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Sample Lesson Plans (1900s)

by Rebecca A. Edwards

These lesson plans are my own creation. I developed them from information about one-room school curriculum that can be found in Jerry Apps’ One-Room Country Schools: History and Recollections from Wisconsin (U.S.: Palmer Publications, 1996) on pages 57-88, and Wayne E. Fuller’s The Old Country School (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1982) on pages 1-24. (Rebecca A. Edwards, NIU, April 2004)

More information on the Pledge of Allegiance can be found at (accessed 19 March 2004). I got the idea to make a string ball from a story on page 63 of Good Old Days Remembers the Little Country Schoolhouse (Berne, ID: House of White Birches, 1999) edited by Ken and Janice Tate. A string ball is also mentioned on page 98 of Luther Bryan Clegg’s The Empty Schoolhouse (U. S.: Texas A&M University Press, 1997).

The games “Bear in the Pit,” “Rachel and Jacob,” and “Pom-Pom-Pull-Away” were found on pages 201-208 of Jerry Apps’ One-Room Country Schools: History and Recollections from Wisconsin (U.S.: Palmer Publications, 1996). The games “Hide the Thimble” and “Statues” were found on pages 14-15 and page 31 respectively in May C. Hofmann’s Games for Everybody (New York: Dodge Publishing Co., 1905). A good discussion of the McGuffey Readers can be found on pages 72-77 of Jerry Apps’ One-Room Country Schools: History and Recollections from Wisconsin(U.S.: Palmer Publications, 1996). This book also contains a good discussion of handwriting on pages 77-78.

A good discussion of spelldowns can be found in Jerry Apps’ One-Room Country Schools: History and Recollections from Wisconsin (U.S.: Palmer Publications, 1996) on page 13.


The following is just a sample lesson plan of activities that can be done during a visit to the Milan Township District #83 Schoolhouse. The Blackwell History of Education Museum will work with each group coming to the schoolhouse to develop a lesson plan that meets the teacher’s expectations and gives a representation of the activities that would go on at a one-room schoolhouse in either the 1900s. If you have any ideas or reservations about the activities described below, please discuss them with the Blackwell staff when you are planning your trip.


1. Students will obtain a better sense of what a typical day was like in a multi-grade, one-room rural school of the 1900s.
2. Students will gain an insight into the differences in the way students were taught in the 1900s compared with today.
3. Students will learn about the differences in subject matter and content taught in the 1900s compared with today.

Geography Mixed with History

The children will begin their lessons by learning about the geography of the Milan Township District #83 Schoolhouse. Four groups of children will be given a map of the township showing where the school, farms and farmhouses were located in the 1900s. They will be given a specific farmhouse, and each group will draw a trail that they might take to get to school. This path can be drawn across fields and streams and anywhere else so long as it appears to be the shortest route to school. Once the groups have finished with this activity, they will present their maps to the rest of the class. The teacher will have a large map that will have each route on it. The children can see where they would meet other children on their walk to school on the large class map. They will learn about the distance from home to school, how children got to school and what kinds of adventures they might have had before and after school. They may also want to point out any difficulties that may have arisen from their choice, such as difficulty crossing a creek. This activity should last from 9:15 to 10:05.


A typical school day in a one-room school began with the first of the three R’s, reading. Therefore, this school day will be no different. To show how difficult lesson plans were for teachers in the 1900s due to the different ages and abilities of the children, each age group of children will read different stories or poems at different times and will be required to do different activities appropriate for their age group. The oldest children in the schoolroom will go first. They will be required to read aloud to the teacher at the recitation bench, while the other age groups will be working quietly at their desks. The next oldest age group will be required to read a poem and memorize a stanza or two, then come to the recitation bench and recite it from memory to the teacher. The next oldest group will read a story and locate a few sentences that they believe give the meaning of the story. They will then come to the recitation bench and read the sentences they have chosen and give their reasons (making sure to be short and to the point since they do not have much time). The youngest group will read a different story and memorize a paragraph (more than one or two sentences) to recite from memory when called to the recitation bench. Each group will be assigned their tasks at the end of general exercises and will have ten minutes to complete them. Because of this, some groups will have more time than others will. The assignments are arranged so that the easiest assignment goes to the group with the least time, and the hardest assignment goes to the group with the most time. This activity will last approximately forty minutes. If students have any questions, they may ask them when each group has had a chance at the recitation bench. There will be ten minutes allowed for discussion. This activity should last from 10:05-11:00.


