Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Learning in One-Room Schools

Today's Wall Street Journal features an excellent review of the book "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory " by Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor at New York University. Based on Bill Kauffman's review, I'm sure to pick up a copy of this book.

Kauffman quotes from the book this fact:

In 1913, "one-half of the nation's schoolchildren attended one of its 212,000 single-teacher schools."

Kauffman points out that, "by 1960, progressive educationists, growing cities and the centralizing pressures of two world wars and a Cold War had reduced the total to just 1%."

Lest we think that Zimmerman is waxing nostaligic in a bucolic neverland, Kauffman emphasizes the objectivity of the book, showing both the pros and cons of one-room schools. But the thing is, the pros out weigh the cons. The fact that charter and home schooling is growing points to many others coming to the same conclusion.

Kauffman writes in his review:

"Decades after consolidation had obliterated one-room schools, researchers discovered their advantages. The child in the small school is not just a statistic on a government chart. She receives 'individual attention and recognition.' She works at her own pace. She has, most important, a place. As Mr. Zimmerman remarks, recent alternatives to 'the large, alienating modern school,' from charter schools to homeschooling, have sought to foster 'the snug, communal aspects of the one-room school.' But the one-room-school model entails community control, which liberals and conservatives alike resist if the 'community' sings from the wrong hymnal."

To read the entire review, go to


One-room schools have always fascinated people. In 2004, I interviewed Nina Miller of Sheboygan, a 79-year old woman who taught at the Clinton Center Grade School in Cashton, Wisconsin, in 1946. Nina did everything from stoke the fire in the morning, to tracking down young boys hiding in the cornfield, to carrying one first-grader home a mile and a half because he injured his foot at school. Many children attended barefoot in the warmer months. Miller's second oldest son is named after one of her students who was killed when a lumber truck hit him as he crossed the road to his home. Miller said she and her students were like a big family.

I've also had the pleasure of reading a local neighbor's account of life in a Sheboygan County one-room schoolhouse written by Cedar Grove resident Richard Dykstra. It's titled "Life and Learning in a One-Room Country School." It is professionally and entertainingly written and can be purchased at

I like the closing remarks in Kauffman's WSJ review where he writes:

"Even after Mr. Zimmerman's unsentimental accounting of its defects, the one-room school shines in comparison with the over-large and remotely controlled warehouses in which too many children are educated today. Reading "Small Wonder," one wonders if Americans will ever tire of chasing after the gods of Progress and Bigness and rediscover the little things, red schoolhouses among them, that once gave us our soul."

Amen to that.

"What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?" Matthew 16:26

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