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Education: River of Words

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Welcome to River of Words along the Connecticut River

We work locally with young people and educators to integrate environmental education, literacy and the arts.  See for yourself how we make a difference by exploring projects, lessons and resources that will inspire your teaching and connect your classroom.

1Creative Projects_the fish

Creative Projects


Art & Ecology at Hogback Mountain

July 21st, 2017|0 Comments

Observing and painting bluets

Hogback Field Day with Marlboro Elementary School, June 9th 2017
Facilitators & Authors: Jenny Ramstetter, Cathy Osman & Liza Mitrofanova, Marlboro College

Observation is central to both the sciences and the arts.  It allows us to enter a space where we can gather data, insight, and inspiration.  It lays groundwork for experiments.  Sometimes questions guide observation, other times observations unearth questions, and most often, the two feed each other in a loop.


Jenny points out nest of thatching ants

We had two hours with a group of mixed age students from 3rd-7th grade on a retired ski mountain called Hogback.  After gathering our group, we walked along the main trail, attempting to set a norm of stopping often and taking notice of our surroundings. We pointed out the bedrock, the way its surface differed from highly trafficked areas to places off trail.  We knelt down to inspect scat, coming to a collective conclusion that it must have come from a medium sized predator, such as a coyote or a fox.  From this perspective, the students noticed a sizable spider carrying what older students identified as an egg sac.  We came upon a nest of thatching ants, sprinklings of bluets, and ruts made by tire tracks which now serve as channels for water and a hatching ground for bugs.  These stops and notes all served to help prime students for considering relationships and to think about what site or organism they may want to choose for close observation.

Bluet zoom-in

Bluet 1 ft view









After arriving at the first opening in the trail, giving us a short view up and down the mountain, we gathered and explained the close observation exercise.  The journals had been prepared the night before with 3 circles of a 3” diameter drawn on the first three pages of the journal, leaving space for notes.  These circles serve as frames or lenses for the view/drawing of the chosen site.  The first circle is meant for a zoomed-in, detail view of an organism or site, the second a 1 foot away description, and the third a more zoomed out view.  For older students this 3rd circle could be a 2ft away description, and another page could serve as a full page drawing.

Liza checks in with each student

We reminded students to pay attention to texture, shape, color, and relationships between different elements of their drawings.  We also asked students to write down any questions that arose about their site: “What do you want to know about your site?” “What clues can you find to help answer these questions?”


After students completed their 2nd drawings, we gathered again to share drawings, questions, and observations.  Bluets and ferns were the most popular subjects, but red maple samaras, maple leaves, and water washing over pebbles were not overlooked.  Students asked “why are bluets blue?” “Why don’t bluets have leaves?” “How did the water place these pebbles so perfectly?”  “Why are samaras so full of veins?” “What makes samaras so red?” “Why do bluets grow where they grow?”

Fern close-up

Fern 1 ft view

Fern zoom out






After sharing and talking as a group, the students had a chance to start another drawing.  With more time or another session, it would be interesting to see if the discussion produced any change in drawing styles or questions generated.  Some of the students struggled with being asked to complete a second drawing of the same subject, feeling bored or influenced by drawings other students were doing.  Drawing the zoomed in and zoomed out perspectives can be powerful tools in creating awareness of the relationships of individual organism has with its surrounding community and environment. We gently encouraged our students to persevere through their second drawing of the same subject, with the promise that their third drawing could be of anything else that caught their eye from a perspective of their choice.  The handmade journals full of the mornings’ watercolors were sweet gifts for the students to walk away with at the end of the activity.

