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Wagons Ho! — Exploring U.S. Westward Expansion

By Shari Edwards on February 6, 2013
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5

I love to teach social studies! The topics attract my students’ attention and the understanding they gain about the world around them is critical to their academic success in later years.

More and more, it has become difficult to squeeze the time into our schedule to deeply investigate a topic. When I find our time too tight, I solve the problem by integrating the SS topic into other subject areas. It provides my students with a little application time while strengthening other academic skills.beans and bacon

In January, Kansas students learn about their state, the people who migrated here, and the ones who traveled through it on their way farther west.

I'm not about to pass up such an interesting topic, so I find ways to intersperse the subject of Westward Expansion throughout the day. For example . . .



Time Lines

My students understand the clock as a time line by the second half of the school year. We have one that hangs in our room with the months from August to May marking out our school year. Now it's time to introduce historical time lines. Time is a very abstract concept as it is. When I begin talking about a time period 100 or more years before, it gets even more difficult to find a way to get my students to visualize and understand. I begin with small magnetized cards with dates printed on them in 50-year intervals between 1700 and 2000. I like to use cards because they can be moved around and I can emphasize specific years. The cards also make it easy to pull a shorter amount of time into another spot on the board for more focused work. Having the time line on the board allows me to make notes around the years we are focusing on. It's very rewarding to see students refer to the time line when they come across a date in something we are reading.

adjustable timeline


Have groups of students use a tape measure to cut yarn in the dimensions of a covered wagon, plane, canoe, or another object that you want them to visualize and create an outline of that shape large enough for students to move around in. I do projects like these in our courtyard, when possible. Talk about the items that would have been loaded on the vehicle, and how many people would fit along with their supplies. This could also turn into a lesson on area using one-foot square pieces of paper arranged in the correct dimensions.

covered wagon measurementsSome students sitting in the space of a Conestoga Wagon

Need Wagon Dimensions? Here are two types:
Conestoga wagon 
— 18 feet long, 11 feet high, and 4 feet wide

Regular covered wagon — 15 feet long, 9 feet high, and 3 feet wide


Character Ed and Writing

Pioneers have some great character qualities. Courage and perseverance are a part of nearly every story. I tell them the story of Simeon Swartz, who happens to be the great-great-great-grandfather of my my own children. I simplify his story of hardships and successes on the 1874 Kansas prairie that I found written in his own words while researching my genealogy. The pioneer figures I found at a craft store give my students a visual while I'm telling the story. They love to reenact it using these figures and also afterwards, as they write their own pioneer stories.

Click on the picture of Simeon and Sarah to download a simplified version of the story.

pioneer charactersSimeon and Sarahpioneer figures for story development

Our Kansas motto Ad astra per aspera, which means To the Stars Through Difficulties, fits very well in our discussion of persevering through hard times. We read stories about struggling through hardships during this time period such as Wagon Wheels and Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie. We compare their stories to that of Simeon.

We write our own stars (life goals) on covered wagons and talk about persevering until we finally reach them.

to the starswagon goals

Try these books:Wagon Wheels

Wagon Wheels by Barbara Brenner — A book about the Muldies, black pioneers who settled (at least for a little while) in a community called Nicodemus, Kansas. The boys have quite an adventure along with very hard times. This is one of our favorites!


Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie by Peter and Connie Roop — Keep the Lights Burning, AbbieThis story is about a girl of the same time period as Westward Expansion. Abbie's family lives on a lighthouse rock. Her father gets delayed returning to the lighthouse with medicine for her sick mother so she has to keep the lighthouse lights going and take care of her mother and sisters.


Music, Lyrics, and Reading

If you read my December 19, 2012  post on using music to improve reading fluency, you know how much I like to use music and lyrics in my classroom. Westward Expansion provides me with wonderful period music. I look for music that would have been popular between 1850–1880. I add a few cowboy songs and I end up with a great list that my students love! I find lyrics on the Internet and put them in a Word document for my students to put in their lyrics notebooks. We sing them several times during the unit.

Here are a few examples from my iTunes playlist:

  • "Oh, Susanna!"
  • "Home on the Range"
  • "Don't Fence Me In"
  • "Happy Trails"

Pioneer Musical

Once they are familiar with the songs, I bring out a book such as Roughing It on the Oregon Trail and invite my students to join me on the carpet with their lyrics notebooks for a pioneer musical. I read the book with pictures projected on the SMART Board, pausing every once in a while to have them sing one of their songs. THEY LOVE THIS!! The girls in the picture at the top of this page decided to repeat the pioneer musiRoughing It on  the Oregon Trail bookcal experience.

Roughing It on the Oregon Trail by Diane Stanley — This is a book about a brother and sister who magically travel back in time, with their grandmother, to the 1800s to meet their pioneer ancestors. They end up traveling by covered wagon with them all the way to Oregon.


Pioneer cootie catcher

A Little Pioneer Fun

My students love cootie catchers, aka fortune tellers. I made one for reviewing pioneer facts last year. If you would like to be "the best teacher ever!" for a little while, download my Pioneer Cootie Catcher by clicking on the image to the right.

The Golly Sisters Go West


The Golly Sisters Go West by Betsy Byars — This is a book about two pioneer sisters who are traveling by covered wagon. It is a silly story that my 2nd graders love, especially once they have a frame of reference.


What do you think?

How do you squeeze all of those wonderful social studies lessons into a busy schedule?




Comments (3)

I absolutely love your ideas!! I teach in Oklahoma and we are just moving into the CORE curriculum. I am searching for new ideas to spice up learning. Do you do guided reading? I would love to hear from you and even visit your classroom!!

Hi Marilyn! Or should I say, neighbor! Thank you for your comment! I use a form of guided reading that looks different depending on the needs of the day. I would love to have you visit my room! You can follow my adventures at http://ponderingpedagogy.blogspot.com/ .

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