November 02, 2021
River of Learning
The Middle School years, when students are brimming with energy and curiosity, offer the perfect opportunity for exploratory or “expeditionary” learning. It’s the ideal time for them to take a deep dive into learning that’s experiential, immersive, and interdisciplinary – learning that allows them to explore new ideas, connect concepts from different areas of study, and to examine the region and community where they live in an entirely new way. By breaking down the silos between classes and working across the curriculum, the KO Middle School is expanding learning opportunities for students to become active participants in their own learning and in their own world.
Seventh graders and their teachers will embark on an expedition to create just such an experience. For this entire semester, they’ll be intensely engaged in an interdisciplinary study of the lifeblood of human civilization and culture in the Connecticut River Valley: water.
Last year several members of KO’s science department visited the Watershed School in Boulder, Colo. to observe their expeditionary learning program through a hands-on facilitation process to implement some of these concepts into the KO curriculum. The program, according to the Watershed, is “targeted to teachers and academic leaders and explores how school can prepare young people to work on real-world problems – messy, ambiguous, and transdisciplinary challenges in their community and across the world.”
When Middle School science teacher and outdoor enthusiast Josh Garrison first learned of the Watershed program, he brought the concept to the administration’s attention. Garrison, who gets his kicks ice climbing in New Hampshire for hours at a clip in sub-freezing temperatures, infuses his teaching with his deep appreciation for the outdoors.
“From the moment you set foot on the KO campus, you get the feeling from the teachers and administrators that they want you to grow,” he said. “I was encouraged to check out Watershed and bring the knowledge back in whatever shape or form. For me, my curiosity for learning stems from my love of the outdoors, and I’m able to impart that to the students. So much of what I do deals with the environment and making observations about mountains and rivers. Learning in an interdisciplinary way really hooks students. And you want to get the students excited about things that matter to them. By developing an authentic curriculum, you are able to create avenues to ask questions that students are interested in.”
The Connecticut River Watershed will become the students’ classroom. They will follow the river wherever it takes them to ask the essential question: What is the power of water?
Like any authentic quest, this expedition will lead them into the unknown and generate a range of emotions, including real and perceived risk, discomfort, surprise and exhilaration. Our students will make this voyage of discovery as crew, not passengers. They’ll be relying not on teachers, but on their own collective knowledge and problem-solving ability. They will experience both successes and failures.
Director of the Middle School Ann Sciglimpaglia said, ‘I want people to understand that it’s an expedition. The interdisciplinary teaching team is doing some planning but, like any expedition, we don’t know what exactly is going to happen. As the students visit places, discover, collect data, and talk to people, we as teachers and they as students don’t know what we’re going to uncover. And so, while there is a plan for what we are going to do, we don’t know what those results will be, which is exciting.”
Sciglimpaglia said the goal is not to collect data points and knowledge but to activate dispositions that empower students’ innate curiosity. This open-ended, cross-disciplinary work is intellectually demanding and lively. Some of the study is already embedded into the seventh-grade curriculum, such as early American history and the reading of certain literary texts. However, the guiding motif of water will permeate the study for a more authentic learning experience. Students will not be passive receivers of information but instead will be seekers of knowledge who are engaged in the process of inquiry.
Garrison explained, “As teachers, we are really excited because we know that at the end of this study, the kids are going to have a better understanding of the world around them. This is an invaluable way to learn.”
Authors Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine describe this type of dynamic teaching and learning in their book In Search of Deeper Learning. “Teachers are encouraged to draw on their areas of expertise,” they write, “but the school’s emphasis on creating original work means that one of their primary tasks is to help students explore the unknown, leaving behind the security of being the one who defines all the questions and knows all the answers…Rather than seeing knowledge as something preexisting that can be transmitted as a whole, it holds the knowledge to be provisional and imagines students to be active participants in its developments…Teachers must be able to think not only in a given discipline but also about a given discipline – to think about how knowledge is created and to invite students into the process of doing that work.”
Through the lenses of science, history, and literature, students will examine the biological, chemical, geological, and hydraulic features of water, its role in sustaining and shaping the economic, political, and societal structures of indigenous peoples and European and African settlers in the region, and the cultural and metaphoric meanings and interpretations of rivers as expressed in myths, legends, writing, and art.
Most importantly, this process will build and strengthen their skills as thinkers, readers, writers, researchers, analysts, and synthesizers.
As scientists, students will investigate questions such as: What are the sources of water in the Connecticut Valley? How has water shaped and carved the landscape? How have humans sought to use, control, and distribute water, and what effects have their efforts produced? What does a healthy watershed look like?
They’ll take a canoe trip from Hartford to Long Island Sound, conduct fieldwork to collect data on the quality of water and the flora and fauna in the watershed, and assemble field guides describing and cataloging the river’s environment.
Plunging into the Past, Present, and Future
As historians, students will ask: How did water shape the farming, hunting, fishing, and trading patterns of Native American and European settlers in the region? What role did water play in the slave trade, the Pequot War and King Phillip’s War, and the American Revolution? How did waterpower lead to the development of manufacturing in the area? They’ll take field trips to archeological sites, dams, former factories and canals, and historical museums and homes.
They’ll also assess the state of the river today and discover how local, state, and federal laws and public opinion affect how we currently use the river. They’ll analyze the impact of current policies and practices on the future of the Connecticut River Valley.
Lapping Up Literature
As readers and writers, students will examine the inspiration that rivers have furnished for myth and literature. What is the role of rivers in legends and origins stories? How have novelists, essayists, poets, musicians, and artists such as Walt Whitman, Gary Paulsen, Mary Oliver, Langston Hughes, and Billy Collins drawn on rivers as metaphors and sources of meaning? Students will keep personal journals and write their own narratives and creative responses to their experiences. They’ll create a literary magazine and podcasts featuring their writing.
During the course of their journey, students will interview key stakeholders in the river’s fate – farmers, hydrologists, naturalists, environmentalists, engineers, public officials, including KO alum Chris Hayes of Riverfront Recapture, State Archeologist Nick Bellantoni, former State Historian Walt Woodward, WNPR environmental reporter Patrick Skahill, master fly fisherman Iain Sorrell, Connecticut Poet Laureate Margaret Gibson and KO alum Benjamin Bachman, author of the book Upstream: A Voyage on the Connecticut River, as well as curators, scientists and conservationists at the Connecticut River Museum, the Connecticut River Conservancy, the Connecticut Audubon Society, and Trout Unlimited.
As the expedition concludes, each student will present their answer to the question “What story is the river telling?” in one of three ways: by writing a literary journal, producing a podcast, or devising a computer application. Collectively, they’ll compile an ethnographic study based on their interviews with the river’s stakeholders.
The expedition will culminate with a showcase event where students will share their experiences, discoveries, and reflections with the wider Kingswood Oxford community through exhibits, maps, artwork, and verbal presentations.
Venturing Into Terra Incognita
The process of conceiving, designing, and implementing this new experience is a step into the unknown for both students and teachers. How can we bring three academic disciplines to bear on one subject? What resources can we identify, devise and access? Where will we go physically, intellectually, and emotionally?
But it’s this very sense of challenge and risk-taking that makes this quest exciting, stimulating, and, yes, a little bit scary for both the teachers and the students – and that’s exactly what learning should be.
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