By Joanie McGuffin, Lake Superior Conservancy and Watershed Council
We live in Ontario, near the eastern shore of Lake Superior between Batchawana and Goulais Bays, arguably one of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth. Four very different seasons, a wide variety of ecosystems, a rich cultural history with First Nations, and a significant geographic location create an incredible natural classroom just waiting to be experienced. In our nearby city, Sault Ste. Marie, there is a high school that has been doing just that.
In 1992 Bob Moore and John Ferguson, department heads in geography and English at White Pines Collegiate & Vocational School, discovered the Rivers Project. The Rives Project began as a pilot project of 8 schools along the Mississippi and lower Illinois River. Collecting and analyzing water samples, students were learning in a hands-on way about the river flowing past and influencing their communities. The Rivers Project had evolved to include mathematics, social studies and language arts. This cross-curriculum study got Moore and Ferguson imagining a similar program at their high school using the connectivity of the Lake Superior watershed and shoreline. They quickly understood the formidable impact such a program could have on the lives of the teachers and students involved.
By integrating curriculum around the central theme of the Lake Superior watershed, and by providing opportunities for students and teachers to work collaboratively, the Lake Superior Basin program would instill a sense of belonging to and a sense of pride about living on the greatest expanse of freshwater on Earth. “Our idea was to start with White Pines [schools]” Bob recently explained to me “and then share this with schools and students around Lake Superior.” The teachers began to develop partnerships in the community with businesses, and federal and provincial government agencies. A wealth of support ensued from the private sector.
A critical component of the Lake Superior Basin project was the adoption of Harmony Beach. Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources provided dune grasses and pine for regeneration. The government agency’s shorelines technician, Peter Burtch, helped organize the first student field trip to the shores of Batchawana Bay where the restoration began. Not long afterwards, a contingency of more than a dozen teachers from a variety of subject areas came to the beach to find out how they might“use” the Lake Superior experience in their teachings. Even the skeptics were quickly won over.
This hands-on restoration of a heavily used public beach provided students with ongoing opportunities to excel in the arts, language, science, technology and social studies with environment at the core. Other events have included: planting trout fingerlings in Lake Superior; participating in a sweet grass ceremony with native elders near White Fish Island; sketching Ojibway pictographs at Agawa Bay; cutting holes through the lake ice and operating Echmann dredges to retrieve bottom sediment samples for analysis; and the orchestration of a huge blacklight multimedia theatre production complete with an original musical score employing Lake Superior stones as percussion instruments.
As the project progressed, the students took more and more ownership in Harmony Beach. They cared about and cleaned up the refuse left by careless people. They worked with the Ministry of Natural Resources to place signs on the beach forbidding vehicular access to protect the fragile dune grasses. The students took their concerns about water quality to the public through the local media. They raised funds to produce educational signage and to take their story on the road to share with students around Superior. By providing the students with a real hands-on project in the field, the teachers of White Pines were encouraging community interaction to find solutions to problems. The students were empowered by their capacity to make a difference. They had control over improving the quality of their lives and that of other living things. The more time the students spent on the project, the more their feeling of attachment to the Lake grew. One riveting experience that stands out in the participants minds was when a group of students came up from the River Project in Illinois. As the school bus descended into the Goulais River valley en route to Harmony Beach and the Chippewa River, the Illinois students had their faces pressed to the window panes. During the water testing, one student from White Pines overheard two Illinois students exclaim incredulously, “My test says this water is safe to drink!”
White Pines principal Mark Zorzit is highly supportive of the program. “A common vision for the entire school provides purpose and meaning and motivation to learn. For students wanting to solve problems and help society, this gives them a sense of hopefulness to impact the world.”
For more information:
Lake Superior Conservancy and Watershed Council
Goulais River, Ontario • firstname.lastname@example.org