Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Podcast #208 - Ask the Experts Donner Party Project

Hello. I am a big fan of the American Experience series from PBS and WGBH. This series has produced some of the most fascinating and engaging historical documentaries I have ever seen. One episode that I have used repeatedly in my class over the years is "The Donner Party" by Ric Burns. This documentary is both haunting and descriptive in telling the tale of this group's fateful journey west.

For the past several years I have had my students participate in a debate after finishing the video. The debate is centered on the role of Lansford Hastings - the person who told the Donner Party to take the shortcut that cost them valuable time on the attempt to reach California. The Donner Party becomes trapped in the mountains and some resort to cannibalism. The class is divided into two groups and debates whether the blame should be placed upon Hastings or the Donner Party themselves. While watching the film students have been recording events and information which could be used to defend both sides of the debate.

Two years ago I started recording the debate in audio format. I then contacted several Donner Party experts - authors and writers who have experience with the Donner Party - and asked if they could critique the debate and provide feedback for my students. I sent the audio file as an attachment with the e-mail. This was very successful and my students loved the feedback.

This year we used a Flip camera to record the debate in video format and I then posted it to YouTube. I contacted a variety of Donner Party experts through web searches and found five individuals who were willing to take the time to comment on the student debates. I then gathered the responses from all the experts and created a handout for my students. I am always amazed at the amount of detail these experts provide.

The technology used in this project is pretty simple - posting a video on YouTube and then sending an e-mail but the ability to find experts in the field and then have them comment directly to students is extremely powerful.

Special thanks to my experts who were willing to share their time and respond to my students :

Dr. Julie M. Schablitsky, Archaeologist with University of Oregon

Daniel James Brown, author of The Indifferent Stars Above : The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride

Kristin Johnson - Historian for Donner Party Archaeology Project and author of The Donner Party Blog

Chelsea Walerscheid - Truckee Lake Historical Society

Katie Holley - Truckee Lake Historical Society

To learn more about this project please listen to the podcast. I have also included the links to the student debates and included one video as a portion of this blog post. I am also posting the feeback from the experts as a PDF if you would like to see the comments the experts returned to my class.

If you have any comments on this project please feel free to leave a comment on this blog post.

Period 2 Class Debate

Period 3 Class Debate

Period 4 Class Debate

Period 5 Class Debate

Period 7 Class Debate

Period 8 Class Debate

Click to subscribe to the Speaking of History Podcast at i-Tunes here

Direct link to Podcast #208 - Ask the Experts Donner Party Project


  1. Dear Mr. Langhorst and students,

    I am a student at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, AL pursuing certification in Secondary Education to teach Math. Currently, I am enrolled in a class entitled EDM 310, Technology in Education, which is where I am learning about how to use a variety of tools in my soon to be classroom.

    Mr. Langhorst helped my partner and I out with a podcast project this semester, after learning about the Speaking of History blog. Since then, I check in every now and then to see what his students are doing.

    Your Donner Party Project is excellent! The debates were well prepared and educational! Congrats on a job well done. I'm going to share this link with my classmates, other future teachers, as an example of how students are using technology to learn.

    Thank you for sharing your work with us. I wish you all the best!

    Best regards,

    Jackie Gorski
    Secondary Education/Math
    University of South Alabama

    my blog :

  2. Caitlyn Warnberg said...
    This is such a great idea! I would love to do something like this once I become a teacher.