Canoes and other forms of human powered watercraft have been utilized by human beings all around the world since time immemorial. For this reason, the study of canoes can serve as a gateway to analyze, compare and learn from the world’s cultures and the unique histories therein.
However, our education systems struggle to connect with students’ lived experiences in ways that honor their home culture and engage in ways that are greater than the sum of their parts. Decontextualized educational experiences have shown to be problematic within the formal education system. Moreover, in our current climate of high stakes testing and curriculum reforms that fail to account for the diversity within contexts of education, students are left listless towards schooling that ineffectively attaches to anything meaningful in their lives. Each community and regional context affords seemingly endless opportunities for connecting curriculum to on the ground issues that are meaningful and relevant to students’ lives.
In this article, we are going to tell the story of how a David Thompson-style canoe served as the curricular centerpiece for a 4th grade learning expedition that explored the confluence of cultures throughout Idaho’s history.
alouse Prairie Charter School (PPCS) is a public, K-8 school located in the community of Moscow, Idaho. Moscow has approximately 25,000 residents and is the home of the University of Idaho. Within Moscow there are multiple K-8 schools including two public charter schools. PPCS being one, has approximately 120 students in grades K-8. PPCS espouses the Expeditionary Learning (EL) model, which will be discussed below. PPCS students experience two learning expeditions each year in grades K-5 and three per year in grades 6-8. Some examples of expedition topics are: historic buildings in the community, how plants grow and their many uses, regional water conservation, geology of the region, human rights with immigration, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the sixth mass extinction, and the giant Palouse earthworm, to name just a few.
The EL approach has its roots in Outward Bound and began in 1992 (Cousins, 2000). EL can be traced back to Kurt Hahn and some of his progressive boarding school curriculum that led to the forming of Outward Bound as early as 1933. The EL model is based on ten design principles that guide the development and implementation of learning expeditions. The ten principles emphasize self-knowledge, caring and collaborating with others, active engagement in the natural world, and active learning based on the whole person (Expeditionary Learning, 2011). Teachers within EL schools work to develop learning expeditions that integrate educational standards across disciplines and leverage resources within the local and regional communities to enhance the student experience by showing that there is a rhyme and reason to the educational activities that students are engaged in.
The 4th grade class at PPCS embarked on the Confluence of Cultures learning expedition in the spring of 2017. In the state of Idaho, 4th grade social studies standards focus on westward exploration and expansion and Idaho tribes. In an effort to bring the historical content alive, a serendipitous connection was made within the local community of Moscow between the 4th grade teacher and graduate students who had extensive experience in boat building and river navigation. The idea of building a canoe with the 4th grade students at PPCS quickly took on a life of its own. A David Thompson style cedar plank canoe was deemed appropriate for this learning expedition as it integrates the cultural influences of European and Indigenous peoples throughout the history of Western North America. In 1811, David Thompson, an English-born explorer and geographer, led the first expedition to navigate the Columbia River from its headwaters to the Pacific Ocean. Thompson also created a series of maps that provided the most complete record of western North America into the nineteenth century. Through his explorations, Thompson interacted closely with many Native American peoples and built seven cedar plank canoes that incorporated both European and Indigenous techniques. The David Thompson style canoe was not only appropriate for this project given the historical geographies in which the canoe was built and used, but also a feasible option for available financial resources and the time required by the canoe-building guides to complete the project.
The community of Moscow, Idaho is located on historic Nez Perce tribal lands and is situated between two reservations, the Coeur d’Alene and the Nez Perce. Additionally, Moscow is within close proximity to the Clearwater and Snake rivers, two major waterways that have historical significance for navigation, fishing, and inhabitation. Moscow is located in the Inland Northwest, and the many rivers of the region connect people, culture and historical events as they flow together and make their way to the Pacific Ocean. People and cultures coming together to influence each other, just as our rivers do, has played a significant role in the history of Idaho and the Inland Northwest region. Furthermore, there is a revival of canoe culture in Idaho and the Inland Northwest, resulting in canoes from different cultures coming together. It is with this in mind that the Confluence of Cultures learning expedition sought to build on local resources to create meaningful learning for the 4th grade students.
