Banks of Plum Creek: 9—"Grasshopper Weather" and 10—"Cattle in the Hay" and 11—"Runaway"

Teacher's Guide Author: Mindie Pink, 4th grade teacher, Fong 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 9 - Laura and Mary go picking ripe plums from the trees along the creek. Later they will let the plums dry in the sun so the family will have dried plums throughout the winter. Laura picks fast but eats many of the plums. Mary gets cross with her mostly because she doesn't like picking plums and would rather be reading or sewing. As Laura watches Pa plow his field, she daydreams about a time when Pa has a good wheat crop and they will have a real house, horses, and candy. Soon there's frost on the ground and the frost plums are ready for picking. The weather is unusually nice with no storms, cold, or rain. It's warm and sunny. Pa says Mr. Nelson calls it "grasshopper weather" but he isn't sure what that means.

Chapter 10 - Ma, Pa, and Carrie are going into town and leaving Mary and Laura at home with Jack the dog since the trip to town is short and they'll be back at sundown. Mary and Laura play and eat lunch and then Laura wants to play on the big, gray rock but Mary doesn't want to so they argue a bit and Laura heads off for the rock and sees the cattle eating the stacks of hay that Pa had told the girls was feed for the oxen for the winter and had to last. Laura goes running toward the hay stacks with Mary following. They try everything to stop the cattle from eating and trampling the hay. They run after the cattle and shake sticks at them but the cattle just keep on eating. Finally, Laura stands right in front of a cow that's coming right at her, too scared to move or scream at first. The cow, with all the other cattle behind her, swerves around Laura, who shakes her stick at them. She and Mary and Jack chase the cattle to the higher prairie away from Pa's stacks of hay. They are hot, sweaty, and tired after that ordeal and are glad to get back to the dugout and rest.

Chapter 11 - Laura and Mary spend the rest of the day in their dugout home. Near sundown they begin to walk the path to where they can meet the wagon and after several trips back and forth they sit down to wait. Finally, they hear the wagon but it's coming too fast. One of the oxen is trying to run away. Pa is running alongside the oxen as fast as he can trying to get the runaway to stop but the runaway ox is steering too close to the steep edge of the creek bank and is close to causing Pa and the wagon holding Ma and Carrie to go over the edge. Pa hits the runaway very hard and Jack snaps at his nose and the oxen turn toward the stable and crash into it. No one is hurt but everyone is shaken. Laura and Mary help unload the wagon and get supper ready. While eating, they tell Ma and Pa about the cattle in the haystacks. Ma and Pa are proud of Laura and Mary for taking care of things while they were gone. Pa brings out the candy he'd brought back from town for the girls and they sit outside eating their candy and listening to the creek.

Chapters' Themes: bravery, dangers pioneers face, farming, responsibility, animal behavior, prairie living, chores on a farm, play time in the 1800's, costs and wages in the 1800's

