The O’Neal Trail

When studying the westward expansion, life on the Oregon Trail is hard to imagine. But for O’Neal second and fifth graders, a glimpse of traveling over uncivilized territory was experienced firsthand. An event the parents, teachers and students looked forward to every year, The O’Neal Trail was “traveled” for 22 years!

The westward expansion was a “core” subject for the Core Knowledge Curriculum used at O’Neal. O’Neal adopted this curriculum in the 1994/1995 school year and was one of only 300 schools in the nation to use it. The approach was interdisciplinary and allowed a large range of creative opportunities for teaching and learning. One was able to combine several traditional content areas from across the curriculum and engage students in “hand-on” learning. Second grade teacher Kathy Nester (now retired) was one of a group of O’Neal faculty members to attend Core Knowledge workshops. In these workshops is where she came across the idea of putting the westward expansion in motion. With the help of middle school teacher Mark Futrell, it happened. Both second and fifth grades studied the subject from different aspects. Regardless of the curriculum objectives for each grade, the O’Neal Trail experience rendered as realistic of an approach as was possible.

It was one day that I really enjoyed every year. We were able to make it realistic for the kids and ‘hands-on’ is always best. Sometimes there was rain, or fog or cold weather, but I told the students, the weather wasn’t always perfect on the Oregon Trail. The students got excited about dressing up and the parents really got involved. – Kathy Nester, Retired 2nd Grade Teacher.

Fifth graders were the “parents” and second graders were the “children”. In preparation, the second grade read Little House in the Big Woods and the fifth grade read Little House on the Prairie – both written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. To start the unit off, students from the two grades assembled to celebrate Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birthday with a cake and song and were placed into “families”. At different times, the grades assembled to make butter, jerky, their rafts to cross the “river” on the O’Neal Trail (simulated out of popsicle sticks) and 20 other items needed for their journey.

In place of the real horse-drawn covered wagons, the fifth-grade “parents” pulled toy wagons filled with the second-grade “children” and supplies. The O’Neal Trail was not at all flat and the teamwork, strength, and effort put forth by the fifth graders to pull their loaded wagons for the whole journey was remarkable. These “parents” had to be responsible for their precious belongings, which included their “children”.

On the day of the trip, all of the families were dressed in pioneer clothing, and each family is given a wagon. Packed with supplies, the families head out on the O’Neal Trail. As they traveled they had to overcome certain obstacles. Parent volunteers worked each “obstacle”.

The first obstacle was the river – represented by a child’s plastic pool. At the river, a raft for each family was placed in the pool and is “blown” from one side to the other to represent “crossing the river”.

After the river, they arrived at a Trading Post to attempt to trade for items that they needed. After the trading post was the Watering Hole. Each person took turns using a ¼ measuring cup filled with water to fill a container. Once this task was complete the family headed to the Sack Hop, where they each hopped in a sack around a cone or tree.

As they continued on the trail, they were attacked by “bandits” and were robbed of some of their supplies. Then they headed for the next Trading Post to try to retrieve some of their stolen items.  

For the next obstacle they were told they have lost their way on the trail. They had to go locate a few bone messages to find their way back. In order to receive the bones, they had to answer questions about the books they read. After collecting the bones, they proceeded along the trail where more bandits surprised them.

The families had a chance to ride in a real covered wagon that was over 100 years old and owned by Mr. Odell Hussey.

As they arrived in “Oregon” – Tate Gym, they had their family portrait taken and entered the gym as “families” who came before them would cheer them on. They would eat fried chicken, chili, cornbread, potato salad, apple pies, and lemonade. After the feast, the students gathered for sing-a-longs and square dancing.  

This event required many parent volunteers, and they all had a wonderful time with it. Many ran the “trading posts” or served as the “bandits” on the trail. They played their roles very well and created great challenges for the travelers. “There was one year we had a parent dress up like a bear,” chuckled Kathy Nester.

