My One-Room Prairie School

What Was It Like?

We left this story at the end of the last blog as my sister Doris and I met our teacher, on our first day at school.  What did we see when our parents took us into the building to this meeting?  It certainly didn’t look anything like the place we saw when our family attended some community celebration!  My memory has been working overtime trying to recapture the impressions of a five year old, some 85 years ago.  To be fair, the sketch on this page is a composite of memories from eight and a half years, from the time I started school until I graduated from grade eight.

It is my belief that I am approximately correct with the measurements shown for the school building itself.  As to the furnishings and the general positioning of such, the memories came easily and with confidence.  I hope that before I leave this series on the school, my research (or more likely that of someone else ) will produce actual pictures to use for comparison.  Until then, my sketch will have to do.  

The students arrived before nine AM.  They came on foot, trudging along country roads, sometimes dusty, sometimes muddy, sometimes snowy.  They took shortcuts across the fields before the crops came up or when the snow was not too deep.  They arrived on horseback.  Some were driven by parents in sleighs, buggies or in old Model A Fords – but come they did.  Education was highly valued by this Danish community.  Skipping school as a lark was not heard of!  Such a prank would have received serious disapproval.  Practically though – how could they?  Where would they go?  How could they explain when the teacher phoned their home to see why the missing student didn’t show up?   So meet in the school yard we did.

If the weather was nice the students stayed outside the school – playing games, visiting, laughing and in general putting off the schooling until the last minute.  There was no missing when that minute arrived.  Five minutes earlier the teacher would open a window, thrust her arm out and vigorously ring her bell.  That was the five-minute warning.  We were to gather up our belongings and meet her at the front door.  So at nine o’clock she appeared, gave a few rings to speed up stragglers and called “Girls line up to your left”, and “Boys line up to your right”, and so we did.  The girls entered first and turned to the left.  Boys entered next and went to the right side coat room.  As each one was ready, we entered the main room and went to our seats.  The teacher called us to attention, said a short prayer, and we went to work.  The teacher would have the assigned work for the day on the blackboards.  She started with the Grade One group and give them some instruction.  Then, leaving them to try to follow her direction, she moved on to the other grades.  However it was understood that if you needed help, the first person you asked was someone across the aisle in a bigger grade!  This was the correct thing to do.  So we were students, and to our limited abilities, teachers as well.

The largest enrollment I can remember was one of 18 students.  This number varied from time to time.  If a farm family moved, we might lose a grade two and a grade five student, for example.  The replacement family might have children of school age or not.  Sometimes a student was the only one in his or her grade, so if that child moved, the teacher had one less lesson to prepare, until next year when the grade below moved up.  Sometimes there was a year when there were no little ones in our school district who were ready to start school, and that created quite a gap too.  However these changes did not happen often.  I went through from grade one to the end of grade eight with the same three school mates.  My friend was the only one in his grade for his entire elementary schooling!

The teacher cruised steadily around the room, teaching as she moved.  It could be helping a grade eight student understand a new mathematics concept.  She might pull out the grade one group and take them to the corner where the unused desks were piled up.  There they would sit on the floor near the teacher.  Using the small blackboard and whatever props and aids were available she would introduce the wee ones to the world of learning.  Then it was back to their seats for the group of beginners.  If an older student was making good progress with his/her assignment they could be asked to keep an eye on the little ones and help them if needed.  Then the teacher would move on to the next teaching challenge.  Recess time was welcomed by all – the teacher included!

At this point let us consider what this particular school did not have, and what it did.  For example:

–          No electricity—the only lighting came from the bank of windows to the east

–          No running water—no plumbing of any kind

–          No central heating

–          No basement

However, we did have:

–          A telephone

–          A stove/furnace appliance to heat our school

–          A water pump in the school yard

–          Outdoor privies, one for each sex

–          A barn for our horses

The strong support for the needs of the school and for the teacher continued through the drought times, the Great Depression time, and afterwards as well.  The communities did their best to provide what was needed for their children.  Like most things in life there is no “One arrangement fits all” to be found when one looks at these one-room schools, which at their peak numbered in the thousands.  Each school tended to reflect the community it served.  Differences in ethnic backgrounds, religions, geographic factors such as poor roads, isolation from larger populations, and many other factors all affected these district schools.  Perhaps one thing was common:  they kept education alive in a lightly populated and widely scattered country.  It is reasonable to accord these long vanished schools, the teachers who staffed them, and the people who in good times and bad supported them, the honour they deserve.

The day is done.  It is time to close the school and go home.  When we re-assemble we will finish looking at the interior of this particular school.  We will then discuss how cold winter affected our little school, the teacher, and the students.  To those out there who are old enough to remember their own one-room school – Is any of this familiar?


Footnote:  Thanks to several helpful readers for these links to photos of one-room schools:

Standard School (exterior, 1910)

Pobeda School (near Vegreville, AB)

Gallery of one-room schools

I have also added a link to my previous post on Standard itself, which shows a panoramic shot of Standard in the 1930s.




Filed under Prairie Childhood

2 Responses to My One-Room Prairie School

  1. Jim taylor

    Dear Marjorie,
    I never had a school as small as yours, but I remember the same process going on, often within grades. The teacher taught a concept, say, in arithmetic, then left those who seemed to grasp it to work on their own while she concentrated on those having difficulty. Those who understood became mentors to those who didn’t. When we had two or three years in the same room, the same process, but accentuated.
    It was a challenge for the teachers, for example, to plan lessons so that all three grades could study the same material, so that the whole class could pay attention to someone reading aloud, or when rehearsing irregular French verbs by rote….
    Jim Taylor

    • Marjorie

      Much the same process, Jim. Where was your school, in what province? I may be looking back through rose coloured glasses, but I do believe we learned good study habits and personal responsibility which served us well through all the rest of our education. Was that your experience? Marjorie