In addition to writing, I substitute teach in elementary school. This week is Read Across America, with schools celebrate reading, and particularly, Dr. Seuss. The program is encouraging supporters to take a selfie with their favorite childhood book and post it to social media. I decided to take it one step further and write this month’s blog about my choice.
But before I start talking about that, I must issue a quick apology, because my favorite childhood book, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, isn’t western related. For those who don’t know the story, it’s about a selfish, spoiled girl raised in India whose life is overturned when her parents die, forcing her to move to England to live with an uncle she’s never met.
I can’t remember what grade it was in elementary school or who my teacher was, which I truly regret, but one my teachers read The Secret Garden aloud to my class. From the moment she cracked the book open, I was hooked. I couldn’t wait for afternoon to arrive so I could head to the English countryside to spend time with poor Mary Lennox. After we finished the story, I bought a copy from Scholastic and reread the book repeatedly.
I loved seeing Mary growing more confident and content as she connected with the moors. Her budding relationship with Dickon captivated me. Even then I possessed the heart of a romance novelists, because I envisioned after the story ended, them living happily ever after on their own land, with a beautiful garden they lovingly tended together, and of course, they were still best friends with Colin. (BTW, I still want to know how their lives turned out. Hmmm. Maybe there’s a western fan fiction story in there!)
The mystery surrounding the cries in Misselthwaite Manor and why everyone insisted Mary was imagining things held me mesmerized. When Mary found her cousin Colin, and they and Dickon started exploring the secret garden, I was there too, sharing in their adventures.
For me, The Secret Garden had it all—romance, mystery, a heroine with a tragic past in need of a home, family, love and belonging. All themes that are intertwined in the books I write today. The Secret Garden hooked me on reading and started me dreaming about writing my own stories.
But how about you? Leave me a comment about your favorite childhood book to be entered to win the snack set and a copy of To Love A Texas Cowboy. Ironically, like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, To Love A Texas Cowboy is my story about a tragically orphaned little girl. Though she’s not the main character, Ella being orphaned, like Mary, sets the story into motion.
Now go. I’m excited to hear about your favorite childhood book and why it means so much to you!
I’m so excited! TO LOVE A TEXAS RANGER is out and just waiting for you to read it! This is book #1 of my new Men of Legend series. It’s about a family – a father and his three sons – who live on a huge North Texas ranch called the Lone Star. For those who remember the western TV series Bonanza it’ll seem like going home. Instead of the Cartwrights this is the Legend family and they’re bigger-than-life.
Stoker Legend is a tough rancher who carved his name in blood on the Texas landscape. The ranch began as land given to him for fighting in the Texas War of Independence but now it’s grown to 480,000 acres and it’s a lot harder to hold onto.
His sons Sam, Houston, and Luke learned to have the same kind of steel in their backbone and they don’t back—from anything or anyone. Sam left the ranch as soon as he was able though which is a bone of contention between him and his father. Houston is most like Stoker and wants only to ranch. It’s in his blood. No one knows about Luke, not even Stoker, until this book. This illegitimate son turns their lives upside down. Luke is also an outlaw. Being a lawman, Sam feels a duty to arrest him and would if Stoker hadn’t stopped him.
So you see, conflict oozes from the pages of this story.
In TO LOVE A TEXAS RANGER, Sam is incapacitated and can’t do his job so his captain sends him home to recover. He boards a train and is immediately launched into saving Sierra Hunt, a pretty young woman who is running from outlaws. If he can just get her to the Lone Star, she’ll be safe. But two hundred miles stand between them. A mysterious gunslinger, joins them in the mad dash and at times only seconds separate them all from death.
And of course, with this being a romance, Sam falls in love with Sierra. But he won’t give up his job and the need to keep moving. Sierra has always dreamed of having a house one day where she can put down strong roots and she won’t give it up—not even for Sam Legend.
Sierra is a schoolteacher so once she reaches the Lone Star, she teaches the ranch families’ children. On a ranch of this size, there are about 30-40 children. The Lone Star is so remote that Stoker Legend built a small town so the families wouldn’t have to travel so far to a town. They have a mercantile, telegraph, doctor, blacksmith, and a school.
