Oregon Trail Propaganda
I created this simple project for my Fourth graders, who were studying the Oregon Trail. They seemed fascinated by the propaganda--posters and rumors--put about by the U.S. government to entice people to travel West. The fantastic claims--pigs running round ready-cooked, with knives and forks stuck in their backs, headless, already roasted chickens that just land on your table--really captured their fancy. I decided to combine this interest with some serious considerations about media literacy in today's world. The following is an account of the first time I taught the activity.
What is propaganda?
What are some examples of Oregon Trail propaganda?
Why do you think the government put out so much propaganda?
Do you think propaganda is a lie?
This question sparked some very interesting debate. We talked about the concept of exaggeration, and decided that there was a line, past which an exaggerated statement became so obviously an exaggeration that it was no longer really a lie. (No one was really expected to believe the streets were paved with gold--it was a metaphor.) But we also decided that the propagandists often had ulterior motives and were not necessarily honest or honorable.
Most propaganda took the form of posters, newspaper stories, and word of mouth. Why didn't they use television?
You're probably going "fourth grade?" What a dumb question! But I have found, again and again, that kids even older than this often have trouble picturing a world before the technologies they take for granted. When we read novels or plays, especially detective ones, written before 1990 or so, my students frequently can't understand why the characters don't just use their cell phones instead of frantically running around looking for a pay phone. When I ask the above question while teaching this lesson, we do, of course, hit on the answer fairly quickly, but not everyone gets it instantly.
If television had been invented, do you think the government would have used it to help get folks to move to Oregon? Why?
We had a lively and educational discussion about the merits and pitfalls of television advertising, about people who believe everything they see on television, and about why that's not a very good idea. We agreed that the propagandists would almost certainly have used television had it been available to them, and some of the students pointed out examples of television propaganda today.
I divided the class into small groups (or three or four). Each group, working independently, came up with a short "television commercial" about the desirability of traveling to Oregon. They were allowed to use objects in the room for props and set, etc. After a suitable time for rehearsal, each group in turn performed their "commercial" for the class, and we discussed them. What worked? What didn't? Would this commercial make you want to go to Oregon?
This activity was a lot of fun, and my students really seemed to take it seriously, and to learn from it.