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!
Photo courtesy of Mike Brown.
Not One More Cute Project for the Kids:
Neal Maine’s Educational Vision
by Gregory A. Smith
Lewis & Clark College, Professor Emeritus
(see Part One here)
Sustaining Neal’s Place-Based Vision of Education: Lessons Learned
Despite the power and attractiveness of these educational practices, few of them remain in evidence after the close to 20 years since Neal retired and started devoting his time to land conservation and nature photography, one of the reasons he sought me out to document central elements of his work in Seaside and the north coast. He is thus well aware of the difficulty of institutionalizing teaching approaches that run contrary to the direction embraced by most contemporary schools. Part of the reason behind this outcome might be related to the way this dilemma is framed in dualistic terms. Rather than seeing the implementation of Neal’s vision as an either-or proposition, a more productive strategy might be to adopt a both-and perspective and then find ways that more of the kinds of things that Neal encouraged could become part of the mainstream educational agenda, not replacing what is now familiar and widely accepted but balancing this with an approach capable of generating higher levels of student engagement, ownership, and meaning. To that end, here are six lessons I take from what I’ve learned from Neal over the years:
- Give as much priority to student questions as to required standards.
- Value excited learners as much as competent test takers.
- Make as much time for community and outside-of-classroom explorations as the mastery of textbook knowledge.
- Create organizational structures that encourage creativity as much as accountability.
- Encourage teachers to partner with students as co-learners as much as they serve as their instructors.
- Develop teachers as alert to unexpected learning opportunities as they are to curricular requirements.
Give as much priority to student questions as to required standards. Human beings are intellectually primed to investigate questions whose answers are not immediately apparent. Think of the appeal of mystery novels, movies, or television programs, our attraction to riddles, the appeal of crossword puzzles. Although these formats involve no ownership on the part of readers, listeners, or players, they still are capable of eliciting attention and time commitment. Even more powerful are the questions we come up with ourselves. Part of the power of the educational approach Neal encouraged teachers to develop lay in the way he tapped into this human desire. Here’s one more story from the tour as an example of the possible. The students who had been involved in the Pompey Wetlands project at one point got ahold of a tape recorder and oscilloscope and began recording one another’s laughter. They had been studying the sounds and images (on the oscilloscope) of whale songs. They wondered whether their individual laughter would have some of the same recognizable visual features on the oscilloscope as what they had observed with whales. They found that they did and after a time could associate different visual patterns with the laughter of specific students in the classroom. Imagine their fascination at having made this discovery. Such fascination is the stuff of serious learning.
Value excited learners as much as competent test takers. Making time for student questions Is one way to excite learning. Another is to provide the opportunity to do things as well as hear about them or meet people as well as read about them. Part of that doing can be as simple as taking a walk in the woods or planting a garden. Part of it could involve designing an experiment to see whether moss really does only grow on the north side of trees. Part of it could involve participating in a group that sees what’s on the river bottom across a transect of the Columbia River. The possibilities of the doing and the investigating are nearly limitless. Such learning opportunities take advantage of human curiosity and the pleasure our species takes in gaining new skills and competencies. I can imagine some of the stories that children who had learned to keep a boat on straight course across the Columbia must have told their parents when they got home that evening—or what students who participated as photographers in the Day in the Life project shared. Not all learning experiences in school will be as memorable or as exciting as these, but some of them should be and not only on an infrequent basis. Things should be happening in school that fire students’ imaginations and intellects, things that instill in them a desire to learn more. Mastery of information for tests of one sort or another is one the requirements of life in modern societies, and it is a mastery we desire from the experts we turn to when in need of medical, legal, or mechanical services. The demand for such testing is not going to go away. But what ignites deep learning is an emotional connection with different topics, the personalization of learning that Neal sought to spread throughout the Seaside School District, something much more likely to happen by getting kids into the thick of things and engaging them in projects that demand their involvement.
