Virtual schooling now and decades ago

John Oncken
A room full of students at a rural school near Waupun.

I’ve always been proud to be a graduate of a one-room rural country school –  something that few people today know anything about because such schools came to an end some 50 years ago.

Those of us who learned readin, 'ritin', and 'rithmetic from a teacher with two years of training at a “county normal” school were indeed fortunate, at least I’ve always felt. My class size was but three: Willard, Doris and me. However, we were in the same noisy room as the 30 or so other students.

Bring your lunch

Our water came from a shallow well via an outdoor pump: the bathrooms (boy and girls) were called “two holers” or outhouses. Our lunches were brought from home in steel lunch buckets: square and fancy painted for girls, black or blue with a round top for boys – complete with thermos bottle for milk or soup.

30 students - 8 grades

Miss Simonson, Miss Otteson, Miss Zoellich and Mrs. Martin, during my grade school days, easily taught well-over 30 students each year. All were grads of two-year County Normal Schools (I think) and believe me, we students were really country bumpkins in many (most) ways. No one had ever heard the words 'self-esteem'. I’m not sure we had any. On the other hand, maybe we had too much.  

Desks were close together and were attached to flat boards in groups of three for easy floor cleaning.

Not Work

I well remember we students competing for the privilege of “putting up the flag”, cleaning the blackboard, clapping erasers, filling the water bubbler and sweeping the floor. I guess we didn’t understand that these “duties” were not work, they were an honor! The real payoff was having the teacher admire how clean the blackboard was, how the floor gleamed and how the flag flew straight. 

About that water bubbler, it would never pass a sanitation inspection today. Even worse, the water was hauled in a bucket from the well out back that had to be pumped by an upper-grader who could manage the big iron pump handle.  

The water cooler crock: a must in most rural schools.

Strange eras

Some readers may think of that rural school era as dumb and very primitive education-wise. But they also might want to give serious thought to our current era. We are also living in a strange time where vaccinations, the many numbers associated with Covid 19 and restrictions on public gatherings are the subjects of discussion and are the daily headlines in all forms of media.

Education at home

Education is a subject that has been discussed (and cussed) since the coronavirus first appeared just over a year ago and schools went dark. Parents were faced with their children at home and who were trying to continue their schooling using computers and getting assistance from parents who were oftentimes short on computer expertise. 

The shelf of books at the rear classroom was the 'library’.

The amount of time students actually spend in school is determined by state, county and local decisions but the word “virtual” went from one of unknown words seldom used to the word of the day, year and era applying to meetings, family reunions and events of every sort and even several large farm field day events.  

What is virtual?

The word virtual has several meanings. The one I like is “virtual is most generally used to describe something as being the same as something else in almost every way".

With that in mind, I think of my eight years in a one-room country school. One-room school grads never had a chance to talk with a counselor – luckily. We didn’t have a clue about what we were going to be “when we grew up”, and we sure weren’t making any great plans to take the right classes.  

Reed School at Neillsville, a state historical site, is very similar to the long ago demolished Flint School in Rutland Township near Stoughton that the writer attended.

We just studied what the teacher taught – reading, writing and arithmetic, listened to what the daily WHA radio program offered. Most every day at 9:30 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. we had virtual learning sessions, radio programs offered by  WHA, the UW-Madison radio station. 

WHA had established its School of the Air in 1931. The school used resources from  the School of Education along with the State Department of Public Instruction and teachers in the Madison Public Schools to craft a comprehensive schedule of programs aimed at use in primary and secondary school classrooms around the state. The subjects ranged from government and history to music, art, literature, nature, health and safety. 

Popular programs we listened to when the teacher tuned the radio dial to WHA included: “Afield with Ranger Mac”, “Journey in Musicland”,  “Let's Draw”, and “Rhythm and Games.” 

After each daily program ended, our teacher would spend time discussing the subject just presented and even doing some of the projects discussed like drawing and singing.  The School of the Air counted over 70,000 student listeners, and continued in various forms until the late1960s. 

Oregon High School. When I attended, had 128 students. It is now the headquarters of a nationally known construction company.

Virtual? Yes.

I’d guess those daily radio programs were a form of virtual education that opened the doors - and our minds - to the world we knew little about. I guess it worked as I went on to high school and college. The old Oregon High School that I attended (now remodeled into a corporate headquarters) still stands. I knew it well for the four years I was a student in the then largest class ever - 32 of us. 

Isn’t that what virtual learning is about today, 50 years later? I think so. But it’s not new. 

John Oncken can be reached at 608-837-7406, or email him at