River of Learning: Seventh Graders To Embark on Interdisciplinary Expedition

Ann Sciglimpaglia,  Head of the Middle School

The Middle School years, when students are brimming with energy and curiosity, offer the perfect opportunity for exploratory or “expeditionary” learning. It’s the ideal time for them to take a deep dive into learning that’s experiential, immersive and interdisciplinary – learning that allows them to explore new ideas, connect learning from different areas of study, and to examine the region and community where they live in an entirely new way.

This September, seventh graders and their teachers will embark on an expedition to create just such an experience. For an entire semester, they’ll be intensely engaged in an interdisciplinary study of the lifeblood of human civilization and culture in the Connecticut River Valley: water.

The Expedition

The Connecticut River Watershed will become our classroom. We will follow the river wherever it takes us to ask the essential question: What is the power of water?

Like any authentic quest, our expedition will lead us into the unknown and generate a range of emotions, including real and perceived risk, discomfort, surprise, and exhilaration. Our students will make this voyage of discovery as crew, not passengers. They’ll be relying not on teachers, but on their own collective knowledge and problem-solving ability. They will experience both successes and failures.

Through the lenses of science, history, and literature, students will examine the biological, chemical, geological and hydraulic features of water, its role in sustaining and shaping the economic, political and societal structures of indigenous peoples and European and African settlers in the region, and the cultural and metaphoric meanings and interpretations of rivers as expressed in myths, legends, writing, and art.

Most importantly, this process will build and strengthen their skills as thinkers, readers, writers, researchers, analysts, and synthesizers.

H-2-O Odyssey

As scientists, students will investigate questions such as: What are the sources of water in the Connecticut Valley? How has water shaped and carved the landscape? How have humans sought to use, control and distribute water and what effects have their efforts produced? What does a healthy watershed look like?

They’ll take a canoe trip from Hartford to Long Island Sound, conduct fieldwork to collect data on the quality of water and the flora and fauna in the watershed, and assemble field guides describing and cataloging the river’s environment.

Plunging into the Past, Present, and Future

As historians, students will ask: How did water shape the farming, hunting, fishing and trading patterns of Native American and European settlers in the region? What role did water play in the slave trade, the Pequot War and King Phillip’s War, and the American Revolution? How did waterpower lead to the development of manufacturing in the area? They’ll take field trips to archeological sites, dams, former factories and canals, and historical museums and homes.

They’ll also assess the state of the river today and discover how local, state and federal laws and public opinion affect how we currently use the river. They’ll analyze the impact of current policies and practices and on the future of the Connecticut River Valley.

Lapping Up Literature

As readers and writers, students will examine the inspiration that rivers have furnished for myth and literature. What is the role of rivers in legends and origins stories? How have novelists, essayists, poets, musicians and artists such as Walt Whitman, Gary Paulsen, Mary Oliver, Langston Hughes, and Billy Collins drawn on rivers as metaphors and sources of meaning? Students will keep personal journals and write their own narratives and creative responses to their experiences. They’ll create a literary magazine and podcasts featuring their writing.

River Keepers

During the course of their journey, students will interview key stakeholders in the river’s fate – farmers, hydrologists, naturalists, environmentalists, engineers, public officials, including KO alum Chris Hayes of Riverfront Recapture, State Archeologist Nick Bellantoni, former State Historian Walt Woodward, WNPR environmental reporter Patrick Skahill, master fly fisherman Iain Sorrell, Connecticut Poet Laureate Margaret Gibson and KO alum Benjamin Bachman, author of the book “Upstream: A Voyage on the Connecticut River,” as well as curators, scientists and conservationists at the Connecticut River Museum, the Connecticut River Conservancy, the Connecticut Audubon Society, and Trout Unlimited.

Journey’s End

As the expedition approaches its conclusion, each student will present their answer to the question “What story is the river telling?” in one of three ways: by writing a literary journal, producing a podcast, or devising a computer application. Collectively, they’ll compile an ethnographic study based on their interviews with the river’s stakeholders.

The expedition will culminate with a showcase event where students will share their experiences, discoveries, and reflections with the wider Kingswood Oxford community through exhibits, maps, artwork, and verbal presentations.

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