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Orphan Train: A Social Studies Project that "Clicked" with Students!


Curriculum CenterIn search of ways to use technology to add vitality to their social studies activities, two 4th grade teachers decided to ride the rails of the "Orphan Train!" Discover how the project enhanced their social studies unit as students explored online and library resources, used educational software to create original illustrations, and videoconferenced with students and experts from near and far. Included: Links to lessons and resources you can use to create your own Orphan Train project!

When Linda Vaianella and teaching partner Laurie Tilmont, both fourth grade teachers at Boyle Road Elementary School in Port Jefferson Station, New York, developed the Orphan Train project in May 2002, little did they know they were about to embark on a multimedia adventure!

"We took a seed of an idea and it grew into a rain forest!" said Vaianella about "Orphan Train," a social studies project they designed to incorporate technology resources into the curriculum. "The magnitude of the experience was thrilling and scary at the same time!"

"Laurie and I were taking an in-service class on the use of graphic organizer programs," recalled Vaianella. "We wanted to incorporate the use of technology into our curriculum, specifically our social studies curriculum."

District technology expert Susan Silverman suggested that the "Orphan Train" might be an interesting focus for the new unit. The Orphan Train, a movement that relocated orphaned and abandoned children from large cities in the east to new homes in the west via railroad, took place in the United States between 1854 and 1929. "Inspiration struck," Vaianella said, "and the Orphan Train project was born!"


"Once we started to gather information on the Orphan Train, we knew it would work well with the fourth grade curriculum on immigration," said Tilmont, "and we thought it would be a great way to make social studies come to life for our students."

Tilmont used her Web surfing expertise to find online resources for the project, while Vaianella headed for the library. Silverman secured permission for the educators to use copyrighted Internet materials.

"The purpose of the project was for students to learn about a part of history they would not find in their textbook," explained Tilmont. "We wanted to make social studies more interesting and give students a richer understanding of what was happening during the time period we were studying. This project went beyond the textbook; we were able to bring in real life experiences and to interact with other classes."

Bill Oser displays a doll from the Orphan Train period.
Photo courtesy Susan Silverman, Comsewogue (New York) School District


To introduce students to the project, Vaianella and Tilmont shared with them a picture book called Train to Somewhere by Eve Bunting. The students were enthralled. After that, each class read different books about the Orphan Train and students used original computer-generated artwork to create slide shows about the stories.

"My class worked on a project based on Orphan Train Rider, One Boy's True Story by Andrea Warren," explained Vaianella. "For this project, students used KidPix Deluxe. We did a lot of brainstorming, list creating, and collaboration in my class. It took several weeks to go from story reading to picture book creating!"

"In my class, I read aloud the book A Midnight Train Home by Erika Tamar," Tilmont added. "The children took notes while I read, and decided with their partners how they wanted the chapters to be illustrated."

During library time, students used Quia to create word puzzles that made use of all of the information they had gathered from their online and offline research. They also responded to document-based questions through a Web site created by Silverman. That activity provided valuable practice for the fifth grade New York State Social Studies Test.


When Renee Krantzer, of the University of Missouri College of Education, heard of the Orphan Train project, she invited the classes to participate in a videoconference with Janice Uptegrove's fourth grade students in Smithville, Missouri, who were also studying the topic, and with Shirley Andrews, the daughter of Orphan Train rider Irma Craig. Vaianella then contacted Bill Oser, a local Orphan Train rider, who agreed to visit Boyle Road School and discuss his experiences as part of the videoconference.

Bill Oser shares his story of riding the Orphan Train in person with students in New York and via videoconference with students in Missouri.
Photo courtesy Susan Silverman, Comsewogue (New York) School District

The videoconference was the highlight of the project -- and a learning experience none will forget. "Our students were nervous and excited," said Vaianella. "They loved meeting Bill Oser and thought that seeing themselves and the kids in Missouri was 'cool.' In a much less formal follow-up videoconference, the kids from Missouri asked questions of our students. We were surprised at how shy our children became when they were the ones talking on the microphone/video equipment."

"Having the technology for the videoconference really made this project come to life," Tilmont noted. "The children were able to interact with real people and gain first hand historical knowledge. The information they gathered -- the whole experience -- could not be gained from a textbook."

"Since this was my first year teaching, I was both thrilled and extremely nervous that this project would culminate in the form of a videoconference," Vaianella admitted. "Several administrators were coming to watch. Thanks to all of our technology experts, however, the 'techno-wizardry' (as I call it) came off without a hitch. One of the administrators who had interviewed me just two weeks before school started came up to me afterwards and said, 'Linda, when I asked you in August how you would integrate technology into your classroom, I never expected this!' My honest reply was a sheepish, 'Neither did I!'"


Cara Bafile
Copyright © 2008 Education World

Originally published 12/16/2002
Last updated 08/21/2008