The Great American Prairie: An Integrated Fifth Grade Unit


Terrence V. Stange and Susan L. Wyant

Good literature is a perfect vehicle for elementary social studies instruction. As literature broadens children’s views of the world and its past, it shapes their understandings in ways that drills and repetition of dates, places, and occurrences cannot. By reading literature around an integrated social theme, teachers can lead children from the known to the unknown in a positive and constructive way.

Children can learn something about people by studying how they meet their needs for food, clothing, and shelter, their family patterns, holidays and other special days, their fine arts, recreation, religion, and traditions. Although material culture is emphasized, even young children can gain some understanding of a people’s world view, by interrelating these aspects of culture over time and understanding the concept of values.1

The literature-social studies connection is also an excellent means of integrating the elementary curriculum. The integrative philosophy builds on reading and language arts, literature and content subject matter, and allows teachers and children to explore the world and develop or construct thoughts, goals, and concepts that enable an understanding of the multiple dimensions of human experience.2 The teacher guiding an effective integrated unit can process and learn along with students as they investigate various topics.3 Integrative education encourages learners to have active involvement in the learning process so that learning does not become passive memorization. Building on a base in the humanities, integrated teaching allows a unit to encompass the whole human experience—the emotions, experiences, and actions of people, as well as their relationship with their environment.

A good social studies theme naturally includes disciplines like history, geography, anthropology, sociology, and political science, and can also provide meaningful connections to science, math, music, and art.4

An excellent topic for an integrated unit based on literature is the Great American Prairie during the pioneer period. Children learn about geography as they see the distinctive landscape and resources of the prairies through the eyes of those who traveled through them and tried to make a living from them. The history of the pioneer movement and the meaning of governmental initiatives like the Homestead Act become real to students as they share the travails, worries, and accomplishments of those who settled in the prairies. The economics of prairie farming and the various entrepreneurial activities that pioneers undertook are easier to understand when they are presented as challenges to real people with whom students identify. The world of prairie life offers rich sociological and anthropological information as students examine the family unit that was the backbone of pioneer society, and discover how pioneers socialized and spent their leisure time. The basic functions of a government become clear when children are asked to imagine the needs, protections, and resolutions of differences that were needed in a pioneer society.

A great deal of literature exists on the Great American Prairie (see box). The unit presented here for a fifth grade class is based on two books that the authors have found to be highly student friendly and to offer rich educational insights. Teachers may find other books in the list to be equally suitable for their classroom.


The Unit

The major goals of the Great American Prairie unit are:

> To acquaint students with the prairie location, climate, vegetation, and population features.

> To explore and create simulations that allow students to gain insight into prairie history with concrete hands-on activities.

> To have students understand the value of cooperation and effective participation in and among groups.

> To allow students to gain insight into the responsibilities of decision making. Through cognitive inquiry into the multi-faceted aspects of the Great American Prairie, children discover how people traveled the region, the types of housing used on the prairie, the animals of the prairie, the natural vegetation, and how people interacted with one another in an expansive and lonely region.

The teacher orally reads Cassie’s Journey: Going West in the 1860s by Brett Harvey.5 The story is based on actual daily diaries kept by women during a trek across the prairie, a trip which often took six to eight months. A caravan of about twelve wagons typically traveled fifteen to twenty miles a day. Nearly a quarter of a million people traveled west from 1840 to 1860. The reasons for the western movement were to avoid the harsh mid-western climate, the promise of gold in western mountains, and sheer adventure. This book describes the challenges of traveling by covered wagon, and the problems faced by the pioneers, which included drought, lack of potable water and ample food supplies, inclement weather, illness, accidents, snake bites, death, being able to safely cross a river, maintaining the wagons, and negotiating the mountains. This book helps set the tone to explore facts about the life and migration of settlers on the prairie.

A discussion follows about traveling westward in the l860s. Each of five cooperative groups researches a topic such as location of the prairie, climate, vegetation, housing, and animal habitats. Groups pool data collected about their topics and share the information with the rest of the class.

Students silently read a Newbery Medal literature book titled Sarah Plain And Tall by Patricia MacLachlan to learn about prairie concepts in an explorative and naturalistic fashion.6 Prior to the reading, the teacher explains that children will learn about prairie life and migration as they read the book Sarah Plain and Tall. Time is allocated to a pre-reading activity to arouse background knowledge. The teacher prepares an anticipation guide that consists of a series of statements to agree or disagree with prior to reading. Such a guide is prepared for each chapter to favor thinking and discussion as the reading progresses.

Sarah Plain and Tall is about two children named Caleb and Anna and their father, Jacob. The family unexpectedly loses the mother and wife, and experiences much loneliness. Jacob places an ad in newspapers for a possible companion to share life in the small cabin on the prairie. Eventually, Sarah Ann Wheaton responds. With this theme as a backdrop, children read and implicitly learn the facts of life on the prairie—weather and seasonal changes, travel, animals, and social life. In the story, Sarah arrives by train from Maine for a visit, having written to the family that she will be wearing a yellow bonnet, and that she is plain and tall (hence the title of the book). The entire time, the children worry whether or not Sarah will be happy and enjoy life on the prairie. The story concludes with Sarah adjusting to prairie life with plans to marry Jacob. Happiness and a sense of completeness return to the family.

A number of possible activities can enhance the unit:

> Singing was one form of entertainment on the prairie. Children might chorally read a prairie song and sing it. Children could be divided into groups of high, moderate and low-pitched voices combined for choir effect.

> Using The Little House Cookbook, children could help prepare and eat some of the foods of that time.

> Children could examine artifacts from the pioneer period. A curator of a museum could bring a suitcase exhibit of items to the school for children to view.

