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Old Time Schooling-A Peek at the Past

Updated on July 17, 2014
Aunt Emma's actual schoolbell is still in the family
Aunt Emma's actual schoolbell is still in the family | Source

A Bit of Family Insight

Aunt Emma was a schoolteacher. This may not seem like a remarkable statement, but she was in many ways, the last of her breed. She was my great grand-aunt, and she passed away in 1963 at the ripe old age of 86. As a spinster, she pursued the only position considered “respectable” for an unmarried woman of her day. Back then, teachers had to supply their own school bells, and I have hers as a family heirloom.

She was a very highly educated woman, well versed in the ins and outs of language, spelling and grammar, as well as some familiarity with Latin, and of course, she had to be competent in arithmetic and history as well. Her education included college, of course; in the more recent past, it was called “teacher’s college,” but back in about 1896, when she would probably have been attending, it was called “normal school.”

Aunt Emma’s teaching career began in the days of the one-room schoolhouse with mixed grade levels. In those days, education was not mandatory, and for those children who attended school, very few completed a full dozen years. The majority stopped attending somewhere between the 4th and 8th grades.

The teacher had to arrive at the school very early, especially in the winter months, to bring in wood and lay a fire in the wood stove—the only heat the building would have had. It was not an easy job. Buildings were not insulated in that era, so the stove’s heat would have had only a minimal effect and only for those seated nearest the fixture.

(I repeatedly use “she,” because male teachers were a rarity. These were chauvinistic times, and most men believed that dealing with children on any level was “beneath them,” and belonged exclusively in the realm of “women’s work.”)

Was This a Quality Education?

In many ways, it was a very much higher quality education than what we have now. The teacher was free to teach, without the distractions of paperwork mandated by both state and federal agencies. The teacher was the boss. She had no principal or school district to whom to report. She was free to concentrate solely on the education of her pupils. There was no artificial bureaucracy to stand in the way.

Many lessons revolved around oral recitation of the lesson, be it arithmetic, spelling or reading. Each student in turn would be called upon to perform aloud, and sometimes it would be an entire grade-level group reciting their lessons.

Children outside of that grade level, working quietly at their desks, could not help but also hear the lessons of the other children. You might think of it almost in terms of subliminal education. In the case of the younger children, this helped them have a foundation for those lessons when they, too, reached the next grade level. Older children might also help younger ones with difficult concepts, in what we today are calling “peer tutoring.”

Each child progressed at his or her own speed, based upon their readiness for the next advancement. There were no set time lines for this progression. An exceptionally bright child might advance 2 years worth of lessons in a few months, while children who found the work more challenging might spend over a year to advance a month or two.

Grade level and age were not tied together as they more-or-less are these days. This was not a bad thing. It meant that a student could progress on one level while remaining behind in another—for example, the child might advance in reading, but still be working at arithmetic on a lower level. All things in time.

One-room schoolhouses were built in many styles
One-room schoolhouses were built in many styles | Source

What Was Classroom Life Like?

To be sure, the atmosphere in those classrooms was much quieter, with the exception of the oral lessons. Discipline was very strict, and there would be no whisperings or wandering about permitted. You nearly feared for your life if the schoolmarm were to contact your parents about any misbehavior.

Physical punishment was not forbidden, and, in the rare case of a male teacher, a naughty boy might well endure a few well-placed whacks of a paddle across his hind end. Best not complain about it to mom and dad, either, for you’d get no sympathy there—more likely, a retort of, “Well, I’m sure you deserved it!” and another, more severe, paddling from your father.

Female teachers could and did smack rulers across hands. Boys got it across the knuckles, girls might endure only the slap of a ruler across the open palm of the hand. But the same conditions applied as far as going home and crying to your parents. People in those days did not mistake discipline for “abuse.”

You sat still, sat up straight in your seat and paid attention to your lessons. You had to. Books were rare, and shared; there was very little paper used. Children had small double-sided slates upon which they wrote their work. The teacher looked it over, and if work had to be corrected, it was handed back to the student to make the changes. Afterwards, that lesson was erased to make room for the next one. So you had better make good use of that built-in hard drive in your brain to store what you were learning, for there were no electronic gizmos to do that for you.

What Were Lessons Like?

