October 8, 2012

Off the Wall Westward Expansion Lesson

Guest blog post by Joann Claspill

Every once in a while I love to shake things up in my classroom a bit to keep my students on their toes and engaged. The first time I teach “off the wall” is always an amazing experience for my students, and it turns out to be one for me too!

As many of you may be experiencing, time allowed for Social Studies instruction is often a disappearing act. Since that area is my passion, I purposely find ways to integrate it with my ELA standards on a daily basis. In my fifth grade class this past week, we were learning about the effects of the second Westward movement and the effects that all the new settlers were having on the land and the way of life of the Native Americans. I decided this was a perfect lesson to take “off the wall”.

Off the Wall Lesson Preparation
My students had background knowledge from fourth grade about the Plains Indians and their dependence on the buffalo, so I made this my focus today. I went online and found pictures to print of the new buffalo hunters, the mountain of buffalo skulls that were sold, the buffalo carcasses lying in snow after they were shot, and a painting of the newly built train line running buffalo over with shooters in the train cars. I looked at parts of our textbook that fit the lesson and transcribed them into my own document. I found some other information in a book I had called “Saving the Buffalo” and wrote up some paragraphs that matched the pictures I selected. Everything I wrote included something about cause and effect or making inferences - my two ELA focus areas for the lesson. Last preparatory step was to print everything and create nine pieces to hang on walls in the hall outside my classroom. Each piece had a picture with a paragraph or two underneath and a number 1-8. Total prep time was one planning period of 45 minutes.

Learning in the Art Gallery
After reviewing orally with my students the reasons why settlers moved West, as well as who already lived there, I explained the directions for our Art Gallery (and this is where the magic begins!!) Each student got a clipboard and paper. They needed to have room for 8 answers - some students folded their paper into 8 boxes, others just listed as they went. We reviewed rules for an Art Gallery - quiet, thinking, observant, focusing on the paintings, no touching. I explained that I wanted them to circulate among the paintings, do the reading and answer any questions on their notes. We got into “Art Gallery Mode’ with our clipboards in hand and you could have heard a pin drop! Students were moving around, reading, taking notes, silently nodding at one another, pointing at paintings while looking back at me - good stuff! As I moved around among the students, the inferences and observations I noticed them making were astounding!

Discussing Facts and Inferences about Westward Expansion
As a bonus, I brought a Beanie Baby buffalo and let him sit on the shoulder of students who were being especially observant! Students went through the gallery, self-paced, for about 20 minutes. At that time, we all came together to sit in the hall and talk about what we learned. I went through each painting and had students share out their inferences if facts were not stated, and since I had their undivided attention, I went ahead and told them if their inferences were correct. By the end of the 8 paintings, without me ever “teaching them” the direct effects the buffalo hunting had, or why settlers were hunting buffalo, every single one of my 42 students were able to articulate it through their gallery experience.

Teaching Off the Wall
Sometimes, just moving your classroom outside its 4 walls can create an automatic “hook” for your students. As with any strategy, I only use it sparingly or else it gets as old as just listening to me. I have used the art gallery approach when looking at characters in novels we read, comparing stories or genres, and of course with Social Studies lessons as appropriate. Try teaching off the wall and let me know how it goes!

Joann Claspill is a 5th grade teacher in South Carolina. She has won 2 state Social Studies teaching awards and has been published with a local publisher featuring her integrated ELA and SS work. Her blog is www.fifthisfabulous.blogspot.com.


  1. This sounds like fun! I am teaching science in third grade and am already thinking of ways that I could do this activity every once in a while. Thanks for fabulous idea.

    Thinking Out Loud

    1. Thanks Jana! What are some topics you cover in Science? When I read your comment, I automatically went to "artifacts" in the hall on desks - like parts of the experiment at stations! =)

  2. What a wonderful lesson! Thank you for sharing.


  3. Fantastic lesson! I think it is so important to pull in primary sources whenever possible like you did in this lesson. Thank you for sharing, Joann!

  4. Thanks Lidia and Elizabeth! =)

  5. This is a great idea!! I'm a 5th grade teacher in Charlotte, NC and I love this idea! Do you have samples of the pictures/paragraphs/questions?

  6. Hi Mrs. Bush....send me an email and I'd love to send u info and pics!!! Woodjojo@gmail.com

  7. I would love to do this with my library classes so I can impact any number of subjects. I would also love to see some of your pics and your scripts. Thank you for inspiring tons of ideas!

    1. Sherry
      I apologize profusely for not getting back to you - can you send me an email at woodjojo@gmail.com so I can send you things for your library classes? I just did another version of this lesson using Native American "artifacts" that I can share with you as well!

  8. What is an example of questions you would ask at each "painting?" This is great!

  9. Hi Gabrielle!
    The types of questions are usually inferential in nature. I want the students to use the information as a tool not just a way to find an answer. For example - in the "mountain of skulls" picture and passage, I have a question like: "Why would the settlers save the buffalo skulls? What is the purpose of them doing that?" I also have questions that personalize the experiences: "How do you think the Native Americans must be feeling when they see that mountain of skulls?" Keeping in mind that the short passage gives the facts of the mountain, but I never go into the why. I want them to infer reasons for that =) Let me know if you have any other questions at woodjojo@gmail.com

  10. A friend shared this with me! I love it... I teach 5th grade social studies and would love to try this in my classroom this year. Do you have examples of paragraphs and pictures that I can look at?

  11. This is such a great idea!! I went to DC museums last summer, walking around in full teacher mode. "How can I make my classroom a museum like this for SS and Sci?" was all I could think. This definitely helps! I would also love to see your questions, pictures, and artifacts and find out how you acquire them. My collection is pretty bare right now. Thanks so much for this great idea!


  12. Hi Joann,
    I'm a little late to the party, but I just found you through Pinterest and I love this idea! Any information regarding the images would be wonderful.


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