Key Considerations for Asking Questions as a
Field-Based Science Instruction
By Amos Pomp
We do not ask [questions] in a vacuum; what we ask, how, and when are all related.
– Bang et al., 2018
How can field-based science instructors be intentional with the questions we ask students?
As a graduate student and field-based environmental science instructor for 4th-6th graders in Washington State, I ask students questions all the time. Asking questions is an integral part of learning and doing science and is one of the Next Generation Science Standards science and engineering practices. I believe that the questions I pose as an instructor have the power to either disengage or engage student groups in their learning processes. Thus, considering which questions I ask, and when, is a significant and nuanced part of my teaching practice.
Instructor-posed questions are an important, multifaceted part of effective pedagogy. Instructors should ask their students various types of questions and celebrate various types of answers. Instructors may ask questions to elicit students’ prior knowledge, check their understanding, help them figure out where there are gaps in their ideas, and help uncover ideas that would otherwise go unnoticed (Reiser et al., 2017). Instructors may also ask questions to “help students figure out and refine their own questions” (ibid.).
The way in which instructors ask questions and elicit answers is also important. If I only encourage spoken answers to my questions, I may send an implicit message that I only value verbal and vocal participation in my learning environments. If I only praise the ways in which one student’s artwork connects to my prompt, I’m implying that I prioritize some sensemaking over others’. If I only accept scientific names of plants as correct, I’m indicating what kinds of knowledge I deem acceptable.
Reflecting on this non-exhaustive list of reasons for asking questions, as well as the potential implications of how I solicit answers, has led me to be more intentional with the questions I do ask and how I ask them. I don’t just think about what I am asking my students; I also think about why I am asking it—for what purpose. I think about whom I am asking it to or for and what kind of responses I am expecting from my group. How can I engage them in their own sensemaking and synthesis, creative thinking, and science and engineering processes? To help plan for each new group of students I teach, I’ve developed a framework for how I consider the pedagogical purpose of my questions.
Reflecting on My Own Experience
At the beginning of the school year, my grad cohort and I had many discussions about what teaching and learning look like. From our conversations, we agreed on two key points. The first is that to us, successful field-based science instruction looks like guiding students in their own thinking, observing, and investigating. Rather than responding to students’ questions with an easy answer of my own, one of the routines I adapted early on was asking them, “What do you think?” Even when posed informally, asking students what they think and encouraging a genuine answer is a pedagogical move to redistribute power and agency by encouraging them to gather evidence and explain their own reasoning and learning.
The second point we agreed on is that masterful instructors learn from and alongside their students in processes of collaborative sensemaking. At first, I found this process came naturally. Being new to field-based science education in the Pacific Northwest, it was easy for me to respond to a student’s pointing at something and asking what it was or what was happening without giving them an easy answer. “I’m not sure, have you seen something like it before?” I would say, or “tell me what you notice about it and what it’s doing. Can we come up with three possible answers to your question?” Asking these questions positioned my students as experts on their own experiences and encouraged us to work together to learn about our environment.
As the school year has progressed and I’ve became more knowledgeable about the ecosystem I’m teaching in, I’ve noticed two things happening. In moments where I am doing new activities or teaching lessons in new ways, my questions have remained open-ended and genuine, like the above examples.
In other cases, however, I have found myself struggling to maintain nuanced intentionality in my question asking. Sometimes I notice myself asking students answer-seeking, or “known-answer,” questions—questions to which I already know the answer I’m looking for—because I want the group to reach a specific understanding about a topic based on my own knowledge or some third-party definition (Bransford et al., 2000). Other times, I’ll ask the group a question about an activity we just did and receive mostly blank stares in response. In these instances, I am probably asking the wrong questions and discouraging the divergent thinking, diverse forms of engagement, and collaborative sensemaking and synthesis I’m looking for.
Upon reflection, I decided to create a tool to help me make sure I ask students pedagogical questions with the intention they deserve.
Instructor-Posed Questions: A Framework
When thinking about how to intentionally ask a question to a group of students, here are some key considerations I take into account.
Assessing the state of the group
Before asking my students a pedagogical question, I assess the state of the group. This assessment can happen during planning or in the moment. I think about where the students are or will be physically, as well as what is or will be going on, when I plan to ask the question. Perhaps they would still be riled up after an activity, or they might need a snack. Perhaps a group discussion would not add any value to what’s already happened or could possibly even detract from the experience. Perhaps the group needs to hear the question then move to another location before answering to have time to think and discuss casually on the way. If I want the group to engage in some sort of collaborative sense-making, I do my best to ensure that the group is in a place where most of the students will be able to engage in the process in some way.
Allowing for different forms of student engagement
When I plan to ask a group of students a question, I then think about how I want them to answer. I can ask them to answer in written/drawn form, whole-group share-out, in small groups or a partner, just in their own heads, or some other way. I make this decision based on patterns of what I’ve seen work best for similar groups in similar situations in the past.
Once I’ve decided how I want students to answer my question, I find it’s best to give instructions before asking the question. For example, I might say, “You’re going to answer this question in your journal, and you can write, draw, write a poem or song, or even create a dance or found-material sculpture.” Then I ask the question and repeat the ways that students can answer.
Clarifying the goal or purpose of my question
For this section I’ll use an example wherein my goal is for students to think and learn about the role of photosynthesis in a plant’s life and the role plants play in ecosystems.
With my goal in mind, I could ask, “What does photosynthesis mean?” However, I would likely hear one student’s regurgitating a definition from a textbook, which does not necessarily indicate true learning or understanding. Also, if I ask such didactic questions multiple times to the same group, I often end up calling on the same students repeatedly—missing out on quieter voices—because they are the ones comfortable with sharing in such a way.
I would also refrain from asking, “Who can tell me what photosynthesis means?” This wording implies that it’s time for someone to win favor by being the one who can. It’s a challenge to see who can show off their knowledge, and it doesn’t help a group of students explain how photosynthesis works or why it matters.
Additionally, I don’t want to ask my question if I’m looking for a specific answer. I have to be open to students’ explaining photosynthesis in new ways or talking about other ways that plants get energy and contribute to ecosystems.
Asking a question
Instead of the examples above, I could ask my students, “How do plants get energy?” or “How can we describe a plant’s relationship to the sun?” These explanatory questions engage students in more diverse scientific practices than just naming and defining a chemical reaction (Reiser et al., 2017). If I’m having trouble getting students to move toward photosynthesis, I could ask, “What do you think of when you hear the word photosynthesis?” which I still find to elicit more open-ended responses than the original example.
