Skip to main content

General Links

BYU ARTS Partnership creates lessons which use the arts to teach students about the Transcontinental Railroad

On May 10, 2019 Utahans will celebrate the 150-year anniversary of the Golden Spike Ceremony. 

The first transcontinental railroad connected the West Coast, rich in gold and other precious metals, to the industrial Northeast and spurred western expansion by cutting the travel time between the West and East Coasts from six months to six days. 

The Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads met at Utah’s Promontory Summit in 1869, uniting the two main tracks into a single railroad line—the Transcontinental Railroad.To mark the meeting, Leland Stanford, cofounder of the Central Pacific Railroad, added a 17.6-karat gold spike as the last piece of the railroad. 

To celebrate the 150-year anniversary of the golden spike, BYU ARTS Partnership created six lessons for third to sixth graders which use art, music, dance, and theater to teach students about the Transcontinental Railroad.

The Railroad Rhythms

Golden Spike CITES
Student count syllables while participating in Railroad Rhythms.
Photo Courtesy of Pieter Lingen

Students explore sound layering by performing railroad sounds to a steady beat and creating a railroad soundscape. Teachers read Iron Horsesby Verla Kay while students use simple classroom instruments, found sounds, body percussion, tapping, or vocalizations to follow the book’s rhythm. Dividing the class into groups, students practice layering rhythms as the class become an orchestral chorus of whistles, wheels, steam, and motors. Using musical terms such as accelerando,piano, and forte, teachers guide their students in their transcontinental railroad orchestra. Students also find the rhythm in language by using words related to the railroad to count syllables. 

New Newsies: Uncovering the Stories Buried beneath the Golden Spike

Golden Spike CITES
Students performing as newsies.
Photo Courtesy of Pieter Lingen

This lesson helps develop research skills as students inspect primary sources and perform a theatrical piece on newsies. The newsies strike of 1899 is a perfect example of how the railroad changed American society; New York City newsies united to strike after Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst raised newspaper prices. In this activity, students read primary and secondary sources to uncover the full story behind the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. After researching, students perform in a play which dramatizes the sometimes-unknown experiences of many groups affected by the Transcontinental Railroad. Diving into roles as newsies allows students to perform their new-found knowledge on the building of the railroad.

Real and Ideal: A Closer Look at Westward Expansion 

Students learn to identify the differences between romanticized ideals and reality by comparing romantic paintings to photographs. Nineteenth century paintings of the American West romanticize the landscape and the ideals tied to westward expansion. Photographs from the same time period provide a realistic portrayal of the landscape to contrast these romanticized ideals. This allows students to analyze how pictures tell stories and create certain perceptions. Students are invited to reflect on how they romanticize their own lives. Students also practice identifying misleading images by taking photographs of the same object from different angles. When finished, students present their pictures to the class and explain how a different perspective can change the viewer’s perception. 

Iron Horses

Golden Spike CITES
Teacher reading the book Iron Horses to students.
Photo Courtesy of James Huston

Students read the book Iron Horsesby Verla Kay to explore the eight types of locomotor body movements: walking, running, hopping, skipping, jumping, galloping, leaping, and sliding. The class is divided into different groups to perform the locomotor movements. By practicing these movements, students bring the written word to life and make connections between people walking, horses galloping, and the Transcontinental Railroad chugging. 



The Great American Bison

Golden Spike CITES
Students create an art piece out of recyclable materials.
Photo Courtesy of M. Daugherty

This lesson utilizes acting and art to show students how history is a complex narrative with multiple perspectives. The lesson showcases the advantages and disadvantages of building a Transcontinental Railroad and how the railroad negatively impacted Native Americans and the great American bison. The railroad cut through Native American hunting grounds and diminished the bison population, their main source of food. Native Americans remained resourceful and used every part of the bison they killed. During the lesson, students follow their example by being resourceful. Students create an art piece with recyclable materials such as plastic bottles, old papers, and cereal boxes. In another activity, students learn there are many perspectives within one story and how to implement thought tracking through role playing exercises.

Railroad Meter

This lesson connects the Transcontinental Railroad to music. When constructing the railroad, builders used musical beats to move the railroad tracks together. Listening to the song “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” students tap the beat to gain a sense for meter and identify two-meter, three-meter, four-meter, and mixed-meter rhythms within different songs. Students can play instruments alongside the musical recordings to understand meter. For the third activity, the teacher plays several songs sung by groups who worked on the railroad or who were impacted by the railroad. Students divide into groups to research and perform each song. The songs come from an array of peoples and cultures including African American, Irish, Chinese, Latter-day Saint, and Shoshone. At the end of the lesson, students prepare and present a brief presentation on the history of their song to the class. 

BYU ARTS Partnership lessons unite historical events with the arts to give students a multilayered understanding of the past. These lessons encourage students to analyze history and uncover facts excluded in traditional historical texts. 

Students learn to question history and become historical detectives. These lessons also explore history as a complex narrative; they cover how valuable resources benefitted American expansion while also teaching the high cost of this expansion for Native Americans as well as the detrimental impact on certain groups of immigrants. As students delve into history, they learn how the past shapes the present and their own identity as Americans.  

Look for these lesson titles at
Writer: Emma Smith
Contact: Cindy Glad (801) 422-1922