The fifth-grade “parents” had to be swift thinkers at the trading posts. People skills and the ability to make a good trade were essential to get the supplies they needed for the remainder of their journey.

Even though the “parents” were the leaders, the “children” persevered. They put forth all of their efforts for everything – gathering the water supply at the Waterhole or hopping the Sack Hop. The children were extremely protective of the “family’s” supplies and were not to be reckoned with when it came to being robbed.

When the families reached “Oregon” – Tate Gym – there was a true sense of achievement. The students were physically tired but proud of their accomplishments. In their minds, they learned what it was like to take the “Oregon Trail”; but this event also allowed students to inherit lifelong qualities.

Traveling the O’Neal Trail, as devised by Kathy Nester and Mark Futrell, was the biggest day of the year in its heyday. The 5th graders would remember who their “children” were almost forever and vice-versa. Dressing up in the clothes of the time period was fun and traveling in a wagon all over campus was exciting. We would prep for the event by getting the 5th and 2nd grades together for a birthday cake to celebrate Laura Ingalls Wilder and we’d churn butter to enjoy on hunks of, sometimes, homemade bread. One year there were the remains of ice and snow on the ground. Authentic!… along with bandits and bad guys played by dads in bandannas. Harold Stewart, a Robbins grandparent, arranged for real Conestoga wagon rides with Odell Hussey playing the role of wagon master. After the trip to Oregon was successfully completed, we’d gather for a lunch of fried chicken and various stews and a very few vegetables. And biscuits galore. There’d be fiddle music and square dancing for those not completely tuckered out. – Sam Amato, 5th Grade Teacher

Project-Based Learning

The study of the westward expansion has a new look. Second grade teacher Amanda Duffy worked alongside Kathy Nester and helped to execute The O’Neal Trail for eight years. The Core Knowledge curriculum started to fade and eventually was replaced by Project Based Learning (PBL). 

Project Based Learning (PBL) is considered more than just a teaching method, it allows for students to develop intellectually and emotionally. As students are presented complex questions or problems within a real-world scenario to answer or solve, they are learning by way of critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and self-management.  

In the classroom students are divided into families and the whole class is the “wagon train”. They play the online game “The Oregon Trail”. Cards are drawn that give the students situations – good and bad. With every instance, the “family” or the whole wagon train (class) must collaborate, research and solve the problem. For example, if a family member is bitten by a rattlesnake, the “family” must research rattlesnake bites and its natural remedies in order to decide on how to proceed. Shall they pay for a ticket to ride the ferry or take a bridge across the river, or do they physically cross it themselves?  The destination may not be Oregon. At a certain point, “families” must decide on whether to go to California to mine gold, or Oregon to settle. In essence, the students “live” on the Oregon Trail for six to eight weeks in the classroom as opposed to spending a day with the experience. Other curriculum programs come into play with Lucy Calkin’s Readers Workshop and Writers Workshop. With every situation, students journal their experience and vocabulary is reviewed while reading Little House in the Big Woods

Some activities have stuck around, such as making butter, learning how to square dance and dressing up on picnic day.  

As the study of the westward expansion has evolved the PBL experience has helped students to use communication, collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving skills, creativity, as well as innovation.

When we reach Oregon, shall we build a sod house or a log cabin?

Falcons Fly to 50

O’Neal is excited to share its history with readers as it quickly nears its 50th year in educating and cultivating youth in becoming successful, effective contributors to communities large and small. The official celebration starts school year 2021/2022. This weekly blog will focus on different aspects of the School as it grew through the years. With every entry, there is just as much more information to gather than what is already written. Readers who have been a part of the O’Neal community are encouraged to reach out and share their O’Neal memories. It is with great hope that the efforts of many in contributing information and photography can be published into a book for reflection and reference as the School continues to prosper for the next 50 years.

Please send your memoirs and photos to:
The O’Neal School
c/o Kathy Taylor, Director of Communications
P.O. Box 290
Southern Pines, NC 28388

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