After the break, the children will begin to make a string ball like the ball children used to make to play with during recess. The children would gather up as much spare string (or twine) as they could find and wrap it around anything round such as a rock or a marble, and then cover it with fabric. The children made this kind of ball because baseballs were hard to come by.

To make a class string ball, each student can bring a small amount of string from home, or the teacher can bring yarn and cut each student a length of it. To save time, the Blackwell staff will provide a fabric cover pre-made for the string ball. The students can play with this ball during recess (if weather permits), and the class can take it back to school as a souvenir of their day. This activity should last from 11:00 to 11:30.

Lunch and Games

During lunch, the children can eat outdoors if it is a nice day or indoors if it is not. When they finish eating, they can play games. If they are outdoors, they can play with their new string ball, or they can play some games which students once played and maybe still do:
v Bear in the Pit – The children form a circle and hold hands to create a barrier. One child is inside the circle and is designated the Bear. The Bear tries to get out of the circle anyway he/she can. Once the Bear escapes, all the children chase after him/her until one child catches him/her (tag, do not tackle!). The child that catches the Bear is the Bear in the next game.

  • Rachel and Jacob – For this game, the children form a ring and hold hands. Two children are in the center of the circle, one designated Rachel and the other Jacob. Jacob is blindfolded and has to find Rachel in the circle. To do this, Jacob asks Rachel questions, which she has to answer. These questions are asked to help Jacob locate Rachel by sound. They are not meant to be personal and embarrassing. To help the children stay in character, they can ask each other questions about what kind of chores they did that morning or how the walk to school was. To avoid being caught, Rachel may answer the question and then quickly move away. She can bob and duck and do virtually anything to avoid being caught by Jacob, but she must remain in the circle created by the other children. Once Jacob catches Rachel, Jacob can return to the ring. Rachel then chooses a new Jacob, and the game begins again. The more talented Rachel is, the longer the game will be.
  • Pom-Pom-Pull-Away – To begin this game, one player is designated ‘It.’ The other players break up into two groups and stand about fifty feet apart. Whoever is It then yells, “Pom-Pom- Pull-Away, come away or I’ll pull you away.” The players run to opposite sides while It tries to tag as many people as he/she can. The tagged children have to stay in the middle of the field with It and become Its. They also tag the other children as they run from one side to the other. The game is over when everyone has been tagged and a new game can begin. The last person to be tagged is It for the next game.

If the children must stay inside for the lunch break, they can play other games like:

  • Hide the Thimble: One child is designated ‘It’ and hides a thimble or other small item in the schoolroom while the other children have their eyes closed (No peeking!). After the item is hidden, the children can open their eyes and begin to wander the room seeking the object. Once a child sees the object, he/she leaves it there and goes back to his/her seat and sits quietly until everyone else has found it and returned to their seats. The first child to see the object cannot help anyone else find it. As soon as everyone has found the object, the child who found it first is designated It and must hide the object again.
  • Statues: One child is designated ‘It’, the rest either sit on a bench or they can stay at their desks. The recitation bench would be a very good seat for this game. ‘It’ begins with the child at the end of the row or in the last desk. It either pulls the child out of his/her seat or describes a position for the child to get into, such as an Angel. The child must then stay in that position until the end of the game. If the child was pulled from his/her seat, he/she must stay in the position he/she landed in. It continues to do this until all of the children are out of their seats. It then picks the child that he/she considers to be in the best, funniest or most awkward position. This child is then designated It for the next game.

