hough they were remarkably different in attendance, size, and construction across the frontier, there were many similarities among one-room schools. Generally, younger students were seated at the front of the room, and older students were in the back. Boys sat on one side of the room, and girls on the other. Edwin C. Hewett believed that this separation should extend into recess, and recommended, "The ground in the rear of the school should be divided into two parts by a high and close fence extending from the schoolhouse to the boundary of the school lot. These divisions may be used as playgrounds for the boys and girls respectively."
Classes were generally taught in 10- to 15-minute sessions to each grade level, and the curriculum tended to focus on the basics: reading, spelling, penmanship, arithmetic, and history. Learning was largely the result of rote memorization, recitation, and oral drilling. The school year was divided into terms that were largely dictated by the needs of farming families. Students might attend school for a several weeks during the summer and a few weeks during the winter, in order to be home for planting and harvesting on their homesteads. Schools in some areas were open for as little as three weeks per year.
By far, the greatest challenge to teaching and learning on the frontier was a lack of supplies. Schools sometimes lacked even the barest of essentials. One Washington State teacher remarked, "There was not the slightest sign of a toilet [at the school]. When I told the directors that I could not teach if they did not build one, one of them remarked to the others, 'Now you see what comes of hiring someone from the Outside. We never had any trouble before, and there are plenty of trees to get behind.'"
Many schools had no slates, pencils, pens, or maps. Until the 1880s, blackboards were considered a luxury item. But by far the most challenging aspect of life in frontier schools was a lack of uniform textbooks. Since many parents could not afford, or were not willing to purchase, mandatory textbooks, students were sent to school with the books available in their homes, which often was simply the Bible. It was not uncommon for each student in a school to have a different textbook -- if they had any textbooks at all. Edwin C. Hewett offered the following helpful advice:
In 2001, approximately 250 one-room schools remained in the United States. Of these, over 70 were located in Montana.
"In many country schools, the classes are greatly multiplied because of the diversity of textbooks; this is the cause of loud and bitter complaint on the part of many teachers. Probably, it is better that the textbooks should be uniform; but it is very foolish to put pupils of the same grade, or nearly the same, into different classes merely because their books are not alike. There is no possible excuse for this in any class but reading. Can not a class get a lesson on compound fractions from two or three different authors? Can they not manage a lesson on the geography of Ohio using different textbooks? In fact, a skillful teacher can turn this diversity into advantage."
|Sod school house in Custer County, Nebraska. Mary E. Sutton, teacher. Denver Public Library.
For turning "this diversity into advantage," the average female teacher in the 1880s received a yearly salary of $54.50. Her male counterpart received $71.40.
While teachers dealt with less-than-ideal facilities and inadequate supplies, many also had to contend with another familiar educational issue: discipline problems. Rules were much stricter (students could be severely punished for forgetting their lessons or speaking out of turn), and teachers had a much freer hand in dealing with infractions. Corporal punishment -- inflicted by both male and female teachers -- was not uncommon. Rulers and hickory switches were liberally applied to ill-behaved students. Common crimes and punishments included 8 lashes (which could cut both clothing and flesh) for swearing; 10 lashes for "misbehaving to girls"; 4 lashes for boys and girls playing together; 10 lashes for playing cards during recess, and 7 lashes for telling lies. The disciplinary procedures in one-room schools all over the country would have today's parents irate and today's students in revolt.
espite the challenges of frontier schools, many teachers succeeded in teaching and many students succeeded in learning, as they do today. Though the rote memorization, corporal punishment, and recitation of 19th-century schools may not be the ideal approaches to schooling by today's standards, educators obviously accomplished their goals of training the "next generation" of citizens ... citizens who grew up to be the farmers, laborers, scholars, scientists, politicians, inventors, authors, and artists that shaped and formed the American society -- and the world -- we know today.
Beecher, Catharine. The Duty of American Women to the Country. New York, 1845.
Bettmann, Otto. The Good Old Days ... They Were Terrible! New York: Random House, 1974.
Brown, Dee. The Gentle Tamers. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.
Dary, David. Seeking Pleasure in the Old West. New York: Knopf, 1995.
Fuller, Wayne. One-Room Schools in the Middle West. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1994.
Hewett, Edwin C. A Treatise on Pedagogy for Young Teachers. Cincinnati: Antwerp, Bragg, and Co., 1884.
Kaufman, Polly Welts. Women Teachers on the Frontier. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.
Lamar, Howard, ed. The Reader's Encyclopedia of the American West. New York: Thomas Crowell Company, 1977.
Montana in Our Own Words. Compiled by the Western Heritage Center and Anneke-Jan Boden. Western Heritage Center, Billings, Montana.
Pioneer Memories. By the Pioneer Society of Sweet Grass County, Montana, 1960. From the collection of the Montana Historical Society.
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