A Little School Under the Big Sky

By Mike Rose — September 01, 1995 51 min read

In 1991, UCLA professor Mike Rose, frustrated by all the negative and despairing talk about the nation’s public schools, set out to tell another story. For three and a half years, he crisscrossed the country visiting classrooms judged to be good by parents, principals, teachers, and students—classrooms, as he puts it, “in which the promise of public education is being powerfully realized.” He found no shortage—in the Los Angeles Basin; Baltimore, Md.; Wheelright, Ky.; Tupelo, Miss.; Tucson, Ariz.; to name but a few. Here, in an excerpt from his remarkable new book, Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America, we pick up with Rose on the road to visit first-year teacher Andy Bayliss and his 15 students in Montana’s Grasshopper Valley.

The two-lane highway extended with an intermittent dip and rise as far as I could see, no cars coming or going, a clear band of asphalt running pasture beyond pasture. On either side of state Highway 278 were grasslands and grazing cattle, creeks and ponds, bales of hay and isolated haystacking machines called “beaverslides”; beyond that grew clumps of brush and a little juniper. Then came rolling meadows, then foothills and fir trees, rising in the far distance to snow-covered mountains, crisp and striking. In addition to cattle, there were occasional sheep, deer, magpies with white-tipped wing and tail, coyote, sandhill cranes, and two humpbacked moose making their way into willow.

I was traveling with Claudette Morton, director of the Rural Education Center at Western Montana College in Dillon, the seat of this county called Beaverhead, the largest in Montana, as big as Rhode Island and Connecticut combined, with a population of 8,400, half of whom lived in Dillon. We were headed 35 miles northwest to a one-room school near the ghost town of Polaris, in the middle of the Grasshopper Valley, surrounded by the Beaverhead National Forest.

There are nearly 100 single-teacher elementary schools in Montana alone, Claudette told me, and another 60 or so schools with two to four teachers, combining children from more than one grade level in a single classroom. It’s the scale, the size of the land, she explained, and the population density. Montana is the fourth largest state in the union, yet has a population of just under 800,000—and a large proportion reside in and around a dozen or so cities. Vast stretches of the state, especially in the eastern plains, are sparsely populated. By one rough estimate, there is in Montana about one kindergarten-through-12th-grade student per square mile. So the single-teacher elementary, the current incarnation of the one-room country school that for a good part of our history defined nonurban public education, is still a necessity. Approximately 830 such schools are to be found in half of the states in the union, Maine to California, the largest numbers in Nebraska, Montana, and South Dakota, states with expansive, sparsely popu-lated rural landscapes.

The one-room schoolhouse has been characterized many ways in our history: as a symbol of progress, as the forge of rural culture, as, in Hamlin Garland’s words, “a barren temple of the arts,” as provincial and backward. It was all these things and more—a complex institution. What is clear, though, is that since before the turn of this century, there has been a systematic attempt to close down these little schools, to consolidate them into larger systems. In 1910 there were 200,000 one-teacher schools in the United States; 50 years later that number dropped to 23,695. The consolidation was driven by shifts in population and the disrepair of older buildings, by unfavorable comparison with the large urban (or suburban) school and its multiple facilities and services, and by the desire of policymakers to concentrate control and to achieve uniformity and efficiency in finance and governance. Recent analyses of rural education have undermined the assumption that big is necessarily more effective—and, in many quarters, the model of the large urban school is under attack. But the drive for consolidation continues (in Montana there were 820 one-teacher schools recorded in a 1958-59 survey; by 1984 there were 99), held at bay only in those areas where citizens can organize and argue that distance, transportation, weather, and community need make it impossible to close their local school.

As Claudette and I ascended into the national forest, it began to snow, flurries coming at the windshield in an upward curl, light powder on the highway, light as confectioners’ sugar, blowing in rippling waves across the road. Claudette steadied herself—she knew the snowfall would get heavier—and continued talking about the region and about rural schools. It seemed that people were finally beginning to appreciate the potential of small schools, she said, the possibilities of individualized instruction, independent work, children tutoring other children. And the close attention, the intimate connection of school and community. Nobody gets lost. For a long time, it was just assumed that kids from these rural schools got an inadequate education and did poorly as they moved on. Anything so small and so country had to be inferior. While it is true that the transition to larger town high schools can be a problem, some new studies, and reviews of old ones, suggest that, on average, children from rural schools do as well as everybody else. And in some cases, from some schools or regions, they do better. These little schools have gotten, Claudette believed, a bad rap.

We passed two large ranches, cattle dotting broad snow-covered pastures, and came on the unmarked dirt road, white now, that led to Polaris, veering suddenly off Highway 278. It curved for about four miles through grassland and shrubbery, past old fences and sporadic power poles. Polaris was, in the mid-1880s, a silver-mining town, not too far north of the region being homesteaded by some of the families who, today, hold two or three of the largest ranches in the area. Polaris was now the site of a post office, a house, and an abandoned bar. Polaris School, about a mile south of the town, was established in 1892—four and five generations of some local families have attended it—and the first variation of the present schoolhouse was erected in 1925. A “teacherage” was built onto the side of the school by one Junior Stallings in 1949—before that, teachers boarded with local families—and a first-year teacher named Andy Bayliss now lived and worked there, finishing up the last month of a one-year contract.

Claudette had hooked me up with Andy because, though he was still finding his way, he was already a knowledgeable and creative teacher who played to the strengths of the one-room school. On Claudette’s recommendation, I had read some books and articles—ones sympathetic to rural education—that lamented the unimaginative nature of instruction in some rural classrooms: materials were limited and dated, resources were scarce, teaching practices tended toward recitation and rote learning, without much variability. This was not always the fault of the teachers. Some were isolated, out of contact with other teachers or teacher-education institutions. Publishers produced few materials geared toward rural schools—too diverse and diffused to be a lucrative market. And community norms sometimes constrained experimentation. But Andy was inventive and ambitious, eager to extend what children could do. On this day of my stay with him, I was going to try to record the flow of his practice, capture a day in the life of this rural schoolteacher and his students.

Claudette and I got to Polaris early, pulling in through an open gate, rolling to a stop by the wooden walkway that led to the school. She set the brake, and I opened the door, confirming that I would ride back to Dillon with Andy, who would be needing supplies and a little company. She handed me a package of materials to give to him and pulled away, leaving no other sound but a meadowlark and the soft rippling of Farlin Creek, running amid sedges and willows along the northern border of the school yard. Just beyond the creek, behind a simple fence, cows, powdered with snow, stood quietly, nosing the ground.

