Jim O'Leary

Waverly Star

By Jim O'Leary

An e-mail newsletter for and about Waverly people, used with permission in the HLW Herald and on this web site.

  April 12, 2004

The pulsating feel of a learning environment sets the tone

This is an excerpt from an unfinished memoir by Burt Kreitlow, it's called "75 years as a teacher." District 58 was the district north of Montrose. The "was" is on purpose. It is now a home, and I stopped in several years ago. Burt Kreitlow

It felt good to skip the morning milking, and leave early in my Model A Ford. I wanted to get to school before any of the kids.

Once there, I looked over the notes I made two weeks earlier and spotted a message in caps: BE FLEXIBLE.

When the first children's voices were heard from down the road, I went outside the schoolhouse to welcome them. I rang the bell at nine o'clock and plunged into my first year as a classroom teacher.

I had forgotten to develop a seating arrangement. This was a wise oversight. Finding seats that fit helped break the social ice.

I found first graders Marie and Marvin, and asked them to point out their brothers, and continued this pattern with others until all 18 were seated in seats that fit.

I had estimated that this would take 10 minutes, but when I was ready to go on to the distribution of books, a full hour had passed.

Handing out books added to my knowledge of names and faces. There were reading books for all grades. The eighth graders had a full load of books, including large geography books. By this time, we were comfortable with each other, so Vivian commented, "We used that book last year."

I realize by hindsight that this is the type of opening to which I respond easily, so I said at once, "Then I'll give you a test on it and if you pass, we will find one that is more advanced." No further comment.

My first day went in a hurry. Later in the year, I met some of my normal training classmates, who told me they thought their first day would never end.

My comfort zone as a teacher came fast. By the end of the first week, I knew the kids' names, and I was almost sure which of those in different grades could work together.

In a one-room school, there is a constant learning potential from the activities overheard among grades. The kids in the upper grades helping those in the lower grades enhance learning efficiency.

In the more sophisticated, modern schools of today, they are called mentors. In one-room schools, students have experience teaching others before they enter high school.

I already knew that Shirley Walker could help first graders Marie and Marvin in reading, and Art Hayes could help his older brother, Gerald, in arithmetic. I knew that my eighth graders would have trouble with exams. I knew that there wasn't a mean kid in the school, that no one would chase me down the road, and that we all were going to have fun learning.

From the end of that first week in September 1935 until today, when my memoir-writing group meets, I look forward to those magic hours when teacher and learners focus on the same overall objective, yet have personal objectives, in addition.

It is here that each, in his own way, files new learning into a personal memory book to be called upon when needed. I've experienced this same magic in seminars, lecture halls, on farm visits, in community meetings, and in distance education classes by telephone or television.

In September 1935, I moved easily into a teaching groove that made life fulfilling for this farm kid not yet mature. That first week was the pad from which my career in classroom teaching was launched.

As I review my two years in District 58, it is clear that I loved teaching from the very beginning. I loved to open doors to learning and feel the kids rush through. Teaching was easy, it was thrilling. All that was needed was to open doors. Those in District 58 would fail to learn only if doors remained closed.

Thinking back to my own learning, it was always the open door that made the difference. If doors were slammed in my face, I was secure enough, independent enough, and stubborn enough to work on getting them opened. For some, it must be made easy.

The miracle of my first week of classroom teaching was imprinted on everything I have done since that time. There was no challenge in my two years in District 58, or thereafter, that I backed away from.

The classroom was the culture medium for growth of teacher and learners. Both could observe this from the inside. Throughout my years of research I have observed many classroom settings where the pulsating feel of a learning environment set the tone for the school.

Everyday learning opportunities bubbled to the surface in my one-room school. Kids helping kids was a daily occurrence. There are some basics that need to be memorized, but I soon learned that for the teacher to teach only for memory was a waste of time, because this could be done by the students.

Fifth graders loved to be picked to use phonics flash cards with first and second graders. Seventh graders with cards on addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division did some fine teaching for those in lower grades.

Beyond this, several in the upper grades asked if they could help correct papers. They did. At the end of the day and without being asked, one group helped the little ones put on their boots, heavy jackets and mittens.

Using natural talents and interests was encouraged. In much the same way, the outdoor playground was the learning environment for those developing physical talents. I can still picture Durand Lavine monopolizing one of the basketball hoops so he could teach younger brother Jack to make baskets.

Destructuring the picture some folks have of a one-room school with eight grades, (I had but six) and every grade having classes in reading, math, history, English, writing, and more, required great flexibility. I knew the kids would go along if I made changes, but there was no master plan that I knew of to guide me. I just barged ahead, happy that no one was looking over my shoulder.