Something else to consider is that if, for example, I’m teaching a group of students who have never been to a harbor like the one I bring them to for a lesson, any questions I ask the group about what role plants might have in the harbor ecosystem will not carry as much meaning for them if they do not first have a shared, relational experience with plants at the harbor (Reiser et al., 2017). If I can first facilitate a time for them to explore and observe plants at the harbor, then asking them about their own thoughts and questions about plants at the harbor will have much more success. I can also ask questions in ways that allow students to bring in past experiences with other beaches or plants in other ecosystems.
I am also aware while teaching that common lines of questioning in schools are rooted in the discursive patterns of white, middle-class, European Americans. One way that I can expand my question-asking practice is encouraging learners to investigate the “likeness between things” to draw in students who engage in more metaphorical learning by exploring analogies with the question, “What is photosynthesis like?” (Bransford et al., 2000). Robin Wall Kimmerer agrees: “asking questions about relations illuminates answers that true-false questions may not” (Bang et al., 2018).
Finally, I could also ask questions that help students evaluate their own learning or the learning process, like “how did you contribute to the group in the photosynthesis investigation?” or “how did that activity go for you?” rather than ones that assess what they learned (Rogoff et al., 2018). I would ask these latter questions to prioritize my goal of exciting students about science learning over ensuring that they learn any specific “facts” or “knowledge.”
Deciding not to ask a question
Sometimes, I move through my framework and decide I don’t need to ask the group a question. Instead, I’ll tell the group some of my own thoughts on the matter, or I might just transition to something else entirely. An example of the latter is that if I’m more interested in having my students explore something other than how photosynthesis works, rather than asking them what they know about photosynthesis, I could simply say, “Photosynthesis, which, for those who might not remember, is how plants create their own energy from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water.”
Asking questions in field-based science education is a nuanced practice. The way instructors ask questions reveals to students both explicitly and implicitly what forms of participation they value, whose knowledge they prioritize, and what kinds of learning they deem acceptable. With a bit of intentionality, however, instructor-posed questions are the key to engaging students in collaborative sensemaking and synthesis, divergent thinking, and science and engineering processes of their own.
My mentors, Renée Comesotti and Dr. Priya Pugh
Bang, M., Marin, A., & Medin, D. (2018). If Indigenous peoples stand with the sciences, will scientists stand with us? Daedalus, 147(2), 148-159.
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn (Vol. 11). Washington, DC: National academy press.
Reiser, B. J., Brody, L., Novak, M., Tipton, K., & Adams, L. (2017). Asking questions. Helping students make sense of the world using next generation science and engineering practices (pp. 87-108). NSTA Press, National Science Teachers Association.
Rogoff, B., Callanan, M., Gutiérrez, K. D., & Erickson, F. (2016). The organization of informal learning. Review of Research in Education, 40(1), 356-401.
CLEARING Special Focus Issue:
Justice, Equity and Diversity in Environmental Education
Guest Editor: R. Justin Hougham, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Special Advisor: Derek Hoshiko, Community Organizer and Educator on Climate Change and Environmental Equity
We are excited to bring our readers this special edition of CLEARING Magazine. This issue focuses on Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) in the environmental education field. For the last several years in general, and especially last year, we have seen a rising consciousness and call to action towards justice and equity initiatives throughout education and accordingly within environmental education as this publication and special issue reflects. This conversation and sharing of resources continues to evolve through both a raised awareness of equity and anti-racism issues, and through action towards environmental justice. This issue reflects practitioner insight from a wide array of venues, geographies, and pedagogies. It features contributions from Colorado, Washington, Idaho, Ontario, and California.
For readers in leadership roles or for those looking to influence organizational decision making during and beyond the COVID-19 era, seven salient and actionable suggestions are presented in “Racial Equity in Outdoor Science and Environmental Education: Re-Establishing the Field with Intention” (pg. 9). “Equity in a Time of Socio-Environmental Justice” (pg. 12) presents a call to action and solidarity in the ‘intergenerational fight for socio-environmental justice.’ Derek Hoshiko provides a case study of pushing for equity work by centering student voices and confronting far right pushback in “Promoting Equity and Justice at the School and Community Level” (pg. 16). Towards a landscape-wide narrative perspective with tribal youth, writers from Idaho explore these concepts through “River Newe: Creating New Narratives on Historic Landscapes” (pg. 20), inspired by time on the Salmon River. For readers interested in instruction in the collegiate context, Juan Miguel Arias and Howard Drossman explore the context and themes of power and equity in the Colorado College TREE semester (pg. 24). As always, CLEARING Magazine presents additional connections and resources that can broaden and directly apply to JEDI work and initiatives across the education community.
Environmental education reaches millions of students and community members a year in a vast array of venues, so consider that these are millions of opportunities to connect learners to core environmental science concepts, while also showing a wider look at environmental justice in the local and global issues that we face today and into the future. We look at the work in this issue to inspire the courage to be better, to do the work. JEDI is not a privilege granted to us—while it is true that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, justice is not achieved through unchecked privilege, rather through hard work, self-examination, collaboration, accountability, and making the most of every opportunity to lift each other up.
Everywhere we look outside of ourselves to find hope in a culture dominated by systems of oppression, we see inaction and injustice. We see this in the failed COP26 conference, and we see it in communities dominated by money and ‘power over.’ At COP26, we were supposed to see increased ambition over the Paris climate accord. Everywhere we take responsibility, we are able to become response-able, and with courage, face the triple pandemic of racism, COVID-19 pandemic, and the climate emergency.
Our hope that you will enjoy this issue lies in knowing that, while much work lies ahead, there is inspiration in the work in the field of environmental education as told in the stories herein, and in the work that our readers do on a daily basis.
R. Justin Hougham, Ph.D.
and Derek Hoshiko
To see the entire issue in FLIP PAGE format, click here.
(Note: This link takes you out of the CLEARING website.)
