Banks of Plum Creek: 28—"The Letter" and 29—"The Darkest Hour is Just before Dawn"

Teacher's Guide Author: Susan Hester, 5th grade teacher, William Wright Elementary School, Clark County School District


This teachers' guide is one of a series including activities for all chapters of On the Banks of Plum Creek. Additional teacher's guides are available for other Little House books as well as other books addressing the topic of U.S. westward migration.


Chapter Overviews:

Chapter 28: In this chapter Laura is anxiously awaiting a letter from Pa. Pa had left Plum Creek to find work harvesting crops after his own wheat crop had been destroyed by a plague of grasshoppers. Laura worries about Pa on a daily basis and begins to think that something bad may have happened to him when she doesn't receive a letter. Finally, a letter arrives at Mr. Nelson's post office and the family learns that Pa is fine and is working over three hundred miles away. He is earning a dollar a day and has sent money back to his family.

Chapter 29: As winter approaches the weather changes and the millions of grasshoppers disappear. Pa has still not returned and the family struggles to get by. One day Mrs. Nelson and her baby Anna come to visit. Ma tells the girls to play with Anna but it is difficult because Anna only speaks Norwegian. Anna accidentally rips the girls paper dolls and they decide to let her play with Laura's rag doll named Charlotte because she won't be able to destroy it. When it's time for Anna to go home she wants to take Charlotte with her. Ma tells Laura to let Anna have the doll because she is getting too old for dolls. The next Saturday, when Laura goes to the Nelson's to see if they have received a letter from Pa, she finds Charlotte partially ruined and frozen in a mud puddle. She takes Charlotte home and Ma makes her as good as new. Later that evening Pa returns home with money for the family.

Chapters' Themes: Rocky Mountain locusts, agriculture-wheat, daily life on the prairie, postal service, foreign immigrants, occupations, children's toys, weather, children's chores in the 1870's, travel, grasshopper plague.

Suggested Activities

  • Language Arts
    • Characterization: Bubble Map
      • Design a bubble map based on one of the characters. Use ten adjectives to describe the character's personality traits. The character's physical traits could also be included, but do not count toward the ten required adjectives. Then, choose three of the adjectives and using information from the chapters prove that these adjectives apply to this particular character. You may use something that the character says, something the character does, or information that others provide about the character to prove your point.
      • Standards Addressed
        • NS 3.5.2 Characterization: describe physical and personality traits
        • NS 3.5.2 Make inferences and draw conclusions about a character based on evidence
        • NS 2.5.3 Organize information
    • Diary Entry
      • Choose one of the characters and write five diary entries from that character's point of view. In each fictional entry, use what you know about the character to accurately portray how a person of this age, gender, and time period would speak and write. Each diary entry should include the character's observations, ideas, feelings, and experiences on specific dates. Diary entries may include narratives or descriptions pertaining to: daily life, chores, roles in the family, leisure activities, types of work, living conditions, neighbors, worries and fears, problems being faced, etc.
      • Standards Addressed
        • NS 3.5.4 Point of View: describe an example of first-person point of view
        • NS 8.5.2 Use precise language to describe feelings, observations, and experiences
        • NS 6.5.7 Write a variety of communications in appropriate format (personal communications)
  • Mathematics
    • Problem Solving
      • Divide the class into groups of three or four students. In each group,students should decide how long it took Pa Ingalls to walk 300 miles to find work. Students should determine the speed at which he walked and how many hours he walked each day. Consider the terrain over which Pa traveled to help determine the miles per hour, and consider Pa's character traits to determine how many hours a day he was likely to travel. Each group should be able to explain the reasons behind their choices. Using this information, calculate how long it probably took Pa to walk three hundred miles. Compare your results with the other groups in the class. Then find the average amount of time Pa spent walking by using the results from each group as your data.
      • Standards Addressed
        • NS B.3-5 Use everyday language to make conjectures, explain, and justify thinking about strategies and solutions to mathematical problems
        • NS 1.5.8 Generate and solve addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems using whole numbers and decimals in practical situations
    • Immigrants in Minnesota
      • Use the following information to determine what percentage of Minnesota's population were Norwegian immigrants in each of these years. Discuss any noticeable trends. Note: all numbers are rounded to the nearest thousand.
    • Year Population of Minnesota Norwegians
    • 1860 172,000 12,000
    • 1870 439,000 50,000
    • 2000 4,919,000 851,000

      • Standards Addressed
        • NS 1.5.5 Use multiples of 10 to expand knowledge of basic multiplication and division facts
        • CEF 5.5.6 Use data from graphs, tables, and charts to draw and explain conclusions and make predictions
  • Social Studies
  • Rocky Mountain Locusts and their Impact on the Agricultural History of America
      • Students work in groups to research one of the following topics. Then each group should organize their findings and present the information to their class orally. All students should take notes on each group's presentation.
    • Short term effects of the grasshopper plague
    • - farmers left with no crops/starvation
    • - farmers and their families move to other locations
    • Long term effects of the grasshopper plague
    • - shift from farming wheat to cattle ranching
    • - influenced tilling practices
    • - fostered turkey production
    • - creation of the U.S. Entomological Commission in 1877
    • - increased dependence and aid from federal government
    • for agriculture