Artist with journal

Materials for Activity: Watercolors, brushes, plastics cups for water, paper towels, pencils, large water container, 1.5×1.5” sheets of plastic (to sit on in case of wet ground and mud), journals with about 8 pages for drawing and notes

Hogback Mountain Conservation Area is the headwaters for important tributaries of the Connecticut River and a source of inspiration for place-based education. Marlboro Elementary School’s annual field day at Hogback Mountain features activities like Art & Ecology, designed by teachers and community members to strengthen children’s connections to their local environment. For more information, please visit Hogback Mountain and Marlboro Elementary School


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JFK Middle School: River of Words Poetry 2016

September 11th, 2016|0 Comments


Written by Diana Ajjan, 7th Grade English Teacher

dsc_0885The spring sunshine warmed their backs as 100 7th graders in Northampton, MA, swarmed from JFK Middle School to Look Park.  They buzzed with their friends the whole way, parting into groups as they entered the park, each following its adult leader to a quiet spot.  Some alighted on a wooden dock overlooking a glistening pond; others dangled their legs into a bubbling brook; still others nestled in soft blades of new grass. After a long New England winter, students eagerly shed their sweatshirts and shoes to feel the sun and blushes of breeze against their skin.



After a quick warm up of their senses, student worker bees busily began recording sense imagery on a chart: a hawk circling above, the musty smell of earth, the squirrel scampering between tall pines, the rustle of leaves and snapping sticks, a fish floating beneath the pond’s still surface  Once they recorded these images, they set to work pairing them with descriptive words.  All of this activity, they knew, was leading them to writing a poem based on their observations of the natural world.  



After drafting, revising, and tweaking, they set to work on an observation of their inner landscape:  thoughts, joys, worries, wonderings recorded on a chart.  The bees buzzed a bit aimlessly this time, unsure of how this would translate to a poem which was not grounded in something concrete. When students asked what they were supposed to write, the teacher answered vaguely:  “I’m not sure…it depends….use your recorded thoughts as inspiration…just write and see what comes out…”  Not satisfactory answers for seventh grade bees.  But write they did, to both their own delighted astonishment and that of their teacher. Students felt the power of poetry for self-expression in relation to both the outer and inner world.



img_0815Students were going to be a bit wary and pleasantly surprised yet again for the next step in the evolution of their poetry. Each was asked to highlight their best or favorite line in each poem.  Then, each chose one line to contribute to a whole team (5-class) poem, writing it on a strip of paper.  They then, in each class, scattered their lines on a table and set to work composing their class’s stanza. The teacher walked around the group of busy bees, snapping pictures of them demonstrating their language and poetry skills.  They grouped lines by images, read, reread, shuffled,read; when finally satisfied with line order, they added punctuation with purpose and tweaked an occasional word choice if it wasn’t “juicy” enough.




The teacher typed the 5 stanzas and hung them on the wall.  Again, she stepped back as students in each class read the stanzas, marveling at their melded work and how “a bunch of random lines” could actually become a “real poem”.  The teacher suggested that it worked because poetry is a universal form of art and communication; that anyone with a heart and mind can express his/herself in a poem, and anyone with a heart and mind can read a poem and relate to it in some way.  Poetry universalizes our experience of the world, both outer and inner, which is why all 100 students could write a poem together.  Each class of busy bees read and shuffled stanzas, and by the end of the day, a poem was born.



Knowing that poetry is universal in nature and meant to be shared, students created a “river of words” mural to display their writing.  They painted the river banks with sand, rocks, and plants and inscribed their lines on tiles that would form their river.


On the very last day of school, the drone of worker bees slowed down in the increasing heat of impending summer.  They swarmed into the school’s courtyard to drink in their river of words, then mingled with friends before settling on the warm dry grass, some squished under the shade of a poplar.  One by one, brave bees stood on a stump to read one of their poems.  Fingers clicked in appreciation.  As they wound down, these bees enjoyed fruity sweet Italian ice, together as a swarm for the last time that school year, joined and inspired by each other’s words, empowered by language they harnessed and created through poetry.












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Eco-Poetry Inspired by Paradise Pond

June 11th, 2015|2 Comments

Go To River of Words Homepage
Paradise Pond 5-14 7th Graders Create “Peace of Mind”
by Carol Berner May, 2015

Capricious weather captivated the attention of middle school students writing poetry at Paradise Pond. “The scent of a storm brewing caught me by surprise,” wrote a 7th grade girl in batman leggings. The Green Monsters Team from John F. Kennedy Middle School spent a morning in early May touring Smith College’s Museum and Botanic Garden and writing poetry in the midst of rain clouds, sudden sprinkles and bright sun.

