"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The One Room School House Visit

The Co-Editors of Missouri Education Watchdog took a field trip to Iowa to visit an Amish school. Today's blog is my basic impressions of the experience, without any deep analysis which seems a disservice to such a simple lifestyle.   

We passed vast fields of dark earth, barren reminders of summer hopes dashed by skies that were stingy with rain this year.  A large white house sat on the corner at the intersection of two empty roads that ran past acres of farmland.  It differed from others we had passed in town only in the plainness of its exterior. The only thing that broke up the simple modesty of the homestead was the row of colorful shirts; hunter green, deep purple, royal blue, that hung from a forty foot clothes line attached to a windmill, which flapped against a cloudless fall sky. There were no power lines leading to the house and no cars or trucks parked around it. Those weren’t expected here in Amish country. No doubt the folks inside the home had been up for a while, tending to chores, making breakfast, packing lunches. Soon the youngest members of the family would be heading to school. That was our destination as well.

A bit further down the road sat a smaller rectangular white building with the unmistakable bell on its roof.  This bell was not an antique placed there for decoration. It was used twice a day to call thirty one children into their one room school house.

We walked in to a cloak room lined with  neat rows of black bonnets or straw hats hung over black wool coats. Beyond that was a large open room with rows of mismatched school desks, most from the 1950’s. A large black wood stove sat in the front but, having just been stoked, it was not doing much yet to warm up the cool room. There were plenty of windows to let in the sun which was the only source of light for the school. The building looked relatively new and we were told later that it had only really been completed this fall. Two young women in white caps were standing at the blackboard quietly conferring as they wrote the daily assignments for each grade in white chalk.

A number of children were already there playing in the gym or quietly talking with each other. The girls were dressed in their long cotton dresses and smocks in the same color pallet we saw on the clothes line. Their hair was pinned up out of sight and covered in black organdy kopps that seemed old and severe on such young heads and in stark contrast to the colorful dresses. None of them pulled at the chin strings which would probably have driven most other children to distraction. They had worn such head gear since they were babies. The boys also wore  shirts of different colors but the same blue cotton button front pants held up by suspenders. Everyone wore black stockings and black shoes that could only be described as utilitarian.  Throughout the day we would catch them sneaking peeks at us “English” but would never speak directly to us.

We came to see how a one room school house works. We wanted to know how a teacher taught several grades at once. What books did she use?  How did she know if they were learning enough? How did she get to be the teacher? What procedures were in place to deal with unruly children? We tried not to bring preconceived notions about education and simply observed the classroom, holding our questions until lunch time.

It must be acknowledged that this was a very homogenous group, and one with a very strong culture that pervades every aspect of their lives.  Much of what we saw probably could not be transferred to a regular public school for those reasons. But it was an interesting look at how things could be. It was education stripped down to the basics that everyone needs to know to get by in life. Once these children finish 8th grade they will  go back to work with their families, either on the farm or in the businesses they had started like a discount store. They would not be competing in a “global work force.” Nor would they be drawing benefits from a government that they did support with their taxes. They do not pay into social security because they believe it is the community’s obligation to take care of one another. They are not subject to state educational standards (they have a religious exemption) because they will only be participating in the state economy on a very limited and local basis so the state can look past their less than full blown coverage of education.

Their lessons are in reading, writing, arithmetic, and health.  In addition they study world geography and history on alternating years. This year they were studying geography. They do not study science other than some minor mentions in their reading texts. Their books and workbooks come primarily from an Amish publisher in Pennsylvania. Those in the three R’s had copyright dates in the early 2000’s. I noticed the health book, “Good Health For Better Living,” had a copyright  of 1957. It covered things like nutrition and vitamins, posture, wound care and preventing the spread of disease. When you’re thirteen or younger, and living in a strict faith based community, what else do you need to know?

What struck us was the relative quiet of the classroom. The day started with one of the two teachers announcing, “It’s time for song.” Quickly the children doubled up at their desks to sing a cappella from a small book of hymns. The teacher led in  a strong voice, but there were no slackers at the desks. They sang every verse. When the singing was done, the hymnals were quickly put away and everyone returned to their own desk.  There were no instructions from the teachers. A  green sheet was drawn down the middle of the room dividing it into two classes. The primary difference between the two was that one class contained all the older children (6th, 7th and 8th grade) in addition to several younger children. The youngest, six years old, who had just started school this fall, quickly gathered around the teacher’s desk to go over their vowels. The teacher later told us that most arrived at school knowing their colors and maybe their numbers up to ten, but not the alphabet. This meant that she basically had to teach kindergarten and first grade (where they learn to read) all in one year.  In somewhat hushed tones they learned their letters through phonics. We could hear their little voices calling, “Teacher. Teacher!” when they knew the answer and wanted to be the first to give it. They seemed oblivious to the children ten feet away who were practicing reading out loud.

