Dakota Dugout (Ann Turner)

Teacher's Guide Author: Janelle Adesko, third-grade teacher, Fong Elementary School, Clark County School District


This teacher's guide is for the book Dakota Dugout by Ann Turner. Additional teacher's Guides are available for Patty Reed's Doll, Sallie Fox, Sarah, Plain and Tall, and other exploration children's books.


Book Overview: A pioneer woman narrates her move from the city to a sod house, or "dugout," on the prairie. The author evokes a vision of an elderly woman telling her story to a younger child. The narrator's descriptions of the sights and sounds of the pioneer times leave the reader with a strong visual image. The simple black and white illustrations aid the reader in developing an image of life in simpler times. The reader travels along with the narrator as she experiences the hardships associated with living in a sod house on the prairie. In the end, the narrator makes a bittersweet move to a new wood house, and the reader is reminded that "sometimes the things we start with are best."

Book Themes: Sod house, dugout, pioneer, pioneering, settlers, west, western exploration, Dakota, Great Plains, prairie, hardship

Suggested Activities

  • Language Arts
    • Preparing students to write Personal Narratives
      • The story Dakota Dugout is an example of a Personal Narrative. This story can be used as an example when preparing students to write their own personal narratives. Read the story to students once for enjoyment. Reread the story, asking students to focus on the details given. Make a list of the words used to describe sights and sounds. Explain to students that the descriptive words used help the reader to visualize and feel the experiences of the narrator. Students can then brainstorm ideas for their own narrative topic. Once students have chosen a topic, refer back to the list of descriptive words from the story. Encourage students to use similar descriptive words to help their readers become a part of their stories.
      • Standards Addressed
        • 3.3.5 Identify examples of imagery, similes, and personification
        • 3.3.6 Identify words and phrases that reveal tone
        • 3.3.7 Compare text from different cultures and time periods
        • 6.3.2 Write narrative/descriptive paragraphs appropriate to audience and purpose with a logical sequence, characters, and setting.
    • The Vocabulary of Dakota Dugout
      • Students will need to understand key vocabulary words in order to comprehend Dakota Dugout. Before reading the story, have students work in partners or groups to create four-column vocabulary charts. Divide a sheet of paper into four columns. Label the first column "word." Label the second column "definition." Label the third column "sentence." Label the fourth column "illustration." Have students work in partners or small groups to look up each word in a dictionary (online or book). Students should list the word, write the definition, create their own sentence, and draw an illustration of the word on their four-column chart. As students read the story Dakota Dugout, they should refer back to their chart for the definition as needed. Key words from the story that should be included are: prairie, sod, brick, plow, buffalo, hide, iron, dugout, buggy, grain, burrow, willow, coal, clapboard. Also may include hawk, heron, and sparrow.
      • Standards Addressed
        • 1.3.4 Comprehend, build, and extend vocabulary using homophones, homographs, synonyms, antonyms, context clues and structural analysis
        • 2.3.1 Use before-reading strategies based on text and purpose (build background knowledge)
        • 2.3.2 Use during-reading strategies based on text and purpose (understand and use key vocabulary)
  • Mathematics
    • Dakota Dugout Model
      • Students will build a three-dimensional model of a sod house as described in Dakota Dugout. After reading the story, have students list and describe the materials used in the story to build a sod house. (See the background information section of this guide for more information on sod house materials). Have students sketch their own design of the dugout, drawing squares and rectangles to represent the sod bricks. Have students identify the shapes, angles, and lines (horizontal, vertical, oblique) used in their sketch. Allow students to then build their own model of a sod house. Any square of rectangular material can be used, such as snap-cubes. A fun way to do this would be to provide the students with containers of dirt and water, and have them shape the dirt into rectangles. After the cubes have dried, students can stack them for a more realistic experience. Provide grass to cover the floor of the dugout. Once students have completed their dugout, have them compare their building experience to what it may have been like for a pioneer to build a life-sized sod house. Allow students to display their work with a description of the materials used, the lines and shapes identified, and the historical significance of their buildings.
      • Standards Addressed
        • 4.3.1 Describe, sketch, compare, and contrast plane geometric figures
        • 4.3.6 Identify, draw, and describe horizontal, vertical, and oblique lines
