Students do pioneering work at Willow Wind

"My school was nothing like this," said parent Lincoln Zeve at the Willow Wind Community Learning Center's Oregon Trail event on Wednesday.

This school term, students at Willow Wind did not just study pioneer life on the Oregon Trail, they lived it. A semester of learning about the Oregon Trail culminated in a re-enactment of life on the trail as the school's common space and kitchen was transformed into a pioneer community, complete with a trading post, chuck wagon and bank.

Dressed in period clothing, first- through third-grade students exchanged buttons and other wares for dried fruits, hand-churned butter, homemade bread and hand-dipped candles, all of which the students made themselves throughout the semester.

"The kids went to an orchard and picked the apples that they turned into apple sauce and canned themselves," said teacher Judith Ann McBride. Liz O'Donnell, a student teacher, was helping students make corn husk dolls.

She praised the school's emphasis on hands-on learning.

"I love Willow Wind. I think children really benefit when they are taught this way," she said.

In the chuck wagon area, parents helped serve the homemade bread and butter while students hand-cranked an ice cream maker and sampled the food they had prepared. Other parents supervised demonstration areas where students completed assigned tasks to show what they had learned. Students made ropes, strung beads made of dried corn and berries, and bartered for goods. Amid the flurry of trading, beading and churning, some parents also staged a bank robbery where three masked men rushed into the room demanding buttons and other goods.

"Robberies were common on the trail, and we can't have an authentic pioneer experience without a little crime," Zeve said, laughing.

In addition to parents, members of the community volunteered to help with the event. Darlene Beckett brought in her spinning wheel and showed the students how to spin wool.

"It's great isn't it? These kids have learned so much, and I am having fun," Beckett said.

The students were equally enthusiastic.

"I think it's really fun. I liked learning about the Oregon Trail and studying the prairie animals. We each had to learn about one animal, which we did an expert study on," said 7-year-old Greta Zeve.

The course is "very representative of Willow Wind in both the energy that parents put into their kids' education and their support for the school," said McBride, who has taught this particular course three other times at Willow Wind. While she says that parents often participate in classes, this course especially relies on the parents.

"This class has a lot of parent involvement, and they worked hard to make sure the class was a rich experience for everyone," she said.

For example, earlier in the semester students and their families traveled part of the actual trail and camped at the Box R Ranch in Greensprings.

"We stayed in teepees overnight. All the kids came with their families. The students wore pioneer clothes and everyone worked together. That was definitely a peak experience," said McBride.

"Today is a culmination of a whole semester's work. It is great they have a chance to follow through on everything they learned." said parent Jennifer Miatke.

The Oregon Trail class is multidisciplinary, combining a variety of lessons across academic subjects to help students make connections through a common area of study. The course weaved science, math, history, reading, and writing with research, and real-life experiences, all connected with life on the trail.

"It's all integrated learning," explains McBride. "As part of the course we made models of wagons, determined their load, and figured out what we would take on the trail and what we would leave behind. It's a great way to study the Oregon Trail and local history. It really comes alive this way. The fact that we live in the heart of the Applegate trail, it passes right through Ashland, makes it authentic."

Seven-year old Hannah Doyle said the class was always exciting.

"I think this class is great. I loved making things for our dioramas and the camping trip. It was really unique," she said.

Hannah's mother, Candace Doyle agreed.

"This is Judith Ann and the essence of Willow Wind, that you could get a dozen families to show up, work so hard, and have such a good time. These kids have literally and figuratively lived on the Oregon Trail," Doyle said.

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