Table of Contents
Racial Equity in Outdoor Science and Environmental Education: Re-Establishing the Field with Intention (.PDF)
by Jedda Foreman, Rena Payan,
Laura Rodriguez, and Craig Strang
Equity in a Time of Socio-Environmental Justice (.PDF)
by Max Jimenez, University of California
Promoting Equity and Justice at the
School and Community Level (.PDF)
by Derek Hoshiko
with Anti-Racism Resources for Outdoor Families
& Environmental Educators (sidebar)
A New Tool: Land Acknowledgment Resource Cards (.PDF)
by Grace Crowley-Thomas, IslandWood
(see full article here)
River Newe: Creating New Narratives On Historic Landscapes (.PDF)
by Sammy Matsaw, Ph.D, Jessica Matsaw, M.Ed, and
Brant G. Miller, Ph.D, University of Idaho
Power and equity in undergraduate environmental education: “Loving Critique” at the Colorado College TREE Semester
by Juan Miguel Arias & Howard Drossman
Colorado College Education Department
Reclaiming the Promise of Place: An Interview with
David Greenwood by Roberta Altman
from Bankstreet Occasional Papers
by Jane Tesner Kleiner, RLA
Imagine walking out the back door of your school, surrounded by the songs of spring time birds, the soft scents of flowers in bloom, the wind billowing through nearby trees, and (if you are lucky) the croaking of Pacific tree frogs. Sounds great? But… it doesn’t sound like your school? What if?
It may sound daunting, the idea of transforming your school grounds into a green, lush learning environment. However, there are great resources out there, to help put your school on-track to having learning and play environments that include lots of nature. It’s not only the kids who love and benefit from being in natural spaces; so do the school staff and the neighboring community, too.
So many schools have little more than grassy fields, paved surfaces and fenced areas. They may have a few trees and landscape beds, and hopefully an awesome playground, but most are static and sterile environments. There can be benefits to these school grounds: they are relatively safe, and it’s easy to monitor the kids during outside time. They are also seem easy to maintain (although mowing costs are a big pull on a maintenance budget). Yet, they don’t provide opportunity for imagination, let alone the creative activity that sparks imagination.
Over the last 30 years, a growing body of research strongly asserts that children experience myriad benefits from daily access to nature. Richard Louv, of the Children and Nature Network, states in an online article that,
“…including schoolyards with natural play spaces and gardens can help improve physical and mental health, cognitive skills, creativity, and social cohesion. New longitudinal studies also suggest that nature-rich schools can help raise standardized test scores. And children in low-income communities appear to benefit proportionally more from access to green space than those in higher-income communities.”
Research also suggests that providing close-to-home, regular, access to nature will help kids overcome fears of the unknown. Adventuring further, they build self-confidence and interest in the broader world.
In a normal M-F week, children spend 41% of their waking hours at school. With that in mind, school grounds are uniquely positioned to provide access to nature for kids. I certainly see benefits in the students that I work with, not to mention my own kids. I have seen students become self-assured, skilled and proud owners of their schools’ outdoor spaces.
There is also the matter of agency, of capitalizing on kids’ buy-in by involving them in the planning stages. Promoting student voice throughout the planning, design, fundraising, installation and maintenance of school greenspaces gives them hands-on experiences that they may not get elsewhere. And the ownership? People don’t destroy what they built themselves.
To begin, start by listening. Here are some things that I’ve heard, from schools I work with in the Vancouver area:
- When asked what changes kids would want to see to their school campus, they said two things: more fun play equipment and have the school grounds be their own backyard fieldtrip.
- When staff were asked where they want their school facility to be in 5 years, they want to be able to teach outdoors; this includes garden spaces and a diverse setting of natural elements.
- Teachers want to be able to teach using the whole school campus, making use of all features.
- The process for considering “how” to change the campus, let alone fundraise and maintain the new nature features is daunting.
Where do you start? Luckily, there are professionals who can help every school maximize the opportunity to add more nature to your campus.
It starts with lots of conversations, centered around a few key principles.
In essence, the design will:
- meet multiple goals, including direct ties to curriculum.
- allow for exploration, observation, discovery and fun.
- expand and broaden structured AND self-guided learning and play.
- foster a child’s sense of wonder and curiosity.
- build upon what kids love to do: jump & hop; climb & balance; build & take apart; make art; allow for passive quiet time; use all senses. Create! Imagine! Explore!
Now that you’re excited to get going and transform your school grounds, here is a short recipe for a successful campus plan:
- Culture. Form a team to build your natural schoolyard. The team will brainstorm, plan, design, build and maintain the spaces. Don’t rely on one person, or else it won’t be sustainable in years to come. Bring on partners and ask for help! PTO/A’s, local businesses, community groups. Local businesses may be a source of funding, but business people have an inherent stake in the health of their nearby schools. Give them a chance to offer their ideas, skills and, yes, money.
- Individuality. Each school is unique. Build upon its existing features and add elements that easily complement the site. If you make it too complicated, it will be hard to maintain in years to come.
- Diversity. Each user group will have different goals for the enhancements, and sometimes they will conflict. By discussing the goals and objectives first, with children’s well-being the focus of the conversation, the best solution can be refined to meet everyone’s needs. Provide something for everyone.
- Community. Every child, every family has something to gain. Tap into your school community. You have a ready-made pool of hundreds of concerned, hard working adults. Learn who has skills, talents, and materials to contribute to the project. This will help build ownership in the project over time.
- Inclusiveness. Make sure all the right people have had a chance to weigh in with their ideas and approvals: district staff (facilities, curriculum leads, risk, etc.), teachers, school staff, maintenance, grounds, and most importantly the students.
- Problem Based Learning. Engage the students in every step, and empower them to meaningfully contribute, create and build a successful set of spaces for the next generation of students. This is learning! Kids will learn important, lasting lessons at every step.
- Partnership. Find local and national organizations to support your project. Possibilities include:
- certifying for wildlife habitat
- becoming a state certified Green School
- supporting the national pollinator project.
(Certification goals are great motivators, rallying stakeholders to, “keep on track and get the plaque!”)
- Consultation. Work with a local professional (e.g. landscape architect, school garden coordinator, etc.) to facilitate the discussions. They can capture all of the ideas and put it into one overall master plan for the site and create a report that can be used for approvals, fundraising and keeping the project on track over the years.
In the end, here is the winning equation:
program needs + site opportunities + available resources + curriculum goals = action plan
What goes into the plan?
Consider what type of features to add to your schoolyard.
The physical space.
- Wildlife habitat. Native trees, shrubs, and flowers to attract butterflies, birds and mammals (provide food/water/shelter/place to raise young).
