Students' attendance was carefully recorded daily in a book called the register. The register was shown to the inspector when he visited the school. A school could be judged by its attendance, and parents were able to see whether their children were attending school.
Girls sat on one side of the room, boys on the other. In 1897, the Deputy Minister of Education in Ontario required furniture for students to be comfortable, with seats that were neither too high nor too low. Previously, the dangling feet or cramped limbs of students resulted in restlessness and disturbance. With children of so many ages and sizes, it was not always possible to have desks that fit each student.
Many schools had double desks and often older students sat next to smaller children to help them with their lessons and keep them quiet. Desks at this time were sometimes ordered from a supplier, but otherwise had been made by someone in the community. There was often a groove at the top of the desk to lay pens and a place for a bottle of ink at the top right-hand corner.
Students were required to stand up every time they were called on to recite a long poem or story or read from their reader.
Some blackboards were just wooden surfaces painted black. Other blackboards were made of smooth slate. Over time, the boards would get worn out and it would be harder and harder to read what was written on the board.
A directive issued in 1906 by the Alberta Department of Education states:
Note: Hyloplate was a sheet of slate affixed to a blackboard's surface using heat. It provided a good writing surface.
John C. Charyk, The Little White Schoolhouse (Saskatoon: Prairie Books, 1968), p. 126.
By 1900, harsh punishments were less common as they had been earlier, though discipline was still very strict compared to today. The strap, a strip of leather about 38 centimetres long and 5 centimetres wide, was still used when necessary. A yardstick or pointer also delivered blows for various offences. Other punishments might be writing lines, standing in the corner, having your ears or hair pulled, being slapped, being called names or being belittled in front of classmates.
"Formerly it was no uncommon thing for children to be whipped for whispering, making a mistake in a recitation, coming late to school, neglecting to write a composition, or breaking by accident a pane of glass. Threats, scoldings, blows, personal indignities, and bodily tortures of various kinds, were used as punishments without discrimination and without any regard to the principle involved. One pupil does not know his lesson, and his ears are boxed; another tears his book, and his hands are strapped; another talks too loudly, and he is required to put on the dunce's cap; still another is impertinent, and he is compelled to write out several pages from a book!"
John Millar, School Management and the Principles and Practice of Teaching (Toronto: William Briggs, 1897), p. 133.
A teacher, 18 years old at the time, remembers:
Barry Broadfoot, The Pioneer Years, 1895-1914: Memories of Settlers Who Opened the West (Don Mills, Ont.: PaperJacks, 1978), p. 289-290.
Students were expected to memorize and recite long poems and stories. They also studied grammar, arithmetic, spelling, history, and geography. More textbooks were becoming available, but most schools had few books. Sometimes the school could only offer the students readers, some classics and a few contemporary stories. These books could be borrowed to take home, were read over and over, and were very well looked after. Books were given as prizes or Christmas gifts and they were treasured.
Hop over to What Were the Schoolbooks Like? to have a look at early schoolbooks.
The ringing of the school bell was a regular part of every student's day, whether the bell was mounted at the entrance to the schoolhouse or more often, one with a handle for the teacher to hold. After the bell rang and the children filed in, the day began with the recitation of the "Lord's Prayer," singing the anthem, Bible readings and taking attendance.
Alvena Hallett became a teacher in 1916 at the age of 16; here she remembers the school bell:
Alvena Silver Hallett with Michael MacKenzie, Little Red School Memories (Sydney, N.S.: City Printers, 1985), p. 10.
Obtaining clean water for the schoolhouse remained a problem. Though some schools had a well, usable water was not guaranteed. Well water could have a strange taste, smell or colour. It might even be contaminated. Some school districts arranged for water to be delivered to the school. Sometimes students had to bring their own water from home or fetch it from a nearby creek, stream, river or other source.
Buckets of water were heavy and awkward to carry, and sometimes it was a long trip. In the winter, it was at times so cold in the schoolhouse that a layer of ice formed on the top of the water that had been brought in.
In the 1930s, a drought brought huge numbers of grasshoppers to the Prairies. The grasshoppers found their way into schoolhouse wells, and therefore into the students' drinking water. The solution was to fit a cotton bag over the water pump's spout. The water that poured out was clean, but inside the bag was a soggy mess of drowned grasshoppers and other insects. It is reported that this did not bother the students at all!
John C. Charyk, The Little White Schoolhouse (Saskatoon: Prairie Books, 1968), p. 136.
Slates were still being used, but now if families could afford them, students also wrote in copybooks. Unlike today's exercise books, these had no lines, just blank pages. The students had to draw their own lines on each page with a ruler. Many schools, however, still used slates and the sound of slate pencils scratching slates could be very noisy!
One student remembers:
Myrtle Fair, I Remember the One-Room School (Cheltenham, Ont.: The Boston Mills Press, 1979), p. 25.
Globes in the one-room schoolhouse would often be nibbled by mice that enjoyed the glue that was used to make them. Occasionally, students used globes as a ball. When this happened, the globes were soon ruined and often there were no funds for a replacement. Later on, globes were sometimes kept near the ceiling on a system of ropes and pulleys.