Polaris School faced the road. It was a neat frame building, clapboard siding, gray with white trim, with a raised front porch and a dormer jutting out from a pitched roof. There was a large propane tank on the side and, farther back, an old log barn from the days when students rode their horses to school. Behind the school was a swing set and slide, a tool shed, also gray and white, and an abbreviated basketball court. A boy, an early arrival, dressed in a slicker and cowboy hat, was shooting baskets, finding his footing on the slippery concrete, propelling the wet ball in a heavy arc through the air.

Andy Bayliss sat at the table closest to the tall windows in the back wall of the schoolhouse, eating a bowl of cereal, listening to Peanuts Wilson on an old rockabilly tape he had found in the discount bin at the Safeway in Dillon, gazing out beyond the silhouette of Tyler shooting baskets to the sharp, white peak of Bald Moun-tain. In the midst of this vast expanse of meadow and mountain, Andy lived in tight quarters. The teacherage had a separate entrance, leading to a narrow living room, a desk covered with textbooks and school supplies, a couch, a VCR and stacks of videotapes, six pairs of skis. Off to one side was a bedroom only partly closed off from the classroom, the dividing wall running three quarters of the way to the ceiling. Straight through the living room was a kitchen—skillets, loose dishes, canned goods—that, through a rear door, led to the restrooms Andy shared with his students. So Andy liked to come into the classroom early, put a cassette into the radio-tape player, and look out at the mountains. Morning light flooded across the counter along the base of the windows: rocks, sprouting geraniums, a microscope and slides, a spider plant sitting on the New World Dictionary. Andy Bayliss was the 61st teacher to lead instruction at Polaris School. He bobbed his head in time with the slapping bass, the wailing, stuttering saxophone, enjoying the full light, a lick of his brown hair sticking straight up.

His day was about to begin.

Eight-twenty, and Andy saw James and Russell joining Tyler on the basketball court. The three oldest boys in the school, all good athletes. He clicked off the tape and rinsed his bowl and spoon. The troublesome tuft of hair would not lie down. His slacks were already dusty with chalk. He was a meticulous planner, charting curriculum for each of his 15 students—they ranged from 2nd grade to 8th—and writing on the blackboard daily schedules and lists of assignments for various groups of children. This was the general plan for today:

8:30 Morning Business 9:00 Math 7, Math 3-4 9:30 Habitat Studies, Montana Studies 10:00 Snack, Recess 10:20 Math 5-6, Montana Studies 11:00 Science 11:30 Silent Reading 12:00 Lunch 12:30 Native American Role Play 1:30 Art 2:30 Track 3:15 Ciao

In addition, there were recommended readings, due dates, page numbers in textbooks. The class, as Andy conceived it, wouldn’t work without such detail, such clarity of expectation.

To successfully teach children from so many grade levels required the ability to manage a classroom efficiently and resourcefully. It was common for Andy to conduct a lesson for one group of children while the remainder worked separately or in pairs on math problems or reading assignments or on an art or science project begun earlier in the week. Andy was fortunate to have a skillful aide, Michele Reynolds, who could assist those children working independently. Or she could tutor Colt, the one 2nd grader, or James, the sole 8th grade student. Or she could seclude herself in the tiny library attached to the classroom to prepare materials for children who needed more time with one lesson or were ready to move ahead on another, beyond the assignment, beyond grade level. There were also multiple possibilities for students helping other students, tapping into their own experience and achievement, pairing one of the older kids with one of the younger to listen to a story or review math homework or edit a piece of writing. And Andy and Michele could split the class, Andy explaining a project for Montana Studies to the 5th through 8th graders while Michele played a math game with the younger children. Sometimes things got a little hectic, but, overall, there was a good deal of effective individualized instruction as well as movement in and out of groups, a fluid configuration. It is interesting to note that such practice is currently receiving a good deal of attention in teacher-education programs; in the good multigrade classroom, it exists of necessity.

At 8:30 sharp, Andy led the class in the Pledge of Allegiance, then asked them to choose a song. This was a morning ritual. On this day, a number of the children wanted to hear country singer Alan Jackson, a favorite in this community, so Dustin, a 4th grader, clattered through the pile of cassettes by the tape player and selected “Chattahoochee”:

Way down yonder on the Chattahoochee
It gets hotter than a hootchie-kootchie

Almost everyone knew the words, or at least the driving chorus, so the class, squeezed into a soft couch facing the blackboard or sitting on the floor with backs against it, sang about a wild Friday night all the way across the United States. When the song was over, Andy reached up for a map over the blackboard, pulled it down with a flap, and traced the Chattahoochee River, running his finger along the Alabama-Georgia border. “See? That’s the river he’s singing about. It forms a natural boundary.”

At 8:45, it was on to the business of the day. Andy briefly reviewed another list on the board. There was the matter of the spelling folders, each student’s personal “dictionary” of misspelled words, culled from various projects and essays. These had to be shown to Mrs. Reynolds today or tomorrow. There was the reminder to include all drafts of a paper when it’s turned in. And there was a quick survey of who owed work in mathematics, in Montana Studies, in science. The children listened, asked a question or two, affirmed or disputed or negotiated their assignments and due dates.

Andy had a class of 15, and all but one, Colt, the 2nd grader, had one or more siblings in the room. Tyler, the basketball enthusiast, was a 7th grader. His strong-willed sister Rossy was in the 4th. His little brother, Leo, with whom he occasionally scrapped, was in the 3rd. Their family had lived in the area for five generations; their mother was head of the three-member school board to which Andy directly reported. Russell, already skilled in rodeo, was in the 7th grade, and his gregarious sister Melissa was in the 4th. Their ancestors also came to the region in the late 19th century. Erica, an avid reader, was in the 7th grade, and her rambunctious brother Dustin in the 3rd; when Erica was absent one morning, Dustin told Andy with barely contained excitement that “she’s sicker than heck.” James, about to graduate from Polaris School, was a skilled athlete but inconsistent with his studies; his 4th grade sister Rebecca, or Reba, was a model scholar. Sixth grader Charlie, a clever writer, was brother to 3rd grader Clarissa, who was just coming into her own. And Heather, a diligent 7th grade student, was the polar opposite of her casual, at times testy, 5th grade brother Stephen.

