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Students Head Back in Time for a Week

Wearing long skirts and straw hats, third graders from Woodstock Elementary School spend a week learning in a one-room schoolhouse the way youngsters did in the mid-1800s. From using quill pens to rolling hoops, it's quite an education. Included: Lessons for teaching about 19th-century life.

Third graders finish a snack before
lessons at the Quasset School.
(All photos by Education World)

Girls wearing bonnets and long skirts and boys in straw hats and neckerchiefs stood on either side of a one-room schoolhouse, fidgeting as they waited for words during a spelling bee.

Later, making the most of a warm spring day, they punched out designs on tin while sitting under a tree, and then the boys played tag while the girls played Red Rover.

Does this sound like a school day in the mid-1800s? It's supposed to. Except it's spring 2006 and the children are suburban third graders.

At a Glance:
Woodstock Elementary School

Grades: pre-K to 4
Average class size: 20
Total enrollment: 526
Ethnic breakdown:
-- African-American: .5 percent
-- Asian-American: 1 percent
-- Hispanic: 4 percent
-- White: 92 percent
Title I school: Yes
Free and reduced lunch: 7 percent
Special education: 11 percent
Limited English Proficiency: 1 percent
(Source: Woodstock Elementary School)

For a week each year, each one of the school's six third-grade classes at Woodstock Elementary School in Woodstock, Connecticut, attends classes at the Quasset School, a one-room schoolhouse dating back to the 1800s, to experience life as students did more than 150 years ago.

The program ties in with the state's third-grade social studies curriculum, which focuses on local history. Students sit in period wooden desks, boys on one side of the room, girls on the other, with a wood burning stove in the center.

"It's really a worthwhile endeavor," principal Viktor Toth told Education World. "It's so unique. Often students go to Plimoth Plantation or Old Sturbridge Village, and they walk through it and experience it for a few hours. This way, they live it for a week. It's just the students, the teacher, and the sunlight coming in through the window."


During their assigned week, classes typically spend the whole day, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., at Quasset, returning to the 21st century for lunch, specials, recess, and the bathroom.

Students wait their turn
during a spelling bee.

"I like it," one girl said of her Quasset experience. "We don't get 2006 stuff, like homework."

Students and teachers role-play as much as possible, although teachers skip the period punishment of lashing students with a switch for the list of infractions posted at the front of the room, including coming to school with dirty face or hands (two lashes), playing with members of the opposite sex (four lashes), or playing at cards at school (ten lashes).

At a Glance:
Woodstock Public Schools

(Data was current in 2004-2005 school year.) Number of schools: 2
-- Elementary schools: 1
-- Middle schools: 1
Number of Title I schools: 1
Total enrollment: 994
Ethnic breakdown:
-- White: 93.6 percent
-- African-American: .3 percent
-- Asian-American: .9
-- Hispanic: 3.7 percent
-- Native American: 1.5 percent
-- White: 93.6 percent
Free and reduced lunch: 8.5 percent
Special education: not available
Limited English Proficiency: 2.5 percent
(Source: Strategic School Profile)

Some of the students initially felt a little self-conscious coming to school dressed for the 19th century, said teacher Christine Hanley, whose students used the school in mid-April. But she stressed to them that they shouldn't worry about looking silly, because the whole class looked silly together. Over the years, parents have donated and purchased clothing for the program so there are outfits for most youngsters.

The school sets aside $100 every year for each third-grade teacher to buy supplies for their Quasset week.

Students also are assigned names for the week typical of the era, such as Hannah, Elias, and Jacob.

For her part, Hanley arrived at the school every morning at 7:30 in her long skirt to start the wood-burning stove. (The stove also dates back to the 1800s, but has undergone some repairs so it meets current safety codes.) Classes sometimes cooked on the stove. One afternoon, a period-dressed parent brought in corn, blueberry muffins, and molasses cookies for the kids. Hanley called the students to attention by ringing a bell on her small wooden desk.

"It's a tiring week, but it's a different tired than when we're in the classroom all week," she told Education World.


Students punch designs
into tin.

Lessons also were typical of the 19th century too. Besides writing on slates, students copied proverbs from Poor Richard's Almanac and wrote down the meaning of the quotes. They also tackled math problems from primers of that era. Hanley assigned students different math work, from copying down numbers to more difficult problems. At the time Quasset was an operating one-room schoolhouse, children ages 4 up to eighth grade would have attended, so they all would have been doing different work at the same time.

