3rd Grade Pioneer Day

Third Graders have been studying the human history of California, including indigenous peoples, European explorers, and waves of pioneers who flocked to the west coast of the United States in search of freedom from religious persecution, adventure and fame, Manifest Destiny, and the promise of wealth and prosperity. Students’ recent explorations of the “Pioneer Life” led them to discover that life and school were very different in the second half of the 1800s. Recently, the class celebrated the culmination of this unit of learning with Pioneer Day, which has quickly become a favorite Third Grade tradition.


March 31st, 1860

Ms. Kennedy’s Little Schoolhouse

Somewhere in the Nebraska Plains

It is an unusually warm start of spring on the plains; the sun is shining fully, and the days are stretching wider. The morning sun slants across the floor in Ms. Kristen’s Little Schoolhouse, a place for young pioneer children to learn. Boys and girls dressed in their neatest and tidiest trousers, suspenders, skirts, and bonnets (neatness and tidiness are strict expectations for schoolchildren of this time) enter the schoolroom eagerly.

Ms. Kennedy’s class is a bit peculiar for pioneer days, as all of her students are Third Graders; most other schoolhouses consist of children of many ages who learn all together at the same time, and where children take lessons not only from the teacher, but also from the older or more advanced students. In addition, Ms. Kennedy’s school allows boys and girls to enter the schoolroom through the same door, sit near one another, and play together at recess. Ms. Kennedy also eschews such traditional morning rituals as meticulously inspecting her students’ ears, necks, and fingernails and careful measurement of girls’ skirts and boys’ trousers and shirt sleeves to ensure that they are of the appropriate length. She likewise does not insist upon silence in her classroom, nor does she believe in giving lashings. Ms. Kennedy is a bit of a pioneer herself, you might say; her lessons are always active and great fun, even when they include hard work, such as those that will take place on this late-March morning.

The day begins with lessons such as penmanship exercises using ink, quills, and parchment, as well as churning butter and making jam and johnny cakes for noontime break (or nooning time). Making butter is hard work, but the delicious smell of fresh juicy berries smooshing into jam and hot buttery corn cakes frying on the griddle carries the students throughout the morning. Once the food is prepared, it is time for outdoor chores such as fetching pails of water for drinking and washing and collecting buffalo chips to fuel the fire (wood is scarce on the plains). After all of this hard work, the students eagerly wash up to eat, their mouths watering in anticipation. The morning’s activities have made them ravenous, and they dig in with relish (though sure to practice their best manners). During play times, students enjoy shooting marbles and playing with cornhusk dolls and thaumatropes that they have made themselves.

Soon spring will give way to summer, and the children will leave school to either help in the fields or carry on across the plains with their families on the next wagon train—destination, California!

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