Suggested Activities

  • Language Arts
    • Character Comparison
      • Laura and Mary are two very important main characters in the Little House books. They are sisters and share similarities and differences. Working with a partner, students will mine through the book to build a comparison of the likenesses and differences of Laura and Mary including physical descriptions as well as personality traits. Students can use a list format, a double bubble map, or a Venn diagram for the comparison. Student will then make inferences about the characters using the information they collect about the personalities of these girls. Some questions they will need to think about and find evidence for are: who is the braver of the two girls? Who is more responsible? What do their actions and activities say about each girl?
      • Standards Addressed
        • 3.4.2 Describe the physical and personality traits of characters
        • 3.4.2 Describe the motivations for characters' actions; make inferences and draw conclusions about characters based on evidence.
    • Journal writing
      • Laura and Mary often have play time during which they spend a lot of time outdoors exploring their surroundings. In their journals, students will write which activities they read about in On the Banks of Plum Creek they would enjoy doing and what would they do today if they could not use electronics (TV, video games, cell phones, computers, etc.).
      • Standards Addressed
        • 6.4.4 Write responses to literary text that demonstrate an understanding of setting, character development, and motivation
        • (4)5.2 Participate in daily writing activity
  • Mathematics
    • Graph the dangers endured by the Ingalls family while living in Minnesota
      • Students will read the book On the Banks of Plum Creek and make a graphical representation of the dangers faced by the Ingalls family over the course of their stay at Plum Creek. Students can use a pictograph, bar graph, pie chart, line plot or other graphical representation to show the dangers and difficulties encountered at Plum Creek and then students can use the data to predict whether the Ingalls family will stay on the prairie or go back where the were before or move on to somewhere new. Students can also use the data to decide what they would do if they were Ma or Pa and had to decide whether to stay or go.
      • Standards Addressed
        • 5.4.1 Organize and represent data using a variety of graphical representations
        • 5.4.3 Interpret data and make decisions using frequency tables and line plots
    • Make a budget for a family living in the 1800's
      • Teachers gather some information about wages and costs of the 1800's using sites such as this one: and print out the information or retype it and print it. Students work in groups to make a budget for the needs of the family for a month with a little left over for emergencies or to save for something such as Christmas presents. Students must stay under the wages earned with a percentage (5 or 10%) for savings. They must make decisions on what are necessities and if there are treats they want to include like the candy sticks bought for Laura and Mary when Pa and Ma go to town, they will need to estimate the cost and add it into their monthly total.
      • Standards Addressed
        • 3.4.4 Determine totals for monetary amounts in practical situations and use money notation to add and subtract given monetary amounts
        • A.3-5 Select, modify, develop, apply, and justify strategies to solve a variety of mathematical and practical problems and to investigate and understand mathematical concepts
  • Social Studies
    • Write a description and draw detailed picture Laura's new home on the prairie
      • In order to get a better picture of the land where Laura's family settled, students will work in pairs to draw a picture of the setting of On the Banks of Plum Creek including the dugout home of the Ingalls family, Plum Creek, the plum trees along the bank of the creek, the stables, the big gray rock where Laura meets the cattle every day and waits for Ma & Pa to come back from town. Students will pull out the details of the setting from the different parts of the book and put them all together into a written description and a color picture of the prairie where the Ingalls family make their home.
      • Standards Addressed
        • (4)3.36 Describe the physical setting of an historical event
        • (4)3.43 Incorporate a visual display into a report about a geographic topic
    • Research report on work and play time for pioneer children
      • Laura and Mary are pioneer children migrating west with their family. They settle in a prairie state and help their parents with the daily chores of running a farm. In On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura and Mary are left alone all day while their parents go into town with their little sister. Students will research pioneer children's work and play during the 1800's. Using books and internet sources, students will research the kinds of chores pioneer children did to help out their families and also what things they did in their free time. Then students will write a rough draft about the information collected. Students will organize, revise, and edit their drafts to produce a two or three page report about the lives of pioneer children.
      • Standards Addressed
        • Social Studies - (4)4.4 Describe experiences of pioneers moving west
        • ELA - (4)6.9 Write research papers by: identifying and collecting, paraphrasing and summarizing information, organizing collected information, documenting sources
  • Science
    • Animal Comparison
      • At the beginning of On the Banks of Plum Creek, Pa trades two horses and a mule-colt for oxen. Laura is sad and Pa tells her he'll buy more horses when he has successful crops. Students will compare the three kinds of animals - horses, mules, and oxen. Students will have to do some research through books and the internet to find out the characteristics of each kind of animal and which characteristics are best for the work on the land that Pa trades his horses for. Websites such as these could be helpful:
      • Standards Addressed
        • (4)4.1 Compare learned and inherited behaviors in animals
    • Drying plums
      • In chapter 9 Laura and Mary pick ripened plums from the plum trees. When they bring them home, Ma will dry them so they have dried plums to eat throughout the winter. Students will each get two plums - one to observe and eat fresh and one to dry. Each student will keep a science notebook making observations and drawing illustrations of the ripe and dried plum and the process of drying such as how the two kinds of plums taste, how long the drying takes, the observable changes the ripe plum goes through as it dries.
      • Standards Addressed
        • (4)1.2 Use science notebook entries to develop, communicate, and justify descriptions, explanations, and predictions.
        • (4)1.3 Create and use labeled illustrations, graphs, and charts to convey ideas, record observations, and make predictions.
        • (4)1.4 Conduct safe investigations

Historical Overview of Chapter Themes

Dangers of Prairie Life

Life on the prairie for pioneers was difficult. Though many were excited about the idea of setting off on an adventure where they were able to buy land for homesteading, dangers abounded on the prairie and often the dangers and difficulties made it hard for homesteaders to make a success of their piece of land.

One danger of life on the prairie was the weather. There were dangerous storms on the prairie. Tornadoes caused damage and destruction to crops, buildings, and homes. Blizzards were another kind of dangerous storm causing freezing cold weather that could kill animals and people by making it impossible to do daily chores such as keeping the animals fed and gathering wood to keep fires buring for warmth and to cook food. Blizzards could freeze water sources and lead to frostbite and death if caught away from adequate shelter. A third kind of storm, a dust storm could also lead to a poor crop yield. Dust storms carry away the topmost layer of soil which is rich in nutrients. Dust storms are also abrasive and cause damage to young plants. Dust storms can also be abrasive to people as well as make it difficult to breathe. Dust storms were more prone to develop during drought conditions.

