Teaching The One Room School

Written by Jennifer Miller on May 23rd, 2011 | Filed under: Education

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It’s a concern common to home schoolers.

You’ll hear Moms of Many discussing it in the back of a convention hall and Moms just beginning the journey with one five year old and two toddlers worrying in advance about it. The question goes something like this:

“How can I be everything to everyone? How can I teach letter sounds and square roots at the same time? How do I manage all of the lesson plans for several children and minimize the prep time required? I’m spending hours each week preparing eight to ten sets of lessons per child, for two or three or four children… how do I keep all of the balls in the air?”

You’ve heard it before, maybe you’ve asked it, most of us who’ve home schooled for a while have worried over it on some level. As with most questions related to home schooling, there are multiple answers, the one presented here has grown out of a careful study of educational history, our family’s multi-generational legacy and a good dose of common sense.

Let’s Start With A Little History

Although much can be said of the origins of our current educational system, and its roots, traced through Germany and influenced by the Hindu approach to mass schooling to support the caste system, I will, for the sake of space and sanity, discuss only the American system of mass schooling; which began to fall into place in the latter half of the 1800’s.

Up until the advent of institutional schooling in America, “education” took on one of three forms:

  1. Home schooling
  2. Private tutoring
  3. The one room community school

Often, in the course of a childhood, more than one method would be employed in the schooling of a young person. It was out of this system (or non-system) of education that such great minds as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin were born.

My grandmother, and her mother before her, taught in several one room schools. I have seen the pictures.

She taught clear through the depression, without pay part of the time. Some of her students lived in abandoned box cars and came to school hungry, so she set up a local food program to feed as well as educate the kids when they got to school. Her schools lacked funding, books and basic necessities. And yet the children learned.

She had more than fifty students at Starkey School in Michigan, between the ages of five and eighteen, all by herself, when she was only a year or two older than the oldest pupil. And yet, the children learned.

My grandmother did not have eight sets of eight lesson plans per day, one for each grade level. She did not work eight times harder than a teacher today who teaches only one, or at most two grades at a time.

So, how did she do it? How can you do it, with your two or six instead of fifty?

Letting Go Of Our Preconceived Notions

My grandmother had an advantage that we do not have today. She wasn’t steeped in the public school mentality. She herself had attended one room schools, it did not seem odd to her to have twelve year olds sitting beside five year olds and sixteen year olds helping eight year olds.

One of the biggest obstacles to home education today can be our preconceived notions of what “school” should look like.

I know, as a trained teacher, it was for me. I had to consciously let go of all I had “learned” about education and ask anew, “What does it mean to be educated.”

If I intended to teach my children at home because I didn’t want a public school education for them, then why would I seek to replicate that which I was trying to avoid in my living room?

I had to set aside John Dewey’s ideas about age segregated classrooms, which find their roots in misapplied evolutionary theory and secular humanism and begin to think of education in the same light as any other sort of growth: not segmented into little boxes, artificial levels, or grades, but rather as a fluid, ever changing organism in continual motion, along with the development of the child.

Who Says It Has To Be That Way?

Before we consider the practical aspects of teaching several children at different levels all together, let me ask you this?

  • Who says five year olds should be learning letter sounds, digraphs and one syllable words?
  • Who says nine year olds should be learning about the middle ages but that government should be saved for ten year olds?
  • Who says that times tables need to be mastered at age eight, and not before, or after?
  • Who says physics and chemistry are to be saved for high school students and then taught in isolation?

The answer? Public school curriculum developers, who try to set national standards which are adhered to by all districts, and most private schools as well.

This herd mentality to education guarantees a somewhat homogenous outcome and the ability for a student to finish fourth grade in California and begin fifth grade in Delaware with a minimum of disruption or overlap in curriculum.

The real question is this: If you are not in the public, or private, system, why should you care?

You shouldn’t.

  • If your seven year old loves rocks, teach geology
  • If your four year old can read the basics, buy him real books and get out of his way
  • If your nine year old is just barely “getting” his times tables, then meet him where he is and provide arenas for him to experience success rather than feeling left behind

Step outside the box you were raised in.

How To Do It

So, you have two kids, or six. You’ve been buying an expensive curriculum for each kid and losing your mind trying to teach and keep track of it all. Your heart knows there has to be a better way, but you can’t for the life of you see what it is.

Here it is:  return to the one room school house mentality.