Strangely enough, there were ranch schools back then. There was no excuse for ignorance so they taught them everything they needed to know in order to make it in the world. The schools consisted of one-room with the various grades all combined. The ranch owner paid the teacher a salary and furnished a place to live. It was a setup that greatly benefited everyone.
Pick up a copy of this book and ride along with Sam and the Legends. Stick your feet in the stirrups and hang on tight because if you fall off, Sam’s too busy chasing outlaws and saving Sierra to come back and get you.
Four lucky people will win a copy– choice of format. Leave a comment to enter the drawing.
If you like a book brimming with juicy secrets, this one is for you. What are you most drawn to in western romance? I really like stories that contain a lot of juicy secrets.And boy do I mean juicy!
Book #2 – HEART OF A TEXAS COWBOY comes out in May 2017 followed by the 3rd one in November.
A former teacher, I come from a long line of passionate educators. My father was a history and political science professor. My brother Thom is a business professor at UNC Wilmington, and my great grandfather was a professor of refrigeration engineering at Purdue University.
With teaching in my blood, it’s a given that I’ll write a story or two about teachers (Kit Brennan in The Good Daughter teaches English at a Catholic High School in Oakland, California and Jesslyn from The Sheikh’s Chosen Queen teaches at an international school in the UAE), I’ve never written about a teacher in a one room school house…until now.
My new story, The Lost Sheenan’s Bride, which releases on Friday, July 8th, is about a young teacher taking a long-term substitute job at one-room schoolhouse in Montana. The story wasn’t about the one-room school, but you wouldn’t know it from my research. I’m fascinated by Montana history, and in particular the intrepid women who first settled there.
It’s estimated that up to 18 percent of homesteaders in Montana were unmarried women.
Passage of the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed any twenty-one-year-old head of household the right to homestead federal land. Single, widowed, and divorced women fit this description, and they crossed the country to file homestead claims of 160 acres.
Many of the homesteading women in Montana also became the state’s first teachers. Because of the Homestead Act of 1862, one-room schoolhouses were built all over the state. Historians estimate that there were once 2,600 rural schools in Montana, and those rural schools served a multitude of purposes for each community, from education to social gatherings. In America today, there are still 200 operational one-room schoolhouses, with 62 of them located in Montana.
The one room school house in Paradise Valley that inspired my story (photo courtesy Megan Crane )
Last month in early June I returned to Montana for eight days, and on my flight from Seattle to Kalispell I sat next to a woman who worked for the Swan Valley school district which still has an operational one-room school in the town of Salmon Prairie. The woman, a school clerk, loves the one-room school in Salmon Prairie and told me about the exceptional quality of education the children receive, the time teacher is able to devote with his students, the ability to individualize lessons and even better, the opportunity for a teacher to truly teach Montana—morning nature walks, visits to local parks (Glacier National Forest, Yellowstone, etc). The teacher doesn’t just teach math and reading, but hunts and fishes with his students and embraces what it means to be a Montanan. (Here is a story on the school in Salmon Prairie! Photographers document Montana’s disappearing one-room schools)
I was able to work a little of that fascinating conversation into my story, but its impossible to convey the history for Montana’s one-room schools in a 50,000 word contemporary romance, but I’ll try to share a bit more here with you since I know you’re all history and western buffs, too.
In 2013, The National Trust for Historic Preservation added Montana’s one-room schoolhouses to their list of the Nation’s 11 Most Endangered Historical Places.
Today at Montana’s Divide School, built in 1870, teacher Judy Boyle functions as teacher, principal, and guidance counselor. Grades K-8 are taught in the same room to as many as eight students. This year she had 3 students, and as there are no janitors, it is part of the kids’ responsibility to help clean the school daily.
