Tainted water. Broken wagons. Risky river crossings. The plucky pioneers overcame them all during the first half of their journey on the Oregon Trail.
But those perilous scenarios were pieces of cake compared to what their pretend wagon train encountered after reaching South Pass – the gateway through the Rocky Mountains. That's where a deadly pandemic – real not pretend – threatened to end their Westward Ho! adventure more than 1,000 miles from their destination.
Luckily for these Seabury students there was a Plan B.
The students were able to complete Westward Ho! – an integrated studies program based on a simulated journey on the Oregon Trail – at home instead of at school thanks to distance learning preparations made by their teachers, Sheri Towne, Katie Moon and Dina Foss.
“As a statewide school shutdown became more and more likely due to coronavirus, we began thinking about how to make adjustments for distance learning,” Sheri explains. “Since they couldn't work in teams of four or five per wagon at home the way they did at school, we encouraged students to ask their families to join them. We also gave them more money for supplies and eliminated some scenarios."
Before the shutdown, all students from the first through fourth grades met daily as a group to hear the teachers present the scenarios in story form. They would then meet with their wagonmates to address a particular challenge – such as deciding what supplies to purchase or building a raft – before coming together again to share their solutions and learn their fates.
After the shutdown, teachers used an online platform called Eduflow to deliver the story and assign the challenge to students at home, who then shared their solutions using the Zoom video conferencing app.
One thing never changed. After sharing solutions, each student wrote about their experiences in their Westward Ho! journals.
"When it was all over, one of my students, Te, wanted to continue writing in his journal to describe his first year living in Oregon," Sheri says. "Journaling was a great way to instill the desire to write. Their skills also increased throughout the 2,100-mile journey."
Students ended the eight-week Westward Ho! program as scheduled on the Friday before spring break – donning pioneer garb for one last Zoom meeting.
“We found Westward Ho! on the internet a few years ago and customized it to incorporate a full range of subjects from history to writing to science to math,” Sheri says. “It’s one of my favorite hands-on, integrated studies activities.”
Sheri said the transition to distance learning reminds her of the Oregon Trail. “There are times when you have to go over a high mountain or cross a deep river,” she says, “but I feel like I’ve finally made it through South Pass and the Continental Divide. It's all downhill from here.”
Maybe. Maybe not. Next up for Sheri: an online chemistry unit for first graders. Uh huh.
SHERI’S TOP CLICK
Science Bob “You can find all sorts of videos and instructions for at-home science activities and experiments. It’s the full meal deal of online science – not just chemistry but all science.”
WHAT SHERI’S WATCHING
“We don’t normally watch much television, but we like movies. We recently watched both the movie and the documentary about Mister Rogers. We also watched What About Bob with Bill Murray. Lots of timely reminders of how to treat (or not treat) your neighbor!"