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Water Way(s): River-Themed Education for Kids

Hand holding a sign that says "Water Way(s) Project + Curriculum"

The Water Way(s) Project and Curriculum is a community arts engagement project connecting children with their local Rivers.  Erin Maile O’Keefe, educator and community activator, leads a collaborative team of teaching artists to bring the Water Way(s) curriculum to local schools. In June, fourth graders at Green Street School in Brattleboro, VT invited community members to attend an Expo showcasing what they learned during a multi-week Water Way(s) residency. 


Students presented maps, movements, and poetic writing inspired and informed by the Whetstone Brook and restored floodplain a short walk from their school. Erin Maile O’Keefe described the goal as, “understanding the impact of a floodplain on human settlements, animals, water quality, flooding events and the indigenous peoples who live here.”


Dear River: Weathergrams

Small paper cut outs strung on tree branches with various messages on them

“River…I can hear your voice but nobody believes me when I say ‘that river talks.’” On their walking field trip to the Whetstone Brook, students wrote notes to the River on biodegradable paper. They attached the “weathergrams'' to vines hanging from a lofty willow tree. The poems hang there for anyone to read and for students to revisit to discover how they weather over time. 


Sharing Land Acknowledgements

Students presenting in a classroom

Students launched the Expo by reading aloud from land acknowledgements they composed after visiting the floodplain, learning about its history, and collecting sensory observations. “When I am near the river I feel safe… almost like the river is singing.” Their words resonate with gratitude: “I respect the animals and moss. I honor our indigenous ancestors. I appreciate the life and fish the river brings to us.”


How Rivers Move – Fluvial Geomorphology Choreography 

Students participating in an activity in a classroom

In a choreographed performance, students moved their bodies and props to illustrate a floodplain in action. With synchronous fluctuations, pairs of students manipulated blue fabric for running water, push sticks for soil, and pull ropes for change. Initially calm, they made the River build in intensity to a flooding event, showing the impact on soil and sediment. 


“It all ends up in the river!”

Students participate in an Enviroscape demonstration

Two students held the attention of the audience with an interactive Enviroscape demonstration, cheered along by Kathy Urffer, Connecticut River Conservancy’s Vermont River Steward. The students sprinkled point and nonpoint pollution on the model, then sprayed it with water so everyone could see how “it all ends up in the river!” One of the fourth graders explained in her introduction, “this is a model of our actions and how it affects the river and really just… life.” 


Map-Making Gallery Walk

Student hand drawn map

To conclude the Expo, students invited visitors to observe their colorful folded maps and ask questions about the mapmaking process. The maps, created with educator and legislator Mollie Burke, feature local waterways, streets, and buildings, decorated with artistic flourishes and poetic text. The mapmaking project, according to 4th grade teacher Kjersten Cantillo, “pulled together a lot of things they were learning.” She added, “I’m blown away by what they did!”  


River Reflections 

Student made art piece of a river

Flowing across the wall outside the 4th grade classrooms, a banner of “River Reflections” displays droplets of student writing capturing take-aways from each day of the arts residency. “How will you continue your relationship with Whetstone Brook?” prompts the final panel, anticipating and encouraging childrens’ enduring connections with the river. “I will try to visit the river more often and respect it.” 



Collaborations and Gratitude

Collaborating educators:

Erin Maile O’Keefe, Water Way(s) leader and educator

Carol Berner, River of Words Regional Co-Coordinator

Mollie Burke, state legislator and educator

Kathy Urffer, Connecticut River Conservancy River Steward and educator


Special Thanks to

Vermont Humanities

Connecticut River Conservancy

Gedakina

Vermont River Conservancy – Hayley Kolding

Brattleboro Planning Department - Sue Fillion and Brian Bannon

Kelly Shifflette & Kjersten Cantillo - 4th grade teachers

All the 4th graders

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