Third Grade at Simmons Elementary School, ca. 1900

Ronald V. Morris

The third grade students at Hope Elementary School in Hope, Indiana, step out of their modern school building and walk down a path to Simmons Elementary School, a brick, one-room schoolhouse where they experience a day of school as it might have been lived a century ago.1 By studying life at the turn of the twentieth century, students learn a little about what life was like when their great grandparents (or earlier residents of the community) went to school. For this special day, teachers are prepared to act as third grade grammar school instructors from a century ago, with appropriate lessons and materials.2 They also talk about the social history of a century ago, relating anecdotes from that era, engaging their students with interesting social studies content throughout the day.3 Students also choose a role (such as the “mischievous child with a sprained ankle”) and interpret the part throughout the events of the day, which is always one to be remembered.

Engaging in the Drama of History

Young students learn about history by experiencing a small segment of time in great detail. Students can learn content and skills by taking on roles, interpreting characters, making decisions in a simulated environment, and then evaluating the effect of their actions.4 Through the process of dramatizing everyday experiences and notable events from their communityís past, students learn how history confronts each generation with interesting experiences and challenges. Students then begin to see how history applies to their lives. ěRole playing is an important part of games and simulations.... The purpose ... is to bring out the dramatic quality of a situation, as in the re-creation of a historical setting such as a mock trial or a constitutional convention.î5 With the use of some creative props and some drama, history can come alive for third graders.



Barb Johnson, a third grade teacher, writes a letter to parents about the day the class will spend in a one-room schoolhouse. She states the purpose of the event: ěStudents act as though they are students living one hundred years ago. We will pretend to go back in time and will attempt to live life as people did then.î Before beginning the role play, the students spend a week examining how their community has changed and grown over the last 100 years, as well as briefly look at how American public education has changed. They learn that the Simmons Elementary School building was once used in the Bartholomew County school district, but four miles away.

On a time line, students place images of inventions from the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Mrs. Johnson helps the students imagine what technology would have been available to people in 1900. For example, Mrs. Johnson has the students compare dates and asks if they would have had phonographs in 1900, the time of the schoolhouse simulation. She also asks what the sources of light and heat were in the old school (Answer: oil lamps and a wood- or coal-burning stove). She asks questions like, ěWhich do you think would be easier to use: coal or wood?î Students respond with their own questions, like, ěDo we have to carry wood when we visit the old school?î (The answer is ěNo, the coal is delivered by a truck, but you must take turns filling the coal shuttle and stoking the stove.î) Mrs. Johnson asks students to note how many years ago their town got electricity and to evaluate how that technology changed their town.


Background Readings

Literature and primary historical sources are important resources in this third grade class. Mrs. Johnson reads aloud from The World of the Little House.6 The author, Laura Wilder, and her husband both attended a one-room school; later Wilder served as a teacher in a one-room school. Mrs. Johnson reads a bit from the book then relates it to the Simmons Elementary School. She talks about teachers earning twelve dollars per month, then asks, ěWhy was that small salary acceptable in that time?î Ashley responds, ěMoney was worth a lot then.î Mrs. Johnson adds, ěAnd many things did not cost as much then.î After making this economic comparison, Mrs. Johnson has the students examine the moral aspects of education a century ago. For example, the New England Primer,7 from which many students learned the alphabet, had entries with moral lessons (For the Letter F: ěThe idle Fool is whipped at schoolî) and references to Bible verses (For the letter A: ěIn Adamís fall, we sinned allî).


Monday Morning in 1900

On the day of the simulation, Mrs. Johnson opens the old school before the students arrive. She checks that there are slates and slate pencils at each desk. She brings water and ice from the modern school. She checks the cabinets for recess games, pulls out the tin drinking cups, and locates the McGuffyís Readers for the third grade.8 There is a quotation from the Bible (Proverbs) on the chalkboard. She is ready for the day.

Students come dressed in costumes appropriate for school children at the turn of the century. Girls wear long skirts or dresses; some have bonnets on their heads. Boys wear knickers (or sweatpants rolled up to below the knee); long white or dark socks; and maybe suspenders. When the school bell rings, the students enter from out of the spring drizzle. They place their lunches and hats in the small cloak room.

Mrs. Johnson splits the class into three groups: students pretend to be younger (and sit in the front of the classroom), middle level (and sit in the middle) or older (and sit in the back). Once they take their seats, Mrs. Johnson gives a brief overview of the day; then asks the students to shut their eyes as she counts backward from three to zero. When they open their eyes, the students have been transported back in time one hundred years!

ěGood morning, boys and girls,î says Mrs. Johnson. The students respond, ěGood morning, Mrs. Johnson.î She asks the children to stand and teaches the good morning song, in which they sing, ěGood morning to you; Good morning to you,î before they bow or curtsy. Before calling the roll, Mrs. Johnson delivers a brief monologue about discipline, her expectations, and the behavior that their fathers demand of them.

Mrs. Johnson calls each child by name and has comments to make to each student as he or she stands at attention. She helps them get into their roles by ěadmonishingî certain individuals for (fictitious) ěshortcomings in their conductî that had ěoccurred the previous day.î One mischief maker is still limping from trying to ěfly off the barn roof,î one ěplayed in the creek on the way to school,î another had ěstayed home to plow.î Even yesterdayís assistant is admonished for ěpoor cleaning of the classroom.î Mrs. Johnson asks for a new assistant, and all the students raise their hands. She asks that students who ride horses to school to ětie them up so they will not get away. Also, do not throw rocks at the neighborsí cows.î Of course, when one student comes in late, the teacher ěchastises him for being tardy.î


Rabbit Stew

Mrs. Johnson is not all severity and discipline. She passes out compliments liberally; for example, she mentions the dress one girlís Ma recently made for her. She thanks various students for ěbringing a rabbit for my stew,î ěfixing a spoke on my wagon so that I could go to the Teachersí Institute,î ěgiving me some homemade jam and butter,î and for ěoffering an invitation for Sunday dinner.î

Mrs. Johnson also provides news about socials such as the upcoming quilting bee. The ěbox socialî causes quite a stir: the girls present box lunches, and the boys save their pennies to bid on the boxes. The story is told that last year a student bid on the wrong lunch. The teacher asks some students to stay after school to clean the chimneys and others to sweep the floor and wash the chalkboards before the box social. Mrs. Johnson makes a great deal of mentioning the work done in the community, and one student offers to provide the paint and to paint the schoolhouse trim. She offers money to any student who offers to plow the teacherís garden and set in the tomato plants, while noting that some children ought to stay home and chop up tree limbs that fell in the recent storm. She is skeptical about setting up an old bushel basket on the back of the school so that students can throw a ball through it, but she finally grants permission for students to try out this ěnew gameîó basketball. She also advises a folk remedy to a studentís brother who ělet the ax slip and cut his leg.î

Students raise their hands to speak. One student tells about a trip to Columbus, Indiana, to see a show in a theater. That community had electric streetlights! Another asks if she can lead the pledge to the flag, and students then recite an early version lacking the phrase ěÖunder God.î Finally, the teacher reminds the students of the posture they should exhibit in their seats during the dayís lessons.


Lessons: Back to Basics

The lessons involve three groups of scholars. The ěyoungerî students rise and read their lessons from McGuffyís Reader at the recitation benches. Reading groups stand to sing the vowel letters and sounds. The ěmiddleî students work on arithmetic at the front board and at their desk on slates. The ěupperî level students write their names with pen and ink on tablets. Mrs. Johnson teaches all of them how to use ink pens and ink wells. Then students rotate groups (they get to belong to each of the three groups).

The students come together as a whole class for the next lessons. First the students have a ěspell down,î then they learn directions and geography by facing in the appropriate direction and chanting a verse:

East is Ohioís fertile land

North to the tract called Michigan

West Illinois and South the stream

Of the Ohio may be seen

Students also chant their multiplication tables (today they work on multiples of 5). Next, Mrs. Johnson gives the students word problems, to which they must tell the answers in a sentence. The students also perform ěboard racesî: Students work at their seat on a problem (there is a squeak and clack of slate pencils), then hold slates up as soon as they finish. Then Mrs. Johnson poses some riddles, and students remember to stand when they address their teacher and guess the answer. Mrs. Johnson mentions the ěelocution, speeches, and poems contestî to be held at the box social. Finally, Mrs. Johnson has students say a few ětongue twisters.î


Recreation and Lunch

Students try an indoors game that includes the jingle:

Tapping on the ice box

Tapping on the spot

I’ll draw the circle

And I’ll punch the dot

The students must first establish what an ice box is and how it works, then determine what the jingle is telling them to do. (The game is similar to Duck, Duck, Goose.)