Most of these children grew up with one another, so familiarity combined with blood to create interpersonal dynamics that were, at times, cooperative and communal. As one local explained, “Cooperation is a necessity in ranch life; everyone has a job, everyone contributes. You can’t do it without everybody’s help.” Thus mutual assistance and cross-age tutoring came almost naturally. When the children were singing earlier, Tyler steadied Colt, who was balanced on the arm of the couch, his shadow falling across the older boy; during morning business, Rossy guided Melissa through the textbook to the set of math problems Andy had assigned to her. This sort of thing went on throughout the day. But at other times, a family-style bickering dominated the room: pissy complaints about who was sitting in a particular chair or using a book or tool or simply crossing someone’s space. Another rural teacher I met said she had a firm rule: keep brother-and-sister things at home. But the tension was not always between siblings. It was, frankly, hard to fathom or predict—a disruptive spasm in the rhythm of the day—and, for Andy, was “the part of the job that wears you down.”

Eight-fifty-five, and time for the fluoride rinse. Andy walked quickly to his desk and grabbed a plastic bottle of pink liquid. He shook it vigorously. The class moaned. This signaled another routine, a weekly one mandated by the County Health Department for rural schools, so Andy’s students knew what to do. There was a rush for coats and sweaters, and a burst out the door to the perimeter of the school yard, behind the old horse barn. Andy distributed little paper cups, poured fluoride all around, asked Russell to keep time, 60 seconds, and everyone swished the fluoride in mock torture, jumping around in the snow, the snow squeaking and crunching, as if something underneath was giving way. The fluoride tingled. Russell eyed his watch. People did the Saint Vitus dance. Rossy chased Leo, Dustin taunted Clarissa, James dusted the snow off a basketball and, cheeks working the vibrant liquid, sank a 15-foot set shot. Russell raised five fingers, four, three, two—spitooie over the fence, in the snow. Mouths open to the cold air. Tongues wagging. The drama complete. As they were walking back inside, Russell and Tyler each scooped a handful of snow from the base of the slide and sucked on it. Then a stomping of feet, the hanging of coats, and the business for the morning was over.

Seventh grade math students went to the couch. Third and 4th graders went to the back of the room with Michele to play a math game. Colt, whose industry was legend in this room, checked the wall charts for his assignment. Stephen and James worked on their science proj-ects, though Michele had to call them back to the task once or twice. And since, as Andy put it, no resource goes unused out here, I was asked to talk with Charlie about his writing.

The classroom at Polaris School was about 28 by 35 feet. If you began at the front of the room, you would have before you the black chalkboard and maps, a rack of books and handouts, and the old piano. Toward the corner there were cupboards and a large heater, run on propane, with a tall silver stovepipe. The intersection of piano and cupboard formed a kind of cubbyhole, and in it was a pile of worn, fluffy pillows where, occasionally, you would find Erica curled up reading a novel. She loved this school, she would tell you if asked. Everyone knows you, and you aren’t made to feel stupid, and it’s safe. She had a friend near Denver, and that girl talked a lot about kids who already had problems with drugs. At 13, Erica’s age. But it did get lonely out here. So she studied Spanish by audiotape at night and wrote stories and read.

Continuing along the west wall, you entered the library, an 8-by-12-foot room with crammed shelves along three walls: children’s and adolescent literature, six different encyclopedias, National Geographic, reference books on subjects ranging from plants and rocks and grains to Indians, oceans, music, and light. Back out to the classroom, continuing along the wall through a long anarchy of shelves, both metal and wooden, and tables, card and kitchen, on which you would find glue, scissors, files for rock sculpture, tape, athletic trophies, a poinsettia, rulers, yarn, a three-hole punch, piles of books on Montana, displays of books the students had made, and, finally, a computer in a wooden console.

Turning the next corner, against the south wall, beyond which the teacherage lay, there were blue-green plastic tubs stacked on metal shelves, each tub with a student’s name affixed, filled with tools and art supplies. Then a small table with cups full of brushes and a cardboard box of crayons, peeled and broken; the microwave (the school’s hot lunch program, Andy joked); and the restrooms and rear entrance to the teacherage. At the southeast corner was a noisy wall heater and a large piece of corkboard on a stand, like a movable blackboard. The corkboard became a flimsy partition, forming another cubby of sorts, and sometimes Russell or Tyler or James or Stephen went there to read under an old parlor lamp. Then came the long counter under the full windows that looked out onto Bald Mountain, the counter rich with plants and field guides and sparkling rocks. Then Andy’s desk, the light from the last of the windows slanting over half of it, a bright, warm triangle.

Before the blackboard was that fat couch into which the children crammed to sing, and throughout the rest of the room were folding chairs and dark Formica tables. Andy’s students moved often from couch to table to rug to nook—the floor creaking beneath their step—or to the library, or outdoors, leaving a trail of paper and pencil and crayon behind them. During the first month or so of the term, some parents and board members visited the room, and, as one put it to me, wondered, “What in God’s name was going on here?” Andy had found those tables and chairs in the storeroom—they were used for civic functions—and had replaced the old school desks with them, and there was all this activity. The board was not heavy-handed—Andy enjoyed good relations with them—but that was not a comfortable position for a first-year teacher to be in. Over time, Andy was able to explain in detail and with polite assurance his methods and goals to individual parents and to the board. And after a while, the district came to see that something interesting was going on here.

Student work was on bold display. Along the top third of the west wall, from the jamb of the library door nearly to the computer console, extended a hand-drawn map of the region, embellished in greens and blues and browns. Mountain ranges and rivers were marked, as were roadways, forests, Polaris School, the post office, and each of the children’s homes. Over the microwave was a large bar chart depicting the results of six hundred coin tosses, a lesson in probability. There were data sheets on science experiments, and illustrated summaries of novels and short stories, and large interpretive maps drawn up during geography and social studies—like the one of Alaska pinned to the corkboard partition. And above the door of the girls’ bathroom was Leo’s science lesson cum personal narrative, printed on a large piece of brown wrapping paper cut into an irregular circle: 1) I am the sun. 2) All of the planets orbit around me. 3) I am the only star you can see in the daytime. 4) I am the hottest object in the solar system. 5) I produce energy.

