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  • Subject: Literature
  • |
  • Grade(s): 6-8
  • |
  • Duration: One class period

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will understand the following:
1. Old West cowboys produced a category of literature.
2. People still write cowboy poetry.
3. Cowboy poetry or songs have certain characteristics.


For this lesson, you will need:
Rediscovering America: The Real American Cowboy video
Text of the song “Whoopee Ti-Yi-Yo” (see Procedures)
Access to the Internet sites mentioned in Procedures


1. Explain that much oral literature tends to be poetry and lyrics because those forms are easier to memorize than prose. The original American cowboys, like other inventors of oral literature, couldn’t carry heavy books with them; furthermore, some early cowboys, like other creators of oral literature, might have been illiterate—and forced to memorize songs and poems rather than write them down. This project gives students an opportunity to analyze a classic of cowboy literature—anthologized since its creation in the 1880s, if not before. In addition, students will have a chance to compare and contrast 19th-century cowboy literature with cowboy material being produced today.
2. Share the following quotation, from clantongang, with your students: Cowboy poetry is as old as cowboys themselves! For lack of better things to do after a hard day on the range, cowboys of the Old West would sit around the camp fire at night and entertain one another with poems, tall tales known as “windies,” or just plain good ol’ stories. Elicit from students any situations in which they themselves have sat around, usually in the outdoors, with friends or relatives and entertained one another with poems, songs, and stories. (Sharing of oral literature is often a part of camping out and long car trips. Perhaps some of your students have had opportunities to stay with or travel with working cowboys; if so, can they verify the role of oral literature on the range or the dude ranches of today?)
3. Ask students to name or perform cowboy literature that they have previously been exposed to. Then share the words to the following song with them. (Cowpuncher is just another name for “cowboy”; dogie means “a motherless calf on the range” and is pronounced with the long o sound; cholla, pronounced “choya,” is Spanish for “cactus.”) Whoopee Ti-Yi-Yo
As I was a-walkin’ one mornin’ for pleasure,
I spied a cowpuncher a-lopin’ along.
His hat was throwed back and his spurs was a-jinglin’
And as he approached he was singin’ this song:
Whoopee ti-yi-yo, git along little dogies,
For you know that Wyoming’ll be your new home.
Whoopee ti-yi-yo, git along little dogies,
For you know that Wyoming’ll be your new home.
It’s early in spring that we round up the dogies.
We mark them and brand them and bob off their tails.
We round up the horses, load up the chuckwagon,
And then throw the dogies up on the long trail.
Your mother was raised away down in Texas,
Where the jimson weed and sandburs grow.
Now we’ll fill you up on prickly pear and cholla,
Till you are all ready for the trail to Idaho.
Oh, you’ll be soup for Uncle Sam’s Injuns,
“It’s beef, heap beef!” I hear them cry.
Git along, git along, git along little dogies;
You’ll be beef steers by and by.
4. Encourage students to point out the elements of western dialect in “Whoopee Ti-Yi-Yo”:
  • Using a before present participles: a-walkin’
  • Dropping the g from present participles and gerunds: mornin’
  • Nonstandard verb form of throwed for thrown
  • Nonstandard subject-verb agreement: spurs was a-jinglin’
  • Git instead of get
5. Ask students what they might deduce about cowboys from this one song. Students may suggest that the singing cowboy sounds happy-go-lucky (a reality or a Hollywood concoction?); that if the cowboy has to sing, perhaps the work is boring; that the cowboy seems disrespectful toward Indians by calling them “Uncle Sam’s Injuns,” perhaps a reference to actions that implied the government owned the Native Americans.
6. Invite students to examine Web sites that publish contemporary cowboy poetry. In addition to the site mentioned previously, direct students to the following URLs: On the last of these sites, Ben McKenzie’s Toppenish Poetry Society, the contemporary poetry there is described as follows: “Some of it is great, some of it is good, and some of it just is.”
7. Give students time to discuss in small groups characteristics of cowboys that they uncover from cowboy poetry or songs—old or new. If necessary, have them comment on what the poems or songs suggest about the following:
  • Home
  • Independence
  • Education
  • Talent; skills
  • Attitude toward others
8. Ask the students to evaluate the quality of the poetry on the Web sites. Is it great? Is it good? Is it mediocre? How do students reach their evaluation?