According to my Aunt Emma, children had a firm grasp on their lessons because the teaching methods insured learning more than one thing at a time. For instance, spelling was taught orally, and in conjunction with learning about syllables. A student would be called upon to spell a word; her favorite example was “Constantinople.” (This was the name of an ancient city in the Middle East, now known as Istanbul.) Each syllabic segment would be separately spelled out, then pronounced as far as it went, and with each succeeding syllable, the pronunciation to that point would be added in, until the entire word had been completed, thusly:

“C-o-n; Con”

“s-t-a-n; stan—Constan”

“t-i-n; tin—Constantin”

“o-p-l-e; ople—Constantinople.”

Likewise, arithmetic basic facts were recited in groups; “1+2 is 3; 2 and 2 are 4; 4 and 4 are 8,” etc.

Rote learning has been vilified as of late, but there really is no substitute for repetition for locking information into long-term memory.

Lessons were recited in front of the student body, so to some extent, children learned to speak in front of a group, to hold themselves tall and be self-assured. Life in general was harder then, and children were held to higher standards of behavior.

Brain Teasers and Puzzles of the Era

One way of teaching creative thinking was with the use of various puzzles and brain teasers. Unlike today, when teachers are forced to “teach to a test,” there was room for creative thinking, what we now call “outside the box.” There is always more than one way to arrive at a correct answer, and some things have more than one possible, reasonable answer.

Below are two examples from my Aunt’s treasure trove of her favorites. Try your hand at them, and see how you do. (I’ll admit—they are out-of-date as to subject matter, and may stump some readers on that basis, but they are not impossible to figure out.) Answers just above the comments—no cheating—you’re on the honor system.

“Old Mother Twitchet had but one eye,

and a very long tail which she always let fly.

Every time she went over a gap,

She left a part of her tail in a trap.”

....................................................................What is she?

“Elizabeth, Elsbeth, Betsy and Beth

all went out to find a bird’s nest.

They each found one, with four eggs in it.”

......................................... ….. How many eggs did they find?

Can We Go Back?

Well, in a sense, yes, we can. It is unlikely that we will see a return to the actual one-room schoolhouse. But we are already seeing some bits of the old ways in the aforementioned peer-tutors, and students who are skipped ahead a grade, or put into advanced placement (A.P.) programs hint at the way things were done in the old ways.

However, neither skipping full grade levels, or inclusion in A.P. curriculum are quite the same thing, for that level of ability is expected across the board, and we all know that not all students are equally talented in all subjects. The student with a mind for numbers and dates who may excel at math and historical facts may not be as well-equipped in reading comprehension. The advanced reader might be deficient in math skills, so skipping grades or A.P. programs are both swords that cut two ways.

In this writer’s opinion, it would be better to have mixed-grades together, (within peer-age groups—that is, elementary, junior high and high school kept separate, but able to combine within each of those segments), and eliminate our current obsession with “semesters,” allowing each to progress at his or her own rate, in each subject, just like the olden days. There should be far less emphasis on standardized testing than on individual gains and confidence in the subject matter. Things learned by cramming for a test are soon forgotten, for they have no real bearing in practical applications.

This would solve the problem of kids being bored with work that is too easy, or frustrated with concepts they find too difficult.

We need to remember that each is an individual, and expecting conformity across the board kills creativity, kills interest, and breeds discontent. To ensure success in the future, we must to some extent, revisit the past.

Answers to Brain Teasers

1) Old Mother Twitchet is a needle and thread

2) Four eggs only were found. All four names are simply variations or nicknames for Elizabeth, so only a single girl went searching.

(The second example is the same kind of brain teaser as the famous, "As I was traveling to St. Ives, I met a man with 7 wives..." puzzle, in which distraction and misdirection are used to confuse the puzzler to focus upon finding the answer to the wrong question.)

A modern example uses a bus route, with the bus starting out in the morning. It goes like so: At the first stop, 6 passengers board the bus. At the next stop, 4 passengers get off; 1 gets on. They go a bit further and at the following stop, 3 get off and 5 get on board.

You carry the script along these lines as far as you wish, according to the attention span and age of your audience, (making up whatever boarding/getting off numbers that come to mind), never listing by number any stop but the first. At the conclusion you ask, "How many stops did the bus make?"

Everyone has been so intent on adding and subtracting all the passengers (the misdirection/distraction) that it is rare to find anyone has counted the stops.

