- College of Education
- Blackwell Museum
- One-Room Schoolhouse
Milan One-Room Schoolhouse
The Milan Township District #83 Schoolhouse served as a center for learning from the turn of the century until 1942. In 1942, it was closed and left to deteriorate. However, the schoolhouse was given a new lease on life when it was donated to the Blackwell History of Education Museum in 1996 and then rebuilt on the campus of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL.
Since 1999, the Milan Schoolhouse has been available to:
- teachers at elementary and middle schools for re-enactment of a typical day in a one-room schoolhouse
- professors at NIU and other institutions, and teachers at high schools for classes and other events
- families and organizations for various activities
These lesson plans were created by Rebecca A. Edwards. She developed them from information about one-room school curriculum that can be found in Jerry Apps' One-Room Country Schools: History and Recollections from Wisconsin (U.S.: Palmer Publications, 1996) on pages 57-88, and Wayne E. Fuller's The Old Country School (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1982) on pages 1-24. (Rebecca A. Edwards, NIU, April 2004)
More information on the Pledge of Allegiance can be found at Home of Heroes. The idea to make a string ball is from a story on page 63 of Good Old Days Remembers the Little Country Schoolhouse (Berne, ID: House of White Birches, 1999) edited by Ken and Janice Tate. A string ball is also mentioned on page 98 of Luther Bryan Clegg's The Empty Schoolhouse (U. S.: Texas A&M University Press, 1997).
The games "Bear in the Pit," "Rachel and Jacob," and "Pom-Pom-Pull-Away" were found on pages 201-208 of Jerry Apps' One-Room Country Schools: History and Recollections from Wisconsin (U.S.: Palmer Publications, 1996). The games "Hide the Thimble" and "Statues" were found on pages 14-15 and page 31 respectively in May C. Hofmann's Games for Everybody (New York: Dodge Publishing Co., 1905). A good discussion of the McGuffey Readers can be found on pages 72-77 of Jerry Apps' One-Room Country Schools: History and Recollections from Wisconsin (U.S.: Palmer Publications, 1996). This book also contains a good discussion of handwriting on pages 77-78.
A good discussion of spelldowns can be found in Jerry Apps' One-Room Country Schools: History and Recollections from Wisconsin (U.S.: Palmer Publications, 1996) on page 13.
Note: The following is just a sample lesson plan of activities that can be done during a visit to the Milan Township District #83 Schoolhouse. The Blackwell History of Education Museum will work with each group coming to the schoolhouse to develop a lesson plan that meets the teacher's expectations and gives a representation of the activities that would go on at a one-room schoolhouse in either the 1900s. If you have any ideas or reservations about the activities described below, please discuss them with the Blackwell staff when you are planning your trip.
- A better sense of what a typical day was like in a multi-grade, one-room rural school of the 1900s.
- Insight into the way students were taught in the 1900s compared with today
- Compare subject matter and content taught in the 1900s compared with today
Geography Mixed with History
The children will begin their lessons by learning about the geography of the Milan Township District #83 Schoolhouse. Four groups of children will be given a map of the township showing where the school, farms and farmhouses were located in the 1900s. They will be given a specific farmhouse, and each group will draw a trail that they might take to get to school. This path can be drawn across fields and streams and anywhere else so long as it appears to be the shortest route to school.
Once the groups have finished with this activity, they will present their maps to the rest of the class. The teacher will have a large map that will have each route on it. The children can see where they would meet other children on their walk to school on the large class map. They will learn about the distance from home to school, how children got to school and what kinds of adventures they might have had before and after school. They may also want to point out any difficulties that may have arisen from their choice, such as difficulty crossing a creek. This activity should last from 9:15 to 10:05.
A typical school day in a one-room school began with the first of the three R's, reading. Therefore, this school day will be no different. To show how difficult lesson plans were for teachers in the 1900s due to the different ages and abilities of the children, each age group of children will read different stories or poems at different times and will be required to do different activities appropriate for their age group. The oldest children in the schoolroom will go first. They will be required to read aloud to the teacher at the recitation bench, while the other age groups will be working quietly at their desks.
