How the One-Room Schoolhouse Approach Got It Right

It’s a concern common to homeschoolers. You’ll hear it from parents in the back of a convention hall and from moms just beginning the journey with a five-year-old and two toddlers.

The question goes something like this: “How can I be everything to everyone? How can I teach letter sounds and square roots at the same time? How do I manage all of the lesson plans for several children and minimize the prep time required?”

As with most questions related to homeschooling, there are multiple answers; perhaps the simplest has its roots in the one-room school house.

Explaining the History

Up until the advent of institutional schooling in America, education took on one of three forms: homeschooling, private tutoring, or the one-room community school. Often a young person would experience a combination of all three throughout her childhood. My grandmother, and her mother before her, taught in several one-room schools. I have seen the pictures. She taught through the Depression, without pay part of the time. She taught by herself in Starkey School in Michigan and had more than fifty students between the ages of five and eighteen, even though she was only a year or two older than the oldest pupil.

And yet, the children learned. My grandmother did not have eight sets of lesson plans per day, one for each grade level. She did not work eight times harder than a teacher today who teaches only one, or at most two grades at a time. So, how did she do it? How can you do it, with your two or six instead of fifty?

Rethinking the Situation

My grandmother had an advantage that we do not have today. She wasn’t steeped in the grade-based school mentality. She had attended one-room schools, it did not seem odd to her to have 12-year-olds sitting beside five-year-olds and 16-year-olds helping eight-year-olds. One of the biggest obstacles to home education today can be our preconceived notions of what school should look like.

As a trained teacher, it certainly was a challenge for me. I had to consciously let go of much I had “learned” about education and ask anew, “What does it mean to be educated?”

Before we consider the practical aspects of teaching several children at different levels all together, let me ask you this:

  • Who says five-year-olds should be learning letter sounds, digraphs, and one-syllable words?
  • Who says nine-year-olds should be learning about the Middle Ages but that government should be saved for 10-year-olds?
  • Who says that times tables need to be mastered at age eight, and not before, or after?
  • Who says physics and chemistry are to be saved for high school students and then taught in isolation from one another?

The answer? Public school curriculum developers who try to set national standards. Most districts, and even many private schools, adhere to these standards. This herd mentality to education guarantees a somewhat homogenous outcome, and the ability for a student to finish fourth grade in California and begin fifth grade in Delaware with a minimum of disruption or overlap in curriculum. The real question is this: If you are not in the public, or private, system, why should you care? You shouldn’t.

Creating a Solution

So, you have two kids, or 10. You’ve been buying an expensive curriculum for each kid and losing your mind trying to teach and keep track of it all. Your heart knows there has to be a better way, but you can’t for the life of you see what it is. So, let me share the solution with you: return to the one-room schoolhouse mentality.

The building blocks of education can be divided into two groups: the three R’s — Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic — and everything else. The three R’s are skill-based and progressive. You have to learn your letter sounds before you can read little words; you have to have a grasp of many little words before you can read a novel. You must make straight and curvy lines with a pencil before you can make letters. You must make letters before you can write words. You must be able to add before you can understand multiplication and subtract before you can understand division. These subjects require a person to start at the very beginning, and build skills one step at a time.

The “everything else” includes, history, geography, literature, science, art, religious studies, music, physical education, memorization, and life skills. There is no need to compartmentalize these subjects into a specific grade-level, or to fragment what you are teaching within a given subject to three different children. For example, there is no need to be teaching “neighborhoods” to your five-year-old, “states and capitals” to your 10-year-old, “land formations” to your 11-year-old, and “Africa” to your 14-year-old. Pick one geography unit for all of the children to study at once, and then teach each child what she is ready to learn within that unit.

Making It Happen

In a one-room school model, each child will have her own phonics or grammar book and progress at her own rate. Each child will have her own math book and work along at her own level. Each child will practice reading every day, receiving encouragement from the other children, all of whom are at different levels. Science, geography, history, art, music, and almost anything else you want to teach can be done as a group. The principal is simple: Teach to the oldest and let the learning trickle down.

Read books geared to your oldest and supplement with books for the younger children. Do projects that can be adapted to include the youngest baby and the most gung-ho teen. Allow older children to learn by teaching. You’ve witnessed how much you learn by preparing lessons for your children — pass on that gift to your older children by allowing them to design activities and lessons for younger siblings. Take a survey of the minds beneath your roof and develop lessons based on the interests you uncover. Do your best to “live” the subject matter: travel, eat the foods, build the artifacts, read first-hand accounts, narrate together.

Look at your home the way my grandmother looked at her one-room school. View education as an extension of your children’s overall growth, and nurture it in much the same way. Instead of some students being higher, or lower, or ahead, or behind, or smarter, or average, all are learning together and growing together. They are learning to relate socially in a real-world setting. They learn to hold their own intellectually with people of all ages and abilities, and they learn to see themselves as parts of a world larger than their own experience.

If you are struggling with the many demands of multiple children at different grade levels and you are overwhelmed with the cost, the planning, and the hours required, consider making a change. Simplify your life, and maximize educational experience by learning and growing together.

Ready to get started? Read How to Make Your Own Homeschool Curriculum and more homeschooling advice from Jennifer Miller.