Daily Life in a Covered Wagon (Paul Erickson) — "On the Trail" through "Crossing a River"

Teacher's Guide Author: Jamie Autin, 4th Grade Teacher, Ruben P. Diaz Elementary School, Clark County School District


Teachers' guides exist for Daily Life in a Covered Wagon separated by book section:

  1. "Going West" through "Rolling the Train"
  2. "On the Trail" through "Crossing a River"
  3. "Disaster" through "Glossary"
Additional teacher's Guides are available for Patty Reed's Doll, Sallie Fox, Sarah, Plain and Tall, and other exploration children's books.


Section Overview: Paul Erickson, the author, has compiled a rich supply of information and primary resources about travel in covered wagons. The book resembles a chronological text taking the reader from what lead families to venture west to reaching their destination. The journey takes these brave people many months and sometimes years, while they contend with supplies, safety, difficult terrain, sickness and death, and Indian country. This text leads the reader through how members of wagon trains and lone travelers made it from day to day while traveling this vast distance. The text is loaded with information about tools used on the trip, what kinds of clothes were practical while traveling, hunting practices on the prairies, and how people dealt with difficult times. Browsing through the pages brings us an array of visual information: pictures, maps, drawings, and loads of primary resources.

In this part of the book, we are on the trail! What we need, tribal relations, weapons used, mishaps, and children's activities are all discussed. A very special part of this book is the inclusion of diary entries from members of the Larkin family. This primary resource gives us exciting details into peoples' experiences and perceptions of the day.

Section Themes: Expansion, Mapping, Cultures, Hunting, Native Americans, Games, Travel, Teamwork

    Suggested Activities
    • Language Arts
      • Book Study-Jigsaw
        • Students will break into teams of about 4 to 5 people to complete the next activity. In order to complete this activity, students will need to complete the Book Study first. Gathering information for the Covered Wagon activity will be crucial to completing the entire assignment. Once groups are set up, students will number off. All of the ones get together, twos, threes, and so on. The students are still members of their original group, but they have split up to study individual parts of books to bring this information ack to their home group. The books used will be Conestoga Wagons, Daily Life in a Covered Wagon, and If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon. Books are split into sections for each group to read and take notes. No one group should study an entire book. In groups, students will read sections togther, take notes on information they want to pass on and complete teacher questionnaire for that book. Even though students should get a grip on taking notes by finding main ideas and summarizing, the teacher might also want to provide a few questions for them to discuss with their reading groups to lead their idea in the right directions. Some questions might be: What kinds of covered wagons existed? What were they used for? What is something unique or interesting about the construction of a covered wagon? What surprised to about travel in a covered wagon? Where have you traveled and how does this book differ from your experiences? Once information is gathered, students will return to their groups and fill them in on what they've learned.
      • Standards

        • Identify main idea and supporting details [PS/NS 2.4.2]
        • Make inferences [PS/NS 2.4.2]
        • Recall details/facts [PS/NS 2.4.3]
        • Record information [PS/NS 2.4.3]
        • Summarize information [NS 4.4.5]
      Building a Covered Wagon
        • I have an all boys class, which makes me look harder for creative ways for them to engage in a text. For the purpose of understanding how to follow directions, this lesson would center around students building a model covered wagon with a team by following written instructions given by the teacher. The directions would include what materials were needed, how much of the materials were needed, what steps to follow to construct the wagon, what and how much to cut and paste with measurements. First, the teacher must make sure that students understand how directions work. Usually, we cannot complete one step until the one before it has been completed. Students should all receive a copy of the directions for building the wagon. Next, as an example, the teacher should provide an oral quiz asking students what comes before Step 3 or Step 4. The students will comprehend that directions have a chronological order by which the task is completed. After this, materials such as cardboard, paper, tissue paper, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, scissors, glue, crayons and pencils will be needed. Students should be allowed to bring any other materials from home they like. For instance, if some students have miniature people, this would be a great way for them to personalize their project. After having read Conestogao Wagons, the students should be aware, with tema effort of course, how wagons are constructed. Following the teacher directions and assigned team jobs, the teams will be able to complete this in about 3 days. This could be a center activity.
        • Standards Addressed
          • Understand and use key vocabulary [PS/NS 2.4.2]
          • Describe sequential and/or chronological order [PS/NS 4.4.3]
          • Read and follow directions to complete tasks or procedures [NS 4.4.7]


