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The Donner Party Tragedy-- A Nonfiction Research Synthesis Project

Bespoke ELA
Grade Levels
9th - 12th, Higher Education
Formats Included
  • Zip
70 pages
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Bespoke ELA

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This nonfiction project is constructed much like the synthesis essay from the AP Language and Composition exam. Students are to get into groups and review each artifact, one-by-one, and compile facts about the Donner Party tragedy on their evidence logs. There are 11 artifacts in total.

But before students dig into the artifacts, they will first listen to a podcast on the Donner-Reed Party to learn the basics of the tragedy. Students can either listen to this podcast episode inside or outside of class. They can then share facts and information from their podcast listening guides as a whole class to build the basic framework of the 5 W’s: Who? What? When? Where? Why? Answering the why? question is the end goal and endpoint of this project. Students will make observations and collect evidence from the artifacts in order to answer the focused research question:

Who or what is to blame for the Donner Party tragedy?

There isn’t one “correct” answer to this question, but students will base their answers to the focused research question upon evidence from the artifacts. Students will then create an argumentative presentation in which they present their answers to the focused research question using evidence from the artifacts plus their own individual research findings.

Student presentations will vary as student perspectives on the Donner tragedy unfold. After students complete their presentations, they can reflect back upon the research process as well as consider how their positions on the Donner tragedy were either challenged, changed, or confirmed by listening to the presentations by their peers.

I have also included a pacing guide to help you organize the various aspects of this nonfiction unit. If you are pressed for time, you can reduce the number of artifacts to the most essential ones in order to shorten the length of the unit.

This is another great nonfiction unit that is sure to capture student interest... I mean, what teenager wouldn't be intrigued by a true story of cannibalism?!!!!!

Targeted Learning Skills:

  • To gather evidence from various nonfiction sources to support a claim
  • To synthesize research to support a claim
  • To explore the cause and effect of a historical event
  • To present an argument in a well-organized and well-rehearsed format
  • To cooperate with a group to create an effective presentation

Common Core Skills: R1-2, 7-11/ W1, 7-11/ SL1-6/ L1-3


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Total Pages
70 pages
Answer Key
Teaching Duration
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to see state-specific standards (only available in the US).
Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.
Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.
Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.
Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.


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