The next oldest age group will be required to read a poem and memorize a stanza or two, then come to the recitation bench and recite it from memory to the teacher. The next oldest group will read a story and locate a few sentences that they believe give the meaning of the story. They will then come to the recitation bench and read the sentences they have chosen and give their reasons (making sure to be short and to the point since they do not have much time).
The youngest group will read a different story and memorize a paragraph (more than one or two sentences) to recite from memory when called to the recitation bench. Each group will be assigned their tasks at the end of general exercises and will have ten minutes to complete them. Because of this, some groups will have more time than others will. The assignments are arranged so that the easiest assignment goes to the group with the least time, and the hardest assignment goes to the group with the most time. This activity will last approximately forty minutes.
If students have any questions, they may ask them when each group has had a chance at the recitation bench. There will be ten minutes allowed for discussion. This activity should last from 10:05-11 a.m..
After the break, the children will begin to make a string ball like the ball children used to make to play with during recess. The children would gather up as much spare string (or twine) as they could find and wrap it around anything round such as a rock or a marble, and then cover it with fabric. The children made this kind of ball because baseballs were hard to come by.
To make a class string ball, each student can bring a small amount of string from home, or the teacher can bring yarn and cut each student a length of it. To save time, the Blackwell staff will provide a fabric cover pre-made for the string ball. The students can play with this ball during recess (if weather permits), and the class can take it back to school as a souvenir of their day. This activity should last from 11-11:30 a.m.
Lunch and Games
During lunch, the children can eat outdoors if it is a nice day or indoors if it is not. When they finish eating, they can play games. If they are outdoors, they can play with their new string ball, or they can play some games which students once played and maybe still do:
v Bear in the Pit – The children form a circle and hold hands to create a barrier. One child is inside the circle and is designated the Bear. The Bear tries to get out of the circle anyway he/she can. Once the Bear escapes, all the children chase after him/her until one child catches him/her (tag, do not tackle!). The child that catches the Bear is the Bear in the next game.
- Rachel and Jacob – For this game, the children form a ring and hold hands. Two children are in the center of the circle, one designated Rachel and the other Jacob. Jacob is blindfolded and has to find Rachel in the circle. To do this, Jacob asks Rachel questions, which she has to answer. These questions are asked to help Jacob locate Rachel by sound. They are not meant to be personal and embarrassing. To help the children stay in character, they can ask each other questions about what kind of chores they did that morning or how the walk to school was. To avoid being caught, Rachel may answer the question and then quickly move away. She can bob and duck and do virtually anything to avoid being caught by Jacob, but she must remain in the circle created by the other children. Once Jacob catches Rachel, Jacob can return to the ring. Rachel then chooses a new Jacob, and the game begins again. The more talented Rachel is, the longer the game will be.
- Pom-Pom-Pull-Away – To begin this game, one player is designated ‘It.' The other players break up into two groups and stand about fifty feet apart. Whoever is It then yells, "Pom-Pom- Pull-Away, come away or I'll pull you away." The players run to opposite sides while It tries to tag as many people as he/she can. The tagged children have to stay in the middle of the field with It and become Its. They also tag the other children as they run from one side to the other. The game is over when everyone has been tagged and a new game can begin. The last person to be tagged is It for the next game.
If the children must stay inside for the lunch break, they can play other games like:
- Hide the Thimble: One child is designated ‘It' and hides a thimble or other small item in the schoolroom while the other children have their eyes closed (No peeking!). After the item is hidden, the children can open their eyes and begin to wander the room seeking the object. Once a child sees the object, he/she leaves it there and goes back to his/her seat and sits quietly until everyone else has found it and returned to their seats. The first child to see the object cannot help anyone else find it. As soon as everyone has found the object, the child who found it first is designated It and must hide the object again.
