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Fourth-graders learn about pioneers plight

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Grady Grisson rolls a dice to learn the fate of his wagon train after they decided to purchase water and share it with those who couldn t afford it.
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Dale Thompson Of the Record staff

They’re rationing water and losing livestock.

The fourth-graders at Parley’s Park Elementary are learning what it was like to be a pioneer in the mid nineteenth century.

After reaching Chapter 5 in their social studies book, which covers the Mormon pioneers, Allison Moschetti’s students have begun a simulation of pioneers trekking along the made-up Hacker Trail. It stretches from Independence, Missouri to Hacker’s Valley, Oregon.

The unit lasts for the month of January and Moschetti’s students are enthusiastic about the project.

"If we don’t do Pioneers there are moans and groans," she said.

Before their journey the students picked out pioneer identities for themselves. For example, a student might decide to be a doctor traveling with his wife. Some might have children, slaves or livestock according to which identity they pick from the program materials.

"I like the families, it’s fun to choose what you want to be," said Kayla Guillory.

Then they write a diary entries about their new identities. The students invent stories about how they got to Missouri and how they feel about moving west.

The students are organized into wagon trains. As they journey together each wagon train must make decisions about the best trails to take and make up stories or anecdotes about pioneer life.

"It’s great because it incorporates reading, writing and problem solving," Moschetti said about the program.

Each wagon train votes for a wagon master.

"The wagon master’s role is to settle disputes, tally points and help students that are having a hard time," Moschetti explains.

While students travel they earn or lose points depending on performance and fate. For example, if the young pioneers are lucky enough to encounter a spring of fresh water they gain energy points. Points can be lost for fighting or making poor decisions along the trail.

On Thursday, Moschetti told them the fate of a recent decision about purchasing water. Three of the four teams had decided to buy water and share it with those who couldn’t afford it.

Because fate is random, the three teams who made this decision had to roll a dice. Depending on what number was rolled energy was either gained or lost.

One team opted to buy water but not to share it. The fate of that team was to call a coin toss. If they were right, nothing happened. If they were wrong, livestock were lost along with energy points.

Thursday’s decision focused on choosing between two trails. The first is a short direct route to their destination of Cheyenne Crossing. But it crossed through a sacred Native American burial ground and lacked water. In addition, wagon trains were often attacked along that route.

The second trail was next to the Cheyenne River and while there was plenty of water available, it was twice as long as the Burial Grounds Trail.

Moschetti was concerned that some of her students had been talking to other fourth grade classes who had already been through this scenario. She reminded them it was in her power to change the outcome anytime she wanted to.

Students began by filling out an analysis sheet where they stated what might happen with each decision and why or why they did not like that particular choice. Moschetti reminded them the assignment needed to be written in complete sentences.

Kayla Guillory sat discussing each option with her wagon train, "Number one could be ok because Indians can be friendly. But I’d rather be safe than dead on a short trail. We could die of thirst."

As each wagon train debated their plan Maddie Criscione weighed in on the program.

"I like this because it shows us what they had to go through," she said.

The last decision they have to make before reaching Hacker’s Valley is something Park City residents deal with every day in the winter. Snow. Wagon trains must decide if they want to try and make it to the valley before it snows.

They must choose to send scouts to inspect the trail condition, to return to where they have food and wait out the winter, or to stay where they are.

The first two choices are risky and involve a game of chance. If a wagon train selects one of the two, each member must throw a checker into a waste basket. The distance they have to throw it from is determined by how many points they have accumulated. The more points they have the closer they get to the trash can and the better their odds.

The last two choices are safe and those wagon trains will survive.

Moschetti says that in the three years she has been teaching this program about half of the wagon trains survive and half of them die.

At the end of January the students will write a 300-word research paper. Moschetti said popular topics are Native American chiefs and the Dahmer Party.

"A lot of them do the Pony Express or one of the mountain men that’s familiar to them," Moschetti said.

She adds that she loves the program.

"They learn so much more than if they were reading a textbook," Moschetti said.


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