It’s near chaos as the three “wagon trains” of fourth graders determine who is best suited from their group to hunt for food. It’s 1889 and they’ve traveled from Independence, Missouri to the Platte River, Nebraska. These pioneers have already gone through the food they originally packed. They’re starving, they still have to cross the river, and storms are on the horizon. Several students are not going to survive until the end of the class day.
For a few years the popular educational computer game Oregon Trail was not readily available, so Southeast 4th grade teacher Joyce Fox created her own turn-based, pencil and paper game. She created various characters, each with their own skillset, and wrote out a narrative that included several challenges that force teams of students to work together, determine logically what has the highest probability of success, and as they learn about the various landmarks along the trail.
The entire time it is the students who track how they are doing, not a computer program. Mrs. Fox said they are learning how to apply math and reading skills to the real world, by traveling through history.
“I am hoping they realize how hard the pioneers had it to settle the country that we take for granted,” Mrs. Fox says of the experience. “ I also hope they learn that you have to work at something to succeed. Finally, I hope they take away how spoiled we have become just in the last 10 – 20 years and all the conveniences we take for granted.”
Back at the beginning – “in Independence” – the eight or nine students in each of the three teams drew a role, such as banker, blacksmith, doctor, farmer or hunter. They then had to agree between a smaller wagon or larger one, and between using mules or oxen. Each combination has its own advantages and disadvantages. Using oxen allows you to carry more but you will go slower, for example.
Once they had their wagon, they had to agree what supplies to pack. And since they each had different roles, the amount of money they had varied, and they had to stay under that allowed budget, especially since there’s nowhere to buy anything along the way.
“They’re having to take a real world situation, like deciding how much food you want,” said Mrs. Fox. “If I only have this much budgeted for it, what’s going to happen? Some of them will probably starve to death, like one group only took 72 pounds of food. Every day you go without food your strength goes down. It’s learning to work together in their groups. They’ll hunt and every time they hunt they only have so many bullets. Some have a rifle but if you didn’t buy enough bullets you can’t hunt.”
And, of course, there’s a dose of randomness to it, like surviving crossing a river. It’s all up to the roll of the dice.
Which brings us back to “June 1889” at the Platte River, Nebraska.
Mrs. Fox reads the narrative: You loaded our wagon in Missouri and traveled through the Kansas territory.
“It’s a hot and humid, wind whipped day,” Mrs. Fox tells the students, adding that they’ve traveled 100 miles before finally making it to the fort beside the Platte River in Nebraska.
Now, it’s time for the students to calculate how many days it would have taken them, then determine if they would have had enough food to have made it that far.
Two groups are able to travel seven miles a day, so it only took them 14 days to get to the river.
The third group, the wagon that only packed 72 pounds of food originally, has already had to eat two of their oxen, so they are only able to travel five miles per day. This leg of the journey has taken them 20 days, and their wagon occupants go through 24 pounds of food each day, so they need 480 pounds total. Unfortunately, they have less than 200.
“Well, if you kill an oxen you’ll go three miles per day”, Mrs. Fox offers.
In unison, already short oxen, the members of the wagon yell “no!”
Survival becomes a game of odds. Abilities of each character was determined beforehand and now the team has to decide which player is most likely to succeed on a hunt. If your hunting skill is a “5”, you have to roll a 5 or less for your hunt to be deemed successful, and you then roll again and multiply that roll by 50 to determine how many pounds of food you get; but, if you roll a 6, your hunt was unsuccessful, which means no food.
Fortunately the hunt is successful, but during the follow up roll, they only get a two, for 100 pounds of food, which still isn’t enough.
“Last box of bullets,” warns Mrs. Fox.
Their best hunter has already been out to hunt, so somebody else has to. This time, there’s no obvious choice as to who should go hunt, so the students decide on a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors to be fair. Three students each of a hunting skill of “3”, and the eventual hunter rolls higher than that – an unsuccessful hunt.
“I am so sorry – may you rest in peace,” Mrs. Fox says as she tries to console her students. “You have all starved to death.”
The other two wagons have more success, and all are surviving but their strength is weak as they must cross the river.
The “Common Sense” ability is the key to getting the wagon across the river – floating the wagon – and both teams are able to cross.
Mrs. Fox brings up a video of a group of reenactors crossing a river in a covered wagon during a cattle drive, and many of the students are stunned by how difficult it is, even with a calm stream.
“What happens, is that you have no idea how deep that is – see this wagon is stuck,” Mrs. Fox says during the video. “It’s like I said, many things can happen.”
Their wagons cross safely, it’s time to determine which pioneers will survive. They again have to roll a number lower than their strength ability, and by this time several students are weak. One wagon is able to save their sole drowning victim, because they have a doctor who was able to save that person.
The other wagon doesn’t fare as well, with several who drown in the river, but the survivors learn of an upside – less people on the wagon means that’s less food they will go through each day.
“Oh that’s good” – one survivor exclaimed happily, as the classroom bursts into laughter.
After crossing the Platte River, the survivors continue on to Courthouse Rock and Chimney Rock in western Nebraska, so Mrs. Fox brings up photos of both so that they can see the landmarks used. Mrs. Fox and fellow 4th grade teacher Becky Martin explain scouts made trail books for pioneers these landmarks helped them know they were on the right path.
“This way they knew they were headed the right direction because they didn’t have road signs, they didn’t have GPS like we do today, they didn’t have the phones where they put in ‘I want to get to the Oregon Trail,’” Mrs. Martin tells the students. “They would come to those and go ‘oh, we’re three-fourths of the way and we’re headed the right direction because we’re supposed to pass this.’”
Once they get to Scotts Bluff the students have their final challenge of the day.
“Lovely white clouds drift in from the west but soon they begin to build and darken,” Mrs. Fox reads. “Within minutes we now have a frightening green caste and the wind whips up in earnest.”
The wagon that did not survive earlier has been allowed to continue to play along as a “ghost wagon”, but the group groans in exasperation when their roll of the dice has them all dying in the storm.
“They’ve actually died several times,” Mrs. Fox explains.
The surviving wagons fare much better. They survive but one wagon loses some supplies and the other has animals that run away and they have to spend days looking for them, using up food they barely have.
But in the end, none of the wagons survive. A few class days after the big storm, the wagons reach the South Pass in Wyoming. Having killed nearly all of their oxen for food, all of the pioneers starve to death in the Pass.
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