GREENWICH, N.Y. — It is back to school season across the U.S. While in some parts of the country schools have been back in session for about a month, in other places students are just finishing their first full week. Students are probably feeling a mixture of excitement and nervousness as they look ahead to the new school year (and their parents are likely relieved to be returning to a more structured routine after a busy summer). For America’s rural schoolkids education came in various forms, and for over a century the one-room schoolhouse was the main source for farm kids to get schooling.
The first instance of public schooling came from the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1647 colony leaders enacted a law stating that towns of at least 50 people should have an elementary school and towns of 100 people or more should also have a Latin school, which was an early version of high school. The main purpose of these schools was to instruct in reading and literacy so that children would be able to read the Bible and participate in religious activities.
Throughout the colonial era schooling came from a variety of sources. Learning took place in the home with parents teaching their own children. Some towns had schools supported by groups of parents or church-operated schools. Wealthier families could hire private tutors to instruct their children or pay to have them attend boarding schools. Since schools often were restricted to boys after a certain age some towns had “dame schools” which were operated within the home of a woman in town. At these schools girls would learn basic academic skills, domestic practices, and the social etiquette of the time. Another means of schooling came through apprenticeships. Boys or girls would be apprenticed to a tradesman for a certain number of years to learn a particular trade. Part of the deal of learning the trade often included the teaching of rudimentary reading, writing, and math skills.
In the decades following the American Revolution measures to improve the education system were slowly implemented. Federal land ordinances included a stipulation that required the creation of a school in the new towns that would be formed. In the 1830s and 1840s Massachusetts legislator Horace Mann lobbied for the formation of “common schools” which were publicly-funded schools open to all children. The purpose behind common schools was to create a learned, literate, morally-sound, and productive citizenry for the young nation. The common school concept spread throughout the growing nation in mid- and late-19th century.
As the 19th century continued the one-room schoolhouse became the most frequent place for rural children to get an education. At first, schoolhouses were built of log or sod. Later they took on the recognizable form of a square or rectangular building made of brick or covered with clapboard siding with a bell tower on top. Most schoolhouses had a cloakroom just inside the entrance and upon entering the main room of the building a student would find rows of desks lining the large room, a blackboard on the front wall, windows on one or both sides of the room, and a stove somewhere in the building for heat. Also on the school grounds would be an outhouse and a well.
One-room schoolhouses taught students as young as five years old to as old as eighteen. The schools taught what would be the equivalent of first grade through eighth grade. States required children to attend school through a certain age, and for most states that age was fourteen. Higher education was not feasible for many rural citizens, so an eighth-grade education is what many in rural areas received. Classes could be composed of a few students to as many as thirty.
Prior to 1900 school took place in two terms: a summer term from May until August and a winter term from November to April. Older boys often only attended during the winter term since they were needed to help with farm duties during the summer months. After 1900 the continuous nine-month school year from September to around May became more frequent. Even with this change many students still stayed out of school during the planting and harvesting times to help with farm needs.
Teachers of these schools were both men and women, but the majority were young, single women. Early on, teaching was open to anyone, and in many cases teachers did not know much more than the students that they were teaching. Teachers could also be as young as sixteen leading to interesting scenarios like a student becoming the teacher of her class the following year, or the teacher being not much older than or even younger than some of the students in her class.
As time went on teacher standards became higher with the formation of teacher’s colleges, or normal schools as they were called. Nevertheless, teacher turnover remained high. Female teachers were not allowed to be married either by contract or social convention. Since most teachers were young women, they would often teach for a few years and then get married themselves meaning they would stop educating and the school would have to find a new teacher. Low pay was another factor to this turnover.
A typical school day lasted from 8:00 A.M. to around 4:00 P.M. The teacher would arrive first and open the school and start warming the building during the colder months. Schools were situated so that they would be reachable to the inhabitants of the region. For many students this required a walk of a few miles. If they were old enough and fortunate enough they might be able to ride a horse or pony to school. Some regions organized transportation with wagons acting as a kind of school bus. Upon arrival students might help with a few chores like bringing in wood and water.
Students were separated by gender with boys one side of the room and girls on the other. They were then separated into rows based on ability. Younger students sat in the front and older students near the back. Aside from instilling knowledge, an important part of education at the time was teaching good morals, so the day often began with the teacher reading stories that depicted these qualities. These could be anything such as a Bible story, a myth or story from Aesop’s Fables, or reading from a piece of literature from the time.
After the reading the school day took varying paths for students as the teacher would work with the grade levels individually while other students either listened or worked on other assignments independently. Much of the teachers’ lessons focused on the Three R’s of reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. While the state determined the curriculum of schools, teachers could choose which textbooks to use and what lessons to teach so no two schoolhouses were alike in their instruction. Some popular books from the era were the McGuffey Reader and Noah Webster’s “Blue-Backed Speller” which were used for decades and often passed from sibling to sibling in households.
Teachers also covered other topics such as spelling/grammar, geography, sciences, art, music, and manners. For students living in rural, agricultural communities, teachers sometimes tailored their science lessons to teach skills and knowledge that would be helpful to them on the farm. Manners lessons were also memorable to students and teachers as they taught students everything from how to introduce oneself to how to answer the telephone and other common courtesies.
Without school supplies always available much of the students’ learning involved memorization and recitation. When working with a particular grade level students would be called to the “recitation bench” at the front of the classroom. Here students would practice “ciphering” math problems, “parsing” the meaning of sentences, and memorize other subject matter with the teacher. Throughout the day students would hear the refrain of “turn, rise, and pass” calling the next grade level to the front to work with the teacher.
It was not all school work though as children were afforded two recess periods throughout the day and an hour lunch break. Students would be let outside to play in the schoolyard, with teachers sometimes joining in on the games that were played. At the end of the school day the teacher may enlist students to help with janitorial duties like washing the blackboards, sweeping the floors, and “oiling” the floors with a fresh coat of linseed oil.
The school was a community-wide endeavor in rural communities. Outside of paying taxes to the school, families would take turns supplying wood for heat, cleaning the school’s stable, or other needs the school had. In instances where the teacher was not a local, residents would take turns housing the teacher in their own homes. Christmas programs put on by the school were a common practice and an annual community tradition, along with other school events. The schoolhouse itself was also used in other capacities for events like town meetings, church services, weddings, funerals, and more making it a center of community activity.
One-room schoolhouses were a central part of American education for nearly 200 years and at the peak of their use there were about 200,000 in the United States. Around 90,000 of them were located in the Midwest and Great Plains. They remained in operation into the 1940s and 1950s, however after World War II they fell out of use due to better transportation allowing for more mobility, population movements from rural to urban areas, and the consolidation of schools leading to the kind of K-12 public school system that is more recognizable today.
While not many survive today the one-room schoolhouse was an important place for rural citizens and children as places of learning and community engagement. Some are still standing today and operate as museums or have been repurposed for other means. Although they may seem like a distant memory there are actually around 200 one-room schools still in operation today mainly in the rural areas of the Western United States.
— Morning Ag Clips