Music of Westward Expansion

Version 3


    Unit Summary

    What was life like for a western pioneer? Students take a journey through westward expansion using music to understand the experience of the pioneers. As they listen to lyrics and analyze the different types of music that was being sung and played during the later half of the 19th century, students gain insight into the life of the pioneers. Students identify the relationship between folk songs and historical events, and explore how music inspires and influences people today. The project culminates with a concert where students reenact life on the trail and share songs from the period.


    At a Glance

    • Grade Level: 3-5
    • Subject(s): Music, Social Studies
    • Topics: Westward Expansion, Pioneer Life, Music
    • Higher-Order Thinking Skills: Analysis, Cause and Effect, Evaluation
      Key Learnings: Music Appreciation, History and Culture Through Music, Patterns of Human Migration
    • Time Needed: 8 weeks, 5 hours per week


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    Curriculum-Framing Questions

    • Essential Question
      How do the arts reflect history?
    • Unit Questions
      What can music teach us about history?
      How does the pioneers' music reflect their lives?
    • Content Questions
      What is period music?
      Who were the early pioneers?


    Assessment Processes

    View how a variety of student-centered assessments are used in the Music of the Westward Expansion Unit Plan. These assessments help students and teachers set goals; monitor student progress; provide feedback; assess thinking, processes, performances, and products; and reflect on learning throughout the learning cycle.


    Instructional Procedures

    Start this unit by posing the Unit Question, What can music teach us about history? Record ideas on butcher paper to be posted on a wall in the classroom. Tell students they will be returning to this question and will have an opportunity to add to their responses.   

    Who Were the Pioneers?
    Continue this project with a discussion by asking, Who were the early pioneers? and, Why did they travel to the frontiers of the West? Record ideas and answers as well as questions on a Know-Wonder-Learn (K-W-L) chart. Guide students to the ThinkQuest Web site A Pioneer's Journey to the Frontier*. This ThinkQuest introduces students to the pioneers. The site explains who the pioneers were, where they traveled, and how they traveled. Allow time to explore the information located at this site. Lead a discussion about any questions that arise.

    Have students work in pairs to explore the question, Why did pioneers travel west? Consider having students use the Seeing Reason Tool to organize the factors that influenced westward expansion and show how these factors influenced one another. (The Seeing Reason Web site has examples of causal maps as well as resources to help you get started.) Before students use the tool, model a causal map with the whole class to familiarize them with the process. As they research western expansion and gather new insight, instruct students to modify their maps to reflect their changing understanding. These maps can serve as the basis of a role-playing activity and character diary entries. For an interesting comparison, have students create a new Seeing Reason map to investigate the question, Why do people move today?

    Create group scenario role-playing cards, such as this example. Develop each group scenario to include three or four characters who may have journeyed westward together, such as a farm family or a group of prospectors. Divide students into groups of three or four and randomly pass out a card for each group. Explain to students that they are to select roles from the card and then gather more information about the journey west, keeping in mind how their characters would have experienced the journey. With this information, students can write brief fictional diary entries for their characters, explaining the daily events and happenings in their travels from the characters' points of view.

    What Role Did Music Play in Westward Expansion?
    Introduce music and songs from the first half of the 19th century. Present basic music lessons on the different forms that the songs use. Answer the Content Question, What is period music?

    Have students brainstorm in small groups their answer to, What role did music play in westward expansion? Have one person from each group share the group's answers with the whole class.

    Play one song, such as Red River Valley*, and discuss its interesting origin. Ask students to consider which "character" in their group would have been likely to sing this lovelorn song. Play other songs, and, as students listen, have them write descriptive words that come into their minds. Ask students, How does the pioneers' music reflect their lives? Have students share their thinking and describe the moods, feelings, or images each song evokes. Introduce the Essential Question, How do the arts reflect history? and the Unit Question, What can music teach us about history? Have students write responses from the points of view of their characters in their diaries. Make sure students include not only how their characters think the arts reflect history but also how they think the arts reflect history. Have students read their entries to the class, and add new ideas to the K-W-L chart.

    Tell the students they will be taking on the role of pioneers. In their role, they share in a song in a final concert. Have each group choose a different song to study and interpret. Instruct students to research the writer of their song and find out what inspired him or her. From the point of view of their characters, have students write in their diaries about what the particular song means to them. They might write about when they first heard the song, what it reminds them of, or the images or "memories" it evokes. Have students illustrate their songs on large (12 x 18) pieces of construction paper, representing the narrative features as well as the feelings or moods the lyrics and tunes evoke. All these student products can be used in a slideshow backdrop for the final concert.

    Gather Research
    Explain to students they will also be creating a newsletter that reflects their knowledge of the pioneers and their music. This newsletter is for their characters' hometown newspaper. Guide student research so each group answers the following questions:

    • How does the music express the pioneer way of life or the life that was left behind?
    • What can music teach us about history?
    • Are some songs exaggerated tall tales? In what ways?
    • Are some songs based on an actual person or event? Who or what?
    • How does the pioneers' music reflect their lives?
      What musical instruments were used in the most popular renditions, and where did they come from?
    • When would this song have been sung or played, and by whom?


    Copies of the different publications can be distributed during the concert. See a newsletter sample. Distribute the newsletter checklist to help students create their newsletters.


    Culminating Project
    Help each group create a multimedia slideshow that supports their interpretation of the song they studied. Hand out the project scoring guide to review expectations. Illustrated phrases and pictures (including scanned original artwork) can be included to evoke the mood of the song and enrich the presentations. Make sure they include how the particular song reflects the history of the pioneers. Have students make their oral presentations in character. See one group's work in this slideshow sample. Distribute the slideshow checklist to help students develop their slideshows. Use the project scoring guide to assess students' work.


    Differentiated Instruction  

    Resource Student

    • Place the student in a heterogeneous pairing or small group to do research and complete unit projects
    • Keep the project open-ended to ensure that the student has an opportunity to be successful
    • Provide the student with additional adult assistance, extra work time, and task modifications as needed

    Gifted Student

    • Assign the student to an expert role (in reading, writing, or technology) and encourage the student to help others
    • Provide opportunities for the student to pursue independent projects related to the topic during spare time

    English Language Learner

    • Call upon ELL assistant teachers to help the student translate basic terms into an English/first language glossary
    • Post translated terms around the room to allow all students to learn something new
    • Explain difficult concepts and help the student complete assignments and conduct research
    • Pair a bilingual student with a non-native speaker for tasks that require reading and writing
    • Adapt assignments or allow more time as necessary



    Cecelia Vaillant-Yanes participated in the Intel® Teach Program, which resulted in this idea for a classroom project. A team of teachers expanded the plan into the example you see here.

    Background: From the Classroom in Florida, United States

    Students study the great westward migration of the mid-19th century in America and learn how important music was to those traveling.