    • When Were the "Prairie Years?" (Elapsed time in years)
      • Remind students of the beginning of the story: "Tell you about the prairie years? I'll tell you, child, how it was. Present students with a timeline of western settlement (see social studies lesson for a timeline idea to make with the class based on Dakota Dugout). Ask students when the "prairie years" were. Have students locate various events on the timeline, estimate, and then calculate the elapsed time in years from past events to the present year. Also have students estimate, then calculate, the elapsed time between various events on the time. Allow students to describe the methods they used to find the amount of time that has passed between events on the timeline, and present day.
      • Standards Addressed
        • 1.3.3 Read, write, compare, and order numbers from 0-9,999.
        • 1.3.7 Add and subtract two- and three-digit numbers with and without regrouping.
  • Social Studies
    • Dakota Dugout Timeline
      • Ask students to estimate how long it would take to complete the actions in the story Dakota Dugout. For example, how long would it take to pack up your home, gather your supplies, pack your wagon, travel to the frontier, and build your new sod home? As a class, create a fictional timeline of the events narrated in the story. Encourage students to look for clues indicating time change in the story, such as weather changes, crop planting, and harvest time.
      • Standards Addressed
        • 4.2 Read a timeline
        • 4.14 Create timelines to show people and events in sequence using days, weeks, months, years, decades, and centuries.
    • Introduction to Natural Resources
      • After reading Dakota Dugout, explain to students that pioneers had to "live off the land." Explain that this means people had to use the resources that were available to them naturally in order to survive. Have students imagine that they are pioneers on the frontier and that the conveniences of today are not available. Have students brainstorm a list of items they must have in order to survive. This should include food, water, shelter, and clothing. Create a two-column comparison chart listing these items. Have students compare how they get these items today to how the pioneers would have gotten them. For example, students may say they get water from the faucet. In comparison, help them realize that pioneers often had to travel great distances to a water source to get their water, and had to carry it back with them. Examine the chart when completed, and help students conclude that pioneers used our natural resources in a much different way than we do today.
      • Standards Addressed
        • 3.32 Describe ways humans depend on natural resources
        • 4.10 Describe the lives of pioneers from diverse groups
  • Science
    • Grow Your Own Food
      • Help students understand that in the time of Dakota Dugout, pioneers could not simply go to a grocery store when they needed food; they had to grow their own. Tell students that they are going to be growing their own food. Provide students with small potting containers, or perhaps an area on the school grounds where students can start a garden. Have students plant seeds of fruits and vegetables that are easy to grow, such as beans, corn, or tomatoes. Have students care for the plants and measure their growth. Students then record their observations and measurements in science notebooks. If food is produced, have the students sample it. Discuss with students what it would be like to not have a variety of foods available. If fruit is not produced, use this as an opportunity to have students discuss the fact that pioneers' crops could easily be lost due to extreme weather conditions, insect infestations, or natural disasters. Have students discuss what it would be like to live with very little food variety. Also discuss the various dishes that could be made from one crop, such as corn.
      • Standards Addressed
        • 1.4 Keep a record, in a science notebook, of observations and measurements taken over time
        • 4.4 Identify and compare needs common to most living things
    • Soil Composition
      • Remind students that in the story Dakota Dugout, the home was built from soil, or sod. Explain that the composition of soil varies from place to place and has various components. Bring in examples of different types of soil. Have students collect samples of soil from around the school if possible. Have students compare and contrast the different types of soil and discuss which types would be best for building a sod house and why. Next, allow students to work with the soils and water to explore which soils they could shape into bricks as was done in the book Dakota Dugout. After comparing and exploring the different types of soil, ask students to select the ideal soil for building a sod house.
      • Standards Addressed
        • 3.3 Determine and explain that soil varies from place to place and has biological and mineral components
        • 3.1 Investigate and describe that the earth is composed of different kinds of materials (rocks, soils, water, air)

