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Circle Your Wagons: Pioneer Day

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William Greene, chairman of the School of Education at Southern Oregon University, plays the fiddle while teaching students how to square dance. Photo by Troy GoossenTroy Goossen
 Posted: 2:00 AM May 17, 2012

The lesson: Simulate the westward movement to achieve a deeper understanding of frontier factors.

Imagine it is 1846 and you are 11 years old. You are traveling the 2,000-mile journey from Independence, Mo., to Oregon, facing situations and events experienced by pioneers.

These were the instructions that Walker Elementary School teachers Nancy Keim, Debi Blair and Toni Martinez gave their fourth-grade students.

About this Series

In the Classroom is a series of photography-driven reports on lessons taught in local elementary schools. If you have an idea, please send it to Heidi Monjure at

The more than 70 students were asked to pretend they were challenged by floods, blocked trails and a lack of food as they simulated their journeys to Oregon. Over the course of one month, a different factor arose each day that the wagon groups had to address and decide what to do.

One day, it was an energy factor. How much could the pioneers work?

Another day, it was a frontier fate. For example, they pretended a child had fallen off a wagon and injured her leg. What should they do?

For a chance factor, they dealt with an adult who had been bitten by a rattlesnake.

They wrote about their experiences in their diaries, and when their journey was completed, the young pioneers were ready to celebrate their new lives in Oregon and they planned a Pioneer Day.

Girls arrived at Walker wearing sunbonnets, long skirts and aprons. Boys wore vests, suspenders, plaid shirts and hats. The day began with the students making simple balancing toys, playing circle games such as Fruit Basket Upset and creating transfer illustrations.

The hungry pioneers then ate hot, buttered biscuits and popcorn before heading to the gym to practice square dancing. William Greene, a professor and chairman in the School of Education at Southern Oregon University, was ready with his fiddle and fancy steps. Before long, a crowd of young pioneers was sashaying and do-si-doing to fiddle music. The celebration was complete.

— Heidi Monjure

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