The building blocks of education can be divided into two groups:  the three Rs… Reading, Writing & ‘Rithmatic… and everything else.

The three Rs are skill based and progressive.

  • You have to learn your letter sounds before you can read  little words
  • You have to have a grasp of many little words before you can read a novel
  • You must make straight and curvy lines with a pencil before you can make letters
  • You must make letters before you can write words
  • You must be able to add before you can understand multiplication and subtract before you can understand how to divide
  • These subjects require a person to begin at the very beginning, and build skill one step at a time.

The “everything else” includes, history, geography, literature, science, art, religious studies, music, foreign language, physical education, memorization, and life skills.

There is no need to compartmentalize these subjects into a specific grade level, or to fragment what you are teaching within a given subject to three different children.

For example, there is no need to be teaching:

  • “Neighborhoods” to your five year old
  • “States and capitals” to your ten year old
  • “Land forms” to your eleven year old
  • “Africa” to your fourteen year old.
  • Pick one geography unit for all of the children to study at once and then teach each child what he is ready to learn within that unit

In a one room school model:

  • Each child will have his own phonics or grammar books and progress at his own rate.
  • Each child will have his own math books and work along at his own level.
  • Each child will practice reading every day, receiving encouragement from the other children on different levels than he is.
  • Science, Geography, History, Art, Music, and almost anything else you want to teach can be done as a group.

The principal is simple:  Teach to the oldest and let the learning trickle down (a different take on Regan’s economic policy!)

  • Read books geared to your oldest and supplement with books for the younger children.
  • Do projects that can be adapted to include the smallest baby and the most gung-ho teen.
  • Allow older children to learn by teaching. (You know well how much YOU learn by preparing lessons for your children, pass on that gift to your older children by allowing them to design activities and lessons for younger siblings.)
  • Take a survey of the minds beneath your roof and develop studies based on the interests you uncover.
  • Do your best to “live” the subject matter… travel, eat the foods, build the artifacts, read first hand accounts, narrate together.

A Real Life Example

Our family is studying “North America” this year:

Hannah, 13, is making a North America Notebook.

  • She writes a one page summary of facts about each of the United States and Canadian provinces.
  • She colors a map of that place, and sometimes a picture of the bird and flower that represent it.
  • She includes summaries of the lives of important people from that state and what they’ve contributed to American culture.
  • While we travel across the states and perhaps as far south as Panama later this winter, she’ll keep a daily journal about our travels and what she learned to add to it. .

Gabriel, 11, is also keeping a notebook.

  • He is reading books about characters from the various regions.
  • He’s making lists of places he’s like to see in person as we travel:  Yellowstone National Park is at the top of his list.

Elisha, 9, keeps a notebook too.

  • His project, since he was very small, as been to collect post cards from the places we visit.
  • Of all the kids, he’s most excited about the Friday night “state meal” we’ve been fixing based on the traditional foods from one of the places we’re studying.
  • He’s long been our “map boy” and is always happy to point out where we are, where we’ve been, or where we’re going.

Ezra is 7.  Last time we studied North America he was 1 and his big project was learning to ride in the car with a happy heart and see the world from the backpack, high atop Daddy’s shoulders.

  • Now he’s big enough to give narrations about the stories we read, and has kept journals on our travels.
  • He is learning where Grandma and Grandpa and other important friends and family live.
  • He likes to look at the maps and ask Hannah where the things he points out are.
  • He is learning that some states are warm, and some are colder.

Change Your Paradigm

Look at your home the way my grandmother looked at her one room school. Look at education as just an extension of the other growth your children are experiencing and nurture it in much the same way.

What you will likely find if you let go of age segregated learning in favor of this more homogenous, natural style of teaching and learning, is that your children will rise to the occasion.

  • They will love learning together, and teaching one another.
  • The young ones will stretch to show that they can “keep up” with older siblings, who will be trying to learn even more and loving their position of teacher and encourager.
  • The kids will take ownership of their educations, and frequently teach YOU a thing or two about the subject at hand.

Instead of some students being higher, or lower, or ahead, or behind, or smarter, or average, all are learning together and growing together.

Quietly, beneath the subject matter, the mess of projects, the joy of story hour, the questions asked and answers searched out together, another type of learning is occurring. Children in a learning environment with people of various ages are learning something else that other children are often missing out on.

They are learning to relate socially in a real world setting.

