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NYU Steinhardt EMAT Teaching Residency
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If you are looking for project ideas for an 1850s Westward Expansion/Oregon Trail unit, click here


Math, Social Studies, Language Arts  


6, 5, 4  


Title – Westward Movement
By – Kati Jones
Primary Subject – Social Studies, Language Arts, Math
Grade Level – 4-6

Note from We took the liberty of adding more ideas to this lesson than were originally submitted by Miss Jones. Her idea inspired us, and we hope these ideas inspire you.

This project teaches students what life was like in the days of the covered wagon.

After or while studying westward expansion, divide the students into families. They pick their starting point and their destination. For example: If the students decide as a “family” to start in Springfield, Missouri and decide to end up in Walla Walla, Washington, then they would write that down and turn it in for approval, along with some facts about the “family” itself. Are they homesteaders, miners, Mormons, immigrants, missionaries? They would get a map and plot their trail. For math, they could figure out the length of their journey. They could research how fast their mode of transportation traveled (Conastoga wagon, sailing ship, horse, canoe) and make a graph comparing how many days their journey would take compared to if they took that same journey by car today. They could make a list of the supplies they will need for this journey, and then calculate the total weight or volume of the boxes and barrels that would hold these supplies. For language arts, social studies, and science they could keep a historically accurate handwritten journal of their trip describing the new plants, animals, and land masses they see and the people that they meet. The first entry should describe what their life was like before they decided to make the journey. The last entry should be made after they have been at their destination for a couple of months. Maybe they met someone that talked a different language and they could research some of their words or customs. Maybe they could record an appropriate recipe or campfire song. Then along the way they could run into some problems… How did science treat an illness in the 1850s compared to today?

The journal could be done by the “family,” but each student should also write three letters home describing the trip and their experiences from their own personal viewpoint. The “family” should decide where they will be on their journey for the required number of entries, and date them. They should brainstorm and outline the experiences that will happen on each day. Then they can decide how to split the research, writing, and art work and present this rough draft plan to you.

When the project is completed, parents could be invited to “Project Night.” The “family” teams could make a poster or project board with a map of their journey, a model or pictures of their mode of transportation that they drew or found on the internet, a small introduction paragraph explaining what type of family they are and why they are making this journey, and the graph showing how many days it would take. They could display some of their supplies or pictures of their supplies. They could wear appropriate costumes or draw a family portrait. They could perform a song of the time period, present food of the period, demonstrate a craft or an interesting toy.

After this project is set up, it teaches itself. The teacher controls the complexity by tailoring it to the standards that need to be met. A handout explaining exactly what is mandatory, elective, and extra credit should be given out. Project deadlines and a grading rubric would really help the students keep on track. The teacher should give plenty of library research, internet, group, and art time. Then it is up to the student’s imagination. If the student decides to be a child and write about the toy he played with that day, he will have to research toys of the 1850s. He might want to make that toy for project night. If he wants to eat, he has to figure out what he would eat on the trail and how would it would be prepared. If he has to get dressed, what would he wear? If he drew a picture, would it be of a buffalo, a mountain, or a trapper? What would his birthday be like? What chores would he do? Would he get to ride a horse or shoot a gun? What would his new life be like when he finally reaches his destination? Would it be better or worse? How exciting!

E-Mail Kati Jones !

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