Student writing was everywhere, like Erica’s reminiscence of ice fishing with her father:

I went ice fishing with Dad. . . . There was a small fire, and my ears were kept warm by a hat pulled tight over my head. Dad, who is always trying to do the strangest things, put bait in two different places on my pole. I put it in the water. . . . The only clouds I remember were white, pure; they looked like cotton in the sky. I was so happy, my cheeks rosy, and having Dad there beside me waiting in silence was such an awesome comfort. It wasn’t until Dad pulled out my pole that I had the most incredible feeling. I was awed at the sight—two different fish on my pole. I felt a gratitude for Dad, a feeling for him that had never been quite as strong as it was then. . . .

And Charlie’s story “Mean Miss Gorf,” bound into a cloth-covered book, shown to me within 10 minutes of my arrival by an admiring Reba and Melissa. It began:

Once there was a mean teacher at Polaris School. Her name was Miss Gorf. She was skinny as a rail and mean as a rattlesnake. She had the power to turn a kid into a shiny red apple. First she would wiggle her right ear, then her left ear, and then she’d stick out her tongue.

One day Miss Gorf was teaching arithmetic, and the problem was 6,503,526,679 divided by 6. After three minutes she yelled, “Time’s up,” and we turned in our answers.

She looked them over and said, “Good job Charlie, James, Crystal, Russell, Tyler, but I am disappointed in you Erica. Sorry.” She wiggled her left ear, then her right ear, then stuck out her tongue, and there was a nice shiny red apple where Erica once was standing.

“What you’re doing down there is different,” one parent told Andy after a few months had passed, “but I think it’s beneficial.” “The kids seem interested,” said another, “in going to school.” The combination of Andy’s congeniality, the rationale for his practice and the specificity of his goals, and, pure and simple, the quality of the work the class was producing—it all became persuasive.

Andy was sitting in his swivel chair facing the couch, where 7th graders Heather, Russell, Erica, and Tyler were working in teams of two, studying patterns and number theory and making their way through story problems like the following: Loren was studying the meaning of new words. After the first day he had 15 words left to learn. After the second day he had 12 words left to learn. The next day he had 9 words left. At that rate, how many days will it take him to learn all the words?

Heather suggested to Russell that the two of them count down on their collective fingers. They quickly did so, then she ventured, “It’ll take a total of six days.” Erica and Tyler were solving the problem with a factor tree, arriving at multiples of five and three. The answer, they said in disagreement with Heather and Russell, was five. Andy pointed out the different strategies they were using, then asked each team to justify their answers. “It’s going in a number pattern,” Heather said, leaning over Russell to Erica and Tyler, “and they’re losing three words a day.” Erica agreed that there was a pattern but pointed to the factor tree she and Tyler had calcu-lated, arguing that the answer had to lie in the multiples. Andy urged more cross-talk, which led, within the next two minutes or so, to Tyler asking Heather to review her procedure; Erica defending her answer; Russell wondering if, after all, he might be swayed by Erica, for “maybe the problem doesn’t give us enough information”; and Erica lighting up suddenly and saying, “Oh, it is six!” In a recent rural math contest, students from Polaris won an award for group problem solving, and this exchange demonstrated why. Andy encouraged students to work together, articulate strategies, consider alternatives, and come to consensus.

Across the room, Michele sat cross-legged on the floor between two teams of 3rd and 4th graders playing a math game. The school board wanted students to develop facility with estimating and rapid calculation, necessary in ranch life. Historically, rural boards were responsible for curriculum, and some still exercise control over what gets taught. That was not so at Polaris, but the board did want there to be some “basic skills” work combined with Andy’s more reflective, conceptual approach. Andy agreed that such skills were necessary, so he and Michele worked up activities like this.

The students had their multiplication tables in front of them: Leo, Dustin, and Rossy on one side, Melissa, Reba, and Clarissa on the other. Michele had fashioned two oversized cardboard dice, one displaying the numbers one through six, the other seven through 12. Each team would throw a die and create a division problem that had, as its remainder, the number that came up on the roll. So when Rossy threw a four, her team hurriedly consulted the multiplication table to figure out that if, say, 21 divided by seven equals three, then, well, 25 divided by seven would leave a remainder of four—the number Rossy threw. See you add a four to it. Put the four there. We’ve gotta get a remainder of four. That’ll do it. The four’ll do it. Oh, oh, I see. Yes. Yessss. The team that created the most division problems at the end of the period would win, gaining familiarity with the multiplication table and some arithmetic flexibility along the way.

During this period, Sheryl, the itinerant speech therapist, had quietly entered the room and taken 2nd grader Colt to the library. One way that small independent rural districts like Polaris try to meet the special needs of their students is by joining a cooperative to get services like those Sheryl provided. This co-op included 10 schools in two counties, so sometimes Sheryl covered 120 miles in a day, spending anywhere from a half-hour to two hours at each site, depending on need. On this day, she worked with Colt on “l” blends (gl, pl) and digraphs (sh, ch). Then, when Andy had a moment, she conferred with him on strategies to address these in the more natural language flow of the classroom—she was especially concerned with the “l” sound—and I would see Andy play out her suggestions throughout the day.

At 9:30, Michele went into the library to review with the older students their works-in-progress on Montana Studies. One segment of their research required them to plan for a visiting historian or geographer a road tour that would cover at least 300 miles and include sites important in Native American history, early trapping and mining, homesteading, agriculture, and the like. The assignment involved maps, written text, and an oral report, and Andy asked Michele to check in on Tyler, Russell, Erica, Heather, and James. Were the maps developing? Was the accompanying text more than just a bare-bones sketch?

Meanwhile, Andy convened the younger students at the couch to make sure they understood a new science assignment on habitat and adaptation. Each was to select a grassland animal, a forest animal, and an animal from a habitat of their own choosing and describe how body and behavior were adapted to environment, how various adaptations help the animal eat, move, regulate temperature, and avoid enemies. “Let’s say my forest animal is a squirrel,” Andy speculated. “Think of what it eats and how its body has adapted to that.” “A squirrel eats nuts,” said Clarissa, her arms resting on her knees. “Yeah,” added Rossy, thrusting herself out of the cushioned recesses of the couch, “so he’d have to have strong jaw muscles.” “Good,” said Andy. “Anything else?” “Mr. Bayliss”—Melissa waved her hand—”he’d have sharp teeth.” “Yes, he would, Melissa. Thank you.” Andy wanted the students to “think about animals in a new way, as beings adapted over time to their environments,” and that was beginning to happen.