- Statues: One child is designated ‘It', the rest either sit on a bench or they can stay at their desks. The recitation bench would be a very good seat for this game. ‘It' begins with the child at the end of the row or in the last desk. It either pulls the child out of his/her seat or describes a position for the child to get into, such as an Angel. The child must then stay in that position until the end of the game. If the child was pulled from his/her seat, he/she must stay in the position he/she landed in. It continues to do this until all of the children are out of their seats. It then picks the child that he/she considers to be in the best, funniest or most awkward position. This child is then designated It for the next game.
Lunch and games should last from 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. The teacher will ring a handbell to signify that lunch is over and the children will return to their seats.
When the children come back to their seats, one math problem for each age group will be written on the blackboard for each child to copy on his/her slate board. By 1900, chalk had mostly replaced slate pencils. However, the chemical company Binney & Smith were still producing slate pencils in 1900. They were also manufacturing chalk, and since chalk was easier to write with than slate pencils, chalk became more common.
Each group will be called up to the recitation bench to show the teacher their work. The problems will be made to fit the age and ability of the children and will most likely be a story problem related to the farm. Many textbooks included arithmetic lessons that involved farm problems because the children would most likely come across them at some point in their lives and would need to know how to do them. Also, children understood farm life, so it was easier for them to understand a problem if it applied to farm life. The goal of this exercise is to let children experience using slate boards and chalk. This exercise should last from 12:15 to 12:30.
Every child will be given a list of spelling words taken from the McGuffey Eclectic Speller appropriate for the class rank. The McGuffey Readers, originally written by William H. McGuffey in 1836, and the McGuffey Spellers (with the earliest edition in the Blackwell's possession being 1846) were very popular until the 1920s. The children will work at memorizing the spelling of these words and then can demonstrate their learning at the end of the day with a spelling bee. To help with memorization, the children can write the words three times each on their slates. This activity should last from 12:30 to 12:45.
Penmanship was emphasized in the one-room schoolhouse. People believed it was very important for children to have good penmanship skills because poor handwriting made a bad impression on those who read what the children had written. Many times, children used pen and ink from an inkwell to learn proper handwriting before moving on to handwriting with a fountain pen (patented in 1884 and available in the 1900s). Pen and ink, however, set the foundation for good penmanship.
If the teacher and parents approve, students will have the opportunity to use pen and ink to practice their penmanship. If the teacher and parents do not approve, students will learn proper penmanship with a fountain pen. If time allows and students have some skill at proper penmanship, they will be allowed to write a short letter to a friend. This exercise helps students understand the importance of penmanship and how difficult it was to learn. This activity should last from 12:45 to 1:15. After this, the children can have a short break until 1:30.
The Spelling Bee
After a short break, the students will come back into the school and have a spelling bee. The students will line up in the front of the room with the teacher near the back. The teacher will then call out the words from the spelling list that the students studied earlier in the day. If a student gets a word wrong, the next student in line must spell it correctly. If the next student gets the word correct, this student "turns down" the previous student who misspelled the word. ("Turn down" was a phrase used during spelling bees in the early 1900s to indicate that a student had spelled a word incorrectly and was out of the bee.) The student who spells the word correctly moves one place closer to the head of the line. The student at the head of the line when the bee is over is the winner and gets "head mark." This student will start at the end of the line in the next spelling bee. Getting "head mark" in the one-room school was something for a student to be very proud of because that student was the best speller in the school, at least until the next spelling bee.
During this reenactment of a spelling bee, the students move up in line as they "turn down" other students. The bee will be finished when the spelling list that the students studied is completed, or the students can continue the spelling bee with words that the class had been studying during their regular schooling. The students that are left standing can all receive "head mark" since they learned their words so well. This spelling bee is not designed to be hard for the students. It is just an activity they will hopefully enjoy. This activity should last from 1:30 until about 1:55, or later if preferred.
After the spelling bee (in good weather), the children can go outside for a group picture. This picture will be included in the scrapbook that the Blackwell Museum plans to make of all the groups that visit the Milan Schoolhouse. The children can be arranged by age or by height. Once the class picture is taken, the school day is finished and the students can return to school in the present day.
