Bodies of Water…Real and Imagined

It was an unseasonably hot May afternoon in Northampton, MA as nearly one hundred 7th grade JFK Middle School students and staff walked to nearby Look Park with River of Words guides Nancy Allen, Margaret Babbott and Carol Berner.

River of Words invites students to experience the natural world, specifically a “body” of water like the Mill River or duck pond, with their whole selves (mind/body/spirit) and through integrated left and right brain approaches. Students and staff alike shift perspective from an indoor classroom to an outdoor classroom without walls, ceilings, artificial lighting, air conditioning or technology.

Energies were high and the distractions of the natural world nearly overwhelmed lesson plans and notebooks. There were crawdads, bees, mosquitoes, crows, worms, minnows, clouds, rocks, friends, water, water, water.

In small groups, students were oriented to the river or pond, asked to gather sensory data, then co-create initial poems in a playful group activity.

English teacher, Diana Ajjan, integrated their unit on Ancient Greece with ecological observations to inspire water and mythologically themed poetry. For example, here are two of her prompts:

  • Achilles was dipped in the River Styx to achieve immortality.  Think about the ways in which water is cleansing, renewing, refreshing.
  • Imagine a “deity” of the Look Park stream/pond? If it were a person, what powers or characteristics would you give it? If you could create, or speak to, the deity of the stream/pond, what would you say or ask?

Given that nature-based experiential learning prioritizes process over product, Ms. Ajjan felt that she was taking a risk in combining mythology with a River of Words project. In her words, “This was a new concept, quite different from past ROW projects in which students were writing from their immersion in nature. We were asking them to synthesize their learning about the mythological world of the ancient Greeks with their perceptions of our contemporary real world. With scaffolded literacy, a gorgeous local setting, and their creative and brilliant young minds, students took this project beyond anything I could have imagined.”

We would like to share just a few excerpts from student poems that exemplify the diversity of perspective, tone and imagination of these young poets:

From A.S.

Aegean water—
Elegance of your hasty trickle
is mesmerizing.
Gracefulness of your flow
is immaculate,
like the brisk moves of the Gods.

From K.F.

Remember when you splashed in that puddle?
With your glossy scarlet rain boots
And your glazed mustard raincoat

From D.B.

A cobwebbed mirror sits in the center of a dense forest;
Once clear and fresh, the pond is now dull and weary;
Covered with a foggy film, the old spirit slumbers.

From J.Y.

I stare into the water,
but the image that looks back is not of my own,
something wavering,
The layers of my mind
splayed out on the rippled surface of an amber pond.
The unsure, unfocused photograph of me.

From M.C.T.

dripping branches lean low
to listen to the slow chatter of the river
as it passes by lazily
the river ambles about
each twist and turn
the glossy mirror reflects
the unknown strangeness
of what lies beyond the river’s grasp.

From H.H.

It may be mesmerizing, but it’s much wiser
than you or I and more unpredictable.
Most of which is unexplored, we only know the surface.

From C.A.

Ducks called it their home,
and fish called it their shade.
Deer travelled by,
sucking up the water
that dribbled down their cheeks.
The nearby tall plants
cherished the liquid that gave them life.
The water ripened their skin
and let twigs grow on their arms
and leaves grow on their hands.

From T.R. (Full Poem)

If the Mill River
Were to pass through ancient Greece,
It would be praised
For its winding turns.
The God of the Mill River
Would be representative of unexpected change.
Things you thought would go predictably and straight,
But would start to curve left,
Then suddenly whip to the right.
People would build on it,
Try to block it with a dam,
But man cannot prevent unexpected change.
The Mill River Flood of 1874.
The fish in the river,
Do not care if it takes them north or south.
They travel along the way the water wishes.
If you refuse to worry about your way,
And you go the way destiny favors you,
You will find peace.

And finally, Ms. Ajjan (pictured below with the student-painted mural) asked students to write a line from their poems on water drops to welcome next year’s grade:

A lake that hadn’t a ripple/ A reflection so pure it was like a mirror

The breeze takes the leaves on a trip across the sky.

Shifting from rain to river to lake to steam to ice, shifting your mind.

– Written by Margaret Babbott, Regional Co-Coordinator, River of Words along the Connecticut River