AFTER A MORNING spent touring the bright, well-equipped early childhood classrooms at the laboratory school of Kutztown University in rural Pennsylvania, I stepped into a little slice of the world I knew existed but had never seen up close. On a visit arranged by my host, Susan Miller, I spent an afternoon in a Mennonite one-room schoolhouse.
In the large room with hardwood floors and no electricity, 25 children sat at slant-top desks in five neat rows, youngest in front, oldest in back. The girls all wore dresses, thick neat braids down their backs. The children peeked at me and smiled as their teacher greeted me.
The teacher explained that today they were trying something new called "Did you know?" She then called on a boy who was waving his hand in the air. In a loud, clear voice he announced some little-known fact about the cowbird, to which his teacher responded, "Hmmm, that's very interesting." The next child told something about the amazing breathing powers of the catfish when burrowed in mud, and on it went. Then, with a signal from the teacher, the children burst from the room into the school yard for recess.
This was my brief opportunity to talk with this gentle, competent teacher. Over the whoops of the children outside, she told me that she'd attended this school through the eighth grade, the end of formal schooling in her community, and that she also oversaw the journal writing of the "high schoolers" so they could meet state education requirements. We talked about the difficulty of preparing for so many grades each day, and she admitted that it wasn't always easy - especially the math, in which she didn't feel strong.
Once back, the children were invited to the front of the room to "sing for our visitor." They filed up quickly, tallest first, forming three rows. After singing three songs in hardy voices, they returned to their desks, in reverse order of the way they'd come.
I won't forget those voices, the orderliness of the children, or the gentle teacher in her lilac dress and voile cap. But three other images remain even stronger:
First, the cadence of the spelling lesson. "First grade, `mat.' Second grade, `bath.' Third grade, `herd, as in a herd of cows,"' the teacher called out for 20 rounds. This litany was followed by the flurry of exchanged papers to correct. Those who got 100 got a sticker as a reward.
Second, the four journals kept by "high schoolers," their pages with rarely a spelling or grammatical error and filled with the rhythm and ritual of daily life milking the cows, washing the clothes, tending the doves, and occasionally working the farm stand. And the one passage that showed a momentary break from routine: "October 25. Mowed the hay. Ran through the woods like a deer. Milked the cows."
Third, how at the end of the day the children rose from their seats for their final tasks. The smallest girls carried the chalky erasers outdoors to beat clean, two other girls wiped the board down with wet cloths. The oldest girl swept, a boy collected the trash, and another took it outdoors to burn.
Before I left, I handed the teacher some books I'd brought - an impulse I felt a little awkward about. The children's books were brightly illustrated stories, seemingly out of place in this classroom that had no children's artwork and only a small bookshelf. The other book promised 50 math activities, which seemed more appropriate.
When I've related this experience to friends and colleagues, they've commented, "Oh, Little House on the Prairie" or "Bet there were no discipline problems there!" Those are the easy comments. I'm still thinking about this experience.