- Outdoor classrooms. For classes and small groups to gather to work, listen and learn.
- Nature play. Use natural materials for kids to actively engage in unstructured and imagination play.
- Working spaces to actively plan, plant, grow and manage plants such as vegetables, fruits and flowers.
- Messy areas. Creative spaces to make art, containing moveable elements to build and change.
- Quiet spaces. Beautiful, peaceful settings with small group seating, to listen, slow down, de-stress and regroup.
- Exploration spaces. Unique spaces that support a variety of curricula; might include elements for tactile learning, such as water tables, sand play, learning lab stations, and more.
- Experiment stations. Areas that support the testing of theories, experimentation and active learning. Could include built-in features such as solar equipment, rain harvesting station, or space to create.
- Green infrastructure. Your school district may want to upgrade features to meet sustainability goals, such as stormwater management, energy efficiency, reducing heat island effects, etc. Meet their needs while creating active learning spaces. Welcome these ideas, as they are often tied to grant money.
Photo from the Intertwine
Creating the space is one thing, using it is another. Look for the tools that will help your school use the campus successfully:
- When talking to potential partners, emphasize the 4C’s of 21st Century learning:
- critical thinking
Successfully redesigned schoolyards encourage all of them.
- Provide training to your staff. Help them find the resources and lessons that tie to their curriculum goals. Most school districts will have a specialist available to help.
- Identify agencies that offer programs for outdoor learning, and invite them (repeatedly) to your campus. Look for watershed and conservation groups, environmental education centers, local environmental professionals, and sportsmens organizations.
- Encourage your district to hire a garden or outdoor teacher or coordinator, to works with your teaching staff to coordinate the activities and lessons that are taught outdoors. The lessons can cover all curriculum areas, as well as activities to build social skills, independent learning and team building.
- Meet maintenance goals by creating jobs for students, classes or small groups to accomplish throughout the year. Create a shared calendar to outline the needs and then divvy up the tasks. Don’t leave it to one dedicated or passionate person….they will eventually have to move on.
- Make it the culture of the school to embrace, use, respect and care for your whole campus. The school community spends so much time together on campus, use the entire space to your advantage and care for it as a resource.
- Remember, your space will be used after school (programs and neighborhood use) and during the summer. Embrace the fact that a variety of users will use the space. Finding ways to welcome them will encourage others to care for it and keep an eye on things when school is not in session.
If you need ideas on how to use your campus for outdoor learning, there are lots of great guides and curriculum resources that provide engaging activities for all grade levels (early childhood, pre-K, K-12). A few examples include:
- The BioBlitz. No, this isn’t a game or app (check out the National Parks website). In this activity, students look for all living species on your campus. Have them document what they find and identify the species (plants, insects, mammals, birds, etc.). You can make it as simple or complex as you need to, based on the age and curriculum. Include writing, art, science and math.
- Scavenger hunt. Have kids look for a different theme, such as all things that collect and move the rainwater (What happens to rain drops when they land on the various surfaces?); have the kids find different shapes in the natural elements on campus; etc.
- Nature journal. Document the changing seasons on your campus. What are the colors for each season? Temperature changes? Weather patterns? Different animals?
- Art projects. Have kids pick a couple natural elements and sketch them, using a variety of media. Compare and contrast what is different and same about each element.
- Plant flower bulbs. Seek donations for flower bulbs and have the kids plant them in a landscape bed. Learn about the different bulbs, the depths they need to be planted, what are the types and shapes of bulbs. Have the kids develop plant markers for each type. In the spring, monitor the progress of growth for each type, have them sketch the flowers, investigate the flower shape and talk about the parts of the plant, notice if pollinators visit the plants, create a cut flower vase and share with a classroom or community group that would benefit from fresh flowers (senior living facility).
As your school starts its journey toward a more natural schoolyard, know that these projects can take years. That’s fine! The program will benefit from starting small and building upon small successes as the project grows and changes over time. Think of a protracted timeline as an opportunity to involve more kids and their families.
Lastly, stay true to your goal. Keep the vision in mind and you will be amazed at the sustaining support you will receive to keep moving forward. Every step you take is for the health and well-being of the kids. You’ll get there.
Here are just a few resources that you can check out online.
Children and Nature Network Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities – Building a National Movement for Green Schoolyards in Every Community. http://www.childrenandnature.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/CNN_GSY_Report2016_Final.pdf
Green Schoolyards America. Sharon Danks. http://www.greenschoolyards.org/home.html
Boston Schoolyard Initiative. http://www.schoolyards.org/projects.overview.html Active since 1995. Schoolyard and outdoor design guides, as well as planning, maintenance and stewardship resources.
Evergreen Green School Grounds. https://www.evergreen.ca/our-impact/children/greening-school-grounds/
National Wildlife Federation. Schoolyard Habitat program. http://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Create/Schoolyards.aspx Attract and support local wildlife.
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Jane Tesner Kleiner is a registered landscape architect, ecologist and environmental educator with work in Michigan and Washington. She has spent the past 25 years working with schools, parks and ecological restoration organizations to create habitat, trails and play areas. She passionately advocates for outdoor spaces that inspire kids’ curiosity. She wears a few hats in the Vancouver, Washington area, and continues encouraging kids of all ages to get outside and explore. Her goal is to make sure every kid has a stick to play with.
 Louv, R., & Lamar, M. (2016, July 07). GROUNDS FOR CHANGE: Green Schoolyards for all Children. Retrieved March 25, 2017, from http://www.childrenandnature.org/2016/07/07/grounds-for-change-green-schoolyards-for-all-children/
 Given a full week of school and, we hope, 8 hours of sleep.
A Year in the Watershed
There is no doubt that if you want to get students truly excited about what they are learning, ask them to tackle a real-world question or problem — ask them to solve something that is relevant to their lives.
by Jean M. Wallace
It is no surprise that children learn best by doing. And, when they seamlessly integrate across subjects and spend ample time working to find solutions to real problems that will improve lives, fulfill needs, and make our world a better place, their learning reaches a much deeper level. During my 20 years in a leadership role in experiential education, establishing partnerships and supporting hundreds of teachers and thousands of students in authentic learning, I witnessed this success first hand. There is also no doubt that if you want to get students truly excited about what they are learning, ask them to tackle a real-world question or problem — ask them to solve something that is relevant to their lives. In using this approach, students come to realize that what they are doing in school really does have meaning.