The discussion continued, and later that day Andy picked up the subject again when he tutored Colt. Colt was a very good student, but, still, the adaptation assignment would be a challenge for a 2nd grader. Many traditional one-room schools had children follow lessons in textbooks for their grade level, but, whenever possible, Andy liked to give the same assignment to a range of kids, encouraging them to engage it as best they could. This was one of the things, he believed, that made the multigrade classroom an exciting place. It could be especially rich for younger children, for it gave them the opportunity to stretch beyond grade level. So he clicked on the computer and pulled Colt in beside him.

“What grassland animal did you choose, Colt?” “The antelope,” Colt replied. “Great,” said Andy, “let’s get that in a sentence.” “My grassland animal,” Colt began, leaning in on his forearm to watch the screen as Andy typed, “is an antelope.” “Good,” said Andy. “Now how about adaptation? What about the antelope helps it live in its environment?” Colt ran the fingers of his left hand over his short bristly hair, thought a moment, and began: “It kind of has flat teeth, and they eat grass.” Andy typed and Colt watched. Then, appropriating the recommendations of the speech therapist, Andy had Colt read the text he had generated so far, paying special attention to the “l” sound in land, animal, antelope, and flat. Colt’s pronunciation sounded good, and Andy had him read one more time.

“OK, Colt, what else do they have that helps them live?” “I know that they have leg bones . . .” Colt checked himself. “I think that their hip,” he revised, “is how they walk . . . because, uh, because if they didn’t have a hip, they couldn’t walk.” Andy typed, then had Colt read. This wasn’t particularly an example of adaptation—though with elaboration it might be—but Colt was on a roll, and Andy knew he could return to this hip business later in the week. “What about temperature, Colt? Like with the lambs you’re raising, how do antelope keep warm or cool?” “Antelope have fur,” Colt said, leaning in closer to the screen as his words appeared letter by quick letter. “It makes them warm.” “Great!” said Andy, “and protection, avoiding enemies?” Colt let out a mild sigh of exasperation and rubbed his blond stubble again. “Mr. Bayliss . . .” “C’mon Colt, one more line.” Colt looked back at the screen. “They put their horns down.” Andy typed, Colt watching. “You know, Colt,” Andy prodded, “it wouldn’t be a complete report, would it, if we didn’t say why the antelope does that.” Colt said, “No, it wouldn’t,” and added, “to protect themselves.”

Ten o’clock, and it was time for a snack and recess. Michele and Andy took turns supervising the children during these breaks, and on this day Andy watched over them while Michele checked their “dictionaries,” the lists of words they had misspelled in their writing. She was particularly concerned about James, handsome, laconic James, whom they were trying to prepare for 9th grade at the high school in Dillon. “He has the intelligence,” she said to me, rubbing her temple, “but he just hasn’t done the work he’s capable of doing.” She opened his folder, running her finger down a list of words: historical, museum, process. Earlier in the month, in quick script in his journal, he had written lyrically about a trip to nearby Black Mountain:

All I hear is the gentle whisper of the creek and the wind blowing through the willows. . . . I see a beautiful green valley and creeks and a big mountain with a little snow on it. The sun is hidden behind a cloud. I see baby horses, baby elk and baby antelope . . . curious about life and how God made the earth. I feel a crisp and cool mountain breeze; then the sun pokes out and warms everything up. Touching each and every soul. I love this earth.

There were many sides to this boy. And much promise. Michele closed his folder, turned and looked out the window.

Melissa stayed inside to practice her piano, and the empty classroom and the library—where Michele was fretting over James—filled with a hesitant but melodic rendition of “Pony Ride.” Melissa guided herself with a whispered one-two-three, one-two-three-four, the keys yielding an almost muted tinkle, like the sound of an old recording, one-two-three, played in this room so many times before, Melissa beginning again.

On the top shelf of the library, above Huckleberry Finn, Wind in the Willows, and the like, was a pile of old documents and record books. At various times during my stay, I would page through them, uncovering a copy of the original petition from Polaris to the county superintendent of public schools announcing that “[m]oney has been raised by public subscription for the purpose of building a schoolhouse.” I found the dusty forms that guided the governance and management of a school on the frontier, announcing that “the Public Free Schools of the State shall be open to all children and youths between the ages of six and 21 years.” And I found student registries, written in the neat and ornate hand of various district clerks. As I turned the pages, the same names appeared year after year—Tash, Harrison, Marchesseau—the children seeming to grow up before me as I ran my finger down the lists of names, the names of the families migrating from Canada, from the Midwest, from Kentucky, who settled this valley. Those names were now represented on the school board that hired Andy, now appeared on the Polaris School registry. How many sat at that piano? Listening to Melissa play “Pony Ride,” I wondered about the harsh journey, the solitude, and the powerful sense of continuity that some in the Grasshopper Valley must feel.And outside, the class ran an energetic game of tag while the snow fell in gently manic flurries, flowing sideways, kicking up, up, down, riding the erratic breeze.

Ten-twenty. Erica, Russell, Tyler, Heather, and James, the 7th and 8th graders, crammed themselves around the small table in the library, preparing for another phase of Montana Studies. This was the delivery of basic geographical, historical, and civic facts about the state, the story the state tells itself about itself and expects its students to know. Andy gave it his own twist, however. Knowing that once these young people began high school, they would have to be able to take efficient notes, he decided to simulate for them the academic lecture. The transition to town high schools was a big concern for rural educators, and it was that concern Andy was playing out here.

He reviewed some basic note-taking techniques and explained the setting the students could expect in the typical science or history or social studies classroom. Then, using the materials provided to rural teachers by the county, he surveyed the official Montana symbols: bitterroot, the state flower; ponderosa pine, the state tree; black spotted cutthroat trout, the state fish; grizzly bear, the state animal. The basic geography of Montana: the western mountains and the Continental Divide—directing the flow of rivers to opposite sides of the Rockies—and the vast eastern plains, part of the Great Plains. And Montana’s primary sources of revenue: agriculture, ranching, mining, tourism. Then came a quick historical sketch: from the indigenous peoples, to the French explorers and trappers, to the Louisiana Purchase, to the gold and silver rush (Polaris figured here), to the Indian wars, to copper. Montana was organized as a territory in 1864 and became a state in 1889. Its motto: Oro y plata, gold and silver.

