Back in the mid-1800s, when the pioneers set off on the Oregon Trail from Missouri, it took about five months to make the grueling 2,000-mile expedition by covered wagon.
This fall, thanks to modern technology and creative teachers, Principia School’s third-grade students have virtually and directly experienced the same journey over a period of just five weeks.
In their highly interactive and experiential social studies unit, students expanded understanding of the Westward Expansion and strengthened reading, writing and math skills. The timing of this fall’s unit was fortuitous—as the grandparents of a classmate were following the Oregon Trail as closely as possible in their own “wagon” (a camper). Each week, these “wagon masters” sent the class lively e-mails, with photos, observations, and nuggets of history.
“You can be sure a lot of reading, writing, math, collaboration, discussion, cooperation, and more has been taking place in our classroom,” says class teacher Heather Schierholz.
The students organized themselves into wagon teams and developed family identities, choosing appropriate occupations and naming their children and animals. Now, that takes cooperation!
After visits to places such as the Museum of Westward Expansion and the Lewis and Clark Boathouse in St. Charles, students recorded journal entries. They also explained why their family is going West. In addition, each family had to plan for purchasing supplies and calculate how much they could carry and what they could afford.
Having learned how to use a compass, the students found their way through Principia’s woods and tackled challenges on the ropes course and climbing wall that represented landmarks along the Oregon Trail. It took bravery, courage, and perseverance (just like the emigrants) to scale “Chimney Rock” (the climbing wall), traverse over the raging Columbia River (a high rope bridge), and walk the “Devil’s Backbone” (a high beam).