Quasset School Pledge:
I promise to be
Brave and Strong,
To be Pure and True,
To God and Our Flag,
To be Forever True.
(Written by Lewis B. Mills, between 1897 and 1900.)

Students also tried their hand at writing with quill pens, "which kids were excited about, but turned out to be more difficult than they thought," Hanley added.

The week also included different craft projects typical of the 1800s, such as weaving and punching patterns into metal. They also learned new "old" games, like rolling a hoop and Duck Duck Goose.

"They loved it," Hanley said of the outdoor games. "They are those simplistic things a lot of kids don't get to do anymore."


Boys play tag in the yard
near the school.

One of the founders of the Quasset program 36 years ago was Irene Wheeler, a former third-grade teacher who now is a reading intervention teacher for grades 3 and 4. "I wanted to spend a week out here," she said. "I taught reading and math, and also an activity to show what people did in those days."

Over the years, Wheeler mapped out a program the teachers continue to follow. She even went to the local cemetery to copy names from headstones from the 19th century to compile an authentic list of names students could use. "I wrote a guide for teachers, that included names to use, suggested activities, how to include parents, and possible snacks," she told Education World. "Teachers use that as a framework, but do their own things as well."

History of
Quasset School

Quasset School was established in 1738, and the building was renovated in 1748. The existing Quasset School building was constructed in 1854. The last regular class at Quasset was held in 1943, making it one of the oldest one-room schoolhouses in continuous use in the U.S.

In 1952, the school, then on private property, was going to be torn down, but several community members wanted to move it and preserve it as a landmark. Schoolchildren collected pennies to pay for the project, and in 1954, the school was disassembled, brick by brick, and moved to its current location on the grounds of Woodstock Elementary School.

One year, for example, a parent who was a Civil War re-enactor came to speak to the class. Another time, a parent who owned sheep volunteered to bring one to the school, and the children learned how to shear the sheep and card wool.

Knowledgeable in local history, Wheeler talked to students about school days and local life in 19th-century Woodstock.

Children had very little time to play in those days, Wheeler told Hanley's class, because they would have chores to do before and after school. Perhaps they would have half an hour to play before finishing their homework and having supper, but not much more.

One youngster told Wheeler that is illegal for children to work, but she pointed out that the students in those days were working on their parents' farms.

Not all was tranquil in those days, though. On one occasion, Wheeler told the children, some of the older boys became very angry with the teacher because he whipped them, so they picked him up and threw him out the school window.


No such rebellions occurred on this pleasant afternoon, however. After the spelling bee, students went outside to punch designs in "tin" (can lids) using nails and large rocks. Wheeler explained to students that years ago, people would have used the tin plates to protect lamp flames from the wind.

Girls play outside
the schoolhouse.

Those students who finished early made a second design, or got involved playing games -- boys in one area, girls in another.

Particularly now in the accountability age, giving children the chance to "live" in a simpler time benefits them educationally and personally, Toth said. "I think it's an experience that stays with them their entire lives," he told Education World. "I have parents come in who attended the school who tell me they remember the week they spent at Quasset.

"With education getting boxed into just math and reading, it's historical things like this that can get lost. That's why this is so valuable."

Could You Pass the
Test to Teach?

This problem was the test a candidate needed to pass in order to teach at the Quasset School in 1898. An applicant was given two hours to solve the problem -- it took him two months, but he still got the job.

Three boys, A, B, and C went to Putnam (a nearby town) to sell eggs.

  • Boy A had 10 eggs.
  • Boy B had 30 eggs.
  • Boy C had 50 eggs.
They each sold their eggs at the same rate and received the same amount of money. How much did they sell their eggs for?

The answer is at the end of the article.


Remember the "Could You Teach at Quasset School?" problem posed in the sidebar above?

  • Boy A had 10 eggs.
  • Boy B had 30 eggs.
  • Boy C had 50 eggs.
To end up with the same amount of money, each boy sold 7 eggs for 5 cents, then sold the remaining individual eggs for 15 cents each -- so each boy earned 50 cents. (Multiple solutions to the problem are likely.)