Banks of Plum Creek: 30—"Going to Town" and 31—"Surprise"

Teacher's Guide Author: Lisa Martin, 5th grade teacher, Selma F. Bartlett 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 30: "Going to Town"- When Charles Pa returns home after working in the east during the harvest season the family are overjoyed. Using the money he has earned from his farming work , he decides to take the family into town to run some errands. This includes buying food and cloth for dresses; paying off his debt to Mr Fitch and Mr Oleson and stopping at the post office. While in Mr Oleson's store, Nellie, his daughter comes in taunting Laura with her beautiful fur shouldercape. Laura turns her back on her, pretending not to care and Nellie leaves. Once the Ingalls arrive home, Pa realizes that his wife has not bought anything for herself and this upsets him. When Ma retorts back that he too has not bought a much needed overcoat for himself, the girls are made aware of the endless sacrifices made by their loving parents. After supper, Pa serenades the family with songs accompanied on his fiddle. Everyone joins in and all is well with the world.
  • Chapter 31: "Surprise"- It was not long before the Ingalls settled into their normal routines. This included Pa working outdoors all day, Laura and Mary studying and learning their lessons with Ma and the family going to church every Sunday. On one particular afternoon, Ma announced to the girls that they would not be having their usual lesson. Instead they would need to bath and get ready for a family trip into town that night. Their destination was to be a surprise. For Laura, such a surprise was almost too much to bear. After bathing and dressing in their finest clothing the Ingalls set out for town.
    As they approached, the only lights that could be seen in the distance were from the church. Inside the church was decorated with a beautiful Christmas tree that had a large selection of presents placed under and around it. After listening to a Christmas sermon and singing hymns, Laura realized that everything on and under the tree was a present for somebody in the church. The minister, Reverend Alden had told his church people back east about their church and each one had sent something they had. The entire Ingalls family received much needed coats and gloves while Laura received her very own fur cape and muff. Laura was delighted, for her cape and muff were much prettier than the one Nellie Oleson had flaunted at her just the other day!

Chapters' Themes: Hardship, Family, Sacrifice, Pioneer life, Prejudice , Compassion, Community, Christmas, Giving

