackboard.”

Teachers in one-room schools were often former students themselves. During the winter months they would get to school early to get a fire started in a pot belly stove, so the building would be warm for the students. Sometimes they would even prepare a hot, noon meal on top of the stove, usually soup or some kind of stew.

A normal school day was 9 to 4, with 15-minute recesses in the morning and afternoon and an hour for lunch. Older students had the responsibility of bringing in water and fetching coal or wood for the stove. According to their size and gender, younger students would be given responsibilities such as sweeping, cleaning the blackboard, or taking the erasers outside for dusting."

Male teachers sometimes lived in a teacherage, which was often attached to the school or located nearby. He would be expected to help care for the school building in some cases. If their family didn’t live in the area, single female teachers, sometimes as young as fifteen, boarded with a local family, as social norms required they be supervised. Female teachers had to remain single, and be of excellent moral character.

Some teachers made as little as $4 - $11 per month, but others earned as much as $25 per month. Many schools were only in session 3 - 4 months out of the year since children were needed to help with spring chores and fall harvesting, so the teacher had to find another job or live a full year on only 4 months salary. Although some women made teaching their career, a substantial number of women taught for only a year or two, then married and moved on to new challenges. This pattern, as well as the relatively low pay, led to very high turnover among teachers.

Early schools generally ran through eight grade, and subjects such as grammar, ciphering (mathematics), penmanship, spelling, history, and geography were taught.

Attending school gave a student the opportunity to escape a future life of laboring on a farm or working in a mine like his father. Students with an education, like our children today, were able to better their lives because of what they learned.

The picture above of the white schoolhouse among the trees that actually looks more like a church is Rose Hill School, located in Oklahoma. They hold classes for visiting school children to give them a taste of life back in the 1800s. I hope to visit there one day. So, is there a one-room schoolhouse located near where you live? Did you or a relative of yours attend one?

One a personal note, I just received copies of the final book in my historical North Dakota series. Check out my website for more information.

Vickie McDonough


Ashley Ludwig said...

I love the idea of all those kids going to school at the same time. Makes you think twice about the school marms & masters! Must have had to rule with an iron fist!

The pictures are so amazing. Thank you for sharing.


Edna said...

That is so cool about the old schools, I went to one that had only 2 classrooms, once you reached 8th grade you went on to the HS, and I had to walk, a mile with my 2 bothers. So I know all about the old times as I am 66 years old.

please enter me into a contest to win a book please


Anonymous said...

The district I teach in here in NW South Dakota closed our last 1 room school only a few years ago. With the distances one has to travel out here, it was a lifeline for many communities to have a school. There are tons of stories about them here, especially the bathroom...outhouse..and snakes, mice and racoons that took shelter in them.

I was excited to hear about your series in the badlands of ND. We do most of our shopping in Dickinson...the closest McDonalds, Wal-Mart, etc. Those will be great to read!

Sean said...

Ashley, I agree that those teachers had to be tough to teach so many kids, each one at a different level of learning.

Edna, I bet you have some stories you could tell. If you've got some really good ones, feel free to email me. I'd love to hear them.

Michelle, I had a great time visiting ND while researching my books. I loved the Badlands area and was surprised that it was so different that SD's Badlands. If you can't find my ND books locally, try the Heartsong Presents website or email me.


Vickie McDonough said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vickie McDonough said...

Oops, I just realized that I was signed in on my son Sean's account when I made the previous comments. Sorry about that.


Molly Noble Bull said...

Dear Brenda,
I loved your article and loved those photos, too. Is there some place we can go to get photos like that? Maybe they are old photos from your family tree. I have some of those, and I never tire of looking at them -- again and again.

Rhonda said...

Love the article about One room schoolhouse. But they are not as lost as you may think. As a home school mom of 8 kids, we have a one room schoolhouse. 2 are in college (1 for electrical engineer and 1 for LVN). But with the other 6 kids left there are 36 lesson plans a day. We have taken 1 room in our house and it contains all our school. Many times I laugh and understand the challenges presented by TV shows or books about the life of teachers in a one room school. Understand the challenges they faced and the fear that a child might not get what they need. One room schoolhouses are still there you just have to look in different places. Also I am drawn to stories of old school houses because I too have much to learn.