A day in a one- room schoolhouse encompassed a wide range of events. The teacher was expected to arrive at the schoolhouse about an hour before the students. She was to draw water from the well, have lit a fire to warm the building, and often raised the flag. Typically, at 8:00 am the school bell was rung.
As the children were seated the teacher took attendance and then often began the day by reading to the students. In the nineteenth century the text read was almost always of a religious character, usually from the Bible. However, over time the morning reading evolved, first to "moral tales," and subsequently to significant works of fiction. For example, during the 1940's at the Frost School near Stanton teacher Veda Flinn began her school day by reading from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prarie. Mrs. Flinn paced her reading of the volume so that the book was always completed on the last day of school. In some schools a song or two might also be sung before the day's studies began.
Class would then begin. As the day progressed each class was called to the "recitation" bench. There the teacher worked exclusively with those children for a period, while the other students busied themselves studying or doing an assigned lesson. Normally there was a brief morning recess of about fifteen minutes, followed by more classes, and then an hour for lunch. The afternoon was spent much like the morning with classes and a short recess. At the hour of afternoon recess, the younger students, including the third graders, would be dismissed for the day. The last hours of the school day was spent by the teacher working with the more advanced fourth through eighth graders.
Students sometimes put the mixed age of their schoolmates to ingenious uses. One teacher recalls a student from the World War II era that she first believed had extraordinary reading skills. Each day she would write new words on the blackboard and each day, by the time "Doug's" opportunity to read came around, he had already learned the new vocabulary. Eventually she discovered that Doug was ingenious, but in a somewhat different way. Rather than industriously studying the board, each day he would quietly borrow the book from which the day's reading would be taken, look in the back where the new words were listed, and then ask one of the older students to help him with the day's new vocabulary.
"Unit" teaching was very popular technique well adopted to the one-room school. The teacher would select a topic, or unit, to study, such as pioneer days, trees, safety, or some other broad topic that each student could address at an appropriate level. Over time units evolved. For example in many one-room schools agriculture slowly gave way to science, physiology was replaced with health and hygiene. Students also would be united for various school events such as pageants or plays. Virtually every one-room school put on a Christmas pageant that was well attended by parents. The school was decorated with objects made by the children. The program often featured short poems or songs performed by the younger children and short plays enacted by the older students. The event would end with a holiday party in which gifts were often exchanged.
Although many students of one-room schools remember recess and the lunch hour as the highlight of the day, the time could be a harrowing experience for some children. Joyce Geasler, who taught in rural schools from 1923 to 1969, recalls an incident that occurred one day in the school sandbox:
A huge pocket of sand was on the play ground,
No greater place to play could ever be found.
I excused the little ones to go out and play,
And soon heard the death cry of a little stray.
There she stood in a hole two feet deep,
Screaming her fate in utter defeat.
Many little boys were feverishly filling her in,
They met my concerns with impish cries,
"We're only going to bury her alive."
The fortunate teacher went home with her students, however many teachers also performed the janitorial duties in the school. Thus, after the day's classes had ended, the floor was swept, the room was straightened, the teacher brought in fuel for the next day's fire. At least once a week the teacher was expected to scrub the floor. The teacher's janitorial responsibilities were, however, often lightened by student helpers.
At the end of the year, teacher's would distribute "tokens" to their charges, along with their report cards and, for a lucky few, their diplomas. The tokens, usually small, inexpensively printed pieces of paper, were often among the most cherished possessions of students and a surprising number survive in the personal papers of those who attended one-room schools.