As an American Studies major at UCLA, I focused on Frontier literature with my senior thesis on Mark Twain, and you can’t immerse yourself in Frontier lit without understanding the significance of the one-room schoolhouse scattered across vast prairies and in the snug valleys nestled between the Rockies. The schools represented hope and opportunity, and education was a big part of that opportunity. Homesteaders and miners, ranchers and railroad workers wanted their children to succeed, and the best way to succeed was by getting an education, and the sheer number of the schools still standing today are a reminder of the commitment Montanans made to their children.
Another historic school house in Paradise Valley, this one still in operation.
Many of us grew up with Little House on the Prairie, or are fans of Hallmark’s popular series, When Calls the Heart, so we can picture the one room school. There was very little variation from one school to another:
Teachers were typically male. If the teacher was a woman, she had to be single. Married teachers were not allowed.
Frequently, families in the rural towns would take turns boarding the teacher, with every family contributing towards the teacher’s salary.
Schoolhouses had only a few windows and one door. Bigger schools might have two doors for separate entrances for the boys and girls.
The teacher’s desk was located at the front of the room and the teacher wrote the lessons on a large slate board, much like chalkboards or white boards in classrooms today.
There was no bathroom or running water. Students used an outhouse.
The children sat at narrow wooden desks and/or on long wooden benches, with boys sat on one side and the girls on the other.
Schoolhouses were heated by one stove with the older students responsible for keeping the fire going.
One of my favorite books I bought in Montana several years ago, that probably also helped inspire my new story was Visions and Voices: Montana’s One-Room Schoolhouses. The pictures are worth the price of the book alone, but there are also wonderful quotes and stories from former students who were educated in these schools.
To celebrate the release of my new book, The Lost Sheenan’s Bride, featuring Jet Diekerhof, the teacher of a one-room schoolhouse in Paradise Valley, Montana, I’m giving away a signed print copy of the book, plus lots of fun reader swag. Interested? Tell me if you think you would have enjoyed attending school at a one-room school. One comment will be drawn and the winner will be announced on Wednesday, July 13th so do check back and see if that was you!
Yesterday, I received an email from a student who was working on a research paper about teacher certification exams. In her online exploration, she ran across a blog post I wrote about Normal schools (Teaching the Teachers) and asked me for some of the sources I used for that post. As I searched for them, I ran across a site that focused on the requirements for teachers that went beyond their scores on certification exams.
Since teachers were in charge of molding young minds, many school boards placed extra, more personal and moral, requirements on the instructors they hired. And some, just tried to get as much for their money as possible. Here’s a photo of an actual teaching contract from 1905 that stipulates janitorial labor as part of the position with no extra pay. Also no holidays were allowed.
But that wasn’t all.
There were all of these stipulations as well: 1. Teachers are expected to live in the community in which they are employed and to take residence with local citizens for room and board. Nothing like a little privacy and a place of your own. Though the free meals would be nice. 2. Teachers will be required to spend weekends in the community unless permission is granted by the Chairman of the Board. Do you get the feeling this school board wanted to keep an eye on their teachers? No holidays, no weekend train trips to visit family in the next county without special permission.
3. It is understood that teachers will attend church each Sunday and take an active part, particularly in choir and Sunday School work. Now as a church goer myself, I’m all for encouraging church attendance, but the cynical side of me is wondering if this is stipulated just so they can force her to teach Sunday School classes in addition to her usual classroom duties.
4. Dancing, card playing and the theatre are works of the Devil that lead to gambling, immoral climate, and influence and will not be tolerated. Theatre is a work of the devil yet …
5. Community plays are given annually. Teachers are expected to participate. Uh huh. Double standard, anyone?
6. When laundering petticoats and unmentionables it is best to dry them in a flour sack or pillow case. (So no one sees them hanging on the line to dry). I have to wonder how anything actually dries while inside a flower sack.And can you get a special dispensation if the family you are boarding with (see item 1) has their feminine underthings flapping on the line? Because, really, what hard-working mother would take the time to hide her unmentionables in flour sacks?