When he finished, Andy walked around the table, asking to see people’s notes, pointing out different methods—Heather’s outline format, Russell’s list—and making suggestions for improvement. He paid special attention to James who, come fall, would be facing the real thing. Because of the possibility of stretching beyond grade level and because of the presence of older role models, Andy believed that the multigrade classroom was a stimulating place for younger students, but he worried that it was not as rich for the older ones. James. Was he doing all he could do for James?

Michele thought Rossy was “incredible in math” and wanted to “keep pushing her.” So while Andy lectured on Montana Studies, and the younger children worked independently in the larger room, Michele slid in alongside Rossy with a sheet of new math problems. She had copied these from a more advanced textbook and wanted to see how Rossy would do with them.

Though the school board was able to buy into the co-op that provided itinerant teachers for some enrichment and certain special needs—like the speech therapist for Colt—a district with one school and 15 kids clearly cannot mount a gifted-and-talented program or hire a special education resource teacher. Rural children miss out on some of the services that are a part of urban schooling; historically, that has been one of the arguments for consolidation. But it is also true that, in the hands of good teachers, the small multigrade classroom gives rise to the possibility of dealing with special needs directly and within the flow of daily instruction. There would be multiple opportunities for Rossy to work beyond the confines of her mathematics textbook.

Difficulties can be addressed in similar fashion. Andy told me about one of the girls who, during the previous two years of schooling, displayed the kinds of problems with reading that could have gotten her diagnosed as learning disabled. By the time Andy arrived at Polaris, she was doing better but was still reading below grade level. So he worked out a plan with her parents whereby she continued to read the books her peers were reading but received extra help in the classroom and read at least a half-hour a night under her parents’ supervision. And Andy saw her parents frequently, after school, at local events, so there was a steady exchange of information. “Little schools should not try to act like big schools,” Claudette said to me on our way to Polaris. “They need to take advantage of their smallness.” “This classroom is a full-inclusion classroom,” Andy quipped when I quoted Claudette to him. “It has to be.”

When I was getting out of Claudette’s car in the school yard that morning, I noticed some plastic ribbons tied to the pussy willows growing along Farlin Creek, a pink flutter among the thin, dense branches. It turned out that these were identifying markers that Andy’s students had tied around the clusters of buds they were studying.

Eleven o’clock, and time for science. Andy tried as much as possible to make his curriculum “continuous with experiences outside school.” The class had been keeping a naturalist’s journal, a detailed account of the growth of a bud on the willows, and, on this day, Andy wanted them to go out and make further observations. The naturalist’s journal has a long and venerable history, and the way Andy used it, it involved close observation, description, drawing, and notions of scale and context.

The students had to note day, time, weather, direction of wind, and, using all their senses, had to write a narrative account: “smell the buds and the ground; listen and look for birds or other wildlife; feel the bark or the buds.” As well, they were to attempt scale drawings of the bud and its surrounding leaves and branches. The younger students needed help with this, but they were able to approximate most of the tasks.

On this day, I stayed with Tyler. He had watched his bud grow from half a centimeter to two and a half, into the silky flower that gives the pussy willow its name. “This is a harsh place,” Andy told him. “How has the willow adapted to it?” Tyler measured the bud, recorded the weather, checked the wind, a gentle breeze from the northeast, and sketched what he would need to complete his scale drawing. Andy had asked why the willow grows in this dense, clustered way, rather than, say, long and snaky up a phone pole. Tyler assumed that the plant was able to protect itself and make the most of available water. When he finally completed his series of observations and sketches, he would be required to draw a map of the surrounding area and the location of the plant within it, and, using his data, write a paragraph on the way the willow has adapted to the type of land and climate in which it lives. “Tyler’s fished in creeks like that for years,” Andy later told me. “I just wanted him to take a little closer look, maybe a little different look, at what he already knows.”

Eleven-thirty, and time for silent reading. Clarissa, Dustin, Tyler, and Reba sat on the couch. Erica was deep in pillows alongside the piano. James and Leo sat at opposite sides of one of the tables by the windows, bending over their books, their heads in alignment, a foot apart. Rossy, Heather, and Charlie sat at separate tables. Russell and Stephen slid down against the back wall by the restrooms, their feet, big in high-top athletic shoes, sticking out into the room from under the corkboard partition. Occasionally a thump and rustle would send Michele back there to investigate. (“Boys, I’ve had enough!”) Andy was in the library with Colt, working on that story about the adaptation of the antelope. Most of the children were reading mysteries or horror stories—The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, The Headless Cupid—though Heather was leaning back in her chair with To Kill a Mockingbird, and James was engrossed in his favorite author, Louis L’Amour.

The books were of the children’s own choosing, though Andy required that they keep a journal in which they responded to one of a list of questions: “What is the setting?” “Why did the author include minor characters?” “Why do you think the book ended as it did?” And so on. Toward the end of the half-hour period—or at some other time in the day when people were working independently—students would be pulling out notebooks and steno pads and writing about their reading.

Reading is, of course, central to the elementary school curriculum, and Andy found multiple ways for students to use it and enjoy it. He had Colt dictate texts that became his reader. He encouraged students to consult the library’s reference books on projects ranging from the Montana Studies map to the adaptation-habitat assignment to the dimensions and characteristics of objects appearing in their artwork. He had teams of children select a poem, decide how it should be read, and read it aloud to the class—Edgar Allan Poe to Shel Silverstein. He was vigilant for the quick lesson, like the time he zeroed in on the lyric sheet to “America the Beautiful”—sung so often, so mechanically—asking the class the meaning of “amber waves of grain” and “purple mountain majesties,” and asking someone to please look up “grace” in the dictionary, leading to a discussion of the phrase “shed His grace on thee.” And he usually read a story or part of a novel to the class just for fun before or after lunch or at the end of the day. Once when I was in the library with Erica helping her revise a story, I could hear him reading from Scary Stories in a Peter Lorre voice.

