BRINGING HISTORY TO LIFE – 5th Grade Colonies Plan Their Settlement In The New World

Fifth grade Teacher, Dave Byma, is excited about social studies. How does he share that enthusiasm with his students? He combines project based learning with creativity to inspire students to think more deeply and understand what may have occurred during a period of time in civilization. Recently, Mr. Byma introduced a Colonies project to the 5th grade. “I always explain this to people as a paper version of Oregon Trail, the video game, that is mashed with a choose your own adventure book,” he said. The class will form colonies and plan their move from England to the New World.


Around Christmas time ever year, Mr. Byma assigns students into small project teams of about five to six students per group, which we call colony groups.  Project teams are encouraged to discuss ideas and to cooperate and compromise. Groups of this size sometimes have many ideas and they need to decide which ideas they would like to do or to how to combine them into an idea the group is happy with to make the final cut. Project teams meet weekly and the overall scope of project span the final two trimesters of the school year.


5th Grade Colony Project teamThe first thing the groups do is select items that they want to take with them to the New World from England. They have four lists they need to work with: animals, seeds, foods, and miscellaneous items. Each list has a weight limit so they need to work together to decide on what they think is the most important for survival in the New World. Everything has a purpose and can be used creatively in different ways depending on how the groups would like to use them. If a group goes over the weight limit, Mr. Byma takes off items from their list at random until they are within the weight limit. Math integration.

Once their lists are made, They begin their voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. During this time, the students roll a 4-sided dice that determines what happens to them on their way to the New World. Situations can range from people falling overboard, people getting sick, traders or pirates on the ocean, getting lost, storms, or nothing at all for that portion of the voyage. Colony groups usually have a few minutes to talk with each other and decide how they are going to proceed in each situation. Their teamwork and creativity helps them survive.
When the groups have agreed upon what they want to do, they then roll a 20-sided dice to see “how successful” they are at what they wanted to do. For example, a group may want to put the sails up to stop the ship from traveling so fast. Mr. Byma asks them how many people are doing this action on their boat. If a group gets a high number, like a 16, they put their sails up in a timely manner and nothing bad happens while they do it. However, if they roll low, like a 5, it may take them longer to put them up and something else may happen while they do so. Such as someone gets injured doing their task, someone falls off the mast and gets injured, or the sails aren’t able to be put up at this time. Students then need to work together with the new situation. A lot can go wrong. Problem solving skills and teamwork.

5th grade colony project

The voyages are mapped out one the whiteboard in the breakout space across from the fifth grade classrooms.
Once they make it across the Atlantic, students roll for where along the East Coast of “America” they will land in the New World. They can land in the New England colonies (good at hunting but bad at farming), the Middle colonies (okay at both hunting and farming), or the Southern colonies (great at farming, bad at hunting). Each colony group receives  a trifold science board and begins to put their their colony settlement together using paper cutouts of buildings and animals they have chosen.

Students then have colonies meet once a week to solve problems, interact with the world around them, and try to survive in the New World. Scenarios are now more complex and longer than when they were on the boats. Some scenarios are:

– You see a native of the New World standing on the edge of your colony, watching you. He has a bow and arrow at his side. You then see another native step out, and then another. You’ve heard of relationships being built with the natives that have benefited others that have come to the New World. You’ve also heard of natives that attacked colonies. What are you and your colony going to do?
– You see dark clouds in the sky. You run to the ocean and see that there are massive black sheets of clouds stretching across the sky. The winds are the strongest that you’ve ever felt. What are you and your colonists going to do?

The scenarios give some information about what could happen, but not enough that the colonies are certain about what is happening. The colony groups now work together to decide what they think the best course of action is. Their actions they do now, affect their colony and their future in the New World.

The 5th Grade Colony Groups can also build new types of buildings, go hunting, fishing, farming, make new items, build walls, etc. These actions enhance and further the growth of the colonies but can also hinder them depending on what happens as they do their actions. They can be successful or accidents can arise where groups now need to deal with injured colonists, animals, or damaged buildings.

5th Grade students love doing the colonies project as they are working creatively and together to think through the actual survival challenges and limited resources the actual colonists had.

Mr. Byma shares, “The outcomes of the scenarios depend on what the groups decide to do and every year, groups surprise and amaze me with their creative thinking and teamwork to solve problems!”

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