Make as much time for community and outside-of-classroom explorations as the mastery of textbook knowledge. The knowledge found within textbooks is not without value; it is, after all, one of the central tasks of education to transmit culture to the young. At issue is whether this culture is being linked to the lives of children and youth in ways that communicate its significance and meaning. In the past, the authority (and fear) invested in teachers, ministers, and older relatives was enough to ensure the attention of many children to these issues. This is no longer the case in part thanks to the media, to mass culture, and to the weakening of traditional institutions like the family, school, and church. Place-based educators argue that one way to address this issue involves situating learning within the context of students’ own lived experience and the experience of people in their community. When this learning also engages them in the investigation of important local issues and provides them with the opportunity to share their findings with other peers and adults, so much the better. One of the strongest motivators for human participation is the chance to engage in activities that are purposeful and valued by others. Experiences like the health fair described earlier can both encourage involvement and strengthen students’ mastery of the knowledge and skills their teachers are attempting to convey to them. More students, furthermore, seem likely to produce higher quality work when they grasp its social significance and know it will be viewed and examined by community members as well as their teacher.
Create organizational structures that encourage creativity as much as accountability. One of the consequences of the standards and accountability movement since the 1980s has been the tendency on the part of many educators to teach to the test and for their administrators to assess their competence on the basis of students’ scores. School administrators have also become more likely to require teachers to justify the activities they bring into the classroom on the basis of specific curricular aims or benchmarks. Given the degree to which schools, for decades, have failed to adequately prepare non-White and lower income students, accountability structures are clearly needed, but the way they are currently being used has resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum and a reduction in teachers’ ability to respond to learning opportunities presented by either students or community members. Place- and community-based education requires the capacity to improvise and make use of instructional possibilities that present themselves during the school year; these possibilities can’t always be anticipated. Embracing them demands the willingness of teachers to follow interesting leads while at the same time looking for ways that curricular requirements can be addressed by doing so. When schools impose both constraints and reward structures that inhibit this kind of flexibility, fewer teachers become willing to experiment in the way teachers who worked with Neal were able to. School districts can go a long way to encouraging creativity by inviting innovative teachers like Neal to share their expertise with others, either as teachers on special assignment or as members of within-district teams responsible for professional development. Addressing policies that affect daily schedules, the school calendar, and transportation requests can also do much to make learning in the community both possible and accessible.
Encourage teachers to partner with students as co-learners as much as they serve as their instructors. It is not surprising that teachers feel uncomfortable about venturing into unfamiliar intellectual terrain with their students, something that gaining knowledge about what may be a new or minimally examined place and community will necessarily require. The same thing is true of pursuing questions that aren’t going to be answered by the textbook but demand data gathering and analysis. Teaching in this way involves a certain relinquishment of control and the willingness to trust students to be engaged participants in a process of collective learning. This doesn’t mean that a teacher only becomes a “guide on the side” completely following students’ lead and offering assistance only when needed. The teacher instead becomes a “model learner,” the person in the room with more expertise in knowing how to frame questions, seek out information, assess its credibility, locate appropriate experts, create experiments, organize data and analyze findings, and prepare presentations. There will still be a need for mini-lessons about specific content tied into students’ investigations, but the primary task of a teacher with many place-based units will be—like a graduate school advisor—to demonstrate what it means to be an independent learner committed to uncovering the truth inherent in different situations—just as some of the students attempted to discover whether moss always grows on the north side of trees when they began asking questions of the watershed. Moving into a role like this will be disconcerting for many teachers, but the rewards can be worth their initial discomfort as they find themselves no longer teaching the same thing every year but joining their students in a process of intellectual discovery and knowledge creation.