The older students took out of their desks whatever workbook or book the lesson plans on the board said they needed and began their work unprompted. They could proceed through the assignments at their own pace and raised their hand when they had questions. These children practiced the patience of Job  because it was usually several minutes before the teacher could get to them. They received, in essence, individualized instruction, but it was clear the learning was up to them. There was no teacher at the front of the classroom lecturing to them or leading them through new concepts.  We later asked if they ever asked another student for help and were told that they could, but sometimes they preferred to wait for the teacher. Meanwhile the teacher was required to switch from topic to topic, over various grade levels at a moment’s notice.  She appeared to do this with ease.

We wondered if we would see antsiness on the part of the students or any difference between the sexes here in the homogenous rigid community. The girls, predictably, sat quietly completing their work, absorbed in the mental challenge. The boys too sat relatively  calmly though their eyes tended to stray around the room a bit more and they seemed to have their hands up more often. The overall feeling in the classroom, however, was relaxed so it didn’t matter that a boy wanted to lay out on the long bench for a few minutes.  Getting the work done was his responsibility and his action didn’t disturb the other students.  In fact, none of the other children seemed to even notice. As the children completed their work they would turn their workbooks in to the teacher to be graded during recess or lunch.

At 10:30 they were told to go play. The boys ran to the gym, a separate room a few steps down with a concrete floor and volleyball net, to get their wiggles out. Both teachers donned their head scarves and joined them. Everyone needs a little physical exercise though it must be noted that both women seemed to really be enjoying themselves.

A smaller group went outside to watch a farmer use an augur to plant a post. Most of the girls played out front with a rope which two of them held so the others could try jumping over it at different heights with a running start. The day was warming to the low 60’s and soon shoes were removed to keep the children cool. The ground was muddy, but that didn’t seem to matter. Many of those shoes did not find their way back onto the children’s feet until the end of the day.  We noticed that there was no adult supervision in any of the three places the children were playing.  The teachers were in the gym, not to keep order, but clearly to have fun.

The rest of the day continued the same way with younger children periodically standing around the teacher’s desk, interspersed with time when the teacher walked the rows addressing raised hands. If a child finished his lessons he was free to grab a book from the bookshelf and read, or take some scrap paper to draw.  The noise level never grew. The teachers never raised their voices.  One time I heard a teacher calmly tell a child to get back in his seat. He did - right away.

At lunch, which began with a small nod from the teachers, we asked the many questions that had piled up from the morning. The two teachers were selected by the school board, which turned out to be one person. They had no specific training, but seemed to have an interest in helping other kids with their lessons. The decision to teach was their own. The one teacher we spoke with almost exclusively was twenty two. She had gone to public school and done a short teaching stint when she was fifteen. That did not work for her at the time, but she very much enjoyed it now. The other teacher was seventeen and spoke with a thick Amish accent (their language is a German dialect). This was her first year teaching.

The lessons were set by the books they used. Let’s face it. Reading and basic writing have not changed in over a century.  They didn’t need any new methods for teaching these basics. The arithmetic book they used was called Study Time, copyright 2003. There were no manipulatives in class, but all children eventually learn to do math up through geometry.  

During the leisurely one and a half hour lunch, the younger teacher led the children on a single file serpentine barefoot run, a site we would never see in our own public schools. She even hugged one of the children. And though she was close in age to the children, they showed her the respect due a teacher at all times. After lunch the big  school bell rang  and the children returned to the same pattern they had earlier, although in many cases without shoes.

Morning arithmetic lessons had been graded and coins were awarded for scores: a penny for 90-95, ten cents for 96-99 and a quarter for 100%.  The coins were collected in glass jars painted different colors for the various grades with each child’s name written on the paint. There were at most seven different last names among the 31 students. Amish tend to have large families.  Having so many from the same family may have also impacted the children’s behavior in school. The coins were used periodically to buy small toys they teachers brought into school as a reward.

It was clear this pattern would continue day after day until the year’s worth of lessons had been completed. The teacher said most students complete the grade level work within the school year. If a child did not, or seemed to struggle they would repeat the year. Grades were given and report cards went home to parents. At the end of the day everyone had a chore whether it was sweeping the now very muddy wood floor, cleaning the black board,  damping down the stove or straightening the bookshelves. They took care of their school. There were no janitors to do it for them. Some children walked home and some rode in a small bus the school had contracted with to drive them.

The whole day was an experience neither of us will soon forget. It was a look at education without all the worry, driving pace, data focus and technology insisted upon in public schools now.  Though the end goals of the two cultures are different,  at their core what they teach is the same.  Watching the peaceful faces of these children did make me wish that my children could have experienced a little of this kind of school. Think what knowing that your peers came from families who shared the same values would mean in a classroom. I also wonder whether they would have a better understanding of learning as something they could take for themselves any time they wanted, rather than waiting for someone to impart it to them.


  1. I would love to have you guys on the radio to talk about this.

  2. Speaking for me (and I bet Anngie, too), we'd love to talk about our visit. It was certainly a special day for us and watching teaching and learning happen in such a self-directed manner.

  3. I have a painting of the picture above. The painting is by A. Wood. Does anyone know more about this painting or picture?


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