The Westward Expansion forever altered America. This statement, written on the whiteboard of every third-grade classroom, was the starting point for students as they began their simulated journey west in the 1840s in search of a new life. Third graders adopted pioneer identities and imagined packing all their belongings plus supplies needed to face challenges such as floods, droughts, lack of food, snake bites, and treacherous river crossings as their wagon trains made their way across the Oregon Trail.
A hallmark of the GCDS third-grade experience, this project is one that students remember for years to come. “Journey West” is a rich example of the kind of immersive learning that happens throughout the Upper Elementary School.
“This type of active engagement and participation in their learning helps students solidify their understanding of content while applying academic skills,” said Jacqueline Jenkins, Head of Upper Elementary School.
Throughout the journey, which took place over the spring semester, third graders asked essential questions, such as:
• Why did thousands of people suddenly decide to pack all their worldly possessions into small wagons?
• What did they experience on the trail?
• Who benefitted from this expansion and who suffered from it?
We considered the reasons people decided to go West. There were so many motivations—crowded cities, religious freedom, desire for land,” said Ellen Sweeney, a third-grade teacher.
In preparation for their adventure, students learned about the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Westward Trails, and the Gold Rush. They also examined historical documents and relevant maps, watched videos, and read fiction and non-fiction books and articles.
The Journey West project, once called “Westward Ho!” has evolved in recent years to take into account multiple perspectives, the hardships of the trip, and new scholarship about this period of time.
“We want them to understand it wasn’t about packing a camper to drive west for vacation,” said Mrs. Sweeney. “The pioneers most often walked alongside the wagon and the journey was arduous. It was a huge decision to leave your home for such an uncertain future where many failed to reach their ultimate destination.”
“As we traveled west, we acknowledge how the expansion altered the lives of those living on the land,” said Mrs. Puntereri, a third-grade teacher.
Along the Trail
The student pioneers began their expedition on the Hacker Trail—an imagined trail patterned after the Oregon Trail. Each class was divided into two wagon trains with wagon leaders, who were voted on by fellow classmates. The groups had to make numerous decisions along the way—how to get water, which paths to take, and whether the group moves forward during the snow. Working as teams, they used their critical thinking and problem-solving skills and earned points as they made progress.
“It was very exciting because you didn’t know your fate after you made your decision. It was revealed to you,” said third-grader Virginia Gray. “Every little thing mattered on the journey.”
Along the trail, students wrote diary entries in the voice of the pioneer character they developed. In addition to practicing their letter writing skills, they also worked on their creative writing by describing life on the trail in detail. At the end of the journey, students chose a topic for a research paper. Using books and online resources in the digital library, they wrote about
Annie Oakley, the California Gold Rush, and the Comanche Tribe, a nomadic American Indian tribe known for breeding horses. Along with their papers, they created a related project to reflect their learning in a form of their choice—a diorama, a movie, a game, a poster.
“For their research papers, we asked students to pick topics that really spoke to them and come up with questions to focus on,” said Mrs. Puntereri. “Through the research, they answered their questions.”
In addition to the history and writing, the unit incorporates multiple disciplines. Students took a scientific approach to their journey west by exploring the topography and weather patterns the pioneers faced that deterred their journey along the Oregon Trail. In art class, they learned to weave Native American patterns and in maker class, they created their own model wagons. In physical education, they played pioneer and Native American games. In the Library, they learned about characteristics of folklore and American Tall Tales to expand their knowledge of literature and make cultural connections to this historical period.
The third grade also made their way to French Farm to engage in some hands-on pioneer activities, such as candle making and spinning and dyeing wool.
The Journey West adventure ended with a celebratory evening with families where students, panned for gold, played pioneer games, and listened to Native American stories.
Journey West is an example of Project-Based Learning (PBL) in the Upper Elementary School. PBL is a methodology whereby “students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge.” While allowing for some degree of student “voice and choice,” rigorous projects are carefully planned, managed, and designed to help students learn essential academic skills, create high-quality, authentic projects and presentations, and exercise elements of the Portrait of a Learner, such as collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.