Twelve noon. Lunch. Those who brought mini-pizzas or containers of cooked food lined up in front of the microwave; the others unwrapped sandwiches, opened bags of chips, peeled oranges and bananas. Since there were no vending or ice machines here, most children brought their lunches in small portable coolers, the modern version of the lunch pail. Lunch was a quick affair, a little chatter inflected with sports and mainstream popular culture—Heather and Tyler talking to each other in the voice of Pauly Shore. It was not long before someone yelled, “Last one out is it,” and there was a scramble for jackets and the door. Andy followed outside holding at chest-level a Tupperware container of leftover spaghetti, scooping a forkful toward his open mouth.

Andy Bayliss was 34, five-eleven, thin, brown hair, boyish. He grew up in Marshall, Mo., went to grade school and high school there, worked for a few years after graduation. When his parents moved to Oregon, he enrolled at Southern Oregon State College, where he took a bachelor of science degree in geography and biology. He worked six years as a biology technician for the Forest Service—”running around streams, counting fish”—and, during the winters, was a ski instructor. He used his athletic skill as a passport and skied in the Italian Alps, in Argentina and Chile, and in Alaska. He was in his early 30s when he began to think that the work he was doing “had no effect on the flow of events” and wondered about teaching as a way to make a difference, to help young people “develop informed opinions and think for themselves.” So he enrolled in a teacher-education program at the University of Alaska Southeast at Juneau and did his student teaching in Anchorage.

He became intrigued by the possibilities of the multigrade classroom and craved a place where he could settle in and ski and canoe and hike. So he followed a path that began somewhere back in the recesses of the Republic, following hundreds of thousands before him, mostly women, mostly young, often inexperienced, working under term-to-term contracts, staying half a year, a year, maybe two or three, living at home, if local, or boarding, often in tight quarters (bathing, as one woman put it, “with a teacup and handkerchief”), or, as time progressed and conditions improved, living in a teacherage like Andy’s. It was, for many, lonely work, and, for women especially, terribly underpaid.

Much has changed for teachers in small rural districts, but it is still common for them to be employed, as Andy was, from year to year, with minimal possibility for tenure, and they still get paid less than their larger-district counterparts. In Montana, some country teachers are paid in the $11,000-to-$13,000 range. Andy’s starting salary, and this was somewhere close to average in rural Montana, was $15,500. But add the teacherage. And the multigrade experience. And the landscape. From the front door of the school, Andy showed me the slopes he skied when the snow was fresh.

It did, however, get lonely. Andy’s weekdays, of course, were filled with activity, and on weekend days, weather permitting, he was out on the land. Occasionally after school there were board meetings or other civic events, but for the most part evenings were solitary. Hospitable as the residents of the Grasshopper Valley were, they were spread out, and for someone like Andy, who came to Polaris without a family, there was minimal opportunity for companionship. As for having a woman visitor to the teacherage, well, that would be, to the community’s way of thinking, a delicate proposition. There were definite strictures on behavior.

Andy felt the isolation in another way. Like all new teachers, even ones with a feel for the classroom, Andy was wrestling with the question of authority. How to “be myself” yet do something about the bickering, and how to pull in those students who had a tendency to withdraw or rebel. At heart, he was trying to figure out how to be in his classroom, and he had to come to an answer pretty much on his own. There was an experienced and talented teacher named Linda Hicks at a small school in Glen who had befriended Andy, and she provided good counsel, but Glen was on the other side of the Pioneer mountain range, on the eastern edge of the county, so it was difficult to meet with her—particularly during school hours, when Andy could watch her teach. Laments about such isolation, both social and professional, are scattered through the letters and diaries of rural teachers; Andy’s questions and conflicts echo across the history of the one-room school.

But for now, Andy was it, standing in the middle of the dirt driveway, the children on either side of him. One, then another tried to sprint around him to get to the other side. Dustin or Reba or Russell, his long legs pumping, would take off, running through the grass, jutting hips forward or to the side to elude Andy’s tag. And Andy, with a big grin and a grunt of exertion, accelerated across the dirt, the grass, down an incline by the propane tank, striding out, catching the curve of a shoulder with his fingertips.

Twelve-thirty-five, and the students were settling back into the classroom. In a packet of materials provided by the county, Andy found a role-playing activity that caught his fancy. It was a council between Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph and General Oliver Otis Howard, who had traveled west to force the Nez Perce onto a reservation. (This figured in Montana history for, in their subsequent attempts to elude containment, the Nez Perce would travel across southwestern Montana—engaging the U.S. Army in a bloody battle at Big Hole, about 60 miles from Polaris—and up the middle of the state, through the plains toward Canada.) In addition to the general and Chief Joseph, there were roles for eight other students—from a Nez Perce warrior to a railroad executive to a rancher—so, with a little doctoring, adding a few warriors and aides, Andy was able to fit the assignment to his class.

The curricular materials gave paragraph-long descriptions of each character, but Andy felt they didn’t offer an adequate account of the history surrounding the council, nor did they convey Chief Joseph’s eloquence on the injustice of the government’s treatment of the Nez Perce. So he found a brief history in the school’s library and read it by way of introduction. “As I read this,” he said, “be thinking of the role you might want to play.” “This’ll be interesting,” I heard Heather whisper to Erica. When he asked the students to choose roles, to his relief there were no major disputes. Only James chose not to participate. Andy had the class spend about 10 minutes working up their roles, and he and Michele moved among them, asking questions, providing direction.

The event itself lasted about 20 minutes. Andy had rearranged the tables into a square, and the children seemed to get carried away with the drama. The younger children had to lean into things to be heard, but they made themselves known. Some children, both younger and older, tended to follow the descriptions in the materials, the line of argument, the phrasing, but some truly assumed the role and generated passionate language and real exchange.

Erica played an Indian warrior, one of the younger Nez Perce who could no longer tolerate the dislocation and slaughter of his people. She argued fiercely, articulately, the role seeming to touch some personal understanding of injustice. Taking on Tyler, who chose the role of a rancher, and Stephen, who played General Howard, she proclaimed in various retorts: “I’m a warrior. . . . The more land we give you, the more you want. . . . You ask us to move to a reservation. Why don’t your people move to a reservation? . . . There are white men killing Indians, but it is only against the law when an Indian kills a white.”

Heather was the other vocal spokesperson for the Nez Perce, assuming the role of Chief Joseph, gaining from Andy’s reading a sense of the chief’s eloquence, trying to match it as she played off Erica’s spirited defense. “How can we make peace,” she asked toward the end of the council, “when you kill our people and our livestock? You say you need protection, but you would not need protection if whites weren’t killing our women and children. This land is our father and mother, and it is being taken from us.”