    Measuring Materials for Covered Wagon
    • Students will use their measurement skills to measure and cut materials for Language Arts project. According to the designated teacher directions for length, width, and height of covered wagon materials, student will break into already-established groups to measure materials. For instance, the wagon will use cardboard. The team's job will be to following the directions for height and length and cut out the piece to the correct size according to the directions.
        • Standards Addressed
          • (4)3.3 measure, compare, and convert length in inches, feet, yards, and miles to the nearest fractional part (1/4, 1/2)

    Calculating Distances

      Students will use MapQuest to calculate distance in miles from various points in the eastern and midwestern US to various points in the West. For example, students will first measure distance from Baltimore to St. Louis. Then, they will measure distance from St. Louis to Oregon. For the higher level students, I would make more stops along the trail. Using mental math, they will estimate distance and figure an exact distance as well. After some practice, I would allow the students to study a map and detemine their own route: where they would like to stop and through which parts they would like to travel. Then, they may use MapQuest to figure exact distance.

          • Standards Addressed
            • (4)1.17 use estimation and mental computation in appropriate situations to solve problems
            • (4)1.18 add and subtract multi-digit numbers [NS 1.4.7]
            • (4)3.5 use technology to organize data

Social Studies
Daily Life in a Covered Wagon KWL

    Students will use KWL chart to access prior knowledge and listen for information. After listing a minimum of five things for K and W each, students will follow along as teacher either reads while showing pictures OR reads while using an Elmo for students to see pictures and primary resources. While reading, teacher will ask comprehension and discussion questions, while students fill in for L part of chart.
  • Standards Addressed
    • Summarize information [NS 4.4.5]
    • Recall details/facts [PS/NS 2.4.3]
    • Restate main ideas [PS/NS 2.4.3]
    • Organize information (e.g., graphic organizer, outline) [PS/NS 2.4.3]
    • (4)1.13 work cooperatively in groups
    • describe changes in how people move from one place to another [NS 4.4.3]

    Create a Flyer

        • Students will talk in groups about why people formed wagon trains. What were the benefits and hardships of this decision? Why would people want to move West? What are some conflicts that could have risen? Come together as a whole class to understand the benefits and consequences of this. Using this information, students will form pairs to develop a flyer advertizing for people to join their own wagon train.
        • Standards Addressed
          • describe how cooperation and conflict affect people in different communities [NS 4.4.9]
          • (4)4.11 discuss how and why people from various cultures immigrated and migrated to the American West


      • Weather of the Day
        • Students will understand which parts of the US have the harshest weather and determine the best route to travel. They will understand how temperature chags throughout the day. First, students will go outside in the morning, preferably winter or fall, and estimate thier own temperature. Write down any observations about precipitation and sun position. After going inside, the teacher will check online (or have a trained student do this) and write the correct temperature on the board for students to see. Make predictions about what will happen later in the day with temperature, sun position and precipitation. Students will then make an afternoon trip to observe same details. They will notice that temperature has warmed, sun is farther west, and precipitation is, most likly, dried. Talk about how this affects travel.
        • Standards Addressed
          • (4)3.2 investigate and describe the water cycle, including the role of the sun [E5A2]
          • (4)3.3 investigate and describe the factors that affect the processes of evaporation and condensation [E5A2]

    Nighttime on the Trail

    Teacher will ask students to vote. Who thinks the Sun moves around the Earth? Who thinks the Earth moves around the Sun. Teacher will use a lamp and round ball to demonstrate how the sun's distance from us affects our light source. Turning off or dimming the lights, the students will observe how the teacher moves the lightbulb (Sun) around the ball (Earth) and see how to area facing them falls into darkness when the lighbulb is behind the ball. Students will use a globe to determine what area of the Earth was getting light when the wagon trail had to stop for the night. As a homework assignment, the students are asked to take a trip outside their house at night to observe what the pioneers might have observed. Ask them to venture outside at (in winter) about 6 PM and the again right before bedtime noticing certain landmarks or traits in the night sky. Write down observations. Are constellations or stars you noticed in the same spot? When done, students will report findings with a partner and talk about patterns and distances they noticed. Write a brief report of your findings.

        • Standards Addressed
          • (4)3.6 investigate and describe how distance affects the brightness of a light source (stars) [E5B1; E5B3]
          • (4)3.7 identify the sun as a star, and as the main source of energy for planet Earth [E5A1; E5B3]
          • (4)3.8 describe how the stars in the sky are not scattered evenly, and they are not all the same in brightness or color [E5B1]
          • (4)3.9 describe how the components of our Solar System (planets, moons, sun), as well as constellations, appear to move through the sky [E5B2; E5B4; E5B5]
          • (4)3.10 explain that stars look small because they are extremely far away [E5B3]

    Historical Overview of Section Themes

    "Nooning", as it was called, was a concept developed to give the travelers and animals rest during the hot days of travel. Most travel was done in pleasant weather for obvious reasons, and so with nice weather came the heat. The idea of nooning was very beneficial, especially for care of the animals.

