Lesson Plan

The Freeman School: Building Prairie Communities

One room, red brick, red door school house in a flat, prairie setting
Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6-8.RH.2, 6-8.RH.3, 6-8.RH.4, 6-8.RH.5, 6-8.RH.6, 6-8.RH.7, 6-8.RH.8, 6-8.RH.9, 6-8.RH.10, 9-10.RH.1, 9-10.RH.2, 9-10.RH.3, 9-10.RH.4, 9-10.RH.5, 9-10.RH.6, 9-10.RH.7, 9-10.RH.8, 9-10.RH.9, 9-10.RH.10
Additional Standards:
US History Era 4 Standard 2E: The student understands the settlement of the West
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies from the National Council for the Social Studies

Essential Question

How did Americans organize to educate pioneer children on the U.S. frontier?


1. Understand the relationship between U.S. land and homestead policies and the construction of schools and development of communities on the western frontiers;
2. Describe the importance of one-room schools to people in developing communities of the American West as educational facilities and community centers;
3. Compare/contrast the educational experience of rural students in one-room schools with their own educational experiences;
4. Research the oldest school in their community.


Time Period: Late 19th century to early 20th century.
Topics: The lesson could be used in U.S. history, social studies, and geography courses in units on westward expansion and homesteading, the history of education in America, early mapping of lands, and studies of American cultural developments.


It seemed, as I recall it, a lonely little house of scholarship...But that humble little school had a dignity of a fixed and far off purpose...It was the outpost of civilization. It was the advance guard of the pioneer, driving the wilderness farther into the west. It was life preparing wistfully for the future.
James Rooney, in Journey from Ignorant Ridge, 1976

The Freeman School, or the Red-Brick School House as it was originally called, served the community of Blakely Township, Nebraska from 1872 to 1967. It is representative of the one-room schools that once dotted the landscape of the American West. At the time it closed it had the honor of being the oldest, continuously used one-room school in the state of Nebraska. The Freeman school served not only as an educational center, but also as the church, a meeting hall, the township polling place, and as the social and political center of the community.

At present, the National Park Service maintains and preserves this historic structure that is located within the boundaries of Homestead National Monument of America in southeastern Nebraska.

Although no children's voices fill the yard, the red brick school still offers visitors the lesson that one-room schools were not only places where children learned reading, writing and arithmetic, but also places where far-flung families could gather to forge a sense of community.

Lesson Hook/Preview

As the country expanded west from the Atlantic seaboard, the ideal of an educated citizenry followed the frontier. Shortly after the conclusion of the War for Independence, Congress passed the Land Ordinance of 1785. It provided for the uniform and orderly survey of the western lands into six square mile townships composed of 36 sections a square mile each. The ordinance recognized the high value Americans placed on education by reserving income from Section 16 in each township for public schools. Throughout the early 19th century, the U.S. Congress continued to attract settlers to the frontier by providing land grants to subsidize public schools. For example, upon the territorial organization of Oregon in 1848, the federal government required all newly established states and territories to provide public schools by allotting the money raised from the sales of lands in Sections 16 and 36 in every township for the support of education.

In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, a law that gave individuals 160 acres of land at the end of a five year period provided they lived on the land, built a house, and improved and farmed it. Although individuals did not have to be citizens to claim the land, they did have to be citizens in order to prove up on their claim. On January 1, 1863, Daniel Freeman, who claimed to be a Union soldier on leave from his regiment, filed a claim with the land agent at Brownville, Nebraska. He is recorded in the Brownsville record books as receiving patent No.1 on the first page of the first volume. Freeman may have been the earliest of 30 homestead applicants in land offices across the country to file his claim; however, many other homesteaders followed him.

In 1872, Daniel Freeman and his neighbors in Blakely Township built a red brick school in Section 22 to serve School District Number 21. At that time it closed in 1967, it was the oldest operating school in the state. The Freeman School remains the best example of a one-room school in Nebraska.


Getting Started Prompt
Map: Orients the students and encourages them to think about how place affects culture and society
Readings: Primary and secondary source readings provide content and spark critical analysis.
Visual Evidence: Students critique and analyze visual evidence to tackle questions and support their own theories about the subject.
Optional post-lesson activities: If time allows, these will deepen your students' engagement with the topics and themes introduced in the lesson, and to help them develop essential skills.


Homestead Act

Additional Resources

Homestead National Monument of America
The Freeman School is administered by Homestead National Monument of America, a unit of the National Park System. The park's web pages provide excellent information on the ecology of the prairie, the Homestead Act of 1862, Freeman family information, and a virtual tour of the Freeman School.

National Archives
Search the National Archives and Records Administration for a number of items about Western Expansion, including copies of the original Homestead Act and original maps of western areas that were being settled.

Library of Congress: The Northern Great Plains, 1880-1920
The Northern Great Plains includes a series of photographs of life on the Northern Great Plains between 1880 and 1920 that sets the physical and historical context for western settlers in this region. One section is dedicated to Schooling: Education on the Frontier.

National Register of Historic Places: Teaching with Historic Places
Explore the Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan, Iron Hill School: An African American One-Room School, that focuses on one of 80 schools built between 1919 and 1928 for African American children in Delaware by philanthropist Pierre Samuel du Pont as part of his "Delaware experiment" to reform the state's educational system.

Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University
The Clark Historical Library's Web pages include the on-line exhibit One Room Schools: Michigan's Educational Legacy. Featured sections of the exhibit include accounts by teachers and students, descriptions of activities at school, a bibliography of textbooks used by students, and architectural information.

Library of Congress:
The Library of Congress's Digital Collections offer a wide variety of resources about the history of one-room schools, including photographs and oral histories of people who attended them. Start with the search engine, being sure to choose "Match this exact phrase" before you enter "one room school."

Contact Information

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Last updated: March 3, 2020