Many of the students in the early 1900s had little money for clothes. Sometimes, their mothers made what they wore to school. Other times, children wore hand-me-down clothes that were loose fitting or a little too big. The clothes they wore were generally very simple.
In the early 1900s, the girls wore long dresses, sometimes with an apron to cover the dress. Under this, they wore bloomers and long stockings held in place by garters. In warmer weather, many girls went barefoot because their families could not afford to buy shoes. In winter, the girls wore gathered skirts, long-sleeved blouses and dark, ankle high lace-up shoes. Many layers of clothing were worn to keep out the cold on the long walk to school.
The boys wore plain, long-sleeved shirts and pants or bib overalls. If the pants were too large, suspenders were used to keep them up. Also, knickerbockers were popular during the early 1900s. These were pants that were cut just below the knee. The boys wore dark wool socks with their dark, ankle high lace-up shoes. The boys went barefoot in warmer weather and bundled up in many layers of clothing in colder weather, just as the girls did.
In the 1930s, girls wore dresses much like the ones worn today. Most of these dresses had collars. The girls wore socks and lace-up or buckle shoes that did not cover the ankle. Many times, families could not afford new shoes, so girls would go without socks and shoes during the warmer months of the year to preserve the shoes they had. Girls wore short-sleeved dresses in warmer weather and long-sleeved dresses in colder weather.
The boys wore button shirts and blue jeans with suspenders or overalls. They wore socks and lace up shoes, some which covered the ankle and some that did not. In the warmer months, they went without shoes and socks. Sometimes in summer, they went shirtless under their overalls. Much of the time they wore long-sleeved button shirts with the sleeves rolled up when the weather was warm.
Much of the information on student clothing was found in Jonesborough-Washington County History Museum's Oak Hill School Heritage Education Center: An 1886 One-Room Schoolhouse Teacher's Resource and Curriculum Guide(Tennessee: East Tennessee State University Press, 1999) on pages 12 and 13. Also, much of the description was confirmed by observation of pictures of children from the early 1900s taken off the Internet. The description of children's clothes of the 1930s came from photos in Children of the Depression (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2001), edited by Kathleen Thompson and Hilary Mac Austin. (Observation by Rebecca A. Edwards, NIU, April 2004).
Duties at Home
The children's duties at home depended on the ages of the children and the kind of farm they lived on. The older children had more and harder duties than the younger children. Each child had particular chores that they were expected to do, and do well, before they went to school and when they got home from school. They had to get up very early in the morning in order to get their chores done and get to school on time. Some of the chores the children had to do were collect eggs, milk the cows, feed the animals, clean stalls, put straw down as bedding in the stalls once they were clean, cut firewood in winter and carry it in the house or if it was already cut, just bring it in. These children had a lot of responsibilities on the farm. If they did their job poorly, everyone would suffer.
During the spring and fall months, many of the older boys were not able to attend school because they were needed on the farm. In the spring, they helped till the fields and plant crops (corn, beans, hay, wheat, etc.). In the fall, they were expected to help with the harvest. Sometimes they would be required to help during the summer, too. There were three cuttings of hay during the summer, about a month apart. The hay had to be cut, allowed to dry for a few days, and then baled. Most of the time baling consisted of throwing the hay into a large hayrack with sides to keep it from falling off and then throwing it into the haymow. A haymow was the second story of a barn that was above the animals' stalls. The hay was stored there to make it easy to throw into the stalls to feed the animals. Because there was so much work to be done on the farm in the spring, summer and fall, the older boys who helped on the farm normally were only able to attend winter classes at the one-room schoolhouse.
Walter E. Fuller's book, The Old Country School (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), contains an informative section on children's duties at home. The rest of this section comes from my own experiences growing up on a working farm (Rebecca A. Edwards, NIU, April 2004).