    After purchasing your wagon, you could decide if you wanted oxen, mules, or horses to carry your load. Horses were faster but not an economical choice give the care they needed. Mules were very praised for their toughness but also uncooperative. Oxen were cheap but also susceptible to the heat. If you wanted your animals to last, you had to care for them properly.

    During the time of nooning, the animals rested while the family ate lunch and procurred some rest as well. Some people took part in a little exercise and play.

    Given that we are used to being able to travel hundreds of miles a day in a car, these pioneers only travelled between 15-25 miles a day. Nooning seems a waste of time when so little distance is covered, but for the animals and welfare of the travelers, it was necessary.

    Additional Resources

    • http://www.oregonpioneers.com/oxen.htm : This website offers additional information on "nooning" and animals used for traveling to the West.
    • If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon by Ellen Levine: This book discusses much of the same information as Daily Life in a Covered Wagon. It enhances on the information with illustrations rather than real pictures and resources.
    • Conestoga Wagons by Richard Ammon: This book gives detailed information on one type of covered wagon used: the Conestoga Wagon. It informs the reader on construction and purposes for the the wagon's design.


    Note: This teacher's guide was developed as part of one of the Clark County School District's Teaching American History grants. In this grant module, teachers focused on using children's historical literature to teach cross-curricular concepts relating to 19th century westward movement. For more information about this blog, related teacher's guides, or the grant module, please contact Dr. Christy Keeler.


Kristin Karyczak said...

Your activities are very detailed therefore they can be easily followed. The Building a Wagon activity is definitely a creative way to engage your all-boy class. It is important for all students to learn how to follow directions, and what an imaginative way to do this. I also like the Create a Flyer activity - as an extension to this activity you could have the students vote in the end to see whose wagon train they would join according to how clever they though each other's flyers were.

pamfoster said...

The lessons used to teach the book were hands-on and kid-friendly. I especially liked the project: building a covered wagon, writing out directions, and measuring all the pieces. This activity covers many subject areas and allows the students to get real life exposure to a covered wagon. An extension for this activity might be to actually measure out the dimensions of a real covered wagon, tape it out in the classroom, and see what really could fit in the wagon. Kids can then get an idea of how little space the pioneers had when moving from one place to another. Another idea to use with questioning is to go over the different levels of questioning with students and asking them to make up their own questions to the parts they read. They can do this in teams. You can find examples of the key words for students to use when making up these questions. You did a great job!

Christy G. Keeler, Ph.D. said...

I feel for you and your "all boys" class! I think the more kinesthetic activities the better! The hard part is ensuring that your are keeping their bodies engaged in true learning opportunities as opposed to teaching them craft projects. You seem to do a nice job of this in your Covered Wagon activity by focusing on following instructions. I think you could even strengthen the learning by focusing on engineering issues. For example, why did they use the materials they did? How did they get the metal rims on the wooden wheels and why did they do this? What was involved in suspension and how does this compare with cars today? How would you determine how much weight a Conestoga could carry? It might also be nice to have students compare creating the wagon from set instructions to putting together "assembly required" items at home.

What about inviting some of the boys' parents to help build an authentic Conestoga wagon? If there are children in your class whose parents work in construction or engineering, this may be a wonderful activity to do as an entire class. I bet you could even a quire a small grant to pay for the materials.

I love your recommendation of using technology to determine distances. You may consider using Google Earth and having students actually see the topographic regions traveled by the wagons and determine where (geographically) the trains could go more quickly or more slowly.

Again, I like the idea of the flier - a great way to bring in more technology and primary sources. Have students find fliers from the time period so they can see primary sources like what they will be creating. This would be a good time to teach them about changes in publishing, printing, typesetting, etc.

Your ideas work seamlessly together to create a beautiful unit plan. I'd love to see this plan mapped out into days/times for doing each of the activities. For thematically focused classrooms, this would be an incredible week!

Christy G. Keeler, Ph.D. said...

You mention some seemingly great resources in your "Wagon Train Math" activity section. Could you link to the books with the worksheets so we know where and what to purchase?

I really like the idea of having students study an explorer. When studying westward expansion, I tend to think only of the explorers living during the 19th century. Your activity gives students permission to relate 19th century exploration with other eras - including today.

Including the glossary is a great idea!