Students learn how to fold paper to form paper cups so they can get drinks of water from the water bucket. They learn about the outhouse (although the modern school lavatories are available). Mrs. Johnson moves a bench outside so the students can wash their hands with lye soap before lunch; she tells them how to make lye soap as they wash with it. Students eat lunches they brought from home, which in 1900 were packed in baskets, tin pails, or simply wrapped in newspaper or wax paper. Students placed some items in small glass jars. Students brought food such as meat, cheese, or peanut butter sandwiches on homemade bread, cookies, pie, cake, fruit, carrots, fried chicken, biscuits, meat, cornbread, or other homemade items. The drink for the day is water pumped from the well, dipped from the drinking bucket, and served in tin cups from the schoolhouse.

After lunch, it is time for games of marbles, tug of war, jacks, and stick ball. Other individual games include hoops, cup and ball, and whimediddle.9 Mrs. Johnson rings the bell, signaling that students should pick up their belongings and clean out their desks. She asks the students to fold their hands and close their eyes as she counts backward from three to zero. In the stillness there is only the ticking of a mechanical clock, and then they are back in modern timesóa group of third grade students ready to go home after a very special day of school.



When the students return to their modern classroom, they start a two-day writing assignment about what they learned during their time travel. They compare their life at Hope School with their day at Simmons School, pointing out similarities and differences.

ěI learned that there were double desks there! I also learned they ate lunches that they had to bring from home. I also learned that at that time the president was President McKinley. I learned about the old days.î

Often, students appear to have strengthened their sense of community by engaging in this simulation. They have been given opportunity to use drama, games, and old-fashioned slate work to experiences events from their community’s past. These students have learned about history by living it. Together, with classmates and their teacher, they have traveled back in time.



1. The One Room School House Committee, composed of members of the community, raised $40,000 to refurbish the building and move it onto school grounds in 1989. Class rentals began in 1992. The building is self sustaining, based on a fee of $25 per visit charged to teachers from outside Hope school who use it. It is free to the local classes. The committee also collected donations, hosted a bake sale, sold inscribed bricks, and received a small grant (under $5000) from charitable groups, including the Indiana Historic Landmarks Foundation and the Bartholomew County Heritage Fund. The Indiana Gas Company provided heating and air conditioning systems. Many people also provided in-kind labor contributions, bringing the total cost of the project to about $120,000.

2. A teacher can portray the ěschool marmî herself using resource materials and training provided by the One Room School House Committee, or she may hire a school marm for the day. Teacher resources include: Harrod Mildred Dixon, Hope & Hawcreek Township: Its History and People (Bartholomew County: IN, 1987); Candace Taff Carr, Barbara Johnson, Beth Newman, Laura Voorhies, and Lisa Webster, Simmons School Teacher’s Manual and Resource Guide (Hope, IN: Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corporation, 1999).

3. Carol L. Hahn, Becoming Political: Comparative Perspectives on Citizenship Education (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1998).

4. John Fines and Raymond Verrier, The Drama of History: An Experiment in Cooperative Teaching (London: New University Education, 1974); Paul Goalen and Lesley Hendy, ěëItsí Not Just Fun, It Works!í Developing Childrenís Historical Thinking through Drama,î The Curriculum Journal 4, no. 3 (1993): 363-384; Matthew T. Downey and Linda S. Levstik, ěTeaching and Learning History,î in Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning, James P. Shaver, ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1991): 400-410; Ronald V. Morris and Michael Welch, How to Perform Acting Out History in the Classroom (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 2000).

5. Ambrose A. Clegg, Jr., ěGames and Simulations in Social Studies Education,î in Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning, James P. Shaver, ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1991), 523-529.

6. Carolyn Strom Collins and Christina Wyss Eriksson, The World of the Little House (New York: Scholastic, 1996).

7. The New England Primer (Albany, NY: Whiting, Backus, & Whiting, 1805) (

8. McGuffey’s Eclectic Spelling Book (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold,1879).

9. Bobbie Kalman, Early Schools (New York: Crabtree, 1982).

Ronald V. Morris is an assistant professor of social studies education at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.