Soon, there were natural social and academic groupings at work. The assigned grade level was dragged along for record keeping. The learning groups were made up with as many as four of the assigned grade levels. It was within these groups that the best learning occurred.

I saw the slower learner from grade eight move with ease through math concepts he had never understood. He was getting help from fifth graders, who spoke from his math level and moved him along beyond what I had expected.

In a time assigned to music, one of my inadequacies, I was unable to find the correct note on a pitch pipe. It was then that Shirley raised her hand and said, "I'll do it for you," and she did. Later, after one of our music periods ended, she came to me and offered to sing the songs through once before the others began to sing. Within several weeks the music period was a joy for all.

When time came for planning the Christmas program, it was unanimous: Shirley and her older sister, Vivian, would plan for and direct the music. It may have been obvious to anyone who knew, I sat back and let the kids teach.

And so the learning program flourished. Kids asked if they could help others, and it was my eager approval of the notion that kept the intellectual and social wheels turning in District 58.

Class time and play time merged. There were few rules other than no one leaving the classroom for 20 minutes during the lunch period. During that 20 minutes for lunch, the kids formed their own social groups anywhere in the room they chose, and discussed everything from their pets to class work.

In the coldest weather, this became a single group gathered around the stove. When the lunching was over, there was a scramble out to the playground, with boys concentrating on basketball, even when the court was snow-covered.

The girls activities were varied, and occasionally, they interested the boys in coed games, including pump-pump-pullaway, anti-over, hide-and-seek, and run-sheep-run. When I rang the bell, they all came in at once and settled into their tasks as if there had been no time out for lunch.

When I compared what went on in District 58 to the grade school I had attended, I, more than ever, believed in myself as a teacher.

Added to the positive learning atmosphere of the classroom were all the other "goodies" of a close-knit rural neighborhood. My informal contacts with parents would often begin with the question, "How is my boy doing?" or a statement like, "My kids want to be teachers when they grow up."

There were parties in the homes to which I was invited. The kids wanted a hayride, so one was arranged to which students invited their older siblings. I concluded that the older sisters came to check out the new teacher.

The kids were seldom absent from school, coming even in the worst weather. I was well aware of this as early as January 1936 when I had arranged for school to be closed on a Monday in order to attend an uncle's funeral.

I never got to the funeral because of a blizzard that began Sunday morning, and closed all the roads and totally disrupted the county's telephone system. I could not phone anyone in District 58 to cancel school on Tuesday.

I knew that the school would be an icebox and some of the kids would get there in spite of weather. The only way to guard against a catastrophe was to get to the school myself and warm it up.

On Monday, the day of the funeral, it was 36 degrees below zero, and all roads were still closed. With the sun now shining and the northwest wind on my back, I donned my skis and made the 10-mile trip.

On that Monday evening, I started the school furnace, spent the night in a nearby home, and got to school early Tuesday morning. Only six students showed up for school. Among them was first grader Marie. She and her two brothers had never missed a day of school, and as her parents later confided, "snow and cold is no excuse for missing a day of school."

Marie had been bundled in a sled pulled by Floyd and Jay. Other than Jay's nose having a small frostbite, they were ready for class. I was grateful that the schoolhouse was warm when they arrived and that I had skied there the day before.

Those two years in District 58 so enriched my knowledge of teaching and my own personal growth that I am stunned. I became a teacher in the most positive sense of the word.

The setting in which I found myself provided a solid understanding of the uniqueness of every human being and a concern for skills and knowledge that must be personally integrated through the medium of education.

The real value of education lies in the movement from basics to personal growth. This growth does not only begin in the classroom, for some, there already are self-chosen objectives and some self-teaching skills. The understanding that home, school and community have a mutual role in building the base for continued learning throughout life came to me and has never left.

I discovered that if my teaching were highly structured, students would learn only what I knew or what was written in the books. I saw danger in closing doors, rather than opening them. In addition, the more structured I became as a teacher, the more boring it would be for the learners. I chose enlightenment and growth, rather than memory and boredom.

As my teaching developed, I began to realize how much I was learning, not just about teaching, but how much "catching up" I was doing of all I had missed during my years in grade and high school. Now I was really learning!

I also was awakened to the fact that those from the upper grades chosen to help the younger ones were themselves making giant strides in their own learning.

The opportunity that I had to learn from other teachers and supervisors in that one-room school was almost zero. I had one supervising visit and two one-day teacher's meetings in my two years in District 58.

I wonder if I would have learned more about teaching had I been in another setting. I think not, and conclude from my experience that "total immersion" is the way to go. It is here that teaching, creativity, and independent learning flourish.

Burt Kreitlow

I want to thank Burt Kreitlow very much for this. I can't wait for his book.

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