So one thing Gretchen and I firmly believe is that kids learn best by doing. Luckily, we work in a school where our fellow history teachers embrace this philosophy and as a result we do several history simulations throughout the year, including Ellis Island, Factory Life, and WWI Trench Warfare. We design our own simulations as a grade level team, as we've found that the ones you can purchase are well, expensive, and never quite exactly what we are looking for.
Today, in celebration of our 100th blog post (yes, I can't even believe it). We wanted to share one of our favorite simulations - The Oklahoma Land Run! We hope you can use it when teaching Westward Expansion. Feel free to use as is, or change it up to meet the needs of your students. When teachers share, great ideas BubbleUp; so let's giddy up and get going ya'll.
Oh, and I have to begin by disclosing that I am a native Oklahoman so I approach this simulation with glee every year. It gives me a great chance to showcase my Okie accent and to connect with a place that I love deep down to the tip of my cowboy boots. I think the best way to explain this simulation is to give you a step by step run down of how it works, complete with links to the accompanying documents. So here goes nothin' ya'll (insert okie accent here). But first, watch this video about our school's Land Run and yes, that's Gretchen in the background, rocking an amazing pioneer dress!
Before the Land Run (Fixin' to get ready)
So it is really important that before you begin that the students have an understanding of westward expansion. Consequently, I prefer to do this simulation toward the later part of our Westward Expansion Unit. The day before the Land Run, I have students watch a short clip -- the Land Run scene from the movie Far and Away. I tell them to be on the look out for people staking their claims in the film (especially the Sooners, who cheated the system) and to also look for the dangers people encountered during the race for land. After that we are rearin' and ready to go the next day.
The Day of the Big Race
You'll need a big piece of land to represent the Great Plains for your Land Run. We use a huge grassy area in front of our school. We start early that morning with set up. We put cones (like the ones you use in PE class for soccer drills) on one end of the field. Under several we place little toys (to represent Sooners) - more on that later). Next you need to fill lots of little paper cups with water (fill about 3/4 full). You'll need one cup for every two students as they will be working in pairs. Next, we put on our costumes before the day begins. We borrowed some fun pioneer dresses from the drama Department; other teachers opt to wear cowboy hats, flannel shirts, and jeans.
Once set up is complete, you can go back to class to greet your students. Then we walk out to the field. On the side of the field opposite the orange cones we have students line up with a partner on a starting line. We then send one of the partners to get a cup of water (explain to them that they should not spill the water). Once every pair has a cup of water and is standing arms linked together, we use this script (I definitely ad lib a bit) to explain the rules of the Land Run. I use a bull horn (yes, I know they didn't have them in the 1880's, but we might have 80 kids out there at a time, and we find that the bull horn and a whistle are essential for quieting the crowd).
Once we review the rules, we start the kids on a count of three. They race across the field to reach an orange cone, careful not to lose the water in their cups. It's chaos and fun for about sixty seconds. We gather up students who didn't get to a cone and have them meet in a central location.
Uh-oh, there's Sooners waiting out there.
Next, one of the teachers (using that fancy bull horn) congratulates the students who made it to the cones, but then explains that there is a catch. "Have ya'll heard about the Sooners? I hear that some of them were cheatin' and got out here and beat you to that fine piece of land your standing on. If you lift up your cone and see a little critter under there, sooooo sorry but you've been beat by a Sooner." Kids get really excited or really bummed - depending on what they find under the orange cone. Next, the kids that didn't find a Sooner are handed a land certificate.
Round Up and Reflection
After we've finished handing out certificates, we have everyone gather together and we ask a few reflection questions. We ask what the water in the cup might have represented? The answer: all of the supplies in the covered wagons. We ask students whose story is left out of this narrative. The answer: the American Indians. We also explain that in order to keep their land they will have to successfully farm it for five years in accordance with the Homestead Act.
Head 'Em Up and Move 'Em Out
We have students throw away their paper cups in a recycling bin as they leave; as well as return their "Sooners" and land certificates to a central location (we use a small table). Once we are back in the classroom. we debrief and I sometimes opt to have students complete this writing assignment, which could easily be turned into a much shorter journal entry or warm-up question for the following day depending on how much time you want to devote to reflecting on the activity. I make sure to then flip the script and then focus on several lessons and learning targets aimed at understanding how destructive the settlement in the west was to the American Indians and their way of life.
Saddle up and Repeat
If you teach middle school, you'll have to go through this cycle many more times. We run over 500 students through this simulation in one day. It helps to have a few people available to set up. Our amazing librarians help us every year to set up and organize (not to mention that they helped us develop the activity). Yes, this is a friendly plug to collaborate with your school librarian. That said, you could also ask for parent volunteers to help for the day or to help with shifts.
That's All Folks!
Our students love this activity every year. In the spirit of the musical from Rogers and Hammerstein, we hope this simulation will have you and your students singing: "Your'e doing find Oklahoma, Oklahoma, O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A, Oklahoma OK!"
Until next time, bye ya'll!
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