Social History for Every Classroom


Social History for Every Classroom

menuAmerican Social History Project  ·    Center for Media and Learning

Reading Historical Fiction: The Journal of Sean Sullivan: A Transcontinental Railroad Worker

In this activity, students are guided through a close reading of The Journal of Sean Sullivan: A Transcontinental Railroad Worker, a fictional book for young readers based on historical sources. Students will read a short excerpt from the beginning of the book and determine the meaning of key words. Working in groups, students will then read excerpts related to one of the following themes: working conditions of railroad builders; tension between immigrant groups; corruption of the railroad companies; conflict with Great Plains Indian tribes; and boomtowns. They will also complete an individual writing task on their theme. Finally, students will consider the positive and negative effects of the railroad on the country as a whole, as well as on specific groups of Americans.


  • Students will understand the experiences of Union Pacific railroad workers who built the transcontinental railroad in the Great Plains (Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah).

  • Students will understand the immediate effects of railroad construction on workers, Indians, settlers, and railroad owners.

  • Students will understand how and why the transcontinental railroad was a turning point in U.S. history by examining its effects.

This activity supports the following Common Core Literacy Standards in History/Social Studies:

  • RHSS.6-8.1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.  

  • RHSS.6-8.2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions. 

  • RHSS.6-8.4. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary specific to domains related to history/social studies.

  • RHSS.6-8.6. Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author's point of view or purpose.


Step 1: Explain that the narrator and main character of this book is a fictional teenager named Sean Sullivan. Read aloud the entry “August 7, End of Track” (The Journal of Sean Sullivan, pp. 5-6) until the paragraph on page 6 ending in “in case of an Indian attack.” 

Ask students to summarize Sean’s general mood and feelings (excitement, nervousness, uncertainty). Have students reread the entry on their own and write down all the words and phrases related to nature and transportation and circle terms that they do not know. 

Responses might include: 

• Transportation: track, train, railroad towns, covered wagons, Oregon Trail, “prairie schooners,” sailing, mile, car, “excursionists,” “cowcatchers, pilots, station

• Nature: prairie, grass, wildflower, breeze, buffalo herd, animals

Hand out Vocabulary for the Journal of Sean Sullivan worksheet. Students should look review the definition of any of the unfamiliar vocabulary terms they circled earlier. 

• (Optional) If you would like to focus on metaphors, ask students, whether or not a “Cowcatcher” is a person or a thing. Then, ask them to search for an image of a “Cowcatcher” online. Alternatively, show them a picture of a “Cowcatcher” (the front grill of a train). 

Wrap up by discussing: “Based on this journal entry, what is the setting of the story?” Responses might include: 

• End of the Track, Nebraska, Kearney, Great Plains

• the prairie, buffalo herds • end of the Oregon Trail and beginning of the railroad • men shooting buffalo, “Excursionists” [Common Core Reading Standards for Grade 5: Standard 4, 6] 

Step 2: Explain that the novel contains a number of themes, or big ideas, about the building of the railroad that they will explore in “Theme Teams.” Divide the class into small groups of 2-4, and assign each group a theme (you will probably need to assign the same theme to more than one team). 

Themes: (1) work and working conditions of railroad builders (2) tension among and between immigrant groups (3) corruption of railroad companies (4) conflict with Great Plains Indians (5) boomtowns 

Step 3: Handout the five Themes in The Journal of Sean Sullivan worksheets to the appropriate groups. 

Teams should: 

• Read the pages listed on their worksheet and then complete the reading questions and tasks in Part 1 as a team. [Common Core Reading Standards for Grade 5: Standard 1, 2, 4].

• Teams should add any unfamiliar vocabulary words and their definitions to the vocabulary list which you handed out in Step 1. 

• Each theme worksheet includes a writing task in Part 2 that highlights a different historical perspective on the railroad. Students should complete this task on their own. [Common Core Reading Standards for Grade 5: Standard 6] 

Step 4: After “Theme Teams” complete their worksheet and individual writing tasks, ask for volunteers to read their writing tasks to the class. You should try to cover at least three different themes/historical perspectives. 


• What are some of the hardships that people faced during the building of the transcontinental railroad? 

• How did various groups respond to these difficulties? 

Step 5: For homework, assign the “Historical Note” chapter at the end of the book (pp. 163-70) and handout the “Technological Turning Points and their Impact” worksheet. Students should complete the worksheet using the information provided in the assigned reading.

Activity Extension

The “Themes in The Journal of Sean Sullivan” worksheet is a comprehensive list of 8 themes and related passages. You can use this information to broaden the scope of the “Theme Teams” analysis, or to focus reading assignments.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2011.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Reading Historical Fiction: The Journal of Sean Sullivan: A Transcontinental Railroad Worker,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 28, 2023,

Print and Share