An Oregon Canyon: What’s in a Name?

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Standards for this Guide

Read An Oregon Canyon in the Magazine


“Maps have consequences,” asserts renowned geographer Harm de Blij. Maps are much more than spatial representations; they also can display “legacies of racism, sexism, colonialism, imperialism, and other cultural and political offenses.” 

As systems of oppression continue to be challenged in the 21st century, more communities are turning their attention to place names and their role in the perpetuation of injustice. In this process, we must wrestle with the questions: How can place names both honor history and adapt to shifting cultural values? Who has the power to name or rename places, and why?

In these lessons, students will view and study the film “An Oregon Canyon” and use it as an entry point for social critique and the exploration of past and present realities of race, land, and place.

Curriculum designer Stacy Carleton led a session on this package at the 2021 Oregon Council of Teachers of English conference. Watch it here. Slides and handouts are available here.


Standards met through this curriculum

Learning Outcomes/Essential Questions

Students will:

  1. Use reading strategies to enhance comprehension of multimedia texts and engage critical thinking.
  2. Analyze informational multimedia text and structure using evidence.
  3. Explore issues of race, land, and place while demonstrating their ELA and history/social studies skills through viewer response and discussion.

Essential Questions:

  1. Why is it important to know the history of our state, and how does this history shape the ways we live in the present?
  2. Who has the power to name or rename places and why?
  3. How do names have consequences?
  4. When should original place names remain, and when should they be changed?
  5. How can place names both honor history and adapt to shifting cultural values?

Depth of Knowledge (DOK)

Levels 1, 2, 3, 4

For more information on DOK, see DOK Slide Wheel


Classroom computer and projector to screen short film “An Oregon Canyon”


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  1. Review all resources and decide which components you will include and how many lessons to allot for this curriculum. (Note: Almost every component can be used as a stand-alone piece or combined with other components.)
  2. Preview and take notes on “An Oregon Canyon” film and text.
  3. For context and background, read interviews with the filmmakers on the making of the project: Words Have Life and Facing the N-Word
  4. Review and prepare warm-up/viewer response handout.
  5. Plan the format and resources you will use for a final discussion. Consider incorporating Words Have Life and Facing the N-Word as optional extension texts for students.

Reading Strategies

  1. Students will use the scaffolded warm-up/viewer response handout to organize and reflect on information in the film.
  2. Reading supplement: You may choose to read the film’s accompanying text with students to aid in overall comprehension.
  3. TAG Option: You may choose to give advanced readers the SOAPS Text Analysis handout for tracking the filmmakers’ argument and purpose during their viewing.

Instructional Plan

Before Viewing

  1. Warm-up:
    a.    Tell students that they will complete a warm-up activity to help them better understand the film they will view.
    b.    Present Part I of the warm-up/viewer response handout, and ask students to complete a quick write on the questions. Consider sharing an example using the students’ school or another common location to help generate ideas. Give them time to think about and record their responses, then conduct a think-pair-share to review responses as a class before moving on. 
  2. Language preparation:
    Explain to students they will be viewing a film that examines the use of “nigger” and “negro” in place names, and they will hear these terms used and discussed throughout. Students may have a variety of reactions to these terms; ask them to pay attention to their own thoughts and feelings during the film and to share them afterward. Invite students to compare and contrast their perspectives to the perspectives represented in the film. As a way of setting context, consider reading Facing the N-Word with students or paraphrasing for students the filmmaker’s perspective on these words.

During/After Viewing

  1. Viewer response:
    a.    Before screening the film “An Oregon Canyon,” introduce the Part II film notes chart and tell students they will use it to track and record information about John Brown and Black history in Oregon. Use the scaffolded version or give students some examples to demonstrate your expectations.
    b.    Screen the film at least twice, asking students to view it first without taking notes so they can focus on the overall structure and visuals. On subsequent viewings, ask students to listen for specific information about John Brown and Black history in Oregon. Give students time to record facts for each section of the notes chart, then conduct a think-pair-share as an informal assessment of their comprehension.

After Viewing

  1. Viewer response:
    a.    Introduce the Part III quotations section of the handout, and read over the quotations with students. You may choose to screen the film again so students can listen to the comments as they work on their reflections.
    b.    Introduce the Part IV reflections of the handout, and give students time to think about and record their responses.
  2. Discussion:
    After students complete their responses to the quotations and closing reflection questions, conduct a think-pair-share or whole group/Socratic Seminar-style discussion on these ideas. For a more extensive and structured discussion, you may choose to incorporate the discussion handout of essential questions and/or discussion rubric.


ELL and SPED Supports: Scaffolded assignment options

TAG Extensions: SOAPS Text Analysis handout to use during and after viewing, optional extensions

Assessment/Student Performance Tasks

  1. Warm-up/Viewer response notes chart (Formative)
  2. Quotation and closing reflections/discussion (Summative)

Additional Resources/Related Reading

Racist Place Names to Be Struck from the Record in Queensland

On Austin’s Official List of Racist Symbols It Might Remove: The City’s Name

Oregon Experience: Oregon’s Black Pioneers (Video)

Oregon Experience: Oregon’s Black Pioneers (Supplement)

Optional Extensions

Words Have Life

Facing the N-Word