(The following is a collaborative article written by the senior English class of NTCHS. Students worked together to research, write, revise, and edit the article as part of a unit based on Montana author Ivan Doig’s novel, The Whistling Season.)
The Spirit of
As the sun rises over the Galata schoolhouse, six students eagerly await the start of a new day. Driving east on Highway 2, our red school van carries the five seniors from NTCHS and our English teacher, Mrs. Chelsea Taylor, to the Galata schoolhouse. We’re currently studying “The Whistling Season” by Montana author Ivan Doig. The book is a fictional account of a one-room schoolhouse set in Marias Coulee and our class is excited to visit Galata as investigators to enhance our knowledge of one-room schoolhouses in Montana.
Turning left from Highway 2, we stare straight ahead at an asphalt road that gradually leads us to the top of the hill where the community hall and schoolhouse sit about another block away. We all gaze out the windows at the historic remnants of Galata, taking in the old, tattered buildings, which line the opposite side of the road surrounded by trees and Caragana bushes dancing in the perennial wind. Mrs. Taylor steers the van down the gravel driveway and parks next to the flagpole encompassed by a ring of metal rails. Off at the far corner is a playground where six students avidly play their schoolyard games. These six students aren’t just one class though; they’re the whole school!
The Galata School is categorized as a one-room schoolhouse, despite the fact that it consists of more than one room. According to “Chasing Time,” by Keith Graham, a one-room school is defined as a school where one teacher instructs multiple grades from kindergarten to eighth. One-room schoolhouses dot the Montana landscape. In fact, of the 200 currently operational one-room schoolhouses in the United States, Montana has the most, counting 62, even though 20 one-room schools have closed statewide over the last 10 years. As we learned from our research, before World War I, half of American children were enrolled in 200,000, one-room schools in the United States.
While the Galata School currently boasts a student populace of six, the school wasn’t always this small. As we learned from Mrs. Deb Steinbacher, a Galata elementary alum and current school clerk, there were at one time 42 students in grades one through 12.
When the school first opened in 1910 there was a two-story building that taught first through 12th grade. Since 1952, classes have been conducted in a single story building that hosts grades kindergarten through eighth, Monday through Friday. The current building has two classrooms, a small library, and a clerk’s office. Across the parking lot is the community hall, more commonly known as The Hall. The Hall was moved in from Telestad in 1959, using a team of 32 horses.
In learning the history of the school buildings and site, we were cognizant of the fact that amidst these antiquated surroundings, modern education is thriving. When students move on from Galata to one of the larger high schools in the area, they frequently find themselves graduating in the top 10 students in their class.
Our trip to Galata’s one-room schoolhouse gave us insight into the lives of the current students. According to Ivan Doig, “...childhood is the one story that stands by itself in every soul.” During our interview with the students, we learned several interesting details about their lives: Charles has a fondness for snakes, twins, Erik and Isaac, love lasagna, and kindergartner, Billy, has a penchant for tuna fish sandwiches.
Walking into the classroom we knew how lucky these students were to go to school in such a bright and fun place. With large windows letting in the light, the classroom has that homey, fun feeling. In the corner sits a couch that forms the reading area, with bookshelves all around. Splashes of children’s art blanket the walls. We were greeted by Mrs. Melody Taylor, who happens to be the sister-in-law of our English teacher, whose warm and welcoming smile helped us feel right at home.
With only six students in grades kindergarten, first, second, third and fifth, each class has their own table. These are not the traditional school desks that may come to mind, they are little round tables, accompanied by comfortable chairs. The two fifth graders took great pleasure in telling us that they get to sit on stools at a heightened table against the wall.
The lunchroom is the second room in the school. It contains a little kitchenette, a place where the children may heat or store their lunches and a long table, where the students sit together to enjoy their meals. In one corner of the room there is a small area where the preschool class, consisting of one student this year, meets on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Towards the end of our visit, we raced with the students across the parking lot to The Hall. After losing the race to our younger and more energetic tour guides, we entered the more than 100-year-old building where the students have their P.E. classes and host their annual Christmas and spring plays. We had the great honor of listening to one of the students, Zoey, play a song on the piano. Her young friends listened intently, proving how respectful and knowledgeable they are. Following our visit, we would all comment on how impressed we were by the remarkable maturity and conversational acumen of these young scholars.
In a one-room schoolhouse, life is a bit different than in a larger school. The kids raise the flag every day before school, then lower and fold it at the end of every day, an action that is depicted within “The Whistling Season.”
While Galata School is as technologically up-to-date as any modern public school, it still retains many of the values and rituals of the past. Just as they would have done 100 years ago, students of all ages share the classroom and the teacher’s attention. When the teacher’s attention is directed at a different grade level, the students find a unique opportunity: they can learn by eavesdropping on a lesson a few years ahead of their own.
The lessons are unique in their own way as well. With fewer students, the students are able to do more projects, which incorporate both useful skills and sometimes the festivities of the holidays. We were shown little wool pumpkins that were made by the students, who were able to make their own dyes and dye the wool just in time for the Halloween fun. A project from previous years that Joe, a fifth grader, expounded on was the building and designing of catapults, an impressive feat, which once again brings attention to the fact that, in a one room schoolhouse, the teacher and students can focus more time on great projects.
The small student populace allows for not only better projects, but better fieldtrips as well. The students get to enjoy a variety of fun events such as skiing, going to museums and attending orchestras.
Skiing, however, is unanimously the favorite activity. With great enthusiasm, the students began telling their many adventures that have taken place within the last few years, one of which caught everyone’s attention. Joe began regaling us with a tale of his younger years, in which his skiing experience was cut short due to a broken leg, requiring several bolts and thirty-one staples. Thankfully, his parents were on the trip as chaperones, so Joe was taken care of extremely well on the ride to the hospital.
As we conversed with the students, we got to have a glimpse into the daily schedule of a school with just six students. Our experience at the Galata schoolhouse shows that, although the number of single-teacher schoolhouses across the United States is dwindling, the one-room schoolhouse spirit lives on in its students, and is thriving here in our home state.