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Watershed Education: Integrating Science and the Humanities

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Originally published on the Green Schools National Network

"To live by a large river is to be kept in the heart of things." - John Haines

"The fundamental work of the 21st century has got to be river and watershed restoration because all of life depends on rivers," said former poet laureate and writer Robert Hass in an interview with my organization a few years ago. As an educator, mother, and lover of nature, I would add that learning about the health of our waterways—watersheds, lakes, rivers, and oceans—must be a component of K-12 curricula today.

In 1996, I took a graduate poetry course with Hass at George Mason University in Virginia when he was serving as poet laureate. In his article, "Rivers and Stories," featured on my organization's website, the Global Oneness Project, Hass points to the historical significance of rivers as well as to their cultural and environmental importance. He urges us to reclaim our rivers at this time in history.

If we do not reclaim our connection to our rivers, what might be at stake? In the last decades, we have witnessed how negative impacts to rivers changes life. The great dams of the American West have altered not just the flow of the Colorado River or Missouri River, but the cycles of human, plant, and animal life along those rivers. The destruction of communities along the Yangtze in China from the Three Gorges Dam and the way of life for river people around the globe is a cultural loss of unknown proportions.

Water education helps us comprehend such losses and value the role of water in our collective future. The study of watersheds, rivers, lakes, and bays, and their ecological and cultural relevance—offers students opportunities to be aware of the importance of water, not just of ecological health, but of the history of civilization and our cultural development. Students who know where their water comes from and how watersheds are impacted by human and natural activities can become more engaged community members, better environmental stewards, and investigative witnesses within their local and global environments.

Why do we need healthy watersheds and what are their places in communities? I enjoyed learning from three innovative teachers this summer, all of whom are exploring this question with their students. They are tying together the personal, cultural, and ecological threads that create effective interdisciplinary education. These teachers shared with me some components to their curriculum, offering strategies to incorporate watersheds into K-12 classrooms, from science to the humanities.

I met Jeremy Wilder on Twitter, as we both engaged in a conversation regarding global education and its impact on environmental issues. Wilder teaches AP Environmental Science at Grand Haven High School in Michigan. Nestled along 14 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, Wilder's school district is bisected by the Grand River and its tributaries, formed by its watershed features. Wilder has a background in wildlife ecology and biology, and his curriculum is steeped in water and wetlands activities and issues.

For example, one day each school year, he and his students board the Grand Valley State University research vessel, the DJ Angus. They travel, Wilder described, from an inland eutrophic-dominated lake to the oligotrophic waters of Lake Michigan. Along the way, students conduct water quality experiments with surface, subsurface, and bottom samples of water and sediments. Students use lab equipment aboard the boat to add to long-term data concerning local water quality. Wilder said, "Students are guided by science instructors that detail the connection between local policy, state policy, and national and international policies that impact our local watershed and the greater watershed of the entire Great Lakes ecosystem."

Water education supports the joy of investigation, scientific discovery, and real-world problem-solving.

Wilder's place-based curriculum introduces students to local geography and the qualities and values of environmental citizenship, such as the curiosity, compassion, and commitment that result from hands-on engagement. Combining service learning and water education is another component to his teaching. He works with the local Ottawa County Parks Department, so students integrate humanities and science on a very personal level.

Students are engaged through a variety of access points. Past guests and experts that have been invited to his classroom include an environmental journalist, a state agriculture extension agent, a state fisheries extension agent, an animal nutritionist, an environmental resource manager/geologist, a marine biologist, an energy public relations specialist, an alternative energy installer, a county naturalist, a land conservancy manager, and a hydrogeology professor. An interdisciplinary approach ensures that students are met where they are and emphasizes how water itself is a factor in any number of fields and professions.

Like Wilder, Brandon Spars, a humanities teacher at Sonoma Academy High School in Northern California, inspires his students to consider the relationship between nature and humanity. The following question is integrated into his freshman curriculum: "How does geography shape culture?"

