Students experience pioneer days through immersion

Friday, April 24, 2009 | 4:39 p.m. CDT
From left, Joshua Whittom, 10, and Jesse Nilges, 11, both fifth graders at the Good Shepherd Lutheran School in Columbia, write down words on their slates to memorize them for a spelling bee on Friday. During a day of class at the one-room schoolhouse at Shelter Gardens, the children got to live the the life of students in pioneer times. "It's really cool to spend a day like someone would have ... a hundred or so years ago," Joshua Whittom said about his experience.

COLUMBIA – Bare feet tapped at old wooden desks and ran through plush green grass. Students from the Good Shepherd Lutheran School claimed their favorite thing about Friday was being allowed to be barefoot at school.

The students, however, weren't at their typical location on West Rollins Road, nor were they wearing the standard polo and navy slacks or skirt combination that they normally wear to school. Instead, the students ventured to the one-room schoolhouse at the Shelter Gardens in Columbia. They wore long dresses, bonnets, plaid shirts and overalls. The out-of-the ordinary day was an exciting end to a pioneer unit for the 13 fifth-grade students.


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Rebecca Mott, a history, reading and English teacher at Good Shepherd, organized the pioneer school day. She said it was the perfect end to a month-long unit on the pioneering days. In mid-March, she said, they started investigating the era. Mott brought in a diary written by two brothers who traveled from Missouri to California to settle the west and find gold in 1849. Mott read the original diary to the class.

"The students were absolutely amazed the day I brought in the Wyatt family diary," Mott said. "Some of them realized for the first time, that there really had been a Gold Rush and that bands of Sioux Indians once roamed the plains. My students knew these things were real because Mr. Wyatt wrote about them in his own handwriting."

As the class read the diary, it marked the journey on a wall map. Friday, during one of the school lessons, students talked about the challenges and burdens that pioneers faced as they moved west: harsh weather, limited supplies, wooden wheels and cholera. 

Other lessons and activities at the schoolhouse introduced the students to new topics and activities. Because paper was limited and expensive in the pioneer era, students had to do math sums in their heads.

"They learn how different school was, how much more important memorization was. It teaches them different ways of thinking," said Nina Verbanaz, a Latin teacher at Good Shepherd.

A spelling bee, a game of blindman's bluff, and a nature scavenger hunt of natural Missouri plants from the era all helped round out the day.

An authentic pioneer lunch was provided as well: milk, biscuits, carrots, a piece of ham, a pear and a hard-boiled brown egg straight from Mott's farm.

"It's different. I've never done anything like this before," Jesse Nilges, 11, said.

While the students were certainly excited to be barefoot and be dressed up in pioneer garb, they were wide-eyed and fascinated with the activities and lessons they were completing. Each student was excited to talk about the projects they had completed at home based on what they had read in Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, another component of the unit. Amanda McDowell, 11, said she made a rag doll. Other students worked on quilting, woodworking and building projects.

The day spent at the schoolhouse was a perfect end to the unit, Mott said.

"All of a sudden it made it click for them. [The day] makes history meaningful, and it's going to stay with them," Mott said.

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Joel Vander Molen May 15, 2009 | 3:46 p.m.

It's good to see kids enjoying history and experiencing what life was once like. It's a shame that going to school barefoot is no longer allowed as this is very beneficial for children, but they did get one day.

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