Develop teachers as alert to unexpected learning opportunities as they are to curricular requirements. Enacting the previous five suggestions involves cultivating teachers who feel competent enough about their capacity as educators–drawing upon an analogy from the kitchen–to invent new and healthful dishes from ingredients at hand as they do following recipes. Recipes are certainly useful, but the test of an experienced cook is found in what they can create from scratch. Toward the end of our day together, Neal told a story about a storm-felled Sitka spruce in a park just across the street from a local middle school. Neal and a teacher there recognized the learning potentiality of this fallen giant and were able to forestall city employees for a couple of weeks as students conducted a tree necropsy. Especially valuable was the possibility of seeing at ground level the biological activity that goes on at the crown of a mature tree. In many instances, this learning resource would have been seen as no more than a mess to be cleaned up rather than an opportunity for an in-depth and unique scientific investigation. Novice and even experienced teachers need to be exposed to stories like this one that invite them to consider possibilities they may have never or rarely encountered during the course of their own education. Neal recognized that teaching in this way might be more of an art form than something that cab be easily taught but still offered the following guidance: “Don’t sleep on the way to school. Have your brain engaged. Always be looking for opportunities to make it come to life, especially if it’s community based. That really makes it work!”
Paying It Forward
My day-long journey through a partial history of Neal Maine’s work in Seaside deepened my understanding of his vision of the possible and at the same time his frustration with how difficult it has been to get many of his good ideas to stick. Early in our conversation he spoke of the way our society’s conventional vision of schooling constrains the education he believes needs to happen if young people are to grow into responsible citizens able to bring fresh and potentially more appropriate ideas to the challenges of living in the 21st century. Rather than asking students to be the passive recipients of information passed on to them by others in an effort to prepare them for adulthood and citizenship, educators need to give children the chance to participate now as data gatherers, knowledge producers, and community participants. As Neal put it, “You ought to exploit someone who is uncontaminated with having the same old answer. . . . How much could you exploit them, so to speak, in a positive, productive, humane, and sincere way? The irony of it is that the effort to exploit that capacity becomes the most powerful preparation possible for a later point in your life cycle which is what we should call adulthood.” This, not the creation of “one more cute project for the kids,” was Neal’s aim when he attempted to stimulate educational innovation in districts along the Northern Oregon and Southern Washington coast and influenced the thinking of rural educators across the United States as a board member of the Annenberg Rural Challenge.
He found that institutionalizing changes like the ones he enacted is not easy. A similar lesson was learned through the Rural Challenge, as well. As a board member of the Rural School and Community Trust I had a chance to be in touch with a number of the schools or districts that had received grants from the earlier Rural Challenge. Without the added resources and the network of support provided by that well-funded effort, it was difficult for teachers and administrators to sustain the work they had accomplished during that five-year period.
Regardless of these difficulties, ideas set in motion during that time are continuing to evolve. One of Neal’s Oregon colleagues, Jon Yoder, played a significant role in shaping the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative in Michigan that has sought to make environmental stewards out of the state’s children and youth for over a decade. Much of the work done there bears the stamp of Neal’s efforts, affecting over 115,000 students since the program began in 2007 (https://greatlakesstewardship.org/). Across the United States, a survey of place- and community-based educators completed in 2016 surfaced over 150 schools that are retooling their curriculum and instruction in ways that advance the aims Neal pursued in the Pacific Northwest (https://awesome-table.com/-KlsuLBGU0pYWpjFH1uh/view). Many other schools were also surfaced through a project sponsored by the Getting Smart website that has created a blog where teachers have been able to post their own stories about place-based education (http://www.gettingsmart.com/categories/series/place-based-education/). Finally, well-established institutions like Eastern Michigan University (https://www.emich.edu/coe/news/2016/2016-05-10-a-new-wave-of-urban-education.php) and the Teton Science Schools in Wyoming (https://education-reimagined.org/pioneers/teton-science-schools/) are creating teacher education and professional development programs aimed at preparing teachers able to embrace and then deliver learning experiences likely to lead to the forms of participation, citizenship, and community change Neal hoped to engender.