The building of the David Thompson style cedar plank canoe served as the thread that wove the entire learning expedition together. Rigorous history, social studies, and literacy work in the classroom was balanced with hands-on woodworking throughout the semester. Individually, each student hand-carved their own paddle and collaboratively as a team/crew, the students built a 21 foot cedar canoe. Here we explain the main elements of the classroom curriculum, as well as corresponding canoe specific activities. The curriculum for the learning expedition spread across the spring semester and included a short kick-off unit followed by three discrete month-long case studies.
Kick-off unit. In the kick-off unit, 4th grade students began learning about the historic and current mixing of cultures in Idaho, and beyond, and how this process has shaped who we are. Students started this journey by reading about interactions between Columbus and the Arawak people and critically analyzing who really “discovered” America. Then student groups were assigned one of five federally recognized tribes in Idaho and created posters to present general information about their tribe, including the types of canoes they made and used, as well as maps highlighting both historical territories and current reservation boundaries.
During the kick-off unit, along with being introduced to historical canoe styles, students were presented with a variety of activities to learn about woodworking. For example, students learned about the various tools that would be used to build the canoe and paddles. Safe use of tools and proper technique were emphasized up front. Students were also able to practice using the tools with expert supervision to ensure proper technique.
Case study #1. In the first case study, students studied the history of westward exploration and expansion in the United States, and began to understand both positive and negative impacts of the confluence of cultures in our history. Students learned about the canoe supported expeditions of Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery, David Thompson, and subsequent westward expansion (i.e. colonization), with particular focus on the impacts on Indigenous peoples. They read and examined stories about the Nez Perce War, the Navajo Long Walk, and the Cherokee Trail of Tears.
During the first case study, students began carving their individual paddles and also helped with canoe building tasks where applicable. For the former, students outlined the shape of the paddle based on body length measurements to ensure that their paddles would fit them perfectly. Once the shape was set, an adult used a jigsaw to cut the cedar board. From there, students began using hand planes and other woodworking tools to refine the shape of the paddle. This task would carry through both case study #1 and #2.
Case study #2. In the second case study, students discovered the power of storytelling to understand culture. They explored the meaning of “culture” by defining their own personal values, making an artistic poster to express how our design principles help us shape our school culture at PPCS, and learning about Indigenous cultures directly from experts, including Shoshone-Bannock, Oglala Lakota, San Carlos Apache, and Nez Perce tribal members. Next, students studied the structure and elements of written and told stories. They analyzed picture books to identify the structure of a story and elements of culture, learned the elements of oral storytelling from an expert storyteller, evaluated videos of Indigenous storytellers using these elements, then practiced using these elements to tell the class a myth from an Idaho tribe.
As students shaped and sanded paddles, there were numerous opportunities to work on building the canoe. For example, students measured the keel board and secured it to the gunwales using a clamp that supports bending to create the shape of the canoe. Students also laid out the ribs and measured with their hands where the ribs needed to be bent. Then they labeled the ribs to denote where the ribs would go on the canoe. Once the ribs were bent, the students helped by pouring hot water on the ribs as they were being positioned and secured which provided the full shape of the canoe. Once ribs were in place, students sawed the ribs extending beyond the gunwales flush and also sanded sharp edges throughout the process. Students participated in ways that were within their abilities throughout the project. This was oftentimes a sliding scale with some students taking more initiative than others, or showing more aptitude for woodworking. Every student was vested in the canoe building process.
Case study #3. For the third case study, each student interviewed family members about their family values and culture, and wrote stories with their “family motto” as the theme. Students used a high-quality criteria checklist together with peer and teacher feedback for multiple drafts and revisions. Then they practiced telling their stories using the elements of storytelling they had previously studied, and prepared to tell their stories around the campfire at their Celebration of Learning. Throughout the expedition, students identified words of wisdom that they would want to strive to live by and recorded them in their handmade journals. By integrating what they learned throughout the three case studies, each student wrote a nugget of wisdom that expressed a genuine and valuable lesson that they learned from experts (people and texts) about the confluence of cultures.
