Our fifth grade social studies curriculum takes us through U.S. History from the 1750s through 1865. We conclude our year with a short focus on the Women’s Rights Movement and Civil Rights. While there are always a few history buffs, most of my ten to eleven year-olds don’t understand the importance of learning about events that happened so long ago. (I’m sure there are many adults that may also feel this way too.) While I minored in history in college, I’m not sure I was as interested in our past as a fifth grader either. Engaging students and guiding them to think deeply about these topics requires more than reading, discussions and assessments. Learning through simulations where students take on a character from these time periods, reading historic fiction and incorporating our knowledge in our writing has helped more of my students look forward to learning about these periods.
We just completed our unit on Westward Expansion. During this study students were given a choice of novels to select from for book club. We had four book clubs in our room. I also shared picture books with them representing this time period. Their favorites were a tall tale “Apples to Oregon” and “Priscilla and the Hollyhocks” a book about the Trail of Tears that also touched on slavery. Once we built our base knowledge, we began a simulation as pioneers on the Oregon Trail. Students were placed in wagon groups, randomly selected ages and occupations and together with their wagon family developed their personalities for the trail. As we journeyed, we were faced with decisions that real pioneers faced. These “fates” provided students with opportunities to learn more about adversity, landmarks and conditions along the trail. As we journeyed from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, we crossed rivers (learning techniques as we went,) encountered Indians (realizing that most were not hostel,) came to trading posts 9where supplies were much more expensive and the shop keepers weren’t always honest,) viewed natural markers including Independence Rock and learned about injuries as well as sicknesses the pioneers faced. Each fate was crafted from information from real pioneer journals. We researched as we went learning about cholera, scurvy, frontier men including Fremont and Carson, alkali (Alkali Springs,) geysers and how to cross mountain ranges safely. As we traveled students complete journal entries detailing their travels in narrative form during Writer’s Workshop. Here’s an excerpt from one of the journals:
July 27, 1855
It has been getting a little worse but I am not discouraged. Lots of stuff has happened in the last couple of days. First of all, we had a chance to go Ayers Natural Bridge and nobody wanted to go. I kind of wish we did because everyone said it was amazing. Luckily they brought back some really tasty berries and shared them with everyone. Then, we had to cross the hardest river of all, the North Platte. We could have either stayed and wait out the storm or go right away, paying 8 dollars. We went, which was a really good idea because if we had stayed we would have been hit by another storm and still had to pay since the river was so high. That would stink to be someone who stayed. Then a terrible event happened. We camped at Poison Springs. At first the water looked clear and clean enough to drink. . At least that’s what we thought. We learned the mud on the bottom, if stirred up would poison the water. We decided to post guards at night to keep our animals safe. At night one of our stupid guards, that I strongly dislike, fell asleep on duty. While he was sleeping, the animals got away and started drinking the contaminated water. Guess what happened? Yep, all the ones that got away died. It was all the guard’s fault! I just wanted to whip him and then tar and feather him. Everyone else in our family wasn't even mad at him. What were they thinking? Now we have three less animals. After that we went to another place with contaminated water. The poison was called alkali. Our water supply is running really low and I am not sure we will make it. We finally made it to Independence Rock. I hear lots of stories of where people would celebrate the Fourth of July here, but we arrived later in July. Writing in this diary is getting really tiring. I think I will take a break.
Towards the end of our unit we met with the two other fifth grade classes on the trail and celebrated around a campfire. We listened to a story from a famous story teller, sang some songs from this period, played instruments we brought, danced and feasted on popcorn, beef jerky and apple juice. By combining literacy learning. reading, writing, research, deep thinking using various strategies and mini lessons) along with our simulation, students were engaged and had a lot of fun. Next stop the Civil War, and yes they will be participating in a simulation
Here's a link with some of the information from our simulation: