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On the Little Journey, both Avery and Janet had a special interest in schools where Laura studied or taught since Avery has always loved to play school and Janet has taught students at all levels — from early elementary to graduate school. Janet writes below about the striking differences and not so surprising similarities we found between the schoolhouses in De Smet and those of today.

When we entered the schoolrooms, the differences in the furniture and the clothes the students would wear were immediately evident. We learned that girls wore bonnets not only to protect their fair skin from the browning rays of the sun, but also to keep their hair tucked in and clean since washing and drying hair was not an easy task, particularly in the cold months.

The Bell Ringer

The desk part of the students’ seats included a slot for books and a hole about an inch and a half wide for a bottle of ink. The desk part was attached to the chair part, and the entire desk was fastened to the floor, but not always securely. This situation led to the dramatic scene in Little Town on the Prairie when Laura takes over thumping and rocking the loose desk for spindly Carrie until they both were sent home.

School Desk

Avery noted tank tops and pants would today replace the bonnets and aprons the girls wore. The desks would now be tables and chairs, easy to form into a variety of configurations instead of always being lined up in a row. The slates and chalkboards are now laptops and SMART boards. Breece pointed out that a slate tablet and a tablet computer have at least one thing in common — you can write on both.

Teacher and Pupils

Other differences are a result of mechanization:

  • Water fountains throughout the school take the place of the bucket and dipper that students were required to fill from a well
  • Wood or coal carried in by male students for heating the classroom is supplanted by central heating (and cooling!)
  • Automatic bell systems divide the time during the school day, instead of the teacher or a trusted student ringing a hand-held bell or pulling a rope

Water and Fuel

Books were vital to Laura’s schooling and while scarce in classrooms, played the same important role they play today. Though we’re very glad the information delivery system has changed radically from the single McGuffey Reader (opens in a new window) text for each grade level to the wonders of diverse books, access to online content, and AV materials of all kinds that we find in today’s classrooms and school libraries.

McGuffey Reader

Laura’s first teaching experience at Brewster School as told in These Happy Golden Years was far from typical for today’s teachers. Today, teachers do not live with the families of their students, they are not expected to open, close, and clean the school, and they have a full school year to help students meet prescribed learning objectives. The certification of teachers is vastly different — no degree required, no student teaching — just pass a test and jump into the classroom.


For Laura, it was a daunting experience at first, but she quickly learned to assess her students and find ways to enlist their cooperation. Still, some of the same issues that faced Laura are common today because teachers:

  • face classrooms with students whose abilities and interests vary greatly
  • must spend part of their time focusing on behavior and order in the classroom
  • have to find ways to motivate the most reluctant students in the class

School Master

The similarities in these schools and those of today help young people empathize with Laura’s tales. Schools still have bullies and teachers’ pets, like Nellie Oleson, schools still have a few ineffective teachers, like Miss Wilder, and schools always need more money for maintaining buildings and instructional materials. Nonetheless, schools have been and continue to be the center of learning and, in many cases, the center of the community. Ma’s desire for her daughters to have a good education is still very much alive among parents today.

Our Prairie Travelers

About the Author

Join children’s literacy consultant Rachael Walker and many of the authors, parents, and educators she’s met and worked with to talk about how books have changed their lives, how to bring books to life for young readers, and how to enrich kids’ lives with good books. 

Publication Date
March 2, 2015