> Children could grow and monitor growth of prairie grass to connect to science.

> Students could make travel maps, as pioneers might do, for a geography activity (see figure 1).

> Children could make quilts at a learning center to connect to art.

> Children could maintain a daily diary of activities as they pretend to be pioneer settlers (see figure 2).

> Children could use the computer program, The Oregon Trail, to examine pioneer life in more depth. This computer simulation program (appropriate for users age 10 to adult) allows students to experience and explore travel by covered wagon, and solve problems along the way. During the 2,000 mile journey, students encounter life on the frontier and learn what it is like to abandon homes, moving across rugged and unfamiliar territory in a conestoga wagon. Students role play occupations such as those of a banker, carpenter, and farmer, and make life and death decisions as members of an imaginary family. Students plan and prepare meals, and make decisions about common exploratory challenges during the trek like storms, lack of supplies, illness, wild animals, and broken equipment.

> As an extension of the unit, children could examine pictures and read about the pioneer period using the book Prairie Visions: The Life and Times of Solomon Butcher by Pam Conrad, which was a Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People in 1992.7 Solomon Butcher migrated with his family from West Virginia to Nebraska as a young man in 1880, and, like many early settlers, made a claim on land under the Homestead Act. He had learned the new art of photography in West Virginia, and eventually became a photographer whose pictures of life in Nebraska offer a fascinating view of pioneer families and their lives.

Being a photographer was a very unstable way of making a living, and Solomon tried a variety of occupations, such as opening a post office, teaching school, making frames, and farming for his father. Eventually, in 1901, he fulfilled a lifelong dream of publishing a photographic history—a successful book called Pioneer History of Custer County, Nebraska, which contained 400 pages of photographs and true stories of pioneer life.

The story of Solomon Butcher is an excellent means of introducing students to pioneer life. Children can identify with his struggles as a photographer and admire his work, learning about pioneer life in the process. The book stimulates the imagination of the reader with memorable scenes of the prairie, such as homes built of sod because of the lack of trees to provide wood, families sitting in dignified groups, horse-drawn wagons, and even an early schoolhouse.



Lesson evaluations can be based on an understanding of the books read, as shown by the ability to discuss and answer questions guided by the teacher; participation in cooperative group activity researching facts for group presentations; the employment of silent reading skills; the completion of response or study guides; and the identification of main points of chapters being read via discussion.



1. Lee Little Soldier, “Making Anthropology Part of the Elementary Social Studies Curriculum,” Social Education 54, no. 1 (1990): 18.

2. Christine C. Pappas, Barbara Z. Kiefer, and Linda S. Levstik, An Integrated Language Perspective in the Elementary School: Theory into Action (White Plains, New York: Longman, 1990).

3. Shane Templeton, Teaching the Integrated Language Arts (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1991).

4. For some risks and weaknesses in the use of integrated themes, see Regie Routman, Invitations: Changing as Teachers and Learners K-12 (Portsmouth, NH: Heineman, 1991).

5. Brett Harvey, Cassie’s Journey: Going West in the 1860s (New York: Holiday House, l988).

6. Patricia MacLachlan, Sarah Plain And Tall (New York: Harper and Row, 1985)

7. Pam Conrad, Prairie Visions: The Life and Times of Solomon Butcher (New York: Harper, 1986).


Terrence V. Stange is an assistant professor in the Department of Elementary Education at Arkansas State University. His current research involves gifted reader affect, reading field experience programs, student teacher knowledge, and integrative learning. Susan L. Wyant is a third grade teacher at East Elementary School, St. Marys City Schools, St. Marys, Ohio. Her current educational interests include parody writing, metacognition, and integrative learning.



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Freedman, Russell. Children of the Wild West. New York: Clarion, 1983.

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Arts, Crafts, Celebration, Foods

Allen, Terry. The Whispering Wind. New York: Doubleday, 1972.

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Brenner, Barbara. Wagon Wheels. New York: Harper, 1980.

Brown, Dee. Lonesome Whistle. New York: Holt, 1980.

Gammel, Stephen. Git Along Old Scudder. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1983.

Levine, Ellen. If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon. New York: Scholastic, 1986.

O’Dell, Scott. Streams to the River, River to the Sea. Boston: Houghton, 1986.

Sanders, Scott. Aurora Means Dawn. New York: Bradbury, 1989.

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Speare, Elizabeth G. Calico Captive. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957.



Ackerman, Karen. Arminta’s Paint Box. New York: Atheneum, 1990.

Conrad, Pamela. Prairie Songs. New York: Harper Trophy, 1985.

Conrad, Pamela. Prairie Visions: The Life and Times of Solomon Butcher. New York: Harper, 1986.

Donahue, Marilyn C. The Valley In-Between. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1979.

Hall, Donald. Ox Cart Man. New York: Scholastic, 1979.

Harvey, Brett. Cassie’s Journey: Going West in the 1860s. New York: Holiday House, 1988.

Harvey, Brett. My Prairie Year. New York: Holiday House, 1986.

Henry, Joanne. Log Cabin in the Woods. Four Winds Press, 1988.

Kalman, Bobbie. Early Family Home. New York: Crabtree, 1982.

London, K. A Birthday for Blue. Morton Grove, IL: Whitman, 1989.

MacLachlan, Patricia. Sarah Plain and Tall. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

Pinkney, J. Home Place. New York: Scholastic, 1990.

Rounds, Glen. The Prairie Schooners. New York: Holiday House, 1968.

Sanouci, D. North County Night. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

Turner, Ann. Grasshopper Summer. New York: Macmillan, 1989.

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Farmer Boy. New York: Harper and Row, 1933.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.