One-Room School Houses: A Living History Curriculum Unit

The Little Red Brick School in Guilford Center—a painting by Bud Henry

This article is from our Journal archives and is one of our top reads ever. Kathy and Dale designed and carried out this unit as members of the primary teaching team at The Guilford School in Vermont. Dale began planning a study of Guilford’s one-room schoolhouses at the first of a series of Summer Institutes held at Guilford School. Kathy also worked that summer with a group of teachers and community members planning garden projects at the school. Near the beginning of the school year they made the decision to work together with their students on the one-room school unit, which they reprised and improved over the years.

The Beginnings
Our interest and study of One Room Schools went back to Guilford’s Summer Institute. During the summer we had worked at the Institute with a team of community members and school staff to develop projects that would bring together the twin strategies of service learning and community inquiry. We created a planning document and used that to help guide our way. We were also seeking to use our local resources to bring the school and community closer together. We saw the study of one-room schools as a way to do this, while honoring our senior population, most of whom attended one-room schools. For those who did, it was a formative experience, significantly different from today’s more centralized school system.

The Green River School, circa 1909

About Our Curriculum: Field Research
On the first day of a series of field trips, we visited the Little Brick School House, built around 1790 and remaining in use until the 1920’s. We were led by Mr. Fred Humphrey, the president of our local Historical Society, and a former one-room school student, himself. My students interviewed Mrs. Helen Dix and Mrs. Eva Harris (the grandmother of one of our students), two sisters who attended a local one room school during the 1930’s. These women shared many memories with the children, answered questions, and compared their school experiences with those of today’s youth. Artifacts were loaned to the classes, including two slates used by the 90-some-year-old great-grandmother of one student.

Mrs. Harris’s and Mrs. Dix’s family relationships with several of the children in the group provided another wonderful connection for us all. They were able to arrange for our classes to actually “attend school” at the old West Guilford schoolhouse. Eva Harris opened the school for us. She had attended this school for grades 1–8. The first and second graders found that it was still set up as a school. It was used until 1957, when the Guilford Central School was opened. We pretended that we were attending school long ago, when students only spoke up when called upon and discipline was much stricter.

The 3 R’s
We teachers dressed as school marms. We were able to use the (still remaining!) original furnishings and textbooks. Later in the day our real life principal Michael Friel appeared dressed as the visiting superintendent of long ago. He came along as the visiting superintendent would have, regularly dropping in to check on students’ progress and behavior. Our young “scholars” were drilled on their reading and arithmetic skills, with the demand that they answer in a prescribed manner. He called on students to check their progress in spelling and arithmetic. He also inquired about any possible discipline problems. The students read aloud from the original books left in the schoolhouse. They wrote math problems on their chalkboards. We recited the alphabet, counted and sang songs together.

Dale addressing her students

Old Hymns and Memories
At recess the children all played on the old teeter totter. We also toured the West Guilford Baptist Church next door, and Eva Harris taught us the history of the building. She opened these buildings to us and shared her memories of school holiday performances, which took place in the church before family audiences. Mrs. Harris attended this church as a child and could remember her experiences of Sunday services and Sunday school. She led us in singing “Amazing Grace.” Seated in the pews we sang from the hymnals before moving outside to sketch the church and cemetary.

Our longtime school cook, Shirley Squires, met us later and told us about her years attending the North school. She showed us a picture of her class from her old one-room schoolhouse. We used a number of methods to document our research. The interviews with Mrs. Harris and Mrs. Dix were taped by our Librarian/Media Specialist, with assistance from a middle-school student. The children used drawing paper and clipboards on field trips to record first-hand visual impressions of the schools and church we visited. Drawings were also made of some of the ideas the children gleaned from interviews.

Senior Partners
My students created drawings that were accompanied by written descriptions of the subject matter. Stories were composed by each child around the one room schoolhouse theme. Some children pictured themselves in that setting; some related more factual data to their own experiences today; and others fantasized about how things might have been long ago. Children learned how to fold paper into a cup for drinking water. This activity was based on an excerpted story in children’s magazine Cobblestone.

As we came to the close of this study, we prepared a final dramatic event that would allow the children to dress in period clothing and be taught in the manner of a one-room school class as well as to learn traditional American children’s games. We invited our senior partners to this performance, and they seemed to enjoy it immensely. We were a success!! The children, so happy and pleased with themselves, danced and sang holiday songs as our guests were served refreshments. The one-room school study has been presented at a number of school functions, and many people seem genuinely interested in this fast vanishing living history. For our seniors lent to their experience by placing a focus on one room schools. For ourselves as teachers and for our students, this study has been an exciting way to learn about the past from relatives, our staff and community members, and a wonderful teaching experience.

One room schools continued to provide a theme and subject for Guilford students in a number of ways and at a number of grades levels. 7/8 students working with student produced community newpapaper The Guilford Gazette interviewed our neighbor 95 year old Evelyn Clark on the Higley School which once was situated in what is now her front yard.

Teaching in a One-Room School
by Judith Nero

Former Guilford Central School teacher Judy Nero taught in the one-room school in Athens, Vermont for four years. It was her first teaching experience and a “great way to learn,” she says. On her first day of school, she was so nervous she walked around the classroom slapping a ruler in her hand as she spoke to the children. “I didn’t have too many discipline problems after that,” she laughed.

When Athens, Vermont faced the decision to update and repair their existing one-room school or send their children to another school district, the town voted to keep its children in Athens. For many of Athens’ residents, the loss of their school would have signified the final blow to the community’s identity and independence. Although the school was small (from 17 to 28 students during Judy’s tenure), there were real advantages in the one-room school setting. “It felt like a family,” Judy recalls. “The children learned from each other, and they all liked each other.” By the time her first graders got to fourth grade, they had learned a lot of the material already. Students got a lot of individual attention. “If there was an issue with an individual child, we could talk about it in morning meeting and work through it together, so we all learned to respect differences. It was a safe place to learn.”

Materials were scarce, and Judy learned to use everything available to help her teach. “I used the newspaper, and local history,” she remembers. “On Memorial Day we went to the local cemetery and had a ceremony.” They used the surrounding land and fields to play and learn in, too. There was a nearby stream and a sand pit. “We would take nature walks on a warm spring day. And sometimes when the kids had worked hard, we would take a long recess and slide down the sand pit,” she smiles. Judy wore many hats at the Athens school. “Aside from the teacher, I was the football coach, the librarian, the plumber and the drama coach,” says Judy. The kids all had janitorial duties, and the whole school would put on plays involving all six grades. “It was fun, “ she says, “and most kids wanted to be involved.” Judy also got to know everyone in the community. Every year, for instance, the fire chief would come over from the Athens Fire Station across the street to show the fire safety film. Since the film was made in the 1950s and featured city neighborhoods with fire escapes (which the Athens kids had never seen) they found it pretty interesting — for the first couple of years, anyway. He explained to the kids that if they saw a fire, they should call him, and wrote his number on the board. As kids will, they asked what would happen if he wasn’t home. He gave them another couple of names and numbers, but finally was stymied. “If my nephew isn’t home either,” he finally admitted, “I guess your house’ll burn down.”

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