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Elementary Lesson Plan: What Do Trains Do? Exploring Local History Through Maps

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Black-and-white engraved image of a steam train locomotive, smoke billowing, with passengers waiting to board
Locomotive, c. 1874. Available through the Library of Congress,

“Every student deserves to study history and social science every year, from pre-kindergarten through grade 12.”

 With this guiding principle, the 2018 History and Social Science Framework of Massachusetts makes it clear that learning the skills to ask questions and study the past is now part of the expected curriculum starting in elementary school. “Like learning to read, write, or perform well in any other subject, learning history and social science takes time. An effective history and social science education is given adequate time in the school day to build knowledge and skills of increasing complexity.” MA HSS Framework, p. 13. A wonderful lesson plan, written for Kindergarten students but adaptable for any of the early elementary grades, is “What do Trains Do? Exploring Local History Through Maps.” Using familiar picture books about trains as a starting point, young students encounter the concept of primary sources in an age-appropriate way. And they begin to make foundational connections to geography, economics, civics, and history using primary sources. In this lesson, Kindergarten students will make a first exploration of the connections among resources in their community through early railroad maps–readily available online for every part of the country from the Library of Congress. This lesson addresses universal Kindergarten literacy standards, as well as several Massachusetts Social Studies standards and skills. Students learn to analyze the purpose, audience, and and information that can be read from a primary source, and gain habits of inquiry. The culminating assessment has students create and modify maps of their town, including elements: symbols, cardinal directions, labels, a key, etc.  

Alison Noyes

Assistant Director, Emerging America
Alison Noyes is the Assistant Director of the Emerging America program at the Collaborative for Educational Services. She has worked in the field of education for over 20 years, entering as a teacher of English Language learners and high school history, and working for many years with international students and college study abroad as a program director and assistant dean before returning to focus on engaging K-12 students.