The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Westward Trails

Today we started our last major United States history unit on Westward Expansion. I had been planning on starting this unit today for several weeks now, but I have to admit that I had no clue a discussion about some events over the past weekend would provide the perfect introduction to the unit!

The Illinois Marathon, which includes a 10k, 5k, half-marathon, and a children’s 1k race in addition to the marathon itself, was last Friday and Saturday. For the third year in a row, I volunteered to assist with the Youth Run and for the third year in a row I wore my Illinois Marathon Team shirt to school today. While talking about the different race events, we got to a conversation about the very first marathon, when a Greek soldier was sent to run from Marathon to Athens to deliver a message of victory before dropping dead in exhaustion. Athletes today train for months, sometimes even years, in order to compete in marathons, many trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I mentioned that I don’t run, but I do a lot of biking and walking. It currently takes me about an hour to walk 5 kilometers, or about 3 miles.

The modern marathon is 26.2 miles. I asked the students about how long it would take me to walk an entire marathon. They determined that it would be able 9 hours. I pointed out that I would probably need to stop to rest and/or eat, so walking a marathon would be a full day’s journey. To put the distance into perspective, the length of a marathon is about the same as the distance from Urbana to Tuscola to the south, Danville to the east, Paxton to the north, or Monticello to the west. One student said that his family can get from Urbana to his grandmother’s house in Minnesota in about 8 hours. I reminded him that we were talking about walking. To walk the roughly 600 miles at 20 miles per day would take nearly a month. Then another student asked how long it would take to walk to Arizona.

This was the perfect transition to our social studies unit! To direct our study, the other fourth grade teacher and I decided to do an arts infusion unit with our dance/drama/music teacher. The students are going to learn about life on the trails leading to the west. Through arts infusion, they will learn about the music and dance that was used as entertainment along the trail. In the classroom, they will learn about the people, the places, and the history. They are also going to learn how the pioneers got from St. Louis, the typical starting point, to their destinations out in the West. This is where the transition came in, since almost everyone had to walk the trails.

I rearranged seats in the classroom over the weekend and put the students into six groups of four. Each group is going to learn about one of the major routes to the West: the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, the Mormon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the route of the Pony Express, and the Transcontinental Railroad. Each group selected one of the routes and will work as a group to create a timeline of the trek westward. Then each student will work independently to write a historical fictional narrative about a day in the life of a pioneer. These are going to be our two major writing projects for the quarter. Students will do a lot o writing, revising, editing, and rewriting of their narratives before finally publishing them.

To introduce the narrative part of the project, I read a story today by Eve Bunting called Dandelions. I learned about it through one of the many blogs I follow, Collaboration Cuties, written by two fourth grade teachers in Georgia (I think). They are an awesome resource for using Mentor Texts! In fact, I’ve referred to them before. Eve Bunting’s story was captivating, engaging, and gave a great example for the students to use to write about such an important period of time in our nation’s history! This is going to be a really fun unit that I hope the students also enjoy!


2 responses

  1. What an amazing, creative lesson plan!

    April 28, 2014 at 9:42 pm

  2. Pingback: Celebrating Champaign-Urbana History |

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