Whether describing this learning process with terminology such as STEM, STEAM, Project-Based Learning, Problem-Based Learning, or EIC (Environment as an Integrating Context — the process used by my former team as outlined below), it is the alignment of the content (the “what”) and the process (the “how”) that drives these successful learning models. Integration is critical, as it is the bonding of content and process that strengthens the structure of learning for students. Rather than teach in isolation, teachers and schools should model the 21st century skills we want our students to acquire by collaborating, cooperating, and communicating across disciplines to make learning more meaningful in all subjects. The effectiveness of using the environment as the foundation for interdisciplinary learning is not new to education and is supported by research.
Founded in 1995, the State Environment and Education Roundtable (SEER) worked with 16 state departments of education to develop Environment-Based Education (EBE) as a standards-based instructional strategy to engage students in “real-world” learning experiences. Over 40 schools took part in this national study, which resulted in the 1998 publication of Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning (Lieberman & Hoody, 1998). As was the case with the national EIC research study, our own EIC program was extremely successful and proven to close the achievement gap.
Environment = Authentic Learning
Moving from teaching in isolation to teaching across disciplines can be challenging, but my firm belief was (and still is) that a powerful and deep understanding of content coupled with a meaningful and authentic process of student engagement results in deeper learning for children.
Therefore, when building an curriculum focused on authentic learning, it made perfect sense to use Pennsylvania Environment & Ecology (E&E) Standards as a foundation on which to build an integrated and student-centered curriculum: one that would shape the framework for active, authentic, community-based science teaching and learning. Along with cross-curricular, real-world, rigorous content, an E&E-based program offers students the opportunity to engage in service learning and civic action, creating responsible and caring global citizens. This is evidenced in the introduction to the E&E standards, which reads as follows:
“Environment and Ecology is grounded in the complexity of the world we live in and our impact on its sustainability. The human interactions with the ecosystem and the results of human decisions are the main components of this academic area. Environment and Ecology examines the world with respect to the economic, cultural, political, and social structure as well as natural processes and systems. This integration across systems is what sets this academic area apart from all others.” (Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2001)
Starting in Kindergarten, content outlined in the E&E standards also became the foundation for literacy acquisition and was used to generate enthusiasm in our youngest readers. As they were learning how to read, they were connecting what they were reading to the real world around them. The content outlined in these standards formulated a rich vocabulary upon which students could build as they progressed through the curriculum. One example that comes to mind is the topic of Agriculture, which was introduced in Kindergarten and then reinforced in 3rd grade in a multi-disciplinary, multi-week unit of study. Classroom libraries were stocked with vocabulary-rich books, and learning was enriched by field studies to area farms, nature centers, streams, rivers, and museums.
The June 2014 Progress of Education Reform Report issued by the Education Commission of the States, reaffirms the success of applying this early science literacy approach in an authentic learning environment: “Science interactions support vocabulary development by exposing children to new words in meaningful context. Exposure to rich vocabulary words predicts vocabulary development, which predicts reading achievement.” The importance of early science literacy acquisition is summed up nicely in this same publication: “Education leaders should turn a critical eye on the science teaching and learning expected for early education in their school, district or state, then determine whether there is any evidence that children and their teachers are receiving the instructional opportunities they need and deserve.”
Creating the EIC Curriculum
But how and where do you begin when creating an integrated curriculum? For our team, utilizing the E&E standards for content; the interdisciplinary, student-centered process of the EIC Model; a strong emphasis on 21st century skills; and backwards mapping became the perfect collective starting point. Our guide was Dr. Patricia Vathis of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, who is an expert in standards, interdisciplinary learning, and Understanding by Design. As a K–8 team, we began the curriculum-building process by going through each E&E standard statement and unpacking and understanding its content. After completing this, we moved on to Science and Technology, and then to Social Studies, which included History, Geography, and Civics and Government. We identified the content that “anchored” each standard statement and how each grade would be responsible for either introducing that content (I), reinforcing it (R), or bringing the content to proficiency (P).
As we were completing each matrix and assigning a color code to each grade, we were also looking for opportunities to connect content across disciplines to create big ideas for comprehensive, interdisciplinary units of study. Once our team completed a matrix for each of the content area standards, time was allocated for teachers to meet and plan with their grade level partners and teachers from different grade levels and disciplines. Everyone worked from the matrices they, themselves, created. Schedules were designed so that team-teaching could occur several times each week, allowing teachers to see and hear how each overarching topic was being presented through the lens of another discipline.
EIC in Middle School
In some ways, the 5–8 team had a more difficult challenge than the K–4 team, since our middle school students in 5–8 rotated through different teachers and subjects. The teachers effectively met this challenge by working together to design units of study that spanned several months, with each content area well represented. For example, one unit was titled “Disease and its Impact on Philadelphia,” and was taught over a three-month period. In Science class, students investigated how vector species transmit diseases, while in Language Arts the students were reading the book Fever by Laurie Halse Anderson (2000), a historical fiction novel documenting the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that plagued Philadelphia. In Social Studies, the students were mapping out historic Philadelphia and reading and writing about a time in local history when this epidemic took many lives. In Technology, students created their own newspaper and documented the impact of the disease outbreak by writing obituaries and providing information to their imaginary community. Finally, in Art, students designed a 2-D protist from which they created a 3-D model. As students were learning across disciplines, teachers were actively teaching across disciplines. Amazing!
EIC in Elementary School
Just one example of authentic, interdisciplinary learning that was so successful during my years in school leadership was “A Watershed Year,” when each year our 4th grade students were immersed in a year-long, interdisciplinary study of the Delaware River Watershed. Students were challenged to answer the overarching question: Where does your drinking water come from and where does your wastewater go? They began by investigating the history, geography, geology, science, chemistry, and ecology of our local freshwater streams and the surrounding watershed. During their downstream journey, students interacted with experts in local history, drafted a “Water Bill of Rights,” debated ecology versus economy, conducted field studies with the Philadelphia Water Department, mapped out their local watershed, and learned from the Army Corp of Engineers how to effectively engineer a dam.
