We’re All Gonna Die in the Desert

One of the big themes of fifth grade social studies is “Why do people move?” We study colonization, the American Revolution, growth of the colonies, and Westward Expansion. At this point in the year we have made the transition from kids yelling “No taxation without representation!” whenever they don’t want to do what they’re told, to yelling “Manifest destiny!” and then stealing each other’s seats.

Part of the Westward Expansion unit looks at pioneers, wagon trains, and the journeys west. We have a whole simulation we do where kids are assigned a character with a history and family, grouped together and required to complete tasks and assignments that show what life on the trail was like. It’s a really engaging, informative way for them to learn. It also reminds me to be grateful that 11 year olds are not actually in charge of life or death situations.

One of the first tasks is deciding what to bring. They are given a supply list that includes bulk weight units (bwu). They have a limit of 1,000 bwu to fit in their wagon, so they really have to prioritize and think logically. Which they can’t. Leading to decisions such as…

– Only sugar as a food source- 30 lbs worth of sugar.
– Bringing a grand piano, which took up nearly 1/5 of the total weight, because “entertainment is important!”
– Packing not one, but two bed frames and mattresses. After being explicitly told that they would not fit in the wagon, and would need to be set up and dismantled each day. Because “I need two beds, because I am NOT sharing with my sister.”
– Nearly bringing an entire table and chair dining room set. Nearly because when he was asked if he could think of a reason why he wouldn’t need this (by which I meant, you’re on the damn Oregon trail, just sit on a log!) he said “Yeah, you’re right. My character is single and has no kids, so it would be pretty pathetic to be sitting there at the table all alone!”
– Arming to the teeth with 12 rifles. I was really confused why he had so many on his supply list, and was trying to get him to explain the decision to me. Eventually I realized he was thinking that when he ran out of ammunition, he would need a brand new gun. I blame video games for this sort of thinking.

Then, off we set, riding west towards our new lives, with minimal food, almost no water, and a plethora of unnecessary furniture.

One of the first decisions is deciding which branch of the trail to take. When given the choice between a short trail with known dangers and possibly even more unknown dangers, and a trail that is reliable but longer, the kids unanimously picked danger. The trail is literally called “Burial Grounds trail” in the simulation. The visual on the map has a skull and cross bones.

Unsurprisingly, the simulation several days in had every wagon train hungry, with limited supplies, and in the dangerous wastelands. “Well,” said one little guy drily, “We’re all gonna die in the desert.”

We didn’t all die in the desert, luckily. Each group worked together, realized they needed to change their priorities, and they’re all progressing happily along the trail now. I love this unit because I think situations like this really let kids go beyond the textbooks, and understand that real people had to make real decisions like this- or else die in the desert!



As part of a study of the American colonies, we have kids imagine they are going to a ‘new world’ and brainstorm what they would bring. They imagine they have a suitcase to fill with items they’ll need to survive. This in itself is funny enough, as you contrast the kid who is packing ten bottles of conditioner with the kid who is bringing a solar-powered water filter. (My assistant and I have created an ‘Apocalypse Survival Team’ of the kids we would want on our side when the end comes.)

Once their group discussions had progressed to the point that they had convinced each other that no, they could not bring a dog in a suitcase and have it live, and that having an iPad when there was no electricity was not a good choice, and that if you must bring conditioner you probably did not also need hair oil, they had things narrowed down. Most groups decided they would bring seeds, so then the group discussion became what kind of seeds.

During group work, I rotate between groups giving guidance, asking directing questions, and stopping by my desk to eat snacks. I passed one group in time to hear this: “Listen, we only need two crops: rice, and beans. Trust me, you can live on that. It’s the Dominican way.” That made me smile.

On my next time with this group, I walked in on a heated discussion between the Dominican girl and her Chinese friend. Should they bring black beans, or soy beans? “You can make tons of stuff from soy beans, like tofu. It’s more than just beans.” The first scowled. “You don’t eat tofu with rice.” Her friend threw her hands up in air and shouted “You don’t even know what you’re talking about!”

At this point, I was trying not to laugh. What a great display of cultural identities coming together! Meanwhile, one of the other students in the group was sitting there with a thoughtful look on his face. This kid is extremely Irish- Dad was born there, has a very Irish name, visits frequently. He suddenly gasped, reached over to grab the drawings of seed packets they had made,  and said “Oh my god, you guys! POTATOES!”

I had no way to explain to them why I was doubled over laughing. I think they think I’m insane.