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Adaptations for Older Students:
Focus this project more on old American cowboy literature than on the contemporary by asking students to research additional classics that started as oral works and only later were written down.

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Discussion Questions

1. The video explores how popular notions of the cowboy were created by wild west shows and how these shows came to define the West. Discuss why this form of entertainment was so popular, and speculate about why people may readily accept this type of mythology. Then, consider the idea expressed in the video that city people need the sort of experiences the myth of the cowboy supplies. What are those experiences, and why might they be missing from our lives? Do you identify with those needs? How real is the cowboy myth? Can you find examples from television or the movies that show a similar type of myth-making today?
2. Who were the people involved in the production of Buffalo Bill Cody's “Wild West Show” - both behind the scenes and in front of the audience? Why does the mythology of the West show the "noble" cowboy only as a white male?
3. What are the positive aspects of the skills and functions of cowboy life? Why do families, such as J.D. Gatsen's, pass down these skills and traditions? Considering all the jobs of a cowboy, list the negative, dangerous and unappealing aspects of the life and work. Does this life seem attractive to you? Why or why not?
4. It is mentioned that cowboys needed to have a certain etiquette if they were going to spend months at a time together. Why was this necessary? How does this compare, both in form and purpose, to the etiquette you practice at school, home, and elsewhere?

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Observe students in small groups. Make notes about individual students’ ability to treat one another respectfully and to participate but not dominate.

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Ready to Hit the Trail
Ask students to prepare a list of gear and equipment that they would take as cowboys of today going off on a trail drive in the West. They should outfit themselves as completely as possible with clothing, tools, and electronics.

Rodeo Cruelty?
Ask students to investigate charges that animal rights groups have made about cruelty to animals in rodeos. They should check out what both sides say: what animal rights groups say and what western cattle or rodeo associations say. You may set up a class debate on the issue.

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Suggested Readings

“New Horizons for the American West”
Margaret Walsh, History Today, London, March 1994

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Lest We Forget
This page is dedicated to "researching, publishing, and disseminating historical and current documents that focus on the history and culture of African-Americans and other groups, their relationships, interactions, and contributions to the development and growth of this country." It includes links to information about African-Americans on the frontier, as cowboys, and as buffalo soldiers. Text, bibliographical information, and pictures are available, as well as schedules of special events and reenactments.

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker   amalgam
Definition: A mixture or combination of different things.
Context: The wild west show was an amalgam of rodeo, round-up, patriot drama, and stage melodrama.

speaker   etiquette
Definition: The conduct and procedures to follow in conducting one's social interactions; a mark of good breeding.
Context: If you go out on the trail, seven or eight people for seven months, there has to be some etiquette.

speaker   mythic
Definition: Relating to a popular belief or legend that has grown up around a person, object or idea and that exists only in the imagination.
Context: We call him forth, that mythic cowboy.

speaker   rodeo
Definition: A competitive public event in which riders test their skills in activities related to livestock, such as bronco riding, bull riding, calf roping, and steer wrestling.
Context: Modern rodeo descends from the wild west shows of the past.

speaker   ruffian
Definition: A bully or brutal person.
Context: Before Buffalo Bill, dime novels portrayed cowboys as ruffians.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning in Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: U.S. history
Understands how the industrial revolution, the rapid expansion of slavery, and the westward movement changed American lives and led to regional tensions.
Understands characteristics of life on the western frontier in the 19th century.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: U.S. history
Understands how the industrial revolution, the rapid expansion of slavery, and the westward movement changed American lives and led to regional tensions.
Understands significant religious, social, and cultural changes in the American West.

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Summer Productions, Inc.

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