Traveling the Oregon Trail
Way back in the day when I was a wee little fourth grader (and yes, I really was a very little guy back then), I remember getting to go to the computer lab at Lincoln Grade School once a week with my class. We got to use some really awesome, super fancy Apple IIe computers to learn how to type and to play games. My teacher had actually acquired an even cooler, fancier Apple Macintosh computer for our classroom, which my best friend and I used to type up a variety of stories we wrote together.
One of the games that everyone loved playing when we were in the computer lab was The Oregon Trail. The game was so simple to play yet incredibly difficult to win. Whether it was dying from exhaustion or disease, having thieves steal all of your food, or drowning when attempting to ford a river, the challenges along the route were plentiful. But when you finally made it to Oregon and saw the completion screen, it was the best feeling in the world!
So, of course, as soon as we knew we were going to get started on our unit on Westward Expansion unit, my fourth grade teaching partner and I decided that we had to find a way to bring this classic educational gaming experience to our students. We found that the original game has been remade for game consoles and mobile devices, but we wanted the classic 1985 game we had grown up playing. Fortunately, there are some rather neat emulators out there that let us do just that. We got permission from the district technology director to grant students access to the site (most gaming sites are blocked by the district filters), and introduced our students to it.
We had a half-day today, and many of my students were absent. But I used the time we had in the morning to bring my class to our computer lab to get them started with this game. They had some trouble getting used to a game that didn’t use the mouse, but once I got them used to navigating with the keyboard (“that big rectangular thing in front of you with all of the small rectangles and squares on it”), they were set. They had to use the Java version of the game, but I am working on getting the full game available on all of the computers. Some chose to be the farmer from Illinois, some the carpenter from Ohio, and others the banker from Boston.
I projected my game onto the screen in the lab and explained to the students what I was doing as they played the game on their computers. We had a great time trying to beat the clock and make it to Oregon before tragedy struck, everyone in the trek died, or we had to go to our assembly.
As part of the game play, though, the students got to read about important landmarks and interact with characters who talked more about life on the trail. The Oregon Trail is a fun game, but it also teaches students about the trials wagon companies experienced. It is our hope that the snippets that they pick up from the game will help inform their historical narratives that we are going to start on next week!