Photos by Scott Buschman
The girls wear braids, bonnets and long dresses. The boys sport suspenders and caps. Students share their “readers” with classmates. During recess they pitch pennies and play jacks and pick-up-sticks. At PE, they square-dance.
No, this isn’t Little House on the Prairie; it’s third-graders at Dena Boer Elementary School in Salida going back in time to fully comprehend pioneer and Native American life in the 1850s. It happens every May.
“Their whole world changes,” says teacher Lenora Gerber, who started the tradition over two decades ago in this rural community near Modesto. “It’s a great way to end the school year.”
Gerber and fellow third-grade teachers Lori Hall and Michelle Kwietkauski, all members of the Salida Teachers Association, take the “Wagons Ho — Pioneer Days and the West We Go!” project seriously, and so do the children.
“ Students learn that freed slaves and Native Americans were extremely mistreated and not treated equally. We have important discussions about the social injustice of the era.” — Lori Hall, Salida Teachers Association
Lights are off to simulate life without electricity. Paper, pencil and computer are replaced with slate and chalk. Students learn to weave cloth and Native American baskets, churn butter, make strawberry jam and ice cream, and bake pretzels. Boys sit on one side of the room and girls on the other.
Last year, the project received grant money from CTA’s Institute for Teaching, which has been a longtime leader in rewarding innovative educators.
Classrooms at the fictitious “Apple Valley School” are modeled after a one-room schoolhouse, and teachers incorporate hands-on projects with state standards. Each student assumes a new identity, becoming a child from the past, with a new name, age
The family groups
- Farmer’s children, who at times may have to miss school to help with the crops.
- Newly freed slaves, who lack the staples and other supplies schoolchildren bring with them.
- The storekeeper’s children, who always have abundant supplies.
- The Allen boys from the reverend’s family: Matthew, Mark, Luke
- Other groups of siblings.
The teachers also take on new identities. They are single, since female teachers were not allowed to marry in the 1800s. Many had to live with the families of students, since they were not supposed to live independently.
Educating students about the political realities of the past is incorporated into the unit. Students learn about the Underground Railroad, which helped transport slaves to the North, and the hardships and unfairness that Native Americans suffered. Their studies involve reading appropriate texts and watching informative programs.
“Students learn that freed slaves and Native Americans were extremely mistreated and not treated equally in any way,” says Hall. “They realize that the land was taken away from the Native Americans. We have important discussions about the social injustice of the era.”
Every morning when students walk in the door, a “clean hands and clean face check” takes place, and then they’re assigned “fates” based on possible scenarios of that era. For example, a student may have a sick lamb at home and miss school to take care of it. Or they may have to walk five miles into town to unhitch a horse named Snowball because their parents are occupied. Fortunately, students don’t really have to do these things, but they get an idea of challenges pioneer youngsters faced.
Students also learn about other challenges in the days of yore — in class they received a “swat” if they misbehaved and had to wear a dunce cap if they were caught daydreaming or gave a wrong answer. However, during the re‑enactment, they receive points for participation, not punishment. They must acquire a certain number of points to “graduate” during a ceremony attended by their real families, where children can show off their square dancing moves.
Students, for the most part, develop an appreciation for the era they really live in.
“We get to make fun stuff and learn fun things, but I wouldn’t want to live during that time, because it’s a hard life and you have to work hard all day,” confides Alvaro Calderon. “If you wanted something and you didn’t have money, you’d have to trade for it. And if you got sick or stung by a bee, there wasn’t modern medicine, so you just had to pray.”
Reagan Noble read a book about “amazing ladies” of that era, which made her appreciative that she will never have to wear a corset. She is also grateful that women today can choose any profession — not just teaching — and can vote and own property.
Boys in pioneer times eschewed “women’s work” such as washing clothes and cooking. However, for this project, boys and girls equally share the cooking and even wash socks by hand with a washboard and a bar of soap, which they do not find especially fun. In the end, both students and teachers learn from the experience.
“I love teaching this,” says Gerber. “Normally the end of the year is pretty chaotic. But during Pioneer Days, students don’t even think about being disruptive. That’s because they are learning so many interesting things and having so much fun.”
The Origin of Everyday Sayings
In Dena Boer Elementary School’s “Wagons Ho — Pioneer Days and the West We Go!” project, youngsters learn how to sew a button and hold a hammer, and they learn the real meaning of everyday sayings.
“Waste not, want not,” for example, has taken on new meaning for student Ana Villavazo, who understands that pioneers needed everything at their disposal for survival, while people today think nothing of throwing away excess food.
Another saying, “throwing the baby out with the bath water,” refers to the fact that the entire family used the same tub of water for a bath every week or so, and the baby was always bathed last. The water was so dark by then it could be difficult to see the baby.
The expression “It’s raining cats and dogs” refers to a time when houses were made of mud, and cats and dogs stayed up on the thatched roofs. When it rained extremely hard, the cats and dogs fell through.