Lunch and games should last from 11:30 to 12:15. The teacher will ring a handbell to signify that lunch is over and the children will return to their seats.


When the children come back to their seats, one math problem for each age group will be written on the blackboard for each child to copy on his/her slate board. By 1900, chalk had mostly replaced slate pencils. However, the chemical company Binney & Smith were still producing slate pencils in 1900. They were also manufacturing chalk, and since chalk was easier to write with than slate pencils, chalk became more common.

Each group will be called up to the recitation bench to show the teacher their work. The problems will be made to fit the age and ability of the children and will most likely be a story problem related to the farm. Many textbooks included arithmetic lessons that involved farm problems because the children would most likely come across them at some point in their lives and would need to know how to do them. Also, children understood farm life, so it was easier for them to understand a problem if it applied to farm life. The goal of this exercise is to let children experience using slate boards and chalk. This exercise should last from 12:15 to 12:30.


Every child will be given a list of spelling words taken from the McGuffey Eclectic Speller appropriate for the class rank. The McGuffey Readers, originally written by William H. McGuffey in 1836, and the McGuffey Spellers (with the earliest edition in the Blackwell’s possession being 1846) were very popular until the 1920s. The children will work at memorizing the spelling of these words and then can demonstrate their learning at the end of the day with a spelling bee. To help with memorization, the children can write the words three times each on their slates. This activity should last from 12:30 to 12:45.


Penmanship was emphasized in the one-room schoolhouse. People believed it was very important for children to have good penmanship skills because poor handwriting made a bad impression on those who read what the children had written. Many times, children used pen and ink from an inkwell to learn proper handwriting before moving on to handwriting with a fountain pen (patented in 1884 and available in the 1900s). Pen and ink, however, set the foundation for good penmanship.

If the teacher and parents approve, students will have the opportunity to use pen and ink to practice their penmanship. If the teacher and parents do not approve, students will learn proper penmanship with a fountain pen. If time allows and students have some skill at proper penmanship, they will be allowed to write a short letter to a friend. This exercise helps students understand the importance of penmanship and how difficult it was to learn. This activity should last from 12:45 to 1:15. After this, the children can have a short break until 1:30.

The Spelling Bee

After a short break, the students will come back into the school and have a spelling bee. The students will line up in the front of the room with the teacher near the back. The teacher will then call out the words from the spelling list that the students studied earlier in the day. If a student gets a word wrong, the next student in line must spell it correctly. If the next student gets the word correct, this student “turns down” the previous student who misspelled the word. (“Turn down” was a phrase used during spelling bees in the early 1900s to indicate that a student had spelled a word incorrectly and was out of the bee.) The student who spells the word correctly moves one place closer to the head of the line. The student at the head of the line when the bee is over is the winner and gets “head mark.” This student will start at the end of the line in the next spelling bee. Getting “head mark” in the one-room school was something for a student to be very proud of because that student was the best speller in the school, at least until the next spelling bee.

During this reenactment of a spelling bee, the students move up in line as they “turn down” other students. The bee will be finished when the spelling list that the students studied is completed, or the students can continue the spelling bee with words that the class had been studying during their regular schooling. The students that are left standing can all receive “head mark” since they learned their words so well. This spelling bee is not designed to be hard for the students. It is just an activity they will hopefully enjoy. This activity should last from 1:30 until about 1:55, or later if preferred.

Group Picture

After the spelling bee (in good weather), the children can go outside for a group picture. This picture will be included in the scrapbook that the Blackwell Museum plans to make of all the groups that visit the Milan Schoolhouse. The children can be arranged by age or by height. Once the class picture is taken, the school day is finished and the students can return to school in the present day.

Contact Us

Blackwell History of Education Museum

The Learning Center
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb, IL 60115
Tel: (815) 753-1236
Fax: (815) 753-1258


By appointment

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