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One of the things I really loved about school when I was little was playing The Oregon Trail in computer lab. You know — “Mary has a broken arm”. Or — “You have died of dysentery”. That game! I loved it. And, you gotta love the graphics:

Unfortunately, this game didn’t teach me a whole lot about Westward Expansion and the time period that this game was intending to teach me about. I just knew it was fun — I couldn’t have told you anything about Westward Expansion other than people rode around in wagons, shooting bison, and dying of dysentery.

I really find this time period not only fascinating, but critical to understand. After all, it’s the beginning of what our country became. So, while The Oregon Trail is a great game to play – it’s not really a teaching tool.

So I got to thinking –and Googling. I starting thinking about how cool it would be to have a real live Oregon Trail game in the classroom as part of a unit on Westward Expansion and the pioneers. It turns out that lots of teachers out there have this idea, too. Specifically Heather Renz – a 4th grade teacher in…you guessed it…Oregon! Her Oregon Trail simulation is extremely detailed and very well put-together; something that I’m assuming took many, many years of practice to perfect. Since I am a baby green student teacher – I am going to plan for a somewhat less-detailed version for my first year {which I am hoping will begin this fall!}.

I’d like to break students up into “families” and let them create an identity for themselves. They’ll research, read, and watch different videos that will introduce them to the families that lived during this time period. Then together, they will write their {fictional} family story. This will be the beginning of their project. Once they have their identities, they will “load up their wagons”. I’ll give them a list of supplies, an allowance to spend {with a stipulation that they must save x amount}, and a weight limit for their wagon.  I made this poster as an intro for students as they embark on their “journey”:

Throughout the unit – which I’m guessing will take about 6 weeks to get through {especially since I am anticipating that I won’t get a lot of time each day to work on Social Studies <sad face>} – students will earn points by being creative with their supplies, turning in homework on time, answering trivia questions correctly, etc. and will move along the Oregon Trail map that I will have set up someplace in the classroom. “Families” will encounter challenges as they reach landmarks along the way and will have to make decisions that will either gain or cost them points. For example, a challenge could be that they come to a river and they can either spend time building a raft or spend money to take the ferry. Depending upon which they choose, they will have to choose a card that will harm or hurt their cause. If they choose to make a raft, they will choose a card that might say “Raft breaks. Lose 1 barrel of cornmeal and 10 points.” Or it might say “Raft a success. Family, animals and supplies are safe. 10 point gain.” Then as students earn a certain number of points, they will move to the next landmark. I created this map based from several sources. It has the landmarks that I think are important to cover throughout the unit:

These are the things that I am going to be thinking of as I create the game. I don’t want it to be too overly complicated because I will be a brand new teacher and I don’t want to get in over my head. But I think something simple will be just as fun! I ordered some books from {which by the way…if you haven’t checked that out – GO NOW! GO. Super cheap books that are in decent condition. Love it.} My books were chosen based on my Google findings. I’ve skimmed through them and they’re actually very good. I’m so excited to implement this unit in my classroom!!

This one covers a single family’s journey on the trail. I really love the detail that it covers – from the supplies this family took to the mishaps they came across. 

Similar to the above books, but goes into deeper detail.

I chose two journals to be a part of this unit. This one, I will likely read aloud – as it’s a bit longer than the other journal I chose. I’ve also seen on other teacher’s sites where this book is a great read aloud. Duly noted.

Ahhh – Lewis and Clark. These two could essentially be a unit of their own, but I think it’s a great place to start for this unit. This book details their exploration.

My other journal. This one is in journal format. I love including these different genres — this way, I cover more than one subject objective. I’m so smart!! Ha!

Scholastic has lots of great books on Westward Expansion. This is a great one. It’s not too complicated and has lots of good tid-bits for kids to be able to get by just skimming over it. 
I feel like I have a good start on this unit that I am very excited about. I have no idea when I’ll teach it, but I just wanted to get started on something while I was bored this winter break. I found some good information out there! I also found lots of projects that I will definitely include, such as making homemade butter from heavy cream and salt and even creating little covered wagons. I found these adorable little wagons through a Google search and then when I clicked on it, the link took me to a cute blog called the Crafty Crow, which has a plethora of pioneer crafts.
I’ll make sure to post any updates on my progress on this unit. I’m hoping that I will get a chance to use it during my student teaching this semester! If I do, you can bet that I will post pics. Thanks for reading! 
Do you teach Westward Expansion in your classroom? How do you structure your unit? I’d love to hear any suggestions.

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