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Mississippi Learning

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La Crosse, Wis.

Jeff Morrison and his father, Bob, haven't fished this area before, and they're not quite sure what to expect. These gritty men--drawn more to the water than to the country club, more comfortable in waders than in neckties--prefer the main channel of the Mississippi River.

But on this Indian-summer day in mid-September, catching fish isn't what matters, and this Mississippi River backwater known to old timers as Flash Point will do just fine.

Jeff, a barrel-chested fellow who works the night shift and fishes by day, motors his 24-foot-long, flat-bottom fishing boat about a half-mile from shore. After finding a shallow area near the lily pads, the place you might find a great blue heron standing motionless for what seems like forever, he and his father set their 250-foot-long net.

They circle back 200 yards toward the dozen shiny yellow canoes that followed them to Flash Point. Together, canoes and motorboat move toward the net, making noise in an effort to scare the fish in its direction.

As the convoy reaches the net, Jeff shuts off his motor and eases into the knee-high water. Someone yells out, "Mr. Morrison, you need some muscle up by you?"

"Yup," Jeff replies. "We need everybody."

That's all the prompting that's needed. The 27 Longfellow Middle School 7th graders ground their canoes in the shallow water, jump in, and begin hauling in the net.

The first fish they see is a sucker, which cleans the river for the predators by gulping down whatever it can find on the sandy bottom. Next, the largemouth bass, a fighter and fisherman's favorite. Then, the sheepsheads, which they will save and give to state natural-resources officials for a study on mussel overpopulation.

"Hey, let's make fish sticks," one boy yells.

"I've never worked these nets before," adds another student.

The students also count catfish, mudcats, and two turtles in the catch of the day. They watch the fishermen revive a mudcat that's been out of the water too long. They compare the mouths of the sucker and the largemouth. They note the physical similarities of the catfish and the mudcat. They're getting wet, and they're getting slimy, and most of them don't mind.

The net is almost completely drawn, but something's still squirming. A girl reaches down and works out what could be dinner. "Is that a keeper?" she asks. There are no keepers today, so she holds the creature for a while, strokes it, and tosses it back in the river.

Coordinated Curriculum

And so ends a life-science class for participants in Longfellow's "School on the River."

An integrated-curriculum option available to 54 of the school's 220 7th graders, School on the River uses this city's most alluring and formidable presence--the Mississippi River--as the basis for mathematics, science, language-arts, and social-studies instruction. And plenty of local experts--commercial fishermen like the Morrisons, officials from the state Department of Natural Resources, and fish and wildlife experts from the federal National Biological Survey--are all on hand to share their knowledge of the river.

Four premises guide the School on the River program: (1) that the river is a better learning environment than the traditional classroom, (2) that students learn better by doing, (3) that coursework should have practical applications, and (4) that school subjects are interrelated.

Students are chosen by lottery after applying at the end of their 6th-grade year; 110 applied last year. Half the students are girls, and half are boys. The program coordinators set aside slots for learning-disabled students as well as those in accelerated math courses to create a representative profile of the student body.

Once enrolled, students spend their first two hours in nonprogram classes, such as art and physical education. Then, from 9:35 a.m. until 2:15 p.m., they're devoted to the river.

On average, students will spend a little more than half their time in the classroom. To complement classroom time, they'll participate in nearly four dozen field activities over the next year. The morning's fishing expedition, for example, will help the 7th graders in their study of the river's ecosystem over the coming weeks and months.

In addition to numerous trips to the river, the lineup features visits to the lock-and-dam system in nearby Genoa, Wis., that regulates the massive river's flow; Effigy Mounds, an American Indian burial ground near the river an hour south of La Crosse; and the local sewage-treatment plant. The yearlong program will culminate in the spring with a camp-out and four-hour canoe trip down the river.

The class has almost finished its first project of the year, the study of microorganisms. Each student identified a microorganism, researched it, and teamed up with a partner to interview each other about their chosen critter. The interviews became news articles--complete with student-made watercolor illustrations--that will be on display at an upcoming parents' night.

"The idea is to expand the classroom so you're out in the field a good bit of the time," says Ed Gansen, who teaches the math and science components of the river curriculum. "It's a thematic, integrated program, and we show how everything's coordinated."

