Teaching with Historic Places in Real Classrooms: Leska Foster, on the 'Trail of Tears' lesson plan

When Opportunity Knocks

In 21st century classrooms across the United States, teachers are grappling with the best way to meet both student needs and federal/ state requirements. As a self-contained elementary teacher (one who teaches academic subjects to the same class) I find using Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) lesson plans to be an exciting, intriguing, efficient, and effective way to have students dig deeper into history while meeting these needs.

While this approach may seem narrow-minded at first glance, using TwHP lessons actually allows the elementary teacher three great opportunities:

1. Helping students make connections to the larger historical era under instruction;

2. Helping teachers dip their feet (or fingers or toes) into the sometimes murky depths of using historical documents as teaching tools, which will then help students to become thoughtful and detailed readers, thinkers, and writers;and

3. Allowing self-contained teachers the possibility for integration into most if not all subjects across the curriculum during the school day.

The TwHP lesson plan that I will be using as a reference is The Trail of Tears and the Forced Relocation of the Cherokee Nation. According to West Virginia Content Standards and Objectives (CSOs), fourth grade students study the early explorers to the end of the American Revolution, as well as West Virginia History;fifth grade students pick up from the end of the American Revolution through to the current time.For elementary teachers, time is one of our most precious resources –we just don't have enough of it during the school day to cover effectively all requirements the state and federal governments mandate. Using the TwHP lesson plan format, I'll demonstrate how I've broken down the lessons for use in my classroom. Like my colleague Paul LaRue (see "Less is More"), I don't use an entire TwHP lesson plan –I pick and choose both what works best for my students at any given time and also what helps ensure that we meetstate and federal standards.

The Trail of Tears and the Forced Relocation of the Cherokee Nation

Getting Started: Inquiry Question

1. If you have access to a Smartboard / Touchboard, showing just the picture as an introduction is one of my favorite ways to start a new unit. Elementary students love to discuss all types of topics and for those auditory learners in your classroom, this is one way to meet their needs.

2. Brain-storm the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How of the picture –Who might have lived there?;What did they do for a living?;When in time do you think this was built?;Where in the United States was this built?;Why were the buildings constructed that way?;and How are these buildings important to us today?

3. Use Photo Analysis Worksheet as an additional resource or in place of Activity #1. The photos could also be used as a homework assignment or as an in-class group assignment.

Setting the Stage

1. This page gives a refresher on the beginnings of American History. I typically use this page for information that I share with students.

2. The last paragraph on this page is good for creating a timeline for elementary students to see how events overlapped. Timelines are a critical part of our state testing.

Locating the Site

I typically use a Smartboard to present the maps or an overhead projector if a Smartboard is unavailable.

1. Map 1 - Fifth grade students in WV are required to be able to identify and label the 50 states. Having the students identify the states shown on the map is a good review.

2. Map 1 - Use the questions to further student knowledge. Can be completed in pairs or small groups.

3. Map 2 –Break the students into four or eight groups. Assign one of the four trails to each group. Using Google Maps, have the students enter the cities into Google Maps in order to determine the mileage total. Once they have the mileage total, they can use the larger version of Map 2 to create a map scale based on their math level.

4. Map 2 –Same as Step 2 for Map 1.

Determining the Facts- Reading 1, Reading 2, Reading 3

With these three readings, I break the class into three separate groups and do a jigsaw activity with them. When determining the groupings for these readings, you might want to make certain that you have a mixture of student abilities in each group so that your struggling readers don't become frustrated with the assignment. This can be a time-consuming activity if you don't use a timer. You can also give the readings out ahead of time for the students to pre-read.

1. Break the class into three smaller groups.

2. Have each group read their assigned pages and discuss their questions.

3. Each group is to make a presentation to the rest of the class instructing them on the important facts that they have read. I typically require each member of the group to present some piece of information so that all students will have an opportunity to do public speaking. You can use this activity as a formative assessment of the lesson content.

4. The first-person statements / accounts in all three readings can be used as a Language Arts lesson. Discuss sentence structure and vocabulary based on these parts.

Visual Evidence – Photo 1, Photo 2, Photo 3, Photo 4

1. Photos 1-4 - I usually discuss these images in the whole group, helping my elementary students pay attention to the details found in each one. Use the Photo Analysis sheet if necessary.

2. Photos 1 and 2 analysis could be used as an assessment for Document-Based Questions (DBQ) usage. West Virginia students are required to analyze primary source documents on our state test in the spring –any of the primary source documents found in any of the TwHP lesson plans are useful for this type of exercise and practice.

Putting it All Together - There are five student activities available to the teacher in this lesson.

1. Activities 1 and 2 could be merged together if you chose to do so. Activity 1 asks the students to compare and contrast the pros and cons of merging the Cherokee culture into the white culture. This activity could be combined with Activity 2 which asks the students to consider the two men, John Ross and Major Ridge, and as members of the Cherokee National Council vote on whether or not to approve the Treaty of Echota.

2. Activity 2 is the one that I choose to use with my students because it is best suited for their academic developmental level.

3. Activity 3 asks the students to review the primary source materials included in this lesson (the readings, maps, and photos) and make a list of these sources. Once the list has been compiled, each group of students is asked to choose four pieces of evidence (sources) and answer the questions included about each source.

4. Activity 4 asks the students to research the tribes and treaties that were in their area during the European settlement. Once the information has been gathered, then the students are asked to answer questions pertaining to their local tribes. An oral presentation concludes this activity.

5. The final activity with this lesson involves the students being split into four groups and assigned one of the four remaining Indian tribes who were relocated. The students are asked to compare and contrast their relocation experience with the Cherokee tribe as well as an update on the tribe in the 21st century. An oral presentation is the culmination of this activity as well.

Supplementary Resources

There are 11 on-line sites that can be set up for the students to use independently at home or in class. If your school has a website (our school system has a countywide one) you can post the links to your web page or ask your school webmaster to paste them there for you. This will allow the students easy access to those websites.


The TwHP lessons are invaluable teaching tools for history. As an elementary teacher, I use them in a variety of ways: from teaching students map skills—such as scale, longitude, latitude, and area—to Reading / Language arts skills.According to research completed for the Common Core Standards adopted by 42 states, Washington, DC, and the US Virgin Islands, there is a lack of complex texts for K-12 students to read and assimilate with minimal scaffolding. By using the TwHP Lessons with elementary students, the classroom teacher is beginning the process of immersing their students into the complex reading texts that they need in order to "ensure that all students are college and career ready in literacy no later than the end of high school."* Remember, have fun with these lessons and with your students while using the TwHP lessons to meet state and national standards.

* Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts &Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects, June 2, 2010;pg. 3;accessed June 7,2011.

Last updated: December 3, 2015