© 2012 Liz Elias


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  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 4 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello there, RTalloni,

    I agree with you wholeheartedly! You make an interesting and valid point about what children learn by what ages they keep company with in their developing years.

    I could easily point fingers at more than a few members of congress.....

    I know if I had it all to do over again, knowing what I now know (isn't that always the caveat?), I'd home school my kids!

    Thanks much for stopping by and your wise observations.

  • RTalloni profile image

    RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

    Age-segregation was a sad turn of events for children that has worked its way forward to where now people consider nursing homes the norm for society. Families who say no to it for their children today via alternative schooling opportunities also often say no to nursing homes for their elderly family members.

    It is an interesting topic to study. When a group of 5 year olds spend most of their time with other 5 year olds, they learn from each other when the goal is for them to grow up! Why do we wonder what's wrong with society? The reason we have so many adults that act like children could have a lot to do with age-segregation!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

    @ rebeccamealey--Thank you so much for the compliment. I'm sure you can do it.. and if nothing else, you can open your own PRVIATE school--which gets you out from under the state paperwork to some extent. Best wishes!

    @ tammyswallow--I agree--everyone has been scared out of disciplining their kids for fear of being charged with "abuse," while at the same time, kids are being taught to be victims, and trained to live in fear. It is, indeed, causing society to crumble. Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment.

  • tammyswallow profile image

    Tammy 5 years ago from North Carolina

    What a creative look into the days of the "old schools." Now that discipline is out of the schools, society is crumbling. I think you are on to something! Well done!

  • rebeccamealey profile image

    Rebecca Mealey 5 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

    What an awesome Hub! I have been working part time in a special ed class that has multiple levels....12 kids, and this reminds me of them. I am hesitant to go full time, although I probably could, just because I don't want the Freakin' paper work responsibility!!!!!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello there, Brett.Tesol

    I'm pleased that you liked the article, and I thank you for adding further information. I had no idea there were such ridiculous "discipline" standards elsewhere! I totally agree that the world has "gone soft."

    I forget who said this, but it fits, about going soft: "We used to have wooden ships and iron men; now we have iron ships and wooden men."

    Thanks very much as well for the votes and share!

  • Brett.Tesol profile image

    Brett Caulton 5 years ago from Thailand

    This was a very interesting read. You are right about paperwork and red tape, it seems to be increasing all the time and prevents teachers from teaching ... especially when they have to worry about what a student may say (lie about), as the law does not support teachers at all. In many countries, a students can't even be made to stande, as it is considered 'corporal punishmend! Seriously!? The world has gone soft and expects too much. You sum it up nicely with the line "People in those days did not mistake discipline for “abuse.”" lol

    SOCIALLY SHARED and voted across the board!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, hecate-horus,

    Thanks so much for your input. It is indeed, a deplorable situation. And yet, with all this focus on tests, the students are not really learning anything useful in the way of living their lives! And test scores keep falling! Our nation used to be #1; now we are near the bottom of the list.

    Something is very, very wrong, and its name is bureaucracy. These people have not learned a very basic lesson: If what you are doing is not working, then continuing to do the same thing is not going to work any better than it has in the past.

    I say, there are many, many more teachers, students and parents than there are bureaucrats, and there needs to be a massive uprising and a strike against all of this nonsense.

  • hecate-horus profile image

    hecate-horus 5 years ago from Rowland Woods

    I feel really bad for teachers nowadays. The school puts so much pressure on them to do well on these state tests. Every scrap of homework my kids get is to prepare them for these major tests, it's all I hear about.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hi, Angie--

    Thanks for your contribution. You and I are the same age, so we remember what learning means. You were lucky to experience a true old-fashioned school setting. I went to school in the traditional classroom of 25-30 kids, although discipline was still a lot stricter than it is now.

    You are so correct about today's distractions in trying to do lessons with a computer. In fact, I commented on an ad for a charity pleading about how "so many poor families don't have a broadband connection..." and the ad went on about kids and learning. My reply was that NO child NEEDS to be on the internet.

    Good on you with the riddles. I wish I could recall more of her examples.

  • Angie Jardine profile image

    Angie Jardine 5 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

    Hi DzyMsLizzy ... this was a blast from the past! This was my childhood - although we did not sit on benches in rows or use slates, my infant and junior schools were just two rooms each and of mixed abilities.

