When I left the “People, Prairie and Plains” Institute in August of 1995, I went home wondering how I could possibly incorporate all I had learned into my 8th grade American history curriculum. I quickly realized that there was no way I could expose my students to everything I had learned, so I began searching for a more realistic goal. Finally, I decided to stress a sense of place and time, emphasizing how and why environments change over time and how different my students’ environment is from the ones known by previous generations of Americans.
Early in the school year, I asked my students to write a short paper describing their daily routine from the time they get up in the morning until the time they go to bed at night. Then we discussed how dependent we (as a society) are on modern technology-- from indoor plumbing and electricity to televisions, telephones and computers. I asked the students to save these papers, explaining that we would be referring to them from time to time throughout the year.
We began our American history course by studying early Native American cultures. The students learned about various Native American groups, and I helped them realize how their locations accounted for the differences in their diets, clothing, housing and other aspects of their culture. I also asked my students to think about the papers they had written describing their daily lives. I asked how their lives are different from those of the Native American children who lived in this country before the Europeans came. The thought of life without cellular phones and cable TV was horrifying to them!
With each unit, I asked students to consider the environment that the people of that era lived in. In addition to comparing the living conditions to those we are accustomed to, we also compared them to the ones discussed in previous units and talked about the factors that brought about change. They began to realize how even a gradual increase in population and industry can drastically change a place over time. This realization helped them to better understand historical causes and effects.
I was able to incorporate a lot of environmental history material into the unit on Westward Expansion. We talked about what made the Great Plains unique and compared that environment to the ones of the Eastern cities that many pioneers left behind. As students read excerpts of Sod and Stubble, they noted how frequently the environment was mentioned and how often the family was at its mercy. To illustrate how isolated people could be on the frontier, I showed them an episode of Little House on the Prairie called “A Matter of Faith,” in which the mother becomes seriously ill while at home by herself for a few days. Since the nearest neighbor is miles away and there is no telephone, she is unable to summon help. The students enjoyed the video, and it gave them a better understanding of the hardships of frontier life.
Next year’s curriculum will be different. Instead of teaching U.S. History to the Civil War, I will be teaching U.S. History since the Civil War, which will provide me the opportunity to use all the great institute material on the Progressive Era and the Dust Bowl. However, my overall approach to incorporating environmental history into the curriculum will not change. I will still require my students to compare past environments to their own environment and past environments to each other, and I will still help them figure out what has caused those environments to change. If this approach continues to help students’ overall understanding of history, I will feel that I have been successful.
Overview: This card game is an excellent review technique. It also requires students to practice listening skills.
Connection to the Curriculum: This activity can easily be used in any social studies, science, or English class. It is appropriate for upper elementary, middle, and high school students.
Time Required: 10-15 minutes.
Materials: “Name this city” cards (index cards).
Objective: By playing the card game, students will review information about American cities.
Suggestions: Although making the cards takes a lot of time, you can use them more than once. I use them as a review activity for several days before the test and then take them out again weeks and/or months later to see if the students remember the information. This also provides an excellent “filler” activity for those days when your lesson ends 10 minutes sooner than you had planned.
Assessment: Since I use this review activity for a test, the test is the assessment. Extending the Lesson: Students could research the cities and present travel itineraries to the class. Or, students could some up with their own clues and prepare their own deck of game cards.