Student Satisfaction

Gansen and Debra Buswell, the program's language-arts and social-studies teacher, are the founding teachers of School on the River. Longfellow Assistant Principal Jacque Durnford is, so to speak, the founding father.

Durnford was bicycling along the river one afternoon four years ago when a thought struck him: Use the area's natural resources as a learning tool. For guidance, he got in touch with the state Department of Natural Resources, the west-central Wisconsin office of the federal Environmental Management Technical Center, and a Pennsylvania school that had embarked on a small-scale version of School on the River.

He secured support from Longfellow Principal Glen Jenkins; enlisted Gansen and Buswell as teachers; and brought in district administrators to help write the curriculum.

This fall, School on the River began its second full year. Since its inception, the program has attracted statewide attention, as well as that of the National Science Teachers Association, which asked Longfellow's river team to describe the program at last year's conference.

"I don't know if we did it by design or default," Gansen says, "but we hit the magic mix that people are looking for."

Locally, businesses, government officials, and citizens have offered both expertise and financial support. Parents--who are invited along on all of the outings--have taken a new-found interest in their children's schooling.

"The biggest thing to me is my kid understands why he's in school," says Barbara Jordan, whose son, Christopher, enrolled in School on the River last year. "My son and a lot of his classmates came to realize why you need to study what you need to study."

And, perhaps most important, students say the program has sparked an interest in school they never had before.

Jared Heintz, now in 8th grade, anticipated an easy year with a few field trips. Instead, he got more challenging coursework than his friends in the traditional classroom and a renewed interest in learning. "When you see it, and when you experience it, and when you feel it, it sinks in more," he says. "There's so much stuff that I learned. Now I find myself going back to the places we were."

Emily Blackbourn, another 8th grader, says School on the River gave her a broader perspective on environmental issues, a subject she has been concerned about, and improved her grade in math.

But the program is not for everyone. Some students need the structure of the traditional school day. Others don't want to be separated from their friends. Still others have a genuine fear of the river.

Local Lessons

The Mississippi is North America's largest north-south river. In the La Crosse area, it averages five miles across. It is as shallow as one foot in the backwaters and a minimum of nine feet on the main channel. It is a source of recreation and serves as a transportation route. But because the Mighty Mississsippi is as much a part of life as cheese, beer, and bratwurst, locals tend to take it for granted.

The School on the River team hopes to change that by instilling the values of stewardship and environmental responsibility. "This is a perfect way for us to reach young people and to help them formulate their own opinions and values about the environment and about how to make decisions," says Barry Drazkowski, the deputy director of the National Biological Survey's Environmental Management Technical Center in Onalaska, Wis., who consults on the program. "They're not being told this is good or this is bad. They're learning that the system is changing and the process by which it is changing."

"Most people who live along the river or in the watershed don't understand how the river's changing," he notes, pointing out the frustration over last year's flood as an example. "An inherent part of any large river is change, and we need education and community discussion to understand that these dynamics are not bad."

School on the River also provides a lesson for other schools in the district. Schools need to move away from the industrial model, Durnford says, and provide different choices for different students. "We're on the right track," he says. "Intuitively, you just sense it."

Principal Jenkins says the success of the river program will make it easier to establish similar ventures in business, the fine arts, and urban development that are on the horizon.

Buswell and Gansen have also inspired some of their colleagues to look beyond their classroom walls. A Longfellow mathematics teacher who also farms, for example, has begun an ad hoc "School in the Woods."

David Johnston, the district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, has received a handful of calls about launching similar programs in other schools. La Crosse's Roosevelt Elementary School is in the process of developing a School of the Arts, he says, something that wouldn't have happened without the Longfellow program.

"It makes statements to the rest of the system. If you have an idea that's out of the ordinary, don't just sit on it in the lounge," Johnston says. "And we can go about making changes, and school test scores don't fall off the cliff."

What's more, he adds, it provides guidance on such education-reform issues as seat time, assessment, and professional development and renewal.

While Johnston says the district is moving toward concepts such as School on the River, a warning needs to be sounded early:

"As School on the River gets institutionalized--and it will get institutionalized--we will have to guard against it becoming a part of the very system that it is trying to replace."

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