language arts, middle school, oregon trail

5 Ways the Oregon Trail Can Apply to Teaching

I am technically a millennial. There. I said it.

It seems like that’s something to be ashamed of nowadays. All the stereotypes about millennials make me cringe — like how we’re fragile little bubble-wrapped babies who think the world revolves around us and are bringing down the economy with our organic frou-frou tastes. I used to read articles about my generation and think to myself, That can’t really be me, right? RIGHT? I’m self-sufficient. I have a job. And kids. And I pay for my residence. I like to pop bubble wrap as a stress reliever, but I don’t think I’m covered in it. Ooh, bubble wrap…where did that piece I had go? Oh, shoot, my kids got it again…and it’s all popped. Shucks!  <End of stream of consciousness mom/teacher brain digression>

Turns out there is an alternative to this millennial title. I read an article by Anna Garvey on a year or two ago about a subgroup called the Oregon Trail Generation. After I saw that, I felt like I had finally found my place in society — what a weight off my shoulders. The Oregon Trail Generation is made up of people who were born in the late 70’s/early 80’s who neither fit with the Gen Xers nor the much-maligned millennials. We are the people who know the sound of the AOL dial-up connection, who did not have to go through high school or all of college with the pervasiveness of social media, and shared music like copyright laws didn’t matter. And yes, we are the generation whose inner-strength was forged in brand-new computer labs playing the computer game “Oregon Trail” on primitive Apple computers.

Thanks to the tech teacher at my current school, I recently came into contact with the game again and played it to my heart’s delight. I relived the excitement of deciding what to get at the store at the beginning of the trek and whether we had enough time to stop and look at the sights. There was the thrill of shooting a buffalo and the agony of only being able to carry a measly hundred pounds of meat back to the wagon. And there were the unfortunate episodes of dysentery and exhaustion. In the end, I pushed our traveling party too hard, and we did not end up making it to the end (I died right after crossing the present-day Oregon state line, in case you were wondering).

In the aftermath of the journey, I was of course sad that we had died, but I could feel my can-do, pioneer spirit from the mid to late 90’s coming back. I also pitied my students who are not able to have these incredible character-building experiences like I did (and am). But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way! Middle schoolers need to have the experience of living by their luck and wits, motivated by their need for survival (in an air-conditioned classroom with 0% chance of injury, of course). Here is why I think an argument could be made for making the Oregon Trail part of the curriculum of every school in the United States, and why it may be taking a prominent place in my classroom this year (totally kidding if you’re my administrator):

1. Time Management: How many times are we concerned about middle schoolers’ time management skills? All! The! Time! In many cases, they should start on a paper or project soon after it’s assigned, but put it off till the last minute. If they’d done that on the Oregon Trail, they’d be stranded in the mountains in the dead of winter. Or they push themselves too hard, and feel burnt out by the end — basically the same thing as fording a river that’s 20 feet deep and finding that three oxen didn’t survive because of their carelessness. They also might not keep the due date in mind, and not turn it in at all. On the Oregon Trail, you need to try to make it as quickly as possible, or your family may not make it. That should certainly give procrastinators pause.

2. Learning from Mistakes: Going back to the 20-feet-deep river and our beloved oxen — there will be many rivers to cross at some point in your life. So if you lost the oxen the first time, maybe at the next river, you will pause and consider what went wrong before, and how you can make things better the next time. Or maybe you drank a bunch of dirty water, and now you have dysentery. Making mistakes is such an important part of growing up, and while the initial failure may be tough to swallow (literally!), and painful for us adults to watch when we know better, it’s still one of the best teaching strategies in helping a middle schooler become older and wiser.

3. Financial Planning: At the beginning of the trip, you are given an allowance which you can spend as you see fit. The game gives recommendations for what to buy, but as you get further along the trail, the goods will become more expensive. So maybe it’s good to have a spare of everything, and then plan on hunting to save money on food. You don’t want to blow all your money on wagon axles. This teaches kids that money does not grow on the proverbial tree. If they blow all their birthday bucks from Grandma on the latest Nike shoe, then they shouldn’t be able to buy the latest latest Nike shoe when it comes out. (I think kids still like Nikes?)


4. Goal Planning: I always liked how the game tells you how many miles to the next little destination on the trail, giving you something concrete to shoot for. Or when you knew you were going to run out of food soon, so you needed to stop and hunt so no one would starve (maybe the single best part of the game). It gives a sense of satisfaction to have part of the overall goal completed. This concept is definitely something that we teachers can play a direct hand in, by setting clear expectations and showing them verbally and visibly. It might also mean giving little mini-deadlines to help students have a slow but steady pace to the finished product. I also tell students it’s a great idea when reaching a mini-goal to reward yourself with a gummy bear (or some buffalo meat) or whatever motivates you.

5. Handling Disappointment: It might really stink that you got dysentery or that your favorite cousin got kidnapped in the middle of Kansas, but you can’t just sit there and dwell on it. You have to lift yourself by your bootstraps, chew determinedly on your hardtack, and go. Teenagers and pre-teens throughout all of history have had the “Woe is me” attitude for what are usually minor things in the grand scheme of life. Not that they aren’t allowed a pity party when the occasion is warranted , but at some point, you gotta “suck it up, buttercup” and deal with things the best you can.

If this has made you a little nostalgic OR changed your curriculum plans for the year, here is my roundup of Oregon Trail items that may be useful:

oregon trail book   oregon trail card game        current oregon trail


AND the link to the original game from the tech teacher at my school, which helped inspire this post:

Also, I checked to see if there was an Oregon Trail movie, and there indeed is, aptly named The Oregon Trail (1959). But there’s also a mock trailer that combines Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant, and 90’s computer graphics in a really spectacular way, and I wish so much it were real. Take a look:

1 thought on “5 Ways the Oregon Trail Can Apply to Teaching

Comments are closed.