Students also documented their journey and presented their findings to various audiences. Utilizing digital technology, they even created an interactive, informational walking tour for visitors along the trails at the local historical society. The students’ Watershed Year ended with an exploration of the Delaware Estuary and Atlantic Ocean ecosystems where they discovered the ecological diversity of aquatic life in these brackish and saltwater environments. Their final real-life adventure in learning was a three-hour voyage aboard a trawling vessel out of Cape May, New Jersey where they cast nets into the ocean and hauled in their catch, while working side-by-side with a team of marine ecologists.
Ongoing Improvements and Growth
Professional development for teachers was meaningful, focused, and ongoing. In-service days during the school year were dedicated to curriculum development, and each summer our teachers would attend the Pennsylvania Governor’s Institute for Environment and Ecology. This Institute offered a week-long, residential learning experience that took place both indoors and outdoors. Enhancing the knowledge and skills of teachers through deep-rooted learning experiences inspired our teachers to become even better at creating and implementing authentic learning experiences for their students.
While standards dictated “what” would be taught, the process of learning was designed and reinforced by our teachers. They used content — E&E standards-based content — and the EIC practices to drive instruction. These experiences not only resulted in strong academic achievement, but they ensured outcomes of global citizenship through student empowerment and environmental civic action. Our K–8 EIC framework became the solid academic foundation on which we grew our program from 150 students to over 700 allowing us the financial and community support to build a 20 million dollar school and campus designed for outdoor learning. An amazing accomplishment that many said could never be done!
In the end, our state standardized test scores reflected the success of our EIC Model and its interdisciplinary framework. More importantly, these scores represented how immersing students in deep-dive, long-term, interdisciplinary research projects can be a successful approach for all students. As just one example, 90%–96% of our 4th Grade students achieved, on average, the highest level in the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) Science test. Our special education students and historically underperforming students thrived in this atmosphere of real-world, interdisciplinary learning. Our school was rated as a top performing school locally and state-wide, and ranked internationally with schools in Finland.
Throughout my years working with an incredible team, our EIC curriculum continued to evolve and was revised by our teachers. Success was contagious! Teachers were motivated and students were energized as we immersed ourselves in the study of the environment. We came to realize that doing meaningful work in an authentic environment to conserve our basic needs — the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the food we eat — was a bond that we shared and something that is relevant to us all.
Jean Wallace was the CEO of the award-winning Green Woods Charter School, a K–8 public charter school in Philadelphia, PA. During her tenure as CEO, Green Woods was recognized locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally for its innovative approach to learning as well as its academic achievement. She is now consulting for schools and organizations who want to take learning outside.
Prior to her work at Green Woods, Jean served as the regional Director of Education for Earth Force, Inc. (www.earthforce.org). As the Director of Education for Earth Force, Jean supported hundreds of teachers and thousands of students in service learning and civic action projects focusing on local and regional environmental issues.
Education is a second career for Jean. As a parent, Jean was an active volunteer in her daughter’s private school setting and came to recognize the vast differences between some public and private school learning environments. She sought out a second career in education to offer public school students authentic, real-world learning opportunities similar to those her own daughter experienced.
This article is dedicated with gratitude to Dr. Patricia Vathis, retired Environment and Ecology Coordinator for the PA Department of Education, and the incredible teachers and staff who made the impossible, possible.
Anderson, Laurie Halse. (2000). Fever, 1793. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
Education Commission of the States (June, 2014). Progress Report for Education 18 (2). Denver, CO: ECS.
Lieberman, G., & Hoody, L. (1998). Closing the achievement gap. State Education and Environment Roundtable Report. Poway, CA: Science Wizards.
Pennsylvania Department of Education (2001). Introduction to the Pennsylvania academic Standards for environment and ecology. Retrieval from URL www.education.pa.gov
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.
This article is a story of how fourth-grade students in Moscow, Idaho studied the confluence of cultures throughout Idaho’s history by building a canoe, hand-carving paddles, and actively participating in the resurgence of the traditional canoe throughout the Pacific Northwest region. We hope you enjoy seeing our work and seeing how we went through this process!
Editor note: This article was written by fourth-grade students at Palouse Prairie Charter School during the spring of 2018. Students were guided through the process in groups and this narrative is the product of that work. The teacher and collaborating faculty from a local university supported the writing, editing, and revision process. The level of adult guidance varies in each section. Students wrote this as an extension of the article “Burning Wisdom: The Canoe as a Vessel for Learning” published in the Fall 2017 issues of CLEARING, which documented the previous year’s canoe-building project with a focus on the curriculum.
magine a life with no cars, no planes, no city buses, only canoes. Imagine you are in Idaho 200 years ago, that you are surrounded by rivers, and you mainly travel by canoe. For the indigenous peoples of Idaho and throughout the United States, the canoe used to be the main means of transportation and communication. Many tribes around the region, including the Kalispel, Coeur d’ Alene, and Nez Perce (Nimi´ipuu) of Idaho, have not built canoes for over one hundred years. For example, up until 2018, the Nimi´ipuu had not made a dugout for one hundred and thirteen years. The reason for this is that throughout the process of colonization of indigenous peoples in the 1800s and 1900s, many tribes were removed from their land and prohibited from practicing their cultures. For example, their children were taken to boarding schools and taught that it was bad to live by their cultures, speak their languages, and build their canoes. The importance of the traditional canoe for the inhabitants of this land was temporarily hidden, but it is coming back. By building their traditional canoes again, indigenous peoples are reclaiming their culture.
In our fourth-grade class at Palouse Prairie Charter School (PPCS), we spent a semester studying the westward exploration and expansion of the United States, colonization, the impacts on indigenous peoples who have inhabited our region’s lands for centuries, and the cultural revival that is currently happening through the resurgence of the traditional canoe. During this time, we spent ten weeks building a David Thompson style cedar plank canoe. David Thompson was the first known explorer to navigate the length of the Columbia River, from headwaters to the Pacific Ocean. He also made some of the first maps of the region. David Thompson built many canoes on his voyages by combining European canoe forms and Indigenous techniques that he learned from peoples he met along the way. We built our canoe as an example and memory of the confluence of cultures in our region – the Northwestern United States.