To explore this question last year, Spars introduced the environmental issues that threaten the communities of the Omo River Valley and the Lake Turkana watershed in southwestern Ethiopia. He shared "Kara Women Speak," a photo essay by Jane Baldwin, with his students that highlights the Kara tribe living in the region. The tribe is at risk of displacement due to changes in land and water management, namely due to the Gibe III hydroelectric dam. The negative impacts will affect the entire Omo River watershed, impacting more than 500,000 people in both Ethiopia and Kenya. The striking photography allowed his students to connect with real people across the globe.

Spars believes in bringing stories into the classroom, like elementary teacher Harriet Maher from Lafayette, Louisiana. Maher, like myself, loves the work of Robert Hass. She said that Hass uses his writing to shape our insights, "to spur us to probe our understandings of our place in the natural world." Hass co-founded, along with writer Pamela Michael, River of Words (ROW), a program that encourages students to explore the natural world through local watersheds. Founded in 1995, ROW is a program within the Center of Environmental Literacy and the Kalmanovitz School of Education at St. Mary's College in California, and is currently directed by Chris Sindt, St. Mary's College Dean of Education.

A strong supporter of promoting literacy, ROW hosts an annual K-12 international poetry and art contest. The ROW pedagogy, Michael explained, is to teach art and science in tandem. The goal, she said is to reach kids' hearts, which in turn effectively reaches the hearts and minds of the community.

Maher, an educator since 1975, uses the ROW contest to help her students explore their connection to nature. Her school resides on the banks of the Vermilion River, a perfect location for helping students connect to water and its relevance on a personal and local level.

Maher (2012 ROW Teacher of the Year) and Connie McDonald (2005 ROW Teacher of the Year), wrote a teaching guide, "Young Poets and Artists on the Nature of Things," available for free as an online download. The guide includes lessons that incorporate writing exercises referencing the works of some of their favorite professional poets—Louisiana poet laureate Darrell Bourque, Li-Young Lee, Mary Oliver, and James Wright. ROW student poets are also included within the teaching guide, and tips and ideas are shared to help teachers jump-start student writing using observation, experience, music, and art.

Connecting students to the natural world inspires meaning and strengthens learning. Maher told me a story of one student who had a very specific memory of walking in a field in West Texas with her grandmother. She drew the scene from memory and then wrote about the experience. The student realized that she did not have the vocabulary to describe the plant that had taken over the field, as she had not seen the plant in her home state of Louisiana. She spent time examining field guides and found it—big bluestem. The name found its way into her poem along with additional details that added authenticity.

Maher explained, "Once the student could name it, she owned it. We saw that kind of investigatory curiosity time and again when students struggled to express important truths about their experiences with the stars, animals and, of course, bodies of water. The interesting thing, though, was that idea of writing with more specificity became much easier for them to apply in other genres after they saw how it worked in poetry."

Ian Allam, a 5th grader in Maher's class wrote the following poem this past school year:

Silence
By Ian Allam, 5th grade

Leaf by leaf I press the earth's canvas
Leaving a trail my muted presence
Watching my breath float into the distance
Merging with the morning fog
Desperate to calm the shivering of my teeth,
I generate heat with the friction of my hands
My eyes follow the sun to greet the start of a new day
And rest on a grazing deer
His eyes set directly to reflect the rays of the sun
The essence of God

Learning succeeds when students are engaged, when they feel that something genuine and meaningful is at stake, and water education provides myriad access points. For Maher, ecological stewardship is one of those entry points: "We have stretched and stressed this beautiful planet beyond what it can handle," said Maher, "we have to help."

Water education supports the joy of investigation, scientific discovery, and real-world problem-solving.

It is a way to explore the mysteries of nature, as Ian's poem illustrates above. It is important to share the work of innovative teachers as they offer case studies that can help others who seek to integrate water education into their own classrooms, regardless of what they teach.

Continue reading the full article on Green Schools National Network

Painting by Jerrika Shi, age 15, titled Fish. Student work developed for, "River of Words: Youth Art and Poetry Inspired by the Natural World.".

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