7. Any teacher who smokes cigarettes, uses liquor in any form, frequents a pool or public hall, or (for men) gets shaved in a barber shop, (or for women) bobbs (cuts) her hair, has dyed hair, wears short skirts (could not be any shorter than 2 inches above the ankles) and has undue use of cosmetics will not be tolerated under any circumstances. OK – this time I’m on the man’s side. You can’t get shaved in a barber shop??? Something tells me the local barber was not on the school board.
8. Teachers will not marry or keep company with a man friend during the week except as an escort to church services. But on the other hand …
9. Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes or two evenings a week if they go to church regularly. Not only do they get paid more, but they’re allowed to date. Because men would never do anything impure while dating, but a woman . . . well, she can’t be trusted to remain pure. (Sticking my tongue out here.)
11. Loitering in ice cream parlors, drug stores, etc., is prohibited. Yes, because ice cream parlors are such dens of iniquity. Dens of calories, yes, but that’s not the same thing. Usually.
12. After 10 hours in school, the teacher should spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books. I’m all for Bible reading, but a good novel is a great way to unwind after a 10 hour day. Too bad my definition of “good books” probably doesn’t match what is intended here.
13. Women teachers who marry or engage in other unseemly conduct will be dismissed. Marriage is unseemly conduct??? Apparently only for a woman (see #9)
16. The teacher who performs his labors faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of 25 cents a week in his pay providing the Board of Education approves. Wow! Makes me appreciate the value of a dollar. It takes 5 years of faithful service (and no marriage) to get $1 more a month.
So, which of these stipulations would you have the hardest time swallowing?
Excuse me while I loiter in an ice cream shop with a gentleman not related to me, showing off my bobbed haircut. After 5 years of dedicated service, I’m spending my raise and living it up before the hatchet falls at the next school board meeting.
Here in Texas, our children have returned to the classroom. My three kids were up early Monday morning, making lunches, packing backpacks, and rushing off to the first day of school. My oldest is starting her senior year of high school. Gasp! Not sure mom is quite ready for what that means. But whether mom is ready or not, it has begun.
In the American West, teachers were often little more than former students who had completed the 8th grade and gone on to pass a teacher’s examination. My youngest is starting 8th grade this year, and I can’t even imagine him having enough knowledge to turn around and teach.
As more settlers headed west and communities grew, so did the demand for teachers with a higher education. In the early 1800s, schoolmasters were men. They ruled their classrooms with discipline and authority. Yet in the 1830s when tax-supported common schools made education more widely available, the result was a teacher shortage that left the door open for women.
“God seems to have made woman peculiarly suited to guide and develop the infant mind, and it seems…very poor policy to pay a man 20 or 22 dollars a month, for teaching children the ABCs, when a female could do the work more successfully at one third of the price.” — Littleton School Committee, Littleton, Massachusetts, 1849
By the time of the Civil War, women dominated the teaching field. However, if a woman wanted to set herself apart, to establish herself as a professional, she required training that went beyond the rudimentary grammar schooling of her peers. She needed a diploma from a reputable Normal School.
Normal Schools were two-year academies designed to grant teachers a mastery of the subjects taught in the common schools as well as giving them a practical knowledge of teaching methodology. Normal Schools prided themselves on their thorough, cohesive, and “scientific” curriculum. They would provide a norm for all teachers (hence the term Normal School) that would assure a level of quality generally unavailable previously.
The Boston Normal School, for example, was established in 1872. According to a regulation manual published in 1888, a teacher studying there would have taken courses in the following areas:
Mental and Moral Science and Logic
Physiology and Hygiene
Study of Language
Principles of Education, School Economy, and Methods of Instruction
Vocal Music, Drawing, and Blackboard Illustration
Observation and Practice in the Training School
Observation and Practice in other public schools
Not so very different from our current teacher education programs, is it?
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The heroine in my latest release is a teacher of exceptional youths, or what we would call today – gifted children or child prodigies.
In honor of teachers across the country who are getting back into their classrooms, I’ll be giving away an autographed copy of A Worthy Pursuit to one reader who leaves a comment.
Tell me about you favorite first-day-of-school memory. What made you excited, what you dreaded. How long it took you to pick out the perfect outfit. Anything related to the first day – kindergarten through college. Or maybe your first day as a teacher, if that is your profession. Anything is fair game.