Instructional Activities

  • Language Arts
  1. Have students list main characters in book. For each character on the list students to brainstorm whatever comes to mind when they think of that character. Students may draw pictures, write words, phrases, physical descriptions, etc
  2. Students to break into groups and agree on a character to make a body biography for. Using the book, students to look through and find as much evidence as possible to support their descriptions.
  3. Students in their small groups place a 7-foot long sheet of butcher paper on the floor and have one students lie down on it. Another student draws an outline of the student's body on the butcher paper.
  4. Students fill the body outline with various representations of a character's traits, relationships, motivations and experiences. These can be drawings, clip art, etc. It should also include quotations and original text about the character.
  5. Students should be made aware of the importance of where items are placed. Quotes, phrases, pictures near the heart could represent the character's relationships, feelings, emotions, etc.
  6. Colored pens/pencils to write quotes, lines from the text could represent elements of the character's personality.
  7. There should be contrasting views evident on the biography. i.e how the character views himself versus how others perceive the character.
  8. After each group has completed their body biography all work can be displayed around the classroom and discussed in a gallery walk where each group explains their work.
  1. In chapter 31, Reverend Alden's church members in eastern Minnesota donate precious gifts to the members of Laura's church. Many of the items are of high quality and much needed by the Ingalls' and the other church members.
  2. As a whole class list the exact items given , discussing their approximate value and description.
  3. Have the students imagine how Laura and her family must have felt receiving these gifts and compare to a real life situation. i.e families who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina, fire victims.
  4. Try to encourage students to express emotions, feelings, etc.
  5. In small groups students can role play the church scene in a simple skit that they devise as a group.
  6. Groups to perform their short skits in front of whole class.
  7. After this students will create a Flow Map to organize their ideas and thoughts.
  8. Review how to write a friendly letter. The letter should contain three paragraphs including an introduction about themselves, their appreciation for the gifts, and a conclusion.
  9. Have students share their letters with each other before making a display of their work for all to see and read.
      • Standards Addressed
        • (5) 2.1 A. Select before-reading strategies appropriate to text and purpose
        1. preview text (e.g., author/illustrator, key vocabulary, text features [NS 2.5.1]
        2. access prior knowledge [NS 2.5.1]
        3. build background knowledge [NS 2.5.1]
        4. set purpose for reading
        5. make predictions [NS 2.5.1]
        6. determine reading rate
        7. determine text type
        8. choose appropriate graphic organizer
        • (5) 2.2 A. Select during-reading strategies appropriate to text and purpose
        1. use-self-correcting strategies [PS/NS 2.5.2]
        2. make, confirm and revise predictions
        3. understand and use any key vocabulary
        4. identify main idea and supporting details
        5. make inference
        6. clarify understanding of text
        7. make connections to personal experiences and knowledge
        8. visualize/create mental images
        9. use appropriate graphic organizer
        • (5) 2.3 A. Select after-reading strategies appropriate to text and purpose
        1. recall details/facts [PS/NS 2.5.3]
        2. restate main ideas
        3. organize information
        4. record information
        5. synthesize text
        6. evaluate text
        7. evaluate the effectiveness of reading strategies
        8. connect, compare, and contrast story elements
      • (5) 3.1 A. Explain
        • setting [PS/NS 3.5.1]
        • sequence of events
        • conflict
        • climax
        • resolution
        • turning point
      • B. describe internal and external conflict
      • C. describe main plots and subplots
      • D. describe how one event may cause another event
      • E. make inferences and draw conclusions about setting and plot based on evidence
      • (5) 3.2 A. Describe physical and personality traits [PS/NS 3.5.2]
      • B. Describe the motivation for a character's actions
      • C. Make inferences and draw conclusions about character(s) based on evidence
        • (5) 3.3 A. Describe a theme based on evidence
        • B. Explain a lesson learned based on events and/or a character's actions
        • C. Compare stated or implied themes in a variety of works.
      • (5) 3.7 A. Explain the influence of
      1. historical events
      2. cultures
      3. time periods

      • Standards Addressed
        • (5) 3.9 A. Make connections to self, other text, and/or the world
        • B. Use information to answer and generate specific questions
        • C. Summarize information
        • D. Describe how author's purpose and writing style influence readers' response
        • E. Evaluate text
        • F. Recall details/ facts
        • G. Restate main ideas
        • H. Organize information
        • I. Synthesize text
        • J. Connect, compare, and contrast story elements

      • (5) 6.4 A. Write responses to literary text that demonstrate an understanding of
      1. character development
      2. motivation
      3. plot
      • B. Summarize literary information
  • Mathematics

  1. The Ingalls' family go into town to buy some much needed supplies once Pa Ingalls returns home from working during the harvest in the east.
  2. Have students devise a shopping list with the quantities and weights of the various items bought at the store.
  3. Students to use their prior knowledge of what life is like during the time to create sensible and realistic quantities for each item.
  4. Students will also break down with the typical prices for each of the goods.
  5. Lists of items to include flour, sugar, salt, navy beans, cornmeal, and tea
  6. Students to convert all weights from customary to metric.
  7. Complete a set of given word problems which provide real life problems involving money.
  8. Have students work in pairs to answer and devise word problems that they have created themselves.
  9. Students could also make up their own Pioneer Town General Store with posters advertising the different brands of products. (i.e Prairie Town Navy Beans - 2 scoops for the price of 1-Hurry while supplies last!)
  10. Students could re-create the town in the classroom with a number of stores in which small groups of students could shop.
  11. Such a recreation could include students dressing up in the appropriate attire and "going to town".

      • Standards Addressed
        • (5) 3.1 Estimate and convert units of measure for weight and volume/capacity withing the same measurement system(customary and metric) [NS 3.5.1]
        • (5) 3.7 Determine totals , differences, and change due for monetary amounts in practical situations
        • (5) D.5 Approach problems with flexibility in a variety of ways within and beyond the field of mathematics.
        • (5) D.6 Identify, explain and use mathematics in everyday life.

    • Going to Church
    1. Have students create a survey to poll the number of children in class and the grade level who attend church
    2. Students could make an appropriate graph showing students who attend church every Sunday, once or twice a month, 5-6 times a year, not at all. This can be decided upon by the students in their small groups.
    3. After the data has been collected for the students in the class, small groups can survey other classes on the grade level.
    4. Students to use butcher paper to show data in an appropriate graph.
    5. Every group to think of 5 questions that can be answered by the graph as well as thinking of 5 statements that are proved by the data in each graph.
    6. The students can log onto:

      • Standards Addressed

      • (5) 5. 10 Select an appropriate type of graph to accurately represent the data and justify the selection [NS 5.5.6]

  • Social Studies

    • Tracking the Ingalls

    1. The students will research the travels of the Ingalls family and plot their movements on a map that is student created.
    2. Students will use preview historical documents that show the areas that the Ingalls settled in.
    3. Students will compare this to a map showing their own family's movements. As many children in Nevada are from other states, countries informative discussions about movement and transiency of Nevadans.
    4. Students can provide a short history of their own family's settlements around the country in comparison to the Ingalls.
    5. This will lend itself to a discussion of the reasons people move homes.
    6. Students could record these reasons in a double bubble map comparing their family's movement and reasons with Laura's family.
    7. The knowledge and use of appropriate geographical vocabulary can be included in the instructional lesson.

      • Standards Addressed
        • (5)3.1 Use maps and map features, including directional orientation, map symbols, and grid system, to identify and locate major geographical features in Nevada and the United States [NS 1.5.1]
        • (5) 3.7 Recognize that states in the United States may be grouped into regions
        • (5) 3.13 Identify and describe the locations of selected historical events.
        • (5) 3.23 List examples of historical movements of people, goods and ideas.

    • Rules for Teachers
  1. Students will preview and discuss the information found in historical documents.
  2. As a class, look at the Rules for Teachers in 1915.
  3. Discuss each rule individually as a whole class, expressing opinions, thoughts and ideas.
  4. Ensure that any unfamiliar terms are explained i.e loiter, petticoats.
  5. Students in pairs to rephrase each of the rules providing a sensible argument to support each one.
  6. Once this has been completed and shared, students to devise their own set of 10 rules for teachers in 2008.
  7. Provide justification for each rule.
  8. Interview teachers, staff in school about what their views on the 1915 Rules for Teachers.
  9. Examine responses from boys vs girls and male teachers/staff vs female teachers/staff. Record any findings if patterns or discrepancies are found. Provide reasonable explanations for these.
  10. Research any other documents which record a set of rules for other professionals i.e doctors, nurses, lawyers, political officials. Compare and contrast information in an appropriate thinking map or graphic organizer.
  11. This activity will open up a tremendous amount of discussion and provide insight into the thinking of your students.
      • Standards Addressed
        • (5) 4.2 Record and interpret events on a graphic organizer, such as a calendar or a time line.
        • (5) 4.4 Organize historical information from a variety of sources.
        • (5) 4.28 Read, interpret and analyze historical passages.

  • Science
  • Animals at Plum Creek

    1. In chapter 31, Pa Ingalls sets traps along the bank of Plum Creek for muskrat, otter and mink
    2. Have the students research one of these animals as well as any other which could have been found along the Creek.
    3. Look on the online encyclopedia,
    4. Students can find images of the animals they choose using the internet and other books taken from the school or neighborhood library to make an informational leaflet about their chosen animal, insect, bird,fish, etc
    5. The leaflet should include 10 facts about the animal as well as pictures, physical descriptions, enemies, food chain and any other relevant and/or important information.
    6. These leaflets can be placed in the class library for students to 'check out' and read to increase their knowledge of these animals during their unit in Poineer Life.

