UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

Teachers send hopes, dreams afloat with canoes

Project CURRENT offers place-based lessons to connect with natural world

Teacher launches canoe
Sometimes it’s all in the technique for teachers taking part in UND’s Project CURRENT workshop. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Editor’s note: This story originally was published and distributed in UND Today on Sept. 7. It’s being republished today because of its relevance to the “Learning” core value in the UND LEADS Strategic Plan, in particular the core value’s call to “infuse dynamic learning approaches, environments and student-centered pedagogy (e.g. competency-based, project-based, high impact practices, etc.) in the curriculum.”


History is filled with watershed moments — a time defined as a pivotal moment after which all things change.

It was a scorching, wind-whipped August afternoon when 16 teachers gathered under the shade of a towering cottonwood tree along the banks of the Red River in downtown Grand Forks.

On any other day, these teachers might have been leading a math, science or art lesson inside their individual classrooms, but on this day, they would be the students — and they would be experiencing their own watershed moments by learning how to incorporate place-based education.

As they stood in a loose circle clasping their colorful, hand-painted miniature canoes, they shared some personal thoughts and dreams before walking together to the top of the Sorlie Bridge and tossing their canoes one by one into the roiling Red. Every launch had its own style, and each was punctuated with a cheer — the loudest going to the canoes that managed to land upright in the water.

Closeup of canoes
Participants designed their own River of Dreams canoes as part of an educational session presented by the International Water Institute in conjunction with the Project CURRENT workshop. Made of white cedar, the canoes are watertight and stay afloat year after year. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.
Juvy Vacunador with canoe
Juvy Vacunador lets it fly. Photo by J. Vonasek.

The jubilant group was taking part in a two-day UND workshop called Project CURRENT (Culturally Relevant River Education for Nature-Based Teaching), which had invited leaders of the International Water Institute to share a mini version of its own River of Dreams program that teaches schoolchildren about the connectivity of the planet’s water supply and watersheds. (The canoes were part of that program.)

“We wanted the teachers just to be able to leave these two days feeling inspired and excited,” said Julie Robinson, UND research faculty of Teaching, Leadership and Professional Practice and the principal investigator for the three-year Project CURRENT, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and is a collaboration with Turtle Mountain Community College.

“We wanted them to experience the beauty of place-based education as learners themselves so they could see what place-based education would feel like for their students and to begin to think about how they would embed it within their own teaching and curriculum.”

Project partner Joshua Hunter, associate professor of UND Education, Health & Behavior Studies, said teachers and administrators from Thompson (N.D.) Elementary School, Rock Creek Grant School in Bullhead, S.D., and Circle of Nations Indian School in Wahpeton, N.D., participated in a number of hands-on activities led by several UND faculty members, including Bonni Gourneau, Kathy Smart, Jared Schlenker and Frank Bowman.

People by river
Participants in UND’s Project CURRENT workshop gather by the Red River before getting ready to launch their wooden canoes off the Sorlie Bridge. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Lessons all around us

“This isn’t an add-on. This is really meant to enrich what the teachers already are doing,” Hunter said. “That’s the great benefit of place-based education. You can start right out your back door with all sorts of concrete experiences surrounding us. You can integrate these ideas with math, biology, geology, geography, history, cultural studies, literacy, language arts, art and space — there’s really not a topic that can’t be tethered to the subjects we’re talking about.”

Robinson and Hunter said that over the next year, the participants will continue to take part in a series of modules designed by Stacie Blue, natural resources instructor at Turtle Mountain Community College in Belcourt, N.D. The modules will be connected to the North Dakota Native American Essential Understandings.

According to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction website, it was 2015 when elder representatives from state tribal groups first joined in “sharing, storytelling and wisdom conversations” to determine the development of “understandings” about Native culture, history and lifestyle that are “essential” for all North Dakota children to learn. Seven themes emerged, and a “Teachings of Our Elders” video series and NDNAEU resource document were created. You can learn more about those essential understandings on the Department of Public Instruction website.

Teacher and canoe
Every teacher put their own style into their hand-decorated canoe. They also were encouraged to write down the ID number tucked into the hull so they’d be able to check the International Water Institute’s website to learn if anyone recovers it. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Back to the river …

“We want to support teachers in using place-based education as a way to provide more student connections, engagement and culturally relevant approaches for students of diverse backgrounds,” Robinson said. “And place-based education is a really great, authentic way to do that.”

Taylor Lamieux, monitoring and education specialist with the International Water Institute, agreed.

“An activity like this can connect students to their own watershed and their own river system. And the hands-on experience really can help them learn things a lot more quickly,” she said. “The natural world is very important culturally to Native peoples, and I think that’s also very beneficial for all people to recognize. Things all around us have special meaning to different cultures, and it’s important for us to recognize those connections.”

Andrew DeCoteau with canoe
Andrew DeCoteau, superintendent and principal at Rock Creek Grant School, takes one last look at his canoe before pitching it into the river. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

Andrew DeCoteau, superintendent and principal at Rock Creek Grant School, said he thought the workshop was an especially valuable experience for the Filipino teachers who attended the workshop from his school.

“The presenters talked a lot about the water and, obviously, that was really important to all of the tribes … and also the land — our people lived off that, and it was very sacred to them,” he said. “So I think the Filipino teachers got an opportunity to learn a little bit more about our Native American history and culture.”

Julie Robinson with canoe
Julie Robinson. Photo by Janelle Vonasek.

Rock Creek teacher Juvy Vacunador piped in that she was one teacher who certainly felt inspired.

“I’m really excited to apply everything I learned with my students,” she said. “This has been a great experience for me as a teacher, and it was very meaningful.”

Added DeCoteau: “I think the engagement factor is the most important thing because a lot of these activities we’re taking back home are going to be fun for the students. They’re not going to know the fact that it’s also going to be a learning experience.”

Other activities during the two-day workshop included outdoor education games and a Wondering Walk, where participants spent time observing nature and writing in their journals along the English Coulee. Métis artist Bennett Brien, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, also gave a presentation on his artwork, sharing his thoughts on what motivates him and how color and different symbology is used in Native art. This presentation led to participants designing and creating art on their cedar canoes, each one distinct and symbolic to the person.

“Ultimately, we want children and adults to come away from this being more culturally respectful of the various people they come into contact with and to be more engaged and ecologically literate citizens,” Hunter said. “We want them to think not just about the relationships they’re forming with people but also with the larger natural world.”

Julie Robinson and Joshua Hunter laughing
Julie Robinson (left) and Joshua Hunter (right) share a laugh on the Sorlie Bridge with teachers taking part in UND’s Project CURRENT workshop. Above, Robinson winds up for the pitch. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

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