When in life do you ever spend 8-10 hrs. a day with 20 others exactly your own age and demographic, except in school? Schools present an artificial social environment, and yet they are held up as being necessary for proper socialization.

  • Children in one room schools, or similar environments, learn to interact with the old and the young.
  • They learn to hold their own intellectually with people of all ages and abilities.
  • They learn to see themselves as parts of a world larger than their own experience.

If you are struggling with the many demands of multiple children at different grade levels and you are overwhelmed with the cost, the planning and the hours required, consider making a change.  Simplify your life, and maximize educational experience by learning and growing together.

Do you home school? How do you do it? What’s your style? Share what works best for your family & what you’ve learned in the process!


**A version of this article was published in the April/May 2010 issue of Homeschooling Today Magazine.

**An excellent book on the origins and experience of Public Schooling in the USA is The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto

About Jennifer Miller

Jennifer Miller has written 86 post in this blog.

Married to my knight in shining armor, Mama to the fabulous four, I must write to breathe. I'm homeless by choice, a nomad by birth and am most at home sleeping my tent, shopping in the souqs of North Africa and wandering the highlands of Guatemala. My life is an "edventure!"

13 Responses to “Teaching The One Room School”

  1. Wonderful, thank you! This same concept has been on my heart this whole year… it is such an encouragement to read all what has been on my heart. We just finished a rough year of homeschooling as we added the third gradeschooler to the mix, a wiggly preschooler and a new baby. I was trying to keep up with two different curriculums one for the Kindergartener and one for the 3rd/4th graders… Not good! Halfway through the year, I scratched what we were doing, did all but Language Arts and Math together and it was SOOOO much better. We were a mess most of the time, but we made it… and we’re closer as a family and are closer to the Lord. What a journey we’re on! Thank you for sharing, it makes everything clearer for us. :)

  2. Hi Amanda!
    Thanks for your kind words! Homeschooling is nothing if not a journey and the changes we make as we learn and grow together and the family dynamics change are part of what makes it wonderful. I love that freedom! If there is any way I can help you, please let me know! I did educational consulting and curriculum design for more than a decade (still do, a little!) and I’d be happy to share what I’m continually learning! Now to go check out your blog!

  3. Love this! Thank you! I’m the homeschooling mom of 10 kids. One is in college now. I wouldn’t have it any other way :)

  4. You’re welcome! Sounds like YOU should be writing for UC!!! E-mail me if you have any great article ideas burning a hole in your brain!

  5. This is great! Due to the rough economy I am working part-time as a hospice nurse so I try to teach first thing in the morning and then work in the afternoon (no worries my kids left at home are 16-8 years old and my 19 yo college student lives with us). We also have a small family farm, trying to “do it all” just hasn’t been working, so midway through our year we all sort of quit schooling in any formal way. Math and reading have been all that we are getting done on a daily basis. And that is just too stressful for me as well. I have always imagined homeschooling like a one room school house, but never seemed to be able to get the courage up to try it. Now that expensive, anything, including curriculum, is out of the question, this might be the perfect solution! Thank you for sharing.

  6. I’ve been writing stories about various homeschool styles at my website. This was a delightful article I will be sure to link to, thanks for sharing!

  7. I’ve never seen a more straight forward and wonderfully written description of home school anywhere. Thank you for this, now I know where to send people who want an explanation of how I home school– you nailed it perfectly. Thank you.

  8. Thanks for the encouraging words! I’m so pleased that my thoughts resonated with so many people. Please do feel free to link to the article or pass it on via FB or Twitter if you like!

  9. […] Teaching the One Room School […]

  10. […] For more information check out their website: http://www.uncommonchildhood.com/teaching-the-one-room-school/ […]

  11. Ok, so every time I get overwhelmed by the prospective enormous responsibility of being my childrens’ teacher, I’ll just think of this article, the Millers and Anne of Green Gables (the penultimate image of a one-room schoolhouse, to me). That’ll get me through. Thanks, once again, for breaking it down.

  12. […] and have kids along who are pre-school through high school, and because we believe in teaching One Room School style, the kids will be encouraged to work together on their journals, sharing experiences, sharing […]

  13. Hi Jennifer, I met your Aunt Patty at the laundry in Newport TN. She told me about your web site and blog. She is right. The site and info are amazing. I’ve throughly enjoyed reading it. Life and homeschooling is an adventure.
    Have a great day.