With the canoe almost to completion, students began preparing for the water. Students created potential names for their canoe and voted to name the canoe Burning Wisdom. Then students, their family members, and community members engaged in the canoe-building process participated in a naming ceremony where Burning Wisdom was officially given her name and wished well on all future river journeys. Next, student’s artistically wood burned their unique nugget of wisdom into the gunwale and thwarts of the canoe so that their message of understanding and hope about the confluence of cultures can be read by all who paddle in Burning Wisdom. Students then oiled the canoe and paddles and learned about water safety in preparation for the Celebration of Learning and the maiden voyage of Burning Wisdom. At the final Celebration of Learning, students paddled their hand-crafted canoe on the Snake River, together with members of their own families and traditional canoe families who brought their own dugout canoes from throughout the region.
The Work of Canoe Building
Canoes as a vessel of education allows students to draw connections between their local waterways and the cultures traditionally travelling and utilizing those waterways. Because all canoes are different and are designed in tandem with the region’s environment, the act of building a canoe with students and community members can provide an authentic gateway into deep learning. Grounded in place-based educational theory, using the canoe as a vessel for education is readily adaptable to any region’s waterways and traditional watercrafts. Below we discuss three key elements that should be considered when creating a canoe building educational experience with youth.
Collaborate with a local master canoe builder. If you are not familiar with canoe building it is critical to connect and collaborate with a master canoe builder who is familiar with the geographically relevant canoe style. It is important to connect with those who are interested in teaching their craft and working with youth, and who are willing to adjust their canoe building routines with the teachers desired scheduling. Ideally, the canoe builder would be in charge of sourcing all materials and tools; however, the teacher may be required to purchase supplemental tool/materials as needed. If you do not know a local canoe builders, here are several methods to aid in the finding of a canoe builder:
- Google search – A simple internet search using keywords such as “traditional canoes of the Pacific Northwest” or search for a “traditional canoe builder” in your town.
- Native American Tribes – Traditional canoes are built by tribal members across the Northwest and these canoe builders are knowledge keepers for both their people and the regions in which they live.
- Wooden Canoe Heritage Association (WCHA) – The WCHA serves as a gathering place for canoe builders across the country. With online forums and social media, a local canoe builder is just a click away: www.WCHA.org.
Decide on the canoe building location. Where the canoe building takes place matters. An ideal space would be outdoors in a location on the school premises. However, some canoes are suitable for indoors, provided that the canoe builder approves of the location. Additionally, for some traditional canoes a fire is a vital canoe building tool for bending wood or soaking (in warm water) raw materials. If a fire is not possible, propane burners can be used to supplement a heat source. If outdoors, a covered, dry area will ensure the students’ comfort while they build their canoe. And finally, it is critical that the space be open and large enough to accommodate parents and community members who come to observe or help build the canoe. An ideal space would be big enough for many people to gather, and have the option of serving food, having a fire, and creating a community bond.
Connect canoe building to curriculum. The degree that the canoe building project is integrated into the curriculum is left to the teacher’s discretion. However, from our experience we believe that careful integration can make this project very powerful while meeting state requirements for multiple subjects and skills. Additionally, the teacher must communicate with the canoe builder to ensure compatibility with classes and building schedules. We recommend that the students visit the canoe site at least three times a week. This ensures the student’s engagement with each step of the process and provides enough hands-on education for the students to learn actual wood working skills. So as to not completely burden the students and teacher, the canoe builder will typically continue working on the canoe throughout the days when no students are scheduled to visit.
One of the most rewarding aspects of using the canoe as an educational vessel is discovering and uncovering the myriad of ways to integrate canoe building with the curriculum and educational standards that must be met. While this requires some degree of creativity, simple lesson plans can be created to explore principles of mathematics, for example, using scale model canoes using ratios, speed, displacement and hydrodynamics or even determining the mass of a dugout canoe (compared to the log before it was carved). Additionally, environmental science standards can be met through the exploration of the species of trees and plants required to build a canoe, which opens up opportunity to explore forest ecology, invasive species, and other relevant topics. And as illustrated by the Confluence of Cultures curriculum model described above, canoe building provides a unique and culturally relevant opportunity to explore history and different cultures’ uses of canoes on their local waterways.
When possible, we advise that the canoe builder facilitate and provide a paddle carving module to the canoe building project. While some steps in canoe building are quite technical and tedious, we have demonstrated students from the 4th grade and up are capable with carving their own canoe paddle in three to four weeks. The opportunity for students to carve their own paddles allows for an individual sense of accomplishment while the canoe is a collaborative group project.
