The above picture shows the inside of the little red schoolhouse in Jaffrey, NH, which Kathleen and I visited during our recent trip to Willa Cather’s grave. Built in 1798 and used as a one-room schoolhouse until 1886, the little red schoolhouse is open during the summer for weekend tours. Since Kathleen and I visited historic Jaffrey on a weekday afternoon, however, we couldn’t go inside the tiny building: instead, our interior peeks were limited to what we could see while standing on some cinderblocks someone had stacked under one of the schoolhouse windows, our photos snapped through the reflective, glare-attracting glass. (In fact, in the lower righthand corner of the above photo, you can see a patch of grass reflected under my outstretched, photo-snapping arm, and in the lower lefthand corner, you can see the reflection of the buttons of the dress I was wearing: an accidental bit of reflective self-portraiture.)
Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, where I was bussed and bustled to a series of overcrowded, understaffed public schools, I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be a student, much less a teacher, in a one-room schoolhouse. Although every educator knows that small classes allow for better, more individualized interaction between teacher and student, the thought of teaching mixed age groups and grade levels in a single room is daunting. Considering our modern epidemic of Attention Deficit Disorder, how did students in tiny schoolhouses find the quiet they needed to concentrate? Surely a one-room schoolhouse often looked (and sounded) like a three-ring circus with some students reading while others copied exercises and others recited lessons learned by rote. Did older students help younger ones with their lessons? Did smart schoolmarms enlist the help of goody-two-shoes to watch over (and rat upon) the trouble-makers, or did old-fashioned teachers really have eyes in the back of their heads?
Teaching a classroom of college freshmen is daunting enough: depending on where my students went to high school, they may or may not be properly prepared for college-level work. And when I teach intermediate writing and literature classes, the range of preparation varies just as widely: there might be a green second-semester freshman sitting next to a seasoned final-semester senior. Knowing what each student needs is challenging; being able to deliver it is even more difficult.
In the fall, I’ll be teaching for the first time in a “wired” classroom: students in my Expository Writing class at Keene State College will meet in a new, high-tech classroom where everyone will have a network-connected workstation for in-class writing, online research, and various collaborative computer-based activities. After teaching face-to-face classes for over a decade and online classes for two or three years, now I’m facing a new challenge: how best to incorporate technology in the classroom so it’s actually helpful rather than merely distractive. Comparing my mind’s eye image of a wired classroom with these images of an unplugged one evokes interesting comparisons: how will I manage to teach at least two of the 3 r’s (reading and ‘riting) while juggling the distractions of a thoroughly modern, technological three-ring cyber-circus? In retrospect and with a touch of nostalgia, I wonder if the good old days had a focus and a groundedness that these new-fangled times lack. If nothing else, a good ol’ hickory stick sometimes comes in handy, no matter what century schoolmarm you are.