Pioneer Educator Olive Mann Isbell

P_32405Pioneer and educator Olive Mann Isbell is a little known figure from California history, but she contributed to our state in a very big way. She is credited as being the first teacher in a school conducted in English in California.

In 1846, when Olive was only 22 years old, she and her husband, Dr. Isaac Isbell, traveled west in a Conastoga wagon as part of the Aram-Imus wagon train. The California territory had recently been severed from Mexico, and the Isbells arrived just as the Mexican army was poised to attack in an attempt to reclaim the land. To attempt to keep them safe, Olive and over two hundred American women and children were barricaded inside Mission Santa Clara de Asis, while the men were quickly drafted to defend the dilapidated fort. Inside the shelter, Olive, sensing the anxiety of the children, decided to organize a school to occupy their attention. The newly-arrived pioneer was well-suited to this work, being the niece of the famous educator Horace Mann and an experienced teacher from her home state of Ohio. With little more than a stick and sooty chalk, Olive conducted her lessons by day, and at night she nursed her fellow pioneers to health and melted down whatever metals she could find to make bullets.

When  Mexico finally laid down their arms and signed a truce with the United States on January 3, 1847, Olive’s Santa Clara Mission School became recognized as the first American school on California soil. This mission school property now belongs to the University of Santa Clara.

You can read more about this amazing educator in my new book, Chalkboard Heroes, now available from

Author Mary Breu reviews Chalkboard Heroes

Below you will find a review of my recently released book, Chalkboard Heroes, written by Mary Breu, author of Last Letters from Attu, the enthralling story of Etta Jones, an intrepid teacher and nurse from New Jersey who traveled to the Alaskan Territory as a pioneer. Etta Jones was incarcerated in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II.

Chalkboard Heroes: Review

by Mary Breu

authorTerry Lee Marzell, Chalkboard Heroes: Twelve Courageous Teachers and Their Deeds of Valor. Tucson, Arizona: Wheatmark, 2015. vii + 243 pp. Preface, photographs, glossary, bibliography, index.

Chalkboard Heroes: Twelve Courageous Teachers and Their Deeds of Valor is the author’s second book, a non-fiction compilation of innovative teachers who have impacted their students and our society; some names are familiar, others are not. Each profile has been thoroughly researched and includes vivid descriptions that exemplify qualities that make an excellent teacher. The reader can peek through a window and see the teachers’ early lives, watch him or her develop and see what inspired their passion for teaching. The teachers’ voices allow the reader to get a feel for the personalities and qualities of people who encouraged them to become teachers. The teachers in this book demonstrate the essence of what a teacher does; they find ways, sometimes against incredible odds, to reach his or her students and make learning more real as opposed to standing in front of the class and lecturing. Valuable backgrounds and historical events are included. The author’s writing style pulls the reader in by telling something striking about the teacher and that makes the reader eager to find out more.

Horace Mann’s niece, Olive Mann Isbell, was born in Ohio in 1824. Twenty-two years later, she and her husband found themselves at a Mission in California. The Mexican -American War was raging all around them, but Olive continued to teach her twenty students, using “a long pointed stick to draw diagrams on the dirt floor” and “charcoal from an extinguished fire to write the letters of the alphabet on the palms of the children’s hands. And she kept a long rifle by her side, just in case” (Page 2.) One hundred forty years later, another teacher “discovered that much information about the social history of the United States has been found in diaries, travel accounts and personal letters. Just as the pioneer travelers of the Conestoga wagon days kept personal journals, I, as a pioneer space traveler, would do the same.” (Page 187.) The teacher’s name was Christa McAuliffe. The author wrote, “Christa believed that such a journal, which would record space flight from the perspective from a non-astronaut, would demonstrate to students that even an ordinary person could contribute to history in very important ways” (Page 187).

Today, when teachers are in the throes of bureaucratic paperwork, subjected to administrators who make unrealistic demands, respond to parents who question a teacher’s seemingly unreasonable assignments and deal with students who, the teacher knows, come from incredibly difficult home environments, reading about these teachers’ lives will be an inspiration because, in the end, all a teacher wants to do is teach. The common thread woven into the fabric of this book is a quote from Lee Iacocca: “In a completely rational society, the best of us would aspire to be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something less, because passing civilization along from one generation to the next ought to be the highest honor and highest responsibility anyone could have” (Page 1.) Christa McAuliffe understood that message when she proclaimed, “I touch the future…I teach!” (Page 177.)

I recommend this book to teachers of all grade levels. Middle and high school students would also benefit from the author’s clear, concise and correct telling of historical events and people.


Read More by Mary Breu

To view Mary Breu’s web page, simply click on Mary Breu.

To  find Mary Breu’s book on, click on Last Letters from Attu.


Reflections about Heroes: Twelve Courageous Educators who Have Earned the Title

superteacher_colorIt seems to be a universal practice in classrooms to ask students to think about, talk about, and write about the topic of heroism. Teachers frequently ask, “Who are our heroes?” “What are the qualities of a hero?” “What actions are considered heroic?” Often, a common response to these questions is a hero is an individual who goes above and beyond the usual, the expected, or the required, and that a heroic act involves significant courage, risk, and sacrifice.

In my next book, Chalkboard Heroes, which will be available in about three months, you will find the stories of twelve courageous teachers in American history who took considerable risks and made substantial sacrifices. For example, there are the countless teachers who protect our country by serving in the armed forces and the National Guard. If the times call for it, they valiantly march off to war. Henry Alvin Cameron who fought in World War I and Francis Wayland Parker, a Civil War veteran, are but two of these soldier teachers. There are the social reformers, the chalkboard heroes who endanger their personal safety to bring about improved conditions and better lives for America’s disenfranchised citizens. Teachers like Dolores Huerta, the champion of migrant farm workers; Robert Parris Moses, the 1960’s civil rights activist; Prudence Crandall, who defied prevailing social convention to open a school for African American girls; Carrie Chapman Catt, the suffragist; and Zitkala Sa, who campaigned tirelessly for the constitutional rights of Native Americans. There are the courageous pioneers who take great risks to blaze a trail for others to follow. Educators like Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space; Willa Brown Chappell, the pioneer aviatrix who taught Tuskegee airmen to fly; Etta Schureman Jones, the Alaskan pioneer who landed in a POW camp in Japan during WWII; and Olive Mann Isbell, who immigrated to the West and established the first English school in California—while the Mexican American War raged all around her. And then there are the teachers who lay down their lives to protect the students whose safety has been entrusted to their care. Teachers like Dave Sanders, the chalkboard hero of Columbine High School.

These twelve are but a few of the countless heroic teachers in American history. Their stories are perhaps all the more remarkable when we consider that in our society, teaching is usually considered a safe profession, classrooms are typically considered safe places, teachers are not usually recognized as risk-takers. The accounts of the twelve chalkboard heroes presented here show us that these perceptions are not at all a reflection of reality.