California Gold Rush for kids in special education classrooms


Most high school teachers cover the California Gold Rush. But, if you are in special education making the California Gold Rush accessible and meaningful to kids can be quite a challenge. Good thing I like a challenge. So, if the Gold Rush is in your curriculum then read on for some great ideas, including a free panning for gold simulation you can do with your students in the classroom WITHOUT the mess

The history of the California Gold Rush

It is VERY unlikely you will find a textbook out there that covers the California Gold Rush in a way that is accessible to students who have significant learning challenges. But, when it comes to coming up with ideas for the California Gold Rush for kids in our classrooms there are some great options.

Write your own book

I know this can seem daunting and time-consuming, but writing your own book about a topic can be an extremely valuable addition to your classroom.

California Gold Rush book

I wrote a blog post about how to write your own book that will break down that exact process for you as well as highlight all the advantages. But, in a nutshell, this is a fairly easy process. One of my favorite websites to use is It has great summary information on many science and social studies topics, and it is often where I start my research.

Go to YouTube

If you just don’t have the time to write a book, another great way to find information on the California Gold Rush for kids is YouTube. There are so many great informational videos there. Videos, especially if they have music, are a great way to connect with our students.

I have an entire blog post outlining all the benefits of using music as a teaching strategy. You can download a list of almost 200 videos (with links) that correspond with a particular topic. This is a GREAT list to have on hand for quick reference.

Finding and creating appropriate activities

Now that you have tackled the informational piece of the California Gold Rush, it is now time to figure out what activities your students would most benefit from.


I would definitely consider creating some activities around the new vocabulary your students will be learning when it comes to the Gold Rush. I like to try and find 12-16 vocabulary words to target. This is a large enough number to do some engaging activities within a small group without being overwhelming.

California Gold Rush vocabulary cards

There are so many ways you can use these cards. I have a blog post on some awesome activities you can do in a small group with vocabulary cards and boards.

Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers are so important in a special education setting. Creating a picture or visual representation of a new topic can be very helpful in getting students to make connections to past material. This will help with generalization. When coming up with activities about the California Gold Rush for kids, consider using circle maps, sorting activities, and a map of California.

California Gold Rush sorting and map activity

Hands-on activities for California Gold Rush for kids

Who doesn’t like hands-on activities? These are a great way for students to make lasting connections, but they can also be a little hard to manage in some special education classrooms. I tried lots of different ways to give students an opportunity to pan for gold. Some years, it was great weather, and we could do it outside in a baby pool. This was the most fun, but also messy.

So, I came up with a way to give students a similar experience if we were stuck inside. You can download this complete activity for free, including the “What I learned” worksheet by clicking the button below.

California Gold Rush panning for gold activity
Panning for gold simulation

Review and Assessment

Finally, we want to have a clear understanding of how much of this new material our students have been able to absorb and comprehend. In order for that to truly meaningful, you should ALWAYS start your unit with a pre-assessment. I use the actual assessment I will give at the end. That way, I can clearly see how much growth has occurred.

I like to use fill in the blank worksheets as a review and a quick test to see if there is an area that needs more teaching before the formal assessment. If the subject had lots of mini-topics, I may make several of these. They are usually short (only 5-10 questions) and cover a broad overview as well as any particular area I think students may have trouble with.

California Gold Rush close worksheet

Finally, the assessment is typically 10 questions long and is a multiple-choice format. Because the needs and learning levels were so broad in my class, I have 3 different formats I would use for presentation.

California Gold Rush assessment

To check out my complete unit on the California Gold Rush, click the images below. The first one contains ONLY printable activities. The second image is from my unit that has both print AND digital activities.


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