By Diana Ajjan, Grade 7 English Teacher
JFK Middle School, Northampton, MA
Boys and girls lay outstretched on the dock in a row, like skiffs about to be launched, some swirling fingers in the cool water. A pair tucked themselves away behind the boathouse, companions to two lone rowboats gently bumping up against one another. Others scattered across the spring lawn. All put pencil to paper to record their observations of nature’s classroom–one without walls, or bells, or bustling hallways.
This outdoor classroom at the site of Paradise Pond on the campus of Smith College inspired this year’s River of Words project for John F. Kennedy Middle School seventh graders. One hundred students divided into three groups to engage in activities at three separate sites. They viewed the thought-provoking exhibit “Plastic Entanglements” at the museum of art which featured sculptures and images demonstrating the effects of plastic on the environment. They toured the Botanical Garden and Greenhouse, considering the ways that plastic and pollution affect plant life in different regions of the world. At Paradise Pond, students explored the idea of natural entanglements: How are various things in nature intertwined? How are we humans entangled with nature?
Once settled at Paradise Pond, students circled in small groups and using a ball of yarn that they tossed to one another after naming a natural object they noticed, they created a web. Group facilitators, including River of Words collaborators Margaret Babbott, Carol Berner, and Nancy Allen, described this yarn web as a metaphor for natural entanglements, and led students to consider the ways that various objects were connected or dependent on one another, and to speculate the ramifications of a break in the web. Following this activity, students immersed themselves in using their senses to experience nature around them, recording their observations and experiences. Finally, students returned to their small groups to engage in a word chain poem inspired by vocabulary lifted from the art exhibit in the museum.
As a follow up to this field trip, I guided students in English Language Arts class to write poems integrating their experiences and observations at the museum, greenhouse, and pond.
“Wading boats rocking in the subtle ripples of the pond,
an agile dragonfly skimming the surface of the water, like an aeroplane
landing on the smooth concrete runway…
Barmy leaves blowing from the rheumatic branches into the endless depths…”
“Everything is plastic,
From a middle school perspective, that is.
From people to emotions,
From plastic water bottles to sad smiles…”
“I find myself unable to breathe,
unable to feel
anything other than
the plastic bags
that now cover my once exquisite branches…Plastic sands
cover my roots…I am fighting a futile war
against the ever growing/plastic army.”
“Rivers of detritus still flow by/Debris still builds up across the globe./Our way of life is/Unsustainable./It seems/Unconquerable./But I won’t give in just yet.”
“Omnipotent river/groaning as/the plasticine rubbish/thudded into the deep,/ a thorn, stuck in the depths of the river’s soul…Immortal bits of HDPE/may remain longer than the skeletons of our friends and family, existing in corners no human could reach…”
“If I were recycled I could be free/and maybe just maybe bea bench/a slide/a bike/a car,/or a fan/a fence/a desk/or a wall/I could be a ball/or a toy that is small/But instead I am/the baby whale killer/the landfill filler/and the global warming fulfiller…”
“The ocean spits out colorful bottle caps and straws./The lighthouse watches in horror/as a turtle swallows/a bit of plastic cup./A strong wind whips through the trees./I’m sorry/it whispers/I’m sorry.”
“A glint of a metallic beetle on a twig, mistaken for the soda can submerged in the brush.
Tiny fuschia flowers shift, propelled by the breeze,
the same hue as the rubber eraser fallen from a school bag.
A red bellied thrush calls out to its mate,
but the scream is lost in the putter of a passing motorcycle
pouring out exhaust.”
In addition to poetry, the students worked in teams to create sculptures for a “Forged in Plastic Competition,” inspired by the Plastic Entanglements museum exhibit. Each team created a mythological deity or creature of the river or sea using plastic refuse and duct tape. They then wrote about their sculpture: its name, what it eats, where it lives, what it does, if it is a friend or enemy of the environment, and what it is entangled with in its habitat.
On the last day of school, students gathered in the courtyard at JFK to hold a poetry jam including readings of their River of Words poems. As well, team teachers judged the sculptures forged in plastic and awarded prizes to the winners. It was an inspiring and fun end to a year that slipped by so quickly. These rising eighth graders poured out of the courtyard to their last stop–the gym–before streaming out into summer, all with consciousness raised about their own connection to and effect on the environment.
Curious to learn more?
- Browse the collection of 7th grade poems submitted to the River of Words contest.
- Download the student worksheet with nature-based writing and sketching prompts.
- Explore the River of Words website to find educator resources and contest entry forms.