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9-12 > Literature
Grade level: 9-12 Subject: Literature Duration: One class period
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Rediscovering America: The Frontier

Students will understand the following:
1. In the 19th century, the American frontier brought both solutions and problems.
2. Fiction writers as well as documentarians have portrayed the American frontier.

For this lesson, you will need:
Short stories and novels mentioned in the lesson plan

1. Discuss with students that we learn about the past—in this case, the westering of Americans—not only through documentary films and history books but also through fiction about the period in question. This project will give students an opportunity to read short stories and novel excerpts about the American frontier and then comment on what the literature tells them about that period.
2. Give students a choice of reading the following works or others that portray pioneer life:
  • An excerpt from any of the five Leatherstocking tales by James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)
  • The short story “The Luck of Roaring Camp” or “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” by Bret Harte (1836-1902)
  • The short story/tall tale “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” by Mark Twain (1835-1910)
  • The short story “Neighbor Rosicky” or “The Sculptor’s Funeral” by Willa Cather (1873-1947)
  • The short story “Under the Lion’s Paw” or “A Day’s Pleasure” by Hamlin Garland (1860-1940)
  • An excerpt from the novelGiants in the Earthby Ole Rölvaag (1876-1931)
3. In the left column of a two-column chart, direct students to list the major characteristics of the real-life American people who went west during the 19th century—negative characteristics as well as positive ones. Based on history books and documentaries, students should characterize the pioneers in
  • social terms—their manners and customs;
  • economic terms—what wealth they took with them, what wealth they achieved;
  • political terms—their dependence on or attitudes toward government; and
  • philosophical/religious terms—their morality, their attitudes toward nature and other people, especially people not in their own ethnic group.
4. As students read the works of fiction they’ve chosen, they should note in the right-hand column specifics that illustrate how the fictional characters conform to or differ from the descriptions in the left-hand column.
5. When they finish their reading and have reviewed their charts—perhaps, adding to the charts—the students will be ready to draft their essays. Stress that their thesis statements should make clear whether the author’s portrayals of characters on the frontier do or don’t correspond with the information students have from nonfiction sources.
6. You may want to instruct students to consider the following additional questions in their essays:
  • What was the author’s personal experience of the frontier? Is it important to know whether the author lived on the frontier himself or herself?
  • Would you categorize the author’s vision of the frontier as realistic or romantic? Why?
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Juvenile and young adult novels that students can use to carry out this project include the following:
  • My Prairie Christmasby Harvey Brett
  • The Journey Homeby Isabelle Holland
  • A Promise at the Alamo: The Story of a Texas Girl by Dorothy Hoobler, Thomas Hoobler, and Carey Greenberg Associates
  • Where the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann Parkerby Carolyn Meyer
  • Grasshopper Summerby Ann Turner

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Discussion Questions

1. After viewing this program, you may have the impression that the frontier consisted only of wide-open spaces and beautiful land, but what other meanings did the frontier have for 19th-century Americans? What were some of the negative aspects of life on the frontier? What are some of the positive and negative aspects of the legacy of the frontier apparent in American society today?
2. How did European Americans' and Native Americans' views of the land differ? How did these opposing points of view affect the growth and development of the United States?
3. How did the concept of manifest destiny affect both Americans and their neighbors during the 19th century? Are there other historical periods where thoughts of manifest destiny may have influenced the ways in which events developed?
4. What role did the railroads play in the westward movement of the 19th century? What impact did they play on the settlement of the frontier?
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You can evaluate students’ essays using the following three-point rubric:
Three points:presents a strong thesis statement; writes strongly cohesive, unified paragraphs; writes prose that is free of errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics
Two points:presents an adequate thesis statement; writes moderately cohesive, unified paragraphs; makes some errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics
One point:lacks adequate thesis statement; lacks paragraph cohesion and unity; makes many errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics
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Modern Pioneers
In the concluding segment ofRediscovering America: The Frontier,the narrator ties the concept of the frontier to the concept of land, reinforcing the point made at the beginning of the program. However, there are other frontiers as well—a state of mind, a yearning for something that goes beyond the mere issue of land. Many people would consider new worlds of any kind as frontiers and would equate those conquering them with 19th-century frontiersmen and frontierswomen. Ask students to suggest women and men who have assumed those roles in more modern times—space scientists, entrepreneurs of the computer revolution, genetic researchers, and so on. Have students identify a particular person who has been or is on the cutting edge, research that person, and give a brief oral presentation on why the person qualifies as a frontiersman or frontierswoman.

Women on the American Frontier
Ask students to investigate the roles that women played on the 19th-century frontier. Suggest that students focus on women of one ethnic group—say, immigrants from China, immigrants from various eastern European countries, Irish Americans, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans. Specify that students should determine by means of research whether women in these groups were victims of prejudice and discrimination. Then, with that answer in mind, have students write first-person narratives of the frontier experience as a woman.

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Suggested Readings

“The American Frontier : Opposing Viewpoints”
Mary Ellen Jones, Greenhaven Press, 1994

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Native Americans and the Frontier West
This is a comprehensive collection of 80 links on the topic of Native Americans and the American frontier, which satisfy the curiosity of most and serve as a wonderful starting point for everyone else. Created by Dennis Boals, it includes topics such as the “Index of Native American Resources on the Internet,” the “Pueblo Cultural Center,” “Art of the American Indian Frontier,” “The Cherokee's Home Page,” “Southwest Weavings,” Wild West - the Home Page,” “Indigenous Nations of North America,” and the “National Museum of the American Indian.”

The West and The Frontier in American Culture
“The West” is an eight-part, 1"-hour documentary created by Ken Burns and Stephen Ives. “The Frontier in American Culture” is a traveling exhibition, based on the 1994 Newberry Library exhibit of the same name. It will rotate to 44 libraries from September 1996 through the end of 1998. If you can't visit the exhibit, the Web site is the next best thing.

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    frontier
Definition:The area or region just beyond the settled and developed part of a territory.
Context:Frontier is a word that was invented by the white man.

speaker    imperial
Definition:Relating to an empire or of having sovereign rights over a territory.
Context:Jefferson had an imperial vision for America.

speaker    manifest destiny
Definition:The 19th century political philosophy that held it was the right and duty for the United States to expand throughout the North American continent.
Context:A cluster of incompatibles, manifest destiny and tribal survival.

speaker    technology
Definition:The practical application of scientific knowledge to a particular area, often business or industry.
Context:Why do we continue to seek new circumstances to describe a frontier - space or technology or thought?

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level:9-12
Subject area:geography
Understands how geography is used to interpret the past.
Understands the ways in which physical, economic, environmental and psychological factors have influenced the development of the American frontier.

Grade level:9-12
Subject area:U.S. history
Understands how the rise of big business, heavy industry, and mechanized farming transformed American society.
Understands the role of race, gender, and religion in western communities in the late 19th century.

Grade level:9-12
Subject area:language arts
Demonstrates a familiarity with selected literary works of enduring quality.
Demonstrates an understanding of why certain literary works dealing with the American frontier may be considered classics or works of enduring quality and substance.

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