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Life On The Mississippi

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

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

That's all the prompting that's needed. The 27 students from Longfellow Middle School in La Crosse, Wis., ground their canoes in the shallows, jump into the water, and begin hauling in the net.

The first fish they see is a sucker. Next, a largemouth bass, a fighter and fisherman's delight. Then, a sheepshead, which they will give to state natural-resource officials for a study on mussel overpopulation. The students also count catfish, mudcats, and two turtles in the catch of the day.

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

The children watch the fishermen revive a mudcat that's been out of the water too long. They compare the mouths of the sucker and the bass. They note the physical similarities of the catfish and the mudcat. They're getting wet and slimy, but most of them don't mind.

The net is almost completely drawn, but something is still squirming. A girl reaches down and works out what could be dinner. "Is that a keeper?'' she asks. But there are no keepers today. She holds the fish a while, strokes it, and then tosses it back into the river.

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

An integrated course option available to 54 of the school's 220 7th graders, School on the River uses La Crosse's most alluring and formidable feature--the Mississippi--as the basis for mathematics, science, language arts, and social studies instruction. Teachers call on lots 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--to share their knowledge of the river.

The program is guided by four premises: that the river is a better learning environment than the traditional classroom, that students learn best by doing, that course work should have practical applications, and that school subjects are interrelated.

Students apply to School on the River at the end of their 6th grade year. A lottery decides who gets to take part. This year's lucky ones were drawn from 110 applicants. The coordinators ensure that there are an equal number of boys and girls. They also set aside slots for students with learning disabilities as well as those in accelerated courses. The goal is to create a represent-ative profile of the student body.

Once enrolled, students spend the first two hours of the day 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. Over the course of the year, they spend a little more than half their time in the classroom. The rest is taken up with nearly four dozen field activities, such as the fishing trip with the Morrisons. In addition to numerous trips on the river, the class also visits the lock-and-dam system in nearby Genoa, Wis.; Effigy Mounds, an American Indian burial ground not far from the river; and the local sewage-treatment plant. The program culminates in the spring with a camp-out and four-hour canoe trip.

The class has almost finished its first project of the year, the study of microorganisms. The students selected different microorganisms to research and then interviewed partners about what they had learned. The interviews were turned into news articles--complete with watercolor illustrations--and put on display.

"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 mathematics and science components of the river curriculum. "It's a thematic, integrated program, and we show how everything's coordinated.''

Longfellow assistant principal Jacque Durnford is the founding father of School on the River. Durnford was bicycling along the Mississippi one afternoon four years ago when it occurred to him that the area's natural setting provided a perfect learning tool for students. He pursued the idea, getting in touch with the state Department of Natural Resources, the area office of the federal Environmental Management Technical Center, and a Pennsylvania school that had already launched a small-scale version of what was to become School on the River. In addition, Durnford secured support from Longfellow principal Glen Jenkins, enlisted Gansen and social studies and language arts teacher Debra Buswell, and brought in district administrators to help write the curriculum.

The program is only in its second full year, but it has already attracted attention around the state and beyond. Last year, the National Science Teachers Association asked Longfellow's river team to describe the program at its annual 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.''

Local citizens, businesses, and government officials have contributed both expertise and financial support. Parents--who are invited on all of the outings--have taken a new-found interest in their children's schooling. "The biggest thing to me is that my kid understands why he's in school,'' says Barbara Jordan, whose son, Christopher, was enrolled in the program last year. "My son and a lot of his classmates came to realize why you need to study what you need to study.''

But perhaps the truest testament of the program's success comes from the students themselves, who say School on the River has sparked an interest in school they've never had before. Jared Heintz, now in 8th grade, anticipated an easy year with a few field trips. What he got instead was challenging course work 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 of his lessons. "There's so much stuff that I learned. Now I find myself going back to the places we were.''

Still, the program is not for everyone. Some students need the structure of the traditional school day and classroom. Others don't want to be separated from their friends. And still others have a genuine fear of the Mighty Mississippi.

At La Crosse, the river is about five miles wide. The main channel there is a minimum of nine feet deep, but the back-water areas are as shallow as a foot. It's a busy transportation route and a major source of recreation. But because the Mississippi is as much a part of La Crosse 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 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, deputy director of the National Biological Survey's Environmental Management Technical Center and a program consultant. "Most people who live along the river or in the watershed don't understand how the river is changing. An inherent part of any large river is change, and we need education and community discussion to understand that these dynamics are not bad.''

District officials also point out that the program is emblematic of the kinds of educational changes that need to occur nationwide. Schools need to move away from the industrial model of education and give students a range of choices, says program founder Durnford. "We're on the right track,'' he says. "Intuitively, you just sense it.''
--Mark Pitsch

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