Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Podcast #181 - Teaching the Donner Party as a Debate

Hello. We recently finished one of my favorite units to cover in our 8th grade American History curriculum - Manifest Destiny and Western Expansion. As we study the Oregon Trail we discuss the fate of the Donner Party. The Donner Party captures the attention of my students and allows us to discuss a variety of topics. For years I have shown my students "The Donner Party" from PBS, part of The American Experience series. Several years ago I used the role of Lansford Hastings in the tragedy and have a debate to try and decide if he or the Donner Party are more to blame for the loss of life. My students then do a short debate, which this year we taped with a Flip video camera. Listen to the podcast to learn about how we use this resource in our classroom.

PDF copy of the worksheet we use while watching the video "The Donner Party" from PBS and the American Experience

If you have any ideas or thoughts on teaching about The Donner Party please leave a comment on this blog. I would enjoy learning how other classes teach about this interesting historical event.

Direct link to Podcast #181 - Teaching the Donner Party as a Debate


  1. Anonymous1:15 PM

    Hi Eric,

    It’s great to hear of this video again, I used it every year when I taught US History. The script is excellent, the actors and narration are perfect, and the scenery is as beautiful as it is dangerous. Topped off with forbidding and haunting music (Dark Spanish Symphony), it is a tremendous vehicle for getting students to put themselves in the position of someone else.
    The class discussions after viewing the film always used to move toward the fact that today’s generation (myself, though middle-aged, included) could not endure even half of this trip, much less the Sierras. It became one of those affective lessons that had nothing to do with facts, sequences or rubrics. It is nothing less than a face-to-face reckoning with the insistence of human being to survive.
    For a more formal assignment, I took it in the direction of an analysis of the Tocqueville quote that starts the film. It is from Chapter 13 of Democracy in America, “Why the Americans are so restless in the midst of their prosperity” In particular the line:
    “It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it.”
    Given the economic collapse, one could learn a lot applying that idea to the 1980s and 1990s.

    >Steve Maher

  2. Thanks Steve - appreciate your comments. The music is very moving and although I have now seen it probably over 50 times it still gets to me.

    Great tie to the current economic status of our nation. Hope all is well for you in New Jersey.