Inside the one-room school

At Independence Valley Elementary School, the day begins with the Pledge of Allegiance.

But, like most things in Nevada's small rural schools, they don't quite do it the same way as other classrooms around the state. Teacher Linda Bunch picks a student to recite the pledge while the others stand, hands on their hearts, and listen.

"We used to do it with everybody saying it, but a lot of the kids were saying the words and not understanding, not hearing," said Bunch. It bothered her that they seemed to mouth the words without thinking about them.

"Now, one kid does the pledge each day." That way, each student has to actually know the words - and hopefully understand them.

After the pledge, each of Bunch's eight students in this tiny community some 60 miles northeast of Elko tells the class about something they saw on the way to school or the previous night.

"They live out here, but they weren't seeing. They didn't notice all these things. Now you'd be surprised what they see."

Most of the stories one Thursday dealt with wildlife and the natural beauty of the area - a Cooper's hawk flying overhead, a bobcat along the road, the first signs of fall on a September day.

Then it was time for geography - for everyone from first- to seventh-grade, with each student working at his or her own level. Each student was required to stand and present his or her assignment to the entire class.

"They're not afraid to get up and speak. First-graders will read to the class and the eighth-graders will listen. It can be agonizing, but they do," said Bunch.

In Ruby Valley, some 60 miles southeast of Elko, the 24 students broke into groups of four to six in mid-morning for English. Although they ranged from first through eighth grade, they didn't group according to age. Instead, each group had a range of ages with older students helping out the younger ones with their compositions.

"We don't teach by grade," said Jackie Nordling of Ruby Valley School. "We teach according to where they are in the subject."

"We group them developmentally," said Patricia Tanner, hired for the second Ruby Valley teaching position this year. "Something the big schools can't do."

"Multi-age is the best for learning, I think," she said.

As in the other schools, students keep their attention well focused on the books, although with seventh- and eighth-graders making up nearly half the student body, there is some teasing and banter especially during music class.

Carol Dufurrena of Leonard Creek said her five students have a wide range of skills complicated by the fact that the three Baltista children spoke no English when they arrived last year.

"We took it on as a project," said Dufurrena, pointing out that all three can now hold a conversation in English. "This has been the best thing for them."

In Denio, Robin Oelke has 10 students from grade 1 through 8 in her two room school. She says she depends on the older students to help with the younger ones so she has more time for one-on-one tutoring. And she has Jo Smout, a part-time teachers' assistant.

But she also teaches them to be "independent learners," working on their own while she helps others.

As she talked, her lone eighth-grader, Viola, was helping Jessica, a first-grader, with her arithmetic while Oelke's daughter Dusty was tutoring Ely, also in grade one, with his reading assignment.

Her other daughter, Danyelle, also in seventh grade, worked on her own assignment while keeping an eye on the remaining students.

"I keep an ear open and an eye open, but they have to be self sufficient," said Oelke.

After making sure everyone has their studies out, Cheryl Turner at Mound Valley School takes three students aside where they sit on the floor to examine a science experiment. One student works on the computer along the wall. The others focus on their books. There are few problems with talking or goofing off, because the class is much too small to hide or try to blame someone else.

"We can do things differently out here," said Bunch surveying her class. "For them."


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