Going for Gold in Fourth Grade

Going for Gold in Fourth Grade
By Tova Syrowicz

Setting the Stage

“You’ve just heard that there’s gold in California! It’s in the rivers, and it’s free for the taking. Fortune seekers across the United States, indeed across the world, are gripped by gold fever and begin making plans to leave their homes and families for the unknown in the hopes of striking it rich, having the adventure of a lifetime, or both. How do you – that is, your character – learn of this exhilarating news? Does a friend or relative tell you? Do you hear a corner newsboy screaming ‘Gold, Gold in California!’ at the top of his lungs?”

Thus we invite our kids to imagine what it was like to be alive in 1848, hearing the heady rumors, reading the exaggerated headlines, and deciding to join the mad, daring, dangerous rush for California’s gold. Each year, in schools all over California, fourth graders study the history of their home state, including, of course, the relatively brief but hugely formative California Gold Rush. At Hausner, however, students don’t just learn about this historical highlight, they live it.

Living the Gold Rush

Ok, we’re not hiding a time machine behind our whiteboard, yet for six weeks, our fourth graders are so immersed in the California of 175 years ago, that they complete the unit with a genuine understanding of what it was like to rush for gold. Their task is to complete a historically accurate, first-person Gold Rush journal, comprising five entries and one letter to a friend or relative back home upon arrival in San Francisco. While each entry has a structured framework and specific criteria, down to the date of writing, stage of the journey, and required details and literary devices, the project leaves so much room for creativity and personal choice that it resembles a choose-your-own-adventure novel! 

4th grade student working on her Gold Rush journal

4th grade student working on her Gold Rush journal

Voice and Choice

This year, we have a Rabbi from Boston who decides to head for California’s goldfields, so he can dig up the riches necessary to seed a local Jewish kehillah, or community. In Candace’s class, many of the students with characters departing from Boston collaborated to book passage on the Lady Candace, so they could run into friends and acquaintances on their long sea journey around Cape Horn. Some characters keep popping up in each others’ subsequent entries with such coordination, it is evident time is being spent outside of class hatching these mutually overlapping storylines. Even in a largely independent project, our students are seeking connection and fostering community! While the project’s prescribed structure gives it a low floor, its myriad opportunities for creative voice and choice lend it a captivatingly high ceiling, towards which many students aspire and soar.

Understanding the Era

To begin, students are given time to peruse a robust collection of illustrated books and texts about the Gold Rush to build foundational knowledge. It was an incredibly exciting time, but students quickly learn that the hardships prospectors faced were numerous and often fatal. With each week comes a new entry, a new lesson and resource packet replete with primary and secondary sources relevant to that entry, and a number of choices students must make for the character they’ve created based on their understanding of a reality completely different to their own. To make – and write convincingly about the reasons for – their characters’ choices, students must consider their options carefully, keeping in mind financial, geographic, and gender-role constraints. 

Decisions and Drawbacks

They weigh pros and cons, and begin to recognize that for every decision, there were very real drawbacks with which the forty-niners had to contend. If a student bestows his character with a high-earning occupation, he (not she, more on that in a minute) can afford the quickest route to San Francisco via Panama, but he may contract malaria while traversing the jungle, and if he’s lucky enough to survive that, who knows how long he will have to wait for room on a northbound ship once he’s reached Panama’s Pacific coast. Of course, wealthy as he may be, he won’t be able to bring with him a wagonload of provisions, an option only available to those gold seekers risking the arduous and dysentery-riddled overland route across the US. Later in the project, once the students’ characters have pitched their tents in a mining town in California’s goldfields, they’ll have to choose whether to pan or cradle for gold, a decision that will depend at least in part on how much money they have to spend on equipment, whether they prefer to toil alone or in company, and, if the latter, whether they have a trusted companion with whom to share not only the workload but also the haul.

Gender Roles

Female students quickly express frustration that, in keeping with the times, they are not permitted to have a job that pays well or travel to California without the company of a male relative or husband. Once they’ve reached the mining towns, they do enjoy discovering that their “female” skills, including cooking, cleaning, and sewing, are in such high demand due to the dearth of women, that they are often able to make more money than their male companions do mining from dawn ‘til dusk!   

Supply and Demand

While their characters’ dig for gold, our fourth graders dig even deeper to discover that gold mining was backbreaking work with often paltry returns, that the cost of goods and services was astonishingly high in the diggings due to limited supply and high demand, and that most forty-niners did not find a fortune in California’s rivers. Instead, they had to pivot, be creative and resourceful, and earn a local living in some other way, or return home. Many decided to stay in California, laying the foundations for the communities that comprise the state today. And so, in the final entries of the journal project, our students’ characters open businesses and ultimately decide whether to return home or stay in California to build a new life, albeit not one made of gold! 

Skill Building

With each new entry, the kids apply their growing knowledge of the Gold Rush, as well as develop their writing and critical thinking skills. They learn to examine their prose for linguistic anachronisms – “Life in a mining town ‘sucks’” or “I ‘barfed’ over the side of the ship” – and historic inaccuracies – phones and electricity, of course, but also less apparent ones like chocolate-chip cookies (not invented yet) and pets (not the family members they are today). They learn to take on, and think and write from, a perspective other than their own (many of their characters are husbands and wives, fathers and mothers) and to consider the effect of constraints and hurdles completely foreign to them in their present lives. Their choices have consequences, and every decision taken has a downside (running the gamut from excruciating boredom to extreme weather to outbreaks of cholera).

Read Aloud: Making Connections

Deepening their understanding of this pivotal moment in California’s history is fourth-grade teacher Katherine’s riveting read-aloud of By the Great Horn Spoon!, a historical fiction novel in which a 12-year-old boy from Boston and his British butler travel as stowaways on a ship bound for SF during the height of the Gold Rush. The tale is one of gripping adventure with close scrapes, colorful characters, and plenty of opportunities for connection to the students’ own unfolding narratives, plus the added bonus of a connection to author Sid Fleischman, whose granddaughter taught at Hausner. 

Hitting Pay Dirt

To wrap up, students illustrate a cover for their Gold Rush journals, which are ring-bound with laminated covers. For over two decades, Hausner fourth graders have risen to the challenge – and joy – of this multisensory, multidisciplinary project. They study the sources, learn the facts, hear the stories, and then tap into their imaginations to travel back in time and create their very own Gold Rush narratives and keepsakes, which we have seen younger siblings reference when they reach fourth grade and begin their own journals. 

And finally, at the very end of the unit, the entire fourth grade piles excitedly onto a bus at 6am to see Gold Country IRL (no, not a term permitted in their entries) and try their hand at panning for gold. For them, just as for the characters they conceived and shepherded, it is the culmination of a long journey. Academically and intellectually, they have reached new frontiers, they have dug deeper, they have gone for the gold, and now, it all comes together, and they get to hit pay dirt.


More From Our Blog and News