Expectations in the Classroom
Children in one-room schools were expected to behave and be productive. They were to be silent while they worked unless they were reciting lessons. They would read a story or poem and memorize part or all of it and recite it to the teacher during recitation. The idea was that the only way a student learned was through memorization, so this was stressed in the one-room schoolhouse. The students memorized much of their work, not only stories and poems, but the multiplication tables, geography and many other lessons. The students were also expected to work on their lessons and nothing else. They would be punished if they were caught doing anything but their work. Also, they were taught to be respectful to the teacher and to other students. These expectations are very similar to those of today's students, who may not memorize as much, but are still expected to do their work and be respectful to the teacher and other students.
However, there were expectations for the students in the one-room schoolhouse that are not expected of students today. The older students had particular duties. Some had to bring in wood for the fire, and some even had to start the fire in the morning. Others had to get the water and bring it in, clean the floors, chalkboard and erasers. Sometimes they were even given the duty of helping the younger students with their studies. If they did not do their duties properly, the whole class would suffer.
Much information has been written on student expectations in the one-room schoolhouse. For this section, I have used Walter E. Fuller's The Old Country School (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), pages 11-12; Myrna J. Grove's Legacy of One-Room Schools (Morgantown, PA: Mastof Press, 2000), page 65; and Jerry Apps' One-Room Country Schools: History and Recollections from Wisconsin (U.S.: Palmer Publications, 1996), page 57.
When students got out of line (were not doing their work, were distracting the class, passing notes, whispering, being disrespectful, etc.), a teacher would punish them as she saw fit. Some teachers preferred the "hickory stick" and gave the disobedient scholar a swift spanking. Sometimes the teacher used a ruler to rap the child on the knuckles or spank them. Other times the teacher made the child stand in the corner facing the wall, hold a heavy book, or stand on one leg for as long as she felt was necessary. Obviously corporal punishment was not yet outlawed.
Many parents did not complain that their children were punished. They were angry with the child for misbehaving, not at the teacher for punishing. These parents were often embarrassed that their child had misbehaved and some punished the child further once he/she got home. Such parents saw no problem with the teacher keeping order in the classroom however she/he saw fit.
There are many books about one-room schools that contain information on punishments students received. For this section, I have used Raymond Bial's One-Room School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999), page 25; Myrna J. Grove'sLegacy of One-Room Schools (Morgantown, PA: Mastof Press, 2000), pages 65-69; and Luther Bryan Clegg's The Empty Schoolhouse: Memories of One-Room Texas Schools (U. S.: Texas A&M University Press, 1997), page XIX.
Teachers' dress was very similar to that of the children they taught. They wore simple clothes, perhaps something they themselves had made. In the early 1900s, female teachers wore long skirts with petticoats and blouses with puffy sleeves. Sometimes they would wear jackets matching the skirts. They wore stockings and dark, ankle high lace-up shoes to complete the outfit. The male teachers wore suits with ties and dark, ankle high lace-up shoes with dress socks to match.
In the 1930s, female teachers wore short-sleeved, long dresses that went to about the mid-calf. They also wore skirts of the same length and button shirts, sometimes with a jacket and scarf to make a suit. They either wore slip-on high heels (only really about an inch high) or lace-up or buckle shoes that did not cover the ankles. They normally wore hose rather than socks. The male teachers wore dark suits with vests and ties and dark, lace-up dress shoes and dress socks.
Much of the description of teacher's clothes of the 1900s came from Jonesborough-Washington County History Museum's Oak Hill School Heritage Education Center: An 1886 One-Room Schoolhouse Teacher's Resource and Curriculum Guide (Tennessee: East Tennessee State University Press, 1999), page 13. This information was confirmed by observation of photos of teachers from the 1900's on various websites and books. Teacher dress from the 1930s was observed from photos on various Internet websites and in various books. (Observation by Rebecca A. Edwards, NIU, April 2004).
Rules to Live by
Each school district set up rules for the teacher to follow. Some of them were very strict, but they were important to the farmers in the district and made sense to them. Following is a list of rules for a teacher in 1872:
- Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys.
- Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day's session.
- Make your pens carefully. You may whittle nibs to the individual taste of the pupils.
- Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they go to church.
- After ten hours in school, the teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.
- Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.
- Every good teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of his earnings for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not be a burden on society.
- Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity, and honesty.
- The teacher who performs his labor faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of twenty-five cents per week in his pay, providing the Board of Education approves.
Obviously there was a double standard for male teachers and women teachers.
(This list of teacher rules can be found on page 29 of Raymond Bial's One-Room School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999).)
Following is a list of rules for a teacher in 1915:
- You will not marry during the term of your contract. You are not to keep company with men.
- You must be home between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless attending a school function.
- You may not loiter downtown in any ice cream stores.
- You may not travel beyond the city limits unless you have permission of the chairmen of the board.
- You may not smoke cigarettes.
- You may not under any circumstances dye your hair.
- You may not dress in bright colors.
- You may not ride in a carriage or automobile with any man unless he be your father or brother.
- You must wear at least two petticoats.
- Your dresses must not be any shorter than 2 inches above the ankles.
(This list of teacher rules can be found on page 29 of Jerry Apps' One-Room Country Schools: History and Recollections from Wisconsin (U.S.: Palmer Publications, 1996). The rest of this information can be found on pages 28-30.)
These rules were to be followed very strictly. If a teacher broke any one of these rules, she/he was dismissed immediately.
The reason for the rule against marriage is that it would normally be followed by pregnancy, and the farmers did not want a pregnant woman teaching their children. Also, the teacher would most likely be unable to finish the term if she were to become pregnant and it would be difficult to replace her. As for the other rules, the farmers felt it was improper for a teacher to behave that way, so they made rules prohibiting that type of conduct.
The farmers expected teachers to be models to hold up for their children. If they did not want their children to do certain activities, they would forbid these activities for the teacher. For example, the farmers did not want their children smoking, so they did not allow the teacher to smoke. They were also very careful to ensure that the teacher was respected. They did this by forbidding any actions that could call the teacher's honor into question. For example, a female teacher spending too much time in the company of a man alone would call her honor into question and so was forbidden unless the man happened to be a male relative. The farmers wanted to avoid controversy, and they did so by instituting these rules.
The teacher had many duties. As well as teaching the students, she was responsible for the upkeep of the school. She was the school's janitor. She had to sweep the floor every day after school and scrub it with hot, soapy water every week. She had to clean the chalkboards and erasers everyday as well. She also had to make sure that, during winter, the fire was started well before the students arrived. Many times, she gave these jobs to the older students.
She also had the responsibility of preparing for school events such as the popular Christmas pageant. She not only had to decide what to include in the program each year, she had to teach each student what his or her part was and decorate the building for it. There was no rest for the country school teacher!
Page 29 of Jerry Apps' One-Room Country Schools: History and Recollections from Wisconsin (U.S.: Palmer Publications, 1996) and page 28 of Raymond Bial's One-Room School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999) contain pertinent information on teacher's duties at the one-room schoolhouse.
The living accommodations for teachers differed from district to district. Many times, the teacher would board with a local family until she was able to buy a house of her own (which was rare) or by marriage (which would disqualify her of teaching for the next term). Another possibility was that she only boarded with the family until she moved on to another district, which was a frequent practice.
The teacherage was another possibility. It was a room added to the one-room schoolhouse to serve as living accommodations for the teacher. Occasionally school districts added this room to the schoolhouse itself rather than boarding teachers in the home of one of the farmers in the area. Teacherages were rather convenient for teachers since they would not have to walk to school. They could just roll out of bed and prepare the school for the day.
Information about teachers' living accommodations can be found in a story written by Mary Boydstun contained in Luther Bryan Clegg's The Empty Schoolhouse: Memories of One-Room Texas Schools (U. S.: Texas A&M University Press, 1997) on page 52. Other information about teacher accommodations can be found on page 43 of Myrna J. Grove's Legacy of One-Room Country Schools (Morgantown, PA: Mastof Press, 2000).
Blackwell History of Education Museum
Gabel Hall - lower level
(inside the Learning Center)
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb, IL 60115
By appointment only