Organize a trip to paddle the canoe. Finally, canoes are built to be paddled. It is critical to plan a culminating maiden voyage where the youth launch and paddle the canoe that they built. This should take place at a local waterway that the students learned about during the course of the year. The paddle event can occur in the course of an afternoon, or more ideally, with a full day or overnight experience. For the paddling component, we recommend that you can coordinate with a local watersports organization or outdoor recreation program who can provide life jackets and expertise in water safety protocols. These culminating voyages are a ceremony to honor the canoe but also the students and community members who participated in the project.
Secure funding. Projects like this require funds. Often times in-kind resources can get a project down the path quite a ways. Depending on the level of resources needed that cannot be procured through local volunteers, plan to budget between $2,000 and $10,000 to adequately cover costs. We have found local education funds are of reasonable magnitude to support an effort such as this. For example, we recently were awarded approximately $10,000 for the upcoming academic year to build another David Thompson style canoe with PPCS 4th graders and collaborate with a regional tribal school building a traditional dugout canoe.
Throughout the building of the canoe as a narrative thread of the Confluence of Cultures learning expedition, many lessons were learned that may prove helpful for readers interested in doing a similar project within their context. We will share lessons learned from the perspective of the teacher and lead author, Ms. Hill.
- Standards-based education can be hands-on, meaningful and authentic! If it can be, then it should be. If research and practice show that it works to achieve educational goals, then when it is possible in the context, then that should be the goal. In this particular learning expedition, I was able to hit all of the required social studies and English Language Arts (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) standards in the classroom, AND we had time to build a canoe. So my main message is that it can be done. Teachers and administrators, I encourage you to be brave. I truly believe that you can make it work with the right types of support and resources in place.
- Spending the time on these types of hands-on projects makes the classroom work so much more meaningful. It is very clear that these kids will remember this experience for the rest of their lives, and it was all connected to the social studies content and literacy skills that they would be learning in fourth grade with or without this type of project.
- Parents and other family members became so incredibly involved in the project and engaged in the classroom learning through this project. They were deeply inspired to see their children accomplish such huge tasks such as safely using woodworking tools, hand-carving their own paddles specially fit to their own body measurements, and working together as a crew family to build a canoe that they could paddle in together. For some children and families, this was their first canoe trip.
- Students and families were incredibly inspired by the opportunities to authentically and genuinely interact with Indigenous peoples through this project and the paddle/camping trip.
- Local and regional Indigenous peoples were very willing and honored to work with us on this project, on both the social studies content and canoe-building pieces. These connections made the project authentic and meaningful. The genuine support of local tribal members was apparent in receiving invitations for future paddling opportunities and with funding for a future project to work closely with the 4th grade class in Lapwai, Idaho.
- A key element for success of a project like this is that the teacher has a very close working relationship with a local nonprofit or other group or individual to do this type of project (i.e., Voyages of Rediscovery, and local Indigenous partners). Our EL model of education at PPCS embraces this type of outreach and collaboration very well, and I would encourage other teachers in any other school system or teaching model to think about how to do this within their own contexts.
The canoe building component proved to be an invaluable addition to the learning expedition for the PPCS 4th graders. Students were able to associate the content of the curriculum to a meaningful and tangible context represented by the David Thompson style canoe. The canoe brought people together that otherwise wouldn’t have had a reason to work together, which led to powerful learning opportunities. By opening the school doors to the possibilities of building a canoe, we found that the risk was rewarded in outcomes much greater than we had anticipated. The effort was completely worth it.
Cousins, E. (Ed.). (2000). Roots: From outward bound to expeditionary learning. Dubuque, IA: Union-Hoermann Press.
Expeditionary Learning (2011). Expeditionary learning core practices: A vision for improving schools. New York, NY:
Renée Hill is the fourth-grade teacher at Palouse Prairie Charter School (PPCS) in Moscow, Idaho. Using the Expeditionary Learning (EL) model, she has engaged her students in inquiry-based projects including building a David Thompson style canoe as a symbol of the confluence of cultures throughout Idaho’s history.
Dr. Brant G. Miller is a science educator at the University of Idaho. He teaches science methods and technology integration and does research on Adventure Learning.
Adam Wicks-Arshack is a PhD student in the Water Resources Department at the University of Idaho. Adam has facilitated educational expeditions and canoe building projects throughout the Pacific Northwest.