Let’s Remember: The Schools that are Forever “Out”

One outcome of the New Brunswick Free School Act of 1871 was a dramatic increase in the number of one room schools. For approximately 80 years, until the consolidation movement of the 1950s, the one room school was a feature of rural life in this province. As we near the end, not only of another school year, but of the twentieth century, it is worth noting their special place in education.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency to look back on these schools as somehow inferior. A few undoubtedly were; but not all. Today, the prevailing trend is in the opposite direction. Larger and larger school districts are the norm; bus routes are becoming ever longer and the rural school boards of three elected trustees and a secretary have been relegated to the dustbin of history.

Following interviews with students and teachers of the 1930s, 40s and 50s one conclusion is inescapable. The successful one room school revolved around the respective teachers ability and skills. What a challenge! Faced, as they were, with enrollments that varied from 12 to 36+ students and every grade, through to early high school. How did they cope? The teachers answers were unequivocal: preparation and organization.

Following roll call and opening exercises, each day was filled with activity. When not having lessons, students were involved in planned seatwork; arithmetic or exercises in grammar, creative writing or further preparation for assignments that would follow. Students were often grouped according to ability, rather than rigidly following grade levels. In this way, bright students were not held back and more time could be alloted to slower learners. In some instances, older students acted as monitors and helped out with the lower grades.

One teacher recalled: The invention of the hectograph was a god-send. For the uninitiated: a hectograph was a tray filled with gelatin. Exercises were written or printed with special ink on paper; the page was pressed on the tray and multiple copies could be made. The busy teacher could thus plan ahead and distribute hectograph seatwork while hearing other lessons.

Another teacher emphasized the unique role of school readers. Books were scarce in rural schools; thus these texts filled a void. Through them, students were exposed to the best literature in the language. Nor was Canadian content neglected; as many selections highlighted national themes. Although memorization of poetry is totally out of fashion today; several x-students were still able to recite poems from these readers. For example: Bliss Carman’s: There is something in the autumn that is native to my blood Touch of manner, hint of mood; and my heart is like a rhyme with the yellow and the purple and the crimson keeping time. Others recalled Charles G.D. Roberts’ collection of nature stories.

In the afternoon, the routine was similar to the morning; however, the emphasis changed to other subjects: social studies, nature, and elementary science. If the teacher possessed musical ability a period of singing might take place. Physical drill would often be held outdoors on fine days. The lower grades were usually dismissed at 3 oclock. During the remainder of the day (until about four oclock) the teacher concentrated on lessons with the upper grades.

Throughout the year, the daily routine was broken by special events. The Christmas concert was always a highlight. Friday afternoons from late November onward were devoted to the practise of recitations, drills, dialogs and carols. Arbor day, in late May, was another important date. The school room was thoroughly house cleaned, the yard raked and tidied up; flower beds and trees were often planted. Sometimes the day ended with a community picnic.

The annual school festival, also held in May, provided an opportunity to engage in choral reading, public speaking and music. Most schools had a Junior Red Cross branch, affording experience in conducting meetings. Interspersed with regular lessons were spelling bees and mental arithmetic competitions. The advent of radio in the 1940s, with regular CBC school broadcasts, served to enrich the curriculum.

At least once each year, there was a visit from the school doctor. After checking basic items such as students eyesight and vaccinating for smallpox, he would, to everyones delight, declare a half holiday. Not so popular were visits by the school inspector. Some were content to teach a model lesson; while others would subject students to an impromptu quiz in mental arithmetic. This visitation was a measure of the teachers rapport with students. One recalled: We always could count on their best behavior.

The majority of former teachers and students retained fond memories of one room schools. Not surprisingly, many remembered pranks played on teachers and schoolmates. Almost everyone had a stovepipe story. Most of the schools were heated with wood burning stoves with pipe extending to the chimney on the far wall. (See floor plan of the Frosty Hollow School). At least once a year, a holiday could be guaranteed if the pipe mysteriously fell apart, and the room filled with smoke.

No experienced teacher would ever leave the symbol of authority, the strap, in an unlocked desk. To do so guaranteed that it would be hidden; usually somewhere in the schoolroom. Admittedly, some teachers abused corporal punishment to the point where every red-blooded boy had to experience the strap at least once a term. However, the successful teachers found more effective ways to discipline students.

This brief overview of the one room school raises some important questions: Is bigger necessarily better? In 1999, are schools of 1,000+ students really desirable? Have not the marvels of a technological age, such as classroom computers and use of the Internet, made smaller schools more feasible? Are the mega-schools part of the problem or part of the answer to the ills of todays society? Why are more and more parents opting for home schooling?

While no one would suggest a return to the schools that are forever out; the above questions make the point, that this backward look is not totally an exercise in nostalgia.