Book Review:
Making the Grade: Plucky Schoolmarms of Kittitas County

  • Posted 5/06/2010
  • Essay 9420
By Barb Owen
Washington State University, Pullman Washington
228 pages, including maps and more than 100 photographs
Paperback 190 pages
ISBN-10: 0874222990
ISBN-13: 978-0874222999

Making the Grade: Plucky Schoolmarms of Kittitas County, the first book by former elementary school teacher Barb Owen, chronicles the lives of 13 teachers who worked in remote schoolhouses in Kittitas County between the years of 1914 and 1942. With colorful descriptions of the early years of formal education in Washington state, Making the Grade is a collection of personal accounts from those independent, courageous, and enthusiastic teachers  

For most of the teachers whose stories were recounted here, teaching in a rural schoolhouse was their first job following the conclusion of their own schooling. They found themselves many miles from friends and families, often with only a year or two of teacher certification training. New teachers often taught in rural districts because the more experienced teachers filled positions in the cities. Some of the teachers were barely older than their oldest students when they first began teaching. Through the eyes of each of these teachers, the author recounts their lives and duties, ranging from teaching to building fires, hauling water, and cleaning the schoolhouse. Each chapter features the narrative of one former teacher's style, with humorous anecdotes and stories punctuated by historical background information.  

The captivating stories retold in Making the Grade capture the ordeals and rewards of teaching in rural one-room schoolhouses where everyone knew everyone and students walked up to three miles to school each day. Those who were educated in more modern school buildings may be surprised to find that these young teachers taught not just one grade, but four or five, contained in a single room.  

Despite the challenge of teaching children ages 6 to 16 in the  same classroom, teachers were expected to prepare their oldest students to pass the eighth-grade examination, which was then the qualification for attending high school. Many of those students had attended school only sporadically, taking months-long breaks to help on the farm and with other necessities. Despite this, the teachers in Making the Grade understood that the eighth-grade exam was their last chance to impart knowledge into the minds of these eager learners, many of whom would not continue on to high school.

Perhaps surprising to many readers, the teachers in Making the Grade reported very few problems with discipline. Several cited their close relationships with the students' families as a reason for their respect and obedience. Often, the teachers would board with one of the families of their pupils. Ready for adventure, for several of the teachers the experience of the one-room-schoolhouse was not just an introduction to teaching, but also an introduction to rural life, from riding a horse to harvesting wild onions.  

Each account in Making the Grade underscores the centrality of the schoolhouse to the social life in these rural communities; every former teacher profiled here recounts holiday programs, box socials, dances, and picnics. Facing their ordeals with creativity and dedication, these young schoolmarms enhanced the lives of many children, earning the adoration of the rural communities in which they served. Despite their relative unpreparedness, the 13 former schoolteachers whose stories are retold here fondly recollect their earliest teaching years played out in remote locales. Making the Grade is a heartwarming story of the trials, tribulations, and successes found by teachers in the rural Kittitas County schoolhouses of nearly a century ago.

By Megan Churchwell, May 6, 2010

Submitted: 5/06/2010

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