Paradise Pond 5-14


No walls, no bells

“This is your classroom. No walls, no bells.”
Margaret Babbott and Nancy Allen, co-facilitators of the poetry workshop, welcomed students to the waterfront. They guided students to write sensory observations, directing them first to observe nature, then to imagine something in nature observing them. Students in bright sneakers sprawled across the boathouse docks and settled quietly along the grassy shores, gathering detailed images that would morph into collaborative poems.

JFK shout out


Five Senses Shout Out

Gathering the group onto blue tarps with a snack of pretzel sticks, Margaret Babbott asked for volunteers to “shout out” a line of poetry. “One for each of the five senses.” Five volunteers stood up in front of the group holding their line written in big letters on a sheet of paper. A sixth volunteer read aloud the five lines, then rearranged the “poetry holders” to create a stronger poem. The audience called out ideas for which lines should go first and last, watching intently as poems were revised and replayed before their eyes.

Opening lines highlighted immediacy, action and surprise: “Me—tumbling down the hill” and “Rising bubble in the lake – maybe a turtle?” Closing lines featured lingering seasonal images: “The cherry blossom tree danced in the wind.” A theatrical reader in sunglasses declared his group poem “the best poem in the world” as a round of applause echoed across the pond:

Me – tumbling down the hill
Surprised by ducks
Bright green head
Storm of white petals
A really, really, fast bird and a triangular island

JFK student“I Hear Water Words”

Writing from the point of view of something in nature evoked  images immersed in taste and touch sensations:

I am a tortoise / I taste the murky water around me
I am the wind / I cool down the earth with my cool rippling powers
I am the fog and I can taste the people who walk around

Students compared the shift to an ecological perspective with the creative process of writing a poem: “It’s like a metaphor for when you’re sitting there and everything’s chaotic before it settles.”

Creating the Poetry Mural

Rising to the challenge of creating a mural from the field trip, two confident groups of 7th grade poets and artists volunteered to meet after school.  While artists painted a huge banner of a riverscape on canvas, poets figured out how to create a coherent composition from a hundred lines of poetry contributed by each 7th grader. “It looks like a river!” exclaimed one student as they spread out all the handwritten lines of poetry across the floor.

JFK Poem Work

Sorting the lines into themes and images was the first step in what began to look like a dance improvisation. Students moved their bodies carefully among the words, lifting lines into different piles, accompanied by dialogue that suggested patterns of classification. “We’re looking for water here.” “I’m collecting ‘peace, beauty and stuff like that.’” After sorting the lines into categories like smells and sounds, water, sun and sky, they broke into pairs to arrange each cluster into a stanza. The “left-over” pile turned out to be a perfect place to gather lines for the opening and closing stanzas of the composition.

In the final stage of creation, poets circled around the clusters of stanzas with intense concentration. They discussed the craft of poetry with insights as vivid as their fluorescent shoelaces. “Let’s go for something really peaceful and ramp it up at the end,” suggested a boy in a reflective lime green t-shirt. A girl who was listening attentively to the exchange of ideas suggested a structure that “flows while retaining its randomness.” Everyone agreed this was the perfect design principle for a poem created by a hundred seventh graders startled into their senses by a stormy spring day at Paradise Pond.

“Peace of Mind” Mural on Display in JFK Media Center

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“I want to thank you all again for helping to provide such a fabulous experience for our students.  Your expertise in poetry writing activities, gentle guidance of the kids, and generous contribution of time is so appreciated!”
Diana Ajjan, Grade 7 Teacher, JFK Middle School


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Your work enriched our students and strengthened our communities. The poetry was heartfelt and reflected the differences in our towns. The artwork was student-centered and exquisite. Together, they depicted such a raw view of our community telling a story that only students can tell.
Kathleen Adams, former Principal, Gill Elementary School