Whether schools on their own will be able to support and sustain innovations like these remains an open question, but the persistence of these ideas and the possibilities they are stimulating seem hopeful. Believing as I do that cultures change more through the telling of stories than bureaucratic manipulation, I encourage readers to have conversations about the work of Neal Maine and his educational vision. Going even further, for those of you who are teachers, try some of these possibilities out in your own schools and communities and see what happens. Then share your experiences with others—both the things that work and those that don’t. Learn from one another. As a tribute to Neal and the future, let’s see how long we can keep these ideas alive and how far we might be able to spread them.
Greg Smith is an emeritus professor who taught for 23 years in the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College. He’s keeping busy in his retirement serving on the board of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative in Michigan and the educational advisory committee of the Teton Science Schools in Wyoming; at home, he’s co-chairing a local committee that is seeking to develop curriculum regarding the Portland-Multnomah County Climate Action Plan. He is the author or editor of six books including Place- and Community-Based Education in Schools with David Sobel.
Cultivating Ecological Teachers and Learners Using Project Learning Tree
by Jaclyn Stallard
from The Branch, Project Learning Tree’s E-newsletter Summer 2014
“Ecological teaching and learning is not just a matter of pedagogy, but also philosophy. Ecological teaching and learning represents a new life-affirming mindset that all teachers—and, to a larger extent, all citizens and all Earth’s human inhabitants—must adopt for a sustainable future. This philosophy embraces interconnectedness and systems thinking, challenging the Western notion of separateness. This type of teaching and learning develops and fosters an individual and collective ecological consciousness as humans move through life and relate to themselves, others, and the world around them.”
Read the full article here
Rivers reveal their secrets to Idaho students researching water quality through rigorous scientific inquiry
Photos and story by Suzie Boss
Squiggly blue lines cover the map of Idaho, a state with more than 2,000 lakes and hundreds of miles of rivers. From the perspective of veteran science teacher Bob Beckwith, all that water means that nearly every Idaho student has easy access to a creek, a stream, or a lake. “Probably 95 percent of the state’s population lives along a watershed,” he estimates. And where there’s water, Beckwith can promise you, there’s a science project worth pursuing.
On an early winter morning, for example, Beckwith and fellow Eagle High School biology teacher Steve DeMers loaded three classes of warmly dressed sophomores and armloads of scientific gear onto a school bus and headed off on an all-day investigation of water quality along the Boise River. By the day’s end, students had made four stops to gather data between the mouth of the river and headwaters in the mountains west of Boise. They waded midstream to collect invertebrates and dipped their hands into icy currents to test ph and oxygen levels. They checked and rechecked their measurements, keeping careful track of resulting numbers for future analysis.
Despite the frosty weather and the high spirits that come with escaping the classroom, students resisted the urge to hurl snowballs. And all day long, there was no whining. Every student participating in the trip was there by choice, doing what Beckwith calls “real science.”
Since he began teaching in 1972, Beckwith has been using projects to introduce his students to the scientific method. There’s no shortage of evidence that it’s an effective strategy. Beckwith himself is a past recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in teaching secondary science. Several of his students have won regional and national honors in elite science competitions, and many have gone on to launch careers in engineering, biology, medicine, and other fields that require a deep understanding of science. Even students who aren’t destined for technical careers, Beckwith points out, gain the benefit of “learning to ask a question and figure out the answer. That’s how I define science literacy.”
