iTouch the Oregon Trail

It’s been a while. I haven’t written a post in a coon’s age, so forgive me if I forget how to do this.

Currently in my 8th grade U.S. history class, I’m teaching students about the Oregon Trail.  To tell the story of the Oregon trail, I have found that it works best to tell it as a story (and for that matter, history is always best conveyed as a story, but I digress).  In the past (ironic) we’ve taken turns reading journal entries from people who were actually on the OR Trail.   True story accounts of the hardships people faced as they made the long and arduous journey west in search of land and opportunity and, yes, guided by the tenants of Manifest Destiny.  While we read through the journal entries, I show pictures from the trail from that time period. The goal is to make students understand the experiences pioneers went through while on their journey.  A sound objective, but one that has been feeling a bit stale.  Typically, a few students love to read the stories while others students zone out.  The engagement level can drop.

So, in an effort to regain my student’s attention and focus, place a higher priority on individual participation, and be more efficient with the overall lesson, I decided to change the way I do this lesson and make audible recordings of the journal entries and have students listen to them on our classroom iTouches.  This grabs their attention a lot more (especially when Mr. Freeburg does his “voices” of road weary travelers).  I used Gold Wave to record the twelve or so different journal entries and then transferred the MP3 files to iTunes.  When students finish listening to the stories from the trail and they take some notes, I had students pretend as if they were actually on the OR Trail themselves and create a digital postcard they would send back east.  To do this, I used the Bill Atkinson PhotoCard Lite App, which allows you to make digital postcards on an iTouch.  I preloaded the iTouches with about 34 pictures from the OR Trail.  Students self selected which photo they wanted to use, filled out requisite information using a rubric I had given them.  These were then posted to Picasa (using our district’s Google Apps account), and I linked a Picasa album onto my Moodle page.

Westward Ho!
Tales from the Oregon Trail

The end result?  Students were far more engaged with this particular assignment then they had ever been in the past.  The product they created for me to assess their understanding of the trail was more dynamic and richer than what we had done in the past as well.  Student’s loved it, and I had a blast grading their postcards.

To take the to another level, I wish I was able to find an 8th grade U.S. History teacher in Oregon who I could connect with and have their students comment on the postcards my students made and vice versa.  Oh well, maybe next time…..



Commenter Nathan makes a great point.  I should have allowed them to play The Oregon Trail game.  Well….I did, I totally forgot about that part of the day.  And, unsurprisingly, the students loved playing it.  There’s not enough time to play it in it’s entirety during one class period, but they still love it.  What’s more, there is an astonishing amount of real historical facts in the iTouch game.

The Oregon Trail on the iTouch. Student boredom has just died of dysentery.

Thanks for the reminder Nathan!



Do These Britches Make My Technology Look Fat?

After my recent trip down victimized lane, and the preceding practical joke of my school Macbook deciding not to work for a day, I began to wonder…….if the rain in Spain falls mainly in the plains, does it just kinda rain in the Pyrenees?  After I was done marinating on this, I turned my attention to what I think may be the number one difficulty in broadly integrating more technology into the classroom: infrastructure.

The day after my laptop was stolen, my lesson plan in class primarily relied on my laptop, which was now in the hands of another.  So, I had to punt and show do lesson plan on an Elmo, which isn’t as bad as those archaic overheads, but still not as good as the Activboard experience I had planned.  This made me ponder (as I am oft to do):

“My laptop was stolen, and my lesson was sub-par because of it.  If I ask students to do a lot of activities/assessments/what have you, and they don’t have the Internet/home computer/printer/what have you, how are they supposed to do this?  Are my assumptions too broad when I think, ‘Ah, any kid can do this assignment.  After all, we do have the Almighty Media Center, any kid can complete an assignment requiring a computer there.’  And, if I do that, am I immediately placing them square behind the eight-ball?”  I guess I talk to myself a lot.

Broadband acceptance and usage of technology in the classroom needs its own "Interstate System"

Consider the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 which committed $25 billion to constructing 41,000 miles of sprawling Interstate highway through the United States.  Imagine how much different our country would be if points on the map were not connected more than 50 years ago.  Things in this country would certainly be different.  Our country has since thrived off that commitment to connect people, goods, services, and ideas.

Similarly, if this whole push towards an increase in technology in the classroom is going to work, there needs to be a similar commitment.  Although I accept that there are great things available out there that can connect students with learning experiences, I think the technological infrastructure needs to be addressed first.

Many teachers are making huge gains with students in a lot of different ways, but there are a lot of students within those same classrooms who are being left out in the cold.  Something like Skype is great for conversation.  Twitter is an awesome form of communication.  Moodle is terrific to convey information, take assessments, and hold forums.  These experiences need to be accessible at many places other than just at school.

Here are some humble suggestions (of which I have no idea how to actually make work):

  • Instead of looking into 1-1 laptops for every student, figure out a way to get 1-1 smart phones for every student.  A lot of things can be done outside of school on a smart phone while more intensive and specialized programs can be used inside.


    Moto Droid
    Every student could use one of these, assuming Skynet isn't involved.
  • Stop buying so many laptops and start buying netbooks that run over 3G networks.
  • Purchase personal wifi hot spots and check them out to students through the schools media center.
  • Stop asking for so many donations from parents and communities for things like glue sticks, markers, and colored pencils, and ask for more donations to contribute to monthly plans to help alleviate monthly data plans.  Most of those supplies get wasted or unused anyways.
  • Create service learning projects where kids can actually pay off the cost of a phone by doing something in the community.  Kid gets a smart phone, food shelves get stocked.  Where’s the downside?

We as teachers may be getting a little ahead of ourselves.  It’s fantastic to see so many educators doing such innovative things in their classrooms.  How much better would it be if every student could actually do them?  I’m not promoting that we slow down our innovation, I’m positing that we need to do more heavy lifting to support the base of our 21st century learners.  It feels a little like we are, at times, working from the top down.

It’d be nice if it this issue could be fixed at the federal level, but it would be even greater if the problem could be fixed locally.

What needs to be addressed, and how should it be tackled?