4 Creative Ways to Introduce Your Westward Expansion Unit
During the 19th century, the United States acquired more than a million square miles of land west of the Mississippi River. This led to a large migration called Westward Expansion. This time period is an important part of United States history. But, what’s the best way to introduce this topic to students?
When teaching about important historical periods like Westward Expansion it can be tricky to know where to start. I want to help you fall in love with teaching history, so I’m compiling lists of engaging ways to introduce your history units.
Below are 4 creative ways to introduce your Westward Expansion unit. Happy teaching!
Introduce the Unit with a Primary Source
American Progress Painting (1872)
Primary sources are a great teaching tool. They help students connect with the past and bring history to life in the classroom. Primary sources are first-hand accounts of a time period from people who experienced it.
This primary source is a great way to introduce your Westward Expansion Unit. The painting is an allegory, or symbolic story, for Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny is the 19th-century idea that it was America’s God-given right to settle North America.
In Gast’s painting, the flying woman represents America. In her hands, she holds a book and telegraph wires. These items symbolize education and new technology. The woman appears to be moving settlers to the West. As she does so, the sky changes from dark to light. Gast painted Native Americans and animals running away from the settlers.
The ideas in this painting represent the way many white settlers felt about their destiny to settle the American West, regardless of who was already living there.
How It Works:
- First, display the painting on the board so students can see details. You can access it online here.
- Next, ask students the following questions. Students may share their answers verbally or write their answers down on a guided worksheet like this one.
- What is the first thing you notice in this painting?
- When do you think this painting was created?
- Why do you think this painting was created?
- What do you think the woman in the center of the painting represents?
- How do you think the artist feels about westward expansion?
- How do you think the artist feels about Indigenous Peoples’s land claims?
- After analyzing the painting, discuss student answers. What does this painting tell us about Westward Expansion and the ideas behind it? Who would have believed in the idea of Manifest Destiny and who would have criticized it?
This is such an impactful way to introduce your Westward Expansion unit. Check out more powerful Westward Expansion primary sources here.
Using a Great Introductory Video
Manifest Destiny (Khan Academy)
When I was teaching, videos were one of my favorite teaching tools. They’re a fun and effective way to introduce new concepts. This video from Khan Academy is an excellent introductory video about the causes and effects of Westward Expansion.
How it Works:
- First, explain that Westward Expansion refers to the widespread movement of settlers to the American West during the 19th century.
- Second, give students a T-chart or ask them to create their own. Label one side “causes” and one side “effects”.
- Next, watch the video. Ask students to listen for causes and effects of Westward Expansion.
- After watching, ask students to discuss the causes and effects they found. Were they surprised by any?
Looking for more Westward Expansion videos? Check out my list of Westward Expansion videos for kids.
Introduce the Unit with a Historical Picture Book
Dandelions by Eve Bunting
Disclosure: The book link is an Amazon affiliate link. This means that I may earn commissions for purchases made by clicking the link.
When it comes to teaching history, textbooks can often feel dry and the large amounts of text can be overwhelming for students. Historical picture books bring history to life and help teachers address difficult concepts in age-appropriate ways.
This beautifully illustrated book tells the story of Zoey and her family who move West. Zoey’s family experiences the challenges of starting over. Through their eyes, we see the struggles and hopes of many pioneers who moved West.
How it Works:
- Before reading the book, remind students that during the 19th century, many Americans settled lands in the West. This movement was called Westward Expansion.
- Next, ask students what challenges they think those settlers might have faced. What positive things might they have experienced?
- Next, read the book together as a class, pausing to discuss the characters’ feelings and experiences. How did each family member feel about their new home? How would you feel if you were in their shoes?
- After reading, revisit the first two questions you asked before reading. What challenges did Zoey’s family face in the book? Did positive things happened as well? What can we learn about Westward Expansion from their story?
Click here to check out more of my Westward Expansion picture books for kids!
Introduce the Unit with a Song
Home on the Range
This last idea is one your students are sure to love. Songs can be a wonderful way to connect with a historical time period by analyzing melody and lyrics.
“Home on the Range” is probably a song your students have heard of, but they may not know about its origins as an American folk song. You can read more about its history here.
How it Works:
- First, ask students if they have heard of the song “Home on the Range”. What do they think “Home on the Range” means? Explain to students that during the 19th century, many Americans settled lands in the west. These lands were sometimes called the “range”.
- Before listening, ask students to pay attention to the imagery of the song. What do they picture when they listen to the lyrics?
- After listening, ask students to share their thoughts. How does the song make you feel about moving West? Who probably sang this song?
- Lastly, discuss what this teaches us about Westward Expansion. Encourage students to look at the song critically. Are there perspectives or ideas that are left out of the song?
More Resources for Teaching about Westward Expansion
I hope these ideas will help you introduce your Westward Expansion unit in an engaging way!
If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in my 3-week unit about Westward Expansion. Included in this unit you will find a helpful introductory PowerPoint presentation, engaging simulations, ready-to-print student worksheets, and an easy-to-use study guide and assessment to check student knowledge. I created this unit to help you and your students love learning about Westward Expansion!
- Westward Expansion Unit
- Ultimate Guide to teaching Westward Expansion
- 6 Westward Expansion Primary Sources for Students
- 5 Westward Expansion Videos for Kids
- Westward Expansion Children’s Books
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