And 5th grader Stephen, who wasn’t particularly engaged by school and made that known in his daily interactions with Andy, took on the role of General Howard with vigor. Stephen had Russell roll up and tape the right arm of his jean jacket—the general had lost an arm in the Civil War—and using his left fist as a gavel, called the council to order. In line with the historical account, he played the general as insistent and uncompromising—”I give you three days to make a decision to move”—and as an impatient emissary dead-set on a resolution favorable to the U.S. government. During one of Heather’s impassioned declarations, he stood up and interrupted: “I say we should have peace here. Let’s get to the point.”

When Stephen called the council to a close, Andy directed the class to think about what they had heard and to ask themselves what might have gone differently and how that would have affected the course of history. They would write on this later in the week.

At ten after two, Andy was introducing Mrs. Sally Park and her daughter Jenny—they had slipped in during the role play—and preparing the class for a lesson in the techniques of watercoloring.

During the summer, between terms in Andy’s teacher-education program in Juneau, he ran a day camp with Jenny Park. She had since moved to a ranch near Salmon, Idaho, just west over the Beaverhead Mountains. Her mother, an artist who lived in Denver, was visiting, and since she liked to volunteer in schools, Jenny and Andy made arrangements for this afternoon’s art lesson. Andy introduced Mrs. Park just as something was flaring between Rossy and Stephen. “Hey, everyone,” reprimanded Tyler, “listen to Mrs. Park!”

Sally Park began the lesson by holding up a picture book, open to a panoramic Western scene: soft mountains in the background, grassland in the middle, a cowboy on his horse in the left foreground. Using her finger as a pointer, she talked briefly about the way the painting was composed, the arrangement of the shapes within it—the movement from the hazy background to the detailed foreground. “As you move forward, the colors and shapes become sharper, more distinct.” She showed the students how the artist used color to contribute to the illusion of perspective: the soft blue sky in the distance, the contrasting of darks and lights to make an object stand out. Then she returned to the issue of definition: “Notice, then, how the edges of things up close will be highly defined, and look how soft the edges are on those faraway mountains.”

Over the hour, Andy’s students learned how to do a wash, “loading” a brush with water and paint, sweeping it across the paper with broad strokes of color. They learned how to bleed colors one into the other, and how to make shadows, and how to use particular brushes for specific effects: the thin grasslike streaks you can get from a big, dry brush, the way you can wet and shape the tip of the fine sable brush for dots and precise lines. Mrs. Park showed them the crisp, dark speckles that appear when salt is sprinkled on damp watercolor and the rivulet effects you get by blowing across wet paper. And she demonstrated the way you can draw the outline of a petal or a leaf just with water, then float a color in, the paint following the wet tracing, fading and light.

The students were ready to turn this range of techniques toward the production of watercolors of their own. They would continue over the next few days. The light blue washes, the mauve circles of bleeding purple and red, the waves and dots and fine green lines of grass, all used in service of an original work. With pencil and fine brush, James would render the tree-covered face of a mountain. Rossy would paint a stark, creviced Bald Mountain against a blue and yellow sky. Erica, a rose-colored barn. Dustin, a purple-fanned Cadillac. Russell, a field of haystacks, light brown and orange.

While the class was busy creating their watercolors, about two-fifteen or so, I looked out the window to see a pickup truck and horse trailer pull into the yard and around the swings. A tall woman got out—she was wearing a jacket, gloves, and a stocking cap—took a shovel from inside the trailer, and began breaking up the soil along the south boundary of the school yard. I soon found out that this was Cathy Tash, head of the school board. Many of the tasks that in large districts would be divided among units in a bureaucracy are in small independent districts taken on by the school board and community: from purchasing school supplies to stockpiling wood to painting the classroom. It was one more indicator of the degree to which the school was a focus of community activity. Cathy leaned into the shovel. She was digging out the long-jump pit, hard and crusted from winter.

This was the first day of practice for the coming rural schools track meet, a big event in this region, one with history. Looking through those old record books, I found faded clippings from the Dillon newspaper describing the “fierce competition” among schools in the sprints, hurdles, and field events. Now the students in Andy Bayliss’ class would be preparing for the standing long jump, the running long jump, the shot put, the high jump. Erica’s mother, Delores, came into the room. She wore sweats and had a stopwatch hanging around her neck. She and Cathy were the volunteer track coaches.

By two-forty, Tyler, Russell, and James had joined Cathy and were filling the long-jump pit with the fresh sand she had in her trailer. Andy, Melissa, and Erica had gone into the barn where the crossbar for the high jump lay bent in hay and were setting up the stands and thumping out the padding for the first trials at four feet. And Erica’s mother had marked off a corner of the concrete basketball court and was showing Rossy and Heather how to execute the little backward hop and turn of the shot put.

Snow fell in the lightest flurries. The day had warmed considerably. Leo and Russell were in T-shirts; most of the other children in pullovers and sweat shirts. All of them, 2nd grade through 8th, were practicing some event, many moving from one to the other. One of the benefits of small schools like Polaris is that students get to participate in so many activities, to play so many roles. Rossy, Heather, and Leo marked the length of their puts with pencils stuck in the ground. Dustin, Tyler, Melissa, and Erica ran at the crossbar in a focused, striding curve across the grass, right leg and arm over the bar, shoulders, butt, sometimes clearing it, sometimes catching it with a heel, sending it clattering to the ground. Erica matched Tyler jump for jump. At the long-jump pit, fresh now, Colt was sprinting down the runway, his face twisted with effort. Cathy stood by with a garden rake, preparing the surface between jumps with its flat end. James would come next, then Russell. Both would register impressive distances. Their strong takeoff, the fluid lift of their legs, their extension at the end.

Practice lasted well into the afternoon; some children left as their parents arrived, some stayed longer, some lingered. As I walked back inside the school, I saw Erica lying on the padding of the high-jump pit, legs crossed, a book open on her chest, looking off toward the northern mountains. James was drifting back and farther back off the court, onto the grass, finding his spot, setting, releasing the basketball with a little jump and a twisting thrust off his right side, the ball arcing through the air, swishing through the net.

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as A Little School Under the Big Sky