The Three R’s: Ridin’, Ropin’, and Romance (of course!)
The leading lady of my first book, The Angel and the Outlaw, was a schoolteacher in the “wild, wild, West” of 1873 and so I thought I’d give a small glimpse into the life of a teacher in that day and age. I am also working on a new story in which the heroine is a teacher in Southern California’s back country.
Prior to the Civil War, schoolteachers were mostly men because the prevailing belief was that women could not maintain discipline in the classroom. When the men left for the war, women moved in and filled positions at 60% less salary. When the men returned, they refused to work at the reduced wages (even though they did make more than the women teachers) and most left the profession.
Women teachers were required to be single. They could “sit” for their teaching certificate as long as they had graduated. Some were as young as fifteen. If they married, they had to give up their job. They were not allowed to attend public performances or dances. Male teachers were permitted to date one night a week or two if they attended church regularly. Because women were so few in number compared to men in the West, the turn-over rate for teachers was fairly high as women married and started their own families.
Children from the age of five would go to school daily through the week and then on weekends, would be expected to come back and help clean the schoolhouse. A teacher might have anywhere from three to forty-five students in the first through eighth grade. Discipline could be difficult at times, especially when some of the older boys towered over the teacher.
Wisconsin One-Room Schoolhouse
The typical school house was a one-room building. A male teacher and his family often lived in a home next door or attached to the school house—a teacherage. Women teachers would be housed with one of the families whose children attended the school so that they could be supervised. (Now that would make it hard to “leave your day job” at the end of the day!)
Teachers had to be creative and work with whatever supplies they had. They used memorizing, reciting, and oral testing to teach reading, spelling, arithmetic and history. For many years, the main textbook was the McGuffey Reader. A staggering amount, approximately 120 million copies of McGuffey Readers were sold between 1836 and 1960. Many parents could not afford textbooks and so they sent their children to school with any book from home—usually the Bible—for instruction in reading. Eliza Mott was a teacher who taught the alphabet using the inscriptions on tombstones!
In doing research about the school in La Playa where The Angel and the Outlaw is set, I learned that the main difficulty for the teacher there was a horse track in Old Town San Diego that enticed the children to play hooky and also let them wager on the horses. When the school in La Playa had a teacher vacancy, the children rowed boats to the school in Old Town and attended there.
Some very important and influential people have “graduated” from one-room schools. To name a few ~ Abraham Lincoln (President), Herbert Hoover (President), Joyce Carol Oates (Pulitzer Prize), Laura Ingalls Wilder (author), and my father.
My father and his brothers attended a one-room school house that was built on land his father donated for the school. It still stands (and is now a private home), down a winding country road in central Illinois. It feels like stepping back in time a hundred years when I go back for a visit. My grandparents farmhouse is just around the corner ~ a country mile…
One of my memories is that my Junior High School was situated right up against the back of the San Diego Zoo next to the wallaby and kangaroo enclosures. When the tour bus would drive by loaded with people, the bus driver would often comment on the “animals” on the other side of the fence– meaning the children on the gym field. It was all in good-natured fun (I think…)
What about you?
Do you have any unusual or fond memories of school?
Comment for a chance to win a copy of my newest release ~ The Gunslinger and the Heiress ~ (which does not have a schoolteacher in it!) along with Playing the Rake’s Game by Bronwyn Scott. (Continental U.S. only)
An early re-enactment of the 1869 journey from Galveston to San Antonio undertaken by three Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. The journey resulted in the formation of what is today the largest congregation of women religious in Texas.
When the sun rose on Sept. 9, 1900, the island city of Galveston, Texas, lay in ruins. What would come to be called The Great Storm, a hurricane of massive proportions, had roared ashore from the Gulf of Mexico overnight, sweeping “the Wall Street of the Southwest” from the face of the Earth.
