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The Travel West

The Travel West is an interesting project that I learned about when I worked at Balboa Magnet. A 4th grade teacher at Balboa, used to assign this thought provoking project to her students, every year. She divided her students into teams of immigrants travelling west on a wagon train. Each team was assigned one of four known trails, that were used by immigrants in their quest to find gold: The Santa Fe Trail, The Oregon Trail, The Old Spanish Trail and the California Trail. Each student in the team was assigned an identity and the entire team was part of one wagon train travelling west. Their assignment was to study the trail, learn the difficulties expected on each trail, prepare supplies that can address these difficulties and keep a journal, chronicling the trip, the obstacles and what was done to overcome them. When the teacher approached me about the possibility of making a digital version, I immediately saw the potential that web-based digital tools can bring to this project.

My plan was to create a Google Apps site template for the Travel West, which will include the following sections: team identities, supplies list, a trail map, and a travel communication page formatted as an announcements page (similar to a blog). I also prepared a Google Form, that students used to create their supplies lists. They used the form and a categorized list of possible supplies, both embedded in the supplies page, to select a list of supplies for their trip. 

Since students only worked on their projects twice a week, while being in the computer lab, there was not enough time for them to create their own sites and necessary documents. Relying on ready made templates was not all bad, because it left so much more time for students to focus on the learning experience. Although students were not expected to do the heavy lifting of creating the websites and forms, technology was still a major part of the learning experience. Students learned to collaborate with each other by using a shared site and following its rules of engagement. When contributing on the communications page, they learned how a blog works. They also learned how to input information using a form and manipulate the output in a spreadsheet. The most complicated task was to create a Google Map of their trail, marking important locations with images and short descriptions of what happened in each place.

Working on a shared site exposes students to experience collaborative work and a view of the big picture, that this type of setting affords. Students could all see each other’s work and contribution. Google sites allows them to comment on each other’s work, thus providing an effective channel for peer critique and brainstorming. Generating the supplies list evoked a vivid exchange of ideas, trying to match the conditions on the trail to wise purchasing decisions. In view of weight limitations, dictated by the maximum weight that the wagon can carry (around 1000 BWU), we witnessed heated arguments, in which team members tried to convince each other of the best supply choices to take with them.

When designing the trail map, students had to first identify the most important milestones along the way. Then, based on historical records, they had to find as much information as possible about each place. When all the data was available, they created a shared Google Map, dividing the task amongst all team members. Each team member was supposed to mark one or several locations on the map. Placemarks contained a relevant historical image and a short description of the events that took place in each location. The final product was embedded into the trail’s page in the website.

As I mentioned above, each student in the team had to assume the identity of an immigrant.  They had to build the character based on real stories of gold-seekers. They used their creativity to tell the story of the person, their profession, their goal in going west, family members that joined them and those they left behind and what scares and excites them in going west. Then they had to look for pictures depicting the character and the era they lived in.

Each team was faced with a series of hardships, prepared by the teacher and based on historical events. Students were expected to use their creativity and history of the trail, to address these hardships, and write about them in a journal. The journal was posted in the Travel Communication section and formatted as an exchange of letters, describing problems, fears, and requests for help. Faced with hardships posted by their peers in this travel simulation journal, it was the closest they could get to experiencing the difficulties that travelers would encounter daily. In seeking effective solutions, students were faced with real-life problem solving situations, for which they had to employ advanced research skills, critical thinking, and creativity.  

The best measure that tells educators about how successful a project turns out to be is student enthusiasm. In this project, students were looking forward to come to the lab and keep working on it. The level of student engagement, thought provoking conversation, inquisitiveness, and creativity, were without bounds. It also confirmed my thinking that students are much more open to learn new things that seem complicated, when they encounter it in a real-life situation. Students were eager to learn about spreadsheets in order to be able to update their supplies lists, to make sure that they are not exceeding the 1000 B.W.U limit that they can carry in their wagons. Coming up with each immigrant’s personal story, generated heated discussions, some laughs, and a big chunk of creative writing. In addition to being interesting, thought provoking, and fun to engage in, students displayed a lot of pride in their final accomplishment--a travel west journey site that told the story of a group of immigrants traveling west. Looking at the journey from multiple perspectives was the closest students could get stepping into the footprints of their ancient ancestors.

Here is a link to the project created for each trail: