Illinois Teachers Map Trail of Tears Route Through Their Own Backyard

By Brenda Iasevoli — December 29, 2017 2 min read
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Two Illinois high school teachers created an interactive curriculum that traces the Trail of Tears through southern parts of their state.

Stacie Tefft, one of the curriculum’s creators, stressed the power of immersing kids in local history, an approach educators call “place-based education.”

“For a lot of our kids, we give them a history book, and they’re like whatever,” Tefft told the Southern Illinoisan. “This ... it’s a lot of our kids’ backyard.”

The curriculum centers around a Geographic Information System (GIS) map that the teachers created. Along the trail are outlines of campfires to indicate the sites where Cherokee people stopped on their way west after being forced in the early 1830s from their ancestral homes in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida. The trail goes through Union, Johnson, and Pope counties in southern Illinois.

Students read the map along with journal entries, spanning May 19, 1838 through April 1, 1839, by Daniel S. Butrick, a minister who traveled with the Cherokee across the southern Illinois route. The curriculum asks students to draw conclusions based on their readings of the documents. Here is an example:

Based on the map locating campsites and Butrick’s journal entries about campsites, what is the strongest claim that can be supported with evidence?

a. There are fewer campsite locations in Pope County due to the lack of resources.

b. There are fewer campsite locations in Pope County due to the lack of rivers.

c. There are more campsite locations in Union County due to the proximity of the Mississippi River.

d. There are more campsite locations in Union County because the Cherokee were treated better there than in Pope County.

All the teaching resources are available for free here. The teachers created the curriculum, which was funded by the Library of Congress, as part of their master’s work at Southern Illinois University.

Grant Miller, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at Southern Illinois University, praised the Trail of Tears lessons for providing students with an authentic experience, and not relying on memorization of facts. “What’s so exciting about this is this really gets into the kinds of literacy skills that we’re asking history teachers to be teaching with their students, as far as analyzing primary sources, comparing those primary sources to maps, as you have here,” Miller told the Southern Illinoisan.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.