This year in my fifth-grade classes we used the Oregon Trail and the pioneer movement across the American prairie as a motivational tool to encourage reading quality literature independently. The emphasis gave us opportunities to examine and learn about environmental history as it relates to the prairie regions and to appreciate the significance of the prairie, the interrelationships among the plants, animals and climate, and the relevance of humans as a part of this unique geographic region. Without the background I received from the institute last summer, I could not have approached the topics we covered in our classroom as we did. My whole understanding of environmental history was formulated during the readings, the lectures, and the opportunities to discuss and determine my own feelings and beliefs and what I would do with the new-found knowledge. My kids truly do care about the environment; they just need to see how humans and their interactions with nature have changed the world. The month in Kansas gave me an opportunity to think and investigate history in a new way and I hope to impart this ability and desire to my students through the above theme.
Using the rich environment of the prairie, we first identified it as our “place,” part of our surroundings. We studied its expanse and how it differs from east to west and the significance rainfall plays. We then studied the Indian groups that had their home on the prairie and how living there influenced their lifestyles; we looked at the minimal impact they had on the environment as we read their legends and got to know the wildlife they knew. Then we read The Cabin Faced West by Jean Fritz and mapped the migrations of the white settlers. Finally we were ready to begin our “journey” as we discussed why persons would choose to go west. We laid out our route, first on our wall map (which proved to be too small for all 66 students), and then on the ceiling of our classroom. Students used covered wagons suspended with yarn to mark their progress toward their personal reading goal and we celebrated when they reached famous landmarks. The ultimate goal was Oregon, of course; a grant obtained from our local education foundation helped buy the literature used with the students and some background material as well. We wrote the (future) states we would be traveling through and used that material. We read If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon by Ellen Levine for facts (and took a survey on the dangers and causes of fatalities, an enlightening experience for all of us), and we experienced the trials of Austin as he wrote his younger brother back home in Dear Levi, Letters from the Oregon Trail, a book based on an actual Trail diary. Another favorite activity was studying the fuel sources on the prairie and comparing them with our own, and actually burning cow chips and buffalo chips to see the difference. Some didn’t make it to Oregon. They wrote their own epitaphs and had to be buried alongside the trail.
The idea and its implementation proved to be most successful; we only used it during the spring semester, but I believe in the project enough to make it the basis of my reading theme next year when I will have more time and can branch out even further. The students learned a lot about a particular environment and the impact made by man in creating enormous changes; they saw some of the potential they hold in doing so themselves; they became much more empathetic to the hardships of pioneers, and most of them really cared about making the goals they set for themselves, and “getting to Oregon.” I would like to take the next group of kids even further, to seeing the change in attitude as the prairie became not just a place to cross, but one to settle. I’d like to introduce them to Muir and Leopold and let them see that they have responsibility themselves for their own interactions with nature. There is so much material and so little time!
Introduction: This lesson plan studies the ecology and impact of animal and human life as they relate to the environment of the Great Plains and its grasses.
Materials: U.S. map, National Geographic articles listed below, various seeds from different types of prairie grasses, grass with roots (sod), containers and soil.
Time required: 10 days to 2 weeks.
Day 1: (1) Identify the Great Plains region of the United States. (2) Divide the region into the three types of grasslands: tall-grass, mixed-grass and short grass. (3) Compare the types of the grasses with a rainfall map to see the effect of amount of precipitation.
Day 2: Have students bring in samples of grasses and compare their size, color, seeds. Also compare the root systems of various grasses, and discuss the relevance of size. Prepare “tall-grass” by rolling newsprint in layers and gently pulling it out as far as possible.
Days 3-?: Plant grass seed in the classroom to observe its growth. Mark the tips and base of several plants to see the manner and rate of growth. Trim some of the grass very closely to see if it survives “grazing” and discuss why and how.
Days 3-7: Study the wildlife on the prairie that is dependent on the grasses and how they are adapted to this unique environment.
Days 8-10: Study the changes people have made to the native prairie and how their impact has made a difference.
Brown. Grasslands. Audubon Society Nature Guide.
Chadwick. "Roots of the Sky," National Geographic, October, 1993.
Dvorak. A Sea of Grass--The Tall grass Prairie.
Encyclopedias (for wildlife research).
"Oregon Trail," National Geographic.