The One-Room School

You know, I think eventually education is going to have to stop and look at the example set by a one-room school and say, "Oh, my, maybe they weren't so deprived."
-Moni Hourt, Glen School teacher

Since I've chosen education and writing studies as themes of my career discourse, I'm interested in the one-room schoolhouse and its demise as a defining moment in American education. I'm also interested in parallels between it and the collaborative nature of electracy. The One-room school collected together a network of social, religious, political, and educational forces at the center of small rural townships in post-Revolutionary War America. Unlike the codified, catalogued multi-classroom schools of today, the one-room school was a gathering of ages, experiences, subjects, tools, revisions, and collaborations...

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school insideOne-Room School, Canoe Cove, Prince Edward Island, 1880, by Robert Harris, 1849-1919.

Of the one-room schoolhouses that still stand in New Jersey, the oldest dates back to the second half of the 18th century. The Brainerd Schoolhouse, pictured at right, held up into the 21st century thanks to its uncommon brick structure. Most schoolhouses of the time were made of less sturdy materials like sod or timber, and have since fallen victim to time and weather.

Thanks to a Quaker-led educational reform, American one-room schools began to take hold in rural communities following the American Revolution. The schoolhouses also often served as a public space for meetings and picnics, and were generally recognized as the central hub of many small American rural communities.

A typical school-day for students in a one-room schoolhouse ran from 9am to 4pm, and included time for daily maintenance of the building itself. Students arrived early to light the furnace and carry water to the stove for preparing lunch. Education was the charge of a single teacher, who also often lived in an adjoining structure (one outcome of the Quaker educational reform). Students of varying ages and abilities were instructed simultaneously, and more experienced students were often expected to aid the less experienced.

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brainerd schoolhouseThe Brainerd Schoolhouse is the oldest standing one-room school in New Jersey. It was built in Mount Holly in 1759 and stands there to this day.

quaker schoolThe Friends Pacific Academy, a Quaker school here pictured in 1880. The school would be the forerunner of Pacific College and later George Fox University. President Herbert Hoover was a student here, and is pictured second from the left in the first row.

Today the Brainerd school in New Jersey is a local landmark rather than operating schoolhouse; only one single-room school is still functioning in the state, The Ocean Gate School in Ocean Gate Borough. The others have vanished, mostly replaced by the common multi-classroom schools that began to appear in America during the 1920's thanks to another educational invention: the motorized school-bus. As easy long-distance transportation in America rose to prominence, the local one-room schools fell out of fashion.

In July of 2006, NPR correspondent Neenah Ellis visited the Glen School in Sioux County Nebraska as part of NPR's "America's One Room Schools" special series. The one-room school has since closed due to a declining population, and at the time it served only three students. The school's former teacher, Moni Hourt, wasn't surprised by the closing of the school, but rejected the notion that multi-classroom schools are somehow inherently better than single-class ones. What gets lost in a multi-room school, according to Hourt, is collaboration. Students work with each other on a regular basis in a one-room school; younger students have the benefit of older tutors, and older students continually revisit their previous lessons through this process. According to the NPR series, at many one-room schools across the nation students are reading and writing above their grade level counterparts in multi-classroom schools.