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By Lorene Keitch (she/her), Wildsight communications specialist, Kimberley

On the third day of our four-day adventure, we paddled up a beautiful glacial-sourced tributary that tumbles its way to the Columbia River, one of countless water sources that pour into the vast Columbia River watershed. Hands stretched to bind us together, our canoes knocked gently as the water swayed our boat brigade. While analyzing our final descent back to camp, Creston high school teacher Trevor Marzke spoke up.

“Do you know,” he asked the group, “what the root of the word curriculum is? From Latin, curriculum means a running course. Taken from currere, to run.”

It seemed a fitting anecdote as the waterway we were learning about ran underneath our boats, dripped from our paddles, and filled our vision. At the end of last summer, we spent four days and three nights learning in an immersive environment as we explored Teach the Columbia, a newly developed curriculum package that deepens student understanding of this amazing watershed we call home.

I was lucky enough to join the field course as a participant through my role as a communications specialist with Wildsight. Wildsight is a non-profit organization focused on environmental education and conservation initiatives in the Kootenay and Columbia regions of BC. For more than 20 years, we have offered a suite of environmental education programs to engage learners from Kindergarten to Grade 12 in the natural world.

Our Teach the Columbia curriculum was born out of a desire to connect many students across the Columbia Basin with the deep learning already experienced by a handful of students through our two-week immersive summer educational experience, Columbia River Field Course (CRFS).

CRFS participants learn the twists and turns of the Columbia River’s history: how its depths and banks play an essential role in shaping the lives of the communities in this watershed; how it has provided for Indigenous Peoples for millennia, and how it has been changed by the millions of people that now live around it; how its geography, ecology, and hydrology can be studied and interpreted. Through this unique, immersive program, youth are empowered to help shape the future of the Columbia Basin. Alumni have gone on to become youth ambassadors, community leaders, and advocates for stewardship.

In 2021, Monica Nissen, Wildsight education director, and Graeme Lee Rowlands, environmental programs co-ordinator, developed the Teach the Columbia curriculum to bring our CRFS learning into the classroom. The curriculum contains 11 adaptable lessons split into 4 different cross-curricular modules. Each lesson includes an overview, guiding questions, learning goals, materials and suggested preparation, detailed instructions, an appendix, BC curriculum links, and optional extensions. While some of the lessons are specific to the vast Columbia Basin, many could be used in classrooms across BC or to teach locally specific issues. Our lessons are flexible, adaptable, and can be used individually or as a package.

The summer field course was an opportunity to roll out this curriculum with educators. We welcomed 14 participants, ranging from primary to secondary school teachers, learning support staff, outdoor educators, and Indigenous educators, from across the Columbia Basin for this inaugural event.

During the course, we camped alongside the Columbia River and workshopped several Teach the Columbia lessons. During one lesson, we investigated the physical and human geography of the basin while gathered around a giant floor map on the sandy shores of a slough off the main stem of the river.

Another lesson walked us through the natural and human-made rise and fall of the river in various locations; meanwhile, the longest undammed portion of the Columbia River rippled past us. With more than 60 large dams in the Columbia River watershed, this lesson helps learners understand not just seasonal water fluctuations, but how we humans bend nature to our will.

We explored how attitudes about wet-lands and rivers, and humans’ desire to control the water, have changed over time; shifting values from seeing the return of salmon to the Upper Columbia as a lost cause to one that, under Indigenous leadership, is gaining momentum and even success.

Deep and meaningful discussions took place as stream water trickled under our feet and along rocky paths to the Columbia, each drop passing by eventually making its way to the Pacific Ocean.

We spent time paddling our canoes deftly through the main stem of the Columbia River and meandering through the vast Columbia wetlands; we saw first-hand the power, beauty, and rich history of this region as we gained valuable canoe skills from master instructor Roger Warnatsch.

At the end of the field course, as we packed up tents and loaded canoes to head home, teachers were already brainstorming about how to incorporate the curriculum into their classes.

South Slocan middle school teacher Carly Christy joined the field course to help increase her own knowledge of the region.

“Learning about the Columbia while on the Columbia provided such powerful context…It moved us to care even more because we were experiencing what we were learning. The Pro-D also provided such rich interdisciplinary learning and connected me with other like-minded educators,” says Carly. “Being immersed in this place, with this experience, has given me a more comprehensive experience.”

For Cranbrook middle school teacher Orrin Hawke, the curriculum will help ground his students in where we live.

“It will help students feel connected to place,” says Orrin. “They’ll hear the story, and become part of the story, and recognize their place within it.”

For me, participating in this field course deepened my own understanding and appreciation for this watershed in which I live, and inspired me to continue advocating for its protection. We hope the same is true for students, as teachers explore Teach the Columbia lessons this year. As students are grounded in a sense of place, and how this watershed connects us, we hope they will recognize the important roles they can play in its protection too.

More information
To learn more about Teach the Columbia curriculum or to sign up for future field course opportunities, visit wildsight.ca/teach-the-columbia.

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Category/Topic: Teacher Magazine