Over the following weeks, rescuers pulled more than 6,000 bodies from the rubble, piled the remains on the beach, and burned them to prevent an outbreak of disease. Among the departed, discovered amid the wreckage of St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum, were the bodies of ninety children ages 2 to 13 and all ten Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. In a valiant, yet ultimately futile, attempt to save the children from floodwaters that rose to twenty feet above sea level, each sister bound six to eight orphans to her waist with a length of clothesline. The lines tangled in debris as the water destroyed the only home some of the children had ever known.
Sister Vincent Cottier and two of her young charges at the orphanage in Galveston. All three perished during The Great Storm of 1900.
All that survived of the orphanage were the three oldest boys and an old French seafaring hymn, “Queen of the Waves.” To this day, every Sept. 8 the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word worldwide sing the hymn in honor of the sisters and orphans who died in what remains the deadliest natural disaster ever to strike U.S. soil.
Established in Galveston in 1866 by three Catholic sisters from France, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word is a congregation of women religious. Not technically nuns because they take perpetual simple vows instead of perpetual solemn vows and work among secular society instead of living in seclusion behind cloistered walls, they nevertheless wear habits and bear the title Sister. Today the original congregation is based in Houston, but back then Galveston seemed an ideal spot for the women to build a convent, an orphanage, and a hospital. On January 7, 1867, they opened Nazareth Academy in Victoria, Texas. In 1883, the federal Bureau of Education praised the academy as one of six Texas schools providing “superior instruction of women.” By 1869, the sisters had founded a second congregation in San Antonio. From there, they expanded to other cities in Texas, including Amarillo, and even farther west, all the way to California. In 2014, the sisters operated missions in Ireland, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Kenya in addition to the United States. They continue to operate Nazareth Academy, but as a coeducational school serving children in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
Two postulants from the Congregation of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, ca. 1890.
Armed with faith instead of guns, the sisters did their part to civilize Texas’s notoriously wild frontier. They did not do so without significant hardship. Catholics often were not well-tolerated in 19th Century America, although in Galveston the sisters were admired and even loved for their industry and benevolence. That benevolence led to the deaths of two of the original three Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, who perished during Galveston’s yellow fever epidemic of 1867.
As a Galvestonian, the history of the island city and its diverse people fascinates me. I continue to hope for inspiration that will grow into a story set here, where the past overflows with tales of adventure dating back well before the pirate Jean Lafitte built the fortified mansion Maison Rouge on Galveston in 1815. In the meantime, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word provided the inspiration for the heroine in a quick read, The Second-Best Ranger in Texas, which is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and .
A washed-up Texas Ranger. A failed nun with a violent past. A love that will redeem them both.
Thanks so much for stopping by. As a token of my appreciation, I’ll give a copy of The Second-Best Ranger in Texas, in the winner’s choice of e-fomats, to one of today’s commenters.
Teachers in one-room schools were often former students of the same school they taught in. During the winter months they would get to school early to get a fire started in a pot belly stove so the building would be warm for the students’ arrival. Sometimes, depending on where in the country they were located, they would even prepare a hot, noon meal on top of the stove, usually soup or some kind of stew.
Pay varied. Some teachers made as little as $4 – $11 per month, but others earned as much as $25 per month. Many schools were only in session 3 – 4 months out of the year since children were needed to help with spring chores and fall harvesting. That meant the teacher had to find another job or live a full year on only 4 months salary. Although some women made teaching their career, a substantial number of women taught for only a year or two, then married and moved on to new challenges. This pattern, as well as the relatively low pay, led to a very high turnover among teachers
Most small towns could only afford a one-room school building made from stone, wood, and sometimes, even sod. We often tend to think of these schoolhouses as being red, but most were white. Some had the luxury of a school bell, but many didn’t.
A normal school day ran from nine am to four pm, with two fifteen minute recesses, one in the morning and another in the afternoon and an hour for lunch. Recess was spent outside on sunny days and children played with ropes, jacks, balls and various games with each other. If a tree was available, you might see a rope swing with a board to sit on hanging from its branches.
The children generally went up to the eighth grade. During those years, teachers taught many subjects: reading (most of the time from the Bible) grammar, penmanship, spelling, history, geography, and ciphering (mathematics). Children usually wrote on slates while the teacher used chalk to write on boards that had been painted black–which is why it became known as the “blackboard.”
