My APUSH Students and the Oregon Trail Pioneers

How I try to make relevant the history of the trail for students learning 100% online and how I try to motivate my students to give it their all as we go down the academic year backstretch

my year-long, 100% online AP US History class, it’s time for me to teach the history of the Oregon Trail.

I will start off by placing before my students the four images appearing below.

Next, I will place before my students four relatively short yet well-produced content-rich videos:

  • Video #1 (3:27): Diphtheria, Dysentery, Drowning, Accident, and Exhaustion Along the Oregon Trail
  • Video #2 (10:18) Wagon Trains and Settlers Classroom Video
  • Video #3 (6:05) Ghastly Things Nobody Told You Happened On The Oregon Trail
  • Video #4 (2:11): What the Oregon Trail Looks Like Today from Above

​I will then show my students a number of photos depicting what a typical Oregon Trail pioneer family might have looked like, being sure to focus my students’ attention on the “teens” pictured in the photos.

​​I will then ask my students three questions:

  1. How do you think these teens would have responded to the question “on a scale of 1–10, to what extent are you enjoying your life on the Oregon Trail?”
  2. On a scale of 1–10, to what extent are you enjoying this online APUSH class?”
  3. On a scale of 1–10, to what extent are you enjoying all of your other required online classes?

I will then reveal the average score for each question; then ask the students, via a google form, what if anyting can I do to help them enjoy the class more.

Then I will tell my students that regardless of how they have answered any of the four questions just asked, it’s my opinion that they are today, in essence, the equivalent of the teens who were called upon to explore the Oregon Trail.

A new world they have been called upon to explore, one that they did not choose to explore and that’s been undoubtedly filled with many unexpected and mind-numbing challenges, and yet for those will who will continue to work hard and stay focused, it won’t prove a complete loss either.

There’s in fact much to be gained on this trail, I will tell my students in closing if only they are willing to continue to cling to the spirit of our country’s pioneering past!
My school district’s recently retired superintendent and my long-time mentor thinks I should have taken a different approach.

On the similarities between the Oregon Trail pioneers and your students, I wouldn’t have offered my own opinion first,” he says. Instead, I would have asked:

1. What makes you different from the teens who travelled the Oregon trail?

2. What makes you the same as the teens who travelled the Oregon trail?

3. What, if any thing, can you learn about the way you can approach challenge(s) in your world today based on what you’ve learned about the way that teens on the Oregon Trail approached challenges?

THEN I would have asked the students THEIR opinion of whether they are in essence the equivalents of the teens who were called upon to explore the Oregon Trail.

Remember, your primary job as a teacher is, as often as possible, to take them through the process in a Socratic fashion and/or “law school” approach. I’m not sure it matters what your opinion is.



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Peter Paccone

High school APUSH teacher with much in-class and online teaching experience. Also a blogger, keynote speaker, editor, podcast host, and conference presenter.