Drought was a great danger to prairie farmers not only because of a lack of water for crops and animals, which is devastating in and of itself, but because drought conditions brought on other dangers and difficulties as well such as the development of dust storms.

Another difficulty of drought was the explosion of grasshoppers and other pests. Grasshoppers eat grasses and vegetation from trees and shrubs and are fairly harmless unless their population soars as sometimes happens during drought conditions. Swarms of grasshoppers can destroy crops.

Still another problem during drought is the danger of a prairie fire. While prairie fires were an integral part of the prairie ecosystem which prevented prairies from turning into forests through unchecked growth, prairie fires could also be very dangerous to pioneers and cause loss of crops, buildings, animals, and/or lives.

Indians were sometimes be a problem for pioneers on the prairie. Some Indian tribes were friendly and coexisted with the pioneers but some were hostile and would try to steal from pioneers

Dangerous animals could sometimes be a problem. Wild animals such as bobcats, coyotes, wolves, and bears lived on the prairie but were seldom a threat to humans. However, pioneers always had to be vigilant just in case. Also, domesticated animals could be a danger as well. In chapter 11, one of the oxen tries to run away while yoked to the wagon carrying Ma and Carrie and almost running them off the edge of the bank into the creek.

Disease was a serious danger on the prairie. There were few doctors and medicines available in those days and those that were around were not easily accessible when the nearest neighbor might be many miles away.

Finally, a difficulty for pioneer families though not usually a danger was the loneliness and boredom of pioneer prairie life. When the nearest neighbor might be miles away and days were filled with hard work, it was easy to feel isolated and alone. Many pioneers, especially women, found it difficult to be so out of touch with others and so far away from their extended families.

Due to the many hardships and dangers faced by pioneering families, many gave up their homesteads and adventures to go back home to the cities they left behind or to go onward to somewhere else where there was hope that the dangers would be minimal and the successes would allow for a relatively prosperous and happy life.

Additional Resources

  • Oxen Information by Barry and Gloria Nesbitt: This website gives information about oxen such as what they are and how to harness their power using yokes.
  • Walnut Grove, Minnesota by [Author]: Walnut Grove is the town about 1.5 miles from the dugout home of Laura Ingalls Wilder when she lived near Plum Creek. There is a Laura Ingalls Wilder museum there and people can see the dugout site though none of the buildings are intact .
  • About Dried Plums by Lorna Saboe-Wounded Head & Gabrielle Tiomanipi: This website tells about dried plums and how to dry them using a food dehydrator or sun-drying.
  • Horehound Candy by Sunny Savage: Pa brings home horehound candy from town for Mary and Laura. This site has information about horehound candy and a recipe for making some.
  • Pioneer Life by Annette Lamb, Larry Johnson, updated by Nancy Smith. This is a great website with links to other sites and webquests all about pioneers and their lives. A great resource for both teachers and students to do research and learn about pioneer life.


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.


Ivy Nelson said...

I thought your animal comparison idea would be a lot of fun. It is essential that students begin learning how to research at this age and I believe it would be a very valuable lesson.

Running Girl said...

Thank you sooo much for letting me know about my errors. I went back and tried to correct them. I ran 13 miles on Sunday for marathon training, and my brain has been gone:).

Anyway, I could really tie in your budgeting lesson with my good and bad investments lessons. This assignment helped in opening me to more integration, which is a struggle for me.

Great lessons!

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

Could you provide some examples of the types of data students would plot for “Graph the dangers endured by the Ingalls family while living in Minnesota.” I’m not able to envision how you would organize this content into a graph. Are you suggesting that, for example, every time they face a storm that counts as “1” and students count the frequencies of events?

Thank you for the link to prices of the 1800s! I’ve been hoping to find a site like that! I like, too, that you are introducing basic financial planning concepts such as interest and savings. You may wish to invite a certified financial planner to the classroom to explain financial planning strategies today. [I can supply a speaker if you would like.]

I love your inclusion of technology in the “Research report on work and play time for pioneer children” activity. Instead of having each child create a report, how about having the students work together to create a book about pioneer days? That way, each could focus research efforts on a specific topic and write about just his/her topic. When all topics are placed together, you’ll have a non-fiction classroom book about life in the 1800s. To add a technology component to the “Write a description and draw detailed picture Laura's new home on the prairie” activity, consider having students construct their pictures using KidPix. They could then type their descriptions and paste their pictures into the word processed document.

Another idea for a speaker is to have someone from the Southern Nevada Extension Office come to talk about food preservation. This would go along well with “Drying plums.”