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Boarding at an Indian School


Various Indian boarding schools were established in the seventeenth through twentieth centuries to assimilate Native American children into "white" ways. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School in central Pennsylvania, which opened to students in 1879, was one of the most influential. Students, many of them forcibly taken from their homes on reservations far away, attended classes to learn to read and write, acquire job skills, and convert to Christianity. The hope was that they would take this knowledge and the Christian religion back home and teach others. However, as with many other Indian schools, including the Indian School at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, the results were not quite as expected. Many students resented the military-style structure and discipline of the schools and rejected the forced acculturation, and many, as soon as they were able, left the school and returned to their tribal customs and identities. The school closed in 1918.

Students will compare/contrast their own lives with children in the boarding schools and explore three perspectives to help them "walk in the shoes" of the students, parents, and teachers at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. This lesson could be used as a supplement to regular curriculum regarding Native American cultures or as a stand-alone lesson. It works best with students in grades 4–8.


In this lesson, students:

  • Compare and contrast the Native American boarding school life to students' educational experiences today.
  • Compose succinct texts in the style of social media that show the perspectives of Native American students, parents, and boarding school teachers at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.


    Download Lesson Materials (PDF)

  • Primary Source of the Month image for display
  • Venn Diagram
  • Carlisle Indian Industrial School Photographs
  • Letter From Student to his Father
  • Paper for Tweets (provided by teacher)


  1. Display the Primary Source of the Month image. Ask students to imagine they have just arrived at this boarding school. Tell students, "You have arrived at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where you will live for three years. You won't be able to go home and see your family. You won't be allowed to speak your language or practice your religion. You will eat only foods that are unknown to you. You won't be able to celebrate the holidays and major events that are important to you. You must wear your uniform at all times—no exceptions!" Have students turn to a neighbor and discuss how they would feel in that situation. Discuss as a class.
  2. Show the photographs from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Using information from the Feature Article, Primary Source of the Month, and the Introduction to this lesson, give students a brief history of why Native Americans were sent to the boarding schools, what they had to learn, and what conditions were like at the schools. Have students fill out the Venn diagram, comparing their school experiences to the Native American children's daily life.
  3. Share the letter from the Carlisle School student to his father, and lead a class discussion about its content and how it makes students feel.
  4. As an evaluation, have students write three series of five 140-word Tweets (short "status update" messages in the style of the social media site Twitter), five Tweets each from the point of view of a Carlisle student, the parent of a Carlisle student, and a teacher at the boarding school. This will help students synthesize what they've learned about the boarding school experience succinctly from multiple perspectives. Allow Internet abbreviations in these short missives.

Lesson Extensions

  • Make a fake social network profile page for an imaginary student at a Native American boarding school.
  • Create a Prezi ( or PowerPoint presentation orienting new students to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
  • Have students research another Indian school, such as the Indian School at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and compare it to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

This lesson was written by Lynne Zalesak, Houston, TX, and Kelly Pearce, Albuquerque, NM.