    My teachers were inspirational and at 63 years old I remember them still with affection. I am also convinced that I knew more than today's children know ... I am amazed at how little knowledge of geography and history my stepsons have. I think the present educational system has definitely short-changed them.

    However I think our advantage was that we learnt from books. In this electronic age it is all too easy to get distracted by games when you are supposed to be learning something.

    And I got the riddles ... must be an age thing :)

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, ElizaDoole--

    I agree with you. I like to read, and have been a voracious reader since my childhood. The only thing I did NOT like about the older ways (some still in practice when I was in grade school), was of having to read aloud, by turns, out of our reading books. I would get engrossed in the story,and the fact that some kids were poorer readers and hesitated and stumbled over their words irked and distracted me, so I'd just tune them out, read on and be a page or more ahead of everyone else. That caused a few awkward moments when I was called on for my turn to read, and I had no idea where the class had left off, as I'd left them behind.


    I do think some interaction is a good thing, and presenting a lesson and leaving kids to "sink or swim" is not so good. The teacher should be very available, but should balance that with a non-interference policy while the children are working.

    Glad you liked the hub--thanks for your input!

  • ElizaDoole profile image

    Lisa McKnight 5 years ago from London

    I must admit, I liked it when the classroom was quiet and I could just get on with the textbook. I don't see much need for all this interaction, that's expected of teachers now. I'm not sure if it is better or not for today's kids. Interesting hub.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, justateacher--

    Thanks very much for the compliment. You are lucky to have that influence so near to your own generation. In my case, not only was great-great grand aunt Emma 2 generations older, but also 3,000 miles away, so I only saw her a few times during my childhood.

    I am sure your fantasy will come true--fantasies and dreams are only realitites that have not yet arrived. in Think of the movie, "Field of Dreams." That may have been fictitious, but the principle is solid. ;-)

  • justateacher profile image

    LaDena Campbell 5 years ago from Somewhere Over The Rainbow - Near Oz...

    Wonderful hub! My grandmother went to a one room school and taught in one. One of my fantasies is to open a one roomed school house with multiple ages all working together.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

    @ Arlene--yes, I know... I got spanked if the offense was severe enough...and it did not harm my psyche in the least. ;-)

    @ Seekr7--LOL yes, if you are not used to thinking along those lines, it is easy to get confused with brain teaser puzzles. I'm delighted that you enjoyed the article, and I thnk you very much for your praise and the votes.

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Wow Lizzy! Fabulous hub!

    I'm a thicko! I got both brain teasers wrong. I thought the first one was a one-eyed mouse! LOL!!! And yes, the second one I was counting it as four seperate girls. I'm not sure your Great Aunt would have been too happy with my contribution to her brain teasers.

    This was such an enjoyable hub and it's fascinating - and in some ways sad - how times have changed so much and not always for the better. I think basic education, at least in the UK, is a shambles! There is so much pressure put on teachers to 'perform' and to teach only towards the testing phase that I'm sure much of the enjoyment has went out of the job along with so much stress to replace it.

    As to our kids today. I think the majority are good kids and will grow up to be good adults - or good older kids as some folks never grow up!!! However, some of them could be doing with a good dose of old fashioned discipline - and even the paddle on the backside would probably work wonders for them!

    Loved this hub + bookmarked as a favourite + voted up awesome! The photos were great, especially the genuine school marm's bell that was your Aunt's!

  • profile image

    Arlene V. Poma 5 years ago

    I know what you mean! And if the teacher or principal told my dad that I was misbehaving? I would get the home "spare the rod and spoil the child" treatment. Ouch!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile image

    Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, Arlene--

    Thanks for your comment. This is just a picture of the way things were. The feelings in those days were "spare the rod and spoil the child." I have mixed feelings about it myself. On the one hand, no, it should not be necessary to hit ANYONE--child or not. On the other hand, since society now frowns on physical punishments, look how kids today behave; they don't have any consequences to "fear" so they run wild. I'm still on the fence.

    I appreciate your input, and thanks for the votes.

  • profile image

    Arlene V. Poma 5 years ago

    What I didn't like about my school days were the teachers and the principal being able to hit the students. It was humiliating! And the ones who did the hitting were the spinsters. If I had kids, and school staff hit my kids, they would be answering to me. There is such a thing as teaching children about respect, but I don't care who you are. You don't hit children. Voted up and interesting.