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  • Colin Gibney

Notes from the Field

Place-Based SciManities at River Valley Charter School

Colin Gibney, is a middle school humanities teacher at the River Valley Charter School, Newburyport, MA.

Teaching here near the mouth of the Merrimack River in historic Newburyport, Massachusetts presents us with rich and varied opportunities for connecting Science and Humanities. Glacial forces created this unique and dynamic environment, and nature continues to shape the area and the lives of those who live here. The interplay between natural forces and human impact is part of our history and remains newsworthy and relevant to us today. From the first Agawam who did their summer hunting and fishing here, to the English farmers who arrived in 1635, to the shipbuilders and merchants, to the mill owners, to residents today, humans have taken advantage of the natural resources and processes that go on here. As was true of their ancestors, although, to a differing extent, students’ lives remain inextricably tied to our landscape and the forces of nature at play. With PBE, we aim to shed light on these connections.

This year our PBE collaboration began with each student identifying a place of personal interest around our area. After proposing the place to us and getting our approval, they visited their spot, and recorded observations in words and sketches, in what we call a “sit spot journal.” Students then drafted a hand-drawn map of their site based on their journals, satellite images, and other resources. As a focus, we asked them to identify and discern among the natural features of the site and the human impacts present. Among the items on our rubric of requirements, the final maps showed the Mighty Merrimack River or at least in what direction it could be found.

Next, we took a trip to the Archives Center at the Newburyport Public Library where primary sources, including old maps (see left), revealed something of the history of each place. In some cases, the resources went back in time as far as the 1600s and the earliest of English settlements. Using this research, historical fiction pieces were written from someone who would have visited, lived or worked at the student's site back in an earlier time. Among the required elements of the written piece were sensory descriptions of the natural and human features as they may have appeared in the past and a description of the role the River played in the important subject's life. Some of the tea-stained final drafts (see right) were quite convincingly written.

We then upped the science end of things some and tied this work to Rebecca's current unit on Ecosystems. After sharing their learning from science class field trips, and examining topo maps, satellite images and definitions of a variety of local ecosystems, students helped construct a large map reflecting the rough location of each ecosystem in our area. Pushpins indicate the location of the places studied, while shading quickly identifies the ecosystem in which each place resides (see pic).

Finally, we asked students to return to their places one more time for another “sit spot journal.” We were confident they’d have a deeper understanding of the history of the place, be ready to reflect on the features of its ecosystem, and think about their connections with the river and the natural ebb and flow of nature around here. Questions such as, "What do natural processes have to do with human activities in your place in the past and today?" were posed and explored.

It is this wrestling with complicated webs of human activities, natural history, scientific concepts and students' own lives that are at the heart of why we do SciManities. We also hope students will come to appreciate the local environment with a deeper sense of understanding, connection and gratitude, perhaps leading to further exploration and stewardship of what's here.

From their last “sit spot journals,” students crafted a piece of writing,

this time from their own point of view, on their connections to the land, the River, and human activities. These writings, their historical fiction writings, and their hand drew maps, were featured at a week-long public exhibit at the Custom House and Maritime Museum in downtown Newburyport this May (see below). The crowning piece of the displays was a self-portrait of each student at his or her place. The excerpt below is from an 8th-grade journal, and it exhibits exactly the types of connections we were hoping to see.

“Looking into history books and old road maps, we know see how there was a human impact in this area; it would explain the isolated Pine Forest on the other side of the stream. Perhaps that was where the man once cut a field only to let nature reclaim the land, and creating a forest (that is not yet at the climax-succession stage). There's so much history in this area, it is almost overwhelming, but all I can do to appreciate it is to breathe in the fresh, late spring air, and hope that someday in my […] life I will be able to be part of [its] history as well.” ~ By Anders U.

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