On the banks of the Boise River, three girls from Eagle High interrupted their fieldwork to explain the appeal of project-based learning. “We learn so much more this way compared to reading a book,” said one. “You get to experience it yourself, so you really understand what something like turbidity means,” added another. “This applies to me,” explained the third girl. “This is a river where I might want to swim or go fishing. The quality of this water matters. It’s important. And I have the tools right here to find out whether or not it’s clean,” she said, holding up a vial of river water she was evaluating for the presence of nitrates. Although she knew there would be more analysis to be done later, back in the classroom, she had already gained one insight from taking snapshots along different parts of the river: “Upstream, away from the city, the water gets cleaner.”
photo, kids gathering specimens from the river bottom
photo, examining a screen for macro invertebrates
photo, testing water quality
photo, giving the results to the teacher
During a winter day spent collecting data along the Boise River, students in hip waders used a kick screen to gather specimens from the river bottom (at top); examined the screen for macro invertebrates; tested water quality; and, finally, reported their numbers to teacher Bob Beckwith (bottom, right, with clipboard).
Through an ambitious effort he launched several years ago, Beckwith also helps other Idaho teachers acquire the skills, equipment, and confidence they need to incorporate project-based learning into their classes. Project SITE—which stands for Students Investigating Today’s Environment—engages students and teachers across the state in projects involving scientific inquiry into water quality, noxious weeds, and other real-world concerns.
Beckwith co-directs SITE with David Redfield, dean of health and science at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa. Support for the project has come from a variety of sources, including several Idaho colleges, school-to-work partnerships, the state department of education, Idaho Rangeland Commission, and private funders such as the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.
More than 200 teachers have gone through SITE training, which immerses them in the same kind of project-based learning they will later orchestrate with their own students. The core of training is an intensive, five-day summer workshop that reminds teachers why science is best understood through active learning. Little time is spent listening to lectures or reading texts. Instead, teachers do real fieldwork, rafting the Salmon River to collect data that relate to water quality or surveying plant life to assess the spread of noxious weeds.
“It’s not lecture/read/do a canned experiment,” Beckwith says. “We might talk for short periods about things they don’t understand very well, then provide them with an experience where they can pose questions and do research to figure out the answers. So it’s a steep learning curve. We model how science works. Science is not a textbook—that’s a history book of facts that scientists have already learned by asking questions. Those facts are an important foundation,” he acknowledges, “but real science involves going out and answering new questions.”
Between Monday and Friday of a typical training week, “teachers learn everything they need to be classroom ready,” Beckwith says. Participants also come away with armloads of gear provided by SITE. “We don’t just train them and then expect them to find a way to buy their own equipment,” he says. “We give them all the stuff they need,” he says, such as test kits, digital cameras, and a manual he wrote in accessible language to guide students through nine scientifically valid field tests designed to measure water quality.
In return, teachers agree to take their students out on data-gathering projects at least three times during the school year. They also bring SITE students together to present their projects during an annual Idaho Student Showcase Day in the spring. By fulfilling their end of the bargain, teachers can earn a stipend.
Providing teachers with such extensive support means that the SITE organizers have had to devote considerable energy to writing grants and reaching out to potential funders. The program invests about $1,500 per teacher on training and supplies, Beckwith estimates. But the investment pays off, he says, by “freeing teachers to focus on teaching.” Water quality —which integrates biology, chemistry, and physics—continues to be a prime focus of fieldwork, but funding for research on weeds has led to new SITE projects in the area of life sciences. “As long as we can collect data, work as a team, and ask questions, then it’s a valid project,” Beckwith says.
To be sure, project-based learning puts high demands on the instructor. “This takes energy,” Beckwith admits at the end of a cold day spent outdoors with a busload of teenagers. But for teachers who enjoy being learners themselves, this style of teaching “helps prevent burnout,” he adds. “It lets teachers engage in questions, too. They have to know enough to help students figure out the answers. As a teacher, you have to allow students to go places even if you don’t know the answers.”
Some teachers need a little “nurturing,” Beckwith admits, to gain the confidence to launch students on challenging projects outside the confines of the classroom. “For others, this way of learning fits so well with their teaching style—it’s natural. They pick it right up.” When Beckwith explains SITE methods to teachers who already believe in active learning, “you just have to put the idea on the table and then run to get out of their way!”
photo, girl using water quality equipment
Students use scientific equipment to measure water quality indicators— not once, but three times. Later, back in the classroom, their numbers will be added to a statewide database. Their first field lesson: accuracy counts.