The Resurgence of the Traditional Canoe – Native Perspectives
We are hoping to capture our learning and reflections in this article. Many texts available to children (and to people in general) are written from the perspective of settlers. We interviewed members of tribes in Idaho who are helping build canoes to bring back their cultures. We interviewed Nathan Piengkham from the Kalispel tribe, and Standing Red Bear (Gary Dorr) from the Nez Perce tribe in order to tell you the story from their points of view. Both Nathan and Gary have been helping people reconnect to indigenous canoe culture by building canoes together with their tribal and non-tribal communities. We have included their stories as part of the learning and reflections that we share in this article. We have also prepared transcripts of these interviews as two separate short articles following this one. We hope that their stories help you see the importance of playing an active role in the resurgence of the traditional canoe in the Northwestern United States. We also hope that their stories help you respect people that might have a different culture than you.
Standing Red Bear, our Nimi´ipuu friend helped build New Medicine, the first Nimi´ipuu dugout canoe on the Nez Perce Reservation in 113 years. He taught us about the historical and cultural importance of canoes for native peoples and led us in ceremony to extend peace and safety to all the people who help carve and will travel in this canoe.
“Canoes were our hunting rigs, our grocery carts, we rode across the river to collect berries in them. We’re building canoes again now to reclaim part of our culture.”
– Standing Red Bear, Nez Perce Tribe
Read Gary’s complete interview here
“The canoes are bringing our communities together.”
– Nathan Piengkham, Kalispel Tribe.
Read Nathan’s complete interview here
The tribes are bringing back the canoe. And it is having a very positive impact on their lives. Nathan Piengkham from the Kalispel Tribe explained, “Instead of turning to drugs and alcohol or other boring stuff, or instead of leaving the tribe and going somewhere else, now people can stay home and work with the canoes. They can learn our Salish Language of the Kalispel Tribe, and they can learn how to get the natural foods from our mountains.” As the fourth-grade crew, we are thankful to be part of this historically significant movement.
How has the confluence of cultures shaped who we are?
Throughout our semester-long learning expedition, we studied many topics in order to try to answer one overarching question. The “guiding question” we started with was “How has the confluence of cultures shaped who we are?” Throughout our studies we continually came back to this question to reflect on our own answers. An important part of figuring out how to answer this question was understanding what confluence of cultures means.
To explain the meaning of confluence of cultures, we will break it up into separate words. First, culture is how people live and interact. Many people have a different understanding of culture. In our class, we interviewed a handful of our own students to see what they think culture means. There were various different viewpoints of culture which include traditions, stories that are passed down from generation to generation that allow people to experience the history of their culture, what a person does for a living, what a person does on a daily basis, what people do and believe in, and the values we teach, learn, and live by. The important thing that we agreed on is that we all respect each other even if we are different.
We discovered that culture has many layers. The outer layers are the things that you can see, like clothing, food or language. As you get deeper into the layers the parts of culture get more meaningful and harder to see, like the social norms we follow, and our values and beliefs. An example of these layers of culture is shown in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1. The layers of culture
Second, a confluence is a place where streams or rivers merge or flow together.
A confluence of cultures is when cultures meet and merge. Sometimes when two cultures meet they flow together and sometimes they clash. Sometimes cultures come together in perfect balance and sometimes not. We studied the clash of cultures that occurred between Columbus and the Arawaks, and between settlers and indigenous peoples during colonization as the United States expanded its territory westward. We also studied the flow of cultures that occurred when the Nimi´ipuu welcomed Lewis and Clark, nursed them back to good health and showed them the way to the Pacific Ocean. We studied many examples of the confluence of cultures in Idaho’s history, both positive and negative. But did you know that we are an example of the confluence of cultures just by doing this expedition? We visited the site in Lapwai, Idaho where the Nimi´ipuu were building their canoe New Medicine, and we also went to the Lapwai Senior’s Center and to the Lapwai Boys and Girls Club to spread kindness. Both are real examples of the confluence of cultures in our lives as fourth graders.
The confluence of cultures has shaped our ancestors, our own personal histories, and continues to shape our lives today. We spent ten weeks building our canoe as a symbol of the confluence of cultures in our lives – past, present, and future.
Building a David Thompson-style cedar plank canoe
Step 1: The math
In building a canoe, the first step is the math. We had to do some mathematical calculations to see how much wood to buy and to create a good plan for building. Without doing the math for the canoe we might have bought the wrong amount of wood, went over our budget, or wasted resources. We started by making estimations, which got better the further we got into the process of building our canoe. Eventually all the measurements added up and then we were ready to start building it! Here is an example of how we applied fourth-grade math to calculate how much wood we would need for the ribs of the canoe.
We knew the canoe would be 22 feet long. We multiplied 22 feet by 12 inches (because there are 12 inches in one foot) to find that the canoe would be 264 inches long. We also knew that every four inches, there would be a two-inch rib and a two-inch open space. So, we divided 264 inches by 4 inches, to find that we would need a total of 66 ribs for the canoe. Next, we needed to find the average length of the ribs in order to decide how much wood we needed to buy to make the ribs. We used Burning Wisdom, (the canoe that last year’s fourth-grade crew built) to take some measurements. We found that Burning Wisdom also had 66 ribs and the average length of these ribs was 52 inches. Then, we multiplied 66 ribs by 52 inches to find that we would need 3,432 inches of wood for the ribs. Then, we converted this to linear feet by dividing 3,432 inches by 12 inches to get a total of 286 linear feet. So, we knew we would need 286 linear feet of wood for the ribs.
Step 2: The gunwale
Then we made the gunwale, which is two long planks bent together to make the top shape of the canoe. The gunwale consists of inner and outer planks called the inwale and the outwale.
Step 3: The keel
Xander (pronounced Zander), our canoe-building guide, built the keel board. It consisted of three small boards glued together and bent into a “C” like shape. We connected each end of the keel to each end of the gunwale. This formed the frame of the canoe!
Step 4: The ribs
Then we soaked the rib planks in water so that we could carefully bend them into the shape of the ribs. We used last year’s canoe (Burning Wisdom) to bend the ribs over so that we could get the correct shape of the wood for each rib. Then, we screwed the end of each rib to the gunwale and the middle of each rib to the keel so that the ribs would stay in place. Together the ribs, keel and gunwale are like the skeleton of the canoe.
Step 5: The planks
Next, we built the planks. The planks are like the skin on a human. The planks are many long, flat pieces of wood covering the ribs so that water cannot get in while we are paddling in the river. The planks of the canoe are like the skin on a human.
Step 6: The fiberglass layer and epoxy
Next, we covered the outside of the canoe with a transparent fiberglass cloth, covered in epoxy. These layers will help keep water out of the canoe, but still let us appreciate the wood of our handmade cedar plank canoe.
