Messy and somewhat frustrating! This is how I would describe our early attempts at practicing a one-room schoolhouse style of learning.
I remember one Tuesday morning particularly. It was 9:00 a.m. and the six of us were in the school room. Math books were strewn across the table and the twelve-year-old was at the chalkboard. The twins, now four, could be trusted to play on the rug nearby with the Cuisenaire rods without putting them into their mouths—at least most of the time. These small colorful wooden blocks come in different lengths to teach counting, fractions, and other mathematical concepts. The twins had watched their three older sisters play with the forbidden colorful blocks and were quite pleased they were now “big enough.”
The lesson was on variables and the twelve-year-old had been tasked with showing a problem on the board while talking it through with her younger sisters. She spoke as she wrote, “8 + x = 15. 15 – 8 = 7, so x = 7.” The eight-year-old concrete learner protested, “Yesterday you said x = 11 and now it is 7? That doesn’t make sense!” “Anna, “replied her oldest sister with a tone of impatience, “15 – 8 = 7. that’s is why x = 7.” Anna was not satisfied. The ten-year-old, ever the peacemaker, stepped in, “Anna, ‘x’ can change. You have to search and find out what it stands for, like hide and seek.” This cheered Anna since she loved the game of hide and seek. From the floor, one of the twins announced, “Look! I make a blue X! “
After solving a few more problems together, we reviewed memory work from the Foundations Guide followed by the oldest two girls writing their multiplication tables while I sung skip- counting songs with the eight-year-old. The twins always liked to be held for this part and we would bounce or dance as we sang. The last thirty minutes were quieter as the three older girls worked their own math problems and I stayed nearby with the twins, counting and coloring.
Gradually, we figured out how to make this model successful for other subjects. Most mornings we would start a few subjects together, working in one-hour blocks with breaks in between. The schedule was flexible and we would practice a new concept, review memory work, and the older girls would complete their copywork for that subject as the younger girls would get to play with some related activity. I moved about the room answering questions and changing activities often with the preschoolers.
For language arts, I used Spelling Plus books. As I spoke dictation sentences and wrote them on the board, the twelve-year-old would copy the sentence, trying to spell the words correctly without looking at the board. The ten-year-old watched me write the sentence and kept up as best she could. The eight-year-old, moving at a slower pace, might only get through the first sentence, but was encouraged to keep going until the time was up. For the final fifteen to twenty minutes, the girls would work from their own grammar books as the twins and I started lunch.
Fast forward a few years—where did the time go? The twins are now fifteen, and the older girls are living on their own in different states. We look back with fondness on those years of schooling together. We all treasure my journal full of funny things the girls said, things they did, and the otherwise “sanctifying” experiences.
Looking back, I see three benefits this schooling approach brought us.
First, the one-room schoolhouse approach offered a rich learning experience. The siblings heard the questions of others and learned to formulate better questions for themselves. They observed the teaching and learning styles of not only me, but of each other. The process forced them to slow down and think more deeply about ideas rather than to complete the task as quickly as possible in order that they might “check it off their list.” The material was covered thoroughly because each lesson began with a review of material for the older students and ended with a preview of what was coming for the younger students.
Second, the one-room schoolhouse approach developed character in us, the parents, and in the children. Oh, the pains and joys of sanctification! By being in close proximately, we learned to serve each other and treat each other with kindness. There were numerous opportunities every day to serve others above ourselves, to ask forgiveness, and to forgive.
Third, the one-room schoolhouse approach helped my husband and I build community in our home. It brought us together as a family and allowed us to practice having conversations. It gave the children insights into how their siblings thought and, overall, served to nurture their relationships. As we each listened to one another, it sometimes brought clarity to our own understanding and sometimes we were able to offer clarity to others. Even now, in their high school and college years, the girls collaborate, gleaning ideas from their sisters on anything from poetry and essay assignments, to debates and science projects. Currently our oldest daughter, now a science teacher, often facetimes her twin sisters to talk about their Challenge II assignments.
If you are currently practicing the one-room-schoolhouse approach in your home, or should you decide to begin, here are a few points of caution. Let the form serve you, being careful not to force your family into serving the form. As mothers, we typically have a strong desire to bring order into our home. This desire must yield to servanthood. We should aim to listen to, understand, and validate the needs of our children, respecting their boundaries as individuals made in the image of God. We must keep before us the truth that our primary calling is to serve Christ in our home and not a particular method or form of education. This truth will manifest itself when our goal is Christ in all and over all. As we strive to put first things first, we will find that all else will be ordered properly and the one-room schoolhouse approach will find its proper place in our homes.
“The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and His work become the one and only thing that is vital between us.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together