Shannon Laughlin was in her first year of teaching middle school science when she saw a flyer about Project SITE. She signed up for two weeks of workshops last summer, including a five-day raft trip along the Salmon River.
“You work your tail off,” she recalls, laughing. “You’re on the river nine hours a day, then talk more about science at night. It’s wonderful!” Although Laughlin holds degrees in both plant science and entomology, she had never done fieldwork. “This kind of hands-on training gives you a chance to prepare,” she says, “so you’re ready when it’s time to take your kids out.”
Last fall, Laughlin began introducing her students at Marsing Middle School to project-based learning. For students and teacher alike, Project SITE has been a journey of surprises. “My kids started by asking me, ‘What are we going to find out?'” Laughlin would tell them: “I don’t know. You’re the scientists.” Project SITE is worlds removed from what Laughlin calls “canned labs, where you can guess what the results should be. What’s neat about this is, you don’t know ahead of time what you’re going to learn. I like to do things where I don’t know the answers in advance.”
Laughlin’s students have been using SITE protocols to test water quality along the Snake River, which runs right through their community and is only a five-minute bus ride from the school. “They fish in this river and swim in it. The river is a part of their life. So they have a personal stake in asking: Is it clean?” That question has led them to others, such as: What affects water quality—agriculture? pollutants? animals?
Although Laughlin says SITE has opened the door to powerful learning opportunities that build science literacy, that’s not the only benefit she’s witnessed. Using field-tested SITE methods, she asked her students to break into teams and choose their own captains. “The ones they chose as captains are not necessarily the usual leaders. But these kids blew me out of the water,” Laughlin admits. “Natural leadership does not always show up in the classroom. These kids did a great job, and it gave them a chance they might not have had otherwise to demonstrate their leadership, their competence.” She enjoyed sharing that observation with her principal, who came along on the first field trip and has become an enthusiastic supporter of the project.
Power Of Teamwork
Beckwith knows from experience that teamwork is a valuable component of SITE projects. “The tasks are such that one person can’t do it alone,” he explains. “Students have to work in teams, and team members have to depend on each other.” Back in the classroom, teams share test results as part of their quality assurance. “If the teams get similar results,” he explains, “they know they’re on target.” Because data are entered into a SITE database that students all over the state can access for research, accuracy is critical.
What’s more, the team approach to research allows all learners to contribute, no matter how diverse their skill levels or how different their learning styles. “Out in the field, they all can be active participants,” Beckwith says. “Nobody’s sitting on the bench. When they come back into the classroom, they can share their data. Every number offers some valuable information.
David Redfield, a professor of chemistry at Northwest Nazarene University in addition to being co-director of SITE, is convinced that such projects “are not just for the elite students. It’s amazing to see kids who are not particularly strong in traditional classroom settings step up and take on a leadership role on a team. They all can use their strengths.
At the university, teamwork skills are valued, Redfield notes. The depth of science literacy that SITE fosters should help prepare students for the rigor of college-level work. “By the time they reach the university, we should be seeing students who are further along as scientists,” he predicts.
SITE not only introduces students to the process of scientific inquiry, Redfield says, but also gives them enough practice in fieldwork so they can start to become confident researchers. “It’s important for them to go out at least three times during the school year to gather data,” he explains. “The first time they do the tests, it feels like a lab exercise. They’re just learning how to use the equipment, take the measurements. But by going into the real world to gather data, then returning to the classroom to analyze results, they can start to look for patterns. They ask questions to figure out why they got the results they did. It becomes a real experience—the numbers have relevance.”
