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HistoryFix: The Perilous Journey...Studying the Donner Party
 

A Writing Across the Curriculum Lesson from HistoryFix
Historical Topic: The Donner Party Students Write: a nine-entry journal

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Lesson Overview and Resources

Student Writing Samples from this Lesson

The Perilous Journey:
My Experience

This writing across the curriculum lesson was proposed by Nevada teachers Christy Hodge, Wendy Mulligan, and Shelley Gregory.

They consider this history lesson to be appropriate for students in grades 4-8.


Lesson Overview:

Objectives/Overview: Many students have a misconception about the Donner Party. The Donner Party was more than just a group of people that were faced with tragedy, bad luck and death. They changed the future for those traveling the West and disproved the Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California. This lesson will help students experience the entire journey of the Donner Party.

  • The students will learn about the Donner Party through the reading of The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party.
  • The students will write daily journal entries to help them understand the journey this brave group made.
  • The students will learn about the many families and people that were a part of the well-known Donner Party, and the struggles they endured.

Time Needed: This lesson will take six days for 1 1/2 hours per day.

Writing skills (traits) to stress while teaching this lesson:

  • Idea Development (writing with a clear, central idea or theme in mind; and putting researched ideas into one’s own words)
  • Organization (beginning the writing with a strong introduction; and ending the writing with a satisfying conclusion by linking the conclusion back to the introduction)
  • Voice (conveying passion towards the message of the writing or the topic; thinking about and making decisions to acknowledge the intended audience)

Materials List:

  • The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party by Marian Calabro. The teacher will provide a list of members to the students. This can be found on page13-15 in the book The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party by Marion Calabro.

  • The teacher will need to type up this question or write it on the board prior to the lesson: "What do you know about theDonner Party? Write down anything you may have learned or experienced about this group. Are there any places that you have heard of with the name Donner? 

  • The students will make a journal to use for this lesson and will need:

    • Brown paper sack cut 9inches by 6 inches for the cover
    • Eight sheets of white paper folded in half
    • Two hole punch in the eight sheets of paper folded as a booklet
    • Markers to decorate cover of journal.
    • The students will create the journal by wading up the paper bag to look old.
    • They will use a hole punch to make two holes through cover and white pages. - The students will tie the book together using string. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/IGUIDE/or-cover.htm (Website with information about Lansford Hastings Book)
  • Daily Writing Prompt Overhead

Background Information:

Over 150 years ago, the Donner Party headed west to California for a new life. The East was becoming over populated. California offered rich and free land, and the prospects of gold to those who came, while others left due to the cases of cholera and malaria, and people becoming ill. California was said to be the “land of opportunity.”

It was April 15 th, 1846 in Springfield Illinois. George Donner, Jacob Donner, and James Reed prepared their families for a new and prosperous life in California. Thirty-two people in all were traveling together. They were men, women and children. The Donner Family and the Reed Family, two servants, and seven teamsters that came due to the ad George Donner wrote and posted in the Sangamo Journal Newspaper. They were prepared to travel 2,500 miles. They began their travel with nine wagons. They were off to California and would eventually meet up with others.


Teacher Instructions:

  • Activating prior knowledge: Review what the students have already learned about pioneers and westward expansion.  Explore what students know about the Donner Party. Give them a questioner to be done individually. Use the following questions:

    "What do you know about the Donner Party? Write down anything you may have learned or experienced about this group. Are there any places that you have heard of with the name Donner?  (Save this until the end of the lesson and have them answer the question again) Compare and contrast what they knew and have now learned.

    Explain to the students that each of them will have to choose a member of the Donner Party.  A list of the survivors will be provided to each of the students. This can be found in chapter 10 of the book The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party. Explain that as a class they will be reading The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party, and with every day’s reading the students will have a journal entry.  Explain that each journal entry will be written as though they are in the Donner Party experiencing every thing their chosen member experiences.  Remind the students the journal entries are written in first person. Tell the students that the date must be written at the top of the entry and must be signed as the member at the bottom. Explain to the students that you will give them a prompt for each journal entry and will need to write about each question thoroughly.

  • Day One: The students will need to create a journal.  They will then need to create a cover and they will be turning their journal entries into a memoir. They will create a title, a cover, and an index page. See materials list.

  • Day Two: As a class the teacher will read chapter one: The Journey Begins.  After finishing this chapter, the students will have to write their first journal entry:  Why has your family chosen to move west, and what will you bring in order to prepare for the long journey? The teacher will read chapter two: Independence and Beyond.  After reading, the student will have to write their second journal entry:  Write about your arrival at Independence, Missouri. Include what you saw on your travels to Independence and how you feel about your arrival there.

  • Day Three: As a class, the teacher will read chapter three: Shortcut to Danger. The students will then write their third journal entry:  What was your family’s decision about taking the Hastings Cutoff? Do you think this was a good or bad decision? Why? Do you believe that choosing George Donner as a leader was a good or bad idea? Why? The students will then write their fourth journal entryDo you think the banishment of James Reed was just or unjust? Please explain why you feel this way.

  • Day Four: As a class, the teacher will read chapter five: Rock upon Rock, Snow upon Snow.  The students will then write their fifth journal entry: Please explain what the hardest part of crossing the Great Salt Lake Desert was. Be sure to include how long it took you and what you may have had to leave behind. The teacher will read chapter six: Trapped in the Depths.  The students will then write their sixth journal entry.  How do you feel about the long rest you took in the Truckee Meadows? Do you think the hardest part of the trip is over yet? Please explain your answers.

  • Day Five: As a class, the teacher will read chapter seven: The Last Taboo.  The students will then write their seventh journal entry.  Write about your experience during the snowfall at Truckee Lake. What did you have to eat? What type of shelter do you have? Who are you with? Do you feel that you are going to make it out alive? The teacher will read chapter eight:  Rescued at Last.  The students will then write their eighth journal entry.  Did you partake in cannibalism due to the fact you and your family were dying from starvation? Please explain what the instinctive rule is?

  • Day Six: As a class, the teacher will read chapter 9: Looking Back, Looking Forward.  The students will then write their ninth journal entry.  What was it like to reach Sutters Fort? How do you feel about being rescued and about those who rescued you?


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