      • Standards Addressed
        • NS 5.5.1 Describe ways in which changes in the physical environment affect humans
        • NS 6.5.2 Demonstrate an understanding that an individual can be both a consumer and a producer
        • NS 3.5.3 Identify the parts of different ecosystems, including soil,climate, plant life, and animal life
    • Norwegian Immigrants
      • Use a Venn diagram to compare and contrast the reasons Norwegian immigrants and American settlers chose rural Minnesota as a place to settle in the mid 1800's. Include cultural, social, political, and economic reasons.
      • Standards Addressed
        • NS 4.5.2 Identify the push-pull factors influencing human migration and settlement
        • NS 4.5.4 Describe the differences among rural, suburban, and urban migration and settlement
        • NS 7.5.9 Describe the contributions of immigrant groups to the United States
  • Science
    • Rocky Mountain Locusts and their Impact on Agriculture in America
      • Students work in groups to research one of the following topics. Then each group should organize their findings and present the information to the class orally. All students should take notes on each group's presentation.
    • Benefits of Locust
    • -food source for grassland birds
    • -weed control agents
    • - nutrition for Native Americans
    • Detrimental Effects of Locust
    • -destroy crops
    • -animals dependent on the crops die or move to new locations
    • Methods used by farmers to destroy or remove locusts from farmland
    • -fire to destroy grasshopper nymphs
    • -plowing and harrowing to destroy eggs
    • -irrigation: drowning the wingless nymphs
    • -crop rotation and planting resistant crops
      • Standards Addressed
        • CEF 5.4.6 Investigate and describe the interrelationships and interdependence of organisms with each other and with non-living parts of their habitats
        • CEF 5.4.8 Investigate and describe how organisms, including humans, can cause changes in their environments
        • CEF 5.4.10 Investigate and describe how environmental changes allow some plants and animals to survive and reproduce, but others may die
    • Making Frost and Dew
      • Students should fill each can half full with crushed ice. In one can, add 4 tablespoons of salt and mix well. In the other can, add cold tap water and sure it covers the ice chips. Let the cans sit for about 3 minutes. Look on the outside of each can. You should see dew on the can with the ice and water and frost on the can with ice and salt. Place a thermometer in each can. The temperature in the can with ice and salt should be lower than in the other can. Record the steps of this experiment, the temperatures, and the results of this experiment in your science notebook. Draw and label pictures that correspond to the experiment.
  • Explanation: The mixture of melting ice and water remains just above freezing causing the warmer air in the atmosphere outside the can to accumulate as a liquid (dew). The salt and melting ice chemically react to form a salt solution. As ice continues to melt, this solution is cooled to a temperature below freezing. Moisture from the atmosphere collects on the outside of the can and freezes forming frost.
    • Standards Addressed
        • CEF 5.1.5 Create and use labeled illustrations, graphs, and charts to convey ideas, record observations, and make predictions
        • CEF 5.2.3 Investigate and describe that by combing two or more materials, the properties of the resulting material can be different from the original materials

Historical Overview of Chapter Themes

Theme: Norwegian Immigrants

From 1850-1930 the foreign born population of the United States increased from 2.2 million to 14.2 million. Large scale European immigration was occuring during this period.

Immigrants from Norway were usually family units from rural areas. There were many reasons why they chose to come to the United States. Land in Norway was very expensive at this time and most of the families that migrated were farmers. There was a strict social and political system in Norway in which only the elite could vote and the privileges of the upper class made everyone else feel like inferior citizens. Jobs were becoming scarcer in Norway because of the growing population and new technology. For these, as well as many other reasons, Norwegians emigrated to the United States.

Norwegians, like other ethnic groups, often chose to settle in areas already inhabited by their countrymen. Rural Minnesota was already home to many Norwegian immigrants. Communities retained particular ethnic identities, and immigrants often chose to settle in these communities or the surrounding areas. New settlers felt comfortable and retained many of their cultural traditions, foods, clothing, language, and religious practices.

Additional Resources


Note: This teacher's guide was developed as part of one of the Clark County School District's Teaching American History grants. In this grant module, teachers focused on using children's historical literature to teach cross-curricular concepts relating to 19th century westward movement. For more information about this blog, related teacher's guides, or the grant module, please contact Dr. Christy Keeler.


mhughes said...

Dear Susan,
I like your idea about making diary entries from the character's point of view. I am always looking for good reader response activities. I would have the students do a bit of research from that time period to get a better understanding which will add to their diary entries. It would neat to have them write to another student in class as well.

Christy G. Keeler, Ph.D. said...

I'm pleased to see you having students work in groups for the "Problem Solving" activity. For many students, this exercise will be too difficult, but using groups will allow everyone to participate and learn. I like, too, that you have students consider factors that may increase or decrease Pa's speed. It would be nice to bring in the physical education teacher to teach about walking rates, relationship of cardiovascular strengths to walking ability, and roles of healthy muscles. Th PE teacher could have students walk a mile and time themselves to compare the speed the PE teacher believes Pa may have walked versus how quickly they walk.

The activity also leads to a discussion on finding work. Because of our transient population, many students in each class moved to Las Vegas so their parents could either find work or improve their working situation. This is a great exercise on human migration and economics.

Wow! What a great idea to have students graph the Norwegian immigration of Minnesota and then draw conclusions! I would certainly have them add in each of the decades between 1870 and 2000. You might also have them graph the number of Norwegian immigrants from each of these years using US immigration numbers to determine if Norwegians continue to settle in Minnesota, or they are choosing alternative locations. Finally, this lesson offers a great opportunity to talk about lines of latitude and the climatic similarities along these lines.

Thank you for sharing the instructions and explanation for the dew assignment. Because of our desert climate, many of our students will need to see dew to even understand what it is!