Historical Overview of Book Themes

In order to better understand the story Dakota Dugout, readers may need more background information about sod houses. Sod houses, also referred to as the "soddy" or dugout, were commonly built by settlers of the American frontier in the 1800s and early 1900s. Due to the Homestead Act, settlers were able to receive free land if they built a home on their property. Because materials such as wood and stone were unavailable on the plains, the sod from the roots of prairie grasses was used as a building material. This was an inexpensive way to build a home on the prairie.
To build a sod house, the builder would cut sod into large rectangles, which was no easy task. The sod was then stacked like bricks to form walls. Sometimes walls were covered with clay to strengthen them. The floors of sod houses were usually dirt, unless the family was able to afford rugs or even wood beams to cover the floor.
Sod homes came with many unique challenges. Because windows had to be cut small, the inside of sod homes were poorly lit. Sod homes could be easily damaged by heavy rainfall. Walls and roofs were often leaky. This meant repairs had to be made frequently. Since the homes were made of dirt, they often became homes to other creatures like insects and snakes, which would occasionally drop into the family living area. The inside of the home was difficult to keep clean. Sod homes were small, usually consisting of only one room.
There were some benefits to living in a sod home. Sod houses were actually very energy efficient. They kept the hot summer heat out, and kept the stove's heat in during the cold winters. Sod houses were also fireproof, which was a benefit when prairie fires occurred.
Most families would live in their sod home for at least six years. Many children also went to school in sod schoolhouses. Over time, many families were able to upgrade to wood frame houses when wood became more readily available due to railroad transport. Many families simply built their wood home right next to their sod home, and continued to use the sod home.

Additional Resources
  • Sod House Photograph Collection by Wichita State University Libraries: Photographs of sod houses from the Fred Hultstrand and F.A. Pazandak exhibit.
  • The Sod House by James L. Nelson: Description of sod houses and photographs of a sod home in various phases of the construction process.
  • Building a Sod House by Smithsonian National Museum of American History: Sod house building game. Read a question, answer, and build your own sod house.
  • Letter from a Homesteader by Lily M. Kerns: A letter from a homesteader to his grandson, describing how to build a sod house.


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.


Suzanne Hill said...

Your activities are geared towards the grade level. I like a lot of your idea. Building the sod house will definitely be an attention getter with the students. Your background information tells me enough that I feel comfortable using the teaching guide. I will be using links from your guide to build student background on this topic. Great job!!!

afontes said...

I loved the idea of reading the story to introduce personal narratives. What a great way to teach voice. I think in the vocabulary assignment it would be important to specify that the definition the student is looking for needs to be for the word as it is used in the sentence. Otherwise I'm imagining that the definition of "dugout" will have something to do with baseball, rather than sod huts. Also, doing the soil composition activity prior to making the Dakota Dugout model (if you actually created the bricks from soil) would be beneficial because it would help students understand better that not all soil is conducive to brick making.

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

You write with incredible clarity. My mantra when writing is "Clear, Precise, Concise" — a mantra you have certainly put into practice! Not only do you describe what we should do for activities, you provide details to ensure the activities work well in the classroom and you offer additional resources (e.g., the vocabulary list for the book).

Your "Dakota Dugout Model" activity is a wonderful blend of integrated topics. I like that you've merged art with nature and geometry and you've added a kinesthetic element to the lesson.

It may be nice to have students further extend the "Introduction to Natural Resources" lesson by having them consider access to survival resources in another piece of literature. For example, it might be nice to have students compare what would be needed for survival in Sallie Fox and Patty Reed's Doll. How would their resource needs and manner of accessing those resources differ when traveling the Oregon versus Sante Fe Trails?

Another suggestion for taking an activity one step further is for "Grow Your Own Food." You mention discussing one-crop foods. How about having students create their own recipes for one-crop foods and having them make some of the recipes from the era?

The "Soil Composition" activity is wonderful. It might be nice to either take a field trip to an area like the Springs Preserve or Lost City Museum so they can actually see the results of man-made clay buildings.