Step 7: The name
Giving a name is an important part of welcoming a new canoe into the canoe family. Our class felt very lucky to help bring culture and canoes back to the native peoples of the land where we now live. Every canoe gives a little bit of culture back to the indigenous peoples in the area, which we took away from them long ago. As a crew we decided to name our canoe Blooming Culture because blooming means coming back. Flowers bloom in the spring, but they are always there as seeds. The tribes were never really gone and now they are making a huge effort to make their cultures more visible to tribal and non-tribal peoples. We should respect their cultures and help them with these efforts. Blooming Culture will send the message that culture is blooming again and canoes are helping with that. Our canoe is helping to bring back culture.
Step 8: Family mottos and paint
After studying how indigenous storytelling reveals culture and values, we interviewed our family members about our own family values and culture. We wrote stories with our “family motto” as the theme, and we each woodburned our family motto on the inside of the gunwale.
Finally, it was time to paint our canoe. We wanted our canoe to represent the seven directions in indigenous way of life that our experts taught us about. We painted our canoe with a medicine wheel to symbolize how it will carry our greatest hopes to all four cardinal directions – North, East, South and West. The stripes on the bottom of the canoe represent the fifth and sixth directions – green for Earth and blue for Sky. And the children sitting in the middle paddling the canoe represent the seventh direction – The Center.
The paddle-making process
Making paddles is an important part of the canoe-building process. You have to have a paddle to go out on the water in a canoe. Standing Red Bear told us that Nimi´ipuu children used to carve paddles while the men did the heavy working with logs to build the canoes. Similarly, this semester we worked on carving our paddles while we were waiting to learn a new step to build our canoe, or for our turn to do a specific job. Each fourth-grade student hand-carved their own cedar paddle. Together we made twenty-four paddles. Just like our canoe, all twenty-four of our paddles also help to bring back culture.
To make our paddles, first we had to find a cedar board that was about our height from the ground up to our chin. Next, we measured the distance from our armpit to the tip of our fingers to find the length of our shaft. Then, we used these measurements to draw out the shape of our paddle on our board. Then we used a hand planer and a spokeshave to take off layers and layers of wood until we liked the weight of the paddle and its general shape. The hand planer helped with taking off large curls of wood and rounding the edges. The spokeshave was good for shaving off smaller layers and with more detailed rounding.
Finally, we were ready to sand. We started by marking with crayon the places on one side of the paddle that needed to be sanded. First, we used 60 grit sandpaper to take all the crayon marks off then repeated the process with 100 grit, then 120, and lastly 150 grit. We repeated this same process on the other side. When both sides were smooth and soft, we were done sanding and ready to decorate our paddles. We used a hand saw to cut off chunks of wood we didn’t need, like the top of the ribs that stuck out above the gunwale.
We decorated the shaft and handle of the paddles by woodburning quotes with a message about protecting the cultural and natural resources of the land that native and non-native peoples share, and the importance of creating a true confluence of cultures. We collaborated with PPCS seventh-grade students who painted coastal formline art on the blades to express the connection between rivers, salmon and orcas, work which was guided by Samish Nation artists and part of their middle school spring learning expedition.
The power of the EL Education Model
Our school, Palouse Prairie Charter School, uses the EL Education (formerly called Expeditionary Learning) model. In this model, we balance rigor and joy. This means that we learn new things, and have fun while meeting Idaho State Education Standards for Social Studies, Literacy, Art and Humanities, and Science. The paddles and canoe we built shows how EL Education encourages us go out into the world, explore new ideas and work with and for people instead of only sitting at a desk to meet fourth-grade standards.
A key component of EL Education are the experts that teach us and help us with our projects. We want you to know about the many people who spent their time and energy to help us in this project. Two experienced canoe builders from Voyages of Rediscovery, The River School spent ten weeks guiding us through every step of building our canoe and carving our paddles. Several additional experienced canoe and paddle wood workers in the region helped us find better techniques to carve our paddles and helped us build our canoe. Several regional tribal members taught us about their cultures, shared stories with us, led us in ceremonies, and joined us in the canoe-building process. Two experienced storytellers from the University of Idaho taught us some storytelling techniques. An employee of NRS taught us how to be safe on the water for our canoe trip. Members of indigenous canoe families performed a naming ceremony for our canoe at our paddle trip and paddled with us in their own handmade dugout canoes. And a professor from the University of Idaho helped us write this article so we could share our story with you. All of this work was made possible by the financial support of the Nez Perce Tribe Local Education Program Fund and the Latah County Community Foundation. Thank you all for helping us!
Another key element of the EL Education model is Celebration of Learning, or a public event where we share our discoveries and hard work with our community. As our Celebration of Learning, we organized a paddle and camping trip to take our canoe on its first journey. On June 2-3, 2018 we paddled our canoe on the Snake River, together with traditional canoe families from throughout the Pacific Northwest region. At this event, two members of the regional indigenous canoe family led us in a naming ceremony to give Blooming Culture her name.
A canoe is a sacred piece of art and hard work that many Native Americans had lost and now are bringing back. Canoes are culture that needs to be preserved.” -Fourth-grade student
As fourth-grade students, we gained respect, understanding and curiosity about indigenous history and culture. When our teacher asked us about the most important things we learned in this project, one student said, “I discovered that the confluence of cultures was really a clash of cultures, like Gary said. We didn’t really flow together. The settlers pushed the Nez Perce off their land and forced them to leave. I now know that my house is really on Nez Perce land.” Another student stated, “I learned about the past, how hard it was, and how we still ended up in peace. I learned that we can have peace even when it is hard.” Another student said, “Our project matters because we went back in history and talked about what actually did happen and what should have happened.”
Our teacher also asked us about our hopes for the future confluence of cultures in Idaho. One student replied, “I hope that more people will care about the past. If kids keep learning about our history, I think we can keep honoring the people who did amazing things for us. It’s incredible how hard so many people fought to keep their tribes together when we moved onto their land. We all need to remember this.” Another student answered, “I hope that this canoe keeps reminding us of the past and remembering the amazing people of the past, and the amazing people of now. We need to remember what it was like in the past and what people went through, and I think this canoe is a good reminder!”
The PPCS fourth-grade crew would like to thank the many individuals for supporting us academically and personally throughout this project. We could not have done it without you!