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I open our unit on Westward Expansion with the pilot episode of “Little House on the Prairie” – the one in which the Ingalls family sets out from the Big Woods for the arduous trek to Kansas. We watch to see how they prepared, to imagine what they thought and felt, to make inferences about the choices pioneers were faced with in giving up the hardships and security of the known for the hardships and uncertainty of the unknown (but hoped for).
It was lovely to watch my kids enthralled by the story, and genuinely enjoying the pace and the sweetness of this T.V. show. Yes, they were noticing the things I hoped they would, information and ideas which will give depth to their understanding of this unit and the project they will soon be participating in, and so I rejoiced.
But, there soon emerged an issue I had not thought of. A focus of attention I had failed to take into account.
As the Ingalls set off through enormous banks of snow, Jack trots along behind their wagon, wagging his tail, barking cheerfully… impossibly adorable. My students are outraged.
“Why is the dog not in the wagon!”
“Oh my God, the poor dog!”
“Wait…what? The dog has to run along behind?”
We paused to discuss the fact that animals in those days, even fluffy little adorables like Jack, were primarily there to serve practical functions. There wasn’t the sentimentality then as there is now. My students nodded their heads, trying to understand, and then we continued…to the scene where the Ingalls must cross a swollen river, and Jack gets left behind.
Loud cries of horror and disbelief almost drowned out the sound of the bell. The period had ended.
But…Jack? What about Jack?
That was the talk of the sixth grade hallway – But…Jack? What about Jack? Oh no, poor Jack…!”
I am hoping that our Westward Expansion unit yields more thought provoking questions than: But…Jack? What about Jack? Oh no, poor Jack…!”