The beach community of Oceanside, California, isn’t what comes to mind when most people think of the Old West. But then Oceanside—the Roosevelt Middle School part of it, anyway—doesn’t look much like itself by the time Roxane Rollins gets done with it. For two days each year, the 8th grade history and language arts teacher and her 150 students construct and take on roles in a functioning replica of a pioneer-era frontier town, complete with gold-panning, a saloon (serving root beer), and a working jail.
Tired of her textbook’s skimpy treatment of the era, Rollins came up with the idea four years ago as a way to immerse students in Western history. The first year’s Frontier Outpost was held in her classroom, but with subsequent iterations becoming more elaborate and incorporating more people, the event moved to the school’s handball court. The petting zoo, where the wooden nickels that visitors buy at the outpost’s entrance can be exchanged for bags of feed, needed more space. So did the general store,where old-fashioned candy may be purchased. And the telegraph office. And the courthouse, and on and on.
“You see the kids who don’t take part in anything, and then you see them in costume doing their job. You think, Gosh, I wish they would do their homework that way,” Rollins says. William Belina, a blind student in his first year in a regular classroom, worked at the petting zoo and skipped lunch one day “because I was having such a good time doing my job,” he says.
Before they participate, however, students have to satisfy a language arts requirement by writing letters to businesses, asking them to donate materials or offer discounts.And long before the first facade goes up, the kids have to know their history: The favored roles go to the highest-scoring students, and they must exhaustively research the parts they will play. Justin Holgate, who was a sheriff, says the chance to be part of the past—or at least its reenactment—brought the subject to life: “Sometimes history can be fun—when you get to play it out.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2005 edition of Teacher Magazine as Go West