Lesson Plans: Grades K-2

Reading, Writing and 'Rithmetic in the One-Room Schoolhouse

Created October 6, 2010


The Lesson


Reading, Writing and 'Rithmetic in the One-Room Schoolhouse

One-room schoolhouse closed for the summer. Bristol Notch, Vermont.

For young children, the experience of attending school strengthens their growing sense of independence and their relationship with the world beyond their family. This lesson focuses on this universal experience, using original photographs to give students a vivid impression of how American children received an education a hundred years ago. They learn about a one-room schoolhouse, seeing how children learned, played and traveled to school. This lesson encourages students to explore the similarities and differences of being a student in a one-room schoolhouse versus attending their own well-equipped, modern schoo.

Guiding Questions

  • What was it like to go to school a long time ago in America? How were the first schools in this country different from -- and the same as -- schools today?

Learning Objectives

  • Describe a typical one-room schoolhouse: the interior, exterior and how it was furnished and equipped.
  • Understand key facts about being a student and being a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse.
  • Compare the experience of attending a one-room schoolhouse with going to school today.

Preparation Instructions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Introducing the One-Room Schoolhouse

Begin by having the class talk about these questions:

  • Why do we go to school?
  • What activities do we do in school?
  • How is our school and classroom equipped to help us learn?

Make a list of students’ responses to these questions.

Explain to the class that early schools in America were very different from schools today. In rural areas, children were sometimes taught at home. As areas of the country were settled and farmers prospered, one-room schoolhouses were built. Let students know they will look at pictures to see what school was like for children their age a hundred years ago. It may be helpful to explain to students that their grandparents’ mothers and fathers might have attended a one-room schoolhouse.

Activity 2. The One-Room Schoolhouse Building

Print or display on the computer screen a photograph of a one-room schoolhouse in Bristol Notch, Vermont from the American Memory archives (to find it, open the collection of photographs of America from the Great Depression to World War II and search on the phrase “Bristol Notch Vermont”). Invite students to share their impressions of the schoolhouse. Ask them to imagine and describe how it looks inside.

Print or display on the computer screen a photograph of the interior of typical one-room schoolhouse from the American Memory archives. Does it look as students imagined? Ask the class to identify items in the classroom that help these students learn. Explain that students had very few school supplies, often just a stone slate and a slate pencil. Older students may have had pens that they dipped in ink to write with on paper. Classrooms were simply equipped with a blackboard, chalk and a reader. Can students identify what time of year it is in this photo? (Students’ clothing and the drawing on the blackboard might give clues.)

Activity 3. Learning Together in the One-Room Schoolhouse

Print or display on the computer screen a photograph of a teacher and her pupils in a one-room schoolhouse from the American Memory archives. Ask students to point out boys and girls in the photograph who seem to be about the same age as they are. Can they also see younger children and older children in the photograph? Explain that students of all ages were in the same classroom in the one-room schoolhouse. Students were seated by grade, sometimes with the boys on one side of the classroom and the girls on the other.

Ask children to find the teacher in the photograph. Describe to the children her responsibility for teaching all subjects to all the different grades in her class. Every year students would have the same teacher. Sometimes there might be just one or two students in each grade. The EDSITEment resource American Memory includes two photographs of a teacher giving a lesson to the only second-grade student in her class. Show these photographs to students. (To find them, open the collection of photographs of America from the Great Depression to World War II and search on the phrase “second grade,” then select the photos titled “Teaching only pupil in the second grade, one-room school house, Grundy County, Iowa” and “Lois Slinker teaching the only pupil in the second grade in one-room schoolhouse. Grundy County, Iowa.”) What subject is this boy learning? Explain that subjects were similar to those taught today: arithmetic, reading, penmanship, spelling, geography and history.

Students may be interested to hear that teachers were responsible for all the duties involved in running the small schoolhouse. In winter, they may have had to shovel snow and stoke the stove with coal or wood to keep the schoolhouse warm. They also brought water into the classroom from an outdoor well. Older students may have helped the teacher with these chores.

Activity 4. Traveling to School

Remind students that the photos they are looking at were taken in rural America in areas without school buses or automobiles for transportation. Ask the class how these students got to their one-room schoolhouse. Print or display on the computer screen a photograph of students and their transportation from the American Memory archives. Ask students if they would like riding a horse or wagon to school better than traveling by car or bus. Why or why not? Point out the boy standing on the school roof. Ask students to imagine why he is there.

Activity 5. Playing Games

Ask students to name their favorite activities at recess and lunchtime. Show the photograph of students playing a game from the American Memory archives. Can students imagine what the game is, or if students are singing a song as they play this game? Do the children seem to be having fun? Ask students to look at how the boys and girls are dressed in this photograph. Help students identify a pinafore (worn by the girl on the far left), overalls (worn by the boy in left rear), knickers (worn by the boy ducking under the line), and high-button shoes (worn by most children).

Activity 6. Comparing Yesterday and Today

After studying and discussing the photographs, encourage students to make comparisons by answering these questions:

  • Why did children attend the one-room schoolhouse?
  • What activities did students do in the schoolhouse?
  • How was the one-room schoolhouse equipped to help boys and girls learn?

Make a list of students’ responses to these questions. Compare them to answers to the questions you asked at the start of this lesson. To complete the comparison, ask students if, given the choice, they would prefer to attend a one-room schoolhouse a hundred years ago, or a large, modern school today. Why?

Extending The Lesson

Use one or more of the following ideas to expand children’s understanding of this topic:

  • Read About Teaching in a One-Room School House
    Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the popular Little House on the Prairie books, was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. Your students may enjoy hearing you read aloud, or reading for themselves, excerpts from These Happy Golden Years, which describes Laura’s experience teaching school when she was just 15 years old.
  • Compile Oral Histories of School Experiences
    Have students interview a grandparent or an older relative, neighbor or family friend about his or her school experience. Prior to this assignment, have the class brainstorm several questions to ask their interview subject. If possible, have students tape record or videotape their interviews to present to the class.
  • Document Your Classroom
    Review with the class what they learned from studying photographs of one-room schoolhouses. Ask students what they would like young people of the future to know about them and their typical school day. Discuss what photographs students could take to document their school experience and help them take these photographs. Compile the photos with captions written by students to create an archive for your school library.
  • Visit a One-Room Schoolhouse
    Many communities have preserved their one-room schoolhouses and created museums. If there is a such a museum in your community, plan a field trip for your class, or invite the museum’s curator to make a presentation to your class.
  • Create a One-Room Schoolhouse Museum
    Give students an opportunity to be amateur curators creating a display representing a one-room schoolhouse, or a portion of a schoolhouse, in your classroom. (You may wish to use dolls and create a small-scale schoolhouse.) Encourage students to use the photographs from this lesson as their guide in choosing clothing for the dolls and items to equip and decorate their schoolhouse museum display.
Selected EDSITEment Websites

American Memory

The Blackwell History of Education Museum

The Basics

Time Required

4-6 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S.
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
  • Art and Culture
  • Analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Research
  • Synthesis
  • Using primary sources