As students repeat the data-gathering process, “the repetition builds their skills,” Redfield says. “If the data seem off, they can take a close look at how they’re collecting samples. That’s a problem-solving exercise right there—to figure out how to correct their methods in the field. They start to know enough to question results if the numbers seem flawed or wrong. That takes confidence.” As students repeat the cycle of posing a hypothesis, gathering data, and analyzing results, “it takes them deeper and deeper into understanding what’s happening, and why,” Redfield says. “When they’re confident about their numbers, then they can move on to ask: What are these numbers telling us? Why did the oxygen go down? What else changed? Is there a relationship, a pattern?”
Beckwith also takes a long-term view of where Project SITE might lead. “Once they learn to use this model, students should be able to apply scientific inquiry to questions of their own. There should be some students in every class who get really excited, really curious. They can take off on their own investigations,” he says.
He’s seen it happen. One of his former students became curious about Mars, and went on to design an experiment that won a national competition sponsored by NASA. Another girl had to miss some class time because her family was traveling to India. She packed along a water quality kit and tested samples of the Ganges and other rivers, which she compared to the water quality of Idaho rivers.
Recently, Beckwith received an e-mail from a student, now a junior in college, asking for a letter of reference for graduate school applications. It was in his biology class, doing Project SITE, that she did her first fieldwork and became inspired to become a scientist. Beckwith will know when project-based learning really takes off in Idaho and transforms the culture of the classroom, “because we’ll be flooded with letters like that one. It’s far better than any test score,” he says, “for measuring success.”
What’s in SITE?
Teachers currently involved in Project SITE recently came together for an all-day workshop to share information about their classroom activities. Their experiences show that project-based teaching methods can work in a variety of settings and appeal to a wide range of learners. Among the examples:
At Kuna High School, students can start participating in SITE activities as freshmen, in Ken Lewis‘s ninth-grade biology class. “We focus on ecology, and use SITE to explore biotic indicators like macro invertebrates. Working in groups, they come up with some great hypotheses,” he says. Later, when students take chemistry and physics, they use SITE inquiry methods again. “I see a bump in their understanding,” says teacher Mike Weidenfeld. “They have better techniques, deeper understanding.” In chemistry, for example, he uses SITE “as a springboard.” Collecting water samples “gets kids to ask questions like, Why is ph important?”
Roy Gasparotti teaches a yearlong projects class for seventh-graders at New Plymouth Middle School and says SITE “fits right in. Interdisciplinary projects are part of our curriculum.” He asks students to assess whether water samples “are good or bad. Then they develop PowerPoint presentations with their data. It’s more fun for kids to work with their own numbers, to graph data they have collected. It’s more meaningful to them.” Fellow teacher Craig Mefford works with the same students on writing their hypotheses and making carefully worded observations.
Will Zollman, who teaches agricultural science at Midvale Junior-Senior High, took a SITE training session on weeds last summer, along with his superintendent and a school board member. So district support for project-based learning is a given. “This has added to my teaching,” he says. “It’s made me look at weeds in a different way—how do they affect rangeland? What can we do about them?” Those are questions he hopes to have his students exploring through fieldwork this spring.
Steve DeMers, who teaches at Eagle High School, has been involved with SITE for three years. “I want to take it a step further,” he says, to get students to consider deeper questions after they have gathered data. He has students use their test results to create graphs with Excel software. “Then I ask them to look for trends. What should a graph look like? Can they explain what’s happening, and why? I’m trying to get them to recognize patterns.”
John Pedersen, a middle school teacher in Nampa, took a SITE workshop early in his teaching career and has been using project-based methods ever since. This year, students are doing water and weather studies. “One student trains the next to enter data,” he explains.
Chad Anzen at Fruitland High School is starting to see students who have had the benefit of project-based learning as early as middle school. “We have a middle school teacher who does SITE, and I’m getting those kids now in high school. They take off so much faster. They act like teachers themselves,” he says, “helping their classmates understand how to do field tests.” By the time the same students take advanced biology, he adds, “they’re ready to go to the step of analyzing. It’s exciting.”