The United States was founded on the principle that its citizens should be educated. This meant that each citizen should be able to, at the very least, read, write, and perform arithmetic. As foreign explorers from Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom began to settle, they brought their education system and the concept of a one-room schoolhouse. At the time, there were no structures that could accommodate enough children to teach, so the one-room school house was implemented. Communities across the United States began to adopt schoolhouses, allowing more and more people to attend.
Schoolhouses were originally built and promoted by local church members with the goal of educating more people in the community to read the Bible. Furniture was sparse and only consisted of a desk for the teacher, wooden benches for students, and a wood stove. Schoolhouses were only 20 to 30 square feet and the common color was white.
The house itself had a wooden frame, walls, and roof, but could vary depending on different regions in the country. Areas in the mid-west, in addition to wood, were also made of sod, straw, or mud. Hay or straw was used to help insulate the walls and roof in the northeast to help in cold winters. Clay and wood were used as shingles.
Stoves were located directly in the middle of the room in order to heat as much area as possible. Students would often huddle around it as close as possible because the stoves did not distribute heat well.
On at least one wall, a large piece of slate was painted black and was used as a chalkboard. This is where teachers wrote lesson plans and had students practice writing. Daily messages and religious mantras were written here as well. As teachers continued to write on the chalkboard, they found that using rocks was scratching and damaging their board. This lead them to finding an alternative in Limestone to use, otherwise known as chalk.
It would not have been uncommon for a schoolhouse to have two entrances, one for girls and one for boys. Boys would sit on one side of the room while girls the opposite. The schoosl did not have any running water so they would convert wells into toilets, collect and melt snow in the winter, and rely on nearby farmers to provide water in the summer. The oldest recorded schoolhouse was built in in Staten Island, New York in 1695.
The school year
The school year was split up in to different sessions, winter and summer, due to the farming season. School years ranged from 29 weeks up to 49, depending on the school’s location. The difficult curriculum made it difficult for students to remember what they learned in a different session. It was often boys who attended the winter session as they would work on the family farm in the summer, and that girls couldn’t handle harsh winters. Boys could also help chop wood for the stove and withstand the colder weather and snowstorms. It was standard practice for students to bring logs with them to class in the winter, many would take turns starting the fire each morning.
In rural communities, school years were shorter due to the need of tending to the family farm in the summer. Whereas in cities, the school year was longer due to higher demand for mathematicians and furthering technological advancements. It was also not as common for families to own a farm. It was in more urban areas that men could pursue better careers than being a teacher.
An average school day lasted from 9:15 am until 4:30 pm and included two recesses and a 90-minute lunch break. The lunch break allowed students to walk home for their meal. Students were allowed to stay in school until they “felt they had learned enough”, but there was a graduation for those who felt ready. All grades were taught at the same time, and students age ranges were between five and could run as high as an elderly adult. It would not have been uncommon for a student to be older than a teacher either.
Younger students sat in the front of the room and were referred to as Abecedarians. This name was given to them because they were still learning their ABC’s. The older, more knowledgeable, students sat in the back and would assist other students while the teacher went about their lesson.
At the time, it was not mandatory for students to attend school and get an education. This resulted in many students not completing the eighth grade and staying home to work. It wasn’t until 1778 when Thomas Jefferson proposed Bill 79: “A bill for the more general diffusion of knowledge.” This bill was meant to provide a more comprehensive plan for citizens but had several revisions of the title. Ultimately, the bill passed in 1796 as “An Act to Establish Public Education.”
However, shortly after this bill was passed, the Bill of Rights was printed but did not mention education. Education was only mentioned in the Tenth Amendment in the Constitution and allowed each state to set their own standards. This meant each state was able to operate their own education system and set different rules and regulations.
Teacher’s lesson plans consisted of reading, writing, arithmetic, history, grammar, rhetoric, and geography. In certain communities, English was also taught as many immigrant families did not speak it at the time. Each student had a textbook that they would learn with. Once a student had mastered that book, they would move on to the next and so forth. Mastering a textbook would also result in that student being sought after to help other students catch up.
When Christopher Dock arrived from Germany in 1710, he opened a school in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. It wasn’t until later when he published a book titled, Schul-Ordnung, meaning school management. Published in 1770, this is the first known book about teaching to be distributed through the United States.
Shortly after Schul-Ordnung was published, a new book titled A Grammatical Institute of the English Language was printed. Written by Noah Webster, this included three different volumes: a spelling book, a grammar book, and a reading book. These volumes became very popular across the United States and was eventuatlly renamed the American Spelling Book.
Teachers expected students to memorize their daily lesson and recite it back to them in front of the entire class. If there was an incorrect part or a mispronunciation of words, the teacher corrected them on the spot. If a student were to lose their place while reading, teachers that found unacceptable as their eyes should remain on the textbook the entire time a student or the teacher was reading. When students read aloud, they would stand in front of the whole class.
On Fridays, many teachers held spelling contests for the younger students to help perfect their grammar and pronunciation. The teacher would split the students in to two groups and give a word to spell. They would use the word in a sentence, and once the teacher repeated the sentence twice, a student would give their answer on how to properly spell that word. If it was correct, they remained standing and the next student in their group would go. If they spelled it incorrectly, they would sit down. The winner was determined by the group who had the most students still standing.
For note taking and other school activities, students wrote on slate slabs. This is because paper was too expensive at the time. They used writing materials either made of clay or stones. The only time paper was used was when penmanship lessons were conducted. Students used a quill and ink bottle to practice their cursive on paper.
Discipline in a schoolhouse was very strict. Students who were caught misbehaving were subject to detention, suspension, or expulsion. If a teacher deemed the student’s actions too severe, it could have resulted in a lashing. Standard misbehavior punishments consisted of holding a heavy object for over an hour and writing “I will not…” on the chalkboard over 100 times.
Dunce caps were also given out to students who were making a mockery of the class or who were acting up. This brought shame to the individual who wore it and let the rest of the students know that their actions will not be tolerated.
Although schoolhouses only taught up to the eighth grade, it was more difficult than many of today’s high-school educations. Very few people attended college after school due to them staying in their community and working in the family business. In order to graduate from school, there was a final exam given that covered reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography. These tests were also timed.
The majority of teachers were men who, more often than not, held another position as a farmer, surveyor, or innkeeper while they were not teaching. The majority of teachers were not highly educated and it was not uncommon for students to leave school more educated than their teacher. The more educated men tended to seek other opportunities that were more lucrative and respected.
Many towns across the country wanted to have a new teacher each year, so they would insist someone from the next town over to come teach. The majority of teachers were young, and were often part of the local bible study.
Each year when a school would search for a new teacher, schoolhouses would publish an article in the local newspaper. In the Virginia Gazette, dated August 20, 1772, just below an article mentioning one thousand acres of land for sale is a job posting for a new school teacher.
“Wanted: A sober, diligent Schoolmaster capable of teaching, reading, writing, arithmetic, and the Latin tongue. Any person qualified as above, and well recommended, will be put into immediate possession of the school, on applying to the minister of Charles Parish, York County.”
Other purposes for the schoolhouse
When school was not in session, it would be the center of the community to host gatherings and political meetings. Plays, dances, and Christmas events would also be held here. On Sundays in many communities, the schoolhouse also served as a church.
Schoolhouses quickly became more and more popular throughout the United States as the government began to make education a requirement. As time went on, this also meant that certain schools would cost money, and many students could no longer afford to get an education. This lead to many schools offering education for free again. The structure of schoolhouses also began to stray from the standard square house, to an octagonal shape. While these were not as common, several popped up across America.