      • Standards Addressed

        • (5) 4.5 Explain that living things get what they need to survive from their environments


      1. Students will research the effects of a particular type of weather.
      2. Throughout the book, the Ingalls face extreme weather conditions such as snowstorms, and drought.
      3. Students will use a map to chart where a particular type of weather occurs most often in the world and make generalized statements based on the evidence found. Record this information on a poster with the map labeled and marked to show areas of extreme weather clearly
      4. Students will record the consequences of this weather and its effects on the people, wildlife, homes,etc
      5. After all research has been completed, students will play the 'Dinner Party' game and introduce themselves around the room using descriptive language and factual information to other students without telling them what type of weather they are.
      6. After 'mingling' students will write down the names of three students they spoke to during the party and guess which extreme weather condition they were. i.e Peter- Drought, Susan-Earthquake

      • Standards Addressed
        • (5) 3.3 Investigate and describe various meteorological phenomena (flooding, snowstorms, thunderstorms, and drought)

Historical Overview of Chapter Themes

  • Hardships of Pioneer Life
The people who lived during pioneer days had to face a tremendous amount of challenges to live and survive. Such challenges as battling with native Americans over land rights and dealing with fatal diseases such as cholera and dysentry. Life expectancy for these brave souls was quite low, while infant mortality rates remained high. These settlers traveled west in the hope of new opportunities and a better life. Adverse weather conditions could wipe out an entire family during the journey. On many occasions lives were lost due to freezing to death. Prairie fires were also a common occurrence. For the most part the settlers could live from the fruits of the land; catching fish, eating wild berries and growing vegetables like turnips and potatoes. Tending to the farm was hard work and families worked from sunrise to sunset taking care of the animals, making repairs , chopping wood and working to earn a wage. Women worked extremely long hours as well; taking care of the house, raising and having children as well as working outdoors if and when needed. Women were a huge support for the men and were relied upon to carry out a large anount of the daily tasks as well. Homes on the prairie were made of sod and needed upkeep. Due to the nature of the material used to build these homes repairs were common as well as the required daily sweeping to keep dust and insects at bay. During the summer it was hot and during the winter extremely cold.
Despite all the challenges faced by the early settlers and pioneers many were happy and made the best out of their life. Working long hours with little leisure time was a small price to pay for the opportunities and freedom which came from traveling westward.

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.


kristenzim said...

The lesson extension ideas are very creative. I especially like the lesson about investigating teaching and other professions in the 1870's. I think that would be enjoyable and educational for children and adults. A lesson extension could include students donating items for a toy/food drive (depending on their economic situation). For the lesson about mapping the Ingalls' travels, students could also use Google Earth or a similar sattelite mapping site to view some of the towns and locations mentioned in the books as they look today.

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

You do a beautiful job describing your lessons with great detail. I would have no problem following your lessons exactly, but you include opportunities for me to change the lesson to better fit my classroom needs.

I really like the "Writing a Thank You Letter" and suggest you have the school counselor involved in the lesson in case students become very emotionally involved (as you predict they might). It might be good to also use this lesson as a springboard for a food, coat, or book drive depending on the socio-economic status of your student population. If your school is in greater need, you may consider making a connection with a teacher in a higher SES school suggesting they have a book drive to donate to your students. This would provide a great opportunity for a service learning project as well as many writing opportunities.

For the "Writing a Thank You Note" activity, be sure to have students brainstorm organizations other than religious institutions that engage in donating items to needy families (e,g., Boy Scouts, United Blood Services, businesses that donate time and money, organizations like the Lions Club or Masons).

How fun to have students create a general store! What a great way to teach basic economic principles! How about following the lesson with a visit to a local grocery store and having the store manager talk about expenses and profits. You could have students receive a bonus lesson by discussing losses from shoplifting.

I do not recommend the "Going to Church" activity. You have a wonderful idea of polling students (and I suggest you use Google Spreadsheets at to create your online forms and collect and analyze your data), but the topic of church-going is a sensitive subject that could lead to judgement. I have another idea, but I'm not sure if it's any better. How about having students ask their parents what they consider staples in their pantry (e.g., flour sugar, masa, eggs, milk, Mac 'N Cheese, Spaghettios, pretzels, cream, Hamburger Helper - okay... I'm starting to get a little personal here...). They could then plot these items. I don't think this would require as much judgement (though I learn a lot about my families eating habits when considering our high-carb diet).

To add a technology component, consider having students track the Ingall's family using Google Earth.

Your students will LOVE writing rules for teachers in 2008. Let them have lots of fun with this before getting to the serious interviewing. :-)