Teacher Notes - The Road to California



"Every women or man, young or old, who thinks they are faced with seemingly insurmountable barriers can take heart and inspiration for the life and courage of Biddy Mason."

Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, Supervisor,County of Los Angeles

Grade Level - Grade 5


Lesson Purpose

Much of my background on the Westward Movement was provided by Hollywood. The film industry frequently portrayed the Old West as a territory populated by white cowboys and white settlers who were constantly under attack by hostile Indians. Today, textbook publishers are making strides towards correcting the derogatory, inaccurate treatment of people of color. This inclusion of minority history has been a long time in coming. At the heart of this unit is the belief that the teaching of the Westward Movement is incomplete if it overlooks a major group of participants.

Biddy Mason's story is an excellent one to include in a Westward Movement unit. Her personal courage and determination transcend race, gender, or age. Even more important, by learning the story of Biddy Mason, students will discover that, unlike a novel, the history of the West has more than one beginning, middle, and end.

Length of Lesson - 5 class periods



Additional Resources

Lesson Sequence


I recommend beginning this unit with an investigation of four primary source documents. Document A, Document B, Document C, and Document D were recorded in El Dorado County, California, in the 1850's. These documents were copied and published by Delilah Beasley in her 1919 book Negro Trail Blazers of California. Students should analyze these documents in the following two-step process:

Following the document analysis activity, I read aloud Deborah Hopkinson's Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt to introduce the power and importance of quilting in African and African-American history.

Starting the Process:

Check for prior knowledge - As a whole-class activity, help students define the project by having them brainstorm the following three questions:

Record their answers on the board or overhead. Tell them a high-quality presentation will be the result of research and teamwork. Explain that they will be using the Internet as well as printed resources from the class and school library.

Introduce the novel Open Hands, Open Hear, The Story of Biddy Mason - If you have access to a class set of Deidre Robinson's Open Hands, Open Hear, The Story of Biddy Mason, you could have students read this short novel independently, in literature circles, or as a whole-class read aloud. I recommend that students keep a reading log or complete literature circle discussion sheets as they complete the reading. Students will need access to the novel as they work on their museum project.

Guiding the Process:

Require each group to complete a written action plan (3-column chart with the following headings: Task/Person Responsible/Due Dates) during their first meeting. Each team member needs to complete one! A written action plan is the best assurance that everyone is in agreement on who will do what and by when. Stress how important it is for them to start each class period in an organized manner and with a purpose. Without a clearly defined plan, they will have difficulty completing the project on time.

Hold daily briefings with each group. By meeting with each group for a few minutes, you will be able to guide their progress, check their process, and verify that all team members are contributing to the effort.

Adaptations for Special Needs Students:

Since this project involves research writing, and layout, teachers may wish to assign the tasks within groups so that each student can both work to a strength and develop an area in which he or she is not yet strong. Students with limited skills might be encouraged to use only one website as a resource, so they can spend more time with writing and creating the displays.

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