The older students had the responsibility of bringing in water and fetching coal or wood for the stove. According to their size and gender, younger students would be given chores such as sweeping, cleaning the blackboard, or taking the erasers outside for dusting. If a student was naughty, the chores of the younger student became the naughty student’s job after school as a form of punishment.
In Taming the Texas Rancher, Hannah Young is a schoolteacher who now wants to be a rancher’s wife and work alongside her husband. Imagine her surprise when Daniel Westland, her intended, has other plans and has built a school house on the ranch for her to teach the children that live on the ranch.
Daniel and Hannah convert the storage room at the back of the school house into Hannah’s home until they get married–if they get married. This wasn’t commonly done and was a work of my own fictional mind. (Big Smile)
One room school houses aren’t common today but I’d love to hear about any that you might have come across so please, tell me all about them.
Please join in the conversation and be eligible to win a free copy of my Love Inspired Historical, Taming the Texas Rancher!
Also, my ebook, Her Christmas Angel, is free today! Get a copy for your Kindle now!
Teaching has never been an easy profession, but frontier teachers not only trained young minds, they also had to help tame the west.
Why would a woman leave family and friends for a low paying job in an unsettled, hostile land. Part of the answer lies with Catherine Beecher who did for education what her sister Harriet did for slavery. In The Duty of American Women to Their Country, she encouraged women to go west and meet the demand for teachers, arguing that women are “…the best, as well as the cheapest, guardian and teacher of childhood, in the school as well as in the nursery.”
Beecher was right about women being the cheapest; female teachers earned only forty to sixty percent of what male teachers earned, but that didn’t keep them from rising to the occasion. Between 1847 and 1858, more than six hundred female teachers traveled west to teach under the most difficult conditions imaginable and the numbers kept growing.
Armies, Indians and Things that Fly
In 1849 twenty-two year old Olive Isbel left Ohio with her husband to open the first school for American children in California. She taught a class of twenty students while cradling a loaded rifle in one hand and a book in the other. The Mission where she taught was under fire by the Mexican army trying to reclaim land believed to belong to Mexico.
Twenty-three years later in 1872, Sister Blandina Segale of Colorado didn’t have it much easier. Her classroom was periodically disturbed by attacking Ute Indians, who sided with the Mexicans.
While Sister Segale handled her Indian problem with prayer, Frontier teacher Harriet Bishop handled hers with diplomacy. When her school was attacked by fifty Sioux firing guns, she hid the children behind her voluptuous skirts and managed to persuade the Indians to leave by telling them that, “The children’s hearts are not strong like ours.”
Attacking armies and Indians weren’t the only problems frontier teachers faced. Isaben Fodge Cornish wrote about attending a sod school: “The floor was of dirt and during the cold winter of 1884 the teacher’s feet were frosted. Later a quantity of straw was put on the floor which made it warmer but proved to be a breeding place for fleas. This was not conductive to quiet study but did afford the children some bodily activity.” (No child obesity back then and now you know why.)
Tonight’s Homework: Read Ten Headstones
Teachers often lacked even the most basic necessities. Blackboards were considered a luxury and books were in short supply. Teachers were forced to use whatever was on hand. Eliza Mott, who taught school in Nevada in 1851, was so hard-pressed for books she conducted class in the local cemetery where she taught her pupils to read the epitaphs on gravestones.
Isbell also had to teach without benefit of paper, pens or slates. Her students printed their school work on their hands with pieces of charcoal and she scratched her lesson plans upon the dirt floor with a stick.
Sister Segale was short desks and classroom space and this time she chose action over diplomacy. She solved the first problem by sawing what desks she had on hand in half, thus giving each pupil a place to sit. She then borrowed a crowbar and demolished the school, hoping that good-hearted citizens would take pity and build her a new one. Her plan worked.
Conditions were poor, the rules tough and pay low, but the heroic teachers who traveled west laid the foundation that shaped young minds and helped turn America into the land of opportunity it is today.
We’ve spent the week talking about one room country schools and we’re talking about long ago history.
But I have a little different version of these tiny schools.
I went to one. My cowboy husband went to one.
Our four children went to one.
One room country school houses aren’t all buried in the distant past.
In Nebraska, and other rural states, they still exist.
In fact the school my children attended had Connealys in it going back five generations, to the founding of the school.
My roots weren’t nearly so deep in my rural neighborhood, because only my father had gone to the school I attended. My grandfather and grandmother were from nearby, but back in their day there was a school almost every mile. And many of those schools were crowded.
The real change I saw when I was sending my kids to school was how the populations in rural America was diminishing. A farm was 80 acres, a man could support his family of eight kids on 80 acres. My mother in law, who’d been in the school district my children went to for sixty years, talked of all the homes that had been. There were little houses all over in the country back then. Now a farm needs to be two thousand or five thousand acres to support a family and one man can handle it himself with a huge tractor and stunningly expensive combines and trucks and bins to store his grain. And that farmer is likely to only have two kids. The tiny schools have closed slowly and steadily for fifty years.
We live a long way out. I know people who are farther from town. In fact in western Nebraska it isn’t unheard of to have a forty mile drive, one way, to the nearest town. My children drove 15 miles every day to high school. When the distances are great, it is wonderful to have a school nearby.
The whole school
Our school, at its largest in my children’s years, had 13 students. The numbers fluxuated and at times we were down to five. My oldest daughter started school with one boy in her grade. By eigth grade she was alone in her class. There were eight grades, though some classes had no students. Our teacher had very few papers to correct but imagine the lesson plans. She had to do lesson plans for multiple grades, keep track of the progress through-out all levels of elementary school.
We had computers and the internet. In fact we had a computer for every kid in the class. I think Bill Gates donated them to us. There was a lot of paper work involved.
We took great field trips, get one mom to drive and off we’d go. We often had museums almost to ourselves.
We had up-to-date text books and access to videos and all the supplies any school has.
I’m defending the very unusual school my kids went to because I loved it. It was a mile down the road to school every morning, they often road their bikes. I had a huge amount of influence in that school, something that is very unusual in a school today where parents are invited in under very controlled circumstances only. The teacher became a good friend and we made a great team educating my children.
Nebraska Governor Kay Orr, a supporter of Rural Schools, comes for a visit
I know they missed out on some socializing, but I’ve noticed my girls have a great attitude with boys. They learned to think of boys as their friends, not as romances and not as icky. There just weren’t enough kids. They had to learn to get along and play with each other and I think that’s helped them get along in all aspects of their lives and have a healthy view of romantic relationships, too.
There was no shirking in class. If you’re alone in your grade, or maybe one of two or three, no one’s gonna slip through the cracks, no matter how hard they try.
The little blonde girl facing the governor in this picture is my daughter, now a mother of two, so it’s not a new picture. 🙂
The school my children went to is closed now, but there are still rural schools in Nebraska and other states. In remote areas it just makes sense to educate a child near home. I feel blessed that my children got this experience.I have four daughters…all college graduates. One of them had a friend who had been admitted to law school at an Ivy League college and my daughter went along to help her move in.
She went with her friend to a ‘welcome to college’ party and every student was wealthy. Every one of them was working on their second or third advanced degree. Not a one of them had ever had to make the rent or worry about the cost of his clothes or drive an old beater car.
And she looked around at that priviledged crowd and just thought, ‘these are the people who are going to be running our country someday and none of them have one bit of practical experience at taking care of themselves.’
I told her she should have just said out loud, “You know what? I went to a one room country school house. I know how to drive a tractor. I’ve been kicked by a cow. I got out of college and had to get a job and I’m PROUD of that. I’m proud of supporting myself and hustling to find an apartment I can afford and finding an roommate to make it affordable and just MANAGING MY OWN LIFE. And guess what? I think I”m better than all of